…or maybe cucumber sandwiches. Because they’re oh so fancy in merry ol’ Engaland. I know it’s spelled wrong.
A touch (I do confess) of editorializing: I think review embargoes are male bovine excrement. If you don’t know, most gaming journalism outlets are subject to industry embargoes for their game reviews; that is, they can’t publish their review of a game until a date set by the publisher of that game, usually near or after the games release (or “street”) date. But “free speech!”, you bawl, like an orphan ragamuffin, weakly imploring a ha’penny for a spot of gruel. Here’s what publishing companies think you should do with your free speech: introduce it up your jacksie.
(ok, I have to drop this old-timey talk or this will take a fortnight…er, two weeks)
|“Out with it, you wanker!”
What’s behind this practice? Pre-orders. Plain and simple. “Triple A” titles, that is, games from a major developer that are intended to launch a new IP, to be a “killer app” to move consoles or to just make an obscene amount of money, can have development costs rivaling major motion pictures. Unconfirmed reports put the cost of Bungie’s latest release, Destiny, in the neighborhood of $500 million. That doesn’t just represent programming man-hours, of course; packaged into that figure are promotional costs, like Doritos and Dew tie-ins, Super Bowl commercials and plastering the game over every surface that is flat and slow-moving. AAA titles are a huge gamble, though the payoff can be just as lucrative; Destiny reportedly made that $500m and change back on launch day. How? The game had already been purchased by millions of players, either as a digital copy or a pre-reserved physical one by the time it hit the street. That $500m number is somewhat disputed in industry circles; it reflects the value of product shipped from Activision (Bungie’s parent company) to stores, not necessarily “sell-through” (buyers actually picking up the game), but suffice it to say, there wasn’t many games left on the shelf that I could see post-launch.
Pre-orders, that is, having a full retail sell-through (or at least a partial down-payment with a reasonable expectation that the customer will buy on launch day) is key for these AAA titles; no one is going to continue to make games that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to develop unless your nut is covered before the doors open at Gamestop on launch day, and the way that practice is preserved is review embargoes.
Compare the situation to that of movie reviews: a new film is coming out…let’s call it “A Number of Hues of Charcoal”. You’re undecided on this one; could be good, could be a disaster and an embarrassment to be seen coming out of.
|“My weapons are…unconventional…”
So? You read the review which comes out, oh, say Thursday, usually. The movie’s bad, you skip it, it bombs and disappears shortly after. Or becomes a gigantic smash that guarantees two more “entries” in the franchise. Argh. Movies get screened by critics usually days or weeks before they are released so people can…find out if they want to see it? Crazy, huh? Not video games. Review copies are distributed to review publications weeks in advance (when the game “goes gold” or is done and physically published) so those outlets can get a chance to play them. After all, a game is going to take longer to complete, or at least get an impression of, than a film. And once the reviewer has formed that impression and written a review…she sits on it until Activision or whoever says it’s OK to publish. Here’s a scenario: if Roger Ebert reviews, oh I don’t know, Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo and the review is handed to you on a scrap of broadsheet as you stumble, insensate, from the torture chamber Rob Schneider made out of a movie theater… Wouldn’t you have liked that information BEFORE you paid your money?
|“I see a point incoming!”
OF COURSE YOU DO. And publishers know that, too. They didn’t spend half-a-billion dollars on this piece of crap just for some internet turd to give it one star, prompting you to cancel your pre-order and go back to playing the Sims or whatever while they get stuck holding the bag or, more accurately, Gamestop gets stuck with a million unsold units. Embargoes guarantee you never find out that game sucks until you pop it in and push start or read the review on launch day and decide “meh, no thanks”. The problem with that second option is that, if you’ve been following the industry’s playbook, you’ve already pre-ordered the game (and probably paid full price for it) and it’s right there in the store…maybe the reviews are wrong…? This is assuming you didn’t pick it up at midnight the night before and wake up to an avalanche of bad reviews for your new prized possession.
|“Sites that break review embargo dates are worse than Anders! uh…spoiler?”
