Off the back of the critical and commercial success of DOOM, Bethesda have formally announced their intention to continue with a policy of providing media outlets with review copies no earlier than 24 hours in advance.
Their announcement (which quite tellingly offers no justification for the change other than “the game sold a shitload of copies, so fuck you”) is being met with no small amount of criticism from games media who have correctly labelled it as anti-consumer.
That’s not the issue. Of course it’s anti-consumer. It’s difficult to think of something more anti-consumer than to proudly brag about how your game is 100 hours long or needs to be played twice to be properly understood, while simultaneously doing everything possible to make customers pre-order a year in advance and to prevent media outlets from reporting on any possible shortcomings until it’s too late.
The problem is not that it is anti-consumer; the problem is that the industry as a whole is anti-consumer. It has been for a long time, and Bethesda’s formalisation of that anti-consumer position is doing for the games industry what Trump’s racism did for the Republican party: scandalising the establishment by saying out loud the racist things that were previously only conveyed through polite smiles and racist policy*.
Bethesda is saying out loud what every major publisher knows and what many publishers already put into practice: they don’t need the games media. Shit, Rockstar have been doing this for years. You can count on one hand the amount of outlets that were graciously granted a preview of Grand Theft Auto 5, or an interview with the developer.
Rockstar treats the games media like shit and the media plasters on a fake smile and deals with it because they don’t have a choice, because no amount of (accurate) condemnation of the game’s misogyny or violence will ever be enough to change the reality that the people want to fuckin’ read about GTA, they’re filthy for it, they’re dislocating their jaws to swallow it whole and digest it somewhere in a cave for the winter. The game sold a jillion fucking copies, man. The Rockstar CEO lives in a gold penis on the moon.
The last five years have seen an explosion of popularity in online content creators and an unprecedented closing of the gap between publisher and consumer. There was once a time when publishers needed the press because the press controlled the infrastructure of communication – if you wanted to reach the consumer, you needed to play nice with the press. The press would Review Your Art and tell the masses if it was worth their wages.
Fast forward to 2016. Everyone and everything is batshit insane. Consumers are explicitly rooting for uncritical coverage of games, and attacking the press for hurting the feelings of AAA publishers by criticising their work. Massive multinational corporations are using social media to dress themselves up as relatable people and banter with other brands, engaging with consumers directly and securing another pre-order with every enthusiastic @.
The magic trick that we in the games media performed was to convince ourselves that because the publisher-press-consumer pipeline existed, that it was always meant to exist. We didn’t want to see it for what it was: an aberration without precedent, a compromise position only adhered to as long as necessary until it was possible to bypass it entirely and return to the pure end-state of capitalism where there are no barriers between your wallet and the CEO’s mouth.
For a long time, we in the games media thought of ourselves as the majestic Sphinx, guarding the villages from the monsters in the dark, forcing them to solve our stupid riddles and eating them alive if they failed. It’s a comforting thought, and it’s certainly more comforting than the alternative, which is finding the nearest cupboard and screaming into it until you pass out. The villagers are mad at you, you are hurting the monsters feelings, you are bias, I’m going to buy a tiny plastic statue of the monster for $100 and put it on my shelf with the rest of them and film a YouTube video where I explain why the Sphinx is a social justice warrior who should stop making everything political.
Ah, but games are Art, and Art needs critics! Sure, but AAArt that is created to produce a profit for shareholders has only one critic that really matters at the end of the day, and we games journalists are kidding ourselves if we think it’s us.
The magic trick that games publishers performed was to make the barrier between them and the consumer disappear, to make the consumer buy wholesale into that shared identity, look how relatable I am, I’m just like you, Joe Gamer, we’re exactly the same – are you amped for Military Shooter 12? Hammer that mf RT button or you’ll hurt my feelings! Let me set you up with a Twitch stream, here’s a free merch bag, get the shirt, thanks for being our brand ambassador, we’re all in this together, by gamers for gamers, us gamers.
There is no going back and there is no reason to go back, the consumer wants this, the consumer is the reviewer, did you see the Steam numbers? This is the world we live in, this is the world that games media must adjust to. The next magic trick that games media must perform is to avoid becoming fixated on how to deal with Bethesda and instead figure out how to survive when every other major publisher follows their lead.
The games industry is built on exploitation at every end, whether it’s the underpaid labourers in Asia whose poor standards of living make the game consoles affordable, or the massive 500-strong office of QA workers in the global south who get paid less than a third of their northern hemisphere colleagues, or the northern hemisphere colleagues who work a 70-hour week while getting paid for a 40-hour one and are discouraged from unionising but hey, it’s okay, we have an in-house gym! Wow!
Like our pal Sonic the Hedgehog says, there is no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism.
Bethesda is turning heads because they’ve got the gall to say what has always been true: they want to make money. They want to make a lot of money, and they can make more money if they stop answering the Sphinx’s riddles. This is late-stage capitalism, this is the world we live in. They’re not doing anything wrong, they’re just better at playing the game than we are.
*If you’ve come here from my Twitter feed then you may note that this paragraph has been edited since I first posted that excerpted screenshot online. The edit was made within minutes of the article going live. It was pointed out to me this could read as an assertion that Bethesda, like Trump, are horrific racists – needless to say I do not, in any way, believe or suggest this.