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Game Journalism: Why Reviews Should Not Have Grading Scales (or why I no longer read game reviews)

05/23/2011

Game journalism, in my mind, seems like an awesome job. Imagine getting paid to write about something you love (probably some things you don’t love too!); nevertheless, it seems like a pretty sweet gig. If I had a shred of interest in writing that wasn’t more than what blogging is, I would definitely pursue it. However, I want to make games. I want to be the one journalists interview and write columns about. That’s a different post though! This post is about why I am simply getting tired of what game journalism has evolved into. Every year I distance myself further and further from it. My biggest beef the past few years has been game reviews. Not just game reviews in general, but ones that place a value on that game. Ratings, scores, etc.

I think reviewing any creative content from a person(s) and giving it some arbitrary value is wrong. It is unnecessary and only a hindrance to the industry and community.

It bothers me that Metacritic exists. It bothers me that Metacritic may influence sales and stocks (e.g. here). I don’t think that someone should go to Metacritic to find out opinions of a game. Looking at an averaged number surrounded by a selective color to portray positive, average, or negative is not okay. The reason why Metacritic even exists and has some influence is because different magazines and online sites have their own grading scale. It is easy to blame Metacritic, but the problem lies with the reviews in the first place.

Famitsu, a Japanese gaming magazine

Game journalism sites shouldn’t simply write a few thousands word on a game and then wrap it up with a number, letter, etc. It makes no sense. The first thing you usual see on the site, to draw the reader in, it that score. It’s the complete backwards way to go about it. For a reader, looking to learn more about the game, they should read a variety of opinions. I think what Famitsu does, in a way, is in the right direction. Famitsu, a Japanese gaming magazine, has four people review a game, give their feedback, and rate the game on a scale from one to ten. The scale and number system isn’t okay, but the fact that a single publication or avenue has more than one person reviewing the game is important. Every single person has their own way to look at a game. Every single person has their own idea of fun. Every single person has their own way of playing a game. There can be similarities, but I do not think going to one site all of the time and reading one editor’s review is smart at all. To get an accurate idea of what a game is like before playing it, multiple opinions are needed. It still is almost impossible to get a good idea what the game is like without playing it, though. Reading a variety of reviews is a step in the right direction, but it is just as important to formulate your own opinion.

Reviews, in my opinion, should inform the reader(s) about personal opinion, facts (there are definitely some universal don’t in game development that get done), and some reflection from a different standpoint. I know, as a gamer myself, that my opinion on a game changes throughout the time I am playing it, but well after. It is just something that is inevitable. People’s feeling can affect a game review, as can other people’s opinions. What people write and say about a game should be what they think, not what others think.

On that same note, gamers should not formulate their opinion based on a review. I think it is okay so reference a review, saying that so-and-so thought this game was pretty good. I don’t think it is okay to take so-and-so’s opinion and make it your own, unless you actually played the game and of course agreed with so-and-so.

I understand why reviews exist, and it is important they exist. So many games come out weekly that it is hard to judge a game by just the cover. It often times impossible to warrant whether it is worth the money. How can the worth of a video game be measured though? A number from a review can’t tell that. I paid $60.00 for Vanquish. I feel that it was worth $60.00. I got around 16 hours of genuine fun from it. I talked to a friend about Vanquish, and he felt that it wasn’t worth $60.00 because it was only a single-player game. That is his opinion, and that is what he measures the worth of a game on.

You cannot measure the worth of a game based on a 4/5 from [insert-one-of-dozens-gaming-sites]. Each editor, each columnist, each journalist, each reader all have their own way of determining what a game is worth. It is important to distinguish your view of reviews, as a reader, before letting it have a major impact on your gaming purchases. You, the player, know what you like most. Often, reviewers state what they like and don’t like about games in general at some point within the review. What you, the reader, don’t know is what a 76% on Metacritic means. Also, who determines the scale each publication or site uses? That still blows my mind. What executive is is like, “Hmm, do we use numbers or letters? Fuck it, let’s use stars!”

How do sites and magazines determine that scale? Most of them make no sense. There are no standards. Some use a one to five scale, with only whole numbers. Others use one to five with whole numbers and halves. Some use one to ten. Some use one to ten with halves. Some use one to 100. Others use decimals. Some spice it up with letter grades! Kind of like middle school. It just makes no sense. What is the difference between a game rated 4/5 and another 85/100? No one knows because if they are different games, lets say of a different genre, studio, or platform, how can they be compared? If similarities and differences exist, that’s a great way to give readers an idea of the game. However, comparing two scores of a game is not the way to do that.

