I don't like writing game reviews. I'm a news guy, comfortable moving within and reporting on the binary conclusions of business in the video game industry. Reviews are emotional. Always have been. With SimCity and Diablo 3, I think the already tempestuous machine of game reviews in this industry has changed forever, and as a collective we haven't yet determined how to proceed. SimCity and Diablo 3 aren't just games, they are also services. The question: Should these games be reviewed separately from their service elements or should they be reviewed in combination?
Comparing this to the restaurant industry, the game is the food and the internet-required connection is the table service. Back of the house and front of the house. What we've seen following the launches of Diablo 3 and SimCity are people paying money to walk into the restaurant on opening day and not being served a meal. In a restaurant there would be immediate and dire consequences for such poor customer service. In the video game industry, there's no shortage of apologists justifying the outcome. Nobody genuflects to poor customer service excuses in a restaurant. Any restaurant review would treat the meal and service as one singular expression of the experience.
Massively Multiplayer Online games have been judged for years by critics separately from the state of their servers and customer service experience. Top tier multiplayer shooters also suffer from server issues at launch, like EA's Battlefield franchise and Activision's Call of Duty. Popular games often have issues carrying the load of a massive launch. Of course, in the case of those shooters, there's still the chips and salsa of the offline single-player experience. In fact, for Battlefield: Bad Company 2 we separated our single-player and multiplayer reviews because we were concerned – given Battlefield's service history – about the quality of the consumer experience at launch.
In our conversations about always-on internet connections we keep getting caught up in debates about digital rights management (DRM), the idea that people should "just get over it" and similar capitulations that the system can't be beat so we might as well give in. I want to remove all of that from the equation and let's focus on service.
Why is the customer service experience not part of the review equation? I believe we treat developers (the chefs) and the service experience we receive from publishers as two different concepts. We'd never do that for a restaurant, but we do it for the games industry, an industry that will – make no mistake about this – become more and more about service.
I can already imagine the cries against reviews placing the quality of the game and its service to customers together. If reviews for SimCity were posted today, based on the ability to play, we'd easily see an aggregate Metacritic review score well below the average. We can talk about sliding review scores all we want, but the first review score a site posts is the one that aggregate sites, like Metacritic, pick up. Review scores determine bonuses and, no matter what our personal feelings about aggregate sites, they directly impact the wallets of industry players.
If SimCity had a review average of 30 right now, one hopes EA would take a hard look at its customer service. A publisher going forward wouldn't just be worried about the quality of their game, but the quality of their service in the marketplace. An anticipated server-reliant game would very likely never launch again without proper server support.
I now go back to waiting for the SimCity servers to work so I can get started on my review for the game. I do wonder how long as a collective we can keep arguing about how unfair it is to judge a game by how it treats paying customers, especially as we keep being told that games are now a service.