3 Reasons Why Video Game Review Embargoes Are Particularly Anti-Consumer

While Ubisoft has spent millions marketing Assassin's Creed: Unity, it forced reviewers to hold their write-ups until hours after the game was released today.

While Ubisoft has spent millions marketing Assassin’s Creed: Unity, it forced reviewers to hold their write-ups until hours after the game was released today.

One of the perks of my former life in the entertainment news business was getting early access to everything from books to movies to music to video games. On the down side, that early access often comes with the stipulation that you can’t say anything about what you’ve seen, read, played, or heard until the publisher says so. It’s an annoyance for all reviewers, especially when they want to tell the public that something is so bad they should stay away, but it’s particularly harmful in the video game business.

The reasons why embargoed game reviews present a problem to the consumer are manifold, but we’ve boiled it down to the following:

1. Video Games Are Expensive & Pre-Orders Are Enticing

At $60 for a new major release, video games are several times the cost of a movie ticket, an album, or a hardcover book.

For that reason, a number of people look to reviews to help them determine whether they should invest that much money in buying the game at its release or whether they should wait for the inevitable price drops that come a few months down the road.

But game publishers have realized they can push pre-orders and release-day sales with enticing add-ons and exclusives that convince some consumers to get on board months before any reviews have been written.

Restricting the release of those reviews until the very last minute — or, as in the case with today’s release of Assassin’s Creed: Unity, after the game has gone on sale — means people can’t cancel pre-orders. Their $60 is gone whether the game is any good or not.

2. Reviewers Have Few Options

It’s not uncommon for movie studios or record studios to withhold advance access to new material. In the case of movies, it’s usually because the film is awful. With music, there is also the concern of early leaks.

But a reviewer can go to the earliest available release-day showing of the movie, buy a ticket and go back to the office and write a review. Or she can buy the album, give it a few listens and share her opinion.

But even the most shallow video game still requires anywhere from ten to 15 hours of play before it can be completed. Some games are so expansive that even the fastest run-through would take a few dozen hours.

So a game reviewer could go and buy the game at the store, or download it from whichever online outlet makes it available, but any release-day review would be incomplete. And if the reviewer waits until finishing the game, it could be days or even weeks until that review is published. By that point, not many people will care.

3. Obey The Embargo Or Else

Sure, a publication could decide to break the embargo and run the review early. Even if it remains published after the game company freaks out and sics its legal team on the site, that will probably be the last time that this publication gets early access to a game from that publisher, and possibly from others.

While readers might briefly cheer that publication for having the balls to go out early, many of those same people will just go read other sites when the next big game comes out and this publication doesn’t have a review.

Additionally, since most games do not have unconscionably strict embargo dates, the publication would have cut off its access to review copies of most titles just to make a point about one game.

“It’s a vicious loop,” writes Polygon’s Ben Kuchera in a great opinion piece on embargoes, “and making a good faith agreement and then breaking it later is bad news for a publication that wants its word to mean something.

Is There A Way Out?

The increasing popularity of digital downloads — rather than buying a game on disc — may be a light at the end of the embargo tunnel.

Consumers no longer need to pre-order a game weeks or months in advance to guarantee they get it on release day. Even with the large file sizes associated with the newest generation of consoles, one can still be playing a downloaded game within a couple hours of buying it.

That means that people on the fence — especially given the strict embargo on reviews — about the new Assassin’s Creed game could have waited until noon today to read reviews, and then decide whether or not to buy it, without having had to commit to a pre-order.

By the time today’s AC review embargo lifted, many users had already shared their initial opinions online. So even if you don’t have official reviews to go on, you’ve still got the thoughts of other players.

Yes, there will always be people who will jump at the chance to buy new major releases as soon as they’re available, and that’s perfectly fine; these are consumers who generally understand they are early adopters and might ultimately be disappointed.

But if you’ve been burned too many times by pre-ordering games with embargoed reviews, consider hitting the pause button on the next big release and waiting at least a few hours to see what people have to say.