Since their humble arcade origins, video games have changed unrecognisably over the scant few decades that they have existed. Naturally, as technology has improved, the games that follow have become more sophisticated and the industry behind them is always in a constant state of change. From next-gen platforms to digital storefronts, the video game industry today is a wholly different beast to what it was 20, 10, or even five years ago.
Yet the way in which the industry covers games has barely changed at all since those consumer magazines that began to emerge in the 1980’s. When we review a game, we spend time with the retail release, write an entire article that tries to justify our opinion, and then assign it a number on an arbitrary scoring system. That’s not an attempt to trivialise the role of the reviewer, but in the ever-changing industry that exists today, is this actually enough to inform the reader? The role of the reviewer seems to be less clear than it once was, especially in an era where game embargoes can sometimes delay a review until after the game is already in the hands of players.
As games and consoles become ever more connected to the internet, online patching and additional content means that a game will change and evolve over the course of its lifetime. The moment that a game gets burned to a disc is no longer the final product, so whatever code you purchase initially is subject to change. You’re no longer buying a retail product, but rather subscribing to a service, and it is almost an expectation that bugs and problems will be attended to and fixed in short order. In this regard, reviews themselves tend to go out of date far faster than the game they are reviewing.
This means that reviews are no longer representative of the final product. A review is more of a snapshot in time; a window to the state of a game when it first became available to the buying public. This doesn’t necessarily reflect the state of a game in six to 12 months’ time. For example, initial reviews of Driveclub were incredibly unfavourable, and some of that criticism was aimed at the online multiplayer bugs and a general feeling that the game was in an incomplete state. Lazygamer tackled the game really well, but their review also has a whole section towards the end dedicated to the online issues. As time goes on, Driveclub still retains a lot of the online problems that plagued it at launch, but these issues will be probably be ironed out over time, and the addition of new content and gameplay features such as active weather cycles means that the Driveclub of the future will potentially offer a much better package.
Historically, reviews have been used as a consumer guide to give an overall impression as to whether a game is worth your time and money. This is becoming increasingly difficult to gauge, especially since many AAA titles are releasing with inherent gameplay-affecting bugs and issues. Assassin’s Creed Unity and Halo: The Master Chief Collection are games with huge budgets that have released with significant issues, but have still scored rather highly despite this. Should a game with so many inherent problems come so highly recommended? Even on the promise of patches or future potential, it seems regressive for the industry to release poorly tested products into the marketplace.
But that in itself leads into a whole other territory. With the advent of Early Access, players are able to get their hands on games long before they are available in their final form. These games gather communities who are engaged in the game’s development from very early on in the development cycle. By their very nature, Early Access games are adopted by players despite their flaws, with their innards on show for the world to see. In these cases, players are very much buying into the potential of the game, especially so with Kickstarter campaigns where buyers put down their money without the complete certainty of a final release. If people are willing to put their money and time into an unfinished product, then are reviewers even justified in scoring games down for their lack of polish at launch?
Then there’s the issue of episodic content, which seems to be an industry standard nowadays. Telltale has popularised a business model where smaller chunks of game are released over a period of time for a smaller cost. In this regard, it seems remiss to try to review individual episodes that are part of an overarching story. For example, a poor review of a particular episode of The Walking Dead might seem pointless if it clicks into a more cohesive whole once the season is over.
MMOs and other online games such as Destiny that have a massive lifespan prove similarly difficult. How do you legislate for the changes to those games over the course of their lifecycle? Using World of Warcraft as an example, when the game launched 10 years ago, no one could have predicted the game it would become today. As the game has introduced new level caps, content and mounts in the years since, updated reviews haven’t generally been written to provide a guide to these changes. If someone who had never heard of World of Warcraft before (who had perhaps been living on the outer rings of Saturn for a whole decade) wanted to look up reviews for this game and find out what it was about, the reviews from 2004 would be totally out of date and not at all representative of the WoW of 2014.
So should reviewers score on a game’s potential? Or perhaps provide an updated review once much of the work has completed?
Some outlets such as Polygon have already begun to consider this. Polygon’s review policy specifically allows them to revisit reviews, or “bump” them as and when significant changes occur. Of course, this is at the site’s discretion and they will not have the manpower to systematically revisit every review of every game ever released, but it’s a worthy start and feels like a forward-thinking policy.
While games have evolved since those early days of Space Invaders and Donkey Kong, the media on the whole has failed to evolve with it. Perhaps in the future games won’t be recognised as a completed product, but more like an online service. As such, the job of the reviewer would have to evolve; to become a digital tour guide and to help guide expectations as to the future of the product. The discussion is coming, and the press needs to be prepared since the gaming industry, in its constant state of flux, will change again in ways that we cannot anticipate. -AL