The Broken Age Embargo Is A Bit Of A Joke

Update: Common sense has prevailed, and Double Fine have decided to drop the embargo. Full email update at the bottom of the article.

Double Fine’s Kickstarter rippled throughout the industry when in February 2012 they managed to raise a big boatload of money in order to develop a traditional 2D point & click adventure (At the time only known as “Double Fine Adventure”), and to finance a documentary of the development process. They asked for $400,000, but ended up receiving more than eight times that.

Development on the first of two chapters of what is now known as “Broken Age” is basically complete, and as originally promised, backers will be receiving this “Backer Beta” two weeks before the general release. However, some new stipulations have been given to backers which they were not originally made aware of before contributing money to the kickstarter.

In a backer only update, Double Fine have said the following:

We’re also preparing to send out review codes to press, who will be under review embargo until January 27. This embargo also applies to any of you backers who are in the press or have blogs—we are requiring all formal reviews be held until January 27 at 10am Pacific time (6pm GMT). The same time limit applies to the press as to backers; everyone is in the same boat! We’re trying to be as fair as possible given that backers will have access to the game before everyone else.

Emphasis theirs.

The embargo is a tricky beast at the best of times. I don’t think it’s entirely harmful to dictate reasonable embargo terms to an outlet if you are giving them access to a title before the general release. Having outlets rush to be the first to publish a review is not a desirable outcome of handing out pre-release review copies.

However, I don’t for a second believe that a developer or a publisher has any right whatsoever to tell a someone that they cannot write/talk about a game which they have bought themselves. Perhaps if they had established these terms before taking people’s money, but this kind of arrangement requires agreement (tacit or implicit) from both parties, and the last minute switcheroo is pretty unreasonable.

Today, the line between press and not-press is fuzzier than ever before. Double Fine say that the embargo applies to people who “have blogs”. What about people that have social media accounts? What about people who have accounts on forums? What about people who know how to use Youtube? With tens of thousands of backers, and a free and unrestricted internet, this embargo will be broken.

Since this embargo is not a legal agreement, what possible leverage do Double Fine have to enforce it? Not much. The only consequences Double Fine could have for a publication or individual who chooses not to agree to this embargo is withdrawing access in future. This could take the form of declining to do interviews, declining to offer pre-release review code, or an all out blacklist for an individual or publication.

It seems to me that this embargo has come about because they’re trying to reconcile fulfilling their promise to backers with a plan for marketing. They promised to let backers have access to the game a full two weeks before general release, but reviews are most useful to Double Fine if they are published at the time of release, so people can read a review and then buy the game before forgetting about it. I don’t think it represents a lack of faith in the product, but I do think it’s a misguided plan.

It’s worth noting that Double Fine are perfectly happy for reviews to be written based on this build, they just don’t want them to be published immediately. Although this build is labelled “Backer Beta”, it’s safe to assume that it is near final, albeit possibly missing some compatibility fixes, and with a couple of bugs to be squashed.

Embargoes are a symptom of a negative power dynamic between press and the industry, where the industry use the threat of withholding access to coerce press into acting in a manner which is most beneficial to them. If you accept review code, that’s a tacit acceptance of the terms under which it’s offered, and basically fair. But when no free exchange of pre-release review code has occurred, attempts to do the same are not justified. Press’s job is to inform their readers, not make developers lives easy.

Whether they realise it or not, Double Fine are attempting to establish a dangerous precedent here. I hope it doesn’t stand.

Update: Double Fine have sent this update out to backers:

Hey all, I just wanted to write and let you know that we have decided to go ahead and lift the embargo on Broken Age reviews. The decision to set this originally was not made with any sort of malicious or controlling intent, but rather to keep spoilers to a minimum and give press time to enjoy the game, reflect on it, and write a review without feeling rushed to get it out first. However, it’s clear the excitement will be difficult to contain.

So feel free to run your reviews and let’s play videos as soon as you’d like! (And remember to be careful about story spoilers, especially the ending) Thanks for being so understanding. Hopefully you guys did the game!

I think this was the right choice. Seems to me that they just hadn’t fully thought it through.

16 Comments Leave yours

  1. Paul Browning #

    Is the embargo actually legally enforceable against someone who’s purchased the product without agreeing to the embargo at that time ?

    • Lewie Procter #

      No. It’s not a contract, it’s a request. The only consequence of breaching the embargo will be going in Double Fine’s bad books.

      • Rich #

        I don’t think there would be an issue if the language used made it seem like a friendly request instead of a legal thing.
        I don’t think there’s a problem with asking people not to review it yet.

  2. RiptoR #

    Great write-up, you’ve pretty much put my own thoughts into words about the subject of embargos.

    Embargos are usually put in place to ensure potential buyers aren’t informed about the real state the game is in. I used to write reviews (freelance for a Belgian gaming website) and whenever there was an explicit embargo, it usually meant the game wasn’t really what the developer promised it would be.

  3. Kyle #

    Yep, had this all the time when I was writing.

