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Always Online Games and the Subject of Reviews

An editor-in-chief's conundrum thanks to Sim City's rampant issues.

Reviewing games isn’t the easiest thing in the world to do. Boiling down exactly how you feel about an experience while providing an objective assessment of the game’s components is a delicate balancing act. With the introduction of always-online games, specifically Sim City, this fragile process has been put to the test. As editor-in-chief of this website, I have to consider how this new component of gaming is factored into our review policies and make a call about how the game’s score is affected.

If there’s one thing we know for sure at this point, it’s that always-online games can have disastrous launches. Diablo 3 was the first time PixlBit has really had to consider this complication in a review and at the time, Julian Titus and I decided that it was best to not let launch day hiccups tarnish the score of an otherwise phenomenal game. But it’s hard to say if we truly handled this perfectly.

If you take a look around the internet today, you’ll see that a variety of sites have handled these Sim City issues in a variety of different ways – but one site in particular caught my attention. Polygon originally released a review of the game with glowing marks (9.5/10), but since the game released have continually lowered the score due to the server and connection issues; first to an 8/10, and finally to 4/10.

Now, I’m not trying to pick on Polygon, I think they are a fine editorial establishment; however, this seems like a completely unacceptable way to critique the game and actually touches ever so slightly on the fact that there are key differences between critical evaluations and recommendations. In this case, it seems as if Polygon has modified their score as a means of warning their readers against buying the game, while subsequently invalidating the entire body of text that once justified their original score.

Of course, all of this is on open display, so the reader can very clearly see the progression of the score from its original number to its final resting spot. Because they claim the review is indicative of the experience on launch day, it’s not likely that they will raise the score back to its original number when the server problems subside. Personally, I take issue with this approach.

Realistically, reviews have a shelf life well beyond the week they are released. There’s no question that they are more likely consumed in that time span by readers, but if they were out and out irrelevant beyond that time, most webmasters would likely remove the content to preserve bandwidth for more current stories. Bearing this in mind, it seems that the appropriate action for Polygon would be to raise the score when the problems subside.

… Or would it?

Part of the dialog of this argument stretches beyond the confines of the purpose of a review. As a gaming society, it’s pretty clear that always-online DRM isn’t an acceptable design choice. Even beyond the widespread launch issues these games tend to face, there’s a stated desire for players operating in a single player capacity to avoid online interaction at all. In that case, do you use the review as a soapbox to affect change? Perhaps in this regard, Polygon’s longstanding low score will serve as a historical marker and reminder of the negative effects of a poor launch due to always-online DRM.

As you can see, there’s a certain predicament here. Do you maintain the score and ignore the fact that the game is crippled due to this component or modify it and mark it down for including something that’s clearly a bad design? I’m not really sure there’s a “right” answer.

I’ve already revealed how we’ve chosen to handle this situation in the past, but again, I’m not sure that’s entirely fair either. I do think that the critical evaluation of the game and the score that’s assigned to the game as a result shouldn’t be lowered due to a temporal issue. However, I do think it’s completely fair game to caution your readers against buying the game, despite releasing a review that awards the game high marks.

Public Service Announcements go a long way and if you’re making it clear to your audience that a good game is hidden behind some draconian DRM, perhaps that’ll affect that change, without compromising the integrity of the review. An alternative I’ve considered, is simply withholding the review (still issuing a PSA) until the dust settles and your evaluation of the product is completely accurate.

However, I’m still not sure it’s quite that simple. As Mike Wall pointed out to me, it’s almost impossible to properly evaluate these online titles because it’s unclear at the time of release how the meta-game will evolve. In the case of something like Modern Warfare 2, while sound upon its release, legal troubles stalled the fix of some serious multiplayer bugs rendering the game effectively useless for series stalwarts.

We live in an interesting time where the product released to store shelves isn’t necessarily the final form. Games are viscous in this day and age; constantly evolving based on both customer feedback and reported bugs resultant from development cycles that may just be too short to release a properly polished product (at some point I’d love to do some more editorializing on the ethics of this practice). Seemingly vigilance and adept handling of these sensitive situations is the only means by which a site can properly represent games in an editorial fashion, quite unlike the once rock solid launch day review that covered the product as it would exist forever.



Ryan Bunting Staff Alumnus

03/15/2013 at 10:38 AM

Always-Online DRM means that you are no longer purchasing a game, you are renting it, because when the time comes that Blizzard shuts down its Diablo 3 servers, and Maxis shuts down the SimCity 2013 servers, you will no longer be able to play either of them, and the $60+ you spent on it are now gone forever and were worthless to begin with.

