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Game reviews: Objectivity

In this blog, let’s discuss the fine line between subjectivity and objectivity. As discussed, any review will be subjective. We discussed that understanding the reviewer is a key issue behind knowing whether a review is useful or not.

To allow the reader to make own decision behind a subjective opinion, the good reviewer can supply objective facts. This would be an immense task for all views, like “there is too many flags to be found, 1037 total, …” but it would be important for essential opinions from which the overall assessment of a game is made. On some topics, reviewers are generally very good at doing so. Like the length of the campaign in hours is commonly stated together with an assessment of this is satisfying value for money or not. Let’s take some illustrative examples of reviews (no pun intended) where the statement formed a key position on the game but that was not backed by any stated facts during the review.

This is a wannabe action film that resents your interference, and punishes you by forcing one horrible quick-time event after another upon you”. How many were there? What was game-time versus QTE? That a game leaves a reviewer with a certain feeling is fine, but it should be backed by other elements. This particular game we did some measurements and QTE is really a negligible part of the total time we spent with the controller. For some that was too much (obviously). For others, there were merely a small but non-distracting annoyance. For some, just right. Reading the statement here I would expect a QTE to show up every two minutes or so.

Some well-made reviews discusses the fact that the head character in Dead Space 2 suddenly has a voice. For some, this element crucially impacts the value of the game to them. They also relate to what was the developers original idea and discussed how it worked.


Game reviews: Know the reviewer

As discussed in the last blog, reviews are per definition subjective, and a reader should know enough about the reviewer that (s)he can relate to whether the review is trust-worthy or not. As we also discussed, readers seldom establish a long-term relationship with reviewers since there are so many gamer sites and reviewers out there. What are the key traits then to know whether a reviewers opinion is worth-while or not? Some elements discussed in the following, first focused on the readers perspective but then focused to discussing how a reviewer can provide sufficient background information for its readers. There is a lot of discussion on the Internet that rightfully asks the question of whether any online review can be trusted. What is the intent of the reviewer? Some studies have indicated consistent higher reviewer scores for block buster titles than the actual user scores which of course leads to lots of speculation which is not an area we are going to discuss further here. But what we should discuss is how to make a review credible.

The first question the reader should ask is “who is the reviewer”? Do I even relate to the person? What does the reviewer look for in a game? There are multiple elements that can help. The first obvious one is providing history. E.g. if the reviewer provided overall scores for past games, it would be useful to show those review scores in the current review page. If earlier assessments for games are highly correlated with my experience of the same games, that is strong indication that we like the same things. Given such history is not available, the reviewer can provide a listing of similar games in past that (s)he liked or disliked and for what reasons that was so.

Second question is what is the basis for the review. Understandably many reviewers are just going with the flow to be “early birds” to capture readers to their commercial sites. Some may not be even willing to write the truth that is “I received version of review yesterday”, “my review is based on 2 hours with the game”, and otherwise “I just state the same as other reviewers but with some personal touch in terms of formulations”. Any reviewer that I would trust guiding my purchasing decision, should be able to put forward this information. Which part of the games was tried out? What difficulty? Multiplayer (which is interesting given reviews created on the day of release, one can wonder how that took place)?

Finally, the review itself adds to the credibility of the reviewer. Are there too many personal aspects or is argumentation based on factual observations? Does the reviewer try to get into understanding the game as it “was meant to be played/understood” by the developer or is the game measured entirely against a personal preference? E.g. it would be a fair reviewer assessment that the yet unreleased Dead Space 3’s co-op mode would hypothetically take away the whole idea of the player being isolated, alone, and in panic. E.g. a core ingredient of the attraction of the first two games. But as the co-op mode is there it should be evaluated for what it is? Does it make the experience more manageable for players too scared to play DS on higher difficulties? Does the mode provide good fun when playing with a friend? Does the co-op elements work out? Looking at a game from multiple angles helps me as a reader to understand if my use-case for the game is nicely catered for or not. A game that received lots of mixed reviews was the recently published Resident Evil 6. But I found the co-op mechanic well implemented which was my primary use-case for purchasing the game.

As an element to the actual review, is of course the creative writing style. Some reviewers are very good at making pictures in your head that get’s you into the players feeling playing a section of the game without having the controller in your hand. While this is the artistic part, it is a way of connecting with the reader, reaching a person on a different level. E.g. “how do you want to feel playing a game, and how does this game makes you feel”.


Game reviews: Creating value

So, with an assumption that key purpose of a review is to give the reader “as good as possible” insight into whether a game is worthwhile to play, let’s look at what it takes to do so. Even discussing this is subjective but I take the starting point how I look at a review. Later, we will detail the elements to better define what is “a good review”.

The starting point is an understanding that a review is subjective. Hence, for a reader it is important to know if (s)he can relate to the reviewer. Do they even think alike? Do they have similar preferences? In movie reviews, I had a favorite reviewer once who I found very useful. He would consistently give movies of certain genres I liked a single score-point below my own perception. E.g. if it was action movie, I would simply add one star and have my own score with 95% confidence. Now, game reviews are made by so many people, and today many reviewers have become “anonymous” because there are just so many gamer sites and so many people contributing reviews. So a good review should give people a quick introduction to the person(s) conducting the actual review. Also, while most reviewers would not be inclined to do so, it would be valuable to know how much time (s)he has actually spent with the game. Too many early-bird reviews out there.

As discussed in the last blog post, it is important that the reviewer relates to quantifiable measures whenever possible. E.g. rather than stating that a game has an “overwhelming amount of QTEs or cut-scenes taking the player out of the action”, try to establish some measure as to how often these happen (once per hour, every 5 minutes) and then state whether that felt satisfying or not. For a user that enjoys story-telling buffed with cut-scenes, this may be OK whereas for others it can be a disaster. E.g. for a good review this can be stated as: When possible have an objective measure together with an important subjective opinion. In particular, for those opinions that take a big part of the reviewers overall assessment of the game.

In terms of review, it is important there the reviewer includes/discusses a large set of value elements so that the reader can better relate. E.g. maybe a game has lousy or past-generation graphics but the gameplay itself is just fantastic. For some people this disqualifies the game while for others it is secondary. A reviewer will often bring in her/his own opinion balancing these but the review should allow a separation of the different value elements allowing the reader to do an own “weighting” towards a final score. Defining those “value points” is of course difficult as the complete set of reviewers will look for quite different things. This is not to discourage the reviewer to provide a single overall score on a well-defined scoring system, this is needed for “attention” purposes, but rather to allow the reader to put together an own and personalized assessment of the game as well.

Finally, and relating a bit further to the objective measures, it has always annoyed