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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