Behind the Curtain: How Game Reviews Work
Playing the Embargo Game
Often, review copies come with caveats, like embargoes and review guidelines. Publishers add these “rules” as part of the agreement when they send a review copy — they agree to give us their product early and let us judge it how we see fit, and we agree to hold back that judgment to a certain date and time. Review guidelines generally have to do with what can be posted as video and what elements of story or character should or should not be discussed to avoid spoilers. (I’ve never seen a publisher or developer dictate anything more stringent than spoilers.)
Embargoes usually have a pretty good reason for existing: They put all coverage on equal footing. Embargoes get used in previews and other capacities as well, sometimes attached to non-disclosure agreements to make them even more foreboding, but in general they’re a good thing. If Game Front attends a preview event for a game in June, for example, but another event is happening for European journalists in July, the embargo lets everyone coordinate their coverage and release it at the same time — the European journos don’t get screwed over just because they’re European and their event happened later. When it comes to reviews, embargoes mean that it’s not a sprint through the game to write a quick review and get it out first for the hits; instead, all the reviews drop at the same time, and everyone gets an equal shot. Mostly.
So mostly, embargoes aren’t only reasonable, they’re helpful. They give us time to do our jobs well and allow the focus of writers to be on writing good articles, and less on out-competing each other with speed.
They’re not always for the best, though. There are times when NDAs and embargoes are wielded by PR agencies to give all outlets the chance at coverage, while giving a few outlets exclusive access to posting their reviews and coverage first. And when that happens, there’s little to do for journalists who are left waiting to publish but sit and wait, because burning an embargo can often mean burning access to a publisher and its developers. And that can limit our ability to do good work.
It’s worth mentioning also the flip-side of the coin, occupied by outlets or journalists who burn embargoes — and bridges — in order to post work first, for a short-term benefit that’s gained at the expense both of the other outlets that agreed to the embargo, and the PR firms and employees who created those embargoes.
Dealing with such situations is a constant battle, because, as readers might see it, a journalist’s job should be of an adversarial nature with those they cover. And it absolutely is — we still try to put tough questions to developers and publishers and hold them (and one another) accountable for their actions. There’s also a degree of cooperation and picking battles, however. Publishing a review earlier than its embargo isn’t really worth straining a relationship with the people that made that game, and it’s often looked down upon by other critics as being underhanded. But some stories are worth that strain, and it’s our job to recognize the difference and to weigh the consequences of such actions.
It’s impractical to avoid dealing with embargoes and rules altogether by buying every game we review, as some readers and Reddit posters have suggested. It strains our ability to do the job well, to get reviews done on time, and to budget Game Front as an effective business. There are plenty of times when we’ll pick up a game and review that purchased copy, but it’s not a sustainable practice for every review, and it doesn’t help readers.