Interlude 3: Reviewing Massively Multiplayer Games
I've been debating how best to review MMOs since Everquest launched in 1999 and I'm still no nearer a definitive answer. I suspect we're just screwed.
How much time should you realistically play an MMO before reviewing it? Well, as much as possible, obviously. In practice, how much is that? Clearly, reviewing an MMO from - say - five to 20 hours, while analogous to how long it takes to review almost any other game, is far less than the people who go native.
Problem: you hire a professional to do it, you have to pay them. Reviews are paid by the word-count. So spending 80 hours playing a game would bring in the same amount of money as burning through four-hour first-person shooter.
One solution would be to pay MMO reviewers proportionately to the time required. It wouldn't help. It'd become financially pointless to review all but the biggest MMOs due to the resources required to do so. Only the very biggest games would get the coverage. Games like Darkfall, let alone smaller games, simply would not get covered. Specialist (i.e. amateur and/or volunteer) MMO sites would do it. As such, the coverage would be grotesquely slanted - because no one plays an MMO for 60 hours unless they actually get something from it. In other words, there would be an increasingly self-selecting bias in MMO reviews. People who don't dig a game wouldn't review it.
(Alternatively, you get the bitter burnout cases who have a moment of revelation that it's been a total waste of time... which is just as useless to the consumer. If you weren't enjoying it for all those hours, why were you playing it so devotedly? They're the equivalent of someone bad-mouthing an ex after a bad split. There were good times. You just can't remember them now.)
I think a dual-review format is best. An MMO doesn't cost any more money than any other kind of game. A first review, almost always, will be based around the initial experience of a game across those 5-20 hours. As such, you're saying whether the game will reward you enough to actually try the thing out. Because if it's horrific in that time, you're never going to recommend it to anyone anyway. If someone pisses on my shoes all night at the pub, I don't care if I get crazed fellatio at closing time: I'm only going to recommend it to the glorious perverts who like the urine-feet thing. For games where reviewers continue to play of their own volition, we return later for a more serious critical taking apart in lieu of all that experience.
In other words, using a travel-journalism metaphor, a first review of an MMO is whether a destination is a place you'd recommend for a holiday. A second review is a recommendation of whether somewhere is a good place to go and live. I think this provides worthwhile buying advice - the first review says whether it's worth your money, which is the primary aim of a consumer review. I also think this is the best we're going to get.
If you haven't guessed, this is a first-review type review. I played Darkfall for somewhere between 10 and 20 hours. Towards the top end, I believe, but - as I said - I couldn't find the stopwatch. That's not a lot for the couple of months, you may think. And you'd be right. But the actual playtime was actually a month or so back, and I've been trying to work out exactly the right angle on it since...
The right angle.
I don't think Darkfall has one - with the exception of the ability of your character to walk pretty much directly up right-angle surfaces.
(The biggest single growl in the learning of Darkfall's foibles was realising you could actually run up almost all of the hills, even those vertiginous cliffs. Partially an enormous relief in terms of time-saving while traipsing across the map, partially annoyance that another part of the sprawling landscape's fantasy is lost. It's hard to imprint on a world that's so resolutely loony.)
There's no correct angle here because it's so much its own game that tearing it apart for its gaping flaws doesn't change the fact that people will still play something this cheerfully shabby, rather than something with the "correct" level of the polish but a soul that turns their stomach. I can kind of empathise. Partially because there's moments where it sings - for all its foibles, I'd much rather play it than, say, bloody Lineage 2 - and partially because I've spent the last two weeks adoring Blood Bowl whilst battling with its server-browser user interface, which is so arcanely, opaquely useless that it's almost innovative. Point being, if it's the game you want, you put up with the madness.
At the moment, I don't think there are many who will put up with Darkfall's madness. I certainly won't. I hope Darkfall grows and becomes a game which can take its charms and appeal to a wider audience (EVE wasn't EVE when it launched, for example - it began with fine ideas that appealed to a niche, and as they improved the game it sold its ideas to an ever-larger niche). Darkfall's just launched in the US and its expansion has gone live, after all. But as a game, it's just not there yet, its rewards too distant and the road there too barren to recommend to fellow travellers.
I just logged on to leave the clan I joined whilst playing, not wanting to connect them in any way to the terrible secret interloper from Eurogamer. I appeared, in my pants. An armoured orc ran up to me, two-handed sword in the air. I immediately backed off expecting trouble (I'm not a total newb, y'know?), but he waved. I waved back. We danced around a little.
"Let's go kill some Goblins," he cheerfully said.
I apologised in-game, while swearing in real life at Darkfall's sluggish browser-implemented clan-system windows.
"I'm sorry: just on to do something. I have to go."
He happily ran off to kill some goblins, and I logged off.