It was the first time a publisher had given me a game to review before it was launched, and I was really excited. Finally, thirty years after I had bought my first copy of a gaming magazine, I had made it, and I could call myself a games journalist. Little did I know that the review I was about to write (but not publish) would be my last.
The day before had been very pleasantly exciting; I’d written an honest review of a game that I adored, and the game publisher had decided to give me a spreadsheet with their entire catalogue on it. I could have as many keys that I wanted; multiple keys for multiplayer titles if I needed them, and test keys for anything that wasn’t yet released. I felt like Charlie Bucket given free reign over Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, and I immediately said that I wanted a key to They Are Coming!, which was to be released in two days. I could be first in the world to review it.
I’d spent a couple of days before that thinking that I should review something bad, to establish myself as a credible reviewer. After all, if you only ever write about games that you like, then people might start wondering if you’re capable of actual criticism. I’d even made plans to write about my experience with Moon Colonization Project, which is so godawful that selling it is a violation of Australian consumer law. Be careful what you wish for, I guess.
They Are Coming! started innocently enough. It was a bit tougher than I expected, didn’t offer the mindless person-munching fun that I’d been expecting, but it was not bad. I finished the first level, my zombies broke out of the secret underground bunker, and I unlocked an ability. It was a perfectly reasonable start to a budget title, and I was curious about what would happen next.
What happened next was my zombies ran into landmines, repeatedly. The game was essentially unplayable without running an autoclicker to activate the sonar ability every time it came off cooldown. It was one thing for a game that was supposed to be lighthearted fun to be tougher than expected: it was another thing for it to be unplayable by all but the most determined, well-equipped, or masochistic.
I got in touch with my boss at MGN and asked for his advice, which was clear and simple. “If you think it’s a terrible game, then write a review that says it’s a terrible game. Game publishers understand that they can’t win them all.” And I think I might have done that if I hadn’t met someone from the publisher in person, and recognized just how sincere he was about bringing independent titles to market. I felt like he’d trusted me with one of his children, and I was about to stab that child through the heart.
I wimped out, and sent the publisher a note saying “I think this game is going to be a flop, and it’s a damned shame because I think there’s a really good game hiding behind one or two really bad decisions.” In my hubris, I even suggested a workaround that might limit the wrath I anticipated from the playerbase. The response I received was very polite, very professional, and it reminded me that I wasn’t actually a member of the development team. They were the ones who had invested time, money and passion into the project. I was someone showing up a couple of hours before launch in a panic. My distress was only going to distract them from doing real work.
The next couple of days were miserable. I didn’t know whether to hope that the game failed (to restore my sense that I knew what I was talking about) or succeeded (because like every outspoken pessimist, I wanted to be proven wrong more than anything else). As the former owner of a game studio that had not found commercial success, I wanted more than anything else to spare the developers from the heartbreak I had experienced. And I couldn’t write the review now: if I wrote a positive review I’d be lying, if I wrote a negative review then I could be accused of manipulating the situation to prove an egocentric point.
I took comfort in a growing friendship with my contact at the publisher: he seemed to understand what I was going through, and recognized that I shared his love of independent games. Conversations about the strengths and weaknesses of games in their catalogue morphed into conversations about how best to promote those games in the marketplace. By the time They Are Coming! had earned itself a ‘Mostly Negative’ rating on Steam, everyone was thoroughly convinced that I should get over it. And I nearly did.
Then my Steam library notified me that there was an update for They Are Coming! and the patch notes started with “Thank you very much for all the feedback” and continued with “We apologize.” This was not a group of arrogant jerks who should be punished for putting out a terrible product – these were people who were not too proud to admit they’d made a mistake. People who, like me, were learning painful lessons as hard and as fast as they could; praying that they could learn them fast enough to stay in business.
They didn’t use my advice on how to make it better. They stopped and they thought about it, and they made design changes, not a dodgy workaround. They implemented them quickly, too. The Steam review scores have improved to “Mixed” and I’m hopeful that they’ll improve further. And that’s the real problem. I’ve picked a side, and it’s the side of the developer and publisher.
I don’t envy the people who make it as game reviewers. Every gaming magazine I know of depends on publisher advertising to stay in business, which means that reviewers have to balance honesty against putting food on the table. Unless you’re Yahtzee Croshaw, in which case the critical thing is to make sure that you’re as mean and nasty as possible, even when reviewing a game that you genuinely adore.
I can’t do it. My career as a game reviewer is over. If I’m going to say mean things about games, I’ll do it in a quiet enough environment that it stands some chance of helping the game to improve. And if I do get a job at a publisher, then I don’t particularly want to have the Entire Internet descend upon me because they once spent $20 on a game that I liked more than they did.
I’m sorry this isn’t more scandalous. I’m sorry nobody asked me to lie, or pressured me to be silent. I’m sorry to MGN for the fact that nobody’s going to share this article because it doesn’t end with an explosive revelation of corruption, but rather the slow melancholy process of growing up. I promised everyone that I would review They Are Coming! – this is as close as I can get.