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Letter from the Editor: Bethesda and the Changing Face of Game Reviews

Bethesda is the latest publisher to change its media policy. Today the company announced that going forward, it will provide review copies to outlets such as Shacknews only one day before release. As members of the media, we wanted to take this opportunity to explain how we plan to address this shifting media landscape.

To address the decision itself, it's difficult to fault Bethesda for what is essentially a sensible business decision. More than most publishers, its name carries a certain cache with gamers, and its success launching Doom under similar circumstances has effectively decoupled late-breaking reviews from poor buzz. In hindsight we can look at that game as a proof of concept. Its well-deserved glowing praise must have proven to Bethesda that sales don't necessarily suffer without early reviews, and that escaping the stigma of withholding reviews is possible.

Bethesda is also correct in its advice to wary buyers: if someone feels uneasy about buying a game without seeing a critical response, they should absolutely wait to purchase it. This has been the position of many game critics for some time, which may have seemed self-serving, so we appreciate having a publisher's support for the idea. While there is some dissonance to seeing a publisher dole out that advice while simultaneously pushing pre-order bonuses, it's still a solid nugget of wisdom.

It would be inauthentic to claim this move by Bethesda, and similar ones by other major publishers, has not and will not impact Shacknews. It's certainly true that pre-launch coverage of any kind, including reviews, gameplay videos, and interviews, are more successful than similar types of content after a game has already been released. 

However, the difference is probably more negligible than readers may expect, and post-launch coverage tends to be more considerate, thoughtful, and responsive. At Shacknews we pride ourselves in our ability to separate our mindsets from the "launch hype," and our lower-than-average scores reflect that. We take a long view regarding how a game will stand in six months or a year. Ideally, this move will encourage and reinforce such a mindset both among our writers and industry-wide.

That isn't to say that we don't have valid concerns. As members of the media we take our jobs as consumer advocates seriously, and we are less effective in that task if we cannot act on it until after some unwitting customers have already bought and opened their copy. No matter how much we and even Bethesda say so, there will eventually be consumers left disappointed by their purchases because we could not warn them in advance.

This shift also sets games apart from other forms of popular media like novels and films, which means it runs the risk of sacrificing some of games' artistic legitimacy. We can hope that moves like this one lead to more thoughtful critique on the whole, but it's just as likely to end in rushed results. For all the grief embargoes receive as a sign of the cozy relationship between publishers and press, they serve an important function by putting writers on an even playing field. Rather than racing to the finish line, a writer can determine his or her own pace of play, with knowledge of how much time to allow to digest the game and then put a review through the editorial process. Bethesda's decision will most likely incentivize speed over thoughtfulness.

It is also likely to contribute to a general sense that video games do not have a community of critics differentiated from the wider Internet reaction, even as the space for analytical and sober analysis in video games is still finding its footing. If video games are to elevate their own Roger Ebert or Peter Travers, it raises the question of whether such notable names could have ever gained prominence in an environment without having been given access.

Shacknews will continue to cover games from Bethesda, and any other publisher, in a timely manner. We will publish Reviews-in-Progress for late-breaking games like Bethesda's, to give the reader insights of our first impressions, when a full review is unavailable. We will encourage readers to await our full review before reaching a final buying decision. For transparency, we will also update our disclosure footnotes to give notice of our estimated playtime throughout the review-in-progress process, as well as the final review.

We look forward to talking with our readers about what they expect from video game reviews moving forward, and how we can meet the needs of our readers. Please leave us feedback in the Chatty.

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