Monday, February 12, 2007

Does game reviewing need some reform?

There has been a little think that has irked me for a couple years now. It has to do with the way video games are rated at the time of review.

Basically, there are two problems with video game reviewing: 1) Ratings are rarely adjusted based on the innovations in later games and 2) Reviewers base their ratings in part on what the previous games in a series of genre were like.

Movies, for example, are usually given a second look after some time has passed and reassessed based on their qualities within a genre and period, but in gaming, that doesn't really happen, so that games that were released at the beginning of a console's lifespan will be given exceptionally high ratings that no title that comes along later can match. I mean, according to Gamespot, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3 which was released in 2001 is the absolutely unscalable pinnacle of Playstation 2 gaming with a perfect score of 10 out of 10. Is it a great game? Yes... but in 2007, is it the greatest PS2 game ever made? Not by a long shot. I would be willing to bet money that at least 10 better games came out in the last year and feel confident in keeping my money. There are quite a few titles from a system's launch that will stand the test of time, but by keeping those original scores unrealistically high, they make judging future titles that much harder.

Because of this type of skewing, the numbers definitely lie, and anyone who has bought the sequel to a well-reviewed game and then went back and played an earlier game in the series would attest to that. I don't think reassessment is such a bad policy based on the entire breadth of a system's library.

This leads me to the second problem with video game reviews, one that is most clearly seen in the reviewing of sports games.

If you were looking at buying a sports game from a series that is released annually and you just looked at the reviews to try to figure out which version to buy, you'd be lost because even if a game improves many flaws in a previous version, the latest version is usually rated lower than the version that preceded it so you don't really have an objective way to compare two titles. What seems to be happening is the reviewer is assuming that you own the previous version so they are giving you a rating that reflects that when there are a lot of gamers out there(like myself) who only buy one iteration of a sports title.

So my solution for this particular problem is for reviewers to give two ratings to games... one for those who have played a previous version of a title and one for those who haven't with the assumption that people can't play games all day so they have to make some tough choices, and as a reviewer, it is your job to help us do that.

I think these two factors are hurting scholarly efforts to make gaming a more accepted field of study at a time when it could taking steps into a greater artistic community, and that is a shame.


Tracey said...

Mmmm...interesting points you raise there. I have to be honest and say that I haven't thought too much about game reviewing before, but I think you're definitely right about the need for two different ratings.

MC said...

Thank you Tracey.

AG said...

Though as an editor I shudder at the thought of recalibrating old copy, you raise a great issue -- now that we've got the Long Tail, how do we keep it groomed?

But there's something else that's always bothered me about games reviewing, or any other product reviewing for that matter -- what you see in a week (or on earlier levels) is not what you notice after you spend more serious time with a product. Publishing, OTOH, is a time-sensitive business, and what the Web gives in opportunities to tweak and adjust without worrying about printers' deadlines, it takes away in that rush to be first to post. It's even worse for smaller outlets that might not be getting their review units in a timely fashion.

What happens is that you end up writing something based on the tech equivalent of speed-dating, and you're writing to convince someone else to marry the damned thing. It's an awful system, and honestly it doesn't bother me as much with games as it does with gear, where you're dropping much more money. It's mainly printers and phones and items in that price range, too; we've learned a lot about how to effectively test computers these days, but we never quite got our heads around how to minimize the review-period factor for other stuff.

Curious to hear what others think on that. Is it something that bothers me more 'case I'm in the business?

MC said...

The argument I have been making in the other places this piece got picked up at is the fact that at any given time you could go and pick a movie guide book that has basically gone through thousands of reviews, capsulized them and readjusted the ratings based on the entire spectrum of film or a genre... and because they usually edit these compendiums annually, well, it is easier to slide ratings up and down.

I think the closest equivalent we have to that now in game reviewing is the occasional Top 10-100 list.

I think a few other people also had a mistaken impression that I wanted games on different systems to be used as the criteria, when I was talking about keeping things platform specific.

And with most other products, there is usually someone who does reviews that compare many versions of the same type of product in a category like I remember Consumer Reports did/does.

AG said...

