The Problem with Video Game Reviews

Journalists aren’t critics and should take more time to review games.

Note: I originally published the below as a comment on this article on Cultured Vultures about game review embargoes. That article argued that journalists should respect the wishes of publishers/developers and not publish reviews before the embargo ends. Please be sure to read Nick’s post which does have some important points on the issue. The below is my response, edited for clarity and layout.

There’s a problem with game reviews and it’s entirely the fault of the gaming media from an age before the internet where publishers would buy magazine ads, creating this stupid complex of “game journalists” hyping up games in order to either secure more ad revenue or because of agreements with advertisers.

Now that we’re all on the internet, the problem has evolved. Games are only hyped by media. Publishers aren’t doing huge marketing activities. There’s no Sega theme parks popping up to promote the next Sonic game. At best there’s some YouTube trailers that make their way to TV ads, but that’s about it. So all the “hype” gamers feel about a game has come from journalists. Now, not all of these journalists (and “influencers”) are paid to hype games, but the biggest ones are in a convoluted, indirect way. A publisher will sign a content exclusivity deal with IGN, for example. They may pay IGN money, which is eventually used to pay IGN staff writers. And that’s where clickbait and hype come in.

And so the media has created this environment over time where games must be reviewed within the marketing period of the games’ launch. How ridiculous — games are available to buy for years after launch and their high cost means not every single consumer can rush out and buy them when its convenient to the publisher. A lot of gamers I know only buy one game every couple of months or so. There’s no need for reviews to happen at the time of a games launch and in fact having the time to play the game as intended would yield more valuable (to the consumer) content.

How can a reviewer possibly assign a score to a game that requires a minimum time commitment of 60 hours? How can anyone review a game like Call of Duty when its servers are only switched on for a few hours a week before it’s released to the public (and when you have to play against PR reps or other journalists)? For anyone to suggest that reviews are valuable to consumers making purchase decisions based on these kinds of conditions is laughable.

If reviewers were honest their disclaimers would say, “9/10 but note that I only played it online for 35 minutes because I was late to my pre-arranged play session, and I only had time to play a little past the opening tutorial because I had too much work to do”. Who would honestly make a purchase decision based on that reality?

Of course, anyone who buys any game during its launch is an early adopter and is likely already sold on the entire concept before anyone ever publishes a review. What I’m trying to say is this mad rush to meet “embargo deadline” (or beat it, in the seedy websites case) is stupid because the review would be far more valuable if it is 3 months “late” but written by someone who’s actually played the damn game.

Finally, as someone who’s spent more than a decade reviewing video games in Australia I’d like to add that in the entire time, working with dozens of publishers and hundreds of games I’ve only ever once been asked to sign an embargo. A proper, NDA-level agreement that stipulates I wouldn’t publish until a certain date and time, and that was mainly because the publisher wanted to ensure reviewers attended a launch event where each feature of the game was carefully explained.

Every single other “embargo” is more of a “gentleman’s agreement” with the standard being at the end of an email or a printed document that ships with the review code “Embargo ends: x date”. I understand the reasons developers want to keep to an embargo (it makes tracking sales easier and it’s the way PR companies plan their workflow) but I also think game journalists should be very wary of that line between reviewing and advertising.

So my proposed fixes are:

  • Less people reading corporate reviews (IGN, etc)
  • More smaller websites not caring about the release date, and reviewing the game when they’re ready
  • Reviews be more “academic” in nature. Review it because you’re a critique, not because you’re a journalist. Review it because you’re good at forming opinions, not because you want to help someone decide what to do with their money. I don’t get why it always comes down to “buy/don’t buy”. Veteran movie reviewers don’t tell you not to buy a movie ticket, even if they clearly hated the film.
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