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11 January 2016

When good games go bad

Sometimes the wave of excitement about a new game can take a few days to subside. Once it has, what is left?

By Phil Hartup

The backlash against a videogame, when it comes, if it comes, can often be one of the funniest parts of videogame culture. Sometimes a game will launch, there will be a fanfare, there will be high scoring reviews, there will be players swearing that this is their game of the year even though it’s only January. Then, slowly, gradually, like the mercury falling in a thermometer those good feelings will cool. But they don’t just stay cool, oh no, suddenly this game, this digital messiah, turns out not to be the messiah, but in fact a very naughty boy.

So what makes this process funny? For me, it’s the simple joy of watching the fairy-tale crowd of gaming people slowly realising that they can see the Emperor’s Doodle. That collective expression in so many different ways across social media and gaming forums of that most human of reactions, the “Hang on a minute…” leading to the moment of enlightenment.

One such game that this has happened to recently is Fallout 4. Now I should say, for the record, I think Fallout 4 is great, (not Witcher 3 great, maybe not even Metal Gear Solid V great, but it’s got a good hundred hours in it). But a lot of folks didn’t think so and it serves as a near perfect example of how a game can achieve critical acclaim one minute and be roundly scorned the next.

The acclaim can come from various sources and, contrary to assumptions, it isn’t just reviewers. The first wave of reviewers for a game with about a hundred hours of stuff to do in its locker are rarely going to pick up everything about the game in the window they have to play it. In order to drop their review on the deadline, things will get missed in the rush. This is doubly true if they are playing the game in a way that doesn’t really fit the way they would play recreationally. One of the criticisms of the glowing early reviews that Metal Gear Solid V got is that its reviewers had been dispatched on a special event to play it for review. That’s just weird.

The next wave of acclaim comes from the fans and is completely understandable a lot of the time. If you’re waiting for the Next Big Game to arrive, you’re hyped up, you’re counting down the hours on launch day, you finally get to play it, and its first impression is good, you’re going to explode with joy and tell everybody about it. Is it still good the next day, or the day after that? Not always. Sometimes the wave of excitement can take a few days to subside.

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So in the case of Fallout 4, what was wrong with it that took this long to become apparent? Simply put it’s because the game gets repetitive, but it doesn’t get repetitive for a very long time, for me it was around the hundred hour mark. Now this is a hell of a long time for a regular game, but for a Bethesda RPG the expectation among fans is generally that the first hundred hours are just a warm up lap. For the shine to fade from the apple so soon did not sit well with a lot of people. Naturally not everybody sank the first hundred hours after Fallout 4s release into the game, some people had jobs to do, children to feed, that sort of thing, so the time it took players to grow antsy has been staggered over the first month or so.

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There are of course other flaws to Fallout 4 too, not just the repetition. There are precious few interesting characters, you interact with the world near exclusively by shooting people and the main story is the ramblings of a clown in an open air museum of post-apocalyptic clichés. It’s a testament to the quality of the game as a whole that these flaws don’t harpoon it much sooner and more fatally than they do.

So is there a way for reviews to see this kind of problem coming? On the face of it, not really, not if the places producing reviews want to pick up those extra website hits for getting their review out the very second the embargo lifts. If a game has a problem that only manifests itself a very long way in a reviewer can’t be expected to hit it unless they are playing the game constantly, and if they are, and if that’s not how they’d typically play the game, then they might chalk up being bored as a natural side effect of their circumstances. Bingeing on a game to get to the end so you can file your copy on time isn’t the same as bingeing on a game because you want to, and it’s certainly not the same as playing the game in sensible amounts over a longer period of time like one of those normal people you hear about on TV.

Some sites have tried to change their approach. For example Kotaku has made an effort by dropping the conventional numerical scores on reviews and moving towards a system of embedding writers with a game over a longer period. This kind of approach is common in the wider sphere of games criticism too, where writers will approach games not because they are new and require an immediate numerical score but because they just want to write about them. This is great longer term but for the ordinary gamer waiting for the game to launch, tormented by multimillion dollar advertising campaigns and carefully nurtured peer-pressure, it’s no help.

Could games companies help? Well they could, but would it be worth their while? Giving out review copies far enough ahead of release that the reviewers can actually play the game into the ground in their own time is great in theory. In practice you might get your code leaked and then congratulations, your game is available to pirate before it’s available to buy. Or you might, like so many game developers these days, be struggling to hit your own deadline, so instead of having a game ready to go two weeks or so before launch day you’re working crunch hours just to get it out the door on time and you’ll be working them for another month on necessary patches. Plus you need to be spectacularly confident in your product to gamble that it’ll benefit more from extra critical attention rather than from less. Or maybe, just maybe, they could dial down the hard sell a bit and divert the money to the development budget. Better game, less hype, fat chance.

The smart thing to do, as a customer, is to wait, if you’re really not sure. In this era of Youtube Let’s Plays and wall to wall gobshites on social media it’s practically impossible for the true quality of a videogame to remain unknown for more than a couple of months. Plus if it does turn out the game you were looking at is a secret stinker at least you get your laugh for free.