Fireside Chat: Jumping the Review Shark

It’s no secret that I like Musou games, what we know commonly in America as Dynasty Warriors. That style of game and their focus on parts of history I’m familiar with appeal to me, repetitiveness and all. However, Tecmo Koei really outdid themselves with Warriors Orochi 3, which I’ve dumped well over forty hours on. More than just being an enjoyable series, it’s also been a memorable one for me professionally: my first review at Diehard GameFAN was of Dynasty Warriors 6, and I launched Gaming Bus with my review of Dynasty Warriors 7. You would think I’d find the time to review arguably my favourite game in the series alongside Dynasty Warriors: Gundam 2, right?

Unfortunately, I haven’t done it. I just haven’t had the time. Even worse, when I tried to make the time around all of the other “real life” things I had going on, I just couldn’t do it. Actually, that’s not even true. I could’ave made the time for it if I really wanted to. But I didn’t. I didn’t care about reviewing one of my favourite games.

It’s been a trend for me lately: the problems with reviewing video games, both in 2012 and at thirty-two, outweigh the positives.

Information Overload

I’ve reviewed games under many different rulesets, including the one I developed, but a lot of it is based around good intentions: showing that we’re reviewing a game we actually played and ensuring that we don’t contribute to the meme that 8 is the new 5. Diehard GameFAN is where I did most of my actual reviewing work and they had different ideas, including replacing a numerical score with words correlating to that score. It was a good idea; when corporate sees above average, they’re a lot more apt to have a positive reaction than they are when they see 6.0, even if the two are the same. They had a ten-point review system, but I wasn’t as big of a fan of that because it equally weighed obscure concepts like originality with control and gameplay, which unfairly disenfranchised sports games and most indie titles.

At their heart, even the innovations I don’t care for are great ideas. They’re comparable to the big-site review standard of, “If you read our review, you’ll find many flaws, but here’s a 9.2; now please ignore the fact that the side banners of our entire site advertise the game I’m reviewing.” The key unspoken component of DHGF’s review standard was detail; leave no details unturned. Alex’s philosophy was that, if we were to have any credibility with readers, we would have to do more than play the game; we would have to really dig deep and explain what we liked and disliked about specific mechanics within the game. It was a way for us to separate ourselves from the pack. I was no different once, having written a 7,500+ word review of NHL ’11 that I still consider my opus. That might be my best review but it was also a nightmare1, and I haven’t written anything like it since because it was so painful to finish.

Those types of reviews are great for people who really, really like reviewing games, but they don’t work well for those who have other interests in writing. Furthermore, even when we nail it, the negative criticism still comes in and not all of it is of the you’re just biased you dumb gay fag variety. Miss one point that someone considers a big deal, and that person will unleash the Hounds of the Baskervilles upon your comment threads. Piss off a big-name fan, and expect their minions and sycophants to come out and attack. That detracts from other work for anyone who makes even a partial attempt at interacting with their readers, which is a necessity for those of us at smaller sites like this one.

When I wrote my own review standard, I decided on a few key points. For one, I would use the letter grade standard that the U.S. school system uses, with the caveat that C would be a hard average and anything that approached the fringes—D and below, A- and above—had to be personally reviewed by me before it went up (or in the cases of my own writing, peer reviewed by either Mel or Aileen). The second point, and the biggest key, was that we had a disclosure section saying how far we got, what we accomplished, etc., with anyone caught lying being subject to immediate termination. This was so that we had an instant defence against anyone who would say that we reviewed the box but would also provide us a shield regarding longer games. Simply put, some modern games are impossible to fully complete and have them be in for a timely review; and sports games, with their multitude of game modes and ever-changing, patch-influenced nature, are virtually impossible to get right, so saying, “We got this far” would at least base criticism around fact instead of conjecture.

In retrospect, this only led to the opposite effect. With the pain of the disclosure section upon our heads, there was always that unspoken but very real pressure to tie up all loose ends before the Internet’s siren sisters came along to ravage the writer and everyone that person’s loved. It’s one of the reasons that, by the time I finished Orochi 3 to my satisfaction, a month and a half had passed, which was then too late to really bother. I’m not the only one; one of my writers who has a PR-gifted code asked me recently, with no irony or sarcasm, “Is 50 hours enough to get a review done? I’m only just over half-way through.” While my answer was easy (“God, yes! Get it in; that’s more than enough!”), we both know the actual truth: if this writer goes forward with this review and it’s not 100% complete, especially in this particular niche of game, the writer is likely going to be slaughtered by the people who had the time to beat a 100-hour long game in four days2.

While ignoring idiotic comments is easy enough, it becomes less positive when one looks at the numbers.

Diminishing Returns

Alex and I used to have huge debates on reviews versus news, which were admittedly a little self-focused on my side as this was when I started hitting my stride as a newsman. One of his main arguments was that reviews drew the most hits and the most attention. In the case of DHGF, he was right, to a point. I don’t remember exact numbers and they’ve surely changed since I moved on, but Pokémon reviews were in most of the top 20 in terms of hits along with other big-time reviews. However, most reviews were right in the centre, with some very well written stuff being ignored due largely to issues beyond the writer’s control: Google News and being linked by the right source. Some subpar writing hit for weeks on end because of dumb luck. News is the same way: it tends to matter less what we write than what we write about, and even obscure Call of Duty news is a boon for hit counts. However, it’s possible to write more news than reviews. In short, 80% of the time, it’s an absolute crapshoot as to what hits the most in a given day. Yes, it’s possible to build up a dedicated audience, but unless you have the resources of a Destructoid (and a lightning rod like Jim Sterling, it should be noted), that’s going to be very hard. In this era of information saturation, it’s virtually impossible. Hits are completely at the whim of Google and good fortune.