    An odd request to ask purchasers of the game to keep quiet though.

    I haven’t bought it, so I’m going to blog and tweet as if I have , which I encourage everyone else to do too .

  4. Dean #

    It’s a weirdly complicated situation. It seems to me to break down into three groups:

    1) Backers. Just regular folk that might want to write about the game when they play it. A lot of these won’t even bother to read the update saying there’s an embargo, or will just find it funny. This is where it’s totally un-enforceable. Although if they’d have just asked nicely, rather than ‘requiring’ it, I think most wouldn’t have minded.

    2) Reviewers getting review code the same day as backers. Here the embargo seems perfectly fine to me – it’s an exchange. You get a free game, but you agree to publish no sooner than release day. That seems perfectly reasonable. But then it gets awkward, as it means these people wouldn’t be able to cover it before group 1). Which I think is actually okay, though no doubt annoying for the gaming sites. But essentially the backers are funding the game, they’re playing the part of the publisher, and the publisher plays the game and writes marketing copy about it before the press get to.

    3) Professional reviewers who also backed the game. The other odd case. I can see why this would be frustrating for Double Fine, but really they’re the same as group 1, they just happen to have a job. I think a lot of reviewers have avoided backing projects (based on the reporting around the whole splitting the game into two parts, they definitely seemed less informed than backers were on the topic). I think there’s going to be a big shake out as these projects try and figure this whole thing out. It does seem inherently unfair to give review code out to journalists before giving code to the people who paid to make your game happen. And I think a lot of developers realise that. But then they’re either going to annoy the press (whose coverage is behind what one backer with a blog can do) and end up splitting their marketing or annoy backers. Here is the only place the embargo really has any sort of threat, but given that Double Fine seem to be using Kickstarter for everything these days, it’s easy to bypass it by just having outlets back the projects they want to cover.

    I don’t think there’s any easy way around this, and I think developers need to start realising that one of the trade-offs of Kickstarter is that you’re not going to be able to do the ‘big boom’ marketing strategy, where you get all your press and coverage on release day. There’s a certain amount of wanting to have their cake and eat it – bypass the traditional industry model where it doesn’t suit them (Kickstarter instead of publishers) but then go back to it where it does (review code, embargoes).

    Interesting times.

  5. Optimaximal #

    On the other hand, it reads like a polite/friendly/jokey request that had to be over-worded by the PR/legal team, changing its meaning and read.

    DF don’t want early access people to spoil the game for others – it should really be the unwritten rule of Early Access – but they should ideally have worded it more along the lines of ‘say what you want, just don’t be a twat and spoil the game for everyone else’.

  6. Binster #

    It seems that asking for ‘Formal reviews’ to be held for two weeks is implicitly allowing informal opinions to be shared. It reads like they’re ok with people saying “It’s ace!” or “It sucks!” as long as it’s not a final judgement sort of thing.

  7. Jammers #

    Since the embargo applies to formal reviews, one assumes it would be acceptable to conduct a review while wearing jeans

  8. Seems like a non-issue. Despite the wording, it comes across as obvious to me that the intent is no ‘proper’ reviews go up based on the backer beta.

    I’d imagine that your average bastard on Idle Bums or a WordPress blog isn’t their concern and will be overlooked. The real target is likely some Destructoid writer who thinks he can circumvent the embargo by writing a review based on his personal backer version.

    Of course there’s only so lightly you can put this kind of legal bollocks. I doubt Double Fine has suddenly decided to become evil.

  9. Chris Capel #

    It’s formal reviews only. Other than that you can go wild discussing it, posting videos about it, etc – they just merely request you don’t get all spoilery.

    • Lewie Procter #

      Why on earth do they have any right to dictate that?

  10. Corky McButterpants #

    Walkthrough’s are already up on on YouTube… this ‘Largo Embargo’ (see what I did there?) is both pointless and unreasonable.

  11. Chris Capel #

    Fortunately they’ve seen that they really couldn’t uphold this and have posted the following:

    “Hey all, I just wanted to write and let you know that we have decided to go ahead and lift the embargo on Broken Age reviews. The decision to set this originally was not made with any sort of malicious or controlling intent, but rather to keep spoilers to a minimum and give press time to enjoy the game, reflect on it, and write a review without feeling rushed to get it out first. However, it’s clear the excitement will be difficult to contain.

    So feel free to run your reviews and let’s play videos as soon as you’d like! (And remember to be careful about story spoilers, especially the ending) Thanks for being so understanding. Hopefully you guys did the game!”

    Only sensible decision really.

  12. Jamie #

    Embargo has now been lifted, put in place simply to reduce spread of spoilers.

    And anyway, Double Fine wouldn’t exactly have been the creators of the review embargo.

  13. Guido #

    Just updated:

    Embargo Lifted – I suppose they concluded it was easier to ask the gamers to be careful and avoid let’s plays and any other spoilery things until we have play the game that ask reviewers and Backers to hold on the details.

    Me, myself will try avoid reading any news, reviews or anything related to this game until I’ve finished the first part.

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