The exact date of when reviews began to lose their relevance is indeterminable. Perhaps it began in 2014 with the release of Destiny—the first major games-as-a-service title to claim to cater for single-player gamers. Perhaps it began with the widespread availability of internet-connected consoles in the previous generation. Perhaps it began earlier still, with The Sims, Civilization II, and other games that expanded after release thanks to add-on content. Whenever it began, the effect is clear: release-day reviews can no longer be regarded as gospel truth.
The latest game to mark the trend is, of course, the highly controversial Anthem. BioWare’s latest project has been savaged by critics, with negativity focusing on the long loading times, unbalanced loot systems, overall game structure, and story (or lack thereof).
In response to the critical savaging, Xbox’s Corporate Vice President Mike Ybarra took to Twitter to defend Anthem by attacking a reviewer for expressing a perceived “lack of knowledge” about the game’s mechanics. After his initial tweet met with a frosty reception, Ybarra suggested that the entire review process needs to be rethought:
I don't do "reviews" because everyone enjoys different things. I'd suggest "modern reviews" should be watching streamers play a game, doing the demo, listening to what your gaming friends think – and if it seems like something you will enjoy then great.
— Mike Ybarra (@XboxQwik) February 20, 2019
Ignoring the slight against the institution of journalism (and freely admitting that journalistic integrity with respect to the gaming industry is, perhaps, not as fashionable as it should be), Ybarra may not be wrong in suggesting the need of a “’modern review’” process. However, his outline is flawed.
Over the past few years, the world has become engulfed in rhetoric about fake news and post-truth, and those terms are applicable to the gaming industry. The means of that relevance: online connectivity. Gamers reminisce about the days—not so long ago—when buying a game meant receiving a complete package. No more. Many games now receive a day one patch to fix issues unable to be fixed before the gold master. Many games also receive some kind of post-launch support to make them better, longer, or more engaging than when they first appear on store shelves.
In such a landscape, the enshrined process of reviewing a product at launch is deeply flawed. That kind of review is a snapshot that even on the day of publication may be outdated. Releases are accompanied by roadmaps featuring content yet to come. For Anthem, that roadmap is a three-month plan. The Division 2 and Destiny 2 have also received similar treatment from their respective developers.
Each of these games-as-a-service games proves the fallacy of allowing a launch day review to be the final word. In respect of this argument, Bethesda was something of a harbinger. A few years ago, the single-player-oriented publisher announced a decision to not provide review codes until release day. The most likely reason was an attempt to protect its profits from the effects of negative reviews, but the decision reflects a truth that has become ever more evident: single-player games suffer the most damage from a negative first impression.
In this landscape of post-truth reviews, single-player games have the most to lose. Fans can safely expect Anthem, The Division, Destiny, and even Call of Duty and Battlefield to be expanded on and improved after release. The need to cater to a live audience ensures that. The same cannot be said of single-player games.
The Sims 4, No Man’s Sky, Agony, and Street Fighter V are just some of the recent games that have had their single-player offerings excoriated on release. However, in each case, the developers listened to feedback and instituted changes to appease the fanbase. Those games improved (to a greater or lesser extent) over time, yet they never really received a fair go from the critics.
Few journalists returned after six months or a year to examine the changes made to these products and determine whether the flaws so egregious on release had been rectified. The failure to do so makes sense: news moves fast. In the gaming world, last year’s game often may as well be last decade’s because the rate of releases is frighteningly high and many gamers—or at least the most vocal ones—do not have the patience to wait for a title to improve. Once burned, twice shy.
No doubt some readers are even now flexing their fingers, preparing to term me an apologist or a shill and launch an attack against a perception that I am defending the practice of releasing a flawed game. Not so. Developers absolutely should be made aware when what they have released is not up to par, but the players and critics should also be aware that, in the modern age, games are no longer analogous to books or films. In those more established media, the released product is the final one. Occasionally a re-release will include some editing or an alternative ending, but nothing on the scale of what is available to game developers.
The review process that has heretofore been applied to games is centuries old, but has always been carried out on immovable objects. Games, though, in this digital age are malleable and prone to transformations carried to them through fibre optic cables. The old-school review is simply no longer applicable; no longer can it stand upon its hill—it must be buried beneath it. A new approach—even if it is to systematically revisit games six months after launch—needs to be found to suit a medium more flexible than any that has come before, and, if it is not, single-player games have the most to lose.