Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
Atari and early reviews

The story of the day is Atari suing reviewers for bad reviews of Alone in the Dark. Which obviously is a bad idea, because the negative backlash for suing them is going to hurt them more than the positive effect of getting somebody to retract a bad review. And far more people will now be aware of that game having bad reviews than if the bad reviews would just have been allowed to stand.

But of course there is more behind the story than the headlines suggest. Atari isn't suing reviewers for bad reviews, it is suing for bad reviews that came out before the game was officially released, and written by people who didn't receive an official preview copy. Atari claims the reviewers basically pirated the game, and there are effectively already pirate copies on Bittorrent, before the game is even released. The reviewers claim they got copy from distributors who didn't take the official release date all that serious, or got a second-hand preview copy.

So what interests me about the story is the question in how far a game company should be able to control pre-release reviews. Even single-player game preview copies might be incomplete. And alpha- and beta-leaks of MMORPGs are not always representative of the real game. Some companies start a beta only when their game is nearly complete, other companies still do major changes to the game during the beta process. Some games, like AoC, even still do major changes in the months after release.

I will see a version of Wrath of the Lich King this weekend at the Blizzard 2008 Worldwide Invitational at Paris. How close will that version be to the release version? If I see a bug or badly designed game feature, should I write about it, or assume it is going to be fixed and keep mum? I simply don't know how much development is still going to be done on WotLK, I don't even know the release date.

Warhammer Online is a similar story: It is public knowledge that the game changed significantly during the beta process, which is a long one. When I read comments from people who said "I tried the beta and it sucked", I don't even know whether whatever they didn't like isn't already fixed, nor do I know what changes will still come before release. Of course it doesn't help that this sort of comments usually isn't very specific. How do you measure "suck"? And is that "suck" based on personal dislike of a feature, or more objective? No game is perfect, and again Age of Conan is a good example for a game where some people love the game so much they are willing to overlook the imperfections, and other people are so annoyed by the imperfections that they are willing to call the whole game bad.

In the case of Age of Conan at least Funcom can't complain if they get bad reviews, at least these are based on a released game, where people paid money for in the current state. Blizzard has more of a case when it shuts down sites with alpha leaks for WotLK. EA Mythic apparently only kicks people out from the WAR beta without going after their reporting, as far as I know. Putting a genie back into the bottle is hard to do anyway. Certainly alpha- and beta-leaks are at least a breach of some NDA.

I think there are cases where even if a game company doesn't want the word to spread, it is justified to warn people from a bad game. I remember the collective jaw-drop from all beta testers when Vanguard announced they'd release the game in 4 weeks, and everyone said that it was far, far from finished. But for games where there is no fixed release date yet, or the release is still several months in the future, complaining too loudly about some bug or feature that might not even make it into the release version is unfair. The closer a release date is, the more accurate is a judgment about the state of a game. So the bad reviews about Atari's game were probably justified, even if the law might be on the side of Atari concerning reviewing pirated game copies. But anything you hear about WotLK or WAR I'd take with a grain of salt. That includes announcements from the developers.
Interesting the update says that was contacted and aske to pull thier 5/10 review because no bad reviews were allowed during the blackout period.

These guys need to hire some better PR people.

I guess from now on the rule is ignore all reviews on atari games till they are live.
Well said! Can't really add much to that to be honest.
Well, if the reviewers in question really were using a pirated or pre-release version of the game to write a review of the released version, Atari does have a point.

Is there a sharp dichotomy in the review scores between different reviewers, some giving it terrible scores (like 5/10) with others giving positive scores (like 8-9/10)? If that exists, did all those with negative scores not use official copies? If so, Atari has a case and is justified in their lawsuit, as the reviews will cost Atari sales.
well graktar if you've read the article recently said thier review was based on a copy activision sent them. Then they were asked to pull the review because it was bad.
Everyone want to get the first reviews out, and it's really easy if you got a pirated copy. I know several reviews who who where first (mostly small newspapers who's editors don't seem to have a clue) but they always get pulled when it's obvious the game wasn't released yet.

Game reviewers who pirate games, yeeez. Shun them I say, shuuun, shuuuuuun
Streisand Effect +1.

Not wise on Atari's part.
Tobold mentioning pirates and not going off on a rant about pirating?! Who is this and what have you done to Tobold?!

On a serious note, it should be pointed out that pirated games very often times have problems that nonpirated versions don't have, due to, like you mention, incompleteness on the part of early releases or, more frequently, the software used to "crack" the game messing something up.

I remember pre-ordering Mass Effect for the PC right when it came out since it was $10 cheaper and I had been waiting for it ever since, hell, it was announced for the 360. What can I say, I am a huge bioware fan. Anyway, when looking up the game it turns out lots of people were complaining about huge problems with the PC version. Game stopping ones like the galaxy map screen not loading. As it turns out, the crack used on the pirated version caused almost all the problems people were reporting, the real game was fine (More or less, some people still have issues).

Developers NEED to be careful how they deal with pirates however. Sad to say, they are a fact of life at this point in time, and they certainly can change dynamics. Take the case of Iron Lore Entertainment. They made the game Titan Quest, a diablo-esque clickfest action RPG. While it was a good game, they decided to be sneaky. They hid some vital code for the running of the game inside the protection of the game. As a result, cracking the game broke it completely, it would crash constantly. It looked like they got revenge against the pirates, since it was unplayable (for a long time, I believe it was eventually successfully cracked without breaking it) if you pirated it. But something HORRIBLE happened. The pirates hated the game. Most didn't realize that it was the crack that broke it, and so they accused it of being a buggy piece of shit. The bugginess of the game was spread by word of mouth and pretty soon EVERYONE knew that Titan Quest was full of game crashing bugs. The problem is it wasn't. Regardless, sales PLUMMITED. Not because everyone pirated it, but because everyone read that it was a horrible game and decided not to buy it.

For their piracy prevention tactic, they payed. Eventually the entire company had to shut down. Titan Quest wasn't cheap to make, and though the bad word of mouth reviews weren't the only reason they went under, they did point out lack of expected sales of their original game was one of the reasons they ended up just slowly going down hill.

It's interesting how internet piracy changes the dynamic.
It's interesting how internet piracy changes the dynamic.

whats interesting to me is that everyone assumes that because the internet is involved its different.
Sony became a household name selling us tape players that would copy tapes. They laughed at and even mocked the music companies. Doom and gloom prevailed. Who went under? not the music companies not sony. But a couple of companies that refused to game the customers.

The more technology changes the more people are the same. And the quicker all my fellow techies figure that out the better off we'll all be.
Look at Tabula Rasa. A bunch of people in the beta said the game was bad after the NDA was lifted. Problem is, they fixed a lot of the issues in the beta so it was a better game when it was released, only the blog community had pretty much trashed the game based on a unfinished game.

I believe that games shouldn't be reviewed until people play the store copy. When a film is reviewed its finished. No one comments on the unedited showing of a film.
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