Yesterday Bethesda Game Studios, the people responsible for popular titles like the Elder Scrolls and the Fallout series made a public statement regarding how they would handle copies of their games for reviews going forward. While in the past game companies have given copies of their games to reviewers well in advance of release so that they may be played to or near to completion so that a review can be published at launch, Bethesda will now only be giving media outlets a 24 hour head start over the rest of the gaming public. Bethesda says they want everybody to play together, which is a fine goal, but it has little to do with why review copies are valuable. Bethesda can do everything right, but that doesn't mean that everybody will.
To start out let me make one thing clear here. Bethesda can do whatever they want with their game. They don't owe copies of their games to reviewers. They are free to make this decision and to make it for whatever reason they like. Game publishers are in the end, a business, and they have to do what's best for their business. To that end this decision makes sense. However, this gives an impression that Bethesda only cares about those sales, and has little regard for their customers once they have their money.
There are some completely understandable and valid reasons to keep games out of the hands of media early. The first, and most obvious of which, is that the game may not be done yet. Bugs and glitches are a part of game development, and while the developer's job is to reduce them to as small a number as possible, you don't want media writing about a game's bugs when the people in charge of QA haven't had a chance to fully test the game and remedy any problems. Not sending our review copies of a game gives everybody just that much more time to be sure that a game is ready to go.
In addition, with multiplayer becoming a larger and larger part of most AAA titles, it can be difficult to adequately review multiplayer elements of a game if the mass market isn't playing it yet. If there aren't enough people online in a multiplayer match it's impossible to judge whether those game modes are any good. There's even the possibility that a review might judge multiplayer content too favorably. Perhaps once the game is released the servers all crash and multiplayer ceases to function, something which would be impossible to judge prior to release.
However, Bethesda is fairly honest in their statement about why they're really making this decision. They can sell plenty of games without reviews. The statement mentions Doom, which was the first title that Bethesda released under this new policy, even though it only officially became policy this week. Many reviewers voiced their concern at the time that this may have been a deliberate attempt by Bethesda to hide the fact that there was a problem with the game. By giving it to reviewers late, day one purchasers would not be swayed by bad reviews because they wouldn't be written yet.
This practice isn't unheard of. Movie studios do the same thing. While nearly all wide release films see previews anywhere from a couple of days early (which is fine because a movie doesn't take days to get through) to several weeks beforehand, every once in a while a major release isn't screened early. This is a nearly universal sign that the studio knows the movie will be reviewed badly and they don't want those reviews to negatively impact opening weekend ticket sales.
However, for Doom, that wasn't the case. Gamers loved the title and when reviews did begin to get published, they were almost universally positive. It would seem that Bethesda has taken this as a proof of concept that they don't need reviews, rather than as an indication that they simply made a great game. Simply because it all worked out this time doesn't mean it will next time. For every great game that's released without incident, there's one that comes out with serious issues. Ask Batman: Arkham Knight players on the PC if they would have liked a heads up that their chosen version of the game was absolutely unplayable at launch. Ask people who pre-ordered Assassin's Creed: Unity if they would have done so had they known everything that was wrong with that game.
As in the case of Doom, there's an appearance issue here regardless of the reality, and in this case, a dangerous precedent is being set. The situation makes it look like a publisher is trying to get people to buy a game before those consumers discover that the game has problems. That may not be what they're doing. Maybe Bethesda will never release a game in a state like Batman: Arkham Knight, maybe most companies won't, but somebody will, and that somebody is going to refuse to let their game be reviewed because that's become the industry standard. If other companies follow Bethesda's lead, and many have already shrunk the window in which they'll release review copies, then nobody will even think twice when a game is held back from reviewers, until it's released and the truth is discovered.
Of course, today maybe none of this matters. Publishers have so many people on the pre-order bandwagon that maybe reviews don't really matter anymore. The decision to buy isn't just made on launch day but weeks, months, possibly a year before. By that point, many players will have already convinced themselves that the game is going to be good and no review saying otherwise will convince anybody of anything. All this decision is doing is solidifying the revenue stream they've been building for years.
I certainly hope that more game companies take the opposite approach to this question and make review copies more available. It gives the impression that they're proud of what they created, and that they're willing to accept criticism when it is offered. It will help when problems are discovered, and it can only help when a game is praised. Bethesda is in a place to lead the industry, but they're leading in the wrong direction.