While there's no attending physician, and no generally accepted criteria for a cultural phenomenon subsiding into irrelevance, I think we can call it here and now: Game Reviews are dead, at least in terms of cultural influence. Bethesda Softworks' decision this week to stop providing advance copies of games to reviewers signals that reviews, long diminishing in effect, have crossed over into complete uselessness. Or, at least game reviews in the classic sense of being written by professional reviewers for professional web sites or magazines.
Here's what Bethesda said in their press release:
"At Bethesda, we value media reviews. We read them. We watch them. We try to learn from them when they offer critique. And we understand their value to our players.
Earlier this year we released DOOM. We sent review copies to arrive the day before launch, which led to speculation about the quality of the game. Since then DOOM has emerged as a critical and commercial hit, and is now one of the highest-rated shooters of the past few years.
With the upcoming launches of Skyrim Special Edition and Dishonored 2, we will continue our policy of sending media review copies one day before release. While we will continue to work with media, streamers, and YouTubers to support their coverage – both before and after release – we want everyone, including those in the media, to experience our games at the same time.
We also understand that some of you want to read reviews before you make your decision, and if that’s the case we encourage you to wait for your favorite reviewers to share their thoughts."
What's happened to professional game reviews is the rise of social media, the growth of reviews in online stores, the increasing popularity of public betas, and overwhelmingly the huge influence that livestreamers and YouTubers wield. People don't look to professional game reviews to make their buying decisions – they ask their friends, they look at what people have said online, and most of all they look for YouTube videos or a livestream where they can see the actual gameplay and listen to someon's commentary about the game.
Even though reviews don't seem to affect sales so much any more, why would Bethesda stop providing advance copies of games for review? It's very simple: Pre-orders. Bad reviews could hurt pre-orders. Heck, some game writers are even calling for people to stop pre-ordering, because it encourages bad games. While that may or may not be true, what is true is that once you've purchased a console game, you're not really able to get your money back unless you return it unopened. Which is why we see pre-order bonuses becoming more popular – publishers want to lock in your purchase by offering some goodies you can't get if you wait until the game comes out. Or until reviewers have had a chance to tell you if the game is any good or not.
Yes, that's the way the business has worked for decades. True, if a publisher ships a bad game there's going to be some blow back – reduced sales on the next title, perhaps. But it's usually not very substantial compared to all of those lovely sales that aren't refundable. And as game budgets rise, risk rises too – giving publishers even more reason to want to lock in your dollars before you even have a chance to know if you like the game or not.
Part of the reason free-to-play games have done so well is that they turn this model on its head. You don't pay anything unless you've found the game worth playing, and want to get more out of the game by spending some money. Now, the problem for developers is that all too often there aren't enough paying players to make the game profitable.
Ultimately the problem gets resolved, as good quality games rise to profitability and low-quality ones can kill off a franchise or even a developer. Players now have plenty of fine gaming choices all around, and if they really feel they are getting a raw deal by pre-ordering they'll stop.
Still, the professional game review matters very little these days – unless you can deliver it engagingly during a livestream or in a cleverly crafted video. It's bad news for traditional game reviews, but good news for streamers and YouTubers.