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The fallout of the SimCity DRM debacle hit somewhere rare: review scores. The game showed how much review scores did not matter as troubles continued. So what does that mean ultimately?

In a strange bout of weirdness, SimCity is having a bunch of issues. Always-online DRM has not worked as Electronic Arts anticipated, and some find the backlash laughable. Others, mainly the game’s owners, are more discouraged. But while the required connection is thought-provoking in itself, rising out of the ashes of SimCity is an industry-wide concern: the validity and absurdity of review scores.

Criticism of all types uses some form of grading system. It is an inherent attribute of writing about consumable media, and gives readers an easy-to-read format to quickly identify quality. The presence of scoring also subjects the body of writing–the understanding and explanation as to why that score was given–to a backdoor role because often readers just care about the score and nothing else. A great example is the game industry’s earnest attempts to remind the viewing public (the journalists too in some regard) of the Metacritic score.

Metacritic’s newfound importance twists the process because not every outlet or opinion shares the same reasoning or integrity. A site paying dozens of writers to report news daily is on equal footing with a site sporting one or two volunteer writers and one-hundredth of an audience. (Like comparing IGN to Holygrenade.) The latter site could hold a perfect valid opinion, completely unbiased and uncensored, but an average consumer going to Metacritic will not know that. Therefore, a slanted or paid review can enter the rating and what was a below-average game suddenly turns average.

It is when the publisher involves themselves directly that reviews are untrustworthy and unpublishable. Perhaps preparing for SimCity‘s flailing launch, Electronic Arts wanted to fly reviewers out to Seattle to play the game in a controlled setting. And to use a previous version, not the retail-ready one. The publisher relented after no one responded, and those aware reviewers saved potential buyers a massive headache. Even more so than now with the game’s rampant issues.

Reviews had no idea of the firestorm to come, thus the write-ups barely mentioned the required Internet connection as a problem. Scores rounded out between 85 to 95, meaning it was a masterpiece. That tone changed significantly when long queues began and persisted up to a week, much longer than last year’s notable brouhaha Diablo 3, which also forced players to be online. During Electronic Arts’ prolonged fix, many journalists questioned if scores should reflect purely a game’s quality or the overall experience. Polygon dropped its score from 95 to 80, then to 40 where it currently sits. Most places, though, stuck to their original grade and noted the connection struggles in their review. Joystiq waited until six days after launch to award SimCity two-and-a-half stars.

Tussling with scoring after release is one way. Waiting almost a week is another. The latter, however, starved Joystiq of potential readership and ad revenue by not posting near the embargo. It is tug-of-war journalism: putting consumers first in spite of lost revenue. In a pecuniary sense, posting a review early and feeding it updates generates articles, and the fact that no other outlet did that gave Polygon more press. Jostling with a score after publishing, however, is largely meaningless to those who purchased day one, or even a couple of days later.

In all this, one thing is certain: Electronic Arts’ insistence on always-online DRM has manipulated reviewing procedure alongside a long list of other issues. Its inclusion has angered many people and turned the firm into a laughing stock. How news sources find a way around this should be interesting and almost as eye-opening as seeing a game implode or a publisher backtrack. The one great point from this is seeing the media actually challenge for SimCity‘s failures, and not strictly in the server department: Rock Paper Shotgun called it “inherently broken“; Wired described it as “just one more DRM disaster“; and ScrewAttack labeled that useless disc as an “overpriced coaster”.

If Electronic Arts or another company clings to the use of DRM, another tsunami-sized problem is down the road. It is a lose-lose for everyone. Especially reviewers.

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  • Matt S

    So. Should a critic be writing a review based on his/ her immediate experience with the game, or the understanding that a year from now people will still be reading that review?

    Sim City’s servers will be fixed – likely within the next few weeks. The reviews that tore it to shreds based on a temporary issue won’t ever be fixed.

    • Baden Ronie

      To me a review is always based upon the product handed to the reviewer at time. While the reviewer can mention that the flaws within the game can be patched, the reviewer cannot rely on fixes that may or may not even arrive, and so their opinion must be formed on what is in front of them at the tme

      When I read a review, I assume it’s based upon the product that the reviewer had in his or her hands at time of writing, not what it could potentially be in the future.

      For example, let’s say I reviewed XCOM: Enemy Unknown. I do write game reviews, but never had the time to cover it when it first release. Still, it’s a good example, I reckon. In the game there’s quite a lot of glitches in regards to line of sight etc. that can cause some unfair loses and general irritation. Now, if I was reviewing it at the time of launch, I could have simply ignored those problems because, “They’ll likely be fixed within a week or two” and never mentioned them. The problem is, they were never fixed, which would have rendered the review rather untruthful as I failed to mention a fairly annoying problem. Of course XCOM isn’t a perfect example as those problems wouldn’t be enough to make me give it a low score, but still, you get what I mean.

      Or how about Amy? That’s the worst game I’ve ever played. I could give it a 5/5, saying that it’ll be great when they’ve released a couple of dozen patches! Except it isn’t, and never will be.

      To me, a review is based upon the product handed to the reviewer, not upon what the product could potentially be some time down the line.

      Hopefully I got my point across in a decent manner. If not, I’ve had not sleep in three days – have mercy :D

    • Jeff

      That’s the question. I don’t know to be honest. But in rating an always-online game at least, Kotaku’s model works best.

  • TheFatherofLies

    EA got heat for this nonsense back when Red Alert 3 came out. Because C&C RE is more niche the intensity of the backlash was considered acceptable. You can’t look at that games reviews on Amazon. without seeing how a good product that should have had strong reviews was left looking sub-par. They knew the risk and now one of their biggest and longest running IPs is paying the price.

  • zebo

    Too much talk about drm,too less about always on and the”you must be an origin member” and sadly
    Missed the real point:paid reviews.
    Those made the mediocre Halo4 look like a master piece-in fact a solid and good great looking but mediocre 85% game,Nothing special.
    But compared to the first sim city reviews the too high halo 5ratings were alright.
    Ignoring drm,always on and server problems sim city has so many flaws,the gameplay was dumped down,the AI a catastrophy,the maps too small-but the games first reviews were 91%.????
    that shows how corruppt reviewers are.

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