Wednesday, November 15, 2017

I Settle All Video Game Arguments, Part 1: Game Reviews

There was a ridiculous controversy recently because a games journo was bad at this difficult game. All time spent debating it was time wasted. I am writing this so that such time-wastage never happens again. I live to serve.
"You can speak your mind but not on my time."
      - William Martin Joel
 
One of the painful things about being in the games biz for a long (LONG) time is that you see the same tedious arguments brought up and rehashed, again and again, by new generations. I am writing a series of posts to settle these debates once and for all.

Don't bother to thank me. Seeing my own face whenever I look into the mirror is reward enough.

First up, I will settle all debates regarding games reviewers: How good should a reviewer be at a game? What topics are a reviewer allowed to bring up when doing a review? Are review scores and review aggregators a good thing? Does anyone still care about game reviews?

So the next time someone gets Mad On the Internet about a game review or mega-butthurt because the newest installment of their fave series gets a 91% when they KNOW it should have gotten a 93%, you can send them to this page and get on with your life.

A thoughtful and useful review of Avernum. Hmm. Let me check if it's still, 17 years later, making me money? Yep!!!
Why Are You Authorized to Settle This Argument Forever?

Because I am old, and that makes me wise. Also, once PC Gamer gave one of my most popular and enduring games a 17% review, literally said it was worse than choking to death on your own vomit, and provided a helpful sidebar with a list of rock stars who choked to death on their own vomit.

Believe me, every possible opinion you can have about game reviews, I have had at one time or another.

(Also, we have a kick-ass new indie, retro role-playing game coming out in early 2018, and I want to make sure everyone's heads are on straight before they start reviewing it.)

The Most Important Fact About Reviews

Think about your friends. (For the purpose of this exercise, I will assume you have friends.) When they recommend games/movies/TV shows to you, you take their personalities into account, right?

For example, there are some people who I listen to when they say a movie is good, and there are others who I won't, because they only like cheesy romantic comedies and Shrek. Or some guy will say I have to play Face Obliterator 5000, and I like him and all, but I'm not a fan of the Face Obliterator genre. Or, while his wife is great, no, I don't want to see the new Benedict Cumberbatch movie. Under any circumstances.

They're good people. We just have different tastes. I don't make them watch the long, depressing foreign movies I like, and they restrict their evangelizing Rick & Morty to me to one hour per day. I only accept recommendations from people when I've found their tastes line up with mine. You're the same way, right?

Pick Reviewers The Same Way

Reviewers are just individual humans, with their own tastes, and no one human can be a perfect, impartial justice machine for evaluating a work of art. Any decent reviewer can say how buggy a game is and whether it runs OK on their PC. Beyond that, it's just, like, your opinion, man. 

If you want reviews, don't just sit there. Find a couple reviewers you like and read them. If a web site doesn't have regular reviewers and just uses a rotating stable of whatever recent college grad is most desperate that week, it's not going to be useful to you. It takes work to find a site that works for you, but that's life.

Fun bonus fact: All awards for art, from the Nobel prizes down to video game awards, are arbitrary and meaningless. If you want to obsess about the Oscars, hey, you do you, but don't pretend they have any value beyond distracting you for a minute.
Are Numerical Review Scores Dumb?

On the surface, yes, evaluating a complex work of art and boiling it down to a single number is dumb. I mean, it's not like critics have an Art Scale, and they can put the last Call of Duty on it and say, "This game weighs 8.3 Arts, and the last game only weighs 7.1 Arts, and that's 1.2 Arts more!!! So this game gets a 93%."

Review scores, in practice, are fine. However, remember, a high or low number is just a reviewer giving an opinion, and if you trust his or her opinions, you're fine. High number means they like it. If a reviewer I trust says, "Yeah, this game is a B-," I know what's goin' on.

Is It OK For a A Video Game Reviewer to Be Bad at Games?

Of course. A lot more game reviewers should be bad at games. Fact is, most people who play computer games are bad at them, and they deserve reviewers who advocate for them and can say, "If you blow 20 bucks on this, you'll die 500 times on the first level and hate it. Don't waste your money."

Look, I love laughing at game professionals flailing at games as much as anyone. Remember when that unnamed Polygon writer tried Doom and showed no signs of ever having played it (or any video game) ever before? That was a hoot.

(My favorite bit is when the player unloads a full shotgun blast into a health pack resting on the ground, in what I can only assume is a post-modern deconstruction of late-stage capitalism.)

