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Sergey Titov is CEO of Arktos Entertainment Group.
For years there has been a standard set of rules for the online game review process. A game launched, reviews came out, and updates appeared — sometimes months later. But these rules don’t exist in the current landscape of online games. With the change to the process and the current state of online games, reviews are rarely relevant to today’s gamer at the time of launch.
Unlike retail titles, players can join almost any online game at various stages of the development process: alpha, closed and open beta, etc. Increasingly, developers are getting players into games earlier through beta monetization, which creates an audience that often plays a participatory role in the shaping of the game before editors review it at launch.
Sometimes to bypass reviews and grow a thriving community, developers prevent editors from reviewing a game too early by keeping the title in open beta for several months or sometimes even more than a year. If the game does well, developers allocate additional resources to it in order to make it more attractive to the general public at launch.
Even if an editor wanted to do a review during a game’s early stages, more often than not the title has the bare minimum of content called “minimum value product,” which is meant to attract early adopters and hardcore fans. Reviewing this state of the game makes any critique irrelevant in a short period of time since polishing and additional features will come in later.
Decrease in the decision-making process
Media is no longer influencing product revenues as it once was. Instead, social media and word of mouth play larger roles in the decision making process for today’s gamer. These days gamers are so well connected that they can easily turn to each other to determine a game’s quality and/or “playability,” making the influence of review scores somewhat moot. Web communities such as NeoGAF have also become more important as a decision-making tool for both developers and gamers.
Although we tend to put emphasis on Metacritic, the site runs into the same problem as any individual review – it only shows the game at launch. Retail games depend on the Metacritic score since the majority of sales will occur in the first month of release, but that isn’t the case with online games. At launch, an online game may only have around 5-10 percent of its potential audience with many more coming in the next year as 90 percent of development resources are spent post release. This makes Metacritic uninvolved in the decision-making process and puts focus on a game’s performance over a period of time, not just on a short term release event.
Take for instance Infestation: Survivor Stories (formerly The War Z). The game received poor reviews across the board, yet it continues to grow in terms of player base, retention, and monetization. The growth can be attributed to word of mouth promotion from players who enjoyed their time with The War Z and shared their thoughts with friends.
Additionally, the free-to-play model adopted by many games is allowing people to try a game without any monetary commitment. Prior to that, reviews played an important role because players wanted to know “is it worth me investing 20-plus hours and $60 into this game,” but now there is no risk to play 20 games for free before deciding which one to devote time and money to.
What makes things even more complicated is that we do not have one solid player community anymore. We have lots of smaller communities that are divided by numerous factors, including platform, genres, and playstyle preferences. So lots of the factors that make sense when you view a game from “is it worth my $60” standpoint become meaningless in today’s market.
Games as a service
Online games were once a product that launched and maybe had an update or two following launch. But recently, online games became services, with more content, features and polishing put into a title as time goes. If a game is performing well more resources will be spent, and as result in a 6-8 month period, the game will be quite different from what developers originally planned and what was initially released.
Some games update content so often that what may be in a game today may be tweaked or not even available 30 days from now. So a review can be out of date a week after it’s written, which doesn’t really show the game’s current state and also doesn’t help a player who may read about something that is no longer there.
It also doesn’t make sense for an editor to constantly revise their review every time there’s an update or patch. There isn’t time, especially with the number of new games launching each month, and most likely, an outlet’s audience won’t reread a review anyway.
The future of online game reviews
It certainly cannot be said that reviews are completely worthless, but it’s just doubtful that anyone is making a decision on whether or not to buy a online game based solely on reviews. It is also doubtful that hardcore fans of a specific genre, series, or company will stop playing if the game gets a bad review.
Reviews certainly do provide somewhat valuable feedback to developers as long as they are objective. From reviews, editors can come up with ideas on how to improve the game and make it appeal to a broader audience. Still, it’s up to the developer if they want to listen to the criticism because not all changes are the best thing to do from a business standpoint.
Online game reviews won’t disappear, but media will need to change to stay relevant to gamers in the coming years. Outlets need to understand why certain games will be more successful than others, while adapting reviews to today’s gaming audience to regain importance in the decision-making process. This might mean reviewing earlier in the development process without a score and focusing on video to showcase the playability of the game at its current state. Another possibility might be to have ongoing editorial updates on the game over the course of weeks or months. Whatever the way, something needs to change in order to make the editorial review of online games more relevant for today’s gamer.
Sergey Titov is CEO of Arktos Entertainment Group, a private company providing investment capital as well as technology platforms for companies in the video games industry. Titov is a passionate game developer and entrepreneur, combining work on his own titles with investments into independent studios. He is most known for being the executive producer of Infestation: Survivor Stories, a survivor-MMO zombie game that released in 2012.