The idea of Always-Online DRM as an anti-piracy measure is absurd, as game companies need to realize this one simple fact:

No matter what you do, people will find a way to pirate your game, it's the way the internet connected world works, and by implementing these shitty forms of DRM, you're fisting your happily paying customers who legitimately buy your game.

With that said, I should hope that others follow by the example of the incredible backlash from the SimCity incident, and avoid that shit like the plague.  Times are changing, and many independent developers have actually released their games on ThePirateBay and have seen increases in sales.  It's a smart, if not ballsy, marketing strategy, and perhaps larger developers should stop worrying about a few thousand pirated downloads compared to the millions that will sell if they take a stand against DRM.  But only time will tell.


03/15/2013 at 11:15 AM

Companies need to realize that not everyone has great internet servive. I'm one of the lucky people living in a place with decent bandwidth to spare. People in remote areas are not so lucky when it comes to that. Why should they be denied a great game? Hopefully the disastrous launch of Sim City will make game companies reconsider going down this path to ruin. Great summary of this issue,btw. Well said and thought provoking.


03/15/2013 at 11:53 AM

I wonder how many sales they are giving up by going always-online drm.  if the numbers that I used are correct, there are 30 million housholds in the u.s. that couldnt get the game anyways because they do not have internet.  


03/15/2013 at 01:27 PM

As far as reviews go, I thing establishing a wait period before releasing a review would be adequate.  Accepting that a game is not really the "entire release" at launch, within 2 weeks the game should be playable based on the money we spent.  I don't think people waiting for the review to buy the game will mind lag time and people who buy at launch usually are interested enough to go ahead and buy before a review hits anyway.   Future changes to the game after 2 weeks should only be enhancements.  Launch game issues should already be taken care of, but I know this may not be the case.

Julian Titus Senior Editor

03/15/2013 at 10:13 PM

I'd like to state for the record that I stand behind my score for Diablo III 100%. I had very little problem with the game during the launch week, and the game always played great, even when I've gone back to it over the past year.

I really don't see the need to attack a game if its online structure is messed up at launch. If it's a persistant problem that's an entirely different matter. Sim City is working fine now from all reports, but it sounds like the game has plenty of other problems in its core design that I haven't seen reflected in a lot of reviews. As more and more games move towards having online functionality things like this are going to happen more often. I'm not happy about it, but once you get past the initial launch strain things tend to work out fine.

Travis Hawks Senior Editor

03/15/2013 at 10:25 PM

I also sometimes have the opposite problem - not enough people playing online games.  I always try to mention this in the text, but I don't reflect it in the score.  I've played a ton of online games for review that had almost nobody else online to play with. Even if the game is amazing (e.g. Quarrel), if you can't play online without roping a friend in with you - that can also be a problem.  The thing is, this one won't get better over time and the game essentially doesn't have some of the functionality you paid for.

Julian Titus Senior Editor

03/15/2013 at 10:30 PM

I actually find that a deeper problem if the game is a wholly online experience with no single player mode. Simply put, a game like that becomes unplayable if no one is online.

Travis Hawks Senior Editor

03/15/2013 at 10:46 PM

Well, true.  I haven't had to review a game that was completely multiplayer and dry at the same time.  I know this happens, I've just gotten lucky.  


03/15/2013 at 10:57 PM

If I remember correctley, Diablo III recieved high and low marks based on it's content as well as launch issues. I actually picked up the game at launch and experienced connectivity problems for a few days. That was only near the beginning of launch, I actually enjoyed the game in single and offline modes. I have issue with the "always-on" model but I also accept the fact that this is just the beginning of a new media delivery system whether we like it or not. The DRM policy for Sims is bull. A player was able to hack the game and play it offline without need for connection. This should have at least been an option for customers.Yell

On early reviews. When it comes to online games, reviews should evolve with the games. MMOs competely change after a few years and sometimes turn out better, sometimes worse. I've seen a few posts complaining about Guild Wars 2 becoming too complicated for it's own good. I kind of agree. I use to like the fact that the game was fun and easy for new comers to play, now it seems to be appealing more to hardcore MMO players. Just my opinion. Reviews should evolve with On-line games.


03/16/2013 at 09:42 AM

I think its perfectly fine to update a reveiw due to circumstances that were not there or apparent at the time of the original reveiw and actually can be quite helpful in keeping you away from really buggy games or games that are really bad without a patch, however I do think if you are going to continually  re-review things next to every change in score shoud be a reason for the change(ie, score goes up because it runs better with the patch, or score goes down because of problems associated with always on DRM, etc etc)


03/19/2013 at 12:36 AM

They should just do re-reviews, or second look for online games. And yes, I think that always online drm for games that don't need it are ridiculous. I would rather just replay old games than deal with that crap. People should just realize that it would go away very quickly if they would just boycott those games and be very vocal about it. Hit them where it hurts - their wallets.

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