What Are Review Embargoes?
Essentially it’s a contract that means reviewers are not allowed to publish their opinions until a specified date or time. It’s not an uncommon practice, and (according to Wikipedia) there have been journalistic embargoes since 1924. Usually this is to prevent one particular body having an advantage (e.g. leaking important news at 9am GMT would limit audience awareness in PST zones) or to protect someone (both Prince Harry and George W Bush had news embargoes in place for touring Afghanistan and Iraq respectively). For these reasons an embargo makes a lot of sense. There have also been situations where embargoes have been placed on certain publishers because they made a deal with one particular company. It happens, and usually that kind of deal is rendered worthless in a matter of minutes.
“Ours is a culture of immediacy. We want everything right now. Companies are throwing pre-order incentives at us with reckless abandon. It’s easy to get caught up in the hype.”
In media, they can also be used to discourage spoilers. Although I think most reviewers have the decency to not ruin plot twists, embargoes are used this way as well. Sometimes these turn out to be the strangest of all, but they at least serve a purpose and don’t prevent the consumer from working out whether they want the game or not.
How Are Embargoes being Abused?
Ours is a culture of immediacy. We want everything right now. Faster downloads, quicker websites, games as early as possible. Companies are throwing pre-order incentives at us with reckless abandon. It’s easy to get caught up in the hype. Look at Steam Greenlight or Kickstarter and IndieGoGo – so many games being added with few features, very often unplayable. Yet gamers are still buying them because they want to be the first. They want to be in from the start. I totally understand it, and in the past I’ve been guilty of succumbing to incentives and buying a game sight-unseen. Sometimes for the best, sometimes not so much.
The Consequences of Breaking Embargoes
Publishers don’t mess around when it comes to enforcing these restrictions. They’ll almost certainly try to have the content removed, that goes without saying. It doesn’t take much to get a YouTube video removed, at least temporarily. But beyond that, they will make sure that the person who broke it (individual or company) never receives pre-release copies again. It’s a big issue when it comes to people trying to make a living from game reviews. TotalBiscuit said that interest in his content falls away after launch. That’s a problem.
“Find a few sources you trust and wait for them to tell you if a game is worth your money. You have all the information in the world at your fingertips – use it.”
How Does it Hurt the Consumer?
This part should be pretty obvious. If you pay £40 ($60/€50) for a game before any reviews come out, you’re acting in faith. You’re hoping the game turns out to be good. If it’s a franchise you’ve enjoyed in the past, or a developer who has made games you’ve enjoyed before then there’s less risk. However, it still doesn’t guarantee a good product. Look at Ubisoft’s launch of Assassin’s Creed Unity – an established franchise from a big developer, yet launched with game-breaking bugs. You can never tell.
That’s money you’re not getting back. If you’ve bought a digital copy of the game then you’re unlikely to get a refund. If you’ve bought a physical copy then you might have a better time, but you might have to argue with several people as you go up the chain of store command. And even if you choose to do an immediate trade-in, you’ll be lucky to get back 75% of what you paid.
However, more important than that – to me at least – is what they think they’re doing. Do they know about these issues before launch? And on consoles it’s not that hard to QA test on unified hardware. If they don’t know about bugs, it shows a serious problem with their testing process. If they do know about them then that shows serious contempt for their customers. The people paying for this treatment. The people giving them money to treat them like they don’t matter.
And How Do Embargoes Hurt Developers?
This is something that I haven’t really seen anyone talk about, but it does hurt both sides – to a limited degree. If a company releases a run of buggy, broken, unplayable games, their reputation will take a hit. Consumers will only put up with that for so long before they just give up altogether. Why would we choose to pay for a risk over waiting to see whether it’s worth it? Embargoes will no longer matter, because nobody will be interested in launch day purchases. And then the development team gets fired because they made a product that isn’t selling.
And before you say it, yes the industry is actually that cut-throat.
So How Can We Stop it?
There’s only one solution and you’re not going to like it. Stop buying games on launch day. Stop pre-ordering. Wait until you know that a game is worth buying before you buy it. Find a few sources you trust and wait for them to tell you if a game is worth your money. You have all the information in the world at your fingertips – use it. The big publishers will only pay attention when their profits start dropping.
Also, remember that you can often get these pre-order bonuses after launch from 3rd-party sources. You can still get Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare Zero-Day Edition from Amazon UK, even all these years later. Make companies earn your money – don’t throw it at them.