Video Games

The Problem with Video Game Reviews

The video game review system is messed up. There are serious, glaring problems in an industry that should be about educating gamers on what games to buy.

The point of this article is not to vent against the gaming journalism industry or to nitpick it, hoping to drastically change it overnight. I understand that I am a very small fish in a huge pond, and what I have to say won’t make a difference to big name sites.

I’m writing this to help educate other gamers and offer some insights into the review process. My goal is that, by the end of this article, you’ll take every game review with a grain of salt instead of blindly trusting a review site or a Metacritic score.

What’s the Point of Reviews?

Before we start talking about the many issues we have when reviewing a game in today’s world, let’s talk about the purpose of reviews. In every other journalistic industry, reviews are designed to educate consumers on a specific product or service. They should point out what it does well, critique its flaws, give a general snapshot of their experience with it and help you determine if it’s worth your money/time.

Now, the reviewer has to be deemed as a trustworthy expert for the review to be valuable. A journalist reviewing a new phone should be an expert on tech and phones. Their background and credibility has to be apparent to validate their opinions. They also need to be unbiased towards the product and company.

Along with journalistic reviews, consumers can also post their own impressions of products as reviews. Most of consumers social media based interactions with businesses revolve around being extremely impressed with them, wanting others to know about it, or very unhappy, and warning people away. These reviews can, and often are, very biased, but are also valuable for consumers to see how the product is actually received in the real world.

Non-Gaming Publications Are Unsure How To Review Games

A big reason I’m writing about this is because of the recent disagreements that have risen from Uncharted 4 receiving a 40/100 from the Washington Post. While this one poor grade did little to lower the game’s overall score, it opens up the conversation as how the publication reviews games. In the review on the website itself, there are no scores, just the review, but reviewers are asked to score a game for sites like Metacritic. As you examine the scores given on Metacritic, it’s easy to quickly spot disturbing trends in how the Washington Post’s reviewers rate games.

washington-post-logo-verticalOf the 63 reviews from the Washington Post currently on Metacritic, 30% of scores are higher than other reviewers, 6% are the same, and a whopping 64% of scores are lower. Of the few journalists Washington Post contracts to, you can clearly see a trend of what type of games they like and dislike. Many Nintendo and some smaller indie games get scores of 100/100 and high 90’s, while more popular games get low and mid 70’s. It’s clear the small group of contributors they use don’t properly represent the general gaming population or their scores would better match the overall scores.

In the aforementioned review of Uncharted 4, the author clearly has a chip on his shoulder about the series, with the subtitle “This four-part series should have ended after Part One.” He isn’t a fan of the Uncharted games (which is fine, everybody gets to have their own opinion) but in a review, it’s clear he is biased to the series. The Washington Post should have recognized that maybe he wasn’t the best choice to review the series because of his dislike. That massive difference from his 40/100 score and the average 92 score other critics have given it demonstrate his review was not an accurate representation of the game’s popularity. In a statistical sense, his review would be considered an outlier opinion, not something a large publication would want to endorse.

What’s also confusing is that the Washington Post has another review for Uncharted 4 from another writer, pulled from the Associated Press. The writer, Lou Kesten, does everything a review should accomplish. He briefs the reader on the story, explains what makes the game different and worthwhile, and gives a firm recommendation at the end. Why did they need such drastically different reviews, and why is only one gaining attention?

Problems With The Grading Scale

Another problem with game reviews is the scale we use to grade games. Most sites use a numerical range, either out of ten or one hundred. Because of school, we’ve been conditioned to view these scores where a 7/10 is average, anything above an 8 is good and anything below a 6 is trash. An entire bottom half of the scale is worthless because it’s all a failing grade. That means, good games have to share a very small area of comparison in their scores, with very little difference between a good game and a great game, while bad games have a much wider, but pointless range.

Corrupt Sites That Are Paid By Developers

Wario-mario_party_8Gaming journalism is now a big industry that has it’s fair share of corruption. Journalism, in the past, was paid for by the readers. You buying the daily newspaper was how the business would make money. In today’s world of the internet though, we no longer pay for news and reviews. We aren’t the source of income for these journalists. They receive their money from advertising on the site.

On major gaming sites there is a huge conflict of interest. Game developers are paying for positive reviews, if in a roundabout way. They don’t directly pay for the review, as that would be illegal, but instead pay for advertising space on the site the day the review goes up. A developer wouldn’t want to pay for advertising next to a poor review of their game. Since this is how review sites make money, they can’t afford to offend developers, so they post more positive reviews. Again, that makes the publication biased, more likely to give developers that buy up ad space better reviews.

The Problem With Reviewing A Game Before It’s Released

Reviewers are given games before they are released so they can review it and help educate gamers on whether they should buy it on release day. In the past, before the internet, reviewers were given plenty of time before print to play the game and write a comprehensive review. The magazine or newspaper would go out a few weeks before the game came out and nobody was rushed.

Now, game reviewers have a few days to play the game and write up their review. Often, they have to juggle several games at once, and couple that with the time it takes to write a comprehensive review, they only have a few hours to play each game. This is not enough time to properly enjoy a game, to see all it has to show and fully immerse themselves in the experience.

sfv-logoAnother issue is they don’t get the same experience the general population receive on launch day. Almost every game with online portions have server issues on day one. Some games, like Street Fighter V, are almost unplayable because of these problems, and other games, like the multiplayer for the Halo: Master Chief Collection, have big issues for several months. The reviewers never see these problems because the servers aren’t taxed before launch. Their scores and reviews don’t reflect these issues because they don’t encounter them. This lack of knowledge misleads gamers into buying broken games and results in inaccurate scores.  

Becoming An Educated Gamer

So now there is you, the consumer. As we are less able to trust reviews, we have to learn to filter out the bias from truth and learn to combine reviews to understand which games you should buy. Never take just one opinion and don’t trust raw scores without context. These reviewers all have personal opinions when it comes to games and some have ulterior motives, so be extra critical to their reviews. If you do find a reviewer with similar tastes in games as you, take special care to follow them. They might lead to some amazing games and guide you away from wasting money on bad ones.

The Author

Ben Allen

Ben Allen

Champion of Hyrule, defender of space, bane of demons, savior of light, and occasional pizza eater.

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