Diplomacy: The Game: The Rant

I gotta get something off of my chest, and this is the place. The issue: Diplomacy for the PC, by Paradox Interactive.

I reviewed the title for GameSpy, and I was very careful to put myself in the right mindset. After all, I’m a HUGE fan of the original board game. So, on the one hand, I wanted to be very careful not to be a snob: I wasn’t going to be too hard on the game simply because it wasn’t played on a dining room table. Of course, I also wanted to beware of the other extreme – just because it’s Diplomacy doesn’t mean it should get a high score. I opened the box completely neutral: I was going to review this game on its own merits as a PC title and its own merits alone.

I just want to make that clear so that you can understand where I’m coming from when I say, without hyperbole, that Diplomacy for the PC was the absolute worst piece of for-profit software that I have ever installed on my machine.

Here are demonstrable facts about the title that cannot (in my opinion) be disputed:[ul]* It removes all lingual methods of communicating, either verbally or in text, with other players.

  • There is at least one crash-to-desktop bug (I discovered it within the first 15 minutes of play)
  • You must log in to play multiplayer, but the game gives you no indication of where to acquire a name or password
  • You cannot play multiplayer without installing a patch.
  • The patch is hidden on the Paradox website, and the instructions on the web site for where to get it are incorrect.
  • Only people who are registered on the Paradox forums can get access to the patch. (In my experience, forum registration took 20 hours.)
  • There is no play-by-email option.
  • Intermittently, when the game starts up, the main menu is empty. Only ctrl-alt-delete will cancel the program. This occurred on multiple test machines.[/ul]I also consider the following facts to be true, but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and agree that they’re subjective:[ul]* The load times are curiously long, with the progress bar not moving for much of the load time.
  • Graphically there is some degree of chug – not enough to ruin the game, but bizarre given the simplicity of the graphics and the power of our test systems.
  • The interface is obscure and counter-intuitive. It could not be understood without reading the manual and there are no tooltips.
  • The AI is inconsistent, a poor player, and impossible to negotiate with.
  • The “graphical language” used for negotiations simply doesn’t work if you want to plan for more than one turn in advance.
  • It’s impossible to perform even the most basic of negotiations, like “Let’s go to war against Germany after this Fall.”
  • The movement resolution happens almost too fast to make any sense of it. The computer players gasp and moan in ways that are impossible to relate to the game action.
  • The interface frequently does not explain what actions the player needs to take, such as when it announces “BUILD” during a phase in which you need to remove units.[/ul]With the objective facts and subjective facts out of the way, I’d like to render an opinion: [ul]* It is impossible to play this game, single-player or multiplayer, in any entertaining fashion whatsoever.[/ul]When I reviewed the title for GameSpy, I said as much in my review. In fact, it got our lowest score ever: one half of a star. I thought that was pretty fair. After all, this is a game about Diplomacy. Called … Diplomacy. In which there is absolutely no way to meaningfully have private communications with the Ai or the other players, AT ALL. No, no voice chat, no text chat, nothing.

Computer Gaming World also called a spade a spade – they gave it one star and pointed out many of the same issues.

Here’s where the rant comes in. I dislike GameRankings for a couple reasons, and their overall Diplomacy aggregate score is one of them: Right now it’s at 68%. (A couple of days ago, it was around 74%, which was what triggered off this rant.)

Looking at the scores, I just can’t figure out what’s happened here. Look at my sister site, IGN: the review states flat-out that playing with the AI is boring, that it was impossible to communicate with the AI, and that they couldn’t patch the game and couldn’t play multiplayer. (At GameSpy we at least tried playing on the LAN.) Final score? 5 out of 10. FIVE!? How is it getting five points? What redeeming feature does it have that earned it five whole points? (This opens up a whole new argument, about how for some reason gaming journalism has adopted a 100-point scale and only uses the upper half. GameRankings only feeds this problem. I’ll put this argument to the side, however, since it’s a whole different rant.)

It gets worse. PC Gamer, who I normally respect, gave it 80 out of 100. I’m at a loss. 80%!? What game are they playing? I’m stunned.

