Yesterday, the website Polygon reported that a California class action lawsuit had been filed against Sega and Gearbox Software. It alleges that the companies engaged in false advertising and that demos that were shown of the game at various events were not representative of the finished product (you can read more details on the suit here).
All of this is, to a degree, true. The finished product that Sega and Gearbox delivered was shoddy, and was reviewed poorly by nearly every major video game publication and website, including Game Informer. Its PlayStation 3 Metacritic rating currently stands at a paltry 43. However, this suit is reckless and misguided. If successful, it could threaten the game industry's future.
Here's the thing: this suit is attempting to seek legal restitution for a game's perceived lack of quality. The key word in that sentence is "perceived." Now, in this case, the prevailing opinion is overwhelming: Aliens: Colonial Marines is a bad game. But on what basis? Whose opinion? What's the legal definition of a "bad game"?
The fact is that there is no reasonable way to quantify the quality of a game. What's a good game to me might not be a good game to you. I've been reviewing games at Game Informer for years, but I'm always struck by the emails and letters I receive about games that I have given very negative scores. There are games that I literally couldn't have imagined anyone enjoying, yet I'll receive a passionate email from a fan telling me the ways in which I failed to review it "correctly."
Every gamer has different metrics for what makes a game enjoyable. To make matters more complicated, one person's metrics often change from game to game. One of my colleagues, Joe Juba, recently told me that one of his favorite games of his generation is Deadly Premonition. But even he admits that the game is far from polished, and severely lacking in many technical respects. However, in that case, Joe's love of the game's quirky characters and odd sensibilities outweigh its faults. It's likely that there are people out there who enjoyed playing Aliens: Colonial Marines, as poorly done as it is.
For this reason, I expect that this suit will gain little traction in the court system. If games are truly an art form, then any work of art is open to the individual's own opinions and values. Aliens: Colonial Marines fails in many respects, but how can a court determine its quality on any set criteria? It's impossible.
The suit also charges of false advertising and the claim that early demos of the game shown were misleading. Frankly, that's true. For a major press event or convention, developers work hard to show the game in the best light, usually polishing a certain level or gameplay sequence to perfection for the purposes of demonstration. By nature, it's an idealized view of the game. Sometimes, the end product does not match what was suggested by the demo. Other times, features that were originally in the game design prove too technically challenging and are cut wholesale. In addition, there's the question of whether press demos of a game even constitute "advertising" in the first place.
As the press, we try to evaluate the demos that we see and, hopefully, give consumers an accurate opinion of how good the game may turn out to be. But it's not an exact science - and it's also not fair to judge a complex product like a video game before it's done. I've seen it with my own eyes. Prior to the release of the original Uncharted, Naughty Dog showed a demo of the game at E3 that was, frankly, a bit of a mess. Many of the reports out of E3 reflected these concerns. However, Naughty Dog spent those next months wisely and delivered a very polished and entertaining game. Conversely, I've seen games that looked amazing two years from release that never came together.
To be truly informed before launch, consumers must read reviews, which is the only real way of knowing about the end quality of the finished product without playing it themselves. In the case of Aliens: Colonial Marines, the critical consensus was clear: the game is terrible. Judging by the sales numbers, the reviews did their job of informing consumers that this game wasn't worth buying.
The suit says that, by withholding review copies of games and embargoing reviews until the day of release, Sega and Gearbox sought to mislead gamers who preordered the game. Again, in some respects, the litigants are not wrong. However, as the press, we have no legal right to receive review code ahead of time. In fact, publishers send out review code to the press as a courtesy. They could easily require us - and sometimes do in the case of particular games - to go out and buy retail copies on launch day. This means that reviews won't hit until as late as a week after launch. It's not a great situation. But, make no mistake; Sega isn't required to give us copies of their games.
If successful, this suit opens up game publishers to all sorts of frivolous and damaging lawsuits. Not every game you buy is going to be great, but that doesn't give you the right to seek damages. As a consumer, you should stay vigilant, stay informed, and be skeptical of the claims that publishers make. If you're concerned that a game might not be as good as advertised, wait until the reviews go online before you make your purchasing decision.
I suspect that this suit is in part a result of the desire of gamers for Sega and Gearbox to be punished for their sins against the Aliens franchise. But don't worry, they have already been punished by the highest court in video games: the marketplace. I'm sure the millions that Sega lost on this game will make it a lesson the publisher won't soon forget.