Editorial: The Atypical Experience

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Varric is a dwarf that does NOT have a Scottish ascent.

Game reviews are an important part of the industry, as most people from consumer to producer would likely say, and anything involving the process behind a game review should be of some interest to those people. Recently a lot of concern has been brought up over review copy acquisition with more and more outlets now disclosing [in tiny bracketed font] how the review copy was obtained. But what is also of concern to me is something more integral to the review process and how the reviewer actually goes about evaluating the game in question. As one with limited personal experience composing reviews but a much greater experience reading and comparing them to my own experiences while playing the game, I have found that for a few reasons game reviews can potentially misrepresent the game they are meant to evaluate and that the trend might be getting worse.

Recently EA and Bioware’s Dragon Age: Inquisition launched across the usual platforms of Xbone, PS4 and PC as well as the last gen 360 and PS3. The general consensus was positive and detailed how the game is quite lengthy with tons of optional content and exposition. The world is also deeply interconnected to the previous entries in the series, so much so that Bioware set up a website where players can make some key choices that would have been made in the previous games and then import those decisions into Inquisition‘s world. A game like this requires a hefty time commitment and a review requires a deadline of some sort. Ideally the review is not posted until the reviewer has completed their work of evaluating the title. But often the response is not to delay the review’s posting, but to hurry up the reviewer’s pace. As such, large outlets are often staffed by quick reviewers capable of finishing a game’s content in a short amount of time. My experience with games like Inquisition is anything but short, it is instead something I chip away at for a few hours every day (at most). A game’s ability to sustain this kind of play and to keep the player focused across long breaks in play would then either be things the reviewer does not cover or must infer. I feel that part of Inquisition‘s success and public reception is due to its better than average ability to allow me to come back after one or more days away and pick up progress easily. Too often I never continue a game because doing so would essentially mean starting over. But reviews, with their often limited time frames, can miss more than just the experience of playing a game at a slower pace, they can miss whole chunks of content.

Make sure to preorder your Doritos and Mountain Dew.
Cod of duty, advanced duty.

Thanks to the increasingly common online features of PC and console games, developers cannot always deliver a representative online experience to reviewers attempting to evaluate the game pre-release. Either the online modes are severely under populated, which can actually have negative or positive effects, or the online modes are simply not active. In the case of most current day Call of Duty titles, a reviewer would have to either hold off their online mode verdict (which arguable constitutes half the experience) or postpone the entire review and cede those day-one clicks to another outlet. COD might be accused of sameness above all other titles, but the reliability and feature set of their online modes vary wildly between entries, and misrepresenting or omitting those factors does not constitute a complete review. Similarly the latest Smash Bros. game launched its online modes the same day as retail release, leaving many reviewers in a lurch when it came to saying anything about those modes on or before release day.

But this is not to say that reviews should be taken as completely objective, and that a reviewer’s complete evaluation is not without grey areas any intelligent consumer should be aware of. Admittedly, while the speedy process and limited exposition of some reviews can lead to problems, many of these problems for the reader are self made. Too often a review that speaks too harshly, or even too positively, about a game or some specific aspect of a game is met with furious responses. These responses are not simple disagreement, but calls of illegitimacy on part of the reviewer or that outlet’s choice of reviewer for that game. Within reason it is possible for a reviewer to simply be wrong about a thing or for an outlet to pick a completely uninterested reviewer for the job, but these are novice mistakes unlikely committed by the larger outlets these criticisms tend to be directed at.

Rated M for Mario.
Villager finally gets what he was looking for.

I think a lot of these criticisms come from a general defensiveness, not an uncommon trait among gaming enthusiasts myself included, and more importantly they miss the real pitfalls of so-deemed professional reviews. The deadlines coupled with the game’s time commitments mean that at some point the review is going to infer more and more about the average player’s experience just to get a post out on time. With increased online functionality and a resurgence in exceedingly long AAA games, I have seen more and more big name outlets bite the bullet and postpone reviews, often posting early impression pieces in their places. Review-in-progress posts are common enough for massive games like MMOs, but are now not unheard of for standard titles. At some point, if a game is big enough or contains enough locked online content, I think the reviewer should consider accuracy of experience over the timeliness of their post. Online matchmaking or various optional if time consuming quests are bigger parts of games today than they may have ever been. If that matchmaking is borked or if those optional quests are painfully repetitive, or conversely if both of those features are excellent among its peers, the review misses something without that coverage. Most fully produced titles, as they become more comfortable with HD in this very incremental generation, are only getting longer to fully experience. It stands to reason that the review process might need to change to match, especially at a time of heightened concern over transparency.

Now tell me what your thoughts are on all of this review whatnot. Is it something you view as a problem in the industry as well or is it all so much hemming and hawing over a non-issue? I will make sure to review your comments, but I might just skip to the good parts.

8 comments

  1. It is hard for me to comment on something like this without the bias of a patient gamer. An idealistic side of me thinks the whole industry, from development to reviewing, needs to slow down a bit. Take the time to make a properly solid game, and take the time to write about that game properly. Yet, that idealist is countered by another side that sees the competitive nature in the business for what it is; a race for relevance. It moves fast, and a writer will typically want to keep a large audience interested. That may mean seeking a balance between speedy information, while imparting fairness, objectivity, and transparency into a review.

  2. I know for certain many circles of the development world could stand to slow down for the sake of quality, but as you say this is all a part of a business. And while we can declare “The Market wants this”, we have to remember people (aka the market) don’t always buy (want) things with enough criticality to call that act an endorsement.

    It’s more like a habit (a bad one) that substitutes the need to find out about new games with new names. I guess the resultant games are equivalent, they’re lazy products bought by lazy purchasers.

    If you were to single out people and show them a new Ass Creed (but with a different name and without online opinion to color their own) I’m betting you’d find people saying worse things about these products.

    aaaanyway, that was getting a bit off the trail. I think a missing component to slowing down any of these processes is an incentive. “The Other Guy” will always be willing to do it the faster way, and he’ll probably be rewarded for it. The incentive should be caring about the industry or thing in question enough, as a participant, to not want to see it cheapened by cutting corners.

    But since businesses are treated like innocent and unbridled forces of nature rather than the small intelligent groups of people they actually are, and because they’re often helmed by people with no interest in the product, we’ll likely continue to see people controlling industries who only care about the money those industries produce and not the products they produce.

    What a rant, jeez. That was like taking a dump.

  3. I just buy games based on the cover art, so I don’t understand all this fuss about review scores, but great article anyway Mel!

  4. I’ve long felt that music albums can’t be properly reviewed until at least a year after their release. Not only do games take longer to get through, but there are more elements to reflect on and less of an academic foundation to draw from. I haven’t read any Dragon Age reviews but it seems to me that people had to get through it so quickly to review it that they were too busy being dazzled by how much content there was to take a hard look at if the game was any good as a whole. It’s not, really, I don’t think. The gaming equivalent of a popcorn flick, so I don’t regret my purchase. And they do some things like environment design and a few characters well, but like with any art, a good element is just a good element. What makes it good is much harder to discern. Dragon Age is – from my current impressions – a game that is less than the sum of its parts, but I still haven’t even completed it yet.

    Anyway, I agree with Matt. I just buy covers based on the fuss. I don’t understand what all the art is about!

  5. Unlike Ethos or Dancing Matt, I don’t buy anything, I just fuss. I don’t understand… is there something to buy?

  6. Unlike Ethos or Dancing Matt, I just fuss about cover art based on what Mel is all about. Buy the great article anyway Lusipurr!

  7. They still haven’t fixed the broken fuss and already announced art DLC. I don’t know what to think anymore, so I just buy.

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