WorthPlaying posted a review that spends most of the time talking about how great the board game is, then says the PC version is “Pretty Solid.” It also says that “The skill level of the AI in the physical movement of the game is very good,” a statement completely incongruous with fact. I’ve seen the Russians abandon their supply centers to strand themselves in Austria, I’ve seen the AI pick fights that it can’t possibly win against enemies who are exposed to its open borders, and the like. The AI has no concept of a “front.” Despite saying tons of negative things about the interface, WorthPlaying still gave the game a 75%.

Gaming Age gave it a B+, in a review with quotable gems such as “Every rule, every detail is folowed[sic] to letter[sic].” I would argue that every rule is NOT followed, because THE PLAYERS CAN NOT SPEAK TO ONE ANOTHER. B+!?

Well, certainly the hardcore strategy sites would call shenanigans, right? No such luck. Armchair Empire gave it a 7.9 out of 10, along with the quote “Diplomacy is more about capturing the tabletop mechanics (done!) than melting your video card.” Capturing the tabletop mechanics? Did the reviewer even attempt to PLAY the game? With the AI? With other people? None of the mechanics are captured. It’s impossible to make even the most basic of negotiations.

The really high scores boggle the mind. Game Industry News gave it 4.5 out of 5, despite the reviewer being a longtime fan of the board game. He says: “Everything a veteran player could want is there. The art of negotiation, the gameplay, the deceit and trust… It’s what you need to play the game and play it well.” I AM DUMBFOUNDED. It is simply not possible to play this game as the board game was played. I want to ask the reviewer: “If you’re playing Russia, how would you negotiate the split of the Balkans with the Austrian and Turkish players before turn one? How would you do it?” This isn’t super-complicated or obscure – it’s one of the most basic of negotiations that happens in every single game played.

So, I’m at a total loss. The only thing I can figure?

Possibility 1: As a board game port, Diplomacy is farmed out to low-level freelancers. None of them want to make a lot of waves by trashing a game, so they present mediocre scores.

Possibility 2: Nobody is actually trying to play the game. In order to rush out a review, they glance at the graphics, move a few pieces, skim the manual, and slap a score on there.

Possibility 3: Magazines like PC Gamer played non-final software, made some wrong assumptions about the nature of the game, assumed that the Developers were going to clean things up, and cranked out an incorrect review.

Neither possibility really reflects well on us, as an industry. Look, Diplomacy is a train wreck of a product – and I hate to say that, since I like Paradox – but we as journalists owe it to ourselves to steer people away from this disaster. Who’s watching the road out there? What’s going on!?


Dave ‘Fargo’ Kosak
GameSpy.com

I’m interested in the responses you get to this post. I haven’t played the game, nor do I intend to (not being a fan of the board game) but I was pretty stunned to see the PC Gamer score after everything I’d read from folks I generally think are on the ball.

Heard and appreciated. Welcome in from the lurk, Fargo. I enjoy a lot of the writing you do for Gamespy.

Paradox has seemed pretty sketchy to me as a developer for a while now. I dislike their excessive repackaging of the EU engine, but more importantly their approach to game design has yet to deliver a strategy game I find engaging. It doesn’t suprise me that they would muck up something like Diplomacy – the clarity and simplicity of the boardgame’s design is at odds with everything else they’ve put out.

My review is in this month’s (January) CGM, and I agree with you completely Dave.

Note that the reviews were mostly positive in the early days - before the metaserver was even up in some cases. So there was no chance to test the MP at all.

I knew it was in trouble when I played my first game as Britain and won by making only two agreements with other countries for the entire game. And I haven’t played Diplomacy in a long, long time. And when I did, I always got my ass kicked.

As for your theories for the positive reviews:

  1. Most of the positive reviews come from sites that work on a volunteer basis, I think, so I doubt that low status of the writers has much to do with it. Of course, I see myself as a low level freelancer.

  2. Rushing the review is the most likely theory. Just default to the 7/10 and say “easy to learn, hard to master, faithful translation, yadda yadda yadda.”

  3. The review copies that were sent out were non-final software because the metaserver wasn’t up yet. And all the problems that were apparent were big ones - too big to clean up quickly.

