Reviewers can’t figure out SimCity, but neither can EA: This is why we’re all screwed
Here's a thought experiment. Imagine a bunch of critics go into a movie theater and watch The Big Lebowski. They all agree that it was a pretty good movie. That night, the theater burns down. The critics come back, but now they are surrounded by other people.
“I bet you think that movie is pretty shitty now, huh?” one of the bystanders says to the critic. The film hasn't changed, has it? Do the critics need to go back and change their review of the movie? What if the bystanders had already bought tickets, and now they can't see the film they paid for? Welcome to the state of modern game criticism. If you thought scored reviews were a pain in the ass before, you ain't seen nothing yet.
It's only going to get worse
The tricky thing about modern games, and our movement towards experiences that are always online, is that you can't separate the metaphorical theater from the film. If the SimCity servers aren't operational, no one can play the game.
If those same servers are operating under a heavy load, you may be stuck replaying that lengthy tutorial section without being able to create your own city. It's possible that you'll be asked to wait in a server queue to play what you wanted to be a single-player game.
“Some players may currently be experiencing issues or delays when attempting to join a game server or region - or may be unable to create a city at this time,” EA explained. “Additionally, there are intermittent reports of friends list, invite, and tutorial delays and errors. We are working to clear traffic from the roads and hope to have all players managing their cities as soon as possible.”
These experiences are, to put it bluntly, not optimal. It's tempting to simply say that one should wait at least two days before trying to purchase and play a game that requires an always-on Internet connection, a move that would give the publisher time to manage server load and get everything running. That's a rational move but, dammit, we shouldn't have to wait to play games we want to buy now.
Maybe it would be better if reviews got rid of the numbered score, at least for a bit, just to say “not yet.” When the consumer's best move is to wait to buy a game they've already decided to spend money on rather than purchasing the game at release, something very wrong has occurred. This shouldn't just concern gamers, as the publishers would probably love to have your money as much as you'd like to give it to them. Perhaps more so.
The question is whether our complaints, the forum posts, and the bitching on Twitter mean anything. If we say we're not going to put up with this, but still buy these games in large numbers, EA is going to listen to the sales numbers instead of your words. What we do is more important than what we say, and most of us knew that buying SimCity would be a risk for the first few days, just as we know that the launch of every Battlefield game is going to be an unholy mess. It's sad that EA couldn't launch an online game this large smoothly, but when have they ever done so? It would have been news if they had gotten it right, not the other way around.
This sort of situation makes reviewing SimCity nearly impossible. Polygon is updating their score as the servers go up and down, and that's one way to handle it. We'll be following the game with ongoing coverage, and that's another. Both approaches have their flaws, and it may be that SimCity is simply immune to the idea of a classical “review.”
My rational brain thinks that anyone who bought the game at launch should have expected this rocky road, but having our expectations lowered to the extent that we browbeat gamers for having the audacity of thinking their games should work on release date is a depressing state of affairs.
We don't have an easy answer for what EA could have done to manage their servers better, and it's definitely a complex problem, but we're also not asking $60 for a product that gamers can't use reliably. I want to say that we should rise up, and cast off these brutal shackles. I wish I could say that we should never give EA another dime of our money, and they brought their financial hardship on themselves with invasive DRM and poor planning for game launches. I want to march with you down the street, throwing bricks through the windows of the publishers who have brought us to this place.
I can't do that, however. I was invited in before the theater burnt down. I know how good this movie is, and I think you'll like it. In a few days. Once everything works. I just don't know how to translate that into a score. No one does.