But some people watched that video and said, "Wow, I should never buy this game," and were right to say it. So the video was useful after all.

This is why I was a huge fan of Conan O'Brien's Clueless Gamer series, before it devolved into a series of tedious celebrity skits. Watching someone who isn't fully proficient in our art form and its weird conventions struggling to enjoy it can be painfully useful.

In the end of Ratatouille, a supposedly heroic writer gives a good review to a restaurant whose kitchen is infested with rats. GROSS! Never trust reviews.


But This Goes Both Ways, Right?

Yes. Some gamers have very little money and lots of time to fill. They don't want to spend twenty of their limited bucks on a one-hour art piece, and they deserve reviewers who advocate for them as well.

Is It OK For a Video Game Reviewer to Have Strong Political Opinions?

Yeah, why not? A lot of people only want games that support their particular political opinions. They can use politics-fixated reviewers as canaries in a coal mine. The writers are exposed to bad opinions so that you don't have to be.

Again, you have to pick a reviewer compatible with you. If someone doesn't like a game because it's too politically whatever or has too much of the color blue, use that person or don't. You get to choose what reviewers you watch.

What If I Think a Reviewer Sucks?

Don't read their reviews. That'll show 'em!

(And leave it at that. Don't be an asshole to them because you don’t agree with them. Not reading them is really the only vote you get.)

Review aggregator sites would have you believe every Marvel movies is one of the Best Movies Ever Made. Which, I mean, Marvel is fine I guess, but nobody will remember any of these flicks in 3 years.
How About Game Aggregator Sites? Are They Cool?

So you can go to a place like MetaCritic, which averages 50 different game review scores to take all those accumulated opinions and blends them together to create one number which represents Objective Truth. (Interestingly, Objective Truth is, the vast majority of the time, between 70% and 90%).

Look, is this useful? Kind of. I suppose.

I mean, look. Suppose ten people you don’t like give you their scores for a game. That won't be very useful. But what if you take those ten dumb opinions, blend them together, and take the average? That won't be any more useful, will it? Do you think that if you mix a lot of dumbness together, somehow smartness is made? Does this work with political parties too?

But it's all subjective. If you get value out of MetaCritic, use it. It's no sweat off my nose.

But Aren't Game Developer Payments Sometimes Determined By Metacritic Scores? Isn't That Bad?

All Metacritic is doing is getting some numbers and averaging them together. Yes, taking this random number and paying developer bonuses based on it is kind of shady. But on the list of Ways the Game Industry Mistreats Its Employees, it's like 893 out of 1200.

And if you look at the list of Concrete Things That Can Be Done to Make Developers' Lives Better, "Being mad at MetaCritic" is not on it at all.

My kids don't even know video game reviews EXIST, but they will buy anything even mentioned by this guy. God. Why do I even pretend I know anything?
One Last, Horrifying Truth About Game Reviews

I'm ancient, and even I don't use them anymore. There's no review that can tell me anything I can't get by watching the game on Twitch.tv for ten seconds and checking the Steam reviews to make sure it’s not too buggy.

In Conclusion

Take responsibility for yourself. Accept that the world is full of people different than you and there's space for all of us. As long as they're not punching you in the nose, people are allowed to have dumb opinions in their dumb heads. When choosing who you allow precious space inside your own head, choose someone you trust.

I will trust in the good people of the Internet to take this sensible advice and act with a bit of basic empathy in the future. I consider this entire discussion closed.

One Final Small Bit Of Whimsy

For a games web site, there's a huge advantage to having reviews written by inexperienced, eager people who try to stir up arguments instead of calming them. Those people work cheaper, and their work tends to stir up anger which gets more clicks. Sure, these poor writers/targets get screamed at, but that's what they were hired for. Their employers don't care as long as the clicks keep coming.

In the end, however, we’re talking about video game reviews. In the global scheme of things, game reviews are REALLY unimportant.

Here's what keeps me up at night: How do we know that the journalists covering politics, the economy, and wars aren't being picked in exactly the same way?

### 

If you're intrigued by giant indie RPGs with cool adventures and epic stories, you can wishlist our next game on Steam. Give it a terrible review if you want. We just need the attention. News about our work and random musings can be found on our Twitter.

63 comments:

  1. Agree completely. Even though review site I like (Russian RiotPixels, formerly Absolute Games) sometimes gives scores that I deem too low, or too high, I generally agree with their scores, and when I don't, I realize it's often a question of tastes not exactly coinciding.

