So, something stupid has happened in the world of video games publishers. As redundant as that sounds we are not talking your common or garden variety stupid, but the kind of weapons grade idiocy driven by greed. The kind of one which loops back around to being a work of genius for those who crave power, and bad news for those who just want to enjoy a few great titles.
Earlier on today, Bethesda announced that from here on all review copies will only be handed over one single day prior to a game's release date. Whether you're a Youtube personality or a journalist churning out written articles, you will only get your copy at the same time as everyone else.
The disadvantages of this are quite obvious, at least for audiences. All of a sudden anyone whose livelihood is built upon putting out reviews of games is suddenly put into a race with everyone else. As getting out a review first results in the lion's share of traffic being diverted towards you, and many websites rely upon that "first strike" element ahead of all others, it weakens them. It forces them to rush ahead pushing out reviews before those who played them have fully formulated their thoughts, and means they lack the (relative) financial stability they currently benefit from. Few, save for the likes of Angry Joe, can afford to put out a review several weeks late and still garner a massive number of hits after all.
What's more, it means that buyers are obviously not going to know if a game is a stinker before purchasing it. There will be no early warnings keeping others away from games which betray their audiences, promote themselves on lies or fall short of what was promised by the developers. While one could argue that this would allow reviews to be more accurate in some regards thanks to day-one patches and the like, the very fact those exist proves that these publishers do not value quality. They value sales, and if that means that the games the churn out are left in a broken, near unplayable state, then so be it.
Bethesda has claimed that this entire move was done to "we want everyone, including those in the media, to experience our games at the same time." What it doesn't cite is why. Simple - They want control, and they want power. To put a tighter leash on games media and turn what is already a joke of an industry into even more of a glorified PR firm than it already is, ensuring there are fewer chances to let their sales take a plunge. It's pushing back on what each outlet is capable of, making it clear just how tentative that lifeline truly is, and how easily it can be severed by blacklisting them. We have already seen efforts to do this in the past from other companies and to other outlets, with Electronic Arts, Konami and even Bethesda itself stonewalling those likely to give out a lower score or a more honest opinion. We have even seen pushes to control new media, with the underhanded Shadows of Mordor fiasco, where only those who promised positive feedback were granted review copies.
Yet, despite knowing this, despite seeing this for so long, we have just accepted it. We have either pretended it was not there or even defended it at times. All too often you will see
Such fans are those who will celebrate this, who will support this, and will actively try to spin this as a good thing. What's worse though is that there are those who simply will not care. Oh they might get outraged for a moment, perhaps even show a brief sign of offense, but then move on with their day. No matter what a publisher does, so long as it does not irk them too much, that's fine with them. If they release a major game in a badly broken state? They move on. If it suddenly arrives stuffed to the gills with microtransactions, having been divided up into two games? No one raises a fuss past the first week. If the developers outright lie to their audience? No one rocks the boat.
Apathy is death, and yet we have become so expectant of this sort of behaviour these days, the kind of two-faced betrayal we would have once railed against; that barely anyone pays attention to it past the first week. Developers merely batten down the hatches for the momentary storm of hate, wait for us to stop bringing it up, and do the same damn thing all over again. They know they can get away with it after all, and if it helps ensure pre-order culture remains a steady source of income, they're all for it.
If you think for a moment that this is a lie, just consider what the last few years brought us in the big name industry alone-
Sword of the Stars II
Duke Nukem Forever
Aliens: Colonial Marines
Arkham Origins (a game infamously left in a buggy state because the devs could not be bothered to fix it, focusing on DLC instead)
Assassin's Creed: Unity
No Man's Sky
Each and every one of those games lied to their audience. They barely resembled the very thing fans were promised, hyped pre-orders to ensure the publishers would have a big briefcase full of cash up front and then moved on. The only reason Arkham Knight is not listed on there is thanks to Steam's refund policy coming into effect, despite the permanently broken state of the PC port. At one time these moments would have been once in a lifetime occasions, something to be infamously listed as a major failing of the industry never to be seen again, but instead we now have an almost yearly influx of them. In the face of betrayal after betrayal, even the likes of Mass Effect 3's ending debacle seems tame by comparison. While the Bethesda announcement tries to cite DOOM as a success proving late review copies are not a problem, that is very much the exception rather than the rule. For every surprising success there are a dozen high profile failures, each worse than the last.
While the publishers are the ones taking more control for themselves each year, while they are the ones guilty of caring so little for their customers they will gladly shovel out complete crap despite the backlash, we are just as bad. We are guilty of complacency, a willing blindness to their actions and in the worst of cases even actively defending them. For all the failings rightfully piled upon their doorstep, we must accept an equal level of failure to keep them in line, and to keep purchasing their games despite all that has happened. For, in doing so, we are slowly robbing the gaming community of its early warning system. There are fewer and fewer writers to slam a game for its shortcomings, take the bullet for a high profile disaster, or even shine a light on an underrated indie.
Ceasing pre-orders is no longer enough. If gamers are to halt this once and for all, they must recognise where we have failed, accept it, and begin truly pushing back against them once and for all. The gaming industry has proven cannot stay on the straight and narrow without a gun to its head, perhaps its fans should remind them just what they truly rely upon us for.