When SimCity launched a few days ago with one of the worst features in the width and breadth of modern gaming – the requirement that you remain connected to the internet 100% of the time, even to play single-player – I knew we were in for trouble. With SimCity, there’s supposedly a lot of online perks to the connectedness, but come on – we know it’s just DRM to keep out the pirates. We’ve seen this before. Spore. Diablo III. Assassin’s Creed II. Not a single one has turned out well for either the end consumer or the developer’s public image.
In the days leading up to the game’s public debut, anticipation was high. The review scores (based on “final” review code, but also on empty servers) were terrific. People were excited! But then the day arrived, bringing with it multi-hour queues to play a single-player game. And that’s when you’re even able to connect.
EA has been refusing refunds. Amazon pulled it from their site. Users bombed the MetaCritic average. But the biggest controversy has been Polygon’s review: originally a 9.5/10 (despite the fact that the reviewer had to purchase a pricey new router just to keep the game running), it has since been lowered to an 8, and then, when EA started removing features and still not fixing the server problems, a 4/10. My question, however: does this mean they’ll re-raise the score when it starts working in a few days/weeks/months?
Changing review scores isn’t the real problem. The problem is that people pre-order games – out of excitement, or anticipation, or whatever – and reviews are first and foremost to tell people whether or not they should buy a particular game. Games are $60, and that’s a lot of money to spend on something that doesn’t work. If you downplay problems which, apparent to me and certainly to others who have been in this business far longer than I have, are obviously coming… if you don’t warn people that a game is fun in a safe pre-launch environment but the real world will likely be less forgiving, you are failing as a reviewer.
As Ben Kuchera wrote on his Penny Arcade Report, “It’s sad that EA couldn’t launch an online game this large smoothly, but when have they ever done so? It would have been news if they had gotten it right, not the other way around.” Such is the state of modern PC gaming.
I updated a review once. Back in 2009 when I was a little baby game critic, I reviewed an Xbox LIVE Indie Game called Zombies 2.0. I reviewed their final launch version, and I found it lacking. However, they patched the game shortly after launch, rendering many of my original complaints moot. I wouldn’t update my review score (why would you send an unfinished project out into the world? I reviewed the final game!), but I did give it another shot and updated the review with some more thoughts on the version you would play if you bought it now, post-patch. GameSpot does a similar thing with their “After the Fact” updates (an example can be seen at the top of this review), but they don’t seem to give any opinions on whether the changes are better or worse for the overall package. And the score remains the same.
The very nature of how games are is changing, and has been for quite some time. World of Warcraft still has the same name as the game that launched almost a decade ago, but would a review of the launch day game be applicable today, like at all? No. How about Team Fortress 2? No again. This has lead some to decree SimCity “unreviewable,” but I disagree. You review what you are given. You make clear that the actual results may vary, and how the past has given us reason to be wary about the future. Then when it finally releases and is unplayable, you make sure people know as soon as possible, especially if they’re not offering refunds.
But by then, the damage is done. EA has made their millions. Consumers have a game they can’t play for a few days despite waiting years, or – if they’re lucky – they’ll only lose Cheetah speed, achievements, leaderboards, and the ability to visit an online neighbor’s town without the game crashing, apparently (this is EA’s short-term fix to take enough of a load off the servers for people to even play the game: removing promised features).
So we complain, and ask for refunds, and make angry blog and forum posts, but then in the end we buy the game anyway. This is why microtransactions are here to stay. This is why always-on DRM is allowed. This is why you can pre-order a Season Pass for a game that hasn’t even released yet. This is why… Call of Duty Elite exists. Because we will buy it, companies will sell it. I mean honestly, what are we going to do, NOT buy a video game? That’s crazy talk. It’s going to take an industry crash of E.T.-like proportions before developers realize, “Oh. Maybe we pushed too hard?” And then we’ll get another Nintendo Seal of Quality. And things will be good again, and fun, and free, and we can go back to turning on our computer or console and just… playing games.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some SimCity to play… on the SNES. Oh look, it’s already loaded!