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Introducing State of Service reviews on Joystiq

Online experiences are one of the most rewarding and entertaining aspects of video games. Who doesn't love teaming up with friends to blast the opposition? What's more thrilling than proving your skill against another human being, or joining them on a meaningful journey? Online play is a joy uniquely tied to video games, and in the age of always-on, persistent experiences, it's becoming more crucial each year.

The growing proliferation and complexity of online components, however, has given rise to a similarly unique frustration. When these connected components fail, you're left with a tantalizing but only semi-functional heap of code. You know there's a good game in there, it's just buried under the debris of unchecked latency, overloaded servers and random disconnects. Call it the Battlefield 4 effect, if you want.

As we've learned over the last year, quality service is now just as important as quality gameplay. To that end, we've created State of Service, a new supplement to Joystiq's review process. Moving forward, for many games that rely heavily on online components, Joystiq will post regular updates on the quality of the online experience. These updates will be provided over a period of 30 days after a game's launch.

After those 30 days are up, we'll post a final verdict. Of course, it's possible that a game's service will improve after 30 days – again, see Battlefield 4 – but we feel that a month is a reasonable amount of time for us to evaluate the service and for developers and publishers to correct any outstanding problems. In fact, given that players are paying for a potentially broken product, it's more than reasonable.

Titanfall will be the first game to get the State of Service treatment (hence the image). Read on to see exactly how it's going to work.

So what is State of Service?
At minimum, games that qualify for State of Service reviews will receive six updates. That includes three updates during the first week: one for launch day, another for the first three days and another for the first week. After that, we'll post one update a week. If we deem it necessary – say, if a major patch is deployed – we may also post mid-week updates. Each State of Service update will be a complete document, meaning it will catalog every related issue and news article on Joystiq, so you won't have to go scrolling through numerous articles.

State of Service reviews will get you up to speed on the latest information, starting with a quick summary of the current state of a game's online service. We'll assign a color to the service's overall status: Green, Yellow or Red. Of course, context will play an important role in understanding these ratings but, in general, Green is good, Yellow is acceptable with some problems and Red, obviously, is poor. If a game has stable online play but suffers from a particularly annoying exploit, we might assign it a Yellow rating. If players are routinely kicked from matches, that's probably going to be Red.

The rating and summary will be followed with more detailed information about everything that has happened since the last State of Service update was posted. After that, you'll find a roundup of related news stories on Joystiq, including both global issues and those that only affect specific platforms. There are likely to be significant differences between the Xbox One, PC and Xbox 360 versions of Titanfall, for example, and State of Service will track them accordingly. With each update, we'll indicate whether specific issues have been solved or are ongoing (with handy color-coding, no less).

After 30 days, we'll post a final update, summarizing any issues and how quickly and efficiently they were addressed. Taking all of this into account, we will award a game's online service with an overall rating, Good (Green), Moderate (Yellow) or Poor (Red). Once this overall rating has been given, that's it. It's set in stone. Again, it's reasonable to expect some unforeseen kinks whenever a game is put in the hands of thousands of players. If it takes longer than a month to iron those out, however, it implies there are more fundamental problems at work, and we believe it's fair to hold creators accountable for that.

Joystiq won't be passing judgment alone, either. We'll be seeking your input in the comments of every State of Service post, as well as on our Facebook and Twitter accounts (hashtag #sos). If you run into problems, we want to know.

How does State of Service affect normal reviews?
Our normal reviews and State of Service will supplement one another, but they are considered separate. Like the final State of Service rating, our starred review scores are set in stone – our review scores will not change based on a State of Service rating. A four star game will remain a four star game even if it receives a Poor State of Service rating.

It's Joystiq's mission – and my responsibility – to bring our readers timely and insightful reviews. As such, we often review games prior to public release, before servers are inundated with thousands of players and before unanticipated problems can surface. The implicit agreement here is that designers and publishers are delivering their best work and, in return, we're offering our honest opinion.

State of Service helps us strike a new balance, allowing us the opportunity to review games as their designers intended while also ensuring that potential players aren't misled. State of Service will be separate from review scores, but the most current service rating will always be appended to qualifying reviews. A Poor rating on a four star game should serve as a red flag – if the online components of that game are important to you, you may want to steer clear.

This is a new process for Joystiq, and the industry is always changing, so we'll continue to revisit and reshape the State of Service concept as necessary. In the meantime, please feel free to leave questions and comments below. Here's hoping the future is Green.

Titanfall's first State of Service update is scheduled for this Wednesday, one full day after launch.

[Image: Electronic Arts]