New Feature: The Challenges of Game Reviewing

A couple weeks ago, I posted my review of the latest Mario game, [amazon_link id=”B002I092MM” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Super Mario 3D Land[/amazon_link]. In it, I thoroughly and completely trashed what I think is Nintendo’s laziest effort with a Mario game since… well, since ever, really.

On DDJGames.com and Gaming Symmetry, I have the flexibility to upload my reviews without necessarily assigning a numeric score to them. Usually I opt for a score anyway, but for Super Mario 3D Land, I didn’t include on solely because I had no real idea what to give it. It wasn’t a terrible game in and of itself, but by the standards of the Mario franchise, it was a severe disappointment, feeling recycled, obligatory, and completely phoned-in. But that doesn’t mean it was less fun to play than other games. How do you give a numeric score to something like that?

Unfortunately, on GameFAQs.com where I also post my reviews, a score is mandatory, and so I gave the game one of my lowest scores: a 4/10 (although, I later upped that a hair to a 5/10). And, as you might expect, that set off quite a firestorm. Implicit in that firestorm, however, were an abundance of questions. In an industry in which an 8.5 is considered a bad score, what exactly did it mean for me to give a game a 4/10? Was I following the same standard as everyone else? Am I obligated to follow the same scoring protocol as everyone else? What do I owe to my readers as far as acquiescing to the broader industry’s tendencies, and what do I owe to myself in terms of staying true to my personal opinions?

Game reviewers face an abundance of challenges, but the most pressing issue is that most reviewers — both professional and amateur — do not even seem to have a grasp of the issues that they are facing. I would not claim there are perfect answers to any of these challenges, but in considering the challenges, one is naturally better equipped to at least partially address them. I’m reminded of a review I once read that closed with the line, “All in all, this game is a nice game to have in your collection”, and the review score was a 10/10. A 10/10 is a “nice game to have in your collection”? What score, then, are you going to give a game that you consider a must-play? An all-time great? You’ve already given the 10/10 to a “nice game”, how do you differentiate between nice, good, great, and spectacular?

This feature will cover several of the issues facing game reviews, in hopes to simultaneously affect the way games are reviewed and affect the way in which readers read game reviews. Some of the issues I’ll be talking about include:

  • Game Score Inflation: With a 10-point scale, why is the tendency always for games to be scored in the 9s? Why are extra decimal places added when there’s an entire unused 10-point scale? And most importantly, what detrimental effect does score inflation have on the industry as a whole?
  • Score Systems: I often say that a 4 from me is like a 7 from another reviewer, and I’m criticized for refusing to submit to the normal conventions. Are we all obligated to operate under the same system? What obligations do we have to readers to help them understand where we’re coming from?
  • Comparison: When a game is summarized by sites like MetaCritic and GameRankings according to its average score, how in the world do you compare games from different genres? Different consoles? Different price ranges? Different generations?
  • Over-Emphasis of Scores: Again, when sites like the above put a major premium on high average review scores, what is the impact to readers? What are the risks associated with over-emphasizing the numeric score that a game received, and how can those risks be avoided?
  • Review Focus: What ought reviews focus on in gaming in the first place? What expectations should we have of games? Are they expected to advance, push the envelope, and focus on innovation? Or are they simply expected to offer a fun gameplay experience, even if that comes in the form of tried-and-true formulas?
  • Conflicts of Interest: Video game advertisements are most common on the very sites — like GameSpot — that are supposed to offer unbiased, uninfluenced opinions on games. Can reviewers ever be truly unbiased when they are profiting from the very companies they are obligated to criticize?

These and many other issues will come out throughout this series, so be sure to pop by for the next several Thursdays as we get deeper into what exactly game reviewing should look like.

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