In my opinion there are a lot of problems with the gaming scene, the gaming industry, and of course in many games themselves. The biggest problem in the first place is that there is too little serious discussion on those problems. There can’t be any improvement if no one talks about it, if no one is or seems even aware that there are any! So I guess I might just as well do the little I can and start.
There are so many topics to talk about, it’s hard to decide where to begin. I think some people also want to hear more specifics on why I think Devil Children isn’t a good game. I might just as well do a proper review of it then. But before we get to actually reviewing some games, we need a certain groundwork. One of the biggest faults of the gaming scene is its inability to properly review and generally discuss games. So first, we’ll take an in-depth look at those topics before we’ll consider reviewing anything. So, let’s get started with the first of what will hopefully become a series of essays.
(Warning: Lots of text and no pretty pictures)
Why are reviews important? Moreover, why are good reviews important?
A question so basic, some people will surely wonder if it’s even worth asking. But if you look around at random gaming sites and their message boards, it quickly becomes evident that many people don’t know the answer. Many people just don’t want to think long and hard about games. They just want to play. Which is totally fine. Gaming is a hobby, it should be fun.
So why bother at all? If you go to Mobygames and take a look at the number of games they have in their database, you’ll be presented with quite a number. 51907.
Let that number sink in for a moment. 51907 games are listed on Mobygames. I’m sure they missed one or two. Of course, that number includes games released for multiple systems and games released in languages none of us understand that’ll never be translated. Still, it demonstrates the dimension we’re working with. Let’s assume the average time to complete a game is 5 hours. Arcade games can usually be finished (not mastered of course!) in far less, other games usually take much longer. I think for an average, it’s a conservative number. Let’s also keep in mind that we only take the raw time to walk through a game from start to finish into account. The time needed to master a game in such a way to be able to do so might be much, much higher. So, how long would it take us to play “quickly” through every game ever released? Based on our estimates: 259535 hours. That’s about 10814 days. Or 29 years and 7 months. Ignoring boring shit like sleeping, eating, or even a social life (God forbid!) it’ll still take half a lifetime. So I think it’s pretty evident why we need a way to sort through all of that and decide on what to play.
But there are other ways than reading boring reviews, right? Asking friends for opinions, asking people on message boards, checking out demos and trailers, and so forth. Which leads us to the next important point. We’re not just looking for okay games, we are looking for excellent games. We have to hold our source for game suggestions to a certain standard of quality.
Now, it’s time for a short excursion. Let’s go back to our numbers. There are 51000 games and we have a finite amount of time we would like to fill with quality entertainment. Even if we only look at the best 1% of all games, that’s 510. That’s still 2550 hours of real quality entertainment or 106 days. If we play only the one very best of every 100th game! Extend it to the best 5% and we surely have enough to play for the rest of our lives. And that’s not even taking into account that there will be new games being released all the time. With me so far?
Ok then. Now, can anyone tell me why so many people are content with playing whatever mediocre shit they happen to come across, if there are so many truly good games out there? That’s the problem we ultimately want to address here. I certainly won’t settle for anything less than the best. That’s what my time is worth to me, what your time should be worth to you. If you are one of those who don’t care much about how they spend their time, consider this for a moment. Your lives aren’t infinite. Every second counts. Why waste it on mediocricy? You might have all the time in the world to kill when you’re a teen in school, but trust me when I tell you that this will change soon enough.
One valid complaint here is of course that the time spend on researching could have been used to actually play instead. That’s absolutely correct, no argument from me there! What we need to do is find a good balance. We should spend as little time as needed to find as many great games as possible. And that brings us back to the topic of a few paragraphs back – review quality. We made full circle! *Phew* Let’s grab a cookie and a glass of apple juice and take a deep breath. To summarize it in one sentence: We need good reviews to spot the best games with as little effort as needed.
Now I have to put up a stop sign once again and explain something at this point. I wish I wouldn’t have to do it, but many people just have problems understanding words in context instead of verbatim so I need to clarify or people will surely take this the wrong way. If I say “as little effort as needed” (note that I didn’t say “as little as possible”), I DON’T mean looking at a “Top 100 games” list or only glancing at the point scores of a bunch of reviews. We will get to the reasons for that in a bit when we define what a good review is and how to tell them apart from useless reviews.
