The past week has seen a lot of rage directed at Electronic Arts for SimCitygate, or the ongoing server issues tied to the new metropolis-building game. Many would-be players have been unable to log in to the game, which requires an internet-connection, because the company simply wasn’t prepared for the launch.
EA and developer Maxis have been trying to make things right by boosting server capacity and offering affected players a free back-catalog game, and even went so far as to admit that the launch was “dumb.” In all likelihood, the problems will eventually be solved and players will soon be able to get on with dumping countless hours into building their virtual worlds.
But the imbroglio does highlight a unique problem with the way that video games are reviewed. Over on aggregation site Metacritic, SimCity scored an incredibly high 95 (out of 100) average with reviewers. Not only is that universal acclaim, the rating would also cement it as one of the best games of the year. Yet, given the connection problems that followed, reviewers also took a considerable amount of collateral damage from complaining gamers as a result. After all, how can anyone give such a high score to a game that simply doesn’t work?
I’m of two minds on such complaints. On the one hand, I’m completely sympathetic to them (I haven’t yet played the game or reviewed it). In many ways, reviewers have privileges the general public doesn’t. In the case of SimCity, they had early access to a game that worked well, mainly because there was no load on the servers hosting it. It’s very much like a cellphone or broadband network – it’s very easy to get top speeds when no one else is using them. Also, if reviewers have problems or encounter glitches, they can reach out to PR people for possible solutions.
In that sense, reviewers aren’t normal people – they’re privileged elitists who are furnished with the best possible experience, which obviously does not reflect the mass market. This is true with any product that can be reviewed, from games and movies to cars and electronics.
On the other hand, I also find such criticism to be unfair. If a news outlet wants to run a review of a game on the day it launches, which is a reasonable expectation given the competition for coverage, there really isn’t any other way to do this. In my experience, the majority of games have glitches or problems before launch, which inevitably weighs on the final review. Questions such as “are these issues a big deal overall?” and “does the publisher/developer have a good history of fixing these things promptly?” ultimately come into play. A reviewer’s credibility often depends on how well he or she considers such things.
When it comes to reviews, games are therefore considerably different than any other medium. Movies, music, books, TV shows and everything else are immutable when they are released to the public (unless George Lucas is involved), so the advance experience that reviewers get is likely exactly the same as the mass market will get. Games used to be the same – the final product that shipped on a disc or cartridge was set in stone, with no potential for patching or updates. In a rare fit of crotchety old man-ness, I wrote before about how I wish things could go back to that, but it’s not likely to happen. Games are increasingly becoming inseparable from the technology used to deliver them, which means they’re going to be even more mutable.
There are several possible solutions. For gamers, the best thing to do is to wait a few weeks before buying any game. Just like any piece of technology, it’s a good idea to hold off until there’s a consensus on all the bugs being worked out.
For reviewers, it looks like we’re inheriting the responsibility of maintaining – or patching – our write-ups too. That looks to be happening with SimCity, with numerous outlets significantly lowering their scores, which ultimately has brought its Metacritic rating down to 71 as of Sunday. Polygon, for one, went from 9.5 out of 10 to 4, although interestingly, its entry on Metacritic hasn’t yet changed (that site must also necessarily shoulder this burden). Those scores should then again be adjusted, perhaps up to the original high marks, when and if all the issues are resolved.
The ideal solution would be for reviewers to hold off on writing anything about games until they’ve been out for a week or two. Not only would that give writers a chance to identify any issues, it would also give them a much deeper and soberer feel for it (most of the time we’re scrambling to get it all in over a few days). But, given the hyper-competitive nature of the coverage, that’s also not likely to happen.
SimCity is thus the game that will likely change everything, at least as far as reviews are concerned. Just like the days of complete, unchangeable games, the era of published-and-done reviews look to be over.