My goal with Gaming Bus was never to use reviews as the main purpose of my site, but as a side dish of sorts to our news and analysis. Under that line of thinking, my dedicated readers likely aren’t coming for reviews unless it’s something that’s a mutual interest (e.g. the newest Fire Emblem, considering most of the staff have a background in that fandom). However, they’ll jump on reviews if they appear. Due to this, they don’t hit well, or as well as my better hitting news pieces. This defeats the line of thinking that all readers want are reviews, and my own experience is that readers want reviews to do one thing: confirm their own preconceived notions of the game and to slam anyone who dissents. Not only do I no longer have the patience to participate in this elaborate kabuki theatre, I don’t even have the financial incentive to do so.

The Public Relations Dance

There is one good way to get hits: by getting an early review copy. Right off the bat, my own business model makes this virtually impossible, a defect by design that’s built into the system. I don’t allow anything to go up unless it’s relevant to the industry and not just one company’s fortunes. We wouldn’t report rumour like this, dire gossip like this, or random back-patting comments like this, and that’s from arguably the best site in the industry! If anyone on my staff said we should post a game’s screenshots or other PR materials, I’d probably fire them. It’s a principled stance that I’ve stuck to. However, PR directors don’t care for principles; they care for moving units as their contracts stipulate. They’re going to reward the people that reward them by posting materials and getting attention for their games. They’re surely not going to reward someone who not only doesn’t do that, but makes a big deal of cutting PR out of the loop. To borrow a simile from George Carlin’s first book, Brain Droppings, most gaming sites are a small, blonde woman saying, “Fuck me!” We’re a large, muscular man screaming, “Fuck you!”

So what if we do get an early review code? Oftentimes, we’re subject to an embargo. This is fine, but I also have stipulations that I won’t acquiesce to certain conditions such as selective embargoes3 and other stupid PR tricks, so that basically means I don’t get early code. I told Aileen when she took our own PR lead job that she would have both the easiest and hardest PR job in the industry, and she’s seen firsthand why I said that.

There’s also the Metacritic issue, which has become a problem through no fault of the site. Publishers are now delivering bonus money based on Metacritic scores, which bit Obsidian Entertainment in the butt when they missed the target score of 85 on Metacritic by one point. Considering the fact that they ended up laying people off, that became a big problem. As a reviewer, it’s one thing to put my opinion of a game down, have it not be popular, and take heat for it. It’s another thing altogether to get people fired, especially considering the game in question, Fallout: New Vegasonly had three “mixed” reviews. I haven’t had the chance, but if you were to ask Armchair Empire’s Alex Cushing (65 or 6.5/10, the low score) how he feels about the fact that his review was the reason people didn’t get paid or lost their jobs, I’m sure he’d be gutted despite the fact that he wrote a good review. Frankly, I’d rather not enter that rabbit hole.

Fun Factor: Not Just a Gamepro Stat Anymore

Lastly, for me personally, there’s one simple problem: playing every aspect of a game, getting as many achievements as possible to increase my supposed street cred, and then putting everything I think about a game down on paper to a system just isn’t fun for me anymore. I don’t have four to five hours to sit down and pump out 4,000 words these days. That kind of writing is broken up over multiple days now as other facets of my rapidly filling life intercede and demand attention. It’s very hard to get opinions straight when you have to keep breaking it up, and that time could be spent actually playing other games. Despite the accusations of some, I love playing video games, even if that doesn’t always come across in my writing. Instead of writing about it in a format and having to clarify and defend everything, I’m finding it a lot more fun to just talk about it on Twitter, in a blog post, or something of that nature. It’s not necessary for me to affix an official “score” from up high any longer, especially when the negatives tend to outweigh the positives, and my own standards for myself and others start to become a weight around my neck.

 

Reviewing a video game should be a fun endeavor. We play a game, state our opinions about it, debate with those who disagree, shake hands, and move on. It’s become anything but that and now usually ends in a fight between Internet evangelists and corporate interests with the writers stuck in the middle. In the week that it would take me to satisfactorily play a game, I could write numerous well-researched news articles with analyses, handle more back-end stuff relating to my site, and still concentrate on my primary career in IT and keep up a level of physical fitness that allows me to keep up with elite athletes despite aging. While I won’t disparage those who think my opinions are silly or fruitless, the older I get and the less I desire for games writing to be my full-time career, the less it makes sense to devote so many of my resources to one thing that has an increasing number of ripple effects.

1 – A concussion did not help. For those counting, the ninth one I’ve had recorded out of ten

2 – Yes, this is physically impossible even for those who spend every possible moment playing the game. But don’t ever count out truly dedicated players

3 – A selective embargo is when different sites get an early code, but one site can go earlier than everyone else because of a sweet business deal that often involves a scoring floor, usually (IGN’s the biggest offender). I make it known that any non-disclosure agreement I agree to becomes null and void if I see a site go live with a review before our agreed-to date. So far, no one’s taken us up on this, though the companies I’ve dealt with generally don’t engage in the practice.

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Christopher Bowen

About Christopher Bowen

Christopher Bowen is the Editor in Chief of Gaming Bus. Before opening Gaming Bus in May of 2011, he was the News Editor at Diehard GameFAN, a lead reporter for DailyGamesNews, and a reviewer at Not A True Ending, also contributing to VIMM, SNESZone and Scotsmanality. Outside of the industry, he is a network engineer in Norwalk, CT and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.