By now we've all read RAM Raider's post about Batman reviews. I wrote Rammy an email on Friday night in which I raised a few points about it, and, as with all good Friday night emails, I regretted it immediately when I woke up on Saturday morning, because I was horribly inarticulate and bonkers throughout. So I wrote another email asking if I could write a clearer reply making a point that I think is often overlooked or goes without discussion, and then maybe he could publish that. If you're reading this, rather than a post entitled "Eurogamer editor sends mad email then panics", then Rammy is a gentleman. (Although, actually, that's still quite a good title.)
I believe we would all be much better off without review embargoes. One day, I hope to live in a world where developers finish making games, and their publishers immediately ship them off to as many critics as possible, encouraging us to write them up whenever we like, and allowing us to tell you whether we love them or hate them well before you find yourself staring at them in the shops. You would have plenty of time to make your mind up, developers and publishers would have lots of feedback to consider, and the quality of reviews would dictate the success or otherwise of the magazines and websites that published them, so there would be no sense in rushing to be "first!" (People would still do that for a while, but they'd get over it.)
That's the dream, so what's the reality?
With websites, the most common approach taken by game publishers is to provide review copies a week or two before release and specify a date and time that the review can go live. This is usually just before the US release date, which is a few days before the European one. Some publishers only specify embargoes on big releases, and allow other reviews to go up as soon as the publication likes after receiving the game. Elsewhere, there are a couple who I'd happily single out for praise. Sony frequently provides review code a month or more in advance of release on major games, and although it does set embargoes, these are usually well ahead of the release date, as with Killzone 2 and inFamous this year. One company, meanwhile, often provides games a month or more ahead of release and seldom sets any embargo at all. Stand up Nintendo, and take a bow.
However, it's not all like that. In the bad old days, websites struggled to get hold of review copies until the day of release, and sometimes had to wait until after that. Or - more frequently with magazines than websites, as far as I know - review copies were only provided if a publication agreed to a high score in advance, which is the sort of thing Rammy is highlighting. This behaviour is much less prominent than it used to be, but it does still happen. One of the biggest publishers in the world, for instance, makes it very difficult to review its games in the UK before the US release date, and sometimes even the UK one, even when said games are actually very good.
In this case, I'd like to separate the two aspects of Rammy's report and try and demonstrate why there is hope amongst the apparent bleakness. Whether or not the events described are true is immaterial - this sort of thing does happen, and the two key parts are: 1) A game provided for review in time for magazines to publish their thoughts ahead of release. 2) An offer to allow people to publish earlier if they really like the game. The part about the 9/10 proposal is something I've written about before, and as I said then, I think that in theory it is acceptable providing the publication behaves honestly. It's then up to its readers to decide whether it acted honourably or not.
In this instance, I think it's worth focusing on the first part: the idea of a publisher providing review copies in sufficient time for all manner of magazines and websites to publish their verdicts before the game is available to buy. This is becoming more common, and I believe that's progress. Similarly, I think Sony and Nintendo and the other examples I provided originally are signs of progress.
One has to remember that a game publisher's ideal scenario is completely the opposite of ours. Theirs is that only positive reviews appear before release, and preferably right around release, so that people's attention is drawn to the launch of something apparently loved by critics. While some do still attempt to stage that situation, plenty are now on the road to siding with us. There are loads of reasons for this, but one of the most prominent is that the internet remembers, and people don't like being fooled. It's actually better, a few Mr Publishers now believe, to live with the fact that a mediocre game is going to get low scores, because one day they will have a really good game to sell, and people will be more likely to believe the good things they're hearing about it.
Let's not paint too rosy a picture: we're still a long way from the dream scenario of tons of early reviews and every publisher taking the bad with the good, and it's important that commentators like Rammy continue to talk about review embargoes and let the people publishing games know that, in the long run, it will be best to do away with them completely. But the point I wanted to make, which I've hopefully stumbled into somewhere in the knots of text above, is that we *are* getting there, slowly but surely, and I believe that, in attacking the practices of PR and marketing people, we must make sure that we define our criticism specifically so as not to discourage that progress.