How people feel about something from an artistic medium is subjective. But, ideally, critics have more experience in the medium they represent. They’ve gone through the classics, the ones that are famous for being terrible, and they keep up with what is current. With the history they have, they know how things work. They can point out why a movie doesn’t quite work, why the music resonates as much as it has, and even why people love the particular art so much. And they are able to do this because they have the freedom to do so. There is a clear disconnect between the critics, the artists, and the audience (Michael Bay’s Transformers is a big example of this disconnect).
Which is why the reviews we have for games are doing an incredible disservice for the entire medium. The way we do scoring systems, marketing, and even review copies are all designed to keep the critics, the artists, and the audience all on the same page. And it’s making our medium worse by creating stagnation and giving publishers an excuse to act even lazier. In order to make games better, we need to re-evaluate how we approach criticisms. This goes for everybody that’s a part of the medium: the critics, the publishers, the audiences, this is in everybody’s interest because if we don’t start thinking more into this, then things are never going to get better.
The Role of the Critic
The 4-Point Scale
The rating system most game reviewers use is called the 4-Point scale. It’s where most of the major releases you’ll see get a score between a 6 and a 10, with the anything lower than a 6 being reserved for those rare cases when the game just doesn’t function properly. Some people will view this as a way of scoring games similarly to how teachers grade assignments, with the numbers representing the letter grade of an A through F. Others(I’m definitely one of those others) will see this as executive meddling, where people aren’t allowed to give out negative scores.
Metacritic seems to go with A-F grading system, so I’ll just comment on the reviews based off of that approach in this part. Because even if we do take that kind of rating into consideration, it shows a serious problem with how people approach their reviews.
One of the problems is that we don’t have an average for our games, even if we’re considering the score 7 to be something of an average, run of the mill game, being neither a bad nor a good rating. Most of the scores that keep coming out are consistently above average, and that doesn’t make any sense. If the games that are coming out are consistently above average, than that doesn’t mean they are above average any more; they are the average now. But, because of how people are consistently giving games good marks, we don’t have anything to differentiate a well executed game from an exceptionally great game. There have been so many 8s and 9s given out that those scores are meaningless now.
“So what if a game got a solid 9 out of 10? Nearly every other major release that has been extremely hyped has gotten that score as well.” Because of this, it’s about time we start a score deflation.
Why the 4-Point scale is bad for reviewing games
Even if it’s used properly, I still have a problem with the whole 4-Point scale in the first place. The reason why they are used in schools is because they are designed for the student to pass. Getting more than half right means that you have at least a barely sufficient understanding on whatever it is you’re working on, ideally at least. It works because assignments given out at school are entirely based on tangible right and wrong answers.
Games, or anything else with artistic value, don’t work this way.
if the game doesn’t engage the player on any level then it almost doesn’t even matter how well the it does on a technical level.
Yes, there are tangible details that can make the game unplayable or there can be graphical errors or gameplay glitches, and they can certainly factor into your overall score, but critics shouldn’t be judging games based on those factors alone, especially when they don’t present a problem to the overall game. It’s more of a matter on how well the game engages the player rather than how much of a technical achievement the game is. It could be a technical master piece with great looking graphics, serviceable controls, and a glitch free experience, but if the game doesn’t engage the player on any level then it almost doesn’t even matter how well the game does on a technical level.
Games should be judged based on how well it works at engaging the player. This is going to mean that there aren’t going to be any tangible right or wrong answers on why we felt a game works over a certain level, as it’s going to be subjective. But it also means being able to explain why we felt a particular way towards a game. That is what a good critic is able to do after all.
Changes for the better.
Using a scoring system to help determine the quality of game certainly has its uses, even if there are a special breed of people who don’t really like using score systems in the first place. It can help give the reader a good overall idea on how the critic felt about the game. But if a scoring system is set up in a way where a full half of it is reserved for those rare, special cases, then it undermines the games that are in the upper-half.
A game functioning properly is the bare minimum of what we should expect.
Those rare, special cases are reserved for games that don’t function properly, but giving a game a score that accounts for more than half of your entire system just because the game is “functional” is absolutely, down-right lazy. A game functioning properly is the bare minimum of what we should expect. It shouldn’t even receive a score just because it’s functional, because we should expect all games to be functional. Being able to play a game because it’s not broken means that the person is able to get through the game just fine and they are able to talk about it. There are definitely games out there right now that are truly broken, but it’s incredibly rare if this happens to games that audiences generally care about.
It’s going to be impossible for me to write this next part without sounding like a snob, so, I’m just going to go right out and say it.
Most game reviewers are way to nice to their respected medium. The absolute worst thing you can do for any kind of artistic medium is to hand out praises on a consistent basis for every major thing that comes out; all it does is encourage developers and publishers that they don’t need to improve and work hard.
