Bethesda, review copies and the role of games media

The relationship between press and publishers is an on-going debate in video game media. Media are often given review copies before a game’s release, giving them time to properly complete a game and write a review; but publisher Bethesda has decided to provide review copies of Dishonored 2 and Skyrim: Special Edition to media a day before the games’ respective releases. Many have written not in favour of this new review policy, labelling it “anti-consumer,” and arguing that it places a lot of pressure on critics. This article will examine four views articles that, while all agree that the policy isn’t fair to consumers or their professions as critics, differ in the ways in which they try to convince their audiences.

 

Tim Colwill’s “Bethesda, Games Media, And the Uncouth Vulgarity of Acknowledging Capitalism” and Eric Kain’s Forbes article, “Bethesda’s Decision To Withhold Review Copies Is Bad For Games And Sets A Dangerous Precedent”, are both causal and evaluative, and very explicit in not being in favour of Bethesda’s policy. Colwill, however, argues that this sense of anti-consumerism isn’t new to the industry, and is solely based on publisher’s desire to make money, while Kain argues that it goes against the standards of art critique. Ben Kuchera’s “Bethesda wants your money before the reviews hit” by Polygon presents a far less aggressive factual and evaluative argument, explaining the situation while calling for his readers to stop pre-ordering, again labelling the incident as anti-consumer. Stephen Totilo’s “You’re Going To Get Fewer Early Games Reviews From Everyone” by Kotaku offers a similarly lighter-toned view to Kuchera,

 

Tim Colwill’s “Bethesda, Games Media, And The Uncouth Vulgarity of Acknowledging Capitalism” is a causal and evaluative argument. His central claim that Bethesda’s behavior is incredibly anti-consumer but that the industry’s always been anti-consumer and exploitative requires the warrant that consumers use reviews to justify their – or at least, help them make informed – purchases. His claim is explicitly mentioned in the first few paragraphs as he describes games media as “correctly labell[ing] [Bethesda’s policy] as anti-consumer,” and that “the problem is that the industry as a whole is anti-consumer.” He uses an appeal of comparison to hyperbolically compare the effects Bethesda’s policy has on the games industry to what Republican candidate Donald Trump has done to the Republican party, “scandalizing the establishment by saying out loud the racist things that were previously only conveyed through polite smiles and racist policy.” While this can easily be seen as a hasty-generalisation and requires the warrant that Donald Trump’s racist attitude is unwanted, I argue that Colwill is merely aggressively against the policy, and uses this to vilify the publisher to further position his audience to see that it goes against societal norms.

 

Colwill uses another appeal to a more related analogy in Rockstar’s treatment of games press, to further justify his view that publisher secrecy isn’t a new practice. He quite forcefully argues with an appeal to emotion, that Rockstar “treats games media like shit and the media plasters on a smile and deals with it because they don’t have a choice,” to demonstrate that journalists have been treated poorly by publishers before. He extends this by very matter of a factly calling to his audience, “You can on one hand the amount of outlets that were graciously granted a preview of Grand Theft Auto V, or an interview with a developer.” This reinforces his appeal to analogy while satirically pointing out the unfair bait from publishers to games press, but by itself doesn’t entirely justify his claim that the industry is anti-consumer. Again, this requires the warrant that pre-release coverage is good for gamers, and that it helps them make informed decisions about their purchases. He undermines the validity of his argument, however, in describing the Rockstar CEO as “liv[ing] in a gold penis on the moon.” This is easily an attempt to further vilify the company but acts as a distraction to his argument, partly discrediting it.

 

Colwill uses another appeal to analogy and emotion in justifying his supplementary claim, as well.  Colwill introduces his secondary claim that the role of press has changed and been replaced by an uncritical coverage of games with YouTubers, by describing the traditional relationship between publisher, press and consumer, “if you wanted to reach the consumer, you needed to play nice with the press.” While this could be seen as an appeal to “facts” or social norms, as publishers did rely on press in the pass, I’d argue that this is an example of a circular agreement, as Colwill simply reinstates the beginning of the claim to justify it. From there, he uses an appeal to emotion and social norms to explicitly state the later half of his secondary claim that “consumers are explicitly rooting for uncritical coverage of games, and attacking the press for hurting the feelings of AAA publishers by criticising their work.” He hyperlinks the phrase “explicitly rooting for uncritical coverage” to a comment on a game review by GameSpot that compares mainstream games media publications to YouTube personalities, claiming that the former “fail…to highlight positives [and] negatives [about a game] while maintaining an unbiased opinion,” before admitting that YouTuber Angry Joe had received a pre-release copy. While partly an over-generalisation, Colwill uses an appeal to facts in referencing the comment, to justify his claim with photographic evidence of a reader “attacking the press” for criticising a AAA publisher’s work. From this, he uses the metaphorical description – again, another use of an analogy – of the press as the “majestic Sphinx” who had previously “guarded the villagers from the monsters in the dark” but is now threatened by said villagers who are “mad at [the Sphinx for] hurting the monster’s feelings.” Despite the ridiculous imagery glorifying Colwill’s position as a journalist, it clearly defines the shift in games media. That said, it doesn’t necessarily work in justifying his claim by itself, and works well in conjunction with the above appeal to facts.