Troy

Dave–

Last month, after writing my review, I had the exact same rant moment you just had after checking Gamerankings. I don’t think the Gamespy review was up at that time. The “Game Industry News” review you mentioned is what set me off. That guy lives in bizarro world.

–Bruce

Thanks!

I don’t know, I liked Europa Universalis I & II for what they were, and don’t fault Paradox for porting/rebundling the franchise to keep it on shelves. The publishing business is harsh. Still, I agree they were an odd choice for an elegant game like Diplomacy.

And Troy is right – the higher reviews were all the earlier reviews, which explains why the GameRanking score is slowly dropping. But I can’t understand why you’d review what I’d consider to be a definitive multiplayer game before going online?

Wow, look at that. I coulda just posted your blog and saved myself a lot of typing. ;)

I guess I should thank you for keeping me from wasting $40… I was rather looking forward to the potential an online multiplayer Diplomacy represented. Bummer :(

Hey Fargo, I too would like to say I love your stuff.

I don’t get the positive reviews too. I installed this and the damn game gave my computer AIDS. The lack of any substantial mp options should doom this game to the Beijing Toilet of Infamy. The only conclusion I can come up with is that maybe the reviewers didn’t play it a lot. Or enough to realize it sucked.

Paradox has a bad habit of releasing cock-blocks and then slowly improving them over time. Perhaps reviewers are giving it the benefit of the doubt. I just think it’s sloppy reviewing though.

I like your writing on Gamespy as well, Fargo. The Daily Victim archives are still good for a laugh – and a nostalgic trip back to the time when my graphics card was top-of-the-line.

As for Diplomacy… I like Paradox, I like a lot of their games, but it’s all to easy for me to see how they could have a game turn out like this. Anybody who’s spent much time with a Paradox title probably knows where I’m coming from here.

Final score? 5 out of 10. FIVE!? How is it getting five points?

For IGN, that’s actually a context-adjusted score of -2.

I think a good indicator of the maturity of criticism of a medium (books, movies, music, etc) is if a reviewer can really, really trash something bad and still retain respectability. For instance, regardless of what you personally think of Rogert Ebert, he’s highly respected in film criticism and yet he can write something like his drubbing of The Brown Bunny without losing any legitimacy. I’ve read old book reviews by George Orwell where he absolutely trashes stuff, and yet he’s, well, George Orwell.

But when it comes to game reviews, by and large the “respectable” game review outlets will nearly always give a game the benefit of the doubt, blunt any criticisms, and basically cover up negative impressions with bland generalities, as if they’re afraid to really rip into something that deserves it. Everyone knows that review scales are pretty much worthless when a game has to be downright awful to score below a 6.0, but even the actual text of reviews is oftentimes so forgiving of a game’s faults that it makes me wonder what they’re afraid of. And the strange thing is, what is gained by this? To pick an obscenely worn out example, everyone always says how great Old Man Murray was, and how much they loved it, and the #1 thing people remember is how it called out bullshit and wasn’t afraid to call a game crap if it was crap. The Penny Arcade guys are regularly called some of the most influential average-joe gamers around and yet they regularly do stuff like call Marvel Nemesis dogshit. However that sort of thing is mostly relegated to “mean” “humor” game sites that no one takes seriously. Even games that some people have some very strong negative reactions to – like, say Fahrenheit, which I and many others found to be total crap – has a Gamerankings score of 85% and only a single negative review out of 47! Either the game reviewers are a statisically unlikely bunch or something strange is going on.

Honestly it’s gotten to the point where I don’t trust ANY professional game review and I make my purchasing decisions based SOLELY on the reactions of people on game forums. What sort of state of affairs is that?

In all fairness, on a 7 to 9 scale, 5 is pretty low.

Maybe some of those reviews are just jokes, like this possibly-a-joke-review by a Gamespot reader.

If you have played one of two Hearts of Iron games, you’ll enjoy this game. It has similar gameplay movements like Hearts of Iron series. Similar graphics, similar controls, and similar gameplay…

The game has very strong AI and if you make a mistake or something not good for you, enemies around you starts attack on you. You can make peace or nonagression aggreements between a country and yours, so you can be more powerful.

