Prey: is Bethesda’s review policy really to blame?

Prey launched to mixed success in the UK last Friday. Despite making it to No.2 in the UK charts, it was still pipped to the post by Nintendo’s Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, which enjoyed its second week at No.1 after its Switch release on April 28th.

It’s not a great start for a brand-new game, but having seen Prey’s boxed sales figures, it’s actually a lot worse than it seems. Despite launching in a quiet week with no other big triple-A releases, sales for Arkane’s sci-fi action title were 60 per cent down on the opening week of the studio’s previous game, Dishonored, which itself was 38 per cent down on the original Dishonored.

While many consider the first Dishonored to be quite a niche title even by today’s standards, it was still the UK’s biggest original launch in 2012 and the 24th best-selling boxed game in the UK that year. Prey, on the other hand, doesn’t look like it will be achieving anything of the sort – at least at retail.

Of course, a lot’s changed in the games industry since 2012, not least Bethesda’s decision last year to stop providing early review code to the worldwide gaming press. As you may well remember, Bethesda changed its game review policy in October 2016, stating that review code will now only be sent out a day before a game’s release.

"While we will continue to work with media, streamers, and YouTubers to support their coverage – both before and after release – we want everyone, including those in the media, to experience our games at the same time," Bethesda’s associate director Gary Steinman said at the time.

Unsurprisingly, several members of the media were up in arms about the decision, labelling it anti-consumer and bad for business. Others went even further, saying it simply sounded like an excuse to prevent reviewers from kicking off about any bugs or problems before a game’s Day One patch.

Reviews, of course, play a key role in helping consumers decide whether to buy a game or not, and the inability to prepare reviews for launch day will obviously have some sort of effect on Day One sales. Indeed, there was much pointing of fingers when Dishonored 2 failed to meet expectations back in November, although the fact it launched weeks before Black Friday in one of the busiest months in recent memory obviously didn’t help things either. However, I’m not sure the lack of Day One reviews for Prey is entirely to blame for its underwhelming debut in this case.

In an unusual move, Bethesda decided to release a 60-minute demo for Prey on April 27th, letting players experience the game’s opening hour over a week before general release. Admittedly, an hour of gameplay doesn’t seem particularly substantial in the face of other game demos we’ve seen recently, such as Final Fantasy XV’s meaty Episode Duscae or EA’s ten-hour preview of Mass Effect Andromdea for Access subscribers, but the fact the publisher released one at all speaks volumes about its confidence in the game and how little significance it places on the traditional review cycle.

Indeed, when MCV spoke to the developers of some of 2016’s biggest demos earlier in the year, they all spoke about wanting players to be able to see how great their game was first-hand, and the easiest way to do that was to release a demo that everyone could play, rather than a select group of journalists.

Of course, we still don’t know exactly whether those who played the demos for Final Fantasy XV, Resident Evil VII, Nier: Automata or Tales of Berseria then went on to buy the game. However, given each title’s subsequent success, it’s not too much of a stretch to say it’s likely the demos had a positive impact on each game’s respective sales.

Bethesda has done well to market Prey as ‘Bioshock in space’ rather than emphasise its relation to System Shock, but is Arkane’s clever take on the FPS really what console gamers want?

Perhaps Bethesda hoped the same thing would happen with Prey – that the hour-long demo would be enough to convince players to part with their money straight away rather than wait for reviews to hit. It doesn’t look like it’s had the desired effect on consoles, though, and it only adds more fuel to the fire over Bethesda’s controversial review policy. An underwhelming demo plus no Day One reviews and little hype before release is bound to have a knock-on effect on Week One sales.

Even if the demo had done the business for Bethesda, though, there’s also the question about the enduring appeal of immersive sims, a genre that both Prey and the Dishonored series owe a great debt to. Traditionally, it’s a genre that’s lived primarily on PCs rather than consoles, and it may simply be the case that console owners just aren’t interested, which may be why the demo failed to translate into extra sales. After all, we don’t yet know what Prey’s official digital sales are like, and if it’s anything close to SteamSpy’s reported ownership figure of 150,000 worldwide, then there’s clearly a much healthier appetite for it outside of the boxed retail space. It’s also the second-best selling game on Steam right now, with only PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds standing in the way of the top spot.

So it’s not all bad news for Prey’s sales figures, but a lack of reviews and a general ambivalence toward the game’s demo obviously haven’t helped. It will be interesting to see whether sales pick up next week now that more reviews are starting to land, but in the mean time, perhaps it’s time Bethesda took another look at its review policy.

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