It’s been a while since the first part of this, but the talking heads have talked their heads enough for a second part. Shawn Elliot’s lobbed it up yesterday, and I’m mirroring it here. I stress again – this is both classic TL;DR and total games journalist shop talk. If that’s not your thing, probably best click on something else. However, if you want to hear games journalists yabber about review ethics…Introduction
These questions and more were on the mind of N’Gai Croal, John Davison and Shawn Elliott last summer when they decided to expand their conversation to a number of noted reviewers, writers, bloggers and journalists for a published email symposium on game reviews. (See below for the full list of participants.) The planned list of topics include Review Scores (http://shawnelliott.blogspot.com/2008/12/symposium-part-one-review-scores.html); Review Policy, Practice and Ethics; Reader Backlash; Reviews in the Age of Social media; Reviews in the Mainstream Media; Casual, Indie, and User-Generated Games; Reviews vs. Criticism; and Evolving the Review.
Round Two’s topic: Review Policy, Practice and Ethics.
Round Two: Review Policy, Practice and Ethics
Shawn Elliott, 2K Boston: Is it important for a writer to have a history of fandom with the genre of the game he or she is reviewing.
Leigh Alexander, Gamasutra/Sexy Videogameland/Variety: The answer to your question is no, Shawn. There is a definitive and equal merit to both. On one hand, a fan expects something specific out of a game, and so it’d be useful for that fan to read a review written by someone who understands their expectations, preferably by sharing them. On the other hand, plenty of readers might be interested in a title while having no prior experience with it, and so it would be useful for them to read a review written from a general perspective.
In other words, in my opinion, it takes both kinds — especially given that our industry has such a common culture of sequels and such commonly-established genre conventions. “Would I like Metal Gear Solid 4 if I’ve never played Metal Gear?” Is a perfectly valid question and probably even a common one; so is “Would I like Persona 4 if I don’t usually play RPGs?” On the other hand, equally useful is a review that answers questions like “Does Fallout 3 contain elements that fans of previous Fallout games would enjoy?” or, “What conventions common to eastern tactical titles does Disgaea 2 share?”
It’s impossible to critique a genre game or sequel in a fashion that satisfies both the acclimated and the uninitiated unless you’re experienced with it. The real question is should you try to do both?
The approach I favor for criticism is to be familiar with the fandom whenever possible, but to be aware of how those inexperienced with the franchise or genre might approach it. I should hope we’re all good enough at the work we do to be able to separate our own fan opinions from the generalities of a title; I hope we’re all knowledgeable enough to differentiate between “this isn’t my thing” and “this is bad.”
Therefore, I think context is essential. There is nothing wrong with evaluating a game as a “virgin,” if you will. In fact, I think inexperience can be a merit, when the result is “I hate shooters, but here’s why this one appealed to me,” as an example. Similarly, experience can be a detriment, in that your prior sentimental disposition is going to be elevating your experience. But instead of pretending to be an objective neutral voice, I wholly favor revealing up-front the position from whence you’re approaching a title — your readers need to know the context of your opinion so that they can apply their own.
In other words, feel free to evaluate something within the context of your own taste and experience. Just be honest about the fact that you’re doing that. I think the massive lack of trust on the part of much of our readership can be credited to the fact that we often try to take the stance that we’re stating some factually-supported, correct single opinion. That’s why reviews feel inconsistent and confused to many people; we can’t seem to decide whether to be authoritarian or individual. I’m all for being upfront about where you’re coming from and who you think you’re speaking to.
Caveat: When scores are involved, a fan evaluating a title for fans is going to produce a wholly different number than someone with no particular sentiment, period, because their criteria will be fundamentally different. Fortunately there are numerous outlets, all of whom are likely to assign different numbers, and a reader who doesn’t feel your opinion was relevant to him will probably seek a second or a third.
Stephen Totilo, MTV News: Shawn, can we get a clarification on what you mean by “a history of fandom with the genre of the game”?
It’s one thing to be familiar with a genre, another to be an experienced player in it and a third thing altogether to be a fan of it.
Experience with a genre enables a reviewer to assess the objective car-review aspects some readers want with reviews. But being a fan? Call me naïve but I don’t see why or how that should be a factor.
We’re talking about reviewing games, not rooting for them.
Do you reviewers in this exchange feel like you’re expected to root for games?Sure, Stephen. I suppose someone could call himself an enthusiast though not an expert, or an expert though not an enthusiast (even if enthusiasts always seem to think that they’re experts, and experts tend to gravitate to genres that they enjoy). So to clarify, I’ll cheat and say I’m asking two questions. Should a writer be an expert of the genre of game she’s reviewing? Should she be a fan of the genre (which doesn’t guarantee “Rah! Rah!” rooting any more than my sci-fi fandom means I must adore Mission to Mars).Oh, I suspect this one will be fun.
My answer is, basically, that it depends. The question assumes that all reviews serve the same purpose, when I think reviews differ from organ to organ. From the consumer’s point of view, I suspect it’s more important — and I’m mainly talking about consumer reviews to start with — to have similar levels of experience to your readers. Occasionally we see the games forums erupt when a reviewer from some mainstream mag eviscerates a sacred calf — Ninja Gaiden got one, if I recall correctly. Except — y’know — their review was perfectly acceptable for that audience. And when we don’t do this, we get some fascinating side-effects. The JRPG wasn’t a major part of the British game landscape until really late. Final Fantasy VII was the first to seem to get any kind of push — and received a mass of really positive reviews from people who knew the genre. Sold well too. It was also, if the chattering classes of the time were to be believed, the most returned game of all time.
