What’s a review embargo?

If you have been following game reviews for a while, you might have noticed they all tend to release at the same exact time. Moreover, you might have heard this is due to a “review embargo” that prevents critics from talking about a game before a certain date.

In this article I’ll explain what those review embargos are and how they work.

AGREEMENT

A review embargo is an agreement by which a publication may not discuss a game before a certain date. For example, a critic might agree not to publish a review before the day of release or before a big announcement at E3, Essen or Gamescom.

Review embargoes are used for two reasons. The first is to ensure critics have enough time to play the game and share their thoughts on them without the pressure of racing to be the first. After all, reviews are good publicity for a game and having reviewers rush to be the first in the market will make them all worse.

The second is so publishers can send review copies without fears of their game being spoiled or leaked before it’s even out. Game sales are heavily frontloaded, most of them taking place in the very first weeks of release so keeping expectations high is a huge priority for publishers.

Most embargoes are not binding. The publisher simply trusts the reviewer not to disclose information and critics follow through. Large releases, especially in video games, may require the signing of a “non-disclosure agreement”, a legal document that places a burden on disclosing information, but most embargoes rely on the professionality of the parts involved.

BREAKING THE EMBARGO

Now, a critic could break the embargo and release information about the game before the agreed date. However, there’s not much of a reason to do it. Publishing a review of a game a few days earlier has no journalistic value, your assessment of a game will be the same as if you published it later. The only advantage of breaking the embargo is to try and be the first to the market, which only works once and makes you look poorly in the eyes of other critics and publishers.

Truth to be told, breaking an embargo ensures the publisher will never work with you again. You can count on not being sent review copies nor awarded interviews. Having a professional relationship with a publisher is more valuable than not having to wait. Either way, critics shouldn’t comment on hearsay, rumours or leaks and leaks you make yourself are no exception.

Now, it is possible for embargos to include clauses that are unfair. For example, some publishers try to abuse the system by setting earlier dates for some outlets than others. This way, the publisher can choose who reaps the benefits of being first to the market and, hence, get the most traffic. These outlets are the most likely to be favourable in their coverage, the implication being that you’ll get an advantage over others if you push scores up.

Similarly, some embargos prevent critics from talking openly about the games they review. Recently, Sony forbade critics from discussing many details of The Last of Us Part II, including the fate of any character and any “pivotal narratives”. While these limitations are lifted after release, publishers dictating what reviewers should or should not mention in their articles is a threat to their independence.

FAIR CRITICISM

Critics are responsible for rejecting any sort of pressure that could compromise their coverage. Agreeing to the kind of conditions listed above puts a serious constraint over your work and may put your integrity into question. But the fact is, anyone who did not agree to those conditions, wasn’t covering the biggest game of the year until everyone else does. Game journalism isn’t well-paid work and independence has a steep price.

Thankfully, most publishers do not try to manipulate reviews. In fact, you don’t tend to hear much from publishers beyond “here’s the code”, “please send me your address” and “link me to your review when it’s done”. Most critics share their thoughts freely, whether they were under embargo or not, and while potential pressure may linger in their mind, they do not bow to it.

In fact, the most common complaint critics have about embargoes is not publisher influence, but them being too short. Too often critics are sent 60 or 80 hour games with an embargo date of just one week. Working double shifts just to be able to meet the deadline is a terrible working experience.

Embargos can be a net positive for all stakeholders. They help publishers keep information contained before release, give critics an easier time reviewing games and the audience can better inform itself when they are most likely to make a purchase. Done well, they make the medium, and our reviews, better. But, like all aspects of our work, there might be potential pitfalls. We must seek to provide the best coverage possible while avoiding possible conflicts.

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