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Do Live-Service Game Reviews Count?

VO: Riccardo Tucci WRITTEN BY: JG
Games as service video games are always evolving and being added to, so the version that people play at lunch often looks very different than what we play a year later. Games like Sea of Thieves, Diablo III and No Man's Sky were disappointing at launch, but patches and content updates made them worth buying in the end. On the other hand, people pay full price for a game at launch, so shouldn't that mean that, at launch, a live-service game should provide a full experience?
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When Should We Review Live Service Games?

After a big expansion and a number of massive changes to its systems and gameplay, “Fallout 76” is actually good now! … Just kidding, it’s still broken, but how many times have you heard that story?

From “Destiny 2,” to “The Division,” to “No Man's Sky,” at this point the “‘Live Service Game X’ is Good Now” headlines are becoming a cliche - heck, we’re guilty of it too! Anthem, the new Third-Person Loot Shooter from “Mass Effect” and “Dragon Age” developers BioWare, is the newest game in the Live Service space to be released to negative reviews at launch - the question is, will “Anthem” have the same redemption arc like so many games before it, and if it does, what should happen to its review scores?

So what are the beats of this all-too-familiar story? First, “Live Service Game X” releases to lukewarm reviews and probably earns between a 6 and a 7 on Metacritic. “It lacks polish” reviewers will say. “There’s not enough content” cry the fans on the game’s subreddit. Then, slowly and over time, the game’s developers listen to critical complaints and fan outcry and begin to change what people don’t like and add more of what people enjoy. Now, suddenly, there’s plenty of polish and tons of content. A big ol’ expansion drops, presenting an opportunity for players who abandoned the game - or players who never picked it up in the first place - to jump in and experience the game in it’s, quote, “true form.”

It’s a familiar tale, right? It might help to explain why games like “Anthem” and “Fallout 76” are released when they clearly could use a few more months of development. The publishers see the existing narrative in games culture of Live Service Games making their triumphant rise from disappointment to cultural phenomenon, and think “we could release the game now and fix it in a few months - no big deal.”

The result? Well, when reviewers get their hands on these kinds of games, they’re usually dealing with a shadow of what that game will eventually become. Nevertheless, they have to give it a score. But should they? Take “Anthem” as an example: it officially launched on February 22nd, 2019 but was available via EA Access on the 15th of February, a full week before it’s official launch, which is when many reviewers got their hands on the full game. And while our reviewer Cem - who acknowledged some of the game's shortcomings and issues but otherwise liked “Anthem” - most other critics weren’t impressed. But many will come to the game's defense, claiming “these issues will be fixed in the future.” Sure, that’s probably true, but should games be reviewed for what they could become, or for what they are? If publishers are comfortable putting out games that aren’t fully-formed, they have to anticipate that it will be treated as such by critics.

Based on the feedback from players about bugs, long loading times, and more, EA released a so-called Day-One Patch for Anthem… a day before the game’s actual release. So, really, it’s a Day-Zero Patch. This is a small example of a larger problem that these kinds of games present to the industry at large and the media that covers it: games used to just… come out. The state the game was in when you bought it was the same state it would be a year later. However, things began to change in the early 2000s. While patches have been around for a long time for PC games, the first console game to receive a patch was “Unreal Championship” in 2003. While patches have helped developers eliminate lingering bugs and issues in their games that made it passed QA during development, they’ve also become a crutch. Live-Service games are the direct result of patches becoming so commonplace in games that they become essential to the development and roll-out. If you can make changes to your game at any point, you’re a lot more likely to release an unfinished product knowing that you could still fix it later down the line.

But when should critics consider the game a finished product? The honest answer is that a Live Service Game is only a truly “finished” once it stops receiving updates, and the only reason that would happen is if the developers are releasing a sequel, as was the case for the first “Destiny,” or if enough players lose interest and it no longer makes sense financially for the developers to support the game. The only reasonable solution, unfortunately for developers, is to review the game the same way you would for any other release and consider the game “finished” once it launches… even though we all know that isn’t the case. Sure, that means that in many cases, games that will eventually find their footing and their audience will be plagued by rough reviews, but hopefully it will also signal to developers that while there’s nothing wrong with making improvements to your game, it’s not an excuse to sell what is essentially an Early Access game as a full-release title.

So, with all that being said, we now pose the question to you: how should we - the people who review video games - be reviewing Live Serive Games. Should we be reviewing these games right when they come out as we do with normal game releases, or should we be holding off? Do you want us to let you know if and when “Fallout 76 becomes good? Should we update our review if and when it does? Let us know in the comments, we’d love to know what you think.
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