Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The reviews industry and the construction of quality

One can't have followed games closely over the last several years without noticing the reviews industry, which is the umbrella term I like to use for popular games journalism.  While critical reviews serve an important part in promoting sales (or failures) in nearly every industry, in games it's seen as perhaps the driving force behind sales figures.  Effectively, reviews are advertising, and the amount of money poured into building hype, generating positive press coverage, and eventually landing a high score, goes far beyond simple press relations and informing consumers.

Certain aspects of the reviews industry have already been covered in detail, including, but not limited to, Metacritic (the popular reviews aggregate site which gives games a "metascore" based on average review numbers), and the supposed race to the bottom when it comes to giving out higher and higher average scores for games, which don't accurately represent the average quality level.  What I'd like to turn my attention to in this article is the discussion of the disconnect between what gamers and reviewers say they want, versus what they actually want, and how reviewers are able to dictate the terms of discourse surrounding the quality of games.

An example I'd like to use here is Alpha Protocol, Obsidian's latest role-playing game, released just this week.  The game had a tumultuous development cycle, as indicated by multiple delays and a protracted development, and gamers know that a delayed game is either better or worse for those delays.  Upon its release, the game has been, more or less, a bit of a critical flop, with generally mediocre review scores, and even some extremely low ones.  Most of the complaints are centred around dated graphics and its skill-based combat, with most reviewers comparing unfavourably it to BioWare's Mass Effect 2.

Jeez, what an ugly guy!  No wonder this game was rated so low.

Though I'm not here to convince anyone that Alpha Protocol is in fact an excellent game, and that the reviewers got it all wrong, examining the reviews paints a very curious picture.  Gamers and reviewers alike are known for touting gameplay over everything else, with technical issues taking a backseat unless they really get in the way of playing or finishing a game, and graphics are often considered a secondary or tertiary factor.  Yet, judging from the negative reviews, it is presentation aspects that most reviewers are actually concerned with - apparently, stiff character animation is enough to damn something to the void, regardless of redeeming features.  That these redeeming features, namely, story, characters, decisions/consequences, replayability, and deep character building, aren't enough to make up for poor visuals, suggests that they hold far less importance, and this is troubling.

It can be said that, at the root, gamers are most concerned with whether a game is fun.  Fun is a difficult thing to pin down, because it's different for every person.  For some, fun means fast action and tight controls.  For others, it means an intriguing story with lots of twists and turns.  For still more, it's multiplayer.  Yet in general, gamers who are drawn to particular genres expect certain things from those genres.  Shooter fans expect good shooting, and aren't primarily concerned with complex narratives, puzzle fans want addictive gameplay that doesn't get boring quickly, and so forth.

Because games are so varied, and our ideas of "fun" are so varied, reviewers are primarily in the business of dictating what is good and bad.  Through individual reviews and metascore, a hierarchy of games is created, whereby certain ones are valued over others on the basis of a predetermined set of criteria.  These criterion can vary - what may have been valued ten, five, or even two years ago are no longer important in evaluating a game, while other things have become far more important.  Part of this is, of course, due to the general progression of the games industry as a whole - as new games come out, they incorporate successful elements from previous games, while adding new ideas.  This results in a "survival of the fittest" system, where certain things are valued over others, with things deemed "good" eventually becoming standards, and things deemed "bad" discarded, with future games being heavily penalised for keeping them.

When gamers read reviews, they aren't reading an isolated opinion of a game, an objective statement of quality.  This should be obvious on a superficial level, but what gamers typically don't acknowledge is the greater discourse which leads to the formation of these ideas of good and bad.  Each review is a microcosm of the history of games reviews, containing within it as many unconscious assumptions as there are clear statements of fact.  When a reviewer calls controls "clunky", he or she expects the readership to know what that means; this applies to nearly every statement and piece of terminology, not just when it comes to understanding language, but also understanding evaluations and histories of quality.

 This game is exactly 66 percent good!

Through this use of language, reviewers are able to have an incredible effect on the games industry.  Reviewers don't just tell us whether games are good or not - they formulate the reasons why we are supposed to think games are good or bad, our expectations about game content, our standards for technology, and so forth.  By quantifying these things with a score, typically out of ten or a hundred, reviewers create an objective scale to measure games by, even though no such objectivity exists.  Game designers, fearing the negative repercussions of low scores, pay attention to the opinions created by reviewers; they internalise those metrics of quality and build their games with the yardstick in mind.  We are so accustomed to this process that we rarely think about it - nor do we stop to consider whether our calling a game "bad" is because it genuinely is bad, or because it too readily deviates from our expectations.

Of course, there is one more vital party in this process, and that is the player base, the people who actually play games and enjoy them.  Reviewers are supposed to represent the wants of gamers, and to speak for them, but as I examined above, often those wants reviewers claim to have are far out of line with what they actually do want.  Is the average gamer any different from this?  Do regular players really hold on to their ideals when it comes to games, or is there the same sort of disconnect?  One way to judge this is sales figures - and if we do that, then the answer is a clear yes, with the highest-rated games by and large selling far better than the lower-rated competition.  Another way of gauging this is via case studies of the actual opinions of gamers about particular games, which unfortunately is a bit beyond the scope of this article.  But, if we examine how much time players spend with games and use that as a metric to determine wants, then the results seem to mirror those of sales, with top online like Halo, Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty dominating both the sales charts and the reviews.

Although the similarities between the supposed wants of gamers and the wants of reviewers suggest that reviewers do accurately reflect gamers as a whole, I don't think that this is the case.  As I've examined, reviewers have a fundamental hand in deciding exactly what parts of a game are "good" and what parts are "bad".  It stands to reason that if we are able to change the way that games are reviewed, we will also be able to change which games sell, what people value in games, and what we get out of them by playing them.  Hopefully, this means that in the future, games that don't pander to expectations, like Alpha Protocol, will be received in a more positive way, and will be able to redefine what gaming is capable of as an artistic medium.

[Image credit]

1 comment:

  1. there is a reason i only trust the opinion of gamers i know who think actually critical and not just mindlessly follow.