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The hows, whys, and dirty secrets of review game embargoes: a guide to what it all means

The hows, whys, and dirty secrets of review game embargoes: a guide to what it all means

In the business of game reporting, embargoes determine when reviews of games, and sometimes information such as previews, go live online or in print. You agree to the embargo before you play the preview content or receive your review build of a game, and broken embargoes can mean that you don’t cover a company’s games in the future. You’ll also make enemies of all the other writers in the industry who play by the rules. Many reporters are only vaguely aware of release dates, while they have the embargo dates for games memorized.

Readers sometimes like to guess about what an early, even late, embargo means. Does a publisher hold a review until the day of release when they know a game is bad? Do early embargoes mean they think a game is good? Why don’t reviewers just play the game and publish their thoughts as they’d like? I spoke to a number of people who work in PR to try to explain this mess.

There’s much strategy at work here, but the majority of embargoes actually work to the favor of those of us covering the industry. Allow me to explain why.

Why embargoes exist

“In some cases an embargo date is meant to give media outlets time to create their story – whether it’s video or a written piece,” Stephanie Schopp told the Penny Arcade Report. “Around E3, I hear grumblings from media folks about demos that aren’t embargoed. It means their story is rushed and often times it results in errors or misinformation being distributed and it causes headaches for everyone involved on the publisher side and on the editorial side.”

Schopp has worked in PR for the past 12 years, for a combination of smaller developers and larger publishers.

The review embargo makes sure that everyone is given a chance to play the game, and it removes the impulse to rush through a release to get your review up first. “A drive-by review doesn’t do readers any good, and if your readers aren’t getting anything from the editorial who is that really serving?” Schopp explained.

“I guess you get a lot of clicks through to your website if you’re the first to publish, but wouldn’t you then lose a lot of credibility in the end if your review was terrible?” she asked. Especially with strategy or open-world titles, an embargo gives reviewers the time needed to really dig into a game without the worry of other outlets releasing their reviews first.

Embargoes also help publishers plan their marketing efforts, and in some cases they’re used to ensure that a single outlet has the story first. “In some cases, you may want to align reviews with another element of your marketing campaign,” Tom Ohle said. “Perhaps you offered an outlet an exclusive review in exchange for prominent placement or promotion, and you don’t want other reviews to hit before that one. Maybe you just don’t want any single outlet to have an advantage, while trying to ensure that reviewers take their time with it, as rushed reviews generally suck.”

Ohle has been in PR for 11 years, and is the director of Evolve PR, a boutique agency that Ohle says is trying to push PR practices forward. He’s argued about the power of things such as a shorter PR cycle for games, rebelling against the idea of hyping a title years before launch.

He also understands the conflicts inherent in embargoes. “They’re a PR rep’s best friend; at all times, you’re looking to get the best visibility at the best time. Around launch is a great time to be visible, and if you have great reviews appearing on all of the major media outlets on the same day, consumers are bound to notice,” he explained.

“That said, I personally don’t like embargoes, because they clash with the idea of ‘journalism,’ which is to say that it’s a journalist’s job to deliver relevant, timely stories to their audience… you have a copy of the game, so why do you have to wait to write a review?”

What can you learn from an embargo?

It’s easy to play armchair analyst about what the timing of an embargo means, but the decision behind the timing of coverage is often complex, and comes down to a variety of factors. The embargo for Far Cry 3 reviews, for instance, allowed outlets to cover the game on November 21, when the game comes out on December 4 in the United States. What gives?

“For a worldwide release, embargoes are determined by both the US and EMEA Marketing and PR teams,” an Ubisoft representative told the Penny Arcade Report. “In the case of review embargoes, we do our best to synch up together worldwide at the same time. In the case of Far Cry 3, the EMEA (a term meaning the market in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa) is releasing before us, so with their reviews potentially hitting earlier than ours, we decided to have an earlier review embargo in the US.”

Early reviews can mean many things, however.

“If your target audience knows it’s a great game three weeks ahead of holiday shopping, it’s likely that said game makes it onto the Christmas list,” Schopp explained, after admitting that she usually works in the PC space, where early review code can be rare.

“It’s also a possibility that a confident publisher is trying to boost its pre-sales of the game. Again, with the holidays, a major publisher won’t have to worry much about garnering shelf space at retailers, as major publishers negotiate shelf space months in advance and a large publisher would have plenty of it reserved for its holiday games, so boosting pre-orders is a possibility.”

Ohle also said it’s hard to know for sure why a publisher sets a specific embargo, but he does say that in all cases it takes confidence in the product to release reviews more than a day or so before launch.

