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Ubisoft 'Assassin's Creed' Release Highlights Gaming Industry Embargo Problem (Op Ed)

(Image credit: Ubisoft)

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.

(Image credit: Ubisoft)

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.

(Image credit: Ubisoft)

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.  

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  • d_kuhn
    To be honest... I already associate an embargo'd game with a likely bad title - and if a game lacks decent pre-release reviews I don't buy it on day 1 no matter how much I want the game. No doubt on occasion it will keep me from having a game I want until a few days after release... but on a number of occasions already it's saved me from buying a bad game.
    Reply
  • balister
    To be honest... I already associate an embargo'd game with a likely bad title - and if a game lacks decent pre-release reviews I don't buy it on day 1 no matter how much I want the game. No doubt on occasion it will keep me from having a game I want until a few days after release... but on a number of occasions already it's saved me from buying a bad game.

    Agree with you completely. If I don't have any pre-release information beyond trailers, I won't buy a game first day or pre-order. The only reason I pre-ordered Dragon Age Inquisition, Alien Isolation, and Witcher 3 was because of the pre-release information going out along with the trust I have for CDProjeck Red (BioWare has a chance to gain it back and the pre-release information from A:I made me want to play it).
    Reply
  • Hellbound
    I've stopped pre-ordering games because of launch day issues.. CoD:AW horrible SLi performance (same with CoD:Ghost - flickering), Assassins Creed bugs and texture problems... It seems like game developers in recent years are to in a hurry to release their games, and end up with launch day patches, or problems that make them unplayable.. And by the time these games are "fixed", people are already moving on to other games.
    Reply
  • 5tormy
    And the graphics performance isn't limited to AMD cards, as I have a pretty good 760 SLI and 4770k overclocked setup with newest drivers and can't play it on low settings very well.
    That being said, my friends PC with 770 SLI and 3770k can play it on low a whole lot better than I, but not medium.
    Reply
  • Barantos1
    I fell victim to my Advanced Warfare purchase. I am not even going to both to trust IGN or any other major reviewer anymore as it is clear that they are paid for their review. Seriously Advanced Warfare is the worst game I have played in a decade and yet it has amazing reviews by all of the major reviewers. Yet you read the player reviews on steam and youtube and it is the complete opposite. DON'T BELIEVE THE HYPE!
    Reply
  • skit75
    To be honest... I already associate an embargo'd game with a likely bad title - and if a game lacks decent pre-release reviews I don't buy it on day 1 no matter how much I want the game. No doubt on occasion it will keep me from having a game I want until a few days after release... but on a number of occasions already it's saved me from buying a bad game.

    Agree with you completely. If I don't have any pre-release information beyond trailers, I won't buy a game first day or pre-order. The only reason I pre-ordered Dragon Age Inquisition, Alien Isolation, and Witcher 3 was because of the pre-release information going out along with the trust I have for CDProjeck Red (BioWare has a chance to gain it back and the pre-release information from A:I made me want to play it).

    I think a lot of us already associate this type of behavior with a bad title. Publishers have already caught on to us and are now pushing out obscene minimum/recommended requirements to take advantage of the "1080p MOAR VRAM crowd" because if they say it requires 8GB.... it MUST BE GOOD! NOM NOM NOM
    Reply
  • neieus
    I've made it a point to wait for a few reviews to come out before before I buy any game these days and just about everything ubisoft does is questionable. I've completely stopped pr-ordering nearly all games because I've been burned to many times. It doesn't help that UbiSoft's games are so buggy...
    Reply
  • kaptu100
    I tend to think that the pre-order concept is the root of all this evil. Basically, if you've taken someones money the release date becomes non-negotiable. If the game isn't quite polished enough, tough. If they delayed release, there will be outrage and lots of cancelled orders which will be a PR mess. Perhaps that's also the reason why some games are heavily reliant on DLC that add content: Near the end of the projects' deadline the devs have no choice but to cut out content if they are behind schedule and shift it later when they've had more time. And also because it means more revenue, let us not forget.
    Reply
  • yumri
    @skit75 i think when the publishers make those requirements they make them with not 1080p in mind but 1440p and 4k in mind thus the insanely high amounts of VRAM required but in that if you have that amount of VRAM and that kind of GPU you probably will not hit any fps dips ... it is still a shadey way to do it as they should just have a minimum spec, recommeneded spec for playing it 1080p on medium then a optimial spec for playing it at 38402160 @ 100fps since that is the soft cap on the game engine Ubisoft is useing.

    @neieus UbiSoft is just trying to push the hardware to its limits and thus made a better game engine for it ... but the game engine sucks even though it can support more AI scripts running at the same time and slightly higher graphics if the PC can support it ... well ppl have been saying that game devs are tailoring their games to the console specs and not PC specs but when they tailor games to workstation / sever class PC specs ppl flip out because of the 8+ threaded games with massive details that require high to highest current gen end parts to just run on high. Thus Ubisoft went to far in that direction and needs to make games that can run on mid end PCs on low or medium again while still keeping high, highest, Ultra and maxed out everything for the ppl who have the workstation / sever class computers for gaming rigs while gamers will have to adapt to that will be the new norm from Ubisoft it seems ... just hopefully they will make low and medium look awesome and high, highest and Ultra be worth the extra resources taken without making the ppl only able to play it at low or medium feel left out.
    The main issue is that Ubisoft still needs to get all these bugs out of the game engine before useing it again as that is the major issue with AC: Unity not that its poorly coded for the game it is that the game engine is takeing the game code and implementing it in a very heavily taxing way and/or just leaveing out parts to try to not tax the system to much which makes it look like bugs and gliches.

    @Foseph Jerschke well a $1500 gaming pc probably is a mid end gaming PC and not a high end in which the reveiwers of the game that have high end gaming PCs and used a mod / game hack to remove that soft cap of 30 fps have reported texture bugs above 100 fps and objects and NPCs just poping up when going to fast in the game. So i think that is why Ubisoft choose to have a soft cap but they should have done it better with a choice of what you want the cap to be 30, 60, or monitor refresh rate like in the newer console ports from EA.

    @kaptu100 preodering is not the root of all this evil it is that they are allowed to patch it after the release date and restrict some content until you pay extra for it. in that saddly this isnt unique to Ubisoft but also well every other game devlopment studio that i know of that isnt a indie devloper but steam has standards for them i think but doesnt for the big companies.
    The thing of once you taken someone's money the release date becomes non-negotiable is a simple way of thinking but wrong as companies not in gaming do that alot but they never get paid more than they already did even if it goes over budget and takes more time ... of course this would be enforced better IF the consoles did not allow for massive patches after release forceing them to get it all or most of all of the game fixed before the release of it for example the N64 games when played on the actual system not an emulator they would great and barely any bugs nor gliches in any of them and most of the gliches and bugs were not able to be easily repeated if they were even in the game to begin with fast forward to today you have day one patches that many times the game wont even boot up without because of tighter release times and less time or no time to test it while knowing that they can just fix it later if wanted by the consumers.
    Reply
  • dstarr3
    Review embargoes are obviously very shady, but Shadows of Mordor had an embargo on it, and that game is quite good. So, it doesn't always indicate a shit game coming down the pipeline. It just... usually does.
    Reply