Jun 192010

Well, we’ve just come to the end of what will probably be the world’s least productive week this year. Sports fans had enormous distractions: the NBA finals, the beginning of the US Open, and of course the World Cup, which is something I can’t avoid hearing about since I work with a Korean, two Germans, and an Italian. And that’s just the soccer-mad people whose teams are actually in the tournament! Fortunately, most of the lab computers do not have speakers, so I am spared the god-forsaken noise of the vuvuzelas while at work. If you’ve no taste for athletics, however, this week offered an alluring diversion in the form of E3. Between the various webcast events and the constant impact of game and hardware impressions, there was plenty to divert people’s attention from work. Apparently, Realtime Worlds took note of the deluge and tried to slip something in under it — a review embargo on their upcoming MMO shooter, APB. Now, there’s nothing unusual about a review embargo, but this one is notable because it ends on July 2, a full week after the game is released.

I heard about this at roughly the same time from Nukezilla (née Negative Gamer) and Rock, Paper Shotgun. Many of the responses to these posts indicate that the open beta has revealed a core game with some great customization but less-than-ideal gameplay (a widespread problem among games that allow a lot of user creativity). The natural conclusion from this starting point has been that this is a move by RTW’s PR staff to keep negative reviews of a marginal game off the air long enough to make a significant profit off the first wave of suckers. Obviously RTW doesn’t see things this way, and explained their decision to the RPS crew as being about making sure that reviewers get a veridical impression of the game, something that’s apparently impossible in the present open beta for whatever reason. This explanation strikes me as being only mostly bull.

I don’t generally play MMO games; I don’t have the time for it. But I do play games, and in most cases you can tell that a game is crap within thirty minutes of inserting the disc. Sometimes it takes a few hours, but for the most part a game that is really bad lets you know this early on. It doesn’t take long to figure out that a game has got painful graphics, or janky physics, or that the shooting is terrible. Once you’ve realized these things, more time with the game won’t help, unless you’ve got a serious case of choice-supportive bias. If a game is just plain bad on a mechanical level, or even sometimes on a writing level (everyone with any sense knew Warrior Within was crap before the tutorial ended), it’s obvious early on, and an additional week with the game won’t help things. I’m not aware of any game that offers a graphic upgrade once a player hits level 10.

But, a game isn’t just gears and scenery. The quality also depends on what it demands of you and the context it provides for those demands. Is the level design solid and varied? Does the story stay consistently interesting, or does it go off the rails? These questions take longer to resolve; we’ve all played games that go from a promising beginning to an abysmal end. More rarely, a game begins and ends well but takes a long detour through the doldrums (Red Dead Redemption, for example). Repetitive gameplay or uninspired design can easily remold a beautiful and fun game into a tedious and frustrating mess (Muramasa). And then there’s “Indigo Prophecy syndrome”, the tendency of a game with a good story to take a bizarre turn for the worst towards the end, that is the reason Yahtzee never gives a positive review unless he’s finished a game. Extending play sometimes reveals the hidden weaknesses of a game that seemed good, but the opposite rarely happens.

Of course it’s possible, especially with an MMO game, that the content available early on is less interesting than what the player can do later. Frankly, though, we should be well past the point where “kill ten rats” is considered acceptable design. I can do crappy little fetch quests in practically any game, and at this point many of them are free. If you’re asking me to pay for your game then it had better start popping within the first hour. If I can read an entire novel in the time it takes for your game to really get interesting then you are a professional failure.

So, the good folks at Nukezilla and RPS should be able to assess the quality and breadth of play within less than, say, 12 hours. What they cannot assess in that period of time is the game’s community. First of all, it takes time for a game’s player base to take shape, considerably longer than a week. Will APB tend to draw people who are just out to make random mayhem, or will it draw people who are interested in forming tight-knit crews? Perhaps it will draw both groups initially and only retain the latter after a few months. Even if the player base is established, timing plays a role. The weekend population of a game may not be the same as the one you find on weeknights. In any event, just one week won’t be enough to inform the reviewer (or by extension, potential players) just what it will be like to play the MMO game in question.

From the standpoint of writing a review this means there are two problems with the embargo. First, it’s not going to improve reviewers’ reports of the early experience. If the driving and shooting really are excruciating, then hanging around for seven days provides no benefit in terms of accurate description of the gameplay itself. Second, the only thing that can be improved by requiring a longer wait, i.e. the assessment of the game’s population, can’t actually be judged in a week anyway. For determining the quality of gameplay, a week is too long to wait; for determining the qualities of the player base, a week (especially the first week) isn’t long enough.

From a PR standpoint the embargo has a different danger. This embargo only applies to people you’ve given the gift of some free play, who presumably will at least be somewhat favorably disposed towards you as a result. Now, because they agreed to review your game for free, they have been put at a disadvantage relative to their competitors, who can get the scoop by just buying the game. Amateur reviewers and sites that didn’t play ball with you will produce all the early word on the street, meaning that you have completely ceded the message to people you don’t know. Granted, all those guys will have to pay you $60 for the right to produce their review, but is that $60 worth the loss of goodwill from sites you have a relationship with, plus the risk of handing over your message to sites you have no relationship with? Frankly, this approach strikes me as being insane. This is not to mention the perception that is created by doing the gaming equivalent of refusing to screen a film for critics.

Of course, RTW can respond to unfavorable early reviews by the now-standard mechanism of digging up a player log and complaining that the reviewer only played the game for X hours, where X is some number that a PR flack can argue is unjustly small. But this kind of protest is generally specious, for reasons I’ve outlined above. As a player, I don’t owe your game anything. I gave you $60, which means you owe me. If you’re not going to deliver on that investment unless I additionally spend hours doing things I don’t like, then I deserve to know about it. My time isn’t free, and if I’ve got to spend hours of it running stupid quests or fighting an awful control system just to get to marginally tolerable content, then I’m going to have to insist you at least pay me minimum wage for my trouble. If a reviewer has five horrible first hours with your game, then, as long as he’s honest about it, that is important information to me.

RTW has a valid point in that a review of their (or any) MMO game will not accurately capture its spirit if it’s based on a reviewer’s experience during a beta or in the first few days of the game being online. That being said, reviews sampling that period can at least let players know if the game, on a purely mechanical level, might be for them. Moreover, a delay of just a week will not suffice to let reviewers accurately assess the game’s society, as that will still be in a process of rapid evolution. In addition, this kind of a restriction will always be anathema to the first-to-publish tier of big-name review sites. Given the marginal benefits and significant costs, it’s difficult to understand why Realtime Worlds chose to take this approach rather than, say, offering sites additional free playtime after a few months to support a follow-up review focusing on the game’s community. Embargoing reviews after the release date can only serve to support negative perceptions and word of mouth.

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