Talking myself out of a hobby.
So Sea of Thieves is out, and it’s receiving some pretty middling scores… and you know how I feel about review scores. Still, while reading a particularly mediocre review of Sea of Thieves, something occurred to me as I made my way to the comments section to see what others thought.
Many games these days, change.
I don’t necessarily mean all games inevitably get better. Some do, but some don’t. One type of game usually does though, and they’ve become a bit of a bad word in the gaming community.
“Games As A Service”
Some of the older gamers all remember logging into a multiplayer game sometime in their past only to be confronted with a message saying something to the tune of “cannot contact multiplayer servers”. This is a fear of gamers around the world when it comes to buying a game which is treated by the publisher as a service instead of just a game. Today, the major issue surrounding “games as a service” is that they often include microtransactions, and more recently, loot boxes.
However, one of the nice things about these games in particular, is that they can improve over time, and that introduces a bit of a snag into the whole review process.
Most reviews offer a glimpse of what the reviewed title is like at release, talking about the issues that are apparent when it first came out. I’m not interested in downplaying those problems, because they can be a huge source of frustration for anyone trying to just play the damn thing. Remember Battlefield 4‘s launch problems? Or Grand Theft Auto Online being more or less non-functional? What do those experiences feel like today, now that those issues have been ironed out?
Yet we find ourselves reading reviews that criticize games for things that can – and often are – fixed, but said reviews are never updated when the issue is resolved.
The problem is that so many reviews focus on things that can change quite easily, or issues that are only that way because the critic wants what they’re reviewing to be something it’s not.
There are quite a few titles out on the market today which have gameplay that relies on the player to create the experience they want to have. Previously, that only meant role-playing, but in the day of “games as a service”, it means creating your own fun. Games like Elite: Dangerous, EVE Online, Grand Theft Auto Online, and even Sea of Thieves don’t offer massive, overarching narratives or strict quest structures. You’re given a massive sandbox to play in, and you’re funneled towards other players in the hopes of either introducing conflict or encouraging cooperation.
This approach is called “emergent gameplay”, which is defined as a gameplay system that generates complex outcomes from simple mechanics. For instance, in Elite: Dangerous, you may only be given simple missions such as being told to deliver a shipment of goods or eliminating a bounty target, but in your pursuit of completing that task, any number of variables can affect the outcome. In multiplayer games, those variables usually come in the form of other players influencing change. You may stumble across another pilot who is willing to help you out, or you might be ripped out of FTL and forced to defend yourself as you’re heading to your destination.
Games that take this approach tend to attract criticism from those seeking a more involved or defined experiences. They aren’t the type of game for people wanting a story told to them, so review a title like Elite: Dangerous or Sea of Thieves from the perspective of expecting a storyline, and using that as a reason to speak negatively about them is misguided. Looking for a story in a game which focuses on emergent gameplay is like buying a motorcycle and expecting it to be good for moving day.
Then there’s the sticky issue of other players, and how they can impact the experience. So often in reviews, you’ll find that the influence of other players on the experience can either be a detractor or completely glossed over. For example, all team-based multiplayer games require the player to work with others in the pursuit of winning a match or finishing a raid. However, your success is tied to those other players. Sure, sometimes you can still have fun if you fail, but more often than not you don’t want to jump into match after match only to lose constantly.
That’s why reviewing multiplayer oriented games can be such a crapshoot, especially if you don’t have a sizeable group of friends to call on to help you test out team-focused elements in a game. Without that, you’re limited to random folks, both on your team and against you. In order for you to succeed, you need the luck of the draw. So if you have a bad experience, such as dealing with hyper-aggressive opponents, griefers, or team killers, you’re far more likely to think poorly of the game in question. The key here is that those issues are caused by other players, and many others could have a vastly different experience.
What Works For Some, Might Not Work For All
One thing I’ve learned during my short tenure of writing reviews, is that there are good and bad ways to write critiques. It’s easy to point out everywhere a game falls short, but there are issues that deserve to be called out, and issues that don’t. It’s one thing to note how a game’s story is weak or unfocused, and another to complain that there isn’t a story in a game that never made a claim to feature one. Lamenting that a game suffers from technical problems is different from not enjoying the teams that you’ve been playing with, or that you had a hard time winning matches because people didn’t work together. Similarly, it isn’t fair to gloss over problems that plague one game, while using those same points to draw criticism for another.
That’s why I find it difficult to review certain titles, personally. It’s why the multiplayer in game reviews I’ve written don’t focus on the quality of the matches, but center in on what sort of modes are offered. It’s why I don’t harp on technical issues so much, and instead choose to call out the video and audio presentation instead. It’s precisely why I don’t focus so heavily on the quest structure in MMO-lite games, because their quests are designed to account for multiple players, not tell a glorious story.
Writing meaningful reviews isn’t easy, and it’s best to write reviews about games only after seeking to understand the intent of the game developers and the audience to which it is aimed. Like I’ve stated before, this is why I don’t write reviews for games that fall outside my areas of interest. I don’t believe it’s fair to skewer a game because I don’t like the core mechanics or genre.
With that in mind, I still think that game reviews do have their place. Not purely out of self-interest, or the fact that I want people to continue reading my reviews (even though I do), but because a review composed in a meaningful manner can help drive discussion about the game, and even help shed light on things that drive people to purchase something they’re on the fence about, or steer them away from something that would be a waste of money.
However, that all comes with a caveat. Composing a review about a game that you don’t like, not based on the quality of the experience, but simply because the experience itself wouldn’t entertain you regardless of its quality, is useless to everyone who views it (apart from those who derive enjoyment from listening to others complain). That’s why some reviews aren’t useful at all.
It’s best to remember that while reviewing games is a subjective affair, they still serve a purpose. Reviews of games based solely on technical quality, wanting an experience the developer never promised, or having a bad experience with other players don’t serve a purpose. Reviews can be more than just a rant about all the things the writer didn’t like about the game in question. They’re snapshots of what games are about, and can help guide those that want to make a decision.
But that’s just my personal take on the matter.
What are your thoughts about game reviews? Are they still useful today? What are your thoughts about emergent gameplay, multiplayer reviews, and technical issues which get resolved? Time to discuss!
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