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Let's talk about gaming review embargoes!

Pablo Romero art added to scare off the SJWs
With the wave of The Last of Us 2 reviews coming in, gamers are starting to see the words "review embargo" being thrown around. As with all things on social media, most of the facts about review embargoes are being buried under an avalanche of conspiracy theories and general misunderstandings as to just what a review embargo is and why they exist in the first place. Before I get into it, I would like to point you all to this video by the late John Bain AKA TotalBiscuit on the subject. It is almost 24 minutes and a bit outdated but still holds up pretty well.

What are review embargoes?
I have seen a lot of people use NDA and review embargo interchangeably and this is a complete misunderstanding of what these two things actually are. NDAs or Non Disclosure Agreements are legal documents that carry actual legal penalties should you break them. Review embargoes are simple informal agreements between two parties(Gaming outlet and gaming company or PR representative) that are not legally enforceable. I've signed several NDAs in my life, mostly to ensure I wouldn't discuss a video game or TV show I working on before it was released. I've also agreed to many review embargoes when receiving review copies/codes, but was never required to sign an NDA as part of the review embargo.

Now, the exact conditions in a review embargo differ from game to game but they almost always include an embargo date and time for when you are allowed to publish your review. The best review embargoes are the ones that are just embargo dates and times as they allow you to freely discuss a game and show whatever footage or pictures you can capture from the game. The worst embargoes limit your ability to discuss or document certain aspects of the gameplay or story. These are done to "avoid spoilers" which usually means the information that is under embargo will likely piss off the audience and lead to lower sales. Review embargoes with embargo dates set after the game has been released are very rare but are almost a sure sign the game is garbage and the company wants to hide as much information from the general public as possible.

Are review embargoes good?
This is a complicated question but I am going to say they are good in theory. You see, the idea behind a review embargo is to give all outlets access to a game for a set amount of time before they can release a review. This ensures that no one is rushing out half ass reviews full of misinformation or factual errors just to be the first one out of the gate. Review embargoes are suppose to level the playing field so that all gaming outlets have a fair chance to have their review seen by the general public which forces gaming outlets to rely on better written and more in depth reviews to stand out amongst their peers. In a perfect world consumers would be getting better reviews and be better informed on the things they are dropping $60 a pop on.

Reality is far crueler than the ideal world we envision and review embargoes actually don't level the playing field at all. In fact, the playing field is only made more lopsided due to review embargoes. Not every outlet is given a review code(despite review codes costing video game companies $0 they limit the amount of codes available for review) or review copy so the review embargo system has descended into an access media type of situation. Being friends with the right people or associating with the right crowd can net you a review code for a game your outlet wouldn't have otherwise received. Traffic will then be driven to your site helping your outlet to grow and killing the competition. Consumers then have to deal with reviews that are less than honest or skewed in favor of the game as the reviewer consciously or unconsciously takes it easy on the game as a thank you for the unearned review code.

As I said previously, not every outlet gets a review code or copy. This means that outlets who do not receive one have to either put in more work to create a review that really stands out or, as many do, rush out a sloppy mess that conforms to what other outlets have already said. It also creates the idea that you need to play ball with companies to continue to receive review codes and copies. After all, you can clearly see what happens when you don't get a review out alongside the others when an embargo drops so you would never risk being part of that "out" crowd. Consumers are once again denied proper video game reviews due to the review embargo system making it far more profitable for gaming outlets to remain involved in it.

So, what can be done?
This is a bit tough to answer as it would require everyone who consumes gaming related content to work together. We would all have to stop pre-ordering games, consuming any articles discussing pre-order content, and no longer buy games on release day. I can already see how that is never going to happen. The only real thing gamers can do to try to make the embargo review system better is to demand gaming outlets reveal ALL embargo details for every embargo agreement they make. It is no longer enough to simply know that a gaming outlet has received a review code or copy but gamers and consumers should be told upfront BEFORE the review exactly what they agreed to in order to receive said review copy or code. So, it is my pledge as owner of The Geek Getaway to do just that and I hope other outlets will follow suit. More information can only help consumers and at the end of the day, that is what this gaming outlet strives to do.