Bethesda’s New Game Review Policy is a Mixed Bag of Crap

Finally, it IS about ethics in game journalism.

Today Bethesda announced that they would no longer be providing advance review copies to press outlets any more than a day before release, mirroring a trend that has been growing within the industry, and that has since made day one reviews a rare find. This new policy is effective immediately, with both Skyrim: Special Edition and Dishonored 2 affected in the short term.

The new media of streamers and youtube personalities are exempt from this, with many already in possession of the remastered Elder Scrolls title.

As a newer and smaller outlet, Clever Game Pun does not have an existing relationship with Bethesda. I do know some of the Bethesda team that handle community and PR, and have been personally lucky enough to spend some time chatting with them, engaged in longer demo sessions provided on their behalf, and generally had a good experience.

That has not translated to being candidates for review copies or even press releases to share on, but in the interest of disclosure, it needs to be said. If it ever turns out that we receive a game key from them, it will similarly be disclosed on the relevant coverage.

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We have also provided coverage of Bethesda and their games, which comes from a place of passion. We are not receiving a backdoor stipend for conveying our excitement to our audience. It is our excitement and bias toward games like Fallout and Skyrim that sparks our coverage, though we have not engaged in any sort of traditional review of any Bethesda games to this date. They are the kind of games that we do not think can be played in a sitting and truly spoken about with merit.

With respect to how it sounds coming from a site that does not get review copies very much at the moment, I am not a fan of Day One reviews. They are a valid tool for players, and can provide that first taste of whether a game matches the expectations surrounding it, but are more often a test of confirmation bias. It is why poor reviews for a subjectively good game are met with such hostility, why generous reviews for an iffy game are treated as a crime against the living, and why numbered reviews continue to be a blight against any sense of discourse.

If using the first Dishonored as a guide, one could make a case that even a single day of play might be enough for a dedicated reviewer to form an opinion of Dishonored 2, put some very samey words together, and have it up in time to remove the burden of consequence from the player that was going to buy the game regardless (and had probably already preordered it).

It is a much tougher ask if the reviewer applies due diligence and wants to complete the game before taking to the pen, but it is not impossible, so long as the rest of the aspects that make up a life do not intrude.

In the case of Skyrim: Special Edition, Fallout or other open-world games (be they RPGs or not), you are taking the piss.

Skyrim is a known entity, yes. From all impressions of the remaster to date, the only thing worth talking about for a game that is another jaunt into something already well-worn, is how it looks, how it sounds, and whatever other technical aspects are relevant about its move to console. In this instance, Bethesda are lucky that the game is something many have already experienced and there might not be much else that can be said about the game.

That this policy will stand for the next Elder Scrolls game though? That is a needless tragedy. If you think 24 hours will be enough to judge the depth of the game, of balancing issues or uninspired story, of how much mods are needed to fix what is broken?

What rot.

With games of this type, I have doubts as to whether a week with the game would be sufficient to gain an understanding of it beyond the surface, or to find if there is even something there beyond the surface.

While some might welcome this simply because of what it will mean for games media, it is troubling that publishers are trying to guide the narrative to this level. There is no escaping that this is what they have done and continue to do, why some well-regarded journalists or outlets get blacklisted by certain publishers or agencies, and that it will be a constant for as long as the game industry exists.

This change is unlikely to do anything to get rid of the preorder culture that exists within the game industry.

With the constant of day one patches, launch issues, premium prices for pre-release access, minimal reporting of day one thanks to limited review copies or coverage embargoes that extend to half-way through day of release, there can be no doubt that the future of the game industry wants your wallet open well before you have a chance to form an opinion about your purchase.

Bethesda are not the originators of this trend. They are simply the first with decency enough to tell everyone what they are doing.

A policy of this sort only serves to sever the goodwill that exists between publishers, media, and players. The only question is how long will it be before publishers do control the message completely, and players ask without contempt, why didn’t the media do its job?

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