Friday, December 14, 2007

Game reviews: Time for something new?

The usefulness/appropriateness/practicalities of game reviews have been discussed at great length for years. I've been doing this stuff for nearly 20 years now, and while early on there was absolutely no question about the service they provided, in the past five or six, the nature of criticism has changed. I can remember online discussions starting to affect things back in the days when I ran PC Zone in the early to mid 90s. Newsgroups and bulletin boards, though only read by a relatively small number of people, proved that the "crowd" often saw things differently than the critics. It made for interesting discussions, but ultimately the criticisms were still a big part of the buying decision process. Games were bought only by enthusiasts, and those enthusiasts only had a limited number of outlets to go for information. If a reviewer said "this game is bad" it could have a material impact on the success of that product. It had only been a few years at this point, remember, since the only way to judge a game was to find a store that sold it, look at the back of the box, and take a risk. In the early days of buying games for my Atari 400, I know I got burned many times because the promise of the packaging wasn't delivered upon.

Now though, the volume of games, and the size of the audience has changed things quite dramatically. No individual critic can possibly develop an intimate knowledge of all games, and meanwhile the enthusiasts are now fully able to share their views on all games. Newsweek's N'Gai Croal tackles this subject as part of a series of editorials on Slate this week and notes, "The Internet has fundamentally changed the nature of criticism. TV critics used to review a pilot or the first few episodes of a season, then return at season's end, if at all. Now professionals and amateurs alike recap and critique each episode on a weekly basis, then dive into their comments sections to mix it up with their regulars. A critic's opinions were always fodder for debate among his or her readership, but those debates were scattered and isolated. Now those debates can take place right alongside that critic's opinion and, in some cases, help inform those opinions by forcing the critic to engage with the readers, or just inform the critic period...This is also a good thing." He goes on to tackle a comment made by Esquire's Chuck Klosterman last year, in which he observed, "There is no Pauline Kael of video-game writing. There is no Lester Bangs of video-game writing. And I'm starting to suspect there will never be that kind of authoritative critical voice within the world of video games." N'Gai's response is something I agree with very strongly, and he articulates it far better than I could in the article. "Hell, Lester Bangs couldn't even be the Lester Bangs of music today," he says, "let alone videogames. The critic is going the way of the dinosaur and the dodo bird; he or she is an anachronism in an age where anyone can publish an opinion."

Enthusiasts still demand critical opinion, as much for validation of their own taste, as for critical insight or buying advice. The process of assigning some kind of qualitative indicator to a product still seems to be an important part of the process of enthusiasm. That said, is it really useful in any way? There have been many occasions in my own career where I've been chastised by the crowd for expressing an opinion about a product for which the hardcore enthusiasts have already declared loyalty. MotorStorm on the PlayStation 3 immediately springs to mind. Though a glorious example of what the machine can do graphically, it was ultimately a shell of a game that stretched a basic concept too thin. I found the game exhilarating, but exhausting - something I still feel about it, despite numerous add-ons and downloadable supplements. When I said this, the hardcore PS3 fan base treated me as a heretic. Though they hadn't played the game themselves, they had decided en masse that the game was some kind of beacon of hope for the slow-selling platform. Given the installed base, the only people at this point that were going to buy this game were these outspoken fanboys, and their minds were already made up. So what use was the review? And the problem wasn't that I'd said it was "bad" I'd said it simply wasn't "great." The score given was a 7.5 out of 10. But the audience didn't want granularity to opinion, it simply wanted a hearty "yes!"

So as we continue on, and the enthusiast press becomes more a part of a conversation, rather than a "lecture" are review scores necessary at all? The audience still craves something, as evidenced when we tried removing scores from Computer Gaming World last year (because we felt its more mature audience would appreciate something more akin to discussion) there was outcry! "We want to know what score you'd give it," the crowd shouted back.Perhaps the future of games criticism is to stop any pretense of trying to cover everything, and make a point of being more elitist. Only covering the "cream"? Editorializing purely by omission? That doesn't strike me as useful, as there's always a game that I want to know about that the enthusiast press has already ignored out of prejudice (it's for kids! It's for girls! It's casual!) or from simply not having the bandwidth. Perhaps when it comes to "scores" all that's really needed is a binary system. A parallel to Roger Ebert's "Thumbs Up" and "Thumbs Down"? A yes/no approach. Given that the press is criticized for marking on a 7 to 10 scale anyway, the scores are already open to interpretation, and any tweaking of a review scale is ultimately pointless. Percentages? Nah. Out of 5? Well, when you use half-points you're still marking out of 10. Letter grades? How do you map them to what people are already used to? Is an A+ a 10? Does that mean that an F is the equivalent of a 4 out of 10? How does that change the problem... particularly when it will be converted in the reviews aggregation sites anyway?

I think a binary system may be the only way to go for the "professionals" and then coupled with an approach that truly embraces the crowd. Rather than separating the Pro's and Joe's, reviews need to be mixed up together. The Pro's have the benefit of access, and the possibility of expressing an opinion first...but they shouldn't be presented in a way that implies their opinion is somehow more important.