The Truth About Embargoes

As a preface to this article, I should probably give a bit of info on my own background. I’ve been a professional games critic/journalist/whatever for close to 7 years now, having started as staff writer on gamesTM magazine, then games editor on the same publication, before moving across to take charge of 360 mag and then leaving a couple of years later to pursue a career in the freelance game.

In that time, the concept of embargoes has become a prevalent part of how the games industry is covered in the media. It’s a term that’s now common parlance among readers as well as writers and editors, and waiting for an embargo drop for a review is all part of the dance for both sides of the fence.

Embargoes themselves come in two forms. Some are strict NDAs, contracts that are signed by both outlet and publisher and if broken, can have serious legal ramifications. These aren’t new, and have been a part of the industry as long as I can remember – they’re part and parcel of seeing games during development and absolutely a necessary device.

Others are gentleman’s agreements, where nothing legal is at stake but more a request that nothing is published before a given date. These are adhered by the major outlets out of both respect for the publisher and respect for the competition. It’s an asshole move to break one, as it might mean a few more copy sales or hits in the short term, but it screws over a tonne of people, causes all sorts of grief with other outlets, and more than likely means that publisher won’t work with the embargo-breaker again, or certainly won’t be keen to.

Review embargoes make sense for all involved. Publishers get the maximum exposure for their product around the time it’s released, sites get a fair shake at coverage, and the readers get to know whether or not they should buy whatever’s coming out that weekend. They’re not the problem. Occasionally outlets get code late, or a game needs longer in the cooker than the embargo date allows, so good sites compensate for that by running a review late or explaining that the current review will be updated. That’s just good adaptation – all stuff that’s beneficial for the reader.

The only real problem with embargoes comes from preview coverage. Having early access to games in development is a huge boon for games journos and a massive part of both the editorial side and the publishing world. Often a publisher will hold an event to announce their game or show it off, and give a date that coverage must not appear before. Again, not a problem.

The issue here lies in how many outlets handle this. Far too often, almost every site will post their coverage at exactly the same time, meaning the publishers effectively get a takeover of the entire internet that comes completely out of the blue (as far as readers are concerned), and is tough to discern from advertising, such is the sudden omnipresence of the game’s name and imagery . Of course this makes sense for the publishers, and it also makes sense for outlets to want their coverage up no later than their competitors, but it produces a distorted, almost-manufactured schedule that I can’t see as beneficial to the consumer.

So I’m absolutely not advocating breaking embargoes. But at some point, preview coverage is going to become stale unless outlets start taking back their own editorial schedules and delivering previews after embargoes, perhaps turning them into fully-fledged features or propping them up with follow up Q+As. The best outlets, print and online, already do this, and I’m sure they’re benefitting massively by crafting true exclusive content.

Ultimately, it’s the readers who’ll benefit in the long run. And without readers, none of the rest of this game even exists.