What I’m saying is that a fair review to the game can be an unfair game to any reader who actually believes the mark. Which may be another reason to dump marks, but that’s last week’s conversation. Are we marking for “good in the genre” or “good to buy”? That impacts entirely on whether you want a generalist or specialist reviewer.
For me, that’s one of the interesting things about games reviews — that we generally view all reviews as trying to do the same thing. In most other forms, the spread of reviews seems more pronounced. The most popular films and albums will almost certainly get one total slagging from someone or another — because there’s a sense that because they’re writing for different demographics, they’re allowed to mark and review for those demographics. We’ve got this universal idea of “Gamers”, and that they’re all the same. That’s not true. A single glance at how all the different game forums operate prove it’s a lie immediately. So maybe — to use mark-based shorthand — for OXM’s readers Space Giraffe was a 2/10. But for Rock Paper Shotgun I could easily justify it being a 9/10. When asked, readers often talk about being unable to trust reviews. I don’t think there’s an easy solution for that, and my gut feeling thinks that reviews are actually going to have to get /more/ unreliable before people will be able to start to believe them. As in, reviews start showing more opinions allowing people to realize which reviews are for them. We need different sorts of writers writing about what genuinely matters in a game to them for people to really find people who mirror their opinion.
My general stance is while all knowledge is helpful — and I gravitate to the people who really understand a game at its most fundamental mechanical level — to review worth a damn all you really need is an honest and unvarnished connection to your own emotions and the brains to analyze that response.
Spinning in another direction, the cult of the expert, specialist reviewer has another interesting side effect which I don’t think people have thought through. We, understandably, view it unfair to give a game to review to someone who doesn’t like the genre at all. The problems with that Leigh’s already pointed out — essentially, often increasing irrelevance to anyone not deeply in that genre and happy with the way the genre already is. But what I also find interesting is that — especially for successful, popular series — people who don’t like those series are similarly removed from the conversation. Which seems to make sense — clearly it’s unfair for someone who despised Halo or Gears of War or MGS 4 to review the sequel. But it also inevitably leads to mark inflation. The first game in a series, before anyone really knows what it’s like, gets that wider selection of reviewers. If it is a success, those who didn’t like it are rarely given a shot at the sequel. Is it any wonder that GTA and Mario or Zelda or MGS, no matter what their charms, get top ratings across the board? Anyone likely to feel otherwise doesn’t get anywhere near a review. And if they were, the internet would go wild. As I said last time, Eurogamer’s Ollie Welsh got death-threats for his 8/10 for MGS4. And he likes MGS. What would have happened if you gave it to someone who does like Action-adventure narrative games — like, say, me — but find the direction the series grew since MGS1 kinda laughable?
In short: less than 9 out of 10 gamers like MGS4. Why should our selection of reviewers not represent that?
Robert Ashley, freelancer: The whole genre expert thing deserves a lot of blame for the overwhelming sameness of game reviews. I can’t think of anything more boring than reading a Final Fantasy freak’s assessment of where the new game fits in the canon, pouring over all the little details of combat systems and inventory management like an accountant. In general, if you wrote the review of last year’s game, I don’t really want to read your review of this year’s game.
I have plenty of good things to say about the way EGM ran their reviews section, but the one thing that always bothered me was the use of the same writers for the same games, over and over again. Mainly, it was a reflection of seniority. The people who had been around the longest always got to write about the year’s biggest games, and it made the process completely predictable. We already know that Shoe digs Halo! (I would use an emoticon here to convey my playful ribbing, but I don’t want to be the first person in the group to stoop that low).
To answer the original question: If you’re honest with your audience about your personal taste and experience, it doesn’t matter. The reviews editor at 1up once had the audacity to put me on a soccer game (I’ve never had any interest in sports and am, in general, a totally wussy girl of a man). I pined on the review forever, worried that the audience would easily sniff out my inexperience. In the end, I just laid it all out for the readers, and it worked out fine.
Critics feel the need to project expertise because expertise is the easy path to authority. If you have no authority, nobody gives a shit what you think about a game. The tougher path to authority runs through insightful observation and clever argument, and it’s much more entertaining to read. Which is the point, right?
Shawn Elliott, 2K Boston: Robert’s remarks about the same writers reviewing the same games rings true. Dan, do you disagree? Can insightful observation and clever argument produce more authoritative — or simply stronger — reviews than encyclopedic familiarity with a franchise?
Dan Hsu, Sore Thumbs Blog: There’s a very practical side to all of this. Let’s say we’re on the 15th Tony Hawk game, and you have a staff of…say, 10 reviewers. What are the chances that you can find one Hawk virgin in that group? And let’s say you do…then what happens when Tony Hawk 16 comes out? You’re going to run out of those “fresh” perspectives at some point for any regular franchise, unless you’re constantly recruiting new writers every few months. In which case your reviews team starts to lose some identity with all the unfamiliar faces rotating in all the time. And what if you’re just an individual blogger/reviewer?
I suspect Robert’s example might’ve worked out fine because, really…how many people out there in the U.S. really care about a review of a PSP soccer game? But imagine the backlash he would’ve gotten if he gave a B- to a Final Fantasy game, claiming he’s never really been into that series or genre before. That’s a serious credibility hit to that outlet, too.
If we’re doing a good job of critiquing, then we’re covering both bases. Halo 3, Madden 2009, BioShock 2, etc. are not games living inside of their own bubbles…just like Star Wars Episode 1 is not a standalone sci-fi movie or “Free as a Bird” is not just any random rock song (I just watched the Beatles Anthology recently, hence the outdated reference). We should be providing that historical/fandom perspective because it’s critically important to do so. But at the same time, we should all be qualified to provide that objective, neutral perspective as well. Any Madden veteran should be able to say whether the latest edition can appeal to newcomers or not.
In other words…what Leigh said.