    But then again - I read reviews for fun more than for information. It's a very rare case when a review can convince me to try, or avoid a game (though massively negative reviews of The Great Whale Road worked).

    One thing I must notice is that it's a bit too hard to find a reviewer that's a good match for you: they don't explicitly declare their biases (that would be helpful: for example, if I was a reviewer, I'd have to notify my readers I hate all things real-time and think that graphics are overrated and good UI is underrated).

    It would be great to have a kind of matching site where you can enter some of your own scores for games, and it suggest you a list of reviewers (from all the different sites) who seem to agree with you often.

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  3. I don't think that a reviewer should be a gaming wizard whatsoever, but to have the incompetence of the Cuphead and Doom videos takes effort. It's almost as if these sites searched for people who've never played games to employ. My 4 year old nephew never played videogames before and learned to play Shovel Knight faster than the guy of the Cuphead video.

    That's like having a book reviewer who doesn't know how to read.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, part of the cuphead thing was that they had a gaming business analyst playing the game. He's not a hard-core reviewer of games. He's more into what this or that company is doing for monetization schemes, or talking about the sales numbers for various things. He reviews some games like Uncharted, but not typically the harder indie games.

      Delete
    2. The Doom thing, apparently the only control option available for the reviewer was a gamepad.

      It wouldn't surprise me if a lot of the poor play was just that Polygon had sent someone who had only mouse-and-keyboard gaming experience. If you've rarely or never used a gamepad you're going to look pretty ridiculous and make a lot of spurious moves until you pick up the muscle memory.

      Delete
  4. "Here's what keeps me up at night: How do we know that the journalists covering politics, the economy, and wars aren't being picked in exactly the same way?"

    Oh, they are... they are...

    There was this joke about looking at what newspapers, magazines, etc say about your domain of expertise, realizing they have no clue about what they're talking about, and somehow expecting their coverage of other domains to be more clueful.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Michael Crichton came up with it and called it the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. https://www.docdroid.net/4wgVecr/why-speculate-michael-crichton.pdf

      Delete
  5. I remeber accidently founding anime reviewer whose opinions were almost always opposite to mine. So I could get a very diffent viewpoint for every title I look up on his site)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If his opinions were almost always the opposite of yours, couldn't you just get all the games he hated most?

      Delete
    2. No, because he reviewed anime

      ; D

      Delete
  6. You talk about journalists reviews. What do you think of Steam reviews, written by users? good/bad/neutral etc?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If you read the actual words they write, I've found you can get a very accurate idea of what the game is like and how well it runs. You have to read a few, though.

      Delete
    2. The fact that steam reviews are useful is strong evidence that game journalists are uniquely bad sources of information about games, not just random people with their own opinions for us to sift through.

      Delete
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  10. I hate to break the smug, but this is mostly wrong.
    "Different reviewers just comes down to different tastes, right?" Not exactly. There's levels of analysis, attention to detail, perhaps historical perspective and more that can be added to a review. There's a reason there aren't many deaf and blind movie reviewers, and why you expect a person who has reviewed a movie to at least have seen it first. Turns out there are some objective standards by which one can evaluate art beyond, "I just, um, liked it, I guess?". It's true two reviewer may think the music in a movie sucked while the other thought it was great, but a reviewer who doesn't think to mention the music at all is rightfully considered lacking. It's not just a matter of taste, it's adherence to a standard of review which tend to be codified across reviewed subjects.

    "Reviewers don't have to be gud @ gamez. They rep the nongamorz."

    There's a minimum of skill needed to review games, yes. You can't be complete garbage at a game because then your view of "gameplay too difficult" is too skewed. Maybe they're reviewing for the so bad at games they can't play simple versions of them but reads game reviews anyway crowd, but I can't imagine that's a huge market. It's just like how sports analysts aren't expected to be pro level athletes in the game, but they need a baseline of knowledge before they're credible. It's also why there's no "clueless person there to represent the clueless sports fan", there's no demand for that.

    No one would care if that reviewer couldn't beat the first level within 100 tries, but to not be able to traverse a tutorial screen with written instructions in his face, it bodes ill for the prospect of taking his potential review seriously. Sorry, but not meeting a very low baseline level of gaming skill is a gaffe just like a sports commentator not knowing the rules of their game.

