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Why You Should Stop Pre-Ordering Video Games

On Oct. 25, popular games publisher Bethesda announced that it would no longer provide media outlets with review copies of its games more than a day in advance. That means you'll almost never see reviews of titles such as Fallout, Doom and The Elder Scrolls before they're released, forcing you to go in blind should you decide to buy one of those games on day one.

If this type of publisher behavior bothers you, you can help be part of the solution. Just stop pre-ordering video games.

Credit: Northfoto/Shutterstock

(Image credit: Northfoto/Shutterstock)

In all likelihood, Bethesda isn't concerned about reviews because gamers will still buy its games by the truckload. We live in an age when publishers use pre-order bonuses like extra skins and physical knick-knacks to secure your pre-order cash before you've even had time to consider whether a game is really worth your money.

To complicate things even further, publishers such as EA and Microsoft have offered special, pricier "early access" versions of its games that let you jump in before the official release date. Bethesda will let you play its upcoming Dishonored II a day early if you pre-order. But the reality is, you can live without that extra stuff.

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It's worth doing some research on a game you're interested in buying, even if it means not being part of the conversation on day one. Reviews of popular titles will still come eventually, and waiting a few extra days for them could mean the difference between dropping $60 on a game you hate or saving your money.

Plus, with the amount of day-one Twitch streams and YouTube videos available for any new release, you have no excuse not to check out a game in action for yourself and make an informed buying decision. Still, you should also be wary of any coverage that seems rushed in an attempt to drum up traffic.

"If a game starts out well but sputters at the end and critics first write about the early wondrous portion only, consumers may believe all of the game is stellar - if they don't follow up to read the full review," said Harold Goldberg, a freelance games journalist and author who contributes to The Washington Post and The New York Times.

Bethesda's Dishonored 2

Bethesda's Dishonored 2

Naturally, Bethesda's move has a major impact on games media, and few outlets are happy about it.

"Bethesda's policy is certainly press-hostile, but more importantly than that, it's consumer-hostile," said Polygon senior reporter Samit Sarkar. "With no professional written reviews — and thus, no Metacritic score — on launch day, players who are interested in a game would be likely to make purchasing decisions simply by watching game footage."

Citing a Youtuber that got a copy of Skyrim: Special Edition a month early from Bethesda, Sarkar suggests that the publisher would rather send its games to online "influencers" who are less likely to provide negative criticism than to the press. Sadly, it makes sense from a business standpoint, even if it's bad for gamers.

"Why would Bethesda subject itself to the whims of the press when it could work with enthusiast YouTubers/streamers, where the company could be much more assured (if not outright guaranteed) of positive coverage?" said Sarkar.

As a Washington Post contributor, Goldberg isn't obligated to publish reviews as quickly as possible. Still, he worries that these publisher moves will result in "an even more frantic rush to get reviews up... which often results in sloppy writing and theorizing."

"If I were at an online outlet that depends primarily on traffic to survive, I'd be somewhat tooth-grindingly stressed right now," Goldberg added.

Kotaku's Stephen Totilo was also somewhat critical of Bethesda in his piece, but noted that the move won't have a major impact on how the site covers big titles.  

"We prefer covering games after they’re out, anyway," wrote Totilo. "That’s where the players get involved and where things really get interesting."

Of course, there could be small benefits to media reviewing games at the same pace that fans are playing them. These delayed reviews could more accurately reflect the final product, especially when it comes to multiplayer servers (remember The Master Chief Collection debacle?). When you're reading a review of a Bethesda game, it'll likely come from someone who played through it at home, and not at some cushy publisher-hosted review event.

"The only positive outcome I can see from this is that it may lead to more measured, thoughtful video game criticism," said Sarkar. "That's if publications take their time with the games rather than rush to get the first review on Metacritic, of course."

Bethesda's big announcement comes on the eve of its two big fall releases: Skyrim: Special Edition on Oct. 28, and Dishonored II on Nov. 11. They both look great, and it's perfectly okay to be excited for them. But wait for reviews. Wait for substantial impressions videos. Ask a friend. Don't pre-order.

Editor's Note: This post was updated since its original publication with quotes from Polygon's Samit Sarkar.