Technically, nothing has really changed. Even back in the days, print magazines and gaming websites were posting up number scores and letter grades to describe what they about a game. Even back in the days, evaluation of a game was separated into strict categories of gameplay, graphics, sound, and story. Nothing much has changed and yet, I look around me and everything feels so different. I can’t really wrap my head around to what exactly has happened or how this came to be, but we now live in a gaming age where gaming reviews are no longer reviews, but are flamebaits.
The most important purpose of a review – to inform the audience of the the merits and the flaws of the game – have been lost and instead, reviews are now nothing more than criterion tests and comparison charts. Game journalists are no longer informing us about a game but instead, they are acting like judges in a contest where they rate the performance of a certain game. The discussion of a game is no longer about what’s in the content, but how they would rate the content.
And the scariest thing about all this? Hardly any gamer realizes this change.
The most obvious culprits are Metacritic, Gamerankings, and things of that nature. People are no longer actually reading the reviews to learn more about a game, but to check to see if their favorite game would get high rankings or to prove to others that a game is an ”epic fail.” Some people take it further when they start comparing Metacritic averages of certain games to other games, often to claim that their favorite console has more better-rated games. At first, sites like Metacritic offered consumers an easy way to access all kinds of reviews about certain games, to give them a good idea of what the press thought of a game, and to have developers and publishers realize their faults with certain games. But all of us can see how now, Metacritic is doing none of these things.
More upsetting than Metacritic however is the review scores themselves. Nothing is really wrong with the scores themselves but major problems arise when people start interpreting these scores to mean different things. Technically a score of 6 out of 10 means that the game is above average. Nowadays, the scoring system has been so inflated that a score of 6 means, ”crap.” This kind of interpretation has taken a life of its own and now major gaming sites are kind of forced to give high scores to big-name releases, regardless of the enjoyment level of that game, and regardless of how many minor flaws that game may actually have.
For example, GTAIV. On a technical level, the game is extremely impressive. They physics engine, the mechanics, the amount of polish, the gameplay content, the production value, all of it makes it almost criminal to rate this game below a 10 out 10. And with this kind of rating, the reviewer must spend a lot of space trying to justify that score instead of using space to actually review the game (e.g. IGN spent two paragraphs in their review for this). People go crazy nuts nowadays if a game they’ve been waiting for four years to release isn’t given an extremely high number score (dubbed ”proper” rating), and they will go so far as to start comparing scores of different games to address their complaints (e.g. MGS4 story score vs Halo 3 story score sigs).
This notion of the number score has also changed the role of the gaming press. They are no longer reviewers but advertisers. Gaming sites are no longer gaming sites but informercials. They arbitrarily tell us to avoid games like Lair because it’s unplayable and then tell us to buy Halo 3 because we’ll never stop playing it. If you were curious about what kind of characters will be featured in Lair, gaming sites are not the places to go for that information because they will only tell you that the characters in Lair are not worth caring about. Likewise, if you wanted to know how the match-making system in Halo 3 is done, it’s better to ask your friend because a gaming site will just tell you that match-making system in Halo 3 is awesome. Reviews these days only tell us whether something is awesome or something sucks but there is no real depth beyond that.
This is detrimental for the obvious reason that it’s what mostly fuels these ridiculous fanboy wars, but also, there are two bigger reasons: (1)they are not helpful, and (2)they do not act as a good feedback to the developers.
Today, the power of a gaming journalist is immeasurable. They have the power to make a game be perceived as utter crap that apparently shouldn’t even be rented and they also have the power to give the GOTY award to a game, making it the ultimate standard that no one can really contest against. The number that a reviewer assigns to a game is either a death sentence or a subsidy to the game’s developers. At the same time, this kind of feedback does not at all help developers figure out how to make their next game better for the consumer.
Here’s an example. Let’s say Gamestop marks down points on a game for lacking multiplayer. It also gives it a low score for being unoriginal. Developers see this low score and for the sequel, they add in a new multiplayer feature and try to introduce some new concepts. However, doing this has hurt their singleplayer experience, which was actually incredible in the prequel. Reviewers play this sequel and mark it down points for being too gimmicky. So you see this constant struggle between developers and reviewers where the game makers are trying to satisfy the reviewers by trying to earn points and get good ratings but at what cost? After all, what does it mean when a game gets a 10 out of 10 or an A plus?
That’s when we come to realize that reviews these days aren’t really reviews. All these formulaic categories, all this judging, all these comparisons with certain key games as standards, this has shifted the industry to become focused about arguing which game is better, which game sucks, which game rocks, at the cost of forgetting to talk about the actual games themselves. It’s now an industry that can be simplified down to numbers and letters and while that makes things convenient, it also has created a situation where information from journalists have become meaningless.