Review embargoes. That fickle condition of getting a game early.

In exchange for receiving a copy of a game before release, reviewers and outlets are pretty much always placed under an embargo – an agreement upon a certain time that review coverage cannot be published before. The publisher (or PR firm, or indie dev) who distributes the game will generally say – here’s the game, here’s how to play or install it, here are some things we don’t want you to talk about (spoilers, plot points, surprise mechanics, exact item numbers or enemy descriptions etc. – nothing scandalous), and here is the time that all discussion of the game must remain private until.

This time frames is different for every game. Sometimes you get weeks to play a game until the embargo lifts. Sometimes days. Sometimes the embargo lifts weeks before the game releases. Sometimes not until the game releases. Sometimes they’re global, sometimes they’re regional. And, in a bizarre situation this week, sometimes the embargo doesn’t lift until AFTER the game releases.

I’m talking about Batman: Arkham Origins (our review pending) in this last instance.

Essentially, some outlets received Batman: Arkham Origins early for purposes of review (some, including some very high profile sites, didn’t – this is a completely different boiler of ichthyoids). They agreed that they would not publish their reviews until after a certain date. Details get a bit fuzzy here – was the date changed, was it not – either way, the embargo date ended up being about half a day or more AFTER the release of the game. This left the bizarre situation where an outlet could conceivably buy the game at retail, play it, write the review, and publish it all before “official” reviews from sites still under embargo could be released. Strange, non?

This led somewhat of a twitterstorm yesterday, the crux of which was – why embargo?

There are some very strong arguments both for and against embargoes. I’ll take you through a few of the main ones.

Positives are that they’re the great leveller. Big sites, small sites – all have equal chance to release their review coverage at the same time. It’s fairer for all outlets to do this, as you don’t get sites who get the game earlier, or have more or faster reviewers, releasing their coverage first and scooping less well-resourced sites, making the scrabble for hits an even playing field. It also ensures the game gets a fairer evaluation, as nobody is rushing to produce the first review and perhaps cutting corners during gameplay. All sites get (mostly) the same amount of time to play and review a game, and it’s generally a long-enough time to complete the game once, meaning we have a more complete and fair take on what the game can offer.

The negatives are the control it exerts over sites. Primarily, we can’t tell potential purchasers that a product is bad before embargo lifts. Legally we can’t. Day one purchases are a big business, and if an embargo doesn’t lift until the day of release, then we have less chance of informing customers of potential pitfalls early enough. More abstractly, it shows that reviewers and game sites who are in contact with publishers, PR companies, and developers have to follow some rules set by those who distribute that content. There are restrictions we have to abide by, set by those with a clear bias. It hints at possible collusion between the two factions – that perhaps a “bad” review might lead to getting cut-off in the future. It’s a reminder that there is a man behind the proverbial curtain, and that we occasionally can’t help but pay attention.

Even if there is absolutely no wilful collusion between certain outlets and publishers, it doesn’t look good. It looks like reviewers are in the pocket of the publishers. It looks bad.

I’m tentatively pro-embargoes. They enable OnlySP to have a chance to compete on important aggregate sites and social networks. We get a share of hits for our reviews that we may not get otherwise. Our reviews are always well-trafficked, but they’re always better trafficked when we get our reviews out at embargo and into those content distribution streams quickly. The anticipation of the reviews going up helps us tangibly.

Arkham Origins was an anomaly. Most review embargoes lift at or before release. It’s a rare problematic situation that, as far as I can tell, had no exit.

I haven’t read the Arkham Origins review embargo agreement. I don’t know the exact terms of it. I would hazard a suggestion, though – have an exit clause in case of official release. Some embargoes allow for sites to break embargo in situations where it impinges on a site’s competitiveness – i.e. another site breaks embargo first. In this case, an escape clause saying that reviews could go up in the case of release specifically might have helped. Again though, I was not privy to the specific details of Arkham Origins’ embargo agreement.

I completely recognise that it can look problematic for sites to be told when to release content, and I’d rather not be told by a publisher with a stake when it can go up, but, honestly, they’re always pretty reasonable. I’ve never been asked not to write about a bug or a flaw, never been told to avoid a negative story element (unless it’s a specific spoiler, and that can be talked about in general), never been told that my content is being controlled by them other than the publish date and stuff I wouldn’t spoil for you readers anyway. If embargoes are the only leash around my neck as a reviewer, I’m pretty much okay with that. Embargoes are an unavoidable part of the reviewing industry, but they’re mostly a pragmatic solution to some difficult to resolve problems for reviewers and publishers.

Lachlan Williams
Former Editor in Chief of OnlySP. A guy who writes things about stuff, apparently. Recovering linguist, blue pencil surgeon, and professional bishie sparkler. In between finding the latest news, reviewing PC games, and generally being a grumpy bossyboots, he likes to watch way too much Judge Judy. He perhaps has too much spare time on his hands. Based in Sydney, Australia. Follow him on twitter @lawksland.

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