“I think that early embargoes are all about convincing anyone who’s still on the fence about a title; you want those people to finally take the plunge on a pre-order. If your review embargo is a week from release, a boost in pre-orders may not actually have a noticeable impact on your initial sales,” Ohle said. “However, if there’s enough time between the embargo and launch, a slew of positive reviews may be just what you need to get a retailer to increase their order. Either way, a bunch of positive reviews in the weeks leading up to launch will just boost hype and set the stage for a successful launch.”

Embargoes that allow coverage on the day of release could mean the game is bad, or it could be due to late review code. “If you know your game is going to get thrashed in reviews, you’re definitely going to set a launch-day embargo, or you may not send out early review code at all; the latter scenario, I think, is more telling as it pertains to the quality of a game,” Ohle said. He also noted that later embargoes could simply mean PR wants you to spend more time with the game; reviews of Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition are embargoed for the day of release, as it’s a 50-hour game.

Reviews may also be held until the day of launch for mobile or indie games due to the impact a good review can have on sales. If you have sites reviewing a mobile game on the day it’s available, for example, readers can enjoy the review, and immediately purchase the game.

“A general marketing principle: have the most buzz about your game when it becomes available for purchase,” Schopp said. “…Having reviews hit the day a game is available helps generate buzz, and if you are lucky enough to work on a game where there is universal praise for it you’ll likely see a significant spike in sales that first week.”

In other words, a late embargo may indicate a poor quality game, but it could also mean the publisher wants the maximum buzz when gamers can actually go out and purchase the game. It could also mean review code arrived late, making it hard for reviewers to be able to play the game to completion without rushing through the experience and aiming for an early embargo. If you hear reviewers complain that no one received a review copy of a game, that’s a strong indicator of a title’s poor quality.

For a good example, see the Vita Black Ops title. It was sent to few reviewers, and almost no coverage went pre-launch. That was clearly the case of PR trying to hide a terrible game and to ride on the brand’s momentum for at least a brief period.

The dirty side of embargoes

There are a few ways embargoes can be used against the press, however. In some cases outlets are offered exclusive reviews in exchange for an agreed-upon minimum score. This could be an attractive deal for a site hungry for hits if they would have planned to give that game a certain score regardless, but it also creates a strong incentive to raise the score a few points in order to secure the exclusive. Exclusive reviews are powerful draws for readers, and are always worth a significant amount of page views, unique readers, and buzz from other blogs who will quote your review and link back to it.

That sort of gift is rarely free, especially with enforceable embargoes in place that keep any other outlet from reporting on the game.

Publishers have also allowed staggered reviews in the past. That means that the general embargo expires on a certain date, but outlets willing to give a game a certain minimum score can run their review before that date. In terms of readership, earlier is always better, so this too puts pressure on outlets to score games a certain way in order to release a review as early as possible. There are some goofy stories that come from this practice, we’ll be telling one later this afternoon, and thankfully this is a tactic I haven’t seen in some time.

It’s important to note that PR are not always the bad guys in these transactions. There are outlets that will sometimes demand some form of exclusive coverage in exchange for covering a game at all. If a publisher or developer won’t allow the outlet to run some form of exclusive content, up to and including reviews, that outlet simply won’t cover the game, or will minimize coverage. In a business that’s so driven by publicity and positive review scores and early previews, many publishers will buckle under that pressure and give exclusive content.

The press loves readers as much as PR loves coverage, and both sides will often use as much pressure as possible to get what they want. I’ve spoken to multiple people on the press and PR sides of the business on background about the dirty tricks of embargoes and exclusive content, and unfortunately few are willing to give specific examples or name games or outlets, but the strategies and benefits of exclusive content and selectively enforced embargoes are well known on both sides of the business.

Here’s my rule of thumb, after being in this business around a decade and seeing how the sausage is made: if a review is exclusive, don’t trust it. Wait for the general embargo to be sure no strings were attached to the coverage or review. I’ve read many great exclusive reviews, but I simply don’t trust them.

All that being said, embargoes are a good thing for game reviews

As the men and women who talked to me for this story have explained, embargoes exist for a number of reasons, and many of them work for reporters and reviewers when it comes to delivering solid coverage. I don’t want to get a game in the mail only to feel pressure to rush the review. Likewise, during the hustle of E3 it’s nice to get a hands-on demonstration of a game and an interview with the creator and know that you can spend time crafting a solid story without other sites running their coverage ahead of you.

Embargoes are, in my opinion, a good thing, when used properly. Embargoes go bad when they’re used to hide bad games, or they are crafted to allow publishers to give gifts of exclusive coverage to specific outlets.

What’s important is that readers understand why embargoes exist, and to have some insight into what an early, or late, embargo could mean. This is a tricky, complicated subject, and it involves products that cost tens of millions of dollars to create and news outlets that command the attention of just as many sets of eyeballs. It’s not a one-way street by any stretch, and when both sides meet in the middle you get the modern business of game reviews.