Right then. Let’s do this.
This is the only time I’m going to discuss this topic in any great detail. I’d rather Tired Old Hack focused more on games themselves than the bureaucracy that surrounds the way they’re covered, but given that it’s something that’s been a part of my life for a decade I might as well briefly give my take on it before moving on.
I should also make it clear here that if you’re someone who’s followed other gaming websites for a while, very little of this will be news to you. I’m only really writing this because, well, it’s my site and I want to put my opinion on the record, just so I have something to refer back to every time this happens in the future (and it will, many times).
Yesterday Bethesda announced that going forward it would only be sending review code to gaming websites and magazines the day before games are released.
The reason for this, according to Bethesda, is spun as a noble one:
“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.”
Unfortunately, I’m calling bullshit on this statement for a number of reasons. I’ll refer back to it later.
As a result of Bethesda’s decision, Polygon decided to run an article criticising the studio, telling its readers: “You shouldn’t be pre-ordering anyway”.
This is not a new thing. As I’ve touched on in the past, some publishers and PR departments deliberately hold back review copies of games until the last minute. Others, meanwhile, give the media review code at least a week or two in advance, giving them enough time to play through the game and write a review in time for launch.
Indeed, Polygon’s Ben Kuchera was moaning two years ago about a developer restricting their ability to publish timely reviews – in that case it was Ubisoft’s ridiculous ‘noon on the day of release’ embargo for Assassin’s Creed Unity.
The issue here, then, doesn’t seem to be the restriction of review code. The issue is that it’s only being restricted to certain parts of the games media.
Clearing the air
Before I go on, you’re probably already forming a few thoughts in your head as to how this article is going to proceed, so let me make a few points just to assuage some of those concerns.
• I am not about to say YouTubers are corrupt. I may have a few faults but hypocrisy is not one of them.
Much like I get infuriated by people who paint all games journalists with the same brush, it would be downright wrong of me to suggest anyone who buys a capture card and starts asking for review code is all too happy to have £100 notes jammed up their hole.
Especially when said YouTuber is me.
• I am not about to say games journalists working on magazines and websites are ‘better’ than YouTubers, or even that they have more gaming knowledge.
Granted, some of them do – I don’t want to toot my own horn but I’ve been gaming for twice as long as some YouTubers have been alive (if you must know I’m 33 and started on the NES when I was three years old).
Because of this, I’d like to think I do know my stuff and can call on those three decades of knowledge when forming opinions on new releases, and that’s a level of experience that some just don’t have (through no fault of their own other than simply age, usually).
But on the same note, there are many YouTube stars out there who quite clearly know their shit. The fantastic Jim Sterling is the obvious example, being someone who could undoubtedly put many salaried games journalists to shame with his analytic prowess and great use of humour.
And, conveniently, he’s given his own take on this situation (read the rest of this article first, mind – he’s great but I’m very much an attention whore).
• I am not about to say Night Trap is one of the best games ever made, even though it totally is and you should read my detailed explanation why (but do it later).
• Finally, it’s worth bearing in mind my situation and how it may relate to my opinion on this matter. I was a magazine and online games journalist for nine years and have been a freelancer for another year and a half after that.
Here on Tired Old Hack – at least, at this early stage in the website’s life – I have no intention of writing timely reviews for games that are available before release. I therefore no longer have a vested interest in whether publishers send me review code early.
Indeed, I rarely ask for review code at all: this site is more focused on features and any reviews I write are either of games I’ve bought or games for which I’ve received review code after launch and write in my own free time.
Any points made in this article, then, are not ‘sour grapes’ from someone who doesn’t have Skyrim Special Edition code yet or didn’t get FIFA 17 review code. I haven’t asked for Skyrim and won’t be reviewing it, and I pre-ordered FIFA 17 months in advance.
That said, given my past it’s clear that I still see things from the point of view of the games journalist since I spent nine years regularly requesting review code from various publishers. So that’s where I stand.
Fucking get on with it, then
Right. Sorry. So, like I say, where we are is a situation where Bethesda has publicly stated that going forward it’ll be sending all review code to games magazines and websites one day before release.
The issue is that this isn’t happening across the board. Search for ‘Skyrim Special Edition’ on YouTube and you’ll get a bunch of videos from YouTubers showing off hours of gameplay footage.
One YouTuber in particular explains at the start of his video that Bethesda sent him a copy of the game “about a month early” so he could make videos of it. This is a clear example, then, of YouTubers getting priority over magazines and websites looking to review the game through traditional means.
In the past this has happened through special arrangements. I remember once I spent weeks trying to get access to a certain triple-A game for a preview on CVG. I received an email from the publisher’s PR informing me that preview code wasn’t ready yet.
The very next day YouTube was overrun with preview footage of the game. Turns out the publisher had invited a bunch of YouTubers to their office, let them bring their capture kits with them and gave them free reign to grab footage from the preview code I was told didn’t exist for their YouTube channels.
This happens a lot now: publishers are getting increasingly keen to get YouTubers playing their games online before the traditional press have even been able to touch a controller.
