As often happens every year or so, controversy erupts over a much anticipated video game’s release. It can be due to game glitches, backtracking on features offered, or even publishers getting into conflicts with game journalists over reviews.
Ubisoft’s recent antics with Assassain’s Creed: Unity and The Crew have been center stage of the theater that is developer temper tantrums. With Unity, Ubisoft hyped up a release for its biggest franchise and then released a game riddled with glitches. Not only that, but it decided to institute a game embargo until 12 hours after the game had launched, meaning gamers had no idea whether Unity was worth the price tag (between $60 and $100) or not. And with The Crew, Ubisoft has stated on its blog that fans shouldn’t listen to early reviews of the game, but just to try it for themselves.
But what do game embargoes have to do with publishers having public meltdowns? What even is a game embargo? Look no further, because we’ve got a run-down of what game embargoes are, and why they’re beginning to show signs of change.
At its core, game embargoes are a tit-for-tat agreement between game journalists and publishers before a game’s release. The reality is that today’s fans of films, TV and video games will often seek out information about what they want to see before they see it. With information so widely accessible online, fans will take into account the opinions of journalists and critics before making their purchase. Publishers have come to accept this, and this is where the agreement comes in.
With information so widely accessible online, fans will take in the opinions of journalists and critics before making their purchase. Publishers have come to accept this. And this is where the agreement comes in.
Publishers like Ubisoft, EA, Square Enix, Game Freak, and the like, will contact a variety of gaming journalists, gaming news outlets, and even Let’s Play YouTubers, asking if they would like to have early access to a game nearing its release. These reviewers are sent copies of the game, with the understanding that they will play them and write about them.
Publishers stipulate that these reviewers do not publish or share in any way what they’ve seen of the game until the embargo is lifted. Reviewers and journalists often sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA), a very real legal document businesses often use to prevent other parties from speaking publicly about something, usually a product, for a specified period of time.
As well, publishers often send games along with a “guide” detailing which aspects of the game shouldn’t be revealed in reviews or other derivative works. Most agreements state that this period of secrecy will end near or immediately before the game’s release to the general public. This period between game access and acceptable publish date is the “embargo”.
Embargoes and early access to content for critics and reviewers are not unique to video games. Embargoes have a long history in the film, TV, and book publishing industries. Publishers want their works to be viewed and critiqued as part of the process of mass consumption. As the video game industry has exploded in terms of size and profitability, it has taken the idea of reviews and embargoes to new extremes.
What’s in it for Reviewers: Information and Time
Two driving forces are behind much of what gaming journalists try to do in their work, and game embargoes satisfy both of them. First, many gaming journalists (and gaming news outlets) aim to be among the first to report something new in the industry. Second, journalists like to have enough time to formulate coherent, thoughtful, and impactful prose about a news story. The two are somewhat at odds with one another, and in most cases journalists tend towards one or the other for most articles. Early access to an upcoming game gives a journalist the time to write an in-depth piece before its content really becomes “news”.
Journalists also benefit because Non-Disclosure Agreements prevent rival news outlets from publishing reviews early too. They don’t need to worry that their pieces will be the last out of the gate just because they held back their content. One way to look at it is that NDAs level the playing field of reporting on game releases. Another view is that publishers effectively police these news outlets’ content with the agreements.
Furthermore, writers have more time to review games that are often twenty, thirty, even eighty hours in length.
Furthermore, writers have more time to review games that are often twenty, thirty, even eighty hours in length. Reviews for games like the recently released Dragon Age: Inquisition are complicated projects, ones that journalists must undertake with care and patience. A few weeks allows one to play the game the way it was meant to be played, and journalists can give readers a more holistic and thoughtful review than if they rushed a review in the first week of general release.
What’s in it for Publishers: Market Control, Ready-Made Publicity
Publishers are not benevolent entities. The impetus behind early access to games is a calculated move: publishers want good press for their games, as they know that a solid review a few days before general release can have a positive impact on early sales. It’s a gamble of course: reviewers might find a game to be glitchy or less-than-stellar. And a bad review from a reputable source can scare away potential buyers. A variety of Internet forums feature discussions about how bad reviews and game embargoes correlate with lower overall game sales.
There is a clear imbalance of power within this arrangement. News outlets are not generally in a position to ask for games, and historically publishers like Nintendo used to pay for publicity of its games. With the vast expanse that is the Internet and the fragmentation of gaming news readership, publishers can pick and choose which news sources to give early access to. This exclusivity promotes the inclusion of the aforementioned “guides” detailing what should and shouldn’t be spoiled, and even how to write the review itself (known in the industry as “PR guidance“).
Breaking an Embargo
Why don’t reviewers just publish their reviews when they want? Without going into too much game theory, imagining what would happen if a reviewer did break a game embargo shows us that it wouldn’t be in the interest of the publisher or the review. Here’s an example: a gaming news site decides to publish its review of Assassain’s Creed: Unity before the embargo ends, as its staff believes the game’s glitches give them a moral obligation to tell their readers. Ubisoft, being the less-than-forgiving publisher that it is, either threatens legal action (remember, NDAs are legal agreements that signatories are accountable to), swears it will never give that news outlet early access again, or both.
So while the news site gets out its one review of Unity early, it suffers in the future (and perhaps indefinitely) by not having early access to other games.
Even if that website’s staff doesn’t care about reviewing future Ubisoft titles, other publishers like Bungie or BioWare may be scared off by this reneging on an embargo agreement. The result is that the news site gets out its one review of Unity early and earns a bunch of views, but it suffers in the future by not having the early access to games that other outlets still enjoy. Readers look elsewhere for reviews of the games they’re interested in, and the world continues on with one less reviewing news site.
Game Embargoes: An Outdated Concept?
There are some indications that game embargoes aren’t what they used to be, Ubisoft’s recent mistakes aside. As games become longer, more involved artistic projects that can require weeks of gameplay to complete (or even years, in the case of online MMORPGs), reviews will take more time and effort on the part of reviewers to write. In an odd turn of events, some news outlets have decided to wait until well after a game’s release to publish their own in-depth review, one that takes into account every aspect of a game (some examples of this are Gears of War: Judgement or SimCity.
It isn’t to say that game embargoes are a thing of the past, but the balance of power has certainly changed recently. Readers have begun to realize that the earliest reviews aren’t always the most accurate representations of huge AAA titles. Developers and publishers are beginning to admit that such reviews might not even be informative anymore.
Concurrent with this shift in attitudes is the reality that “embargo” has nearly become a pejorative in the video games industry. Some journalists and gaming critics (though not all) see them as constricting and paternalistic, a tool of a mistrusting publisher. It’s very likely this view has contributed to more critics publishing their content after the embargoes end, on their own terms.
For the moment, review embargoes will still be a part of publishers’ release schedules, but it will be very interesting to see if the principles of game embargoes and NDAs, and the status quo between publishers and reviewers, change any time soon.