Imperator: Rome Doesn’t deserve the low Steam Rating, but it raises complicated questions

By Joe Robinson 07 May 2019 1

We’re coming up on two weeks since the release of Imperator: Rome, and it’s been quite fascinating watching various community reactions solidify in the wake of the launch. At the time of writing, the game’s Steam rating sits at 39% - “Mostly Negative”. It’s not the only metric that counts, not by a long shot, but it’s a highly visible one.

While I’ve not really changed my mind from my initial review, this is still surprising. Imperator is not a bad game in the majority of senses, although it does depend on how you define ‘bad’. There are some great foundations, but not a lot of soul and it raises some complicated questions. Personally, I would have quite happily swapped out the entire Indian subcontinent to add some additional flavour for Rome and the other key factions, but different people have different desires.

Imperator Steam 2

As much as it can be said that Imperator is one more victim of targeted review-bombing, you can’t wholly dismiss the feedback the game’s been getting. I feel there’s just too much of it to be assigned to the hate-brigades. Many years ago I was at a press event for another title and the developer was talking about negative feedback during the beta/pre-release stage, and what he said has always stuck with me as a touchstone for analysing situations like this, whether pre or post release.

To paraphrase, even though you can largely ignore the content of what a person says in negative feedback, there is always a fundamental reason why someone decides to give such feedback. Granted, maybe it is as basic as the fact that they are part of the Anti-Paradox-DLC club, and so this kind of feedback was always coming. But in a lot of cases you’ll probably find that someone is just trying to vent their disappointment or frustration in response to a single or small group of triggers. You have to try to drill down and understand what that was and whether or not it can be addressed.

Creative Director Johan Andersson posted a thoughtful discussion on Sunday that addresses the most common feedback for Imperator so far. It’s very illuminating, especially in terms of how the dev team at large view that feedback, although in some cases it does rather paint a picture that the team ran out of time (or forgot) to do everything they wanted to do prior to launch.

Imperator Steam 1

To circle back to my point about trying to understand root causes, Johan addresses three issues specifically:  the fact that people called it ‘Barebones’, the fact that people (like me) wanted more character and flavour; and the fact that people felt the game was a bit shallow. If you really drill down into it, these are essentially the same point just expressed in different ways.

It also suggest that, as much as you can say Imperator has more provinces than any other game, or more raw features at launch compared to other games, or whatever technical metric you like using, it doesn’t actually matter if the complete package fundamentally fails to engage the audience. I’m not saying that’s what’s happened – Sales numbers would suggest the game’s still a commercial success at least – but It can’t be a coincidence that a lot of people are saying the same or similar things about the game.

There are wider concerns – Imperator represents a focal point between several complicated issues that have never really been brought to the fore at the same time, for the same game before. Paradox’s grand-strategy experiences are now a proven long-term event: With the prospect of many years of post-launch DLC and patches ahead of it, what does 1.0 really mean anymore? What is it supposed to do? How does that affect design decisions and philosophies in terms of what you try and get ready for launch, and what you don’t? How do you draw the line between free patches and paid DLC?

Imperator Steam 3

If the proof is in the pudding, then on face-value it seems Imperator’s answers to some of these questions was to go for raw functionality over substance, to give a breadth of experience that’s slightly shallower, but primed to be built up tall. It has yet to be definitively proven that this is bad way to go about it (although it will be expensive), but again there is a reason Imperator, more than any other grand-strategy release, is getting so much flack.

It may be completely out of proportion, maybe even unfair, but the root cause needs to be fundamentally understood and empathised with otherwise this will keep happening and it won't matter what new content comes through via patches or DLC. Maybe it won't ultimately effect sales, although part of me wants to see the negative reviewers put their money with their mouth is. So much nonsense happens in the game industry because gamers complain and then buy-in anyway.

The truth of Imperator's existence is complicated and the nature of 1.0 releases is changing. I don't regret asking for better, but I hope Imperator gets given the same chance the other games have had. It'll be interesting to see what lessons (if any) Paradox take from this.

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