The company behind the critically acclaimed Skyrim and Fallout 4 announced a major shift in their stance on reviews yesterday. In a blog post titled "Bethesda & Game Reviews," the video game company explained that it would not be sending out review copies except for one day prior to release. "While we will continue to work with media, streamers, and YouTubers to support their coverage – both before and after release – we want everyone, including those in the media, to experience our games at the same time," read the official reasoning for the change.
Bethesda tested the waters with this practice with the release of Doom earlier this year. They sent out review copies one day prior to launch, which led many media outlets and professionals to question whether Doom would be a disaster. A company not sending out early review copies typically shows a lack of faith in the product. Companies who doubt how well their game will be received historically try to maximize profit by sending late review copies in order to rake in as many sales as possible before the game gets panned by critics.
However, Doom wasn't a colossal flop, garnering critical and commercial success. Because of that success, Bethesda is pointing to Doom as a model for future game releases. The company wants to draw a parallel between Doom and all of its future releases. Obviously that only works if all future game releases are guaranteed to be of the same quality as Doom - a guarantee that's impossible to give.
People often talk about Bethesda in a general sense when it is actually composed of two different companies: Bethesda Softworks and Bethesda Game Studios. Softworks operates as the publishing arm while Game Studios develops their in-house titles. This decision regarding review copies affects both parts of Bethesda. While many people might have faith in future installments of The Elder Scrolls or Fallout, what about the games Bethesda publishes? What about the future games they publish that take after Rogue Warrior or Brink?
"At Bethesda, we value media reviews. We read them. We watch them. We try to learn from them when they offer critique. And we understand their value to our players," read the opening lines of Bethesda's announcement. What should people who want to make informed game purchases do? Luckily Bethesda has an answer, "We also understand that some of you want to read reviews before you make your decision, and if that’s the case we encourage you to wait for your favorite reviewers to share their thoughts."
To paraphrase: Bethesda understands the value of reviews and the effect they can have on our sales. If you value reviews, just wait. Wait for them until after we've made money off the people who didn't wait and bought on release day.
It's time to be blunt. Bethesda can't predict the future. It can no more guarantee that its future games will be universally amazing than it can guarantee that you will live forever. Bethesda also doesn't care if everyone experiences their games at the same time, despite their official line on the matter. Bethesda is a company, not an altruistic patron of the arts and certainly not your friend. Bethesda exists to make money, and if it can do that more effectively by blocking potential bad press until a few days after release, it will. They got away with this anti-consumer behavior with Doom and now they will be trying to get away with it again for the release of Skyrim Special Edition and Dishonored 2.
To clarify: We have never received early review copies from Bethesda. This piece doesn't come from a place of spite. While the decision to only send out review copies one day prior to release turns reviewing a game on the scale of Skyrim into a grueling race for many media outlets, that's not a problem for our reviews.
The real disservice here isn't to media, it is to Bethesda's customers - to you. If you want to show Bethesda that their tactics to keep you uninformed until after you buy their games won't work - take their advice: Wait. Don't pre-order. Don't buy on release day. Don't make your purchase before reviews come out and you can make a decision while armed with information. If enough people do that, Bethesda will be forced to adjust their practices accordingly.