2013 felt like a long year, peppered with AAA game releases, some incredible innovation by several game studios and a console launch unlike anything I’ve ever seen – right down to Sony and Microsoft getting in each other’s faces and almost going nuclear. But 2013 also highlighted some issues that the game industry is currently grappling with and with the internet becoming evermore intertwined with it, things haven’t been the same for game reviewers for a while either. The immense pressure to get a review out on launch day just after the NDA lifts must be incredible and not only do many people haul some serious ass to get it done on time, many game developers feed into this by giving game journalists exclusive time with their new title in a closed room or environment, free of the issues of the real world, for long enough to create a good impression to snag those day one sales.
Is it a habit that should be done away with, though? Should we be delaying reviews to allow gamers and readers to get a better idea of what their game will look and feel like when they pop it in for the first time?
This isn’t a new tactic, nor is it unique to the game industry. Just as automotive manufacturers invite critics and journalists to the new BMW AMG Supersport Quattroporte V1654 with 10 million newton-metres of torque on a reserved track with good weather conditions to display the new super-hyper-family-taxi-transporter in the best light possible, so do game publishers and developers seek to give journalists and reviewers the best possible experience because, at the end of the day, these guys will be the ones to influence the early adopters to get it and play it. But it’s become such a pervasive idea and habit that this is even done for games that are nowhere near to the polish they’d need to be a real success.
Some commenters in the game industry have been discussing today about how EA and DICE did all they could to cover up the kinds of issues facing Battlefield 4 in the days leading up to its launch. The game was buggy as hell on launch, with only a month of closed and open-beta testing done by players outside of DICE’s studios to iron out potential server issues and to get the game up to standard. Journalists and Youtubers promoting the game weren’t allowed to discuss the issues that would eventually cause the dearth of issues with the online and offline parts of the game.
On launch day, players faced issues such as save game glitches, being kicked from the lobbies frequently, server reboots, lag and poor netcode reliability and online stats were even wiped a couple of times for some. Watching the goings-on from the outside, it reminded me of the SimCity launch, itself plagued with many, many bugs relating to online play.
Previews aren’t the problem
The issue here is that both games created a very good impression up to launch and I was excited for others who were looking forward to playing these games for the first time as well as veterans returning to the old feels. The fact that they are both EA games is just a coincidence because both had the capability to be mostly bug-free and very enjoyable on launch. From the early previews, developer discussions and trailers, fans of both series were sold on the promise of two very good and possibly interesting games.
I have a friend who personally poured over a grand into the game for the PS4 so that he had all the bells and whistles, only to be met many times with servers issues and game save corruption. Like others, including the journalists themselves, he was sold on the idea of what Battlefield 4 would bring to the table and, though burned by the issues with previous titles, assumed that DICE would finally launch a Battlefield game without any issues to speak of.
In both cases for these games, their respective launches were very different from previous titles. The internet was now the main driving force for promoting the game, Battlefield 4 was mixed in with the hype for next-gen consoles and DICE also promised Mantle support and had some incredible trailers to highlight their levolution map events and how they would influence a battle. Nearly everyone bought the hype. This wasn’t just for EA-published games either. Activision promised similar things for Call of Duty Ghosts, but also had less launch issues.
With the dust settled and the games fixed to a degree that most would find acceptable, some people are asking who do they blame for these magnificent screw-ups and how this could be avoided in future.
Industry haz problemz. What do?
“So why not just delay reviews until the game is out and the issues are known?”
Its a common response that I hear when explaining this issue to anyone. For anyone who doesn’t want to catch the launch wave and ride it’s financially beneficial wake, putting out a review of a game well after it’s been moved off the shelves is a tricky and delicate subject. There’s the possibility of losing the loyalty of your readers because you’re not on time with anyone else, and there’s the possibility of being called out for giving low scores to a game that doesn’t perform to expectations.
It doesn’t help to review it on launch and then amend the score once you’re able to let on what’s happening, either – that first impression has already stuck with the person who first read your review and it’s the one they’ll be taking away when deciding whether to purchase it or not.
Delayed reviews are also a minefield to navigate with publishers because often they’re only speaking to you at that point in time in the hope that your scores and print or release date will align with the marketing plan. No-one wants to burn any bridges so compromises are sometimes made to push through content, though there are also instances where reviews are delayed to the next day/week/issue because of scheduling conflicts or lack of launch hype.
Remember, this applies to online and print reviews – neither are exempt from the pressure publishers push on them. For some online sites which depend very much on advertising revenue to become profitable, the temptation to push through a review to get the hits and the extra money is there. For print magazines, the desire to have the latest game on the cover to catch eyes on the magazine rack and sell out is also there.
