Does the world need game reviewers?

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This week, Bethesda issued a statement that caused more than a little consternation in the gaming media.

The publisher of the Fallout, DOOM and Elder Scrolls franchises announced that it would no longer send out long-lead review copies or code to media outlets. Instead, Bethesda said it would furnish publications with review copies just one day before its games’ releases. On cue, game critics from several high-profile sites – Polygon, Rock Paper Shotgun, Forbes and Eurogamer among them –  posted think pieces and took to social media to assert that Bethesda’s new(ish) policy was bad for consumers.

They quite rightly pointed out that issuing review code a mere 24-hours before a game’s launch, pretty much ensures it will be impossible for critics to have a fair review published before consumers have handed over their money. One could speculate that there are many reasons behind Bethesda’s decision to do this and that the one given – that the publisher wants “everyone, including those in the media, to experience our games at the same time” –  is more than a little disingenuous.

A lot of the gaming media are right to be worried about Bethesda’s review policy. Not only does it deny them those all important clicks ahead of a game’s launch, it significantly diminishes their authority with their audience. Furthermore, it’s highly likely that a lot of other Triple A publishers are watching this situation develop with interest and if consumers show that they’re not too bothered about it, Bethesda’s review policy may become industry standard.

DOOM 3D printed heavy assault rifle header image

Lord knows there are some decent business-orientated reasons for Bethesda to adopt this stance. First off, like every other major player in the industry, it’s heavily invested in pre-orders; why leave it to chance that a volley of less than favourable reviews might lead customers to cancel their pre-orders ahead of launch and ask for refunds? Second, it may put paid to metacritic’s influence over share prices; once a game’s released and the receipts for its massive first week’s sales have been counted, who cares what its average score ends up being?

While never confirmed in any official manner, the games industry views the media (at least in part) as nothing more than potentially malignant parts of its marketing campaigns.

If you had the opportunity to remove a tumor, wouldn’t you do it?

Besides, does the world need game reviewers? The industry doesn’t seem to think so and who can blame it? Over the last six or seven years YouTube channels have started to wield far more clout than any gaming website and largely, don’t have a bad word to say about the games they post about. Why pander to gaming websites when, by and large, YouTubers have far bigger audiences and are far more positive about your products?  The industry’s preferential treatment for ‘influencers’ over the press has been building for a while. Right now, several YouTubers are already playing copies of The Elder Scrolls V Skyrim Special Edition and Dishonored 2 – games that the press won’t be able to play until the day before they launch. Hell, Pewdiepie had access to The Last Guardian this month.

But do consumers need game reviewers? If you’ve read this far, I’m going to go ahead and assume you play videogames, so let me ask you a question: when was the last time you based a purchasing decision on a written review? Aren’t you more likely to follow the game’s lead to release through trailers, Twitch, trade shows and your favourite YouTube channel?

Don’t get me wrong – we at love writing reviews and will continue to do so because they’re integral to the tech/culture beat and nothing pleases us more than sharing with our audience how awesome we think a game is.  But I’m not sure how many people read a review in order to make an informed purchase anymore. More likely they read it to shore up their judgement on a game they’ve already bought and applaud the critic for agreeing with them or wish them and their families hell and eternal damnation.

To be honest, I don’t have a hard and fast answer to the above questions. I just have a niggling feeling in the pit of my stomach. See, the landscape is changing to be sure and it’s worth keeping one eye on the horizon. When an industry – any industry – decides to exert control over the media that covers it, we’re on a slippery slope. Whether you read critical game reviews or not, removing information from the public arena never benefits anyone other than those who wish to remove it. This seems more than a little unfair – especially since they want your money up front.