Diplomacy is a good game. High gameplay and strong AI make the game better.

I think the ending gives it away.

But the overall Gamespot reader score is 7.8.

Yeesh. I had no interest in the Diplomacy port (it’s the kind of game you have to play in person) but it’s distressing to hear the state it was released in. I thought Paradox was doing better.

But you can play diplomacy online. Real diplomacy. For free.

http://www.diplom.org

I was pretty sure this was going to be the case when it got 3/5 in some Swedish mainstream newspaper.

andrew_fm, are you really comparing some guy who spent fifteen minutes getting screenshots for his review of Diplomacy, to George Orwell’s book reviews?

A couple people (including Fargo) referred to “professional game journalists”. I went to Game Rankings and checked out the names of some of these places that reviewed Diplomacy and contributed to the alleged ratings travesty. What the hell is “netjak”? “Gameboyz”? Is George Orwell writing for them?

The Game Industry News review was mentioned more than once. What the hell is Game Industry News? They have about ten reviews, including one of Finding Nemo, split up by “catagory” [sic].

Roger Ebert is a professional film critic. How many of the people at netboyz are professional game critics? How many are professional ANYthings? The example andrew_fm cited of the review that called out Farenheit was published on a site staffed by college students. How many of those sites are run by pre-podium-discovering Jose Liz high schoolers?

For those of you who are professional game reviewers, how much of your reader mail reads like intelligent mail that might be condensed and appear on the New Republic letters page? A lot of it? If not, why are you expecting so much out of the people who are doing it?

I don’t know if it’s going to change, though, because people obviously aren’t paying attention. People keep citing Roger Ebert’s reviews, not those of the Chicag Sun-Times. But what did Fargo do? He cited Computer Gaming World and PC Gamer and Game Industry News and Armchair Empire and Gaming Age? Who wrote those reviews? There isn’t any accountability because even the readers aren’t paying attention.

Fargo, do you really respect PC Gamer? All of it? I sure don’t. If you tell me something was reviewed in PC Gamer, that tells me nothing. If it was Steve Klett or Barry Brenesal, I can just dismiss it, like the Master of Orion III review on IGN. If the review is by Dan Morris or Desslock, that’s a completely different story. Unlike andrew_fm, I do not just dismiss all the game reviews because Gamespot pulled the Savage review because the guy only played it for three hours. Will I still read Gamespot reviews? Sure. A few really good reviewers write for them. Will I ever trust that particular reviewer’s work? Maybe not.

One of the many reasons game journalism is so crappy is that even the people it’s targeted towards don’t take the time to make the bad practitioners accountable. And many don’t support the good ones by subscribing to the magazines that publish them. It’s all on the Internet! Yeah, netboyz is, for sure.

I wonder if Maxim Online would give this game 3/5.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen them go below a 4.

Dr Fear, it’s true that we don’t see George Orwell writing game reviews, but the book reviews I mentioned were when he was just a fairly young journalist/writer making ends meet, not “George Orwell.” Just because we don’t have Big Names writing reviews of games doesn’t mean they can’t be cogent and intelligent, does it?

You say that game reviews tend to be identified by their place of publication and not their actual author, and then you say that when reading PC Gamer or Gamespot you’ll look for the names of particular reviewers you trust. So which is it? Most people don’t care about the specific personality that wrote a piece but some people do? You could say that about any sort of writing; I doubt most people reading a Michael Kinsley editorial know a whole lot about the actual guy but they can tell if they agree with what he’s saying or not.

I know that this particular topic regarding Diplomacy’s bizarrely high scores is basically a tempest in a teapot, but it’s a tempest in a teapot precisely because no one really seems to take game reviewing seriously. You say “people don’t pay attention” because game reviews are largely amateur hour nonsense, and then you say that game journalism is amateur hour nonsense because readers “don’t take the time to make the bad practitioners accountable.” So I guess it’s stuck in an infinite causal loop and the practice of game reviewing will never be any more respectable than it is now, i.e. barely at all.