Once in a while I hear about the release of a new downloadable game -- a new XBLA or PSN title -- and I look for some reviews of it. Often, I don't find much.
Downloadable games for major consoles are, across the board, reviewed fewer times than disc-based games. This is an issue people in the games industry and the media are aware of, and for some, it's a frustration.
"You can look in the games media and you can see the difference in coverage between traditional retail products versus digitally distributed titles," Capcom spokesman Chris Kramer said to me. "The overall perception is that if you can't go into EB and buy it over the counter, then it's not important."
Do game reviewers unfairly neglect downloadable games? Read on for both sides of the story.
Capcom's bestselling Xbox Live Arcade game, "Street Fighter Hyper-Fighting" has been reviewed 33 times by gaming outlets, according to Metacritic. That's fewer times than the latest "Phoenix Wright" game, less than half of the reviews generally garnered for disc-based games such as "Devil May Cry 4" or "Lost Planet." And if you think that number of reviews is proportionate to the XBLA game's relevance, consider that other Capcom downloadable games, such as "Rocketmen" have reviewed barely 20 reviews.
Game reviewers say the problems are relatively small staffs facing an overwhelming number of games. "I think it all comes down to a matter of resources," Tal Blevins, v.p of games content at IGN, told me. "With hundreds and hundreds of titles released each year, keeping up with the flood of boxed releases is difficult enough, so I can understand why downloadable games and content are a secondary concern for most outlets."
"Keeping up with the flood of boxed releases is difficult enough, so I can understand why downloadable games and content are a secondary concern for most outlets."
IGN, though, has been pretty good and reviewing the downloadable stuff. Want to know how the original, download-only 2008 PSP game "Ape Quest" was? IGN is the only outlet listed in Metacritic to have reviewed it. Joystiq's PSP Fanboy site did too, but no other major gaming site scored this Sony-made game. A gamer encountering "Ape Quest" on the PSN store via their PC or PS3 would have to figure out if the game was any good themselves. Thankfully, the first chapter of the role-playing game is free.
Downloadable console games aren't going away, so reviews of them do have relevance. Downloadable games are staples of the Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii line-up. Kramer describes such games as "a growing part of our business," pointing out the Capcom recently held a press event just for the company's downloadable games and hinted that a new take to a familiar Capcom franchise -- "Capcom's first big digital-only title coming from Japan" -- will be announced at E3.
The games media is struggling to find the right way to cover downloadable games. Recently, Game Informer carved out a dedicated page for the games. On the other hand, former GameSpot reviewers Jeff Gerstmann and Alex Navarro said that the decision to try to review every Virtual Console game on the Wii proved to be too much of a time drain.
But is Kramer onto something about downloadable games? Is there a bias against product that isn't physical? That isn't sold on a store shelf or shipped in a box to a reviewer? He said Capcom sends more than 200 codes for its downloadable games to reviewers to unlock the games and play them for review. The result, on average, is a third of those codes result in reviews. When sending out disc-based games for review he said the average is closer to 75%.
A third of those [downloadable game review] codes result in reviews. When sending out disc-based games for review he said the average is closer to 75%.
Ron Eagle, a senior games publicist at Sony, said his team sees about a 50% review follow-through on disc-based games sent to press, compared to less than a third for keys they distribute for downloadable PSN games. Eagle said he too thinks review outlets are simply too short-staffed to handle all the downloadable games. The result is that the games can be de-prioritized in favor of disc-based games. "The real challenge is getting the mind share of the journalist to get them to see it as an equal."
A game publisher might not care about a lack of reviews if that lack doesn't hurt sales. relatively small number of reviews for the average download. Jeremy Wacksman, marketing manager for Xbox Live and a go-to man for Xbox Live Arcade questions, said that he's seen coverage of XBLA games "trail a little bit." But he said he's not worried because he sees the downloadable scene for consoles as young. Plus, Microsoft has other ways than reviews to promote their games. "For us, a trial is a great marketing and press vehicle for a title," he said, referring to the fact that any 360 user can download a free demo of any XBLA game. [My interview with Wacksman preceded Microsoft's announcement that XBLA games that score poorly in reviews and aren't bought by more than 6% of demo users will be delisted after a set period of time.]
In talking to people in the game creation side of things, I detected a wariness about whether more reviews of downloadable games would bring immediate improvement. Ross Erickson, former portfolio manager of XBLA and now vice president of content acquisition of Sierra Online (publisher of 10 XBLA games) told me that early reviews of downloadable games on the 360 service were sometimes hard to take. "It felt like they were getting a patronizing pat on the head," he told me.
"It felt like [the XBLA games] were getting a patronizing pat on the head."
Echoing comments I heard from Eagle, he said price has become a sticking point, one he saw handled inconsistently as reviewers sometimes penalized what he thought was a good cheap game without accounting for the value it offered at a lower price point. Decent downloadable games get panned without the consideration that they don't cost the gamer as much as a slightly better but significantly more expensive disc-based game, Erickson and others in game publishing commented to me. Whether it would be fair and appropriate for reviewers of downloadable games would be to cut the games slack because of their low prices is not something the dozen people I interviewed for this story could agree on.
Given gamers' free access to any downloadable game on the Xbox 360 and several on the PS3 (but none on the Wii), the argument could be made that reviews are not as essential in this part of the medium. If you're the person trying to gather as much info as possible to determine whether to spend $10 on the latest PSN/XBLA/WiiWare offering, would you agree?