The very obvious question we have to ask first is, who’s our audience? A mainstream outlet may be excused for approaching almost every game from a, “Will a newcomer enjoy this?” point of view, while a hardcore fansite that covers a specific franchise or genre may get deep into nuances no one outside of its readership gives a damn about. And then you have the general enthusiast press that sits somewhere in between. Knowing the audience makes all the difference in whether a reviewer would discuss Halo as an epic sci-fi action game where you get to shoot a lot of aliens…or just how different the plasma-pistol/battle-rifle “newb” combo works in the latest edition.
John Davison, What They Play: I would argue that there are U.S-dwelling, PSP-owning soccer fans out there that really do care about a review like that. They’re a pretty small niche, for sure — but they’re out there. There are certain expectations of the “enthusiast” press, and I think that subject matter knowledge is taken pretty much as read. In this particular example, while it may not matter to the vast majority of the audience, there’s always a small group that really cares about a franchise or a genre, and if they feel that they are given short shrift, then they understandably feel disrespected, and consequently get vocal. As the enthusiast media, we were born out of the concept of “niche” and I think we need to be very clear about defining who our intended audience is before acting on assumptions about whether we can choose to overlook a particular game.
The challenges with something like a soccer game (specifically) are that A) there are only two franchises in town (to all intents and purposes) B) both are evolving in an iterative fashion each year, and C) both always have something about them that could use some work. Given that consumers of soccer games are invariably as passionate (or more) about the sport than they are about video games, they tend be extremely picky when it comes to coverage. My assumption is that a large portion of the audience in this case would strongly disagree with Robert’s point that, “if you wrote the review of last year’s game, I don’t really want to read your review of this year’s game.”
We were both there for this Dan, but I don’t recall the specifics — I’m surprised that EGM’s three-man review system didn’t eliminate the need for an “I’m obviously no expert” style lead review. Running multiple opinions afforded us the chances to have a genre “expert” that could provide the context for enthusiasts (usually Todd Zuniga) AND voices such as Robert’s here that could provide a broader experiential approach. Do you recall what necessitated this route? I know it was a long time ago.
For Robert’s sake, thank god this was a FIFA review, and not a PES review. PES fans would’ve eaten him up and spat him out.
I think a lot of the “genre expert” stuff that we’re talking about here is born out of a long legacy in the games media. As someone that spent a lot of time in the PC space back in the dark ages, the importance of having a “flight sim guy” and a “role playing guy” and a “strategy guy” could not be overstated. All of them required specialized knowledge, and all of them were employed to provide context far beyond talking about a specific franchise — these guys were fully versed in the minutiae of their particular field, and had followings from readers that felt just as passionately about the genre. On both PC Player, and PC Zone back in the UK, I found that it was our strategy guys more than any other that wielded significant influence over the audience of their niche within a niche. These guys had an encyclopedic knowledge of historical warfare, were extremely comfortable with hex-based war games, and could tell you things about individual weapons (and whether the game employed them correctly) that would make your head spin. Not only did we use them because they knew their stuff, but we also used them because — let’s face it — you have to be wired up a certain way to be that into something like that, and other people on the team just couldn’t tolerate these kinds of games. We knew there was a portion of the audience that was equally nerdy about such things, so we put the war game guy on the war games — and everyone was happy.
The reputation of the enthusiast media 15 years ago was as much about the “enthusiast” chops of those writing for it as anything else. Shawn has argued in the past (I think on GFW Radio) that a lot of writers are still employed for their ability to play games over their ability to write. That they’re hired for their Xbox Live Achievements list. To me, this is symptomatic of the transitioning nature of games and games coverage, along with a throwback to the old days. Genre lines are blurring, which is part of it. But I think the biggest part is that while some games are far more mainstream than they were in the days of Falcon 3.0 and the entire SSI back catalog, the desire to read (and write) about videogames in any real critical depth is still very much in the enthusiast realm.
To answer the original question, while I think that being a “fan” is the wrong term to use, genre expertise is important. Connected to this, though, is the fact that understanding, and defining who the audience is for our reviews and our outlets is more significant than ever.
Leigh Alexander, Gamasutra/Sexy Videogameland/Variety: Right, so what I think we’re all agreeing here is that different approaches and perspectives on genres are useful to different audiences — oh my goodness, you mean there isn’t one, single, correct objective way to do this?
I dunno, this has always seemed to me like a fairly obvious point, and thus far we all seem in agreement here. I don’t want to get ahead of others’ answers to the original question, but for now I’ll bookmark a follow-up for later: At any given time, do we have an idea of who the audience for a review is going to be — and how do we know that? Is it something you guys often think about? Is the “whoever is interested in reading it” approach sufficient?
But, yeah, tag the question for later. Looking forward to everyone’s continuing thoughts.
Shawn Elliott, 2K Boston: It’s certainly complicated. Our audience isn’t always who we think. As John said in the first section of the symposium, Google doesn’t discriminate along that line.
Sometimes self-consistency is an issue. When I worked at EGM, our imagined reader was Mr. Mainstream: A college-aged dude who doesn’t know one developer from another; clowns on dorks because he’s a bit dorky; likes pictures and is allergic to words. I think the magazine that we produced pretty much matched our intentions. Still, as Shoe said, “the general enthusiast press sits somewhere in between” hardcore and casual. That’s a problematic place, as you aren’t always going to please gamers who lean one way a little more than the other. Maybe the contradiction is more apparent than actual, but I always wondered why Mr. Mainstream would want a franchise aficionado reviewing every installment in a series. Shoe assumes that “any Madden veteran should be able to say whether the latest edition can appeal to newcomers or not.” I’m not so sure of that. As someone who has stopped following Japanese RPGs, I know I’d weigh Robert’s words more heavily than the hypothetical reviewer who is fluent in the sub-genre’s grammar and sleeps in a room full of figurines. In fact, myopia might be an issue for the specialist. He says, “Oh, that’s just how JRPGs are,” but the generalist knows better because he’s played plenty of games that have solved the same problems despite their belonging to different genres.
