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A Rocky Start
Stardock, publisher of Demigod, is a company which until now has enjoyed a sterling reputation among PC gamers. Their first hit, Galactic Civilizations, was an excellent and well supported addition to the 4X genre, and this was followed up by the sequel which, two expansion packs later, is in the ranks of top 4X strategy games like Alpha Centauri and Masters Of Orion 2. Stardock followed that up by publishing Ironclad's Sins Of A Solar Empire, a genre-bending real time strategy game which mixed in elements of traditional 4X turn-based gameplay. Stardock's excellent games have been backed up with a strict policy of minimizing DRM. Even their digital distribution service, Impulse, is extremely simple - once a product is registered, you can use it at any time without the need for an Internet connection.
But now Stardock's integrity has been put to the test. The launch of Demigod has seen setback after setback. One of the most significant came from piracy, an opponent that everyone thought Stardock had vanquished. Unfortunately, piracy finally found a way to hurt Starodck as Demigod's launch servers crumbled under the weight of 100,000 pirates while 18,000 legitimate users tried desperately to squeeze through the hoard. The result was an outcry of frustration, although it was less dramatic than one might expect. Only Gamespot really socked Demigod for its lack of launch stability - other reviews mentioned the launch day troubles only in passing.
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How Long Is The Honeymoon?
Despite the promises of a quick resolution from Mr. Wardell and various Gas Powered Games staff members, the clean-up of Demigod has proven to require more than a cup of detergent and some elbow grease. While published by Stardock, Demigod is actually the brain-child of Gas Powered Games, the folks who brought us Supreme Commander. Anyone who has played Supreme Commander online knows that netcode is not that developer's forte.
Their proprietary out-of-game connection service, GPGnet, looks like a knock-off of Gamespy and works just as poorly. Once in-game, the netcode seems to react poorly to any ping over 200ms, and frequently drops players at launch. Demigod does not use GPGnet, but the bad reaction to high pings continues. Dropping players at launch is still a problem, but Demigod also makes it difficult for players to even connect to the game lobby.
The reason for this is that the game users a peer to peer connection system in which players have to connect to every other player in the game in order for the game to function. Why Gas Powered Games has decided upon this form of connection isn't clear and has never been well explained, but what is clear is that it was a poor choice. If Mr. Wardell's statements are any indication, it seems that much of the work on Demigod has focused on trying to bypass the peer to peer elements of the netcode.
As Demigod has now been out for more than a month, it is clear that any grace period granted to the game has passed. Brad Wardell has been honest throughout, acknowledging that the game has problems and insisting that his company is moving with all haste to fix them. But this is more disheartening than encouraging, as it is starting to seem that no one at Gas Powered Games has any clue how to properly fix their game, and this makes one worry that the game will never be fixed at all. This is a shame, because the actual game of Demigod is good, even great. The question, then, is how do we - the gaming community - judge this game?
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Communites Can Adapt. Reviews can't.
In truth, this is not a difficult question for the gaming community as a whole. The ebb and flow of gaming communities is based on recommendations which don't follow any sort of rating system and which are never set in chronological stone. Over time, the communities adapt, swell, merge, or disappear. X3: The Reunion is a good example of this, as it has gained some popularity now that its buggy release has been patched. Gaming journalists, however, don't have the luxury of time, and their reviews are set in chronological stone. Once a reviewer writes his review, it will likely never be changed (Brighthub does bring articles, including reviews, up for revision after eight months). Issues that a review brings up at launch may no longer be relevant a year later. But on the other hand, the game reviewer also is in the position of grading a game so that gamers will be able decide if they want to purchase it. If the reviewer leaves out balance issues or bugs which might be patched out in a few months, they're setting up some gamers who decide to buy at launch up for a serious disappointment.
Personally, I fall into the camp that believes that a game review should be sure to include any potentially temporary problems, including bugs and balance issues. I believe that anyone who writes a game review has a responsibility as a sort of advocate for all gamers. While it is true that such issues are often fixed in later patches, it is false to believe that the potential for a patch means that the patch will ever occur, or be successful.
Demigod is a case-in-point. It has been patched time and time again, and to the credit of Stardock and Gas Powered Games, they seem to get closer every time. But I still find that only about half the online games I attempt to join actually end up launching with all players still accounted for. The issue is still so severe that I never launch Demigod without a book on my desk, because I know I may be spending half an hour jumping from one lobby to the next. I like Demigod, but I cannot possibly recommend that anyone spend their money on this game until these problems are fixed.
If I were to recommend the game, then I would be telling gamers to spend their money on a game which they may not even be able to play, or which may frustrate them so completely that they would not want to play more than a few hours. Gameplay mechanics, graphics, and stories are subjective matters where a game reviewer and a gamer reading a review may disagree. Bugs, especially those that result in having to resart the game load, are less prone to subjective disagreement. They exist, and gamers should be told about them.
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Our Lesson Today
The launch of Demigod has, in its failure, proven to be instructive. For Stardock, the problems seem to have come as a shock. Mr. Wardell has commented that his company's experience with multi-player gaming is limited, which makes sense given that Stardock itself has never developed a multi-player game. The problems with Demigod are inexcusable, but Stardock's handling of the situation has been a breath of fresh air. They've screwed up, they've admitted they've screwed up, and they're doing everything they can to rectify the situation. In failure, Stardock has managed to show the gaming industry how a colossal mess should be handled. I don't expect that any other publishers will take the lesson to heart, but a guy can hope.
For the gaming community at large, Demigod had shown that gaming journalism is surprisingly inflexible. The problem Demigod presents reviewers would be non-existent if publications added in a few follow-ups to the original review, but few ever revisit a review once it has been posted. A cyncial person could look at this and wonder if gaming journalism stands the chance of becoming irrelevant, but I don't think thats the case. What I do think is important is that websites which review games put more effort into examining the evolution of games over time. Any popular game which is currently available today will likely be a much different game three years or possibly, even three months, from now. Is Team Fortress 2 as fun today as it was when it launched? By digging through forum posts, any gamer could likely gather enough information to decide if the game is worth their cash. But they shouldn't have to do that, and gaming journalists need to figure out how to provide content which remains accurate over time.
Come back in eight months for an update on how Demigod, and our updating practices, are doing.