Second Chance Video Games

A discussion on re-reviewing games

Video game development has taken on a new life over the last decade. Between mobile, indie, and AAA games, we are seeing games being supported for longer periods after launch. It’s not just about patching a game to fix bugs, but continuing to build out a game experience over months or years. The recent release of No Man’s Sky’s Next update gives us another chance to talk about a tricky topic for video game journalism: re-reviewing games.

Continued development

In 2018, a game may be released but that doesn’t mean it’s finished. The scope and timeframe between a game’s launch and the end of its development roadmap varies by game and development studio. In the past, most studios considered that post-launch support extended only to delivering bug fixes (or perhaps balancing improvements) before the team moves on to another project.

But today, it has become common for developers to continually grow an experience through ongoing development effort well beyond launch. The trend has become so widespread that many consumers now expect it from most of the games they purchase. Thanks to digital distribution, development effort doesn’t necessarily need to cease once the discs are printed — patches can be delivered directly to players over time more seamlessly than ever.

The scope of this continued support can take multiple forms; it might include new maps, or perhaps entirely new game systems. We are seeing more cases of games evolving into something quite different when compared to their original version 1.0.

There are two major ways this situation may unfold: a game could have sold so well that it makes financial sense for developers to continually support it in an effort to grow the franchise (examples would be games like Payday 2 and Warframe). In other cases, a game might have experienced a somewhat rocky launch and the developers want to correct aspects of the design or simply improve the quality (examples here would include titles like Brigador, The Witcher, No Man’s Sky and Skyshine’s Bedlam). In each of these cases, developers have opted to essentially “re-release” these titles with numerous enhancements.

It’s true that getting a better version of a game is cause for good news, but it does leave a big question on the table for games journalists: what happens to the original review?

Reviewing reviews

Game developers know that their game can live or die based on reviews. A quick way to turn people off on Steam is to see that “Mostly Negative” tag at the top of the page. With so many people reviewing games these days, it has become hard to separate the signal from the noise — but that is a topic for another time.

The problem with the relationship between game and review — whether it’s on a storefront or on Metacritic — is that the review becomes permanently attached to the game. In a more static medium (like film or television), it’s not so much a problem; but video games today continue to evolve over time, and the original review can quickly become mildly (or sometimes entirely) unrelated to the game experience as it stands today.

This brings us to No Man’s Sky, which recently saw a major update in the form of No Man’s Sky Next. Hello Games have so far supported the title for a full two years post-launch, largely in response to backlash around the original release. A quick glance at Metacritic shows that the game had a 61/100 average at the time of writing this piece. Many gamers will be informed enough to be aware of the significant post-launch work that has gone into the game, but what about the average consumer?

Most people simply aren’t going to take the time to read through every review and look up all the news and updates about the game — they’ll take a look at the overall rating on Metacritic and then move on. Some fans may go back and edit their previous reviews, but it’s unlikely to be a common occurrence.

Never-ending work

Another relevant point relates to game reviewers themselves; in the past, I’ve discussed the sheer amount of games being released every single day and how tough it can be to cover them all. Journalists and reviewers are constantly flooded by new game releases and in this context, how they are they expected to find the time to re-review already-released games?

It can be difficult to work in the game industry if you are tethered to new game announcements and reviews. Personally, I do have the luxury of being able to go back and re-consider games in my spotlight videos, but I’m more the exception than the rule.

Second chances

It goes without saying that developers should — and mostly do — strive to put their best foot forward when it comes to a game’s initial launch, with the hope that this effort will be reflected in positive reviews. However, today’s game industry continues to push forward with post-release support for video games, regardless of whether or not they had a positive or negative initial reception.

For games that fall into this category, a single review at the moment of launch doesn’t seem to be enough. But what determines how often (or how many times) a game should be re-reviewed? Do we commit to a re-review every six months, once a year, or go with the number of patches?

Developers who commit to continual updates of their game after launch — especially where said game didn’t receive an overly positive reception at first — are often in a fairly thankless position. This is perhaps one reason why we see developers try to promote big updates in the context of major events, or even rename their title to show consumers that it isn’t the same game anymore.

Before I finish up this piece, I’m going to bring in James Burns, Editor in Chief of Super Jump to continue the conversation.

James’ take

Josh’s piece highlights a fascinating dilemma facing the game industry, and especially games journalists if we are talking about reviews specifically.

For developers, the proposition of “never finished” games can be both a blessing and a curse. Yes, perhaps consumer expectation is such that we now demand continual updates to the game we bought at a particular point in time; when developers first announce a new game, their roadmap is often as keenly critiqued as the initial release of the game itself.

On the other hand, SaaS (software as a service) isn’t a new concept — it’s just a lot newer to video games than to other kinds of software. And as much as the idea of continually updating a game can seem onerous, it’s also an enormous opportunity — as Josh indicates above, you can fix bugs and adjust game balance over time, but you can also test new ideas and features rapidly with a (hopefully) large established audience. Better yet, you can respond flexibly to fan feedback and critique of the experience. If something really isn’t working, you can change that experience for almost all players — in the good old days, you’d have been pretty much screwed if you shipped thousands (or millions) of cartridges which carried a nasty bug. In those circumstances, attempting to improve the experience over time was also obviously out of the question.

There’s definitely a challenge for reviewers here, but I don’t think it’s as tricky as it may first appear.

When you are sitting down to review a game, you’re always reviewing that game at a particular point in time — it’s like a snapshot. Most games receive reviews when they initially launch as a version 1.0. This tends to mean that “early access” games (which might be made available to players in alpha or beta stages) usually aren’t reviewed as such — many writers will provide impressions or early thoughts about these experiences, with the understanding that they aren’t yet at version 1.0 from the developer’s point of view.

It makes sense to me that, in most cases, a game should be reviewed at launch and again when major content updates are shipped — this could certainly include major updates that radically change a game’s balancing, or that fix particularly glaring problems. An example of the latter might be something like Mass Effect: Andromeda, which saw significant bug/glitch fixes post-launch. Some outlets decided to let their original review stand, perhaps believing that these updates weren’t significant enough to warrant a completely new review. Others, though, decided to commit to a fresh look at the experience — especially if they decided that the corrected issues had been a significant factor in their original review.

There are numerous reasons to be cynical about games that can continually evolve; many gamers rightfully complain about games suffering from unacceptable quality problems at launch, or a dearth of meaningful content. It’s understandable to think that, as a gamer, if I’m paying $60 for a game, I’m paying for the game that I bought today and not necessarily the promise of a wonderful experience that I might get in a year’s time. This is an important consideration, because whatever else may be the case, a reviewer must consider the thing they are reviewing at the time they are writing said review. You can’t review something you haven’t actually played yet.

At the same time, the idea of games as a service also holds a great deal of promise, especially in the right hands. The No Man’s Sky example should potentially restore faith in the value of continual investment in a single title over time — if the development team were unable to make any changes post-launch, we’d be left with a fairly average product that has no real opportunity for redemption. There are so many examples of this (Final Fantasy XIV, anyone?), but No Man’s Sky is certainly the most salient recent case.

As for me, well, I tend to be a fairly optimistic sort of person. There are always negative cases when it comes to a topic like this, but I prefer to look at the opportunities here. It’s also worth saying — as someone who occasionally reviews games — that it can be quite a pleasure discover that a game which shipped with significant flaws is now a much-improved experience (and perhaps even one you can genuinely recommend).
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