I always smile a little bit inside when I read the ESRB warning on games that says "Game Experience May Change During Online Play." I smile because I know what it is they're trying to say, even if they're afraid to come right out and say it.
I'm sure the rest of you know exactly what they're trying to say too.
It's something like, "While you may enjoy playing this game in solo mode, in the comfort of your own, be warned that when you open up the magic tubes of the Internet and find your way online, your game experience may suddenly include being smacked around by 12-year-olds who are intent on calling you a bitch, a fucktard, a cockbite, or any other sort of vulgarity they can piece together in their still-developing frontal lobes. Have fun, and be careful out there. Cockbite."
I think it's a fair thing to include on the warning label. I mean, if the game developers designed a game that was intended for Teen audiences, with Teen content, they shouldn't be penalized just because a bunch of teens decide to use 4-letter-words when playing online because it makes them feel, you know, like they have a big penis or something.
In fact -- and this is getting off topic a little -- I sort of though the "Experience May Change" disclaimer should have covered things like the Hot Coffee mod, and the Oblivion nude patch, that forced rating changes for those games a few years back. Sure, in both cases there was existing code in the game that people were able to exploit to suddenly create some exciting (or creepy) pixelated porn in your gaming life, but the developers didn't ever intend for that content to appear in the finished product. Those items were either leftovers from earlier builds of the game, or little jokes that individual developers probably snuck in temporarily to get a giggle from the guy in the next cubicle. It's not Rockstar's fault that some decided to hack their game apart and stumble upon that minute little bit of porn. It's not Bathesda's fault that someone figured out they could run around as a topless warrior with the help of a tiny little patch. They game, as delivered, and as intended by the developers got the rating it did, and the rating should have remained the same, regardless of what anyone was able to hack out of the game.
But I digress.
As much as I think the online game experience should not be something that game developers are held accountable for -- because, really, there's not way they could control that -- I am beginning to think that the online game experience is something that reviewers should be taking into account when writing about games.
And by "online game experience" I'm not talking about its network code, or how efficient it's matchmaking and lobby system are, or whether or not it has too many or too few online-associated achievements. I'm talking about the sorts of people you're going to play against, and specifically, are they a bunch of ass-hats?
Lets be honest with each other. Certain games attract a certain type of online gamer. And, just as an example, something like Halo 3 tends to a pull a lot of the smack-talking, high-pitched, not-quite-through puberty crowd that a fair number of people I know would prefer to avoid.
I'm not really dissing on Halo 3 either. I bought it, and I'm not regretting the purchase. I've put in a good chunk of hours with friends online, have a lot of good times, and getting a lot of good laughs out of it. But my interaction with the public, matchmaking side of it has been limited, because of the sort of gamers you tend to run into.
Now I'm not trying to say that there's anything wrong with those types playing a video game, or playing a video game in the way they want to. They can and they should be able to buy Halo 3, play Halo 3, and call anyone they want to a bitch. All I'm saying is...if that's what the online game experience is going to be like, hey, reviewers, let's tell the public. That way I, as a consumer, can decide if that's a game I want to buy.
The online experience is a pretty major part of most games these days. I think it's more than worth covering every facet of that experience.