Something weird happened to me last year, when I wrote about a game called Rollers of the Realm . It was a fairly positive review of a unique pinball-role playing game hybrid, with a few caveats, like an impossibly difficult final boss battle.
Towards the end of the review, I noted a funny typo buried in the game’s menu (a character was said to be highly skilled in “marital arts”), and pointed out that it would probably disappear after the game’s first patch or update. It’s a reflection of the reality of today’s constantly updated games that what you play on launch day might not be the same experience months or even days later.
What I did not expect was the game’s developer, a small Canadian outfit called Phantom Compass, would respond thusly on Twitter: “Hey Chris, thanks for the review and feedback! … Should we nerf the final battle a bit?”
My fingers froze above my keyboard. I’ve reviewed a lot of videogames. This was the first time I’d ever had a developer write back to ask if they should make a major change to the gameplay that would impact players’ experiences.
“For me to say would be too much power to invest in one man,” I replied. “But maybe.”
This was a profoundly strange situation to find oneself in. Prior to this I’d considered a game review to be more or less a postmortem. But in the case of Rollers of the Realm, it was clear that the developers were taking the initial batch of reactions as something of a beginning. And why not, when games are so malleable today after they launch?
So, where does this leave the “game review?”
In general, gaming enthusiast sites that publish reviews day in and day out have had to think about this quite a bit over the last few years, as the nature of a typical “game launch” has changed from a complete product being pressed to discs and sent to stores to an incomplete game being rolled out in stages onto online servers.
When Vox Media launched Polygon in 2012, it said that it would not leave its reviews untouched, as a static archive of how the game performed on the day the review went live. It would not hesitate, it said, to update a review and alter the score if it felt that the game’s quality had improved—or declined—after the review embargo was lifted.
In an extreme case like Electronic Arts’ SimCity, which was excellent when reviewers played it prior to the game’s launch on private servers but utterly failed to function once it was available at retail, it lowered the review score, from a 9.5 (out of 10) to a 4.
Earlier this year, Polygon went even further; after a holiday season of similar broken games including Halo: The Master Chief Collection, which worked fine prior to launch but collapsed upon release, it said it would introduce “provisional reviews.” It will still score the games, but the review will not appear on the Metacritic aggregation website until after the game’s release.
Other websites have not gone so far as to formalize the policy, but other sites have begun to publish more “reviews in progress”—stories that evaluate the game when the review embargo goes up, but refrain from rendering a final judgment until the writer has had more time with the final product.
These sorts of moves are more to ensure that a publication doesn’t end up with egg on its face if the final product ends up differing significantly from what was provided for review. But as my experience with Rollers of the Realm shows, the nature of reviews is changing even if the review is perfectly in sync with the final product—because the “final” product isn’t what people buy on day one.
I was reminded of this recently because Nintendo just released a patch for its recent Nintendo 3DS game Code Name S.T.E.A.M.. It’s a turn-based strategy game that got mixed reviews, but one point that almost every review, positive or negative, had in common was that it took far too long and was far too boring to wait for the enemy characters to take their turns.
Waiting around for aliens to make their decisions and scurry around the battlefield was a big pain in the ass and probably ended up lowering the game’s aggregate score, just by itself. Now, Nintendo was introducing a patch that would eliminate that problem.
It’s especially interesting that Nintendo, the most conservative, insular company in the whole game industry, would make such a major change to its design post-release, based on feedback. That, more than anything, tells me that these sort of post-launch changes can happen to any game, anytime, in today’s world.
What, then, should writers do? It’s likely that this is a big enough change to the game that Polygon, which hammered on this as a major issue and scored S.T.E.A.M. a 3.5, would go back and issue a review update. Other writers may also see fit to do this.
I would never suggest that it is incumbent upon everyone who wrote about the game to revise their reviews, as that introduces a precedent that is absolutely impossible to maintain; I already would never, ever envy anyone that has to run the reviews section of a gaming enthusiast website, as it involves insane work hours just to keep up with all the major releases, let alone go back and update each one as the game is tweaked. (Moreover, an online publication is an archive, a record of what happened on that day, and not a wiki that must be endlessly updated.)
How this really changes reviews is how it will affect a writer who sits down to pen one (or a YouTuber who sits in front of their camera). The era of review-as-postmortem is giving way to the era of review-as-wishlist; less a discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of a product that’s finished, and more of a discussion of concrete improvements we’d like to see in the first patch. The fact that even brick-wall Nintendo is responding so quickly in the case of S.T.E.A.M. is an indication that it is actually possible to get fixes implemented in a relatively short time.
As for Rollers of the Realm, I checked today and it turns out they did make the final boss battle easier, just one week later. I’d already moved on to other games by then.