Would delaying reviews solve anything?
If the whole industry turned to a schedule of delayed reviews? Probably not. In that case it would be easy for publishers to re-align their launch dates and try to create the same effect regardless. This would only work if a handful of sites, magazines and writers choose to delay reviews to deliver a more realistic summary of the product at the expense of more sales or advertising revenue on launch day.
And even if that were to happen, they’d have to deal with the side effect of not being favoured by publishers though they may push through better reviews. Not hopping on the day one bandwagon has real consequences of a financial nature.
What if the publishers had to take up the mantle and not pressure people into having reviews on launch day? In that case, it may happen that their marketing strategy becomes disjointed because some of the bigger names in the industry (Kotaku, Eurogamer, Gies, Sessler, Sterling, Polgyon, Joystiq for example) may decide to not have their review up on launch day, possibly affecting day one sales and attach rates. If there wasn’t a slew of reviews going up in the PS4 and Xbox One launch weeks, attach rates for gamers buying a console and a game or two could have been lower.
Positive media coverage does drive sales, especially if the person being targeted in the review has had no hands-on time with the product before launch. I’ve seen this personally in many a BT Games store – a customer walks up with a review of a game in hand and asks for it, hoping to get the advice of the sales clerks working there. If the reviews are good and the clerk’s opinion is positive, that usually ends up in a sale. Some people don’t care about other’s opinions but this is what moms and pops, who have the disposable income to buy games for their kids, have to go on.
Or we could just ask for better games
As a gamer myself, I’ve witnessed that games that are delayed to work on polish or fix up issues found in QA testing have been the better ones to play and buy. There’s a reason why Grand Theft Auto V is as good as we all expected and sold to many copies- Rockstar took their time to make sure that every little bit of the game worked as expected and that the experience was mostly problem-free. No game is perfect but it shows immense confidence in their abilities if a developer admits they aren’t ready and delays the release to make a better title. It takes even bigger balls for a publisher to outright admit that they were wrong to stack game releases on top of one another and change their outlook for an entire year to make sure their next games are better received.
For that reason alone, Ubisoft and Sony Computer Entertainment have my respect because they both delayed games, games that I’ve personally anticipated, to polish them up and prevent them from becoming commercial failures.
Instead of gamers asking these companies for AAA annual releases and up-to-date DLC and bells and whistles that half of the world can’t use because they’re running a different GPU, we should instead be pushing these same AAA game developers and publishers to make better games. We should be clamouring for games to be better polished, for more transparency from developers, for better gameplay, mechanics and storylines over rushed concepts, re-assembled and re-used maps, microtransactions, pretty graphics and little substance. Keep the flashiness and Baysplosions for Call of Duty and Battlefield, sure, but pour more creative energy into games which can become classics.
Because the industry, as big and powerful as it is, is ill-equipped to deal with the deluge of quality indie and emergent gameplay-based games. They may be unable to compete in the future against the next hit that enjoys as much success as Minecraft, or DayZ, or titles lovingly crafted by smaller studios like CD Projekt Red or Slightly Mad Studios. If the games are good, include microtransactions only for cosmetic items and are reasonably priced, we’ll buy and play them, simple as that.
By that same token… Publishers, please stop pouring so much money into a game that you simply have to spend millions of Dollars in marketing just to make sure that you make your 5 million units in sales required for a profit – the market is shifting and you have to move with it too. Drop the budget a bit, stop pouring money into holes where it’ll never return from and don’t be like Bobby Kotick and try take all the fun out of making games because you’d like to see a fat profit every year.
That all leads to one thing and one thing only – studios and developers being burnt out too quickly and ending up bankrupt because they’re not able to meet the requirements set by publishers to succeed and an industry flooded with games that could end up as dull as the shovelware produced in the 80s and 90s that cause the first game crash.
So, will delaying reviews help?
I don’t think so, not one bit. Unless we address the root cause – which is an industry used to and craving exponential growth – moving the goalposts for reviews and launches won’t matter. The only way to get results from these companies is to vote with your wallet or make enough noise to make them pay attention, to notice that some parts of their plan are not working.
We’re into next-gen officially and we’re leaving the baggage behind. This is a chance to avoid a second industry crash and re-analyse where to go from here. All we need is these big companies to realise that what makes us play games isn’t the fact that it’s a game, but a good game that we enjoy. Once they can grasp why Valve has so much love even after bombarding us with hats, then we’ll be on the way to a healthy industry again.