Here’s a quote from Moviebob on critics. Although he is talking about movies, it applies to everything that has artistic value.
“If we weren’t so jaded, things would almost never get better. That, in the end, is our job – nay, our duty. Movie studios, like all businesses, take the path of least resistance, and they’d be all too happy to take advantage of the average person’s inability/disinclination to see everything and just keep giving you the same five movies over and over again. Smug, impossible-to-please know-it-alls like me, frankly, keep them from doing that – perhaps only a little – by sharing our informed opinions with people who might benefit from them.”
Moviebob “About Critics (Part II)”
This is a big reason why I don’t believe an average title deserves a pass. It may an enjoyable experience for other people who don’t play as many games as I do, but if people don’t call out the game for being nothing special, all it’s going to do is encourage developers to be lazy and just produce the same kinds of games over and over again with little to no improvements. Unfortunately, I feel like this is happening right now with our industry. The Metacritic scores don’t show anything to disprove this.
What game publishers do is evil.
reviews for games have started to become more of a marketing stunt
One of the big reasons for everything I said when I was talking about critics can be attributed to the fact that publishers can take away access to things like review copies or news stories if the game journalists are not willing to play ball with them. Because of this, reviews for games have started to become more of a marketing stunt rather than actual commentary on the games themselves. It’s causing a serious lack of discussion we could be having. In order to open up to this whole new area of discussion, critics are going to need more freedom on what they are able to say. Yes, this means that publishers are going to have to hear things they may not want to, even if they need to.
Probably the most famous example is what happened to Jeff Gerstmann after he gave a less than favorable review towards Kane and Lynch. Advertisement for Kane and Lynch was being put on Gamespot‘s website, the site that Gerstmann was writing for. Gerstmann reviewed the game and gave it a 6.5 out of 10 which didn’t make the publishers very happy, especially when you consider the 4-point scale. Since the publishers have so much control on the access of the site’s content, Gerstmann was let go.
In order to get to where we need to be, this means that we’re going to have to get the publishers to play ball with the critics. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like there will be an easy way to do this. My idea would be having to rely on regular copies for a while rather than the review copies, but, yes, I know, it’s more complicated than that. A lot of websites also rely on news stories for there traffic, and publishers are also the ones that distribute access for that. At the same time, however, this is the internet, and one website with certain news story isn’t going to be exclusive to that website for long.
This is just touching on the surface though, as there doesn’t seem to be a good solution for this. But, we have to try something however.
“He Panned it, Now He Sucks!”
There is nothing wrong with taking what critics say into consideration on how you feel on a game. Reviews are certainly useful, as they can help provide many unique perspectives. But reviews are not the final stamp on the quality of anything, as discussing the quality of a game is subjective.
But, because of how much stock audiences put into reviews, it puts pressure on critics on having to say what audiences want to hear. What happens is that a certain website will give a game a score and audiences will rage over how low the score was since it was over an incredibly hype AAA title. IGN gave Batman: ArkhamCity a 9.5 out of 10, and audiences back-lashed, not because the score was too high, but because it was too low.
That is outrageous. Especially when you consider this was before a lot of people have gotten a chance to play it.
I feel like most people on the internet just can’t handle some things they disagree with, even if the person they disagree with makes a valid point. Instead of actually discussing with what the person said, they’ll just flat out make accusations of the person being a troll, an idiot, someone who doesn’t know what he’s doing and should just shut up.
The only thing I really have to say about this is: grow up! Why should you care if someone doesn’t like a game that you like? You can certainly have discussions with the person and have reasonable arguments, but if you truly enjoy the game, then it shouldn’t really get to you if someone else blatantly hates it or gives it a score that you don’t agree with.
…it was a Zelda game! How dare he give it anything lower than a 9.
Here’s the thing. I used to be just like this. I was one of the people that hated Jeff Gerstmann’s guts when he had the audacity to give Twilight Princess the low score of an 8.8 out of 10. I didn’t get to play the game until the following year, but, still, it was a Zelda game! How dare he give it anything lower than a 9. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve been able to appreciate what it means to be a critic and what it means to have opinions. I still don’t agree with a lot of the things Gerstmann says, but, now, I respect that he has those views. Why would I shut him down when he has been making valid points?
See guys? It’s not that hard!
It should be concerning…
The reason why I’m talking about this is because I’m scared. I’m scared to face a reality to where everybody has to have an exact carbon copy opinion of everyone else, lest somebody actually try to bring in a differing opinion that may have a point. I’m scared that our industry will remain stagnant because nobody is challenging the publishers to actually try. I’m scared to what it will do to art as a whole.
If people had the freedom to actually try to bring in challenging, thoughtful insight, then benefits will come to everybody who loves games.