As for negative game reviews, I don’t think it is acceptable to bash something that people have spent months of their life working on. It’s something that any creator would (or should?) take pride in. Slapping some number on it isn’t respectful.

The solution is to eliminate scores in game reviews. It’s the simple. The game journalism space would be a better place. It would also help eliminate some of the corruption of publishers paying off sites to give them a good score. That’s not what it’s about. If no scores existed, then there wouldn’t be that corruption. The critique of a game would be enough. Instead of a score, use a bullet list of pros and cons. Instead of a score, take advantage of the written word and summarize the entire review in a few sentences. End it at that. The too long, didn’t read crowd will be happy. The length, in-depth people who care about what the author says will be happy.

Also, for the sites that will always have scores, it’s okay to make amends. It’s okay to change opinions and view points. That’s the beauty of the internet, almost anything and everything can be changed in a matter of minutes. There could also be a return reflect of the game, just to see how it sits. I know this won’t change in the big names; I know it is a business. The writers are assigned the games to review, plow through the ones they need to, and move on with their lives. A much more constructive and open-minded gaming community would exist if numerical scales to grade games on didn’t.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. SpaceDinosaurBlue permalink
    05/24/2011 12:04 PM

    I’ve always thought it was a bit ironic that the oldschool Gamepro magazine and its five point “Happy to sad” face rating system was better than all the current stars, grades, and numbers we see today. See, the OG Gamepro system, did not assign an overall rating. No game was directly rated in comparison to an illusionary, absolute standard of “quality”.

    Instead, the reviewer’s impression of the elements that make a game up were given, essentially, a thumbs down, thumbs up, or a neutral. This invited the reader of the review to think, and consider that a game which say, has a low rating in graphics, but a perfect rating in playability (the “fun” factor), might appeal to people who don’t care about technology.

    An example of a genre of games which have been savaged in western critical reviews due to the “final number” mentality is the Musou / Dynasty Warriors niche. Western reviewers typically don’t seem to understand how to approach these games, which generally trade off graphics for scale and gameplay. Even the best games in these genres usually are given very low numerical scores with a distinct feeling that the reviewer is “punishing” the genre for not meeting his expectations of what a game is supposed to be.

    I do think that having a number attached to a review also negatively impacts the mindset of the reviewer his or her-self. The writer knows that all of his evaluations are “supposed” to be leading up to assigning… The Number. I believe that many reviewers stop actually thinking about the game they’re playing. There is the distinct impression that many reviewers don’t try, and can’t be bothered, to “figure out” a game and just what it’s supposed to be on about. Instead, they fall into a mechanical mentality that merely asks “Is this game a 9? An 8? A 7? Do the graphics look like other 9 games? Are the control mechanisms a 7 game?”

    • 05/24/2011 4:15 PM

      I definitely agree. Something like Youtube’s “Thumbs-up” or “Thumbs-down” is a great step in the right direction. It just helps explain whether people like it or not, and then comments can help elaborate on that.

      I also agree, it changes the mindset of reviewers. The reviewer should not be thinking in terms of a score, but in terms of what it is that they enjoy and don’t enjoy about the game.

  2. 06/24/2011 12:08 AM

    I completely agree. It’s hard to assign a numerical value to a game and I usually find such scores to be at most only slightly helpful. The best way for me to judge a game is to simply play it myself for a few hours.

    I also played Vanquish and enjoyed it. I don’t believe a game being only single-player detracts from its value, but I’m a big fan of single player RPGs so I’m obviously biased. *shrug*

    The same issue is present in the scoring of anime. I can’t really bring myself to give an actual score to a series since differentiating between a 8.5 and a 9 is mostly nonsense. I find it easier to just give a general rating. :)

    • 06/27/2011 8:08 PM

      Exactly! I couldn’t agree more. General ratings are usually the most beneficial to the people viewing those ratings.

      For example, how do specific ratings work? Do I not buy a game that is graded lower than an 8.0? It’s all just too convoluted to make any sense or be constructive.

      On the other hand, saying, “Great” “Poor” “Pretty Good” or something you’d say to someone who asked your opinion about it makes a lot more sense. No one responds to the question, “What did you think?” with “7!” Of course most graded reviews have support evidence, but that single score detracts from it so much.

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