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Video Game Reviews Are Broken: Why to Move Away from AAA Titles

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Is this really an example of innovative game design?

I’ve been playing games since roughly 1993, and since then I have seen games become a pop phenomenon. While it’s good that games get mainstream attention as an alternative to watching television, it’s unfortunate that big money interests are dominating the market. Monoliths like EA (over-zealous DRM) and even Bethesda (paid mods in Fall Out 4?) seem to view us as sheep waiting to spend money – true innovation in the AAA universe is rare, and instead we are rehashed the same gameplay and ideas over and over again.

Worse, mainstream review websites, which are supposed to protect readers, are essentially sounding boards for over-hyped titles. The gaming environment right now produces a review system that’s downright broken. Reviews are only marginally useful at best and horribly misleading and biased at worst.

Most of the reason I even started moving toward indie developers, open source roguelikes, and generally away from $60 titles is I realized that reviews were leading me away from games that were great and towards games that bought themselves high ratings. The best games I’ve played in recent years have cost me less than $20 a title, were often free, and offered unique experiences far beyond the scope of even the best AAA games. Some are covered on this very site, including Dwarf Fortress, Cataclysm: CDDA, and Cogmind. While the open source and Indie market continues to grow, I hope that we, as a community, move even more of our support towards the little guy.

Mainstream Video Game Review Sites are Biased and Bought

This is painfully clear, but mainstream sites clearly give priority and high scores to big releases. There are a couple reasons that contribute, beyond large developers paying for huge ad campaigns with television commercials, billboards, and outreach. For one thing, game companies’ PR departments send out a wicked amount of gifts, swag, and even cash to game reviewers. This includes, but is not limited to, dramatically extravagant vacations, the company of beautiful women, and expensive toys. Check out Sam Roberts’ article on 3 Ways Game Reviewers are Bribed to Lie to You for details from a source more vetted than myself.

More, Kataku published an article with an anonymous member of a major publisher that said:

“I think of our launch parties as warm-up comedians for the main act. Warm-up comedians are there to get you laughing and excited, so when the star performer walks onstage, you’re primed and ready to enjoy the set. Our promo events are the same way. We bring out media to a fancy location, wine and dine them, show them the best parts of our game, and generally build anticipation for release. The theory is that, once they get the game and play it privately, they already have a positive association with the game, which may influence their final score.

There are also countless ways to subtly push a reviewer towards giving a particular game a certain score, whether it’s providing them with “talking points” they can bring up in their reviews, restricting review copies, or making subtle offers.”

That’s a thinly spun argument, at best, but the point is publishers admit to this behavior.

I worked in the American medical field for some time and I saw this very methodology in play with (y)our healthcare. Drug representatives – which are the equivalent of a game company’s reps – would bring meals, offer gifts, etc and claim that they didn’t want anything in return. They are famously young, attractive people. I worked at the office for 6 months, and by the end of it the reps knew my favorite candy, my hobbies, and how to reach me. This all occurred after supposed legislation to prevent drug representative corruption, and continues to this day.

Why? Because big pharm companies know that giving a secretary candy can make the difference between their company getting a sale or losing one. Video game publishers know that too. I know it’s possible for reviewers to claim that this doesn’t influence their decision, but the bottom line is that it very likely does. If bribery didn’t work, people wouldn’t use it as a marketing strategy.

This is in no way to say that every reviewer out there is crooked, or that there aren’t legitimate sites out there, but you can bet that a highly recognized review site is going to get a lot more attention from developers than an independent blog.

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Anyone remember this disaster?

Another reason AAA games are favored more than smaller ones is simple. More people care, meaning reviews for the latest reprint of huge games like COD or Halo are going to attract far more page views than something small. This is unfortunate, because most of the games I’ve found that were worth playing in the past several years were small, indie releases that didn’t get great reviews. They also didn’t get the attention they deserve for making great games on a shoestring budget, without soul-crushing banner ads and television commercials, and out of a sheer love for gaming. Those are the people that I want making my games.

 

The System Doesn’t Work

The second reason video game reviews are broken is much more fundamental. Even in a world that didn’t employ bribery to affect the market, our 1-10 scoring system for games works poorly in practice. Have you noticed how almost every decent game gets a 8-10?

This doesn’t make sense. If “good” games get an 8, that implies that games receiving a 5 are bad. This skews the scale beyond reason. For instance, giving ANY game a 10 devastates the scale. A 10/10 is reflective of a perfect gaming experience. That is a game which is totally glitch free, fully immersive, impeccably written, and paced for ecstasy-like levels of excitement from the moment the game begins to the moment that it ends. It doesn’t exist. If one game gets a perfect ten, and then a better game is released the next year, there’s no way to rate it. It just becomes a ten, which waters down the perfect ten of the previous year. It also waters down all the other games that are ranked on the scale.

The simplest solution for our broken rating system is two fold. Reviewers, stop giving “decent” games scores above a 5. A 5 should be reserved for middle of the road, fun to play but not awe inspiring titles. An 8 should be a game that is truly remarkable, great in nearly every aspect. A 9 should be a rarity given to a game that truly transcends its genre and offers an incredible experience that changes gaming for you or the industry as a whole.

Gamers (probably you), don’t expect every game to be a 9 or a 10. It’s not realistic. It isn’t giving credit to developers, especially developers with limited budgets, who may have delivered an excellent gaming experience with one or two flaws. A game with a 7 ranking still has hours upon hours of fun.

If we expect the very supreme gaming experience everytime, we will be sorely disappointed.

The Ultimate Solution

Clearly, until we can recognize that big reviewers like IGN and Destructoid have our backs, we should temporarily move away from them. Even if we don’t, we must realize that games big enough to afford buying a review probably have, and we need to keep that in mind. Perhaps some of these places have a system to prevent corruption in place – if they do, they should make it publicly known and enforce it stringently.

More than that, we, as gamers, will benefit the community and the industry by maintaining proper standards of comparison, and by supporting small developers and open source games that continue to push the boundaries of the experiences available in video games. We literally have everything to gain by expecting integrity in our review processes and by providing support to the people who make games because they love them – not exclusively to make a buck.

About the Author: Jack Thompson

symbol-representing-author Jack Thompson is a professional writer, editor, and web developer. He’s been an avid gamer since the early 90’s, and fell in love with the roguelike genre after playing classics like Nethack, Dwarf Fortress, Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead, and Angband in the past few years. When he’s not building websites for small businesses or developing search engine marketing strategies, he helps to organize LRL and several other non-profit sites. To contact him or ask for his services, check out his website at www.writerjackcreations.com.

1 thought on “Video Game Reviews Are Broken: Why to Move Away from AAA Titles

  1. I couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately, this just seems to be the way things are going right now. My only hope is that this will create the perfect conditions for a video game Renaissance where developers will realize that making everything appeal to the lowest common denominator isn’t the best way to go. The state of things right now is really unfortunate.

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