Just asking around and why it doesn’t work
First, let’s look at the alternatives to reviews and where their problems are. It’s easy to see why trailers or other ads are useless to decide on which games to play – they only show us the most superficial aspects of a game. Unless you want to play a game because the chick from the trailer has such great tits, trailers are at best a way to do a little pre-selection, to find out which games might interest us from a story and setting perspective, but nothing more. I certainly wouldn’t put 60€ on the counter for a game I just saw some trailers of. Demos are a little better, but not the ultimate answer. Demos usually only show the beginning or an early chapter of the game, to introduce you to the settings and the characters and show you what the game mechanics are about. It’s already way more useful than a trailer since we actually get to try out the game mechanics and can make some guesses on how the game is going to play. Most games introduce more and more game mechanics over time later on though, so we rarely see enough to ultimately judge a game. And even if the game mechanics are completely revealed in the demo, you don’t know what the game makes of it. One example on how this can be misleading is World of Goo. If you only play the first few stages of the game it’s very likely you’ll be impressed. The presentation is slick and the potential for the game mechanics seems unlimited. But that’s the point, it’s only a potential. If you play through the full version you’ll notice that the game never manages to break past the possibility for greatness. Instead of taking the ideas the game introduced in the beginning and building truly engaging puzzles with it, the game just throws more and more idea fragments at you that never get used for anything but showing off that they exist. By the time you’re finished, you’re left wondering when the real game actually starts, since the entire game felt like a giant tutorial. The demo could not have told you that.
Asking friends for recommendations might score you a few good suggestions if you and your friends share the exact same taste in games. But how often is that truly the case? I can say from my own experience that even among people that play a certain game together competitively in a clan environment, beyond that one game they obviously have in common, they might prefer completely different games and even genres. And that makes it hit and miss if you’ll actually like a game they might recommend to you. Last and the very least, the internet and its various message boards and other communication platforms. A real hinderance here is the social component. Many people participate in discussions they know absolutely nothing about, just for the sake of being a part of it. Asking any serious question on a forum will produce 75% useless crap if you’re very lucky, usually much more than that. You can then waste your time deciding which answers were actually helpful and which ones were useless. Problem is, it’s not always that simple. Unless you outright ignore all replies that weren’t properly reasoned, in which care you might end up with 2 useful posts out of 50. Have you ever tried asking for recommendations on a specific type of game you’re interested in? Let’s assume as an example you’re asking about turn-based strategy games with a SciFi setting. The first replies will be the very obvious genre classics that everyone knows anyway. Next up will be replies about turn-based strategy games that have nothing to do with SciFi, but that “you might like anyway” (it’s possible, but if I wanted that, I’d have asked for that), then general RTS games up to shooters that happen to have a SciFi scenario before ultimately people will suggest Tetris or Zelda. It doesn’t matter that those games would be completely off-topic, in the first instance, most users will see such a thread as a “me too!” thread and write down whatever crap comes to mind first. Now, don’t get me wrong. A forum is a wonderful place for many things, and I might really like the people who give me crappy recommendations otherwise. I’m just saying that, for the specific purpose of finding new great games to play, they are of limited value, if any (it largely depends on the key demographic. It’s easier to get serious answers about Japanese RPGs of the early 90s from Romhacking.net than from IGN. But that doesn’t negate the fundamental problems).
The biggest problem, again, is that most people can’t even articulate why a game is good or not. The recommendation of good games from someone who has no concept of what a good game even is, is completely worthless. If you ask for the best games in genre X, I guarantee you with 100% certainty that before long, people will start “recommending” games while saying at the same time that it’s actually totally mediocre and was just bearable enough to waste some time on. Some people have a skewed concept of what recommending something good means. It means recommending something NOT MEDIOCRE. It’s not a difficult concept, but it seems to be too much to handle for most people. Pointing that out to people who make such suggestions usually ends in cranky replies along the lines of “I just wanted to help”. Okay, cool. If someone asks for a hammer, do you give him a screw-driver? So in short, forget forums for getting game recommendations. You can get a long list of names that might be what you’re looking for, or they could be totally the opposite, sorting through it will be left up to you, which leaves you in the same position as before. Usually it’s just a waste of time.
How to actually produce something worthwhile
Let’s do it the right way then! So, how do we articulate why a game is any good or not? Now we’re finally getting to the part we were waiting for the whole time, how to properly discuss and ultimately review a game.
First off, do not review games of genres that you don’t know shit about. The most fundamental aspect of any game is its genre. It defines the rules under which we’ll look at it. Or would you rate a turn-based strategy game for its adrenaline factor? Action games have to be viewed under different aspects than strategy or puzzle games. It’s just a fact you can’t get around. I already hear the complaint “But what about games that defy categorization?”. The answer is simple, there aren’t any. If you take bullshit like Electroplankton, it’s simply not a game but a music synthesizer with a crappy control scheme just to name a common example. Games that mix different genres together have to be reviewed under the aspects of all involved genres. Naturally the chance to fail is higher here since there is much more stuff to mess up.
As I said, the person writing a review needs to have a firm grasp of the genre to be able to know what aspects to look for and how to interpret what he finds. A review, that was written by someone who plays the reviewed kind of game for the first or even just the 10th time, is utterly useless to everyone.
On message boards you often read about the sentiment that reviews of “experts” are crap anyway since they would be useless to anyone but other experts or enthusiast players. The point is usually raised in the context that gaming journalists would suck, and it would be so much better to just ask forum friend John Doe about his opinion on games. WOW. To stop iodiocy like that from spreading is one of the reasons I’m writing this stuff. Now most gaming journalists do suck, but for reasons that are completely different than those fools believe, but we won’t go into detail there now.