Sometimes these YouTubers even help promote the games. At GamesCom 2016 EA held a Battlefield 1 stream with a bunch of YouTubers taking part, and enlisted the help of some prominent FIFA YouTubers to do the dev team’s job of revealing new gameplay features.
This is the sort of boundary-crossing, publisher-promoting behaviour that traditional gaming press members like Geoff Keighley get heavily criticised for (rightly, in my opinion), but for now it seems to be going by mostly unquestioned.
PR what we are
Look, I’m not naive. I completely understand why this all happens.
Having done this for a decade I know that while games journalists have a job to do, so do gaming PRs and publishers.
I know full well that if I was a PR, focusing on YouTubers rather than websites and magazines would be the biggest no-brainer since someone at Nintendo said: “I’ll tell you what we should make – another Mario game.”
I totally get it. The gaming community has been getting ridiculously over-sensitive over the years, to the point that a single negative point can be massively damaging to a product’s success, even if it’s a negligible (or even non-existent) one.
It could be argued that the success of the PlayStation 4 this generation may have been based purely on Microsoft’s daft announcement that the Xbox One would block used games. Even after Microsoft made a U-turn, the internet had already decided its early winner and PS4 has dominated the now equally used game friendly Xbox One for the most part since launch.
These days all it takes is a single, relatively reputable publication to express a wee bit of concern over an element of a game and it could become the sole talking point right up until launch.
What’s that? Driveclub only runs at 30 frames per second? DOOMED. You can’t change the size of the lassies’ tits in Xenoblade Chronicles X? BOYCOTT. No Man’s Sky doesn’t have multiplayer? WE’LL BUY IT ANYWAY THEN MOAN.
It’s clear, then, why publishers would want to control all coverage of their games because all it takes is a single games journalist writing a preview that briefly mentions a frame rate stutter and a game’s reputation could be tarnished online.
So what do they do? They put the game in the hands of established fans. The people who have YouTube channels dedicated solely to that game’s franchise, the sort of people who are – and I don’t mean any crooked intentions when I use this word – biased enough to love that series so much they’ll happily overlook any minor flaws if it means getting to play the game early and share new footage with their fanbase.
That’s why FIFA YouTubers tend to get first dibs on FIFA coverage. That’s why a guy whose YouTube channel banner declares “ELDER SCROLLS” gets sent the new Elder Scrolls game before anyone else.
From a promotional point of view, it’s the perfect strategy. Get your game in the hands of people you already know will love it, and they’ll broadcast it to hundreds of thousands (or maybe even millions) of people who subscribe to them, most likely because they love the game too.
What’s the problem? Simply put, it’s controlling coverage to give a skewed impression of the game.
New World Pre-Order
You don’t need to be even remotely perceptive to have noticed that pre-order exclusives are the norm these days.
It’s extremely rare for a big game to launch without some sort of incentive for committing to buy it on the day of release.
Sometimes it’s something throwaway you could afford to do without – an alternative skin for your character or a couple of extra cars in a racing game.
Other times though you’re talking actual game content. Pre-ordering Batman Arkham Knight gave access to the Harley Quinn story pack, while the Alien Isolation pre-order gave early access to the Nostromo mission, which was arguably one of the best parts of the game.
Those publishers must really love their dedicated fans to reward them with such treats, eh? Mmm-hmm. Pish, mate.
It doesn’t take a Black Mesa researcher to figure out that pre-order bonuses aren’t rewards for eager devotees, but a carrot dangled out to secure a day one sale and push a game higher up that hugely important Week 1 sales chart.
However, there’s an increasingly obvious second reason why pre-order bonuses are getting more ‘generous’ – they’re being used to tempt gamers to take a risk and gamble on buying a game before they get a chance to find out if it’s any good.
So don’t listen to Bethesda’s bullshit when it claims it’s holding back review code from the games press because it “wants everyone, including those in the media, to experience [its] games at the same time”.
What it really means is: “we don’t want the games press experiencing our games first, because it’ll give them a chance to tell you if there are any flaws you should be aware of before buying it, flaws that could lead to you cancelling your pre-order if you think they’re a deal-breaker.”
In my view though, the most concerning element of Bethesda’s statement isn’t the above quote, but the section before it which says how it “will continue to work with media, streamers and YouTubers to support their coverage”.
Let me be blunt about this. YouTubers and streamers should not be separated from the ‘media’ and treated like a separate entity. They ARE the games media. Arguably the biggest part of it, in fact. Many gamers these days are turning to YouTube – not magazines or websites – to see whether a game’s worth getting.
At this point, with the industry the way it is now, I outright refuse any suggestions that YouTubers are only ‘normal folk’ simply recording footage of games they happen to be playing.
It’s one thing to buy a game on Steam and make a few funny videos online to entertain the people who subscribe to your channel. That isn’t what I’m talking about.
The minute anyone starts receiving free copies of games in advance like other magazines and websites do (or sometimes even before they do), they have to accept that they are no longer ‘normal’ gamers – they are part of a game’s pre-release strategy and they have the power to help contribute to a game’s success or failure depending on how they present the game to their audience.
