Does a Lack Of Early Review Copies Indicate Poor Quality?

Dishonored 2 is in the news today for all the wrong reasons. Bethesda announced today that, keeping with its practice with Doom, review copies of Dishonored 2 will not be sent out until the day before release.

This, predictably, has both gamers and the games media in a blind panic, many wondering if Dishonored 2 will be a good game and others blasting Bethesda for its anti-consumer policy. If it's not a good game, than it's an anti-consumer policy, because they, in essence, want to take our money and run.

This panic is undoubtedly inspired by how movie reviews work. It's no secret that movies that aren't screened for critics in advance are held back because the studios either know or aren't sure how the public will receive it, and a negative pre-release reception could harm box office returns in both the short and long term.

 


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But in video games, this almost never happens. You can tell because, every time it does happen, the games press reports on it. If the movie press reported every time a movie wasn't screened for critics, that would make up approximately 100 percent of their coverage, since everything else would have to be scrapped to make room.

No, video games are almost always given out early. Why? Well it's free advertising, for one. Most video game companies don't have, say, $1.4 Million lying around to take out a spot during Sunday Night Football, so they rely on the games press to cover their games in reviews, features and guides, to reach their consumer base. And most game studios, if they're worried about quality, seem to take the "no such thing as bad press" mantra.

What Metacritic Says

But all this raises the very important question: if a video game does not send out early review copies, is that an indicator of poor or sub-par quality? According to a surprisingly large yet still small sample size (11 games) of Metacritic scores, yes. (I know Metacritic has its own list of problems, such as the way it excludes some publications or assigns a score arbitrarily if the review didn't give one, but it's the best metric we have).

The adjusted Metascore (averaging the score across all platforms) of these games that didn't release an early review copy is an average of 63.36, putting them firmly in the "mixed or average" category on Metacritc. Keep in mind, also that game review scores tend to skew upward for whatever reason.

The list of games I could find that didn't release early review copies is (in no particular order) as follows:

  • The Crew (Adjusted Metascore 65.33)
  • Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric (Metascore 32)
  • Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal (Metascore 47)
  • Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5 (Adjusted Metascore 35.5)
  • The Division (Adjusted Metascore 79.67)
  • Mafia III (Adjusted Metascore 66)
  • No Man's Sky (Adjusted Metascore 66)
  • Dying Light (Adjusted Metascore 74.33)
  • Doom (Adjusted Metascore 85.67)
  • The Sims 4 (Metascore 70)
  • Destiny (Adjusted Metascore 75.5)

Of those games, three are in the "red" score range indicating mostly negative reviews, three are in the "green" score range indicating mostly positive reviews, and five are in the "yellow" score range indicating mostly mixed or average reviews.

The Sonic Boom Strategy

However, (and a big fat "however," at that) this stat comes with several very important caveats. Let's go through each one upon closer examination to further unpack this statement.

For starters, that average is being severely held back by three games in particular that, rather than delaying the release of reviews, elected to not send out review copies at all. These three games were Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5 (Adjusted Metascore 35.5), Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric (Metascore 32) and Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal (Metascore 47). If we remove these games from the equation (since not releasing review copies at all is clearly different than simply delaying the release), is 72.8. While still in the "mixed or average" category, it's much higher and likely a little more accurate than the 63.36 figure.

Secondly, Dying Light is an interesting outlier because it was reviewed in the green category for one platform, but in the yellow for the other two platforms, and its adjusted average is less that a percent away from entering that green category. So, again, this bulk figure doesn't tell the whole story.

The Online Excuse

Now we can look at those three on the top in the green: Destiny, The Division and Doom. What was so different about them? Well, while Destiny was reviewed positively, it was done so only barely. As lower than a 75 on Metacritic will put you in the yellow. Not to mention that Destiny was deemed a disappointment over all, regardless of its reception. (As a side note, while Bungie didn't technically delay review copies, they didn't activate the servers for the game until the day of release, meaning only reviews in progress without scores could be posted).

The only thing that separates the other two, (and this is very important) is that the developers actually gave a reason as to why they wouldn't be releasing copies. In almost all other instances, the studio was completely silent as to why review copies weren't being sent out early or at all.

The Division wasn't released early to reviewers because the servers wouldn't be populated, a fair point for an online-focused game. Granted this was the same reasoning used by The Crew, but they obviously had an ulterior motive.

Bethesda also used the online excuse for 2016's Doom and that turned out all right.

Conclusion

What we can learn from all this is that, when we hear a game will not send out early review copies, we need to ask two questions before making a snap judgement on quality. 1. Did the developer give us a reason? When they're communicative and have valid reasoning it usually turns out better. 2. Are they releasing review copies at all? History has shown us that completely stonewalling reviewers has far more disastrous results than simply making us wait a little longer.

By this litmus test, Dishonored 2 has given us no real cause for concern. They aren't releasing early review copies, but they will come eventually, and they have addressed the issue publicly. Although whether or not their specific reasoning holds up is up for debate, the first Dishonored and all the footage we've seen from its sequel, should be enough for us to give Bethesda the benefit of the doubt.