That also re-raises the question of heritage -- we accept that movies tend to exist in some relation to (within, in opposition to, etc.) 100-odd years of film. Music pretends at disruption but actually is at least as tightly bound to traditions and modes. Games? Go back more than a decade or two and you're lucky to be able to even *play* the things -- much less are they easily available to, or encouraged viewing for, fledgling game creators.

(Yep, sooner or later, every conversation in my life *does* come back to the DMCA. How'd you guess?)

Here's my theory: Better critical thinking about games is in part going to be a function of the gaming studios *wanting* better thinking about games, and that's inevitably a financial issue. Movie franchises and music careers were propositions that encouraged The Powers That Be to encourage reviewers to think back to past triumphs, even as the vast majority of films rotted away on warehouse shelves. Thus careers were built, and the studio repurposed the careers in service of whatever they needed to sell tickets to that particular year.

But game "stars" -- Madden or whatever -- don't operate quite the same. The things that most change year to year in games tend to do with technology, looking better or playing better or whatever, and they very rarely get worse. We're still seeing tremendous advances on those fronts year to year, but the "star" itself... what exactly has changed about Madden? Or football itself, for that matter?

So discounting the back-catalog sales argument (though you can make a good case that we didn't talk about film like this either 'til we had TV and the capability to look at "old" films once again), let's imagine the prospect of reviewing, say, the last ten years of Madden. The tech advances that knocked out reviewers in 1998 are pretty quaint now, for the most part, and Madden is Madden, so what's left? A lot of stuff the game industry doesn't focus on to sell games, and a few things that may in fact impede sales. A Kate Winslet fan who loved her second-to-last movie and didn't think much of the last one is probably more likely to check out the new one; a Madden fan who liked 2005 and hated 2006 just may hesitate on 2007, or check out another series altogether.

Eh. Just a thought. I don't think the games companies give a long tail about their back catalog; the brand is all, and the specifics matter not. The console obsolescence issue sure won't help, but most of all -- you gotta have reviewers and editors who believe there's an audience and something to learn. I believe there is, but of course I'm not the one who needs convincing...

MC said...

But by the same analogy you've begun, look at where film began... it started off as a simplistic and relatively undeveloped art form as well and bloomed into much more literate and adept media for narrative, spectacle and complexity.

It is getting to the point where gaming is at the stage where it is developing its own language, conventions and canon which is starting to put it on par with other forms of media and reviewing and criticism has to catch up.

I mentioned canon, and it is a point you also brought it up under back catalog but it seems to me that obsolescence is becoming less of the issue it once was with at least two of the bleeding edge consoles are getting very into the idea of the virtual console and the selling of old games as downloads and including their much older titles as part of more recent releases(the first two NES Metal Gear’s on the recent MGS: Subsistence release comes to mind), a move which is akin to the movie/television studios opening their own vaults after DVD's started becoming the distributed media of choice. On one level, it is a very business conscious choice on their part, but that still doesn’t diminish the positive cultural and intellectual effects of those same choices.

If you look at some of the methods used to teach the arts (creative writing, film making, fine arts), there are usually lessons and exercises based on strict limitations: write the best story you can in 100 words, paint something using only one color, write a script with no dialogue etc., and to understand how to do the exercise, you are usually presented with famous examples of people who did it. Having never attended classes on game design or any of the related technical skills, I can only imagine that at some point they are challenged to create a short game with certain criteria… like file size, and the fact that so many classic games were made under those same conditions, and as we both know, the imparting of practical knowledge usually precedes the development of more theoretical aspects of a curriculum, and after a while, theory gets divided between those who create the media and those who interpret it, and right now, it is a long way from that step.

Now let's alter that Kate Winslet analogy a bit because while that particular Madden example is exactly (and I mean exactly) what happened to me with that series, I think that some other examples provide the counter argument. Say someone absolutely adored Final Fantasy 10 but hated Final Fantasy 11 or Kingdom Hearts... do you think that those disappointments are going to significantly impact their decision to buy FF12? I have my doubts about that. There were a lot of people who absolutely hated MGS2, but they still came back for Snake Eater and there are a myriad of other examples.

But I think that there is going to be a point where there is going to be a showdown sometime in the next five years between a few of the game studios and the creatives who work for them. I don’t know if the world is going to be ready for the age of the gaming auteur though.

(Did a word count and this response is longer than my original posting... that is freaky!)