Features & News

Head to Head: Are review embargoes a plague on the games industry?

December 4, 2014, Author: James Sheppard

Review embargoes have come under some scrutiny this year, with many feeling that developers and publishers are all too keen to hide errors by forcing the media not to publish reviews until their game’s release date.

Is it the underhand, money-grabbing tactic by the industry that we perceive? James and Dan chat it over…

James: Review embargoes are sometimes a little annoying and can certainly be abused by publishers, but I also think they can be a good thing in some respects. How do you feel about embargoes Dan – do they rub you up the wrong way?

Dan: I wouldn’t say they rub me the wrong way, but when you hear people who have been working in the industry a while say that if an embargo ends on release then it’s a sign the game has problems, it’s more than a little disconcerting.

James: Agreed; this is where they reach a bit of a grey area. Of course, the most recent example on everyone’s lips is Assassins Creed: Unity. Apart from a few bugs with AC:III, most Assassins Creed titles have been predictable but reliable annual releases. Then we get Unity, a game with severe performance issues – and no-one could be warned in advance, because of its strict release-day embargo.


Embargoes are ‘armless… and, err… faceless.

Dan: Exactly. Such embargoes, when they come to light, and they will, hurt not only the game in question but idea of an embargo in general. If used correctly they can help with marketing and drive hype, but this shady act just hurts all of that.

James: Ubisoft pleaded innocence, claiming that the embargo was put in place to ensure that reviewers had chance to fully experience the multiplayer game modes before passing judgement. Maybe that’s true; maybe it’s a complete lie. Maybe we’ll never know for certain. In theory, embargoes for that genuine reason are valid. Destiny wasn’t readily available for review until around the official release, because something with MMO elements couldn’t be experienced in full without hundreds or thousands of other players populating the game world.

Dan: That’s true, but reviewers aren’t stupid, and take into account the fact that players, and lots of them, make up a multiplayer experience. So many reviews come a little after the street date to take account, or make note of the fact that the multiplayer portions were played on pre-release servers.

James: I agree that many major publications will have the common sense and integrity to take longer on a review if necessary and ensure that the game has been tested to its fullest. Unfortunately, some are perhaps more unscrupulous and would rather get a review published as quickly as possible to try and grab more traffic. I can understand a publisher’s desire to try and control this to an extent.


To embargo, or not to embargo?

Dan: But at the cost of their own reputation with fans? At some point it’s just not worth it…

James: I understand what you’re saying. Using embargoes to defend your product from inaccurate reviews or to actually conceal problems with the game is not going to help your strategy in the long run if a customer feels misled. If it’s a brand-new, one-off IP then you have a chance of getting away with it, but more often than not it’ll be the start of, or the continuation of a franchise that you could put them off for life.

Dan: Like I say, it’s not worth it. By putting embargoes on your games, it means review sites cannot get them up when you, not them, need the most hits. It affects relationships with those sites, your customers and possible future customers, destroying the franchise you try to create or keep going. They have their place; they wouldn’t exist if they didn’t, but publishers cannot keep thinking that games sites won’t get the best out of the game until it’s fully on sale. Those sites know what the deal is and account for it as we stated earlier. The publishers need to stop thinking they know better than the customers, because that leads them down a bad path.

James: I think we’ve both agreed that embargoes can be harmful if used improperly. I have one final note to make, and that is a plea to the reader: be savvy. I know how easy it is to get hyped up for a release, blindly pre-order on good faith and get burned if a game doesn’t turn out to be what you expected. Just take a step back. Do your research. As it gets closer to release, investigate the embargo: if reviews are walled off until the day, proceed with caution. Best case scenario is if you can wait until a few days afterwards before you dive in – after all, early reviews could praise the game but there could be serious issues that aren’t apparent until launch, like network problems. It pays to be patient.

Dan: Hear hear!

A Necessary Evil?

Mixed opinions on the Head to Head this month then. There are valid reasons for review embargoes to exist, but there is also the argument that we should perhaps do away with them altogether. What do you think, dear reader? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.