Just about every gamer is aware of the fact that the latest Assassin's Creed release did not live up to gamers' expectations in terms of gameplay, graphics and usability. Ubisoft is now in full damage-control mode, live blogging the fixes and trying to shift the blame elsewhere.
This faux pas is not the main story, however. The whole debacle brought to the fore the questionable practices around embargoes and how publishers and reviewers can co-exist in an even-handed manner. Had pre-release embargoes not been in place for the latest Assassin's Creed, what would the reviews have said about this alleged triple A title?
The use of embargoes to restrict the release of potentially unflattering opinions and content is becoming an issue. First-day embargoes are effectively creating a selective media blackout, with a tightly controlled, coherent and very flattering view of a title, deserved or not. This distorts the impartiality towards the game. In essence, the gamers are buying a title without the benefit of any objective evaluation.
An embargo is nothing more than an agreement between a publisher and the reviewer that a product review won't be released until after a specific point in time. It ensures that all reviewers have a more or less even playing field and the same evaluation material. Sure, there is technically nothing to stop magazines or websites from breaking that agreement, but doing so would almost certainly mean that a given outlet would never get another pre-release review and in effect be blackballed from that publishing house.
Much like a cinematic film release, the first day's take sets the tone for the entire financial success or failure of a game. It is therefore understandable why publishers try to control access to pre-release review editions, as they can control the message and any negative press. Such a degree of control allows a public relations team to create campaigns that can have people queueing round the block to buy the game or product. Readers need only to remember the crowds lined up at Midnight for the purchase of GTA5, myself included!
Frequently, when you are even just browsing games to buy, there are incentives to pre-order that new blockbuster title. Offers of in-game goodies such as extra guns or quicker respawn times give that sense of urgency that helps sell the game. In reality, this bonus content is just software unlock codes that are cheap for the publisher to create, as they only need to be written once and can be duplicated millions of times without issue. These incentives help push pre-orders.
Pre-orders for games can add up to a fair amount of money for the publisher. They're usually as good as money in the bank. However, if people discover that the game is a stinker before they pick it up in person or it drops through the mailbox, they would just cancel their order and get their money back.
This would, of course, have a devastating effect on the game's financial success. This is why Ubisoft did what it did with embargoes until 17 hours after release of the new Assassin's Creed. With triple A titles costing more than films to create, bad numbers could almost force a development house or publisher over the edge.
First-day buyers are the hardcore market, where the major money is made. These are the people that pre-order and get the free in-game content frequently. Lose them and it could all be over for a title.
The quest for control also brings up questions around how "official" magazines such as Playstation Magazine, or the official magazines for other formats, deal with poor games. In short, even though there is usually a good amount of editorial and content independence, the magazine may feel the pressure to look more favorably on the title, as otherwise it could reflect badly on everyone concerned.
Although the above may appear to be obvious, the desire for control has started to manifest in unexpected ways.
There appears to be a growing trend of taking this to the extreme, allowing the reviews to be published only after there has been a big first day sales window. Several titles, including Drive Club and Destiny, have used this tactic. Even so, these titles bombed in spectacular fashion. The publishers gave no explanation as to why the review embargoes were so onerous. That left people to decide if they want to buy a title based solely on the outer sleeve of the game.
The use of embargoes to hide bad games was until recently unheard of.
This tactic of extreme embargoes can only be used so many times before people come to equate embargoes with a game that is not worth buying. Merely using such an embargo could irrevocably taint the game in question. Some of the more hardcore gamers are beginning to speak out on the basis that such activity is anti-consumer and in the long term does neither the publisher nor the players any favors.
What the publishers will actually do is anyone's guess. One fact is certain though; Ubisoft will think long and hard before using such a tactic to restrict bad reviews. Such a spectacular backfire on a triple A title is a rare occurrence.