We've come to expect server issues whenever a massively online multiplayer game launches now. With so many players looking to get in on the action as early as possible, MMO developers rarely have the resources to duct-tape the beast together, and it can be weeks after launch when a game finally begins to settle down and become fully playable.
This month has seen a particularly interesting example of this, and raised questions about how games are critiqued. GTA Online, the online portion of Grand Theft Auto V, launched two weeks after the main spectacle, and is available to play through the menu system of GTA V. It throws players into an online version of San Andreas, filled with co-operative and competitive jobs to complete with friends and strangers.
Of course, anyone following along with its release will know that my first paragraph very much applies to GTA Online. It's a week later, and the online game is still having massive issues - over the weekend Rockstar was forced to take the cloud servers offline for a brief period, such that many players weren't actually able to even attempt to join a game. My own personal experience has involved finally managing to slug my way through the tutorial after two hours of disconnecting and reconnecting, only to find that my character has disappeared.
But it's not GTA Online's server issues that I'm interested in talking about here. Rather, it's the staggered release of the online component of the game that I find intriguing. Rockstar has given the following reasoning for the staggered release: "We want it to be known as a different entity, a separate thing, and it'll grow on its own. It'll be GTA Online; it's not part of GTA V."
As you'd expect, other theories for the staggered release have been floating around too. Some people have suggested that it might have been a play on Rockstar's part to keep people from selling the game on after they'd finished it, therefore keeping the value of the game high for as long as possible. The other theory, and the more interesting theory, is that Rockstar knew that GTA Online wasn't ready for the torrent of players it would receive, and Rockstar wanted to ensure that the launch of GTA V was focused on how great the single player is, rather than forums filled with people moaning about how GTA Online simply won't work properly. The company even strongly hinted days before the launch of GTA Online that they simply weren't ready for the number of players that were about to attack their servers.
This, then, brings up an interesting question: If GTA Online had been launched alongside GTA V, would it have received less critical acclaim, and lower review scores? And if this were the case, does this mean that the press should have held their scores back until GTA Online was launched, or at least, should they be revising their scores now? We can say that review scores mean nothing, but GTA V is currently the second highest-rated game ever on Metacritic - therefore, if launching the online component of the game at the same time as the single player would have brought their score down, that's actually a fairly big deal.
I genuinely have no idea what the answer to that question is. My own personal belief is that we should be looking at a package as a whole when we critique it, and therefore GTA Online should indeed be taken into consideration when reviewing GTA V as a whole, given that a) it comes as part of the whole product, and b) it can only be accessed as part of GTA V. I decided to ask people on Twitter how they felt, and numerous arguments were made in various different directions.
Argument 1: GTA V and GTA Online are separate entities
This was a common argument. Essentially, since Rockstar has sold GTA V and GTA Online as different products with different names and features, a number of people felt that they should be critiqued separately, whether that be as two separate reviews, or simply separate articles. Even Rockstar has said this (see the previous quote above.)
My issue with this argument is that, well, it's rubbish. It's essentially saying that Rockstar gave the multiplayer component a special name, and therefore it isn't part of GTA V, even though they reside on the same disc, and GTA Online has to be accessed through GTA V. It's buying into Rockstar's sales technique, which is as follows: "This part of the game doesn't fully work as described, so regard it as something completely different that doesn't detract from the main spectacle."
GTA V and GTA Online are not separate - the GTA V box even says "Featuring GTA Online" on it. If you could buy them separately, then fair enough (and maybe one day in the future, this is Rockstar's plan) - but for now, this argument holds no water. This is simply a case of people forgiving the multiplayer because it launched at a different time.
Argument 2: Should we really be penalizing Rockstar for adding an online mode?
Some people suggested that Rockstar chose to add a massive multiplayer mode to GTA this time around, and let's be honest, they really didn't need to - GTA V on its own without GTA Online is worth the admission price, and GTA Online is just a cherry on top, albeit a slightly mouldy cherry that keeps disappearing and reappearing on top of random objects throughout your house.
I understand the logistics behind this argument, and I think it's the argument that holds the most water - as shown with the raft of perfect review scores, GTA V can indeed hold its own as a single player game. But saying "the single player is fantastic, so let them off the broken multiplayer" steps into very muddy grounds, as it becomes more of a personal preference than an objective viewpoint.
Consider this example: When Battlefield 3 launched in 2011, reviewers and players alike slapped its multiplayer around with all sorts of praise. It was one of the best multiplayer shooters ever, and it still has reams of players logging in to this day. But if you ask someone to describe Battlefield 3 to you, they'll most like say: "The multiplayer is fantastic, but the single player is dire."
Indeed, the single player campaign of Battlefield 3 was not well received, and as a result, many reviews marked the game down. Check out the game's Metacritic page, and the further down the scores you go, the more often the single player campaign is mentioned as a negative. Some publications really took the awfulness of the single player to heart, and the scores they presented the game with show this.
So let's apply the GTA Online staggered release question to Battlefield 3 then, but reversed: If the single-player portion of Battlefield 3 had been released a few weeks after the multiplayer component, would Battlefield 3 have received better reviews and better player satisfaction?
If the answer to that question is "yes", then it means that Rockstar has essentially sold GTA V and GTA Online in the following way: Release the part of your game that you know is fantastic and works like a charm, and hold back the bit that isn't so great - then weeks later, you can put out the bit that isn't so fantastic, and sell it as being a free update. That way, people will care less!
The bottom line is this: If GTA V had launched with GTA Online, it would not have a Metacritic of 98 right now. Reviews would talk about the issues, players would be discussing how the Online portion lets the rest of the package down, and it would not have been such a widely successful launch for Rockstar. It's pretty hard to question whether this would have been the case - just look at other games, like the aforementioned Battlefield 3, that have shared similar fates.
What's the answer, then?
It's a massively fascinating case of a developer holding content back to maximize the impact of a game's launch - whether Rockstar purposely meant for it to unfold in this way or not. The original question of whether reviewers should be holding back their thoughts until the full package is out is actually a red herring, because I can tell you straight off: They aren't going to hold reviews back, because they have hits to cash in, and embargos to meet. I'm not going to pretend that I'm above any of this - if I had reviewed GTA V, I no doubt would have done the same thing - but it just goes to show how striving for traffic can cause problems for giving consumers the full picture.
There are two real solutions. The first involves doing separate reviews for the single player and online portions of the game, and is the route most publications are taking. The problem with this approach is that it's making GTA out to be a special case. Barely any other games get this treatment (once again, Battlefield 3 was treated as a single review), and it's only happening because the embargoes for the single player and online portions were different - again, going with Rockstar's wishes, rather than what is useful for consumers.
The other solution is that, when the embargo for one portion of a game goes live, rather than writing a full review with a score, a publication could easily leave the score off, explain that they are reviewing the single player content, and note that the online portion of the review, along with a score that wraps it all up in a neat bow, will be available in due course.
This, in my eyes, is the most preferable solution - but again, it's not going to happen, since not putting a score on the first part of the review means that a publication is left off Metacritic, won't get passed around forums as much, and generally won't get as many hits.
It's one of the reasons for the wide range of scores that SimCity received. Some publications were fine with putting up reviews that were based on the game pre-launch - others held back until after the launch, found that servers couldn't handle the load, and gave a lower score accordingly.
Like I say, I don't know the answer - but I do know that other studios are going to be looking at what Rockstar has done here with the staggered release, and may be deciding to have a crack at the model themselves. Whether this is to the detriment of consumers all comes down to whether or not you're feeling particularly forgiving of a particular developer.