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NPR Arts & Life

When Video Games Are 'Patched,' Gamers Lose Trust In Reviews

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Reviewing a video game used to be like reviewing a book or a movie. The critic gets a copy long before the general public, so the review comes out when the product hits the shelves. But as video games got more complicated, so did the process of writing a review. Fixing software bugs is more complicated than correcting typos in a book, and these days, a review copy of a game can be very different from what appears on release day. Chris Kohler of Wired says a lot of video game reviewers learned that the hard way with a version of "SimCity" that came out in 2013.

CHRIS KOHLER: When reviewers got their hands on SimCity, they were playing mostly with themselves and EA employees and other people who had kind of gotten early access to the game. It was a very limited group of people, and everything was just fine. They played the game. They thought the game was great. They loved it. It's a 9.5. It's great.

The game comes out, and everybody tries to log on and play it, and it breaks. And they can't get online. They cannot play SimCity. And it looks bad for the people who wrote these reviews. They come off as liars. Like, how dare you tell me this game is good when plainly it is not only a bad game, it's a nonfunctioning product?

RATH: Then you also write about now we're in a world where games are downloaded. There are new versions that come, and there are patches - fixes - that can be made to them. So the games start changing almost in response to the reviews changing.

KOHLER: Right. So the weird experience that I had - I discovered this game called "Rollers Of The Realm," and it was a really fun game. And the one problem that I had with it is the final boss battle - the final pinball board - I found was so excruciatingly difficult that I simply could not get past it. The game comes out. I post my review, and I say, you know, I really had this problem. That day - you know, minutes after I post this thing - I get a tweet directed at me from the developer of the game. Hey, thanks for the review. Do you think that we should tone down the difficulty of that final boss battle? And sure enough, within a week of the game launching, they actually tweaked the final boss battle and made it less difficult.

RATH: Makes me wonder about other things that we get that are digitally delivered now, like music or, you know, Kindle books. Are they going to have patches based on bad reviews, or record albums - the same thing.

KOHLER: Yeah, because what's happening with digital distribution is that it is becoming so much easier for anybody to create a video game. And then the exciting thing that happens is, well, why bother tweaking your game like crazy before you launch it. Why not just sort of put it out there, see what people want you to change, and then change those things?

And so it's a really crazy broad spectrum of different approaches to game design that we're looking at that are all enabled by the fact that games don't ship on cartridges anymore. They don't even ship on discs anymore. And you're - and you're right. I mean, we may see people altering their Kindle books after the fact or changing the track listing or the arrangements on an album because they can because it's so easy.

RATH: Chris Kohler is an editor for Wired and an avid consumer of all things tech and video games and now somebody who changes those video games as well as consumes them.

(LAUGHTER)

RATH: Chris, thanks very much. Very interesting.

KOHLER: Yes. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.