Bethesda Doesn’t Want the Press to Play Their Games

Prey is a working title, since the game is basically unfinished.

This week I’ve been enjoying Prey on the Xbox. It’s a game developed by Arkane Studios and published by Bethesda, released on May 5th. After just a little over 20 hours into the game, all of my saves have been corrupted and made to crash immediately upon loading.

I went into the game blind, having only read the first few sentences of it’s Wiki article on release day and immediately going to buy it. I try not to buy games impulsively as a principle, but discovering this game and all of the wonders it has to offer has been delightful. Creeping through Talos I, the space station that Prey is set on, has been nothing short of enchanting. The world that the team at Arkane Studios have created feels real, except for all of the missing textures.

Despite that, I could not possibly recommend for anyone to purchase it with the state that it’s currently in. Peppered over my entire experience have been bugs and glitches ranging from minor to game-breaking. For each hour I played I probably met 1 or 2 bugs. Sometimes they’d be spread thin, sometimes I ran into 3 or 4 at once. Most were not unique, in fact I was met with ill-fitting ambient music in so many different situations and settings that I’m half-convinced that Arkane put the game together that way on purpose.

The infamous Flying Mammoth of Tamriel (The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, 2011)

If you know much about Bethesda’s history you know that Bethesda is keen to release games which are riddled with bugs and then patch out most of those bugs within the first few weeks after release. Since at least 2006, with The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, they’ve followed this philosophy. Only since last year, however, have they chosen not to provide early review copies to the press, despite that practice being the norm with other triple-A releases.

Starting with the release of Doom, many a games journalist has pondered as to why Bethesda would implement such a strange and difficult policy. 
I think it’s an issue which on the surface is pretty simple, but allows for some interesting advantages in Bethesda’s development strategies.

This is fine.

It’s like this: if Bethesda were to release their bug-riddled shit to all the journalists 2 weeks before release date, the journalists would get more time with it. If you’re a journalist or a consumer, that sounds like a good thing! But those reviewers would be introduced to way more bugs than they are able to meet with the current review policies. With the old policy, most reviewers would stumble on to a diversity of bugs in the 2 weeks before release and the game would invariably take a hit in ratings. Even worse, if a specific game-breaking bug were to go viral it could cause the game to be written off as a failure before it’s even out.

Bethesda also creates the option to cut some testing out of development time, making hitting the release date easier and basically getting free testing from all of the early adopters.

But more importantly, they get a massive amount of free press coverage. When Bethesda releases a game, journalists have to figure out the best way to review it and oftentimes they will choose to do a first impression, then do the actual full review about a week later. We’ve also seen a continuous coverage that is updated as the reviewers thoughts about the game change over time. Mixed in with all of that would be an article or two questioning the policy, especially if you’re Kotaku. That’s 2-3 articles about a single game, whether or not it’s good, and about a publisher that the community adores.

So Bethesda chooses not to release early copies, forcing journalists to race out a review to beat out IGN or whoever, getting free testing from consumers, and strong-arming publications into throwing their name all over the place.

It’s a clever idea, but being that Bethesda have only released Doom, Dishonored 2 and Prey since it’s implementation, it’s hard to say how much the new policy is affecting their review scores or the consumers. It probably didn’t work out for Prey, though.

The problem comes about when the biggest publications, confident in their viewership, accept that they’d rather put out a good and extensive review than rush to beat their competitors. This is the first paragraph from IGN’s official review of Prey.

My experience with Prey on PC started out as a promising dark science-fiction adventure, but after 40 hours in this atmospheric first-person RPG it’s descended into a literally unplayable technical nightmare. Due to repeated save game corruption I’ve been unable to complete the campaign, even with assistance from the developer. This issue might not affect everybody (and as of now we’ve heard only rare reports of similar issues on consoles), but even though I like a lot of what Prey does when it works I can’t recommend that you take the chance. — Dan Stapleton, IGN

The game came out 5 days before this review, and this reviewer managed to find 40 hours to play it. In a workweek. This had to be a conscious decision by IGN to clear his to-do list and let (read: make) him really play the game. Bethesda would’ve preferred they didn’t.

I’m convinced that Bethesda’s ostensible inability to release two games in a row that are not bug-infested as hell is the cause of their odd review policies. In the past these bugs have caused slight friction, but after the game-breaking stuff is patched out the most that anyone can remember is the flying mammoths.

Unfortunately for Bethesda, unless IGN revisits Prey that 4/10 is forever.

This video explains the majority of my experience with Prey. A glitchy pet Phantom, a broken audio-log, and a missing texture in rapid succession.