|“You said ‘a *touch* of editorializing’…”
All right, all right, fine, I’m biased. The specific reason I’m bringing this up (and the reason the muttonchop count around here has gone up by 900%) is that this issue has been in the news recently and centers around Sony’s The Order: 1886. Oh, Sony…
The Order, a PS4 exclusive game, is a third-person shooter (eh) set in a steampunk (hmm) Victorian England (yes…) where you fight werewolves (ok then!) and is, by all accounts, the best-looking game ever to grace the system. We call that a “killer app” in the industry and (being published by Sony proper) is definitely part of a strategy to sell sell sell some PS4s. Like Uncharted before it, expect to see The Order bundled with a lot of PS4s (or PS4 Slims) come this Christmas. Here’s the problem, though: a YouTube user called PlayMeThrough, who is definitely not getting a Christmas card from Sony this year, posted a full play-through of the game that clocked in at just over five hours (half of which were unskippable, unplayable cut-scenes), days before the game’s release. No one’s sure where he or she got their copy of the game, whether it was a review copy or a leak, but it changed the public’s perception of the upcoming title from “Playstation Jesus come to set the sinners free” to “$60 werewolf movie that’s 5 times as expensive as the last Hobbit film (but only half as long ZING)”. Kotaku has a nice write-up of the situation here.
I’m not here to have a dollars-to-gameplay minutes debate; I’m sticking to the issue of gagging journos, mainly but, being generous, 3 hours of gameplay doesn’t seem to be worth that. And that’s where the internet cacophony comes in and, more specifically, the developers’ attempt to try and salvage the situation (and the upcoming launch)
Forbes (of all places) did my work for me on this one so I’ll give you a link to a good summation by them of the backlash over the game (here), but the developers argument boils down to: “length isn’t important”. Call of Duty, they argue, has a campaign length in the single digits, so why the hate for our concise, beautiful game? The solid (in my opinion) counter-argument is that once you finish the single-player portion of CoD, you have access to a literally infinite amount of re-playability in online matches. Against 12-year-old homophobic racists, sure, but that’s value. Not to mention unlockables, DLC, tropies, etc. The Order boasts no online mode, no New Game+ mode, no real character or skills improvement and not DLC outside of exclusive weapons available to users who pre-ordered the game. Hmm, tell me more of this “pre-order” you mentioned…
|“Are you kidding? I just told you like…a minute ago.”
For my part, this is all a big turnoff. Full disclosure: I pre-ordered the game and when I read about its length and other issues, I immediately marched down to my local Gamestop and told them I’d like to cancel my pre-order…then they told me I didn’t have a pre-order for the game. Heh, oops…I pre-order a lot of stuff, ok? I’m guilty, too, but then I have to be. Gamestop (with the backing of the industry) pushes pre-orders to create scarcity and ensure publishers are making that nut (with a minimum of overstocking) on each release. Oh, they have this supply chain thing on *lock*. What happened to just releasing something and letting the public decide if it’s a hot item? Oh yeah, people stabbing each other for Cabbage Patch Kids. The reality is, there’s rarely any real scarcity for new games; if you pre-order something you’re pretty much guaranteed a copy on launch day, unless it’s going to sell *way* past what is projected. But, Gamestop only ordering enough copies to meet pre-orders enforces that scarcity and ensures that any casual buyer who comes in off the street or any gamer who doesn’t want to put $60 plus tax down on an untested property are going to be fishing at a Best Buy to get the new hot release. How, oh how, can this vicious circle ever be broken?
P.S. Here’s some stuff I couldn’t fit into the article:
The Order is, by all rights, a *gorgeous* game. The devs even silenced criticism, pre-release: when they took a hit for “dumbing-down” the graphics after releasing in-game footage, they pointed out that it was the streaming service that was degrading the quality of their media and even showed off improved character models (check it out here). Admirable, though maybe less time could be spent on shininess and more time sunk into making the game longer or not ripping off your own boss fight for the final level (yeah)