Opinion: We just don’t get as long to review games as we used to

I have a confession to make: I was wrong about a game I reviewed last year. Given that my judgement is understood to be both unassailably correct and final as if etched in granite, know that I am as shocked as you are. But how does something like that happen? I’m a critic – shouldn’t I be completely sure of my opinion on a game before I even start writing anything? Yes, absolutely. But for many in games media, the window between review copies arriving and a game’s release date has never been shorter. There are a number of reasons for this and, far from having a whinge about it, I’d like to lay it out clearly so that you know how these things can happen.

In the interest of fairness, I want to try and look at this problem and why it’s come about both my side and from the PR side. I know all about my side, so I suppose start there. When I get to review a game, there is a fairly simple process involved. It starts with us liaising with various public relations teams for games publishers. Sometimes these teams are housed internally at the publisher, sometimes they’re entirely external and on a contract. Regardless of their being internal or external, these teams are universally very friendly and accommodating, giving us access to interesting press opportunities like interviews or early previews for feature stories, offering comment on any pieces we run and, of course, providing review copies as release looms. Lest I come off as churlish, let me be clear: that’s pretty cool. My job is pretty fucking cool. I am provided with copies of the latest video games ahead of release with the agreement that I will talk about them honestly on the website I write for. As gigs go, I’m pretty happy about it.

In the last twelve months though, I’ve noticed a bit of a trend gathering steam. Review copies have been arriving at our office closer and closer to release. In 2015, it was not uncommon for a game to arrive on or even after the review embargo date, a day or two prior to the street date, and on more than one occasion we received games after they were available for sale. This shortening of the review period means critics have to haul arse to complete their playthrough, collate their thoughts, write the review and get it online for consumption in an incredibly short time frame. This of course isn’t to say we didn’t get the odd game well ahead of time – Bethesda, for instance, gave press a full two weeks to review Fallout 4, time for which we were exceedingly grateful.

As a critic, you should obviously be trying to spend as much time with a game as you can in order to form a complete picture of it. Many critics hold that you should finish a game’s campaign before you review it at the bare minimum. While these are excellent policies to have, in situations like the one outlined above the luxury of time isn’t something you’ve have to spare. For smaller, independent outlets like ours, every pageview counts. The sooner you can produce content on popular topic, the more likely you are to get a bunch of views on it. A lot of the time those pageviews are the difference between actually making rent this month and not.

An unhappy byproduct of this short lead time is reviews that aren’t properly reflective of the game in question. Late last year, I reviewed one such last minute arrival, Just Cause 3 (and you can read that review right here if you’re so inclined). The game arrived after the review embargo had lifted and a day prior to launch. I jumped in, played as much as I could as quickly as I could, casting a wide net over its various systems and gameplay elements. When I wrote the review, I … wasn’t especially kind to it. The way Just Cause 3’s skill progression system was structured made it feel like it was holding me at arm’s length from the game I felt was in there, the one I really wanted to play.

Here’s the thing though. While I still stand by a number of my points in that review, I was totally wrong on many others. The game I was looking for is in there. Just Cause 3 is actually super great, but when I wrote that review I think I’d only gotten to spend around 15 hours with it. I’d actually like to offer my sincere apologies to Avalanche Studios – I got it completely wrong, you made a great game and brought me a huge amount of fun over the next 30 or so hours I spent with it. But other outlets were already getting their reviews up, the game was out and interest in it would only begin to die off every day after that. I needed to get the piece done and I rushed it. I was totally off the mark and that’s on me.

In the year and change I’ve been writing for The Iris (and The AU Review before that), I’ve completed 110 game reviews. Of those, the Just Cause 3 review is easily the one I’m least happy with because not only was it inaccurate, it came down on the game in a way I now see was rather uncalled for. All of that happened because it arrived so late.

You could argue that I’m throwing the baby out with the bathwater. That I’m putting way too much pressure on myself to get the review done quickly, to get the content up in a timeframe that yields the most views, instead of taking my time and putting together a review of clarity and substance. And you’d probably be right. Consider it a new year’s resolution of mine to relax on that a bit. Just Cause 3 was a hard lesson, but one I had to learn eventually.

But why don’t these games arrive on time? Why aren’t print outlets getting the time to spend on a review that we used to? There’s one obvious reason: streamers. Streamers don’t run up against the same issues that print outlets do at all. The reason people read reviews is because they want to know what a game is like, right? That’s what watching a streamer allows them to do. A streamer can literally get the game out of the letterbox, install it, jump on their Twitch channel and start livestreaming to a potential audience of thousands. People will head over and check it out because they want to know if their money will be well-spent. That’s a reasonable thing to want to know! I want that knowledge for myself also.

I want to be clear, I’m not trying to take a dump on streamers here – they provide an important service in an online media environment that becomes more and more built around video content every day, and there are plenty of entertaining streamers operating both here and abroad that are well worth checking out for this “first impressions” type of content. The long-form review still has its place for those who prefer an in-depth analysis of a given game but it certainly doesn’t satisfy the kind of instant gratification cycle the internet promotes today. Having said this, hey, guess what, we now have a Twitch channel! In 2016, you’ll be able to watch me play, and fail repeatedly at, many new and upcoming games over at http://twitch.tv/theirisgaming. Please feel free to give us a follow. If you can’t beat ‘em, join em, right?

From a PR standpoint, there are obviously a number of reasons that PR for high-profile games would want those games in the hands of the media for the shortest possible time. The first would be sales. The longer press have to grapple with a bad game after release, the longer it will be before bad reviews begin to appear online, allowing unsuspecting punters to go out and buy it. That’s a pretty rare case though, and in my experience if PR knows they’ve got a bad game on their hands then they generally try to steer into the curve and make the best of it.

Another significant consideration for PR is leaks. While every publisher imposes strict rules on posting reviews, previews and even streaming unsanctioned content ahead of the review embargo date, not everyone on their mailing list can be trusted to adhere to them. Those that break these rules are penalised swiftly and heavily, the threat of which can be an effective deterrent. While for press it may feel like they’re being unnecessarily restrictive at times (Bethesda famously had an embargo on when we could tell you about our Fallout 4 review embargo), some publishers – Nintendo, for instance – go to great pains to keep their games from being spoiled for players ahead of release. That’s admirable. While it’s not always helpful to me as a critic, I greatly respect their desire to preserve the experience for players as best they can.

Thirdly, especially when it comes to smaller operations like ours, PR is less concerned with any gain from sending us material super early. Getting it into the hands of bigger Australian organisations – your IGN AU’s, Gameplanet’s and Kotaku AU’s – obviously means a greater degree of visibility for the game than it would get from us due simply to the higher traffic those sites see every day. That’s fair! It’s their job to make sure the game gets as wide a coverage as possible and we represent only a tiny fraction of that much larger picture.

Honestly, the whole situation is weird. It’s a bit frustrating for everyone involved and it’s also a time of sudden, rapid change for games media in terms of The Way We Do Things Around Here. While I’d like to see long-form reviewers getting a bit of their lead time back, I don’t think it’s going to happen and we’re just going to have to live with that and work within it. And part of that means getting with the program. I’ll see you on Twitch!

David Smith

Games and technology editor, Dungeons and Dragons fanboy and your new best friend. You can reach me at david.smith@theaureview.com with news tips, pitches, press releases, invites, review content and more.