So I wrote a response to Kotaku’s implication that NDAs are bad, but now I want to move into some new territory – the idea that press embargos are bad or limiting. There is a lot of words out there now, by some Internet famous people like Total Biscuit, who have varying degrees of rage at the idea that a PR company dare tell you when to publish your impressions, interviews, or other things. Some of it is well deserved, some of it probably isn't, but either way that is a discussion for the past - when Steam didn't offer refunds for games that release as massive buggy messes.

Instead of just jumping right into the argument, I think it’s important to note what embargos are first and foremost, how they work, and when they’re leveraged against the media to “control” coverage.

What is an Embargo?

Anytime you work directly with the developers, you’re often working through either an internal public/internal relations department or an external PR company. They coordinate with the development team and stand between the developers and various feet that can fly into their mouths. Like previously mentioned, the idea behind NDAs is to make sure those who aren’t qualified can’t specifically speak about the project, and likewise, the PR division makes sure that expectations are properly managed and the plethora of feet that can land in their mouth don’t.

This is standard practice with any company, video games are not special nor are they an exception. Any major company is going to have someone who manages the company’s line, and that’s their right to do so. Moving on though, the PR division works with the game developers and they often will offer some form of coverage that ranges from previews and reviews to interviews and early game footage, and anything in-between.

Often times they offer these to more than one outlet and often times these are staggered around a week or involve multiple press at once. In the world of online media, the first person to report is often the person who gets the most traffic. So to make things fair, they will often have an informal embargo on the coverage.

Different types of content has different types of embargos for different reasons, but it all mostly plays into this idea that they want to give all of the press a fair shake at releasing their content at the same time, instead of having people race to get to first. So, for instance, one outlet will do an interview on Monday and another outlet will do one on Tuesday, and so on throughout the week, with everyone being allowed to publish on Monday. There is also the risk of spoilers, where either the build you receive is locked to a specific point, or they request that you don't post beyond a specific point until the game is released.

Embargos are often very short, lasting no more than a week, or until the game's launch, and I've mostly just seen them lasting until the next morning 99% of the time outside of for review. There is some rare instances, which we'll discuss below, where game embargos will hold past the launch date. This practice is what upsets players the most, who want to be informed when they purchase the game. We'll talk about that below.

Breaking an embargo is serious business. While you probably won’t be sued, you will get blacklisted rather quickly and news can spread rather fast. Breaking embargos is basically a one way ticket to ban land.

Embargos are not just limited to “don’t post anything,” they’re often “you can post about x up until y happens, at which point we ask you don’t continue to avoid spoiling.”

Control of the Media?

This is generally of no importance to readers, but several years ago the lament for embargos did arrive with Assassin’s Creed Unity, over a specific type of embargo: the review embargo. The review embargo for AC: Unity was set to noon, on November 11th 2014. The game released, as far as I know, at midnight, meaning there was a full 12 hours where game reviewers were unable to speak about their experiences with the game.

The general idea was, understanding that AC: Unity was a bad game, Ubisoft exploited the review writers by delaying when their reviews would be published, thereby allowing 12+ hours of uninterrupted sales without those who have played the game providing their feedback. Polygon, Total Biscuit, etc. all went on major rants, and then began refusing to accept any review copies of any game that had a post-release embargo.

Here is where the reality gets murky. We can assume this is anti-consumer and manipulation of the press, rather easily too since AC: Unity was a bad game at launch, and Ubisoft is still even this year, 2016, committed to fixing it up. We can assume this was done in a nefarious manner to sell as many copies as possible. You could or could not be right, but there remains two issues:

Anyone who purchases a game at 0-hour, without having been able to read a review, is taking on whatever risk that they do, especially in this day and age of digital media.

The works by game developers / publishers are owned solely by them, and they have every right to grant access to their games however they so choose, just like consumers have every right to sit and wait for a game to release.

Now I’m not defending Ubisoft, nor am I defending post-release embargos, which eh I really couldn’t care one way or another, because honestly if you’re going to buy a game day one, you’re probably not going to read a review. If you have a preorder, you’ve already committed to buying the game. Best course of action is just to file a refund on Steam or buy somewhere you can get a refund on. Sure, the practice is a bit inane, but at the same time the consumer has all of the power to or not to buy something. This is just a personal opinion of mine, and I completely respect any other opinion than that.

However, I will say that it’s their right to give access to their product however they choose and the day to day impact of embargos is meaningless outside of the press, especially when some outlets are either notorious for breaking embargos and all that does is burn out other outlets and limit opinion to just that outlet.

Oh and yeah, since this is America, if embargos bother you, or someone tries to do a post-release embargo, you can just not buy their products anymore. This is a much older subject now that you can get a refund on Steam.

For anyone out there, please don’t pre-order unless you absolutely have to. Most of the time, you still get the goodies from pre-orders even a week or two after buying it and honestly, it’s better to sit and watch the first 10 to 20 minutes of gameplay or the Twitch streams of people who load it seconds after it goes live than it is to wait on reviews, anyway.

That’s probably going to be the next articles – why reviews are dumb and should be glorified editorials.


So, it wouldn’t be fair to talk about this without noting ways that the system could improve. I’m not specifically sure how to improve a system of trust and gentlemanly agreements. Access before release dates is restricted to how the content owners want to release it, so they can do so with whatever restrictions they desire. Giving specific outlets first access or first to release content makes those scheduled later waste their time to write up anything, since the information is already out. Not putting an embargo on a review copy given several weeks from launch can spoil the entire game.

I’m not sure what to do or what to change. I feel as if embargos rarely impact my specific coverage of games, and most of the time I don’t even have time to write about an interview before the embargo pops and I’m very, very, very insistent on playing a game a ton before I even review it, so I probably wouldn’t even post the review until days after launch anyway.

That’s maybe something you can answer, if you so desire, in the comments below.

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Last Updated: Mar 20, 2016

About The Author

Get in the bush with David "Xerin" Piner as he leverages his spectacular insanity to ask the serious questions such as is Master Yi and Illidan the same person? What's for dinner? What are ways to elevate your gaming experience? David's column, Respawn, is updated near daily with some of the coolest things you'll read online, while David tackles ways to improve the game experience across the board with various hype guides to cool games.