It’s becoming an increasingly frequent trend, reviews are being withheld until launch date while emphasis is placed on season passes and pre-order bonuses. This scenario has two possible outcomes, with either the developers using the increased numbers and pre-purchased season passes to build better, richer experiences; games that are finished, and bug free on release. Or the unfortunate alternative, publishers could abuse this situation to release games that are neither finished or fully realized based upon the notion that they can sell them before consumers have had opportunity to get some evaluation on the quality of what’s on offer.
It’s gradually become apparent that the latter scenario is what we’re seeing affecting the triple A video game industry. While this generation has seen an overwhelming number of high budget, high quality titles, it’s also been a generation of elevated ambitions, and false promises. Games like Destiny, Assassins Creed Unity and Driveclub have each made ambitious plays for consumer attention, yet failed to deliver on launch day. While this in itself would not be a problem, efforts by publishers to mediate commercial under-performance through pre-orders, pre-purchases and emphasis on the idea that without buying a day zero edition you’ll be missing out on your super-special golden swag gun, are cultivating an increasingly toxic consumer environment. One where the the publisher can no longer be trusted to present their game accurately, while preventing others from providing an impartial evaluation.
The unfortunate reality is that it’s difficult to attest to the integrity of any publication that didn’t purchase the content themselves. Whether the review copy was provided prior to release, or by the publisher the demand characteristics are ever present and this questions the basis of the opinion. While of course there are those that offer honest reviews, as with any individual level trait there is natural variance, as some publications offer greater degrees of impartiality than others. Obviously the difficult here for the consumer is determining the basis of this opinion, a near impossible task, and this is before even considering unrelated confounds like prior and disposition towards the video game series or intellectual property, and the validity of the approach the journalist has taken in assessing the game.
Pre-orders and pre-purchases
As aforementioned, one of the biggest problems has become the increasing focus on pre-orders and pre-purchases. Using season passes as an example, these offer an instance where consumers place complete faith in the publisher to provide a return on investment in terms of consumer enjoyment. These season passes are emphasized on the basis of additional savings, and the idea that you would be ‘stupid’ to miss out on these savings if you would by them otherwise. This can come across as a compelling argument, and I have observed on many occasion, parents fall into this with an intent to appease 12 year old Johny and the notion that they will save themselves money in the long-term. Of course this neglects various elements that may make the DLC less desirable, for instance while I may enjoyed Call of Duty World at War more than any other FPS at that time, I purchased just one DLC pack because I found by the time others had launched, my interests had wandered to other games.
Perhaps a larger problem however is that publishers no longer need to sell the content to you, once you have purchased the season pass. No longer do they need to impress the consumer and go to the extra mile to get additional purchases. This is especially true for the titles that don’t achieve their target commercial performance, as it becomes awkward to validate supporting a commercial failure long-term, with high quality DLC just for the select few season pass holders. Indeed this could be argued to have been the case with the recent Watch Dogs release where the season pass has offered very little of value beyond the additional T-Bone missions. Whether consumers see this as worthwhile seems unlikely, but the reality is that Ubisoft have little incentive to provide a high quality experience because most of the consumers benefiting from the release of the DLC will be those who have effectively already pre-purchased it. I’m of the opinion that if a publisher wants to double dip your wallets then they should prove they deserve your hard earned cash. Ultimately these season passes provide far greater benefit to the publisher than the value of any savings or benefits such as early access that they claim to bring.
Twitch, youtube and the notion of hands-off self-analysis
In an effort to mediate some of these issues, many consumers adopt the notion that they are capable of determining what they like and dislike based on a purely own visual analysis of a gameplay experience. On numerous occasions I’ve seen consumers disregard critical opinions with the claims that they can assess whether the experience is liable to be enjoyable, based on pre-released gameplay and streaming sessions. Sadly this judgement is made without much consideration to the reality of these pre-release media portrayals. For example Eurogamer were able to stream the first hour of Sunset Overdrive. While this offers viewers a taste of the experience, these sessions often offer more questions than answers; one hour of gameplay may be entertaining, yet can it loses its charm when one realizes that the successive 7 hours that follow are much the same. In the past publishers have been shown to provide restrictions on criticism that outlets can dispense prior to the games release, and while this seems less common-place due to increasing transparency between outlets and readers, the desire to appease the publisher is an ever-present factor that strains the integrity of any opinion provided prior to launch day. While you may see your favourite youtuber as an entirely independent, bias-free source of information, the reality is if he or she spent a large portion of their time discrediting the titles produced by the publishers that provide them, it’s unlikely they would find themselves at the front of the queue for future press releases.
So what exactly is a reliable opinion?
While from a consumer perspective, getting an honest opinion that’s relevant to your own taste and perspectives is a veritable minefield, there are some relatively obvious considerations you can make to avoid getting stung by an experience that isn’t quite up to your expectations. Below are my personal recommendations that you can use to avoid both being screwed over yourself, and as a means of abstaining support from relatively unscrupulous marketing strategies. With each instance I’ve also provided examples of titles where each consideration has been a problem for consumers in the relatively recent past.
- If it’s online and doesn’t have a beta, don’t buy it at launch. These titles in particular have very high susceptibility to feature game-breaking issues that only present themselves at launch day when the network infrastructure is put to the test on a large scale. (Driveclub, Halo Anniversary Collection)
- Be cautious in buying season passes. Even if you are liable to buy most of the content, the season pass contributes to the cultivation of an environment where publishers don’t have to sell the content to the consumer, they don’t have to go the extra mile because they’ve already double dipped you (Watch dogs, Battlefield 3 and 4). Support an environment where the developer has to work for your money by skipping out on these season passes when they’re first available.
- If the review is embargoed, don’t make a day one purchase. This seems pretty simple but if you can’t get an unbiased opinion on what your buying, then don’t buy it. Again, if not for your own sake, but for the sake of reducing emphasis on this form of marketing strategy; where consumers are duped out of their cash by publishers that intentionally choose to emphasize pre-purchases, while preventing consumers from seeing the whole picture.
It’s easy to forget that each and every development studio is a business and in turn, consumer dissatisfaction is rarely relevant until it extends to a reduction in commercial performance. Complaints about games like Watchdogs ultimately don’t matter to the publisher when they sell close to four million copies on the first day of sale. I can only hope that we can turn things back to a consumer environment where we can get an informed opinion prior to release, and one where we can trust the developer to go the extra mile to sell their next piece of content. However as things stand, the video game industry is becomingly an increasingly hazardous place to spend your hard earned cash.