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28Jul/105

Who’s really hurt by Starcraft II’s review-free launch?

Rating PendingAs I begin writing this, Starcraft II has been out for over a day and has exactly one review listed on GameRankings.

This is practically unprecedented for a major, modern video game release. Mass Effect 2 had 27 online reviews listed on GameRankings by its Jan. 26 release date. Curious Super Mario Galaxy 2 shoppers had at least 15 different opinions guiding them on launch day. Even reclusive Rockstar Games allowed 11 reviews of Red Dead Redemption to leak out in time for that game's release. You get the idea.

Of course, the lack of release day reviews for the latest Starcraft was by design on Blizzard's part. While journalists have had access to the multiplayer beta since February, they only got access to the final retail build of the single-player campaign when the battle.net servers were turned on for consumers yesterday. Blizzard isn't officially commenting on the move, but Eurogamer's on-background sources have them comfortable enough to say "the new Battle.net service and its online features are so integral to the game that it would be both impractical and undesirable for press to review it before servers go live." Of course that doesn't fully explain why journalists couldn't have access to those servers a little earlier than consumers, but it is what it is.

As it stands, dozens of critics are doubtless currently dashing through their copies of Starcraft II, rushing to put together some coherent impressions before the launch-window attention dries up (and before competitors get their reviews into the vacuum). Quite a few sites felt the need to specifically mention the lack of early review access, perhaps none more amusingly than Rock Paper Shotgun. IGN was almost apologetic about it: "The goal is to get you a review as quickly as possible, but we'll also be taking to time to see all there is to see in StarCraft II. Because of that, there's no specific date when the review might show up. We are working on it, though, so don't think we've forgotten about what's arguably the biggest game of the year."

It seems obvious why this isn't an ideal state of affairs for everyone involved. Gamers who want to buy the game on release day will essentially be going in blind, basing their purchase decisions on previews and a prequel that was released 11 years ago. Blizzard will be losing out on media attention and consumer mindshare that launch day reviews generate. And critics, of course, lose out on all the Google traffic surrounding the game's launch, which will likely never be higher than it is on release day.

But maybe these negatives aren't really negatives. After all, reviews obviously aren't very important to the more than 800,000 people that pre-ordered the game without reading a single "10 out of 10." And analysts are already predicting the game will sell 7 million units over its lifetime, suggesting Blizzard won't be paying any significant long term price for the small dip in release day media attention. As for the critics... well, they kind of get the short end of the stick here, don't they?

When you think about it, it's kind of surprising that publishers let reviewers have early access to any big name releases. Starcraft II's impressive pre-order numbers seem to show that, absent any first day reviews, consumers are comfortable coming out in droves for a game (and a developer) that has a sufficiently impressive pedigree.

Now think about how the equation changes if reviews are available on day one. If the reviews are good (as they almost always are for such big-franchise releases), it will just confirm consumers' expectations and probably not lead to a significant bump in launch day sales. But if the reviews are somehow worse than expected, potential first-day purchasers might hesitate, holding their money until they get confirmation from a friend, or even moving on to another game entirely.

For smaller games, the risk of bad early reviews is worth the opportunity to capture more media attention and consumer mindshare. But for the biggest titles, where consumer mindshare is already saturated by release day, surely the potential risks outweigh the potential rewards.

There's a reason film studios increasingly don't allow early press screenings of some of their most heavily marketed movies -- they want to buy their way into a decent opening weekend before the critical world (and word of mouth) potentially breaks the marketing bubble they've created. I'm increasingly afraid that Starcraft II's review-free launch will prove that the same strategy now makes sense for the video game market as well.

Comments (5) Trackbacks (1)
  1. Hmm, on one hand, you may be right. On the other hand…

    So much of the conversation about games has moved away from reviews. People hear about this stuff through podcasts, blogs and twitter. I question the continuing usefulness of having an authoritative voice who plays the game first before anyone else and then writes up their opinion, with an official and final score ready to be aggregated. People want to have that human connection to the critic now, to get their opinions in a more casual way that also comes with valuable context about what sort of things define their taste in games. Now that reviewers are playing the game at the same time as it’s on sale, people are getting their immediate, unfiltered opinions through all these other channels during the actual launch window, rather than before it.

    It also takes away some of the power that Blizzard/Activision might have over the publication. They can’t hold their early access hostage in exchange for scores or anything else when no one gets early access. Watching all these publications wait until they actually play and finish the game engenders trust (or, if they screw up and put an early review out as some places have done, it confirms suspicions.) And it levels the playing field for independent sites that don’t have access to early review material.

  2. I’m secretly hoping that SCII is one big flop. Then I can point and laugh at 800,000+ people who preordered a single game at outrageous prices without having even looked at a single review of the game beforehand.

  3. @Secretly Hoping. . . have you read reviews that are now out? I don’t see your pathetic wish coming true. Outrageous prices? If they were so outrageous, people wouldn’t pay for it. And the beta was out for a long time for people to try it out, so they didn’t exactly go in blind.

  4. I think that reviews are highly overrated. At least for two kinds of people – gamers who play a lot and people who play occasionaly. I play my whole life and I can assess the quality of a game by simply looking on some screenshots, videos and reading a little about the game features for say 90% of releases (almost all games use same gameplay concepts, differ in how they mix them together only). The last 10% are weird games which can be good but won’t have marketing success anyway, so reviews don’t matter for them. For occasional players on the other hand quality means graphics – and they can see that from screenshots and videos too.

    I am not saying that reviews are worthless, I like to read pros and cons gamespot-style, get amused by RPS etc. (but I am a nerd). What I am saying is that game’s market success does not depend on reviews, but more on other ways of marketing.

  5. Guys, it’s pretty obvious to old school Blizzard games-players that Battle.net 2.0 is dumb. There have been a lot of complaints about the lack of chat channels and communication between non-friends, as well as the two-tiered friend list in which the RealID broadcasts your Real Name to your RealID friends as well as THEIR friends.
    Also of note is a lack of LAN play; you must be connected to Blizzard’s servers to play the game. This is nothing new in terms of games made in the last couple years; however it, as well as the anonymity in chat function, worked fine for many players of Starcraft and Diablo II and Warcraft III in Battle.net 1.0.

    Essentially, many players see it as Blizzard dropping what was the perfect model for the entanglements with Facebook and the all-important moneymaker of tracking users while not facilitating communication without a payback – that of less security. I don’t want to give my name to other people, especially when it might be used to track my whereabouts in other internet spheres of influence.. information that Blizzard is free to sell to partners.
    All of this may or may not have to do with Blizzard being ‘acquired’ by Activision/Vivendi a couple years back. Many of the fans, as do I, feel that the ‘old’ Blizzard would not have considered such social-networking-data-mining moves back when they were independent and churning out the best damn games in the business.

    Once you get past the ‘integral’ features of their ‘new battle.net service’, the game itself is beautiful and well-played. It is everything we desire from Blizzard in a new Starcraft title.. but pouring money into Battle.net to turn gold into crap is angering a lot of the fanbase. And for good reason.


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