I’ve written before about my earliest experiences with game media; essentially teaching myself how to read from whatever was on the magazine rack that week. Like any young person, I found myself drawn the most to colorful ads, not really conscious of the fact at the time that the games and the people that covered them were in any way segregated. It wasn’t until I started to actually understand the implications of a bad review that it all started to click with me. A game would get skewered one month, and then suddenly, I wouldn’t see any more advertisements for it.
At one point there was an issue of EGM that directly commented on the media/publisher relationship, referencing a disgruntled company that no longer wanted to do business due to negative coverage. Much later I’d learn that this was a fairly regular occurrence; publishers trying to strong-arm outlets into being more forgiving, lest they lose their precious access. In the print era, this story always ended the same way – the publisher, realizing they actually needed the coverage, would budge. The two sides played nice, but one always seemed to resent the power that the other had, and would try everything they could to negate that.
I wish I could say that I was speaking from a position of neutrality here, but I planted my feet firmly on the side of the journalists long before I’d even endeavored to become one myself. Given the current toxic subset of games culture that treats media with nothing but mistrust and hostility, I feel pretty good about my choice there. Brands never needed my loyalty, anyway.
The recent development with Bethesda is really the culmination of a decades-long power struggle, which is why I wasn’t terribly surprised when it happened. The narrative of games reviews not mattering as much as they used to has been repeated to the point of becoming a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, though I don’t believe it’s as bad as many think. Traditional reviews as strict purchasing advice were never going to last as long as the industry continued to evolve, and in terms of pure quality, games writing is the best it’s ever been, even with all of the reactionary think-pieces that can often saturate the discussion. The writing itself was never the problem. It was more the fact that, until recently, there were a limited number of ways to market. When YouTube exploded, there were suddenly thousands of kids with webcams willing to do free advertising in exchange for a game code and a t-shirt.
Make no mistake, this was not done in the interest of “fairness” or so everyone could “enjoy the game at the same time”. It was so that a very specific group of highly impressionable people would be able to deliver the intended pre-release message. Skyrim: Special Edition was the first game released after this new policy and oddly enough, it’s a mess, something that the YouTube influencers conveniently neglected to mention. I don’t particularly blame those said YouTubers. They were probably genuinely excited to play the game early and were just stoked that Bethesda reached out to them. I can understand it, but that doesn’t make it right.
Let’s be clear here – the press is not “entitled” to anything, nor am I suggesting that. They will continue to operate with or without early review copies, and although consumers are exceedingly irresponsible and terrible at learning from mistakes, pre-order culture will eventually cannibalize itself if too many companies follow suit. That’s one of the many silver linings here. EA has also implemented new policies for transparency going forward that can only help.
But there’s a part of the equation here that I don’t think enough people are talking about. Bethesda has hitched themselves to a rocket that may not have a whole lot of fuel left in it. Streamers and Let’s Players aren’t going anywhere, obviously, but this move is, in a lot of ways, transferring power away from traditional media to a generation that will grow up realizing just how much sway they have. YouTubers may not see themselves as journalists or even curators (and rightly so), but questions of ethics have already been brought up on more than one occasion, and not just by those that like to use the concept as an empty buzzword.
Gaming YouTube has to mature at some point, and I believe that it eventually will. Right now, it feels like walking into a comedy club with a dozen open mics and every one of them is delivering the same material in the same way. One day, that bubble will burst, and the aftermath of will give way to a more varied form of coverage, maybe even creating a spot for an old curmudgeon like me. Until then, we have to do our part, by being better consumers.
In short – stop pre-ordering games.