Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order and Shenmue III have quite a lot in common.
Releasing a week apart, both are long-awaited, enormously hyped single-player-only games. Both also hold the promise of charting a new future for the franchises within the industry. Shenmue III is a return, while Fallen Order is a change in tact from the multiplayer-oriented Battlefront series to a story-first approach left underserved since The Force Unleashed games.
Both also raised eyebrows this week for their reported embargo practice. Apparently, registered press was not allowed to critique Fallen Order until midnight on launch day in the US (OnlySP did not get review code), while Shenmue III will be embargoed until two days after launch (if OnlySP is getting review code, it has not yet arrived).
Withholding reviews until a game launches is not unprecedented—Bethesda once had a policy of not providing review codes until the day of release. However, the practice is usually viewed as a sign that publishers lack confidence in the product.
In the case of EA and Fallen Order, the reasoning is understandable. In recent years, the publisher has rejected the traditional linear adventure: Dead Space 3, Star Wars: Battlefront, Anthem, and Mirror’s Edge Catalyst all adopted alternative design paths, not to mention the abrupt cancellation of Project Ragtag and the closure of the once-venerated Visceral Games. EA lacks faith that games in the model of Fallen Order or the first Dead Space and Mirror’s Edge have a future in the industry.
Shenmue III is trickier. The game will almost inevitably be divisive for critics, as it appears more slow-paced than its contemporaries—perhaps even trapped within the turn-of-the-century design ethos of the first two games. Whether that surmise holds true will be unknown until the game releases publicly later this week.
However, fear is not the only motivating factor behind the delay of a review. Another is the desire for the feedback to ring true. Production cycles can go down to the wire, with fixes and updates being prepared in the last few hours before release. Despite what some might say, that is not a sign of poor planning or lazy development; it is the result of a complex, highly competitive industry.
Therein lies the problem, though. Media outlets want traffic. If a website (particularly a smaller one) is behind the curve on a review publication, that article tends to track worse. Therefore, in the name of keeping the outlet afloat, reviews are sometimes rushed.
The balance is broken.
Developers are under extreme stress to ensure their games are as good as can be. Critics are under extreme stress to hit KPI targets. The two industries rely on each other but also cannibalise each other.
Something needs to change. At present, a few select journalists have privileged access to development communities, but not to their productions. Journalists should not have unfettered access, yet they should have more opportunities to engage with the work of developers than through massive conventions or carefully planned and executed press events.
Why? To raise awareness.
Many of us who write about games as hobbyists or for a living have only an outsider’s understanding of how games are made. In turn, our reportage is often fundamentally flawed—influenced by what we think we know and what we believe rather than the facts. The situation is worse still at websites that churn out endless opinion pieces that play to an established base with a particular perspective.
How does all this talk about the issues surrounding games commentary tie back to embargoes?
Despite the rise of social media and the democratisation of information, the traditional media still influences public opinion. Reviews continue to have a purpose in helping uncertain consumers to make purchasing decisions. However, embargoes complicate that process. If scheduled before release, they create deadlines for critics that can result in inaccurate reviews because, in many instances, review codes do not arrive until 48 hours before release or less.
Shenmue III and Fallen Order are examples of the opposite: consumers have no choice but to go in blind, which can be beneficial if excitement proves more powerful than negative opinion, but not having that safety net might also make them uncertain of the quality, which drives down sales.
To resolve this issue, we need to rethink the relationship between game makers and commentators. The relationship needs to be symbiotic, with the two industries supporting each other in a positive feedback loop. For that, we need to be informed. We need to be journalists rather than enthusiasts.