    "Politics in reviews?" Fine, but that usually amounts to preaching to your choir. You could, for example, review music based on how much it glorifies God, but this isn't seen as "just one type of review, equal in worth and value to all others", which is why newspaper reviews shy away from that and you have to go into dogmatic circles to find it. There's a level of political concern such that you move beyond seeing art as it is, it's only viewed thru a particular(ly non useful) lenses. Those reviews suck!
    "Don't like the review, don't read it. Only option."
    Nope again. The reviewers can themselves be reviewed! That's an option too. But no harassment tho, that's wrong.

    "So we're done with game reviews right?"
    Absolutely not! Games are only as important as art, so take that for what you will. If you want to say "well you can't eat art who cares?", then that's on you. If you have any belief in the power of a reasoned argument, and you have any aesthetic standards, you can review art and craft an argument for why one view of art is better than another.

    The review lives on. Nice try.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "I hate to break the smug"

      *Proceeds to be EXTREMELY smug*

      Delete
  11. I wish Old Man Murray was reviewing games again.

    The "Time to Crate" metric was pure genius.

    http://www.oldmanmurray.com/features/39.html

    ReplyDelete
  12. I miss games reviews by the Amiga Power crew, that was the last time I thought any group of people had my back in terms of gaming bang for buck.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Rockpapershotgun was founded by an ex Amiga power critic, and in the beginning it retained much of it spirit.

      Delete
  13. I am going to embarrass myself horribly by admitting this ;-) but why not, it's directly in the spirit of the article.

    My day job involves working with statistics software as a researcher. So of course, one day when I was bored and had little else to do, I had the same exact idea. This would have been about right when the 360 came out, for time frame reference - I was looking at original XBox games.

    I put all my games into a spreadsheet, then put in what I considered my honest opinion of each game on a 10 point scale. I am embarrassed (again) to admit I had well over 160 games at the end of the XBox's life span.

    I then went to the 4 sites I tended to hit up for reviews - Gamespot, IGN, TeamXBox, and someone else I can't recall. I put all their scores into the database, too.

    I then ran a simple correlation coefficient, comparing all the scores to mine.

    As it turned out, TeamXBox was the clear winner, their scores were much closer to mine than anyone else's (the 'r' was about .8, which is extremely high but not a surprise, I imagine most people like most popular games and hate bad ones for good reason). Gamespot was the worst, at around .55 - still pretty high as far as correlations go, but not the best in this grouping.

    Interestingly enough, I also found that Gamespot was a far harsher reviewer, averaging almost a full point lower than the other three sites AND me.

    Now, it's a decade later, so don't take this to mean I hate Gamespot or anything ;-) nor do I recommend this strategy. As the writer noted, the single best thing I do now is simply watch a game for ten minutes on Youtube....

    ReplyDelete
  14. Vogel, you bang on about being ancient but I'm gettin that way as well. And this website is like 600px wide and the text is bloody small.

    Admit it, you're sock puppet for some teenager.

    (Top article btw.)

    ReplyDelete
  15. "Do you think that if you mix a lot of dumbness together, somehow smartness is made?"

    In a way, yeah. There's a neat episode of Planet Money (#644) that addresses this. The reason that, e.g. the stock market tends to assign efficient prices, is that individual assessments that are inaccurate on their own are often accurate in the aggregate. Any particular assessment is liable to bias, but if you combine many assessments those biases tend to cancel out.

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  21. "It takes work to find a site that works for you, but that's life."

    True, true, Took me a long while until I eventually settled with rpgcodex as my preferred source of gaming news and reviews. Simply because I concur with the things they say to tell whether a RPG is worth playing or just rubbish to be pile up with the rest of the trite lot released on PC.

    I found out rpgcodex thanks to a salty Neogaf comment from a Fallout 4 thread. Quite ironic how that site is generally despised in Neogaf community because Its forum rules are pretty lax in comparison, and thus is not uncommon to find threads or comments that are regarded as reason of instant ban in Neogaf.

    ReplyDelete
  22. One of the problems currently is that most of the big name news sites are like Polygon. Complete inept morons who can't seem to play a game to save themselves, seem to be failed film majors who hate video games and game players, and keep going on shrill witch hunts trying to make games their way. Yeah I can choose my own reviewers, I do, which is why I and many other people now get our reviews from smaller entities like certain Youtube reviewers. Unfortunately big developers still listen to these complete morons so even though I choose not to take my reviews from these idiots, the people who make my games still listen to them, and that is something to I worry about.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Car makers don't take listen to what sites decrying that gasoline is evil have to say about luxury cars so why do video game makers keep listening to sites that hate video games for advice on video games. :(

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