It used to be simple. A decade ago, a games publisher would send out early copies of its latest release to magazines and websites.
It would arrive with some sort of embargo restricting the date of any subsequent review coverage. Then, before the game hit the shelves, there would be range of critical responses to read through. That’s how games reviewing worked for 30 years.
Now, it’s so much more complicated. Publishers don’t like releasing code early. It’s not just about protecting sales of mediocre titles (though that happens): they worry about piracy; they worry about major spoilers that could put players off purchasing a game that is highly narrative driven. With triple-A releases now costing $30-50m a pop, no wonder the companies responsible want to control the dissemination of their data and messaging. As in movies, everything is geared toward that opening week – millions of dollars of marketing, the acres of shelf space bought at key retailers – everything has to work just right. Launching a game these days is like a scientific endeavour. Games publishers are landing satellites on comets every other week.
And then the games themselves have changed. Most new titles have intricate and extensive online multiplayer elements – or they require you to be online just to download updates and/or because publishers want to keep an eye on you. On a practical basis, a reviewer needs to know that the servers are working and that players will get the basic experience they are paying for. But more importantly, you need to know if the online experience is fun – and you often don’t get that sense from playing on pre-release servers with a few developers and fellow journalists.
The industry is always telling us that games aren’t products anymore, they are services. You get the initial release, but after that, you get updates, downloadable content, new modes, missions and experiences … So what are you reviewing when a game comes out? Its potential? Its raw functionality? You are not reviewing the complete experience anymore.
Perhaps games reviewers should think of themselves more like TV critics from now on. When a game is released, it’s like the first episode in a new series: you review elements of that – the set-up, the acting, the direction – but you also assess the possibilities in a frank and open way. Games evolve now; they are shaped as much by player activity as by design ambitions. This is why YouTubers have become so popular and valuable – they are part of games and convey the ever-changing experience – they report from the frontline of engagement.
The power structures of the industry have changed radically in the past five years; the relationships between developers, publishers, retailers and players have been transmogrified by incoming technologies like digital distribution and social media. Reviews cannot remain as they always were – we’re not looking at books or movies, games are not discreet self-contained products. We’re looking at living, interactive “platforms”.
The ties between games publishing and games coverage schedules need to be broken. When I first started buying games magazines in the late 1980s they were designed as consumer guides, gently prodding players from early hype toward purchase. But nowadays, purchase is the first step in a relationship with a game, and the rest of that relationship is just as important. Reviewing is always a subjective undertaking and always should be, but now critical writing must also contain a sense of its own mortality. Few major games open themselves to definitive responses - especially not early on in their lives.
This week, Kotaku told its readers it would no longer be bound by publisher embargoes that restrict reviews to post-release publication. That’s good – and I think perhaps the age of games release embargoes is over for most media sources anyway. But really, there should be no deadline on coverage at all. Increasingly, the story of a game comes alive, not in the first moment of release, but weeks later, when players have settled in and established themselves in the world. Increasingly, reviews are not product assessments, they are tourist guides.
This article was written by Keith Stuart, for theguardian.com on Thursday 13th November 2014 12.40 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010