On Polygon’s SimCity Review

Brink_Metascore

DAMNIT

I was very excited for Brink to be released in May of 2011. I love first person shooters and am almost always disappointed in the lack of team coherency when I play multiplayer FPS games without my friends. I prefer objective-based modes to deathmatch and when no one on the team is speaking on chat or otherwise coordinating there’s no teamwork, and that’s no fun. The AI Squad Commander in Brink was a way to keep teams on task without requiring any direct communication between them. My Brink feature for Gamasutra was about the narrative design I found interesting as a writer, but the Squad Commander is what I really looked forward to as a player.

I talked up the game to friends and convinced a bunch of them to jump into Brink on day one. We arranged to meet in an Xbox Live party chat, spun the discs up…and the game didn’t work. Getting into a server together was sometimes impossible, and when we did get into a match together we often found ourselves fighting bots on the other team rather than human players. Incensed after a few days of this most of my friends turned the game in to GameStop and that was the end of Brink as far as playing with my friends was concerned.

Luckily the Squad Commander worked as advertised, because I stuck with the game for a while and once the server issues settled down Brink was a hell of a lot of fun to play. The game itself was solid. It wasn’t bad design that chased my friends away, it was the horrible server issues at the beginning. And this is the lens through which I am looking at Polygon’s reviews policy. I think I understand what they’re trying to do here. Russ Pitts gave the game a 9.5 based on its design, and maybe that’s a fair score. I haven’t played SimCity (and now am not likely to as I’ll probably be knee-deep in a half dozen other games before SimCity is fixed) but a game is more than design as Joystiq’s Alexander Sliwinski so brilliantly argued in this editorial.

Games are increasingly becoming services and inasmuch as reviews are used by the audience to inform purchases it’s difficult in my mind to justify separating the game from the service, though I remember Brink and wishing my friends could have done just that. Game reviewers aren’t our gaming buddies, however.

Now enter Polygon’s policy of adjusting review scores based on changing game conditions. I also understand wanting to tap into the dynamic nature of online publishing this way. Polygon is trying to do different things – like regular 10,000 word features which are almost unheard of anywhere else in games journalism – and this review policy is another example.

I personally think video games with online components should never be reviewed anywhere other than “in the wild,” i.e. not at review events thrown by publishers or on special servers set up by publishers for reviewers, either of which could have been the case for release-day SimCity reviews. The product to be reviewed ought to be the product the customers are going to have in their hands on release day. That’s an idealistic perspective which the audience currently makes impossible for their foaming-at-the-mouth rabid need for DAY ONE REVIEWS OMG SHOULD I BUY THIS GAME OR NOT???

(For the love of Christ, readers, show some goddamned discipline and wait a few days before you buy! You can cancel pre-orders, you know.)

The question, in my mind, is about this:

Metacritic_Polygon_Sim_City_Listing
As of the writing of this blog post, Polygon’s review score for SimCity is actually this:

Polygon_Current_Sim_City_Review_Score

Yes, I know the “Win” stands for “Windows” but I still think that’s funny.

This is a problem with Metacritic as much as anything else. They refuse to accept anything other than an outlet’s original score. It’s this kind of ridiculousness that ought to make the audience stop trusting Metacritic over time but the audience doesn’t seem to care about that. They do care about Metascores, however. Polygon’s original score is what stands, and at a translated Metascore of 95 and ostensibly with the weight Metacritic would throw at a Polygon score (reviews from certain sites count more than reviews from other sites), Polygon likely had a fair bit of responsibility in giving SimCity a higher Metascore than it probably deserves, inasmuch as SimCity is a broken game that reviewers probably don’t think their audience should purchase right now, which is reflected in the new, but third, Polygon score for the game.

And just to be fair, Polygon isn’t the only game journalism outlet of note which granted a high score to SimCity:

Games_Beat_Sim_City_Review

If Sliwinski is correct, even though his argument is essentially what killed playing Brink with my friends such that I wish it wasn’t, then the question is whether game reviewers better serve their audience by waiting a little while to review any game with an online component or always-connected DRM strategies specifically, even if the outlet can’t wait to publish reviews post-release as a matter of policy generally.

What if we trust the audience to decide whether or not they want to trust early reviews which may have been written in the controlled conditions of review events or special review server arrangements, or whether they want to wait for the word of the sites who the audience knows it can trust as the “wait-and-see” policy gains traction?

Those are big questions, but I think the most interesting can of worms that Polygon’s review policy opened up is purely internal to Polygon. This was still on Polygon’s front page as of around 3:45 this afternoon:

Polygon_SimCity_Image

Since changed to this on their front page (taken at 9:39 p.m. on Thursday):

Polygon_Review_Update_1_image

Even though the score is actually this:

Polygon_Current_Sim_City_Review_Score

Which makes this score tracker from Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s John Walker a little funny (come on, it may have been a cheap shot but NOW it’s kind of funny):

I want to add one more thing, at the risk of sounding obsequious. I respect Arthur Gies. I’ve only met him very briefly at my PAX Prime panel but he strikes me as a sincere person. I believe he is doing what he thinks best for both the audience and the publishers, and I admire the philosophy that the latter concern represents. Video game reviewers exist in part to protect the audience for shitty purchases, but they also ought to show respect for developers and to try and be fair in their judgments. I think that’s what Gies is after. It’s not his job to worry about Metacritic, but Polygon may have to decide which side of the consumer/developer coin is more important to them in the long run.

Honestly, I think Polygon can afford to lean in the direction of the consumers if push comes to shove. I don’t see PR pulling their access on account of scores a publisher might not like. The site’s already too big for that.

Also, I just checked Polygon and now this is on the front page:

Polygon_Second_Update

I have to imagine making all these changes is a pain in the ass, but credit where it’s due to Polygon for making them.

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