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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Saving Game Reviews From Irrelevancy Part 1

When you ask the majority of gamers their opinion of game reviewers, they usually have a very skeptical view. They may not believe, like some conspiracy theorists do, that reviewers are paid for a good review, but we've been burned repeatedly.

Consider, for instance, the curious case of Super Mario Sunshine. When Sunshine was released in 2002, reviewers loved it. On Metacritic, it has scored 92/100 and recieved the "Universal Acclaim" tag. After playing Super Mario Galaxy, a game which is truly amazing, I decided to go back and play Sunshine, a game that I had missed before. I was really excited for more Mario. I mean, if Galaxy was one of the best games I'd ever played, Sunshine should be great too, right?

Wrong. Dead wrong. Super Mario Sunshine in one of those games that gets worse the more you play it. There is no way now that you could possibly say that it is "universally acclaimed." According to this article from IGN, "Because it is uneven, Super Mario Sunshine is probably the closest you can get to labeling a Super Mario game 'bad.' "

Oh, sure, tell us NOW. After we've already bought the game, played it, gotten frustrated with it and sold it on eBay. I only paid $17.99 at Gamestop and I was disappointed. I shudder to think of the poor souls who paid $50 at retail.

This is not an uncommon occurence, which leads many to be understandably skeptical about game reviews. Why do we have problems with them? How can they be improved? How can we learn to trust them again?

There is a major issue behind reviews that's the "elephant in the room" of most gaming publications. In order to make ends meet, most gaming mags and sites rely on advertising. What types of companies willingly advertise in gaming publications? Why, game companies, of course. So, in effect, the game companies are paying for the gaming publications, who are supposed to be giving objective reviews of the games that the very companies are paying them to review.

Now, that's not to say that every review is bought and paid for. Far from it. There are many outstanding reviewers out there who consistently are objective, and will take a game to task for being bad. Not all companies are as scrupulous, though. It's a business, and some will do whatever it takes to get their bottom line

By now, everyone knows the story of Kane & Lynch, Eidos Interactive, Jeff Gerstmann and Gamespot, but I'll recap for those playing at home who've never heard it: Before the game's release, Gamespot had ads plastered throughout the site for Kane & Lynch, and on the game's release, Jeff Gerstmann panned it. Eidos was angry, pulled their advertising, Gamespot fired Jeff Gerstmann, and there was a huge PR fiasco for all involved. Was this a case of Eidos wanting the ballet box stuffed? There's a lot of circumstantial evidence, and no one has ever come out and expressly said anything, but it's safe to assume that it was. Is this common? No, it isn't.

When writing reviews for a game site myself, I ran into a similar problem. These companies would send us a game and ask us to review it. What are you supposed to say? If you say that the game blows, will you get the next big release? If you say the game is great, will you anger your audience? How do you properly review a game when you're getting it from the maker?

Years ago, a wise man told me the phrase, "Perception is reality." In other words, if people think you're unscrupulous, then it doesn't matter what you say. You are. If people think that you handle issues well, then you do. People think that game companies are in collusion with review sites, and incidents like these only serve to make the issue worse. Therefore, in the public's eyes, they are.

There's also another tricky issue with game reviews: Length. It's easy to review a CD. You listen for a half hour to an hour, and then you put it down. If you want to listen to it again, you listen to it again. It's easy to review a movie. You watch it for two, maybe three hours maximum. Then you go home and digest what you've seen. Games are different animals. You have to have a certain amount of skill to play a game, and the experience can take anywhere from 5 hours for a short game to 100 hours for in-depth RPGs.

On top of that, when do people (and game companies) want game reviews? Two weeks after the game comes out? A month? Of course not! We want the review NOW. We want to know all about how good or bad the game is NOW. There's no way. You can't review 100 hours of content in a couple of days. At most, you're getting a sniff of the game, and at worst, you're missing the entire point of it.

I always point to this Gamespot review of Chrono Cross, a fine game that somehow got a 10.0 rating. I was willing to give it the same rating myself for most of the game. For 2/3 of the game, I was enraptured. Then you had to seek out 8 dragons and do...something with a frozen sea? And...what were we doing again? Why do I have thirty characters that I can choose from when all of them play basically the same?

See, for twenty hours, it was one of the finest games I had ever played. Then, it all fell apart. How can you review that? Was the 10.0 review the right review? Was it wrong? How far can you really review a game before you say that it was good or bad?

There are some reviewers who doesn't fall prey to these issues, like Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw. He's the diabolical mind behind Zero Punctuation, and his reviews manage to skirt these problems. Other reviewers manage to avoid these problems as well. What do they do, what lessons can we learn, and how can reviewers make their reviews relevant again? The answers are coming on Monday.