Are Release-Day Reviews Still Necessary?

The other seminar I attended at GDC was called “How Games Are Reviewed.” I don’t recall the name of the speaker, but he had spent six years at IGN and now works for a market-research firm, so he’s got some cred. One of his major talking points was about the speed of reviews, about outlets working hard to get reviews out to the public on release day, to which I thought: Why bother?

Yes, I actually own this magazine

A quarter of a century ago (am I really that old?), I had one source for my video game news: Nintendo Power magazine. The only way I’d learn about the new Zelda or Mario game was via that bi-monthly, and later monthly, outlet. NP didn’t do reviews, of course, being a house organ for Nintendo, but suppose that it did. Even when more magazines, like PC Gamer or EGM, hit the scene in the ’90s, the Internet was still fairly young, and video game manufacturers hadn’t figured out how to fully leverage it for PR purposes. Facebook, Twitter, and the entire concept of “blogs” were still years away.

When a review was published, it was the do-all and end-all of video game coverage. You might have read about the game beforehand, but here was the first (and maybe only) hands-on, no-doubt-about-it look at the game. And without social media or websites like Metacritic, your ability to find other viewpoints was mostly limited to a few local friends, many of whom might not have played the game, or maybe chat rooms, BBSes, or other various “Internet friends.”

It’s easy to see that this is no longer the case. For months, or in some cases years, prior to its release, we’re deluged with information about a game. There are a million places you can learn about it online, starting with a very shiny official webpage, and extending into any number of social media outlets, both official and personal. You can find the game discussed on professional media websites, personal blogs, TV shows, and at conventions. In some cases, you can even try it out for yourself, via betas or downloadable demos.

With all that available, what’s the point of a release-day review any more? Why should a writer kill himself to provide up-to-the-minute info on a game that not only has already been covered extensively but has maybe even been played by a large portion of its potential audience?

Take a recent well-known game like Mass Effect 3. One of three things were true about you: You were going to buy it on release day, you were not going to buy it on release day, or you were up in the air about whether to buy it on release day. In the first two cases, reviews were irrelevant; you’d already made up your mind, and you’d probably made it up based on that vast repository of information regarding the game that I talked about earlier. If you’re in that third category, how did you make your final decision? Was it by reading a professional review? Or was it by talking to friends, watching videos on YouTube, or scanning through user comments and reviews on various sites?

These days, the real reason these reviews go up the same day of a game’s release is probably to generate page views and provide reinforcement rather than to actually inform. If you think a game was great, you’d probably like to read a positive review, and vice versa if you think a game is lousy. And, naturally, some people want to troll the comments section on a review that’s opposite to their opinion.

I'll review it as soon as I'm done, I swear!

And then there’s the question of how comprehensive a release-day review can be in the first place. The GDC speaker used Mass Effect 3 as an example of a game that can be “beaten,” and so could be fairly usefully reviewed after beating the main content, but then brought up Tetris and World of Warcraft as games that you’ll never really “finish.” With more and more games falling into that “uncompleteable” territory — not to mention the difficulty in properly experiencing a multi-player game before its launch — the usefulness of release-day reviews is even more questionable.

As for me, I don’t think I’ve read a professional, release-day review of a game in years. Not that professional reviewers can’t do a good job of it, but I’m more inclined to see what the masses think and go from there. Even more often, I tend to find myself in one of the definitely going to/not going to buy on release day camps rather than the “maybe” camps because of all that information that’s already out there by the time a game launches. I’m going to buy Guild Wars 2 as soon as it’s available for purchase; that’s a decision I’ve already made, and I’d wager most of you have already made your decision on that title, one way or another. For other games, I might read a review a ways down the road if I’m looking at picking it up a few months after its release, but, for me at least, release-day reviews just don’t serve much purpose.

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5 Responses to Are Release-Day Reviews Still Necessary?

  1. Tramell says:

    I’d like to think launch day reviews aren’t necessary but for most sites, they do it for the page views etc.. like you mentioned.

    Most reviews these days manage to give an overall impression of a game with one or two pros and cons. I’d rather just play the game myself in that case to form my own opinion. You’re right in saying that if someone takes an interest in a game there will be plenty of information to allow them to make a purchasing decision without a review.

    Can always try to get a bit creative with reviews. One of the ideas I’ve been playing around with in my head has been to try to do roundtables or write a review with more than one person opinion on a given topic. To break away from that checklist review.

    Do you think something like that will work?

    • jasonwinter says:

      When I was with a magazine, and we obviously couldn’t do real time-sensitive stuff, I always tried to encourage non-traditional thinking for coverage of new stuff. We did have a pro/con thing (not review-related) going for a while, so I think your idea has some merit.

  2. Westen says:

    I think with sequels, you are definitely right, release day reviews are kind of unnecessary and no one really needs them, it’s all for page views.

    However, for new IPs or if a series is undergoing a change of some sort, I definitely have based several last second decisions on these reviews. I love the Halo series as an example, but I will definitely be hoping for some pre-release reviews to see if any changes the new developers made are positive, or if it is largely a “more of the same” type experience.

  3. thevghole says:

    Interesting post, I’m not too sure where i stand myself.
    I suppose they serve a purpose to people who trust the website, magazine or author and are sitting on the fence about titles. They are interested in purchasing the game on release date but perhaps don’t trust their friends opinions and would rather hear from a source they trust.
    I imagine it’s a rather small demographic though.
    If you ever get a chance come check out my blog, it’s totally unrelated but worth a look

  4. Do we need release-day reviews? Of course not. Anyone cautious enough to feel reading a review as necessary can wait a week or two.

    But that’s the world we live in now. Everything’s “go, go, go, now, now, now.” If a site or publication waits and takes its time with a review, even if the resulting review is much better than those of its competitors, people are just going to be thinking, “lol, those newbs at Made-Up Game Site waited a whole week to review ME3.” It wouldn’t look good.

    Maybe I’m just over-cautious, but I still wait for reviews (and hopefully demos) before making a lot of game-purchasing decisions, unless it’s a franchise I already have a lot of fondness for. I know I’m going to buy WoW: Mists of DrunkenPandaLand, but — despite how excited I am about it — I’m not buying Guild Wars 2 without reading some reviews and probably also playing it somehow — be it through beta or free trial. It’s too much of an unknown factor for me. It sounds like a good game, but the Phantom Menace sounded like a good movie.

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