The thing is – a review can’t be deep enough, which makes experts the only people qualified to review games. With expert, I don’t mean professional here as in someone who gets paid for writing stuff, those people can still be idiots, but people who familiarized themselves with the topic of discussion so in-depth that they can glimpse the complexity and how the various elements interact with each other. I realize this is a very abstract concept, so let’s fill it with some life.
Take for example the real-time strategy game Dawn of War II. Compared to the standard genre formular, defined by pioneers like Warcraft or Command and Conquer, there are quite a few differences, like a focus on individual units and the exclusion of any base building. Can you tell how these (very fundamental) changes affect the game mechanics compared to other RTS games and why? What the developers might have wanted to archieve by changing it? If you have no clue what I’m even talking about, you should never ever be allowed to write a review about RTS games since you have no clue how the mechanics of the genre even work. More than that, you shouldn’t even recommend or advise people against getting any RTS game. That’s the really important point here. If someone asks on a board about recommendations and you have no clue about the genre, don’t join that discussion, you can only do harm. What’s the harm here? You shouldn’t dissuade people from good games that you didn’t like just because you didn’t understand them properly. And you shouldn’t make people waste their time on medioce games that you thought were good just because you didn’t know there were much better games in the genre. Now those two aspects about DoW2 I mentioned are only very basic and obvious changes. For a good review, I’d expect deeper knowledge about the game mechanics. Especially in multiplayer games, the reviewer needs to be proficient enough to spot and explain balance problems. The balance is probably the most important aspect of any multiplayer game, if all your review says is “The units of the different fractions look differently” something is very, very wrong. Leave reviews to people who know what they are talking about, PLEASE. You need to understand a game before you can judge it. It’s so very simple, it’s hard to swallow that it seems to be an alien concpet to most of the gaming scene. It’s not about elitism, it’s about basic common sense. Would you ask a carpenter on which health insurance to get? Would you ask the barber about medicine for that nasty cough?
A game’s experience is made up of the interaction of various individual aspects. There are broad things like the presentation, the sound and music, the story and characters, and of course the game mechanics. And each of these things in itself is made up out of various intertwined parts. The keywords here are interaction and intertwined. You can’t look at any aspect of a game individually, it’s just a useless waste of time. You might have heard of the proverb “Larger than the sum of its parts”. This is especially true for games. Thus, when reviewing, one needs to understand how the cogwheels turn each other. Only that way, you can identify where the transmission isn’t working smoothly and moreover, why. And those whys are important. I know you aren’t charged with “fixing” broken games later on, so why bother thinking that much about it? – By explaining the reasons why something does or does not work, it serves as proof for your assessment that anyone is free to think through for themselves. That way, the readers can make their own, informed decisions on whether to accept the point or not. If you just write “The item forging system doesn’t really work” the reader has absolutely no clue how severe the problem is, if it bothers him during playing at all, or if it’s maybe a “theoretical” problem and ultimately, he’d probably just ignore the warning altogether.
One last thing. Everyone perceives/plays games differently. So even if there are obvious flaws in a game, it’s possible someone might enjoy it anyway since the aspects it is affecting aren’t in his focus while playing that much. That’s why a review should be first of all descriptive of the game. It should explain all relevant aspects of the game in such a way that the audience can ultimately draw their own conclusions about the game being in their personal 1% of all games or not. Which is also why super “scientifically objective” scoring systems with an “accuracy” of three internal decimal places are absolutely retarded rubbish. Essentially, there are exactly three possible ratings for a game: Good, Mediocre and Crap. If someone puts a good game at the top or in the middle of personal “Good” list of games is up to that person alone. A review shouldn’t need to bother ranking games in such level of detail, the differences between two games even from the same series are too great to give that kind of rating with any semblence of credibility.
Final thoughts and outlook
Whew, this got quite long. The next time you see a discussion on your favourite gaming board about the best games in whatever genre, hold on a second and reflect if you’re qualified to answer. If you are, awesome, go for it and don’t forget to make it a really helpful post with a few lines on why each game in your list is being recommended. People will thank you for it! If you don’t, move on and post in some other thread, there are usually enough to chose from. Hint: a message board is not a graded test. No one will think any less if you if you don’t reply in all threads. A single really stupid reply can quickly push you down to the bottom of the social hierarchy though. Consider it.
Now bring on the hate! I’ll decide about continuing with this line of essays depending on the reactions to this one. Possible future topics to write about include:
- PC gaming and DRM
- On casual games
- Why JRPGs suck
- On graphics and why they matter
- Sequelmadness vs. Innovation – Is there really an adversarial relationship?
- On the retro cult (might be integrated into the JRPG one)
- Gamers are jerks and how it should be taken into account for game design
I might also take requests if you have an interesting topic I should comment on 😉 Over and out, until next time.