Behind the Curtain: How Game Reviews Work
When review copies are forthcoming — which they often are, but not always — the lead time on a review can vary drastically. Sometimes, games are available for weeks ahead of release, such as with Saints Row IV. Other times, a copy will show up the Friday before release, or even later, which can lead to a sprint through the game in interest of meeting embargo.
In Game Front’s case, we tend to try to let reviews take as long as they need in order to ensure quality, but this is often easier said than done. As mentioned, the maximum value for readers and for the site is to post a review at its embargo date and time, and letting a review languish too much diminishes its worth for everyone.
That can mean some concerted efforts and sometimes even all-nighters pulled in attempts to get reviews done on time. Other, much rarer cases result in writers going to “review events.” In fact, Devin Connors attended a review event for Battlefield 4, and Alex Rubens attended one for Call of Duty: Ghosts. The ins and outs of such events are sometimes complex, but they mostly amount to writers going to a specific place and spending several days with the game — and nothing else.
Review events have their uses, such as in testing multiplayer, where there’s a captive audience to fill servers; it’s often tough to review multiplayer before release because there just aren’t enough people playing. Those events also have their own idiosyncrasies, though, because playing with a developer close at hand is much different from playing alone in your living room, where there’s no ready assistance.
Such events are rare, however (probably because they’re in no way practical for any but the largest publishers from a cost standpoint). Much more often, it’s a Steam code, a review build, or just a retail copy of the game when it’s available.
Every review published potentially has repercussions attached to it. There have been scenarios in which certain publishers and developers seemed to be a bit icier to Game Front after receiving what was perceived as a low score on a particular game (even if that game’s score really wasn’t that low). Mostly, though, it’s business as usual, because every company is on to its next project, just as Game Front is on to its next review after each is finished.
Usually, PR employees and journalists have solid working relationships, and understand one another, but without interfering with one another beyond setting up coverage opportunities (you’ll almost always set up an appointment through PR for an interview, for example), scheduling review copies, providing information or press releases, and setting embargoes. Personally, I’ve been doing this for better than four years now at Game Front, and longer at other publications, and I’ve never been hassled by anyone, in any industry, over my coverage.
What doesn’t happen, almost exclusively, is any kind of definitive meddling with or pressure about a review score, either positive or negative. That’s not to say there aren’t subtle psychological probes toward the positive side of the scale — sometimes, though not often for writers at Game Front, a review copy will come with extra “swag,” like t-shirts. That stuff either gets given away or winds up in a closet somewhere at Defy Media.
And while some readers refuse to believe it, money never changes hands for positive reviews, for the same reason that overt negative pressure is rarely, if ever, used — there’s no way to keep it a secret, for one, and it’s completely impractical, for two. A positive review at Game Front just isn’t worth that much on its own to any given publisher; the same is likely true for any outlet you could name, especially in the age of Metacritic. What’s more, bullying any outlet with threats for a negative score is just begging to be outed to the audience, and the same is true for paying for reviews. Whistleblowers exist, and if these things were happening as often as some people think, you’d hear more about it from journalists. Apart from the ethics of the situation, there’s a lot to be gained in breaking the huge story of how EA or Activision paid for positive reviews, and the watchdog capacity of the press would come into play.
Any questions? If you’d like to know more about what we do here at Game Front and how it all works, let us know in the comments.