Think I’m giving them too much importance? Tell that to the publishers – there’s a reason YouTubers and streamers are often referred to as ‘influencers’.
Of course, to quote Spider-Man’s rice tycoon Uncle Ben, “with great power comes great responsibility”, and in this case that means a code of ethics that, ironically, games websites and magazines have been continually scrutinised for by angry internet types.
To be clear again, I am not saying all YouTubers are unethical or corrupt. Some of them have channels dedicated to certain games purely because they are fans of those games, and they’re doing no harm at all by accepting early access to those games.
It could be argued that someone who runs a FIFA channel on YouTube is allowed to be completely biased and love the game unconditionally – they love FIFA, their subscribers love FIFA, why should they change their message just to keep non-FIFA fans (who probably aren’t even watching) happy?
Even those who have channels dedicated to all games – not just a specific series – are considered more appealing to publishers than the traditional press because their streams don’t count as ‘reviews’.
Their job is not to tell the reader whether a game’s worth buying, their job is to make their videos entertaining and that often involves cutting out the ‘boring’ bits – an exercise that will ultimately paint the game in a good light.
The problem, then, is not that certain YouTubers are being offered early access to games. They serve a purpose – to excite the existing fanbase and entertain others – and they do that well.
The issue is that another crucial requirement – the critical analysis of a game’s positive and negative aspects – is being willfully blocked so that only these overwhelmingly positive messages are allowed to get through to the gaming public before the game’s release.
What this means is that when Bethesda says it’ll “continue to work with media, streamers and YouTubers to support their coverage”, it’s deliberately separating streamers and YouTubers from the traditional games press so it can treat them differently, when in reality all three meet the definition of ‘media’.
What you should do
And so, 2500 words later, we come to why you should give a fuck. I’ll level with you, I’ve hated writing this article.
I started Tired Old Hack so I could focus on the games because I feel the industry is getting too caught up in all the behind-the-scenes shit and no longer focusing on whether the latest releases are fun or not.
However, I had to talk about this situation because while it doesn’t affect me or my plans for the site personally, the games press’s ability to do what’s arguably the most important part of their job and give timely consumer advice is under threat here.
That said, I also have a slight issue with the Polygon article stating that you shouldn’t be pre-ordering games. As frustrating as the pre-order situation is and as shady and underhand as the reasoning behind it is, you should never feel shamed about pre-ordering a game you’re interested in.
Ultimately, my advice – and that’s all it is – is to just be you. Magazine and website reviews were never supposed to be a case of “you must buy this game” or “you must avoid this game”, they’re the opinion of a single person.
Ideally, over time, readers learn which critics’ reviews they tend to agree with most, and therefore which ones share their tastes more closely.
It was never supposed to be a case of “IGN gave it a 4, it must be shite then”. Nobody should be that easily dissuaded.
By the same logic, though, nobody should be so easily persuaded to buy a game. My advice is to treat YouTube videos and streams showing off new games as entertainment first and foremost, not a critical analysis.
The exceptions, of course, are videos clearly marked as reviews. In that case you should obviously treat them as such, while still being wary and making sure the points raised are level-headed.
By all means, pre-order games you’re interested in. I pre-ordered FIFA 17, WWE 2K17 and Forza Horizon 3 because I’m a big fan of all three series and I don’t care if they got Metacritic scores of 30, I know I’d still enjoy them.
If you’d rather wait for reviews, do that instead. It should be none of your concern if a game doesn’t chart high in its first week – if you’re unsure of its quality and would rather wait for the general consensus, stick a middle finger up to their pre-order DLC. Chances are, if you aren’t too enthused, you’ll be able to buy the game and the DLC together for cheaper somewhere down the line anyway.
Ultimately, you aren’t an idiot. Well, you shouldn’t be. And if you’re reading this fine website then I know you definitely aren’t.
You should be smart enough to use the ‘fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me’ strategy when buying games whose reviews have been restricted. Make your own blacklists for studios who have disappointed you in the past and wait for reviews of their games in the future to see if they’ve learnt from their past mistakes.
If you fancy a gamble, go for it and just buy the fucker. Nobody is entitled to a 100% success rate when buying a game, watching a movie, reading a book. The times we ‘waste’ money on something that turns out to be shite make the times we buy something brilliant all the more special and rewarding.
But above all else, don’t be fooled into thinking that if a game has entirely positive coverage on YouTube and Twitch then it’s worth getting. Always be vigilant and always be aware that (some) publishers are keen to make sure you aren’t exposed to any negative coverage.
Gaming magazines and websites should be well within their rights to tell you when review code is being withheld from them.
Regardless of your thoughts on games journalism, actively restricting access to one part of the media and making it available to a different part of the media to ensure positive coverage is a very shady practice and publishers practising it should be named so you can be more vigilant when you see their games covered on YouTube.
Now, let’s get back to actually talking about games. Because that’s sort of the point of this website and life’s too fucking short.