For all of the issues deriving from the launch of SimCity – beyond my own schadenfreude relating to the situation – an interesting situation developed: reviews of the game ended up being all over the place. Usually, that means a wide range of scores, but in this case, it was a wide range of people handling the situation in different ways. Some places did the classic review format, with the review dropping at the publisher-specified embargo. Some waited a few days for EA and Maxis to figure their shit out, which they didn’t; naturally, the later reviews are harsher than the earlier ones. And a few did things completely around the bend. Polygon changed their score three separate times, going from a 9.5 (their Metacritic score) to an 8.0 to a 4.0 after the removal of many elements of the game to get it running smoothly again. The Penny Arcade Report put out an unscored review of the game that said the game is really good, but followed up immediately by an editorial by Ben Kuchera noting that the review conditions were optimal, and that things would likely change upon the game’s release. He basically said “here’s our review, but now that you’ve seen it, know it’s likely bunk”.
This isn’t a new phenomenon, to tell the truth. The difference is that we finally have a game big – and messy – enough to point out just how hard it is to do a classic review nowadays.
In a sense, the “classic” review is going the way of the “classic” game. It used to be, the game was released, complete, and a reviewer completed a review, using the game’s final code. This system worked since the dawning of the games press. Then, post-release support became possible, as the internet allowed us to patch PC games, and later console games, after release. Unfortunately, what was at one time a convenience soon became a crutch, as publishers started getting games out first and worrying about patching them up later, if and when it was convenient.
Despite this, reviews have still been done the classic way of reviewing the finished code – even if “finished” is a laughable term – as close to the day of release as possible, preferably before it. There are a lot of reasons for this, mainly having to do with maximum visibility. Reviews of a game before it’s released are highly valuable to both the company behind the game (to grow hype, if it’s good) and the people publishing the review (to get the maximum views); after the first few days, reviews get less and less attention, and a week or so after release, sites might as well throw their reviews in the incinerator because no one cares, and the few that do comment just to say the review is old. While these are all legitimate reasons to have a review out, from a practical standpoint, it hasn’t worked out well from the perspective of giving the definitive word of a game’s quality, only the perceived quality on release day.
As a sports gamer, this is an issue near and dear to my heart. I cannot count the times I’ve seen reviews for games that rated high where the online features were bunk. There’s also the problem of EA Sports games, where the blessing of tuner sets and a heavy patching process – a place where EA admittedly blows 2K out of the water – means that the game that’s out two weeks after release is often vastly different than the one two weeks prior, or even two weeks after. What do you do? Do you wait to put out your review until well after the game’s been released and bought up? Do you put out a crappy review initially? Do you put out impressions of the game as you go along? I’m still trying to figure that out, and from the looks of it, the industry is, too.
As always-on DRM and other online-centric systems become more and more ubiquitous1, the journalistic practice of reviewing these games is going to have to adapt if what we care about is getting it right. In some corners of the internet – some very large, well populated ones – getting the pageviews is literally the only thing that matters, accuracy be damned. But readers will gravitate to the better sources, and the sooner the better sources figure out how to do reviews in the new era, the more relevant they’ll become.
1 – As I stated a month ago, get comfy, because this isn’t going away.