Thought Bubble: Kicking the Embargo

The beleaguered Assassin’s Creed: Unity continued its run of bad publicity yesterday thanks to a review embargo that lifted twelve hours after the game was made available to public. I’m not going to come down too heavily on Ubisoft – it’s business and I get it – but the publisher was deservedly called out for shamelessly attempting to circumvent mediocre reviews.

I hope the trend continues the next time a publisher tries to impose a preposterous embargo. Though I will be writing about AC Unity, I didn’t realize there was an embargo because I was never planning to have a day one review in the first place. The game is downloading while I’m typing. I’d like to take the time to play it properly, so I’ll be publishing my thoughts when I’m damn well ready.

That’s partly due to necessity. Bigger outlets get better access than Dork Shelf and we’d be foolish to try to compete with Polygon or IGN on that front. We instead try to deliver the highest quality content regardless of the schedule because that’s the one thing we can control. But you do learn a few things when you’re the underdog, and no lesson is more important than this:

It is entirely possible to write about and review video games even if you don’t review those games on launch day. It doesn’t matter when you publish as long as you have content worth reading.

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That’s what bugs me about the whole fiasco. The practices that people have been complaining about for the past 24 hours have been in place for years, and for the most part they’re efficient. But the balance of power has always felt off, especially on this side of the press table where we’ve been too eager to accept the meager crumbs that publishers hand out because we value access far more highly than it’s worth.

I think it’s time for a more accurate representation of the situation. If the Unity incident teaches us anything, the games media shouldn’t jump through hoops for review codes because only consumers suffer when we do.

That doesn’t mean I’ll be making waves just for the hell of it. As with most industries, the job is easier if you’re willing to play ball, and there’s no point in deliberately antagonizing someone that you’d like to work with. Fortunately, it’s seldom been an issue. Publishers can withstand criticism. I’ve never felt that an embargo has in any way compromised my opinion so I see little harm in adhering to them as long as they’re reasonable.

It’s still helpful to know what you can and can’t live without. I’ve always been keenly aware that I don’t need early access in order to have an opinion, which has in turn given me the freedom to write what I want to write. I’ve always wondered why so few outlets – sites that ostensibly exist to serve readers rather than developers – have been willing to test that relationship.

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What’s the worst that can happen?

Publishers can withhold access to developers and events. They can neglect to send review copies. But those are relatively small displays of power. Publishers have no control over the marketplace of ideas, and they can’t stop anyone from talking about their games once they make it to retail. A site like Kotaku has the operating budget to buy the games it doesn’t get for free, which is what makes the Unity embargo so silly. Critics can have opinions on the Internet just as readily as consumers.

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Of course, there are limits to that philosophy in gaming. While a movie critic can buy a noon ticket to Ouija and have a review up later that day, there’s no way you could have a decent write up of Unity the same day you bought it, to say nothing of a behemoth like Dragon Age: Inquisition. But it’s still important to identify the imbalance.

Kotaku seems ahead of the curve in that regard. The site’s recent policy shift has been heartening, acknowledging that general audiences play games after launch day and adapting its coverage so that day one reviews are a bonus rather than a necessity. I’d love to see more sites emulating its example, particularly in the wake of Stephen Totilo’s confident response to the Unity embargo.

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Then again, Kotaku seems to be uncommonly secure in its readership. Once you know what you want to be doing and understand your audience, it’s much easier to disregard the things that aren’t critical to that vision.

I am not suggesting that publishers and the press should stop doing business together. In the vast majority of cases, advance review copies and embargoes are in the best interests of everyone involved. Critics get more time with the game. Consumers get more timely reviews. Publishers get better publicity. Business is smoother if we can reach an understanding.

The point, however, is that nobody is obligated to participate in the system. Games publishers are not required to send review copies to the press. If they do, the press doesn’t have to accept them. Business is better (or at least more equitable) when both parties know what to expect. If it wants more respect, the gaming press has to stop allowing publishers to dictate the terms of engagement.

 

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