Well, it’s all been kicking off this week, hasn’t it?
You probably already know the story, but I’ll give you a brief bit of background.
Assassin’s Creed Unity was set to come out digitally in the US at midnight on Tuesday, 11th of November. Ubisoft decided to set a review embargo in place that meant that outlets couldn’t publish their reviews of the game – despite having the game a week or so in advance – until half a day after the game went on sale. The implication of a review embargo is that if you break it, you won’t be sent any more early review code by that publisher, meaning that your ability to do your job of producing timely content is affected. It actually isn't a legally binding contract, given that you're rarely asked to actually agree to the embargo. The game just arrives (either via email or via post) with a piece of text that says that reviews are embargoed until a certain time.
The game has some pretty glaring technical issues and other flaws so people naturally assumed that Ubisoft was trying to cover them up by preventing pre-launch reviews in order to stop people from cancelling their preorders. I will state clearly and for the record that I don't know the actual reason behind the Unity embargo. Nobody does. Assumptions have been made based on the information at hand. I know what I think, and I'll keep that to myself.
In response to what is an anti-consumer practice that has been going on for years without many publications seeming to care a jot, a few outlets have decided that they will “take a stand for the consumer” and no longer review games if they are tied to a post-launch embargo, or that they’ll buy their own copies and review them even later than if they’d just agreed to the embargo.
I say that move is being played for a cheap pop from the crowd, is essentially detrimental to consumers, and will be absolutely ineffective anyway.
The process of post-launch embargoes is inherently anti-consumer. There is no way around that fact. The publishers know what they’re doing when they set their embargoes so late that people’s preorders will be uncancellable. I’m not disputing that fact.
But, a post-launch embargo is not the only way to prevent outlets from writing about your game in a way that will affect preorders. The publishers and PR teams can easily hold on to review code until it is unreasonable to expect that reviews will be written in time for a game’s launch. For example, a lot of outlets received their review copies of Assassin’s Creed Rogue just a few hours before the review embargo lifted on the day that the game was available to purchase in stores. Some still haven’t received it, we’re told. There’s a game coming out the day after this article is published. We were informed that review copies were going out this week – no embargo has been mentioned – and at the time of writing, no other reviews are currently available. No review copy of the game has shown up. A post-launch embargo would have had the same effect – consumers would be uninformed. Yet, nobody ever mentions the practice of delaying review code, which has been going on for at least the 15 years that I’ve been in the business.
The delayed review code situation happens a lot more often than a post-launch review embargo does. What taking a stand against late review embargoes will do, is just make that situation worse. If they know that they will come under fire for a late review embargo, the publisher will just hold the code now until reviews can’t affect preorders.
By saying “We will not review this game because Company X has decided that we can’t publish a review until it’s already on sale” we are taking the one chance we have to inform our readership of our opinion, and we’re throwing it under a bus for the name of some sort of assumed integrity that will do NOTHING for the consumer in the long run. We could publish a news story saying “we will not review this game because of a post-launch embargo” but what happens if the game turns out to be good? What happens if the game is a broken mess that shouldn’t be played by anyone? How do we tell people either thing if we’re refusing to publish a review? And what if we just accept the embargo, get the game a week in advance, and prepare a review for the second the embargo lifts? Surely a review that comes half a day after people can buy a game is more helpful to more consumers than a review that comes seven days after they can buy the game? No matter when we start playing the game or where we get it from, it still takes as long to review if we don’t want to skimp on quality.
Points of Interest
It should also be noted that the ONLY title this year that we have reviewed that would have been affected by taking a stand against post-launch embargoes, is indeed Assassin’s Creed Unity. No other game would have been affected in 2014, and we can’t remember any in 2013 that would have, either. So for 99.9% of the time, kicking up about post-launch embargoes is a hollow gesture. From a personal point of view as the reviewer of Assassin’s Creed Unity here on pX, it was utterly demoralising to write up 2,500 words or so about a game that I had been playing for a week, only to see that people who had ordered it from US retailers who ship early, or who bought it digitally, were already streaming the game on Twitch, while my review was waiting to be published and I wasn’t allowed to say a word about the game’s quality anywhere. I could have streamed it on Twitch too, but an embargo covers that as well, unfortunately. I’m a big boy, I’ll get over it…but it certainly killed my buzz for a while and made me feel utterly redundant.
So, while we will not be taking a stand against embargoes, what I will ensure that we do in the future is to provide information about embargo times. Via our Twitter account and via news stories we will make it clear exactly on what time and date an embargo is due to be lifted, should the embargo be set at a time that we feel could reasonably impede your ability to cancel a digital preorder.
What consumers can do to help themselves, is to just stop preordering games, at least until they've seen a review. Yes, we know that it’s tempting. Yes, we know that sometimes you get a little trinket or a different weapon or a new car design that you don’t get if you don’t preorder, but seriously, how often is that preorder content worth ANYTHING at all? At the very least, is it worth more than the total amount that you’ve regretted paying for sub-par products on launch day? I’d wager that it isn’t. I know I’ve never seen a piece of preorder content that even slightly makes up for some of the titles I’ve purchased on a whim on day one before reading any reviews.
The process of putting post-launch embargoes in place is a shady anti-consumer one and should be frowned upon. Of course it is and of course it should. But covering up what we feel about a game on the off-chance that someone will say “good job, guys, you have integrity” whilst essentially inviting publishers and PR teams to move to implement a practice that delays our coverage even further is – we feel – even worse.