Why Reviews Matter: The Changing Values of Critical Games Analysis

What do reviews mean for the modern video gamer? It’s a topic that has bounced around in my mind since the Game Review Over: Critiquing the Way We Critique Games panel from PAX East 2015 with Marty Sliva of IGN, Susan Arendt of GamesRadar, Greg Miller of Kinda Funny Games, a fashionably late Jeff Gerstmann from Giant Bomb and host Alexa Ray Corriea of GameSpot. I didn’t get around to posting my recap of the panel during the event, but the topic is worth exploring in detail as we approach the intense fall and winter game release schedules.

I generally share Gerstmann’s view that the value of review scores depends on the audience: the readers, listeners or viewers being served by an enthusiast publication such as Giant Bomb is very different from the readers of mainstream publications like Entertainment Weekly or Wired. He noted at the panel that reviewers run into trouble when they get too granular, the team at Giant Bomb prefers to think of reviews as giving advice to the audience which is evident in their pioneering Quick Looks videos, a series that has played a huge role in the current popularity of the Let’s Play format and resulting in superstars being made out of personalities such as PewDiePie, TotalBiscuit and Markiplier on YouTube. The group experience coverage format also addresses a point raised by Marty Sliva when there are multiple participants: he points out that it is weird that a particular site’s reviews are often evaluated as a whole, even when their staff of reviewers are composed of multiple authors with different points of view and critical approaches to reviewing. With two or more reviewers, hosts or other personalities from a publication or a combination of staff and guests play games together, it provides a blend of criticism and conversation that naturally creates a more balanced perspective for the audience.

It isn’t a challenge that Play With Pixels encounters as an entirely independent hobbyist site with no notable financial costs (all site hosting and game purchasing prices are individually covered at this point), but Gerstmann also spoke of the adverse PR pressure that small sites endure to avoid low scores which can lead to no longer receiving free games for review. He spoke of the importance of Giant Bomb being able to remain credible and stay internally consistent by not caring about what other sites do and instead staying true to their vision of games criticism. A lot of this has to be attributed to his large following, extensive body of work in games coverage and ironclad reputation in the industry: many reviewers would be reluctant to be as forward with their concerns about influencing scores and corners being cut in evaluating games.

 

On the other side of the review score debate, Arendt described her drive to remove numerical review scores while she was the managing editor of Joystiq which took effect right before the untimely demise of the site. She passionately (and at times profanely) declared that she would rather argue over words in her review over the score, and that the changes in game releases combined with their continual evolution through patches and other post-release changes have rendered scores less relevant. This is challenging for sites that can benefit tremendously by generating social media engagement and score aggregation promotion of their content from sites such as Metacritic and GameRankings, sources of traffic that have become increasingly important as Internet advertising rates have declined due to increasing competition. It is noteworthy that GamesRadar does score their reviews although it is difficult to discern whether that is primarily the result of continuing their editorial mandate, site performance considerations or a mixture of both. All of those reasons are valid and above board, it exemplifies the continuing challenge found in balancing critical and commercial considerations.

Greg Miller recommended going where the audience wants you to go in terms of topics, noting that the Kinda Funny team would be sure to pick topics that their audience wanted to hear about. Their approach to serving the audience over Metacritic was to create review discussions rather than debates: in the months since this panel, Kinda Funny has interspersed their reviews between their podcasts, reaction shows and let’s play content without formally create review only videos or playlists. This is the strongest commitment to a belief expressed by Gerstmann that podcasts, columns and other methods can be more effective in conveying info without the review label explicitly defining that content. Susan had a line from the panel that “television is not dead, but it has evolved” which is a lesson that contributors to the primarily Internet based field of video game reviews needs to always keep in mind to remain relevant.

The modern state of game reviews with regards to diversity of views, formats and accessibility is generally a wonderful thing. The days of coverage being condensed into a generic presentation are gone: Gerstmann once described an apocalyptic scenario in which Gamespot reviewers used to have a weighted spreadsheet to calculate overall review scores and potentially removing author bylines to emphasize the company brand over individuals which the success of Giant Bomb, Destructoid, Polygon and YouTube video channels have obliterated as a viable approach to game reviews. Audiences demand to know who is reviewing a game and the ability to trace their preferences, biases and historical thoughts on games to approach their new reviews with context and experience with how that reviewer thinks about and sees games.

Play With Pixels has also wrestled with a challenge that Jeff points out in finding opportunities to discuss a game after it comes out or a review is released after embargo. I have personally kept running notes on Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm and other continually evolving games without a defined release or replacement date: the answer may be a series of mini reviews, a multi-review blended article approach favoured by Wesley Morris at Grantland or another format that breaks away from the long form standalone review format that we have used so far.

In the months since that panel, I realigned internally a bit towards capturing “in the moment” experiences which will hopefully show through in upcoming reviews for Batman: Arkham Knight, Mortal Kombat X and more. Gaming commentary and criticism is evolving rapidly as it branches off in different directions between varying authors but the fundamental goals should remain: to inform, entertain and excite the audience about video games…or warn them away if a title fails to deliver.

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