 

Like Colwill’s article, Erik Kain’s “Bethesda’s decision to withhold review copies is bad for gamers and sets a dangerous precedent” by Forbes is an evaluative and causal piece against the policy. Kain explicitly states his claim, that Bethesda should abandon their new policy because it is bad for gamers and sets a dangerous example for publishers in the future, in the title of the article. He quotes a blog post from Bethesda explaining the new policy, sarcastically quoting their belief that they “value media reviews.” Kain calls out Bethesda’s claim that they “value media reviews” by sarcastically commenting, “they…would prefer to do away with them entirely, free to sell their products to consumers with as little pre-release criticism as possible,” giving the impression that they are anti-consumer but in a far less aggressive way than Colwill. In this way, he uses an appeal to negative consequences, suggesting it could lead to “[a] loss of trust between publishers, consumer and the media,” before mentioning that “trust is already in short supply,” to reinforce his above critique of Bethesda’s blog post.

 

He uses a series of appeals to authority, comparison and popular opinion to justify his claim, too. He lists the benefits of providing early copies to media as supplementary claims in bold to substantiate his view. Namely, he uses an appeal to authority in arguing that “early review copies give critics a chance to write comprehensible reviews,” suggesting it’s good for the consumer – although, this requires the warrant that consumers read reviews before making a purchase. He also uses an appeal to authority and popular opinion, stating that review copies “ensure more information for consumers before [the] launch [of a game],” and “reward good game developers”. While these secondary claims have very little justification to support them, and are merely a circular argument, they act as justificatory statements to Kain’s central claim.

 

Kain later compares games critique to other creative arts reviewing, arguing that “video games should be held to the same standard as other entertainment.” He refers to the reader in second person by means of the analogy in, “you want[ing] to go see a movie on its opening weekend but there being no reviews of it,” to create a personal connection between his claim and the reader. From there, he uses an either-or argument, stating that “you” would either “think twice about seeing the movie” or “go see a movie that would have been reviewed terribly because it’s awful,” which he argues “punish[es] consumers but reward[s] bad films.” He argues that reviews published after a game is released because publishers decide to provide a review copy a day before a game’s launch, has a similar effect to this analogy, and in comparing games and film critique, justifies his claim that this practice is unnatural and goes against social norms.

 

Ben Kuchera’s “Bethesda wants your money before the reviews hit” by Polygon on the other hand, is a causal and evaluative piece with an underlying recommendatory tone. Kuchera’s central claim that Bethesda’s behavior is anti-consumer and doesn’t actually care about critics and merely sales, is implied in the article by contrasting Bethesda’s view with his own. He uses an appeal to authority and sarcastic choice of emotion in reinforcing Bethesda’s belief that they care about reviews, stating that the company is “going to show that love by wiping out any chance players will have to learn about the quality of a game before it’s released.” Unlike Colwill and Kain however, Kuchera doesn’t explicitly state that this is wrong, and rhetorically asks that if his reader wants to spend money on a game before they know if its good or even works, he can’t stop you since “it’s your money.” That said, there is clearly a judgmental tone to the rhetorical question. He also contrasts quotes from Bethesda’s blog with his own analysis to discredit their view, claiming that “painting [it] as anything other than being consumer hostile requires some pretty hefty spin,” enacting another appeal to authority. In doing so, he creates a more rounded argument than Colwill and Kain who position their audience either on their side or Bethesda’s.

 

His underlying claim, however, isn’t that Bethesda’s policy is anti-consumer but that people should stop supporting preorders. Kuchera describes the article as a word of advice, suggesting that his audience doesn’t have to believe what he’s saying, which humanises his argument. In the closing paragraph, Kuchera uses an appeal to emotion and consequence, directly engaging with his audience by calling out to them, arguing that “Bethesda wants your money more than anything else, and this is the company’s way of minimising risk.” While this requires the warrant that preordering is bad for the industry, the view that is his underlying true central claim is substantiated by the slug in the URL, “Bethesda-review-policy-dont-preorder”, and the byline calling out to his audience, “You shouldn’t be pre-ordering anyway.”

 

Stephen Totilo’s “You’re Going To Get Fewer Early Game Reviews From Everyone” by Kotaku presents, like Colwill, Kuchera and Kain, an evaluative and causal argument, but also a factual one. His central claim, that Bethesda’s policy is harmful to both consumers and critics, is mostly explicitly stated near the end of the piece, with a more factual description of the situation acting as the story’s lead. Totilo uses an appeal to facts in detailing the situation, quoting Bethesda’s blog post like Kuchera and Kain; only unlike the others, as Totilo points out, doesn’t feel the need to hold back given Kotaku has been blacklisted by Bethesda – meaning, they’ve been wiped from their media contacts. This in hindsight distances him from the issue while also crediting his view as truly honest and authentic.

 

Ultimately, these authors demonstrate an obvious bias towards games media and consumers. Despite their differing central claims and perception of how anti-consumer the industry was, currently or still is, they acknowledge a shift from traditional media to uncritical coverage of games in YouTube content. In this way, the issue is clearly undivided and considered unfair, even considering the varied tones these authors adopt.

 

Reference List

Colwill, T, 2016, Bethesda, Games Media, And The Uncouth Vulgarity of Acknowledging Capitalism, Not So Unwashed, 26th October 2016, http://notsounwashed.com/2016/10/we-value-media-reviews/

Kain, E, 2016, Bethesda’s Decision To Withhold Review Copies Is Bad For Gamers And Sets A Dangerous Precedent, Forbes, 26th October 2016, http://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2016/10/25/bethesdas-decision-to-withhold-review-copies-is-bad-for-gamers-and-sets-a-dangerous-precedent/#68fead0e6d78

Kuchera, B, 2016, Bethesda wants your money before the reviews hit, Polygon, 25th October 2016, http://www.polygon.com/2016/10/25/13409774/bethesda-review-policy-dont-preorder

Totilo, S, 2016, You’re Going To Get Fewer Early Game Reviews From Everyone, Kotaku, 26th October 2016, http://www.kotaku.com.au/2016/10/youre-going-to-get-fewer-early-game-reviews-from-everyone/

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