Monday, April 20, 2015

The Review Turn-Around

NPR recently interviewed Chris Kohler of Wired about the changing face of video game reviews. This isn't a #Gamergate situation. I promise. Arun Rath's goal was to dive in and figure out how game reviews survive with the emerging digital distribution of content, and maintain their readership.

The answer: it's difficult.

They used the SimCity remake as an example. When reviewers were initially given the game it was just them and a handful of EA employees to test the product. Even with Kotaku's semi-poor reception during reviewer testing, a lot of game review sites loved the product. And then it got pushed out to the crowd at large. It broke. A lot. Servers were down. A lot (which was an extra special painful experience when the game is only allowed to be played online). The product had to go through a series of patches and changes before it could be playable again, and many looked to reviewers with a "what the heck happened?" face.

I wouldn't say that it severed the trust between reviewers and gamers, but it did put a sizable mark on the wall. How can we believe your 9.5 rating when the game breaks on us?

These days, not only do readers feel like they've been led on, more games are now being released incomplete. There are bugs and portions of content missing to be left open for additional updates down the road. As a reviewer, you're only getting a portion of the product that may change a month later. Your article is out of date within days of posting as patches emerge to fix bugs and add new content.

That's rough. With new content always coming out, how do you review something that evolves over time? MMO's are a fantastic example of this. There was a time where they were reviewed very much like all of the other games out there. You talk about the first game, and then the expansion packs, and list off the content that's available. Reviewers didn't focus on patches or the ancillary content released outside of the boxed expansion. Today? You have reviews on patches. You have to if you want to stay on top as a reviewer. It's not enough to talk about the base game. You need to dig into the details.

This is where I'm happy to see Kotaku has updated in their reviewing style. They understand that games are changing, and so is the way we consume them. We're not playing a game once and done. Expansions and DLC are the thing, and we're coming back to play one game several times over the years. As such, Kotaku's review sequence begins with a game's release, and doesn't end until the expansions are done. They cover each phase of the game's evolution. It's something I've been dancing with for a while, but given the context of my blog, full-blown reviews haven't been on my dart board.

As Kotaku's system has settled in for the past few months, it'll be interesting to see if other gaming sites will follow. Or if we're still to the "one and done" mantra as film and book reviews see fit.


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