Jeff Gerstmann, Giant Bomb: I think that, for a good stretch of years there, there was something that could pass for the one correct, objective way to do this. When gaming itself was a niche, it seemed like everyone had much wider interests, genre-wise. Nowadays, just to give an example, my opinion on sports games is fairly useless because I haven’t stayed current with the genre. Even if I happen to like the game, is my take on Madden NFL 09 meaningful to someone who’s played the game every year for the past two decades? A review that starts out with “I don’t normally like this kind of game, but boy, this one’s great” doesn’t serve the person that’s likely to be the core audience for that review. I’m not even sure if that review serves anyone at all.
As the market for games expands, attempts to answer the question of “should I buy this game?” have become far less meaningful. The audience’s taste has already splintered a great deal, and it’s getting more and more scattered as time goes on. Attempting to weigh a game and write out some sort of recommendation for every possible audience leads to phrases like “If you’re the sort of person who likes this sort of thing, this game’s for you!” It’s like having a person with no kids review a kids game and attempt to guess if a game would be good for children or not. Or having your flight-sim guy review Ico. Or having someone who’s a lifelong Madden fan make educated guesses about the game’s approachability for non-fans.
In today’s market, I really think that readers need to bring their own tastes to the review and filter our words through those tastes. Really, that crosses all mediums these days. Faced with this notion, I’ve stopped answering the old question. Point blank, I don’t know who’s reading, I don’t know their experience level with games, and I don’t know how much money they have to spend. Sure, we could all go off and conduct focus tests to find out some of these things, but we’ll never know for certain. So, instead, I’ve started answering the “what do I think of this game?” question. After spending most of the last decade never EVER EVER EVER writing reviews in the first-person, it’s been an interesting and exciting transition that’s really freshened up the process for me. At the very least, I’m no longer writing 2,000-word reviews and immediately receiving an e-mail from a reader that says “so what did you think of the game?” But this is a transition that’s only really felt possible relatively recently, maybe over the last two years or so. Whether this is evidence of the audience for games (and game criticism) actually widening or me just going mad with power after perceiving that there seems to be some group of people out there specifically interested in what I have to say about this stuff remains to be seen. I certainly still attempt to provide the objective facts about a game — the amount time I spent with the game, details on its performance, and so on — and then pepper that with my take on how all those things clicked and, as I become more and more comfortable with writing reviews this way, maybe a bit of touchy-feely stuff about how I reacted to the game. It’s still an evolving process, of course. Old habits die hard.
Even the technical aspects, however, can be up for debate. Personally, I think that dodgy, uneven frame rates are one of the worst things happening in gaming these days. Seriously. So I’m always sure to call that out one way or the other. If you, the reader, don’t care about that, then great. Ignore that point and move on. Even if we completely disagree, you’ll hopefully have learned something meaningful about the game you are considering purchasing. With that in mind, you’d think that I’d be able to run off and review something like Madden or a flight-sim or a Final Fantasy game. But at some point, rattling out your own opinions on something you have no interest or expertise in becomes more noise than signal. It’s with that line in mind that we decide when to review a game or pass on it. Giant Bomb didn’t review Madden this year, or, really, any other team-based sports game. We don’t need to slap our opinionated stamp on every single release that comes our way.
John’s right that the “genre expert” stuff started with things like flight sims and the like. For me, though, the specialist reviewer craze really got big with sports games. I remember EGM gaining a big, breakout section on sports at one point, and guys like Kraig Kujawa essentially turned into some of the first sports game reviewers. Now, it seems like every publication has a sports guy, or maybe even a team of guys that are mostly focused on sports…but these days, that’s just as likely to have to do with presenting a large sports area for the purposes of selling ads to sports-focused advertisers.
Though I feel that the sports- and MMO-focused sections at some publications can go a bit too far, it’s useful to have someone in place who can approach a game with a certain level of perspective on the genre or series. It’s not about getting “fans” to review the games. It’s about having a person who potentially fits a product’s core audience cover it from a starting point of cautious optimism. Ideally, this person should have enough history with the genre to know if a game is just shamelessly ripping off games of the past, or if it’s something truly innovative. And a group of peers should be in place to call that reviewer out in cases where he or she starts to apologize for a game’s flaws (the “Oh, that’s just how JRPGs are” case that Shawn mentioned).
N’Gai Croal, Level Up/Newsweek: As a reader, the only things I ask of a reviewer or a critic is that they carefully reflect on the work at hand and write it up in a way that’s enlightening and/or thought-provoking. In fact, I’ll often seek out writers whose opinion is completely divergent from my own. I already know what I think — I prefer to have my opinion challenged rather than validated, because I’m always trying to see if there’s something that I’ve missed or failed to consider.
As a writer, I try to do the same thing, even though I don’t consider myself an expert in any genre or a fan of any particular franchise. That’s what happens when you’ve only been seriously playing games since 1999, though I have developed a soft spot for Tetsuya Mizuguchi, Hideo Kojima, and Valve Software. Most of the game criticism that I’ve done on Level Up took place in my Vs. Mode exchanges with Stephen. (There has been a handful in Newsweek’s print edition as well, but I’ll save that for when we get to Reviews in the Mainstream Media.)
Some of the games came from franchises I was familiar with as a player (God of War II) others did not (Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass). Some games I finished before we discussed them (BioShock); some I didn’t (Patapon); and some we only had partial access to (the first five missions in Manhunt 2, right after the ESRB slapped it with an Adults Only rating). I’ll leave it to the rest of you to determine how credible my half of each exchange was. I will say that after re-reading all of my Vs. Mode entries, it goes without saying that in those instances when I’d played the entire game before we began to write, my end of the conversation was both specific /and/ holistic; micro /and/ macro. When I’d only played a portion of the game, as with The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, I necessarily focused on aspects of the game (its stylus-driven controls) that some might consider minutiae and others meaningful. So even if I was being transparent about how much of the game I had played — which I was — does that write-up on a partially digested game make me a credible critic or not?
This gets to some of the reviews-related complaints that have been raised in response to our symposium. Doug “Drinky Crow” Erickson plainly stated on Quarter to Three that he doesn’t trust many reviewers because they “…don’t play the games long enough to form a credible opinion. This is demonstrated by any number of reviews that get the basic mechanics of less popular games wrong, or gloss over the long-term failings of popular games,” he goes on to say on NeoGAF that the four basic points of any review must include:
1) who is the audience for this game; 2) what is the game ultimately trying to achieve; 3) how does the execution support this goal or goals; and 4) does it succeed or fail.
Stumpokapow backs him up on NeoGAF:
You don’t give a score that compares Dynasty Warriors to Halo, you begin your review by describing the basics of the game in a way that makes it clear it’s not intended for the same audience as Halo at all. When you move on to the critical portion of the review, your criticism should be tailored to the concerns of the audience described or alluded to in the first part of your review.
They’re spot on with points 2, 3 and 4. Point #1, however “Who is the audience for this game?” is not where I begin when I’m evaluating a game. I start with what I thought and how I felt while I was playing the game and immediately afterwards, regardless of my expertise with the genre or the franchise. Then I map those thoughts and feelings against points #2 (what is this game ultimately trying to achieve?) and #3 (how does the execution support this goal or goals?) in order to help determine point #4 (does it succeed or fail?)
The game’s intended audience doesn’t factor into it much for me because I’m the one who played the game. I can’t tailor my critique to the concerns of someone who I’m not. If I’ve done my job properly, a discerning reader should be able to determine from what I’ve written whether or not my tastes align with theirs, like when I explained why 3-D Metroid games don’t work for me or how inhospitable online shooters can be to newcomers.
Those are a couple of takes on how we and our peers should approach reviews. I’ve given you my thoughts. How do the rest of you do it? For those of you working at or for outlets with formal or informal review policies, what are they? How strictly is it adhered to, and how is it enforced? And does it include any direction as regards the intended audience for a particular review?
Robert Ashley, freelancer: More and more, we do know our audience — personally. They’re the people you don’t really know sending you friends requests on Facebook. They’re the people e-mailing you at odd hours about something you said on a podcast or in a video, or about the story you wrote in a magazine they never expected to see you in. The game for writers these days, increasingly, is about building up a personal audience, loyal readers who follow your work across blogs, print, videos, podcasts, and whatever’s next. These people seem to come from different income and education levels, different countries, and they often latch onto you for reasons other than your preference in games. They think you’re a likable person. They identify with your attitude. You make them laugh.
Just look at Shawn. He’s got an audience of people who come for videos of morbidly obese people eating pizza rolls and stay for epic inside-baseball discussions of game reviews. That’s kind of amazing.N’Gai, I more or less agree with your method, although I’d add an alphabetized step or two to acknowledge that, on occasion, games can achieve things that their developers never intended to accomplish. On the other side of this coin, design decisions can also carry unanticipated negative consequences.
Or say that as a designer your goal is to bore players in order to parody another genre of game. What if you want to exhaust people in a way that parallels the protagonist’s exhaustion? So we’re bored or exhausted. But what if your timing was bad? What when your intentions conflict with one another, as is the case in Gears of War 2 when a cutscene clearly wants us to cry, and an audio clip that activates when players pick up ammo is there to spur scavenging? You see your buddy hit rock bottom, and then you scream “Sweet!” as you stock up on bullets. (I figured I should touch on “the intentional fallacy” again since the guys and gal on the Joystiq Podcast Appreciation Group Podcast somehow thought that I was saying that reviewers should read design documents.)
Coming back to Doug “Drinky Crow” Erickson’s concerns, I think context is everything. It’s one thing to engage in an email dialog that divulges the extent of your experience and another to provide a score in a publication that calls itself the “ultimate authority” or “where gamers go first!” It’s great that N’Gai both admits when he hasn’t bothered to complete a game and confines his analysis to the parts he has played. Do we know of times when we’ve done neither?
I never finished Evil Dead: Fist Full of Boomstick, which I reviewed for EGM. It wasn’t for lack of trying. Although it was precisely the type of game I’d spent several years playing, I never understood what I needed to do, even after calling the company for tips. I had a horrible time, and the review reflected that. Maybe I missed the great gameplay in later levels. I decided that didn’t matter much, as I would’ve angrily returned the thing that night had I rented it.
In fact, I think I hated Fist Full of Boomstick because I felt I had to finish it. The consumer who completes any given game is an anomaly. 2K Boston is proud of the fact that nearly fifty percent of the people who bought BioShock played it all the way through. That’s well above the average. What this means is that most people who profess to enjoy a game don’t enjoy it enough to get to the end. Think about that. They have fun with it, turn it off when they feel like it, and leave with a positive impression. What if that wasn’t an option? What if they were forced carry on through the frustration, to complete the game again and again with each and every Dynasty Warriors character? David Blaine should do that stunt. Seriously.
Still, I understand Doug’s anger and agree that now and then reviewers “get the basic mechanics of less popular games wrong, or gloss over the long-term failings of popular games.” MMORPGs are the one genre where we happily fess up to having less-than-fully-informed opinions. In my mind, any game with a multiplayer mode is in danger of getting short shrift in a review that doesn’t disclose the circumstances under which it was written.
Often times, publisher’s host off-site press sessions that last no longer than four or five hours. Because an untimely review is an unread review, editors agree to take what’s there. Their reviewers then sit in a room attempting to coordinate with occasionally uncooperative or uncommunicative teammates against a group of godlike QA testers, die, and then call it a day. This is the worst-case scenario, but even better circumstances result in reviews as confused as Game Informer’s take on Team Fortress 2 ( http://www.gameinformer.com/NR/exeres/0B22652E-7DA8-4613-8B13-61D5E9FC9D98.htm ), which talks about a class it calls the Mechanic; seemingly complains about the absence of a deathmatch mode; and commends classes that are “balanced against each other.” He means the Engineer. He isn’t imagining what happens when a spy in a game called Team Fortress darts around disguised as another player who his opponent is, by default, determined to kill. And he doesn’t comprehend how classes, like basic football positions, need not be balanced against one another (an offensive line is balanced against a defensive line, but a Cornerback isn’t balanced against a QB in any meaningful sense).
Harry Allen, Hip-Hop Activist & Media Assassin: What I think I hear people saying is with what I agree: How you speak to readers, and who speaks to them, depends on the specific audience to whom you’re speaking.
I definitely connect with what Robert Ashley says:
“The whole genre expert thing deserves a lot of blame for the overwhelming sameness of game reviews.”
That is, all kinds of people read about and write about games now. Though this audience isn’t as wide as those who read or write about, say, news, or cooking, it is getting more diverse.
Some game writing needs to be very technical, because some portions of the game audience just want to know how to perform specific tasks. This is often served by writers immersed in “fandom,” though not solely, of course.
Some game writing needs to be more atmospheric and/or impressionistic, because a reader may merely want to know in what direction a game series is going, or what a new game is about, or going to be about.
I think the question Shawn asks is akin to wondering, should people who don’t speak a language review movies made in that language?
The answer is that, if you don’t speak the language, your reviews will likely be most useful to people who speak your own tongue. However, if you’re honest, tell the truth about what you’re seeing, and deeply connect it to what you already know, people who speak the film’s language fluently may also derive something from your outsider perspective.
I just have to pause here, for a moment, and say that I see so many comparisons between the world of video games and that of hip-hop. It’s a very striking series of parallels, to me.
However, the one alignment that’s most pressing to me, right at this moment, is the thought that both forms would benefit from a wider variety of different kinds of writing about them.
Here, I want to address Shawn’s question, for a moment, by stepping out of it, briefly:
Most of you write for enthusiasts, and, indeed, most — the overwhelming volume — of the writing about both hip-hop and gaming come from the enthusiast press, I’d conclude.
But I believe that games, like hip-hop also, have yet to be fully explained to the wider public, in a way that can maximally engage people who don’t know what games are yet. Doing so would possibly create a much richer landscape for gaming.
I mean this, much the way that film criticism, in the 1960s, energized the notion of film as art. This cleared the way for the concept of the film auteur, or of film studies, core ideas around both of which we’re now just starting to see in gaming. (Right here, I’m reminded of some wonderful writing I finally read this morning: A piece that journalist Tom Bissell did for The New Yorker last month, profiling Cliff Bleszinski
I realize that the wider public may not be your focus for the aforementioned reasons. But, in a way, though, they are, anyway, because they surround everything that you do.
One of the conclusions that Rockstar Games reached right around the time I came aboard was that we needed to talk to people who didn’t know anything about games.
Because everyone who was talking about our games didn’t know anything about games.
I don’t mean you guys, or fans. I meant that every person who had a beef about the very existence of GTA inevitably knew nothing about it — hadn’t played it, often hadn’t played a video game since Pong. It was amazing how consistent this was.
As well, though, what we soon understood was there were other people — a whole lot more, in fact –who hadn’t played San Andreas, either, but were just curious about the phenomenon, didn’t know what the noise was all about, and were open-minded.
These people, we concluded, were better served by folks who could tell them how our games worked than they were by people who couldn’t. That was just logical. So, we spoke with them.
People who don’t play games form the larger context for everything that happens in gaming. “Mothers,” for example. “Trade groups.” “Politicians.” Learning how to actively speak to these groups — the way people talked up Obama to their neighbors, for example — is, to me, the next task, or goal, of gaming, as a field.
So, I guess what I’m saying is that there’s a meta-context to Shawn’s question. That context asks, How should we write about games, really?
I say the answer is that you have to write about them on the terms of the world you want them to inhabit, even in that world isn’t here yet.
Thinking about it this way, I think, is also a kind of larger context for even the question, “Should we send the FIFA guy to review MGS4?” If you do, ultimately you do because you don’t want your magazine to become narrow. You want it to open up, and for readers — and writers — to make new and powerful intellectual connections about games.
Ultimately, most readers, I’ll venture, will probably not remember what number you gave a game, or even if you wrote a review with which they didn’t agree. Most, instead, I’d argue, will recall the feelings they associate with your medium, then seek to re-create that feeling. This strongly connects with what N’Gai says:
“As a reader, the only things I ask of a reviewer or a critic is that they carefully reflect on the work at hand and write it up in a way that’s enlightening and/or thought-provoking. I already know what I think — I prefer to have my opinion challenged rather than validated, because I’m always trying to see if there’s something that I’ve missed or failed to consider.”
Think of it this way: When you study archival copies of electronics magazines, or computer magazines, in the early periods of those forms’ histories, they were very nuts and bolts. (I’m old enough to remember Byte. It’s a way different magazine that PC is [or — zoinks! — was!]).
Today, those magazine genres are far more about lifestyle. They’re more mainstream, more “easygoing” and “open.” They’re this way, because they have to speak to more and different kinds of people. (That, incidentally, is why all art gets watered down, in my opinion: So it can speak to a wide variety of people without confusing them.)
Writing about electronics and computers this way is part of how these hobbyist forms went wide, instead of staying underground.
I’m not sure if I’m speaking about this in a way that’s relevant to Shawn’s question, or to the practical issues having to do with assigning writers and editing text. For example, I’m really taken with Dan’s question(s):
“There’s a very practical side to all of this. Let’s say we’re on the 15th Tony Hawk game, and you have a staff of…say, 10 reviewers. What are the chances that you can find one Hawk virgin in that group? And let’s say you do…then what happens when Tony Hawk 16 comes out? You’re going to run out of those “fresh” perspectives at some point for any regular franchise, unless you’re constantly recruiting new writers every few months. In which case your reviews team starts to lose some identity with all the unfamiliar faces rotating in all the time. And what if you’re just an individual blogger/reviewer?”
It’s here that the magazine, or the blogger, has to find a way to make it fun for him/herself. They have to find some interesting or new way to talk about the game, because nothing comes across to readers more like boredom…than one’s own boredom.
I’m not sure how well that works for fanboys, but I’m not sure if the people who scream bloody murder are the majority of readers, either. I think the ones who are outraged form, at most, 20% of the readership. The other 80% think, “That’s interesting. Cool,” and move on.Honestly, Doug “Drinky Crow” Erickson’s problem isn’t what he thinks it is. What he’s primarily talking about a failure of insight (and possibly one of explanation – a reviewer getting something isn’t the same as a reviewer writing it), not necessarily a failure of simple time. One of my editors — not one who reviewed it, I stress — loved Deus Ex. He played through it running through the game shooting people in the face at point blank range with the shotgun and skipping all the cut-scenes. You can get through Thief as a mass-murderer. Alec on RPS got butchered by Witcher fans for getting the combat system wrong — but he was getting through the game happily with his slight mis-reading of the combat system. Time wouldn’t have cured any of that — and hell, the editor loved Deus Ex as his face-shooting game, y’know?
I’m personally think it can be acceptable to review games before completing them, for a few reasons. Some are higher level nature-of-games ones. Some are strictly utilitarian. And some of my utilitarian ones makes me think a universe where no-one ever reviewed a game before they’d finished it would be one which would be actually worse for consumers, readers and developers.
Firstly, games aren’t movies or books and aren’t consumed in the same way. I’m actually amazed at Shawn’s 50% completion figure for BioShock. I’m amazed that it’s that high — when Episode 1 for Half-life 2’s STEAM stats were first revealed, about 50% of people actually finished the game. That’s four hours tops, and still half the gamers aren’t completing it. Even for narrative games, even for short narrative games, completion of the arc isn’t how most people consume games. Imagine if at least half the people walked out of the cinema at every showing. That’s normal for games. And — key point — they’re not walking out because they’re necessarily pissed off with it. We’ve all had games we’ve enjoyed and left and not gone back to for one reason or another. And, hell, even simple narrative completion doesn’t mean that you’ve really completed it in a meaningful way. And I’m not even going to breach the issues of MMOs and multiplayer, y’know?
So how can you recommend or damn a game if you’ve played it less than completion? Because a review, as it is at the moment, is primarily a buyers guides. If a game is openly terrible for 10 hours, it is not a game you can ever recommend. How can you even dream of telling someone something is worth buying is you have to go through that? It doesn’t matter how good it gets after that — it may be an interesting critical thing to discuss in an essay, but for an actual consumer guide it doesn’t matter. You don’t throw down thirty to fifty quid to be made to go through enormous pain for the length of a working day.
My standard answer to the question of “How long do you play a game for?” is “Until I know what score it’s going to get” (Which is shorthand for “how good it is” — and I really mean “As much as possible, but at least until then”). The worse a game is, the less time that is. If a game crashes every five minutes in the first hour on every machine it’s tried on, then that may be all you need to hammer it. Conversely, the more you love a game, the longer you play to make sure it’s true. Is it ever justified to give a really high score to a game you haven’t completed? Ideally, not. In practice, the rule of thumb I’ve used is if a game literally stops at that second and all you get for the money is what you’ve experienced, and it’s still worth buying, you’re justified.
(None of which should be read to mean you should extrapolate from your experiences to the rest of the game. That’s just lying.)
But why are reviewers not having the time to complete a game? Shawn’s picked up on part of it — that persisting on a game wouldn’t necessarily, as Doug suggests, lead to a better understanding, but rather just a more vehement kicking after you’ve played 80 hours of something you despised after four. The other half is economic. Last time I had the completion-debate with journalists was over at Quarter To Three, primarily with Jeff Green. When he claimed that on Games For Windows, no game had ever been reviewed without it being completed, my IM-tray was full of messages from my fellow British writers which could be paraphrased to “Bullshit: either he’s lying or his freelancers are lying to him”. But not wanting to cause a full-bore internet meltdown, we did some more thinking and tried to work out how such a thing could actually be true. An explanation hit us – basically, GFW reviewed a tiny fraction of the games than — say — PC Gamer UK did. In other word, PCG UK spent some of its budget on small reviews of games which would otherwise get covered — and expecting anyone to actually complete your 80-hour strategy game for thirty quid is optimistic to say the least. Especially, as I’ve said earlier, the idea that you have to do that to speak with sufficient authority is just plain wrong.
(Or, to put it another way, PCG UK probably completed as many games a month as GFW. It’s just that they felt able to review other things on top of that.)
Ideally, if there was all the money, time and patience in the world, we’d play all games to completion. There’s not, and unless people are willing to pay far, far more for games coverage (either via ads or directly) there never will be. What I argue is an effective compromise — and without it, we’re not actually creating a world with better reviews for minority games and more accurate scoring. What we get is a world where minority games simply don’t get covered, because it doesn’t pay enough to justify it and you can’t find a writer who’ll put in 80 hours into a game which everyone hates because it’s openly terrible (i.e. another cause of apparent mark inflation — the worst games simply don’t get reviewed in many places now).
What serves games better? A more comprehensive general coverage or a more comprehensive coverage of the biggest games? Because, really, it’s a case of people choosing one or the other.
John Davison, What They Play: Harry’s last note is a great place for us to jump off and talk about some of this from a slightly different perspective — and that’s from the editing side, as opposed to the writing. We’ve talked a lot about how and why we tackle the criticism itself, but I’d like to get everyone’s perspective on the direction that we (or our editors) give the writers in guiding what they write. Jeff said that “Point blank, I don’t know who’s reading.” While I think that’s probably true for all of us in the broadest sense, I’d like to get some input on who we intend the content to be for, and the freedoms afforded to writers in that context.
Since stepping out of the hardcore/fanboy service industry directly a year ago I’ve noticed the inconsistencies in the way that some outlets present (and chose the subjects of) their reviews a lot more. Not only do we see erratic occurrences of “punitive” reviews that are just downright pissy, but a lot of games that receive this kind of treatment are seemingly chosen at random as to their “eligibility” for coverage; this is something that seems particularly prevalent when it comes to the more casual games aimed at either kids or families. Being told by a hardcore gaming site that a kid friendly game sucks because it’s too “kiddie” is of absolutely no use to anyone (duh, but it still happens) but I’m curious about everyone’s experiences with reviews editors and their guidance on approaching or handling this stuff.
Do the outlets that you write/edit for have a well-articulated reviews policy? How strictly is it adhered to, and how is it enforced?
Stephen Totilo, MTV Multiplayer: I’m sorry to follow John’s good question with a bad answer, but I have no other choice. I don’t review games for a living and therefore don’t operate under any reviews policy. I do read reviews and talk to people about this stuff often, though, so I think I recognize where some of the reader frustration with reviews comes from.
Circle back to Shawn’s original question for this round about reviewers’ familiarity with fandom and look at the subsequent excellent discussion here about the relevance of genre expertise. Now let’s tweak our angle. What I think some readers react badly to is a lack of implicit or explicit empathy — or worse, false empathy.
Reviewers and game player lead two radically and possibly irreconcilable gaming lives.
Hey reviewer, do you really know what it’s like to be a gamer? Do you really know what it would be like to own this game, at the expense of some other game I wouldn’t be able to afford? Do you play games for review that way a real gamer would play them? Or are you spoiled and distracted and unrealistic?
This is the crux of it all in my mind: the mutant gaming experience of the professional games reporter and reviewer.
Envy the movie critic who may not see the new movie in the same theater as her reader but can make a safe bet that she and her reader will consume it in similar ways: in a dark room over the course of two hours. She doesn’t have to worry about how much of the movie she should finish before she writes her review or whether she could give a more accurate score if she waited a week to better experience the movie’s online mode. And — this is key — her reader never has to worry those things about her.
Envy the TV critic whose most mutated form of watching TV simply involves seeing the season premiere of Lost three weeks before you do.
Envy the book reviewer who might read a galley of a novel and therefore not see the finished cover and might see a few typos that will be corrected before the book reaches your amateur eyes. That’s the only difference. The gulf between the two experiences is narrow.
And then back we are to game reviewing where there are a few sessions available from EA to try the online mode of Skate 2 before it comes out and you need to appraise the game’s online modes… where LittleBigPlanet and Spore are already very different games from when they were released a few months ago when you probably reviewed them…where you binged through Assassin’s Creed even though your readers who bought it didn’t have to and where you did the same for Grand Theft Auto IV — and where none of these facts could have gone very differently…and where the difference between “good” reviewing and “bad” might simply have been whether you acknowledged any of this.
Nothing changes the fact that the game reviewers’ experience of games is so alien to that of the gamers’ that I believe the relationship between the two parties will always contain a distance. It will always contain an undercurrent of distrust not prevalent among reviewers and audience of any other medium. No reviews policy can do better than bridge that; it can’t hide the broad gap or narrow it. (And it’s true for game-playing beat reporters like me too.)
You can be as familiar with fandom as you want, reviewers, but you are not one of them. You don’t play games the same way.
That’s my thesis. Who’s with me?
Tom Chick, freelancer: Great comments, Stephen, and I suspect you’re largely correct for a lot of games writers. You can spot these folks a mile off at a press junket. Most of them are (were?) full timers on a staff somewhere. They have a powerful sense of entitlement. “Spoiled” and “distracted” are great words for them. “Mutant gaming experience” indeed. However, I think good professional reviewers can avoid what you’re talking about. They can separate the incidentals of being a games writer from the fundamentals of being a gamer.
For example, the incidentals of the experience of Skate 2 are different for me. I got a preview build a week early. It arrived at my doorstep. The PR person from EA was very conscientious about checking whether I had any questions. I didn’t get a chance to see a manual. I can’t go online until the retail copy is available. There was an online session with the developers set up if I wanted to join it.
But I don’t write about the incidentals. That’s not my job, and furthermore, I can’t imagine that anyone would care, any more than anyone would care where Roger Ebert parked when he went to a screening, which he didn’t because the studio probably sent a car.
But just as Ebert’s job doesn’t begin until the movie actually starts playing, mine doesn’t begin until I’ve got the controller in my hand. Here is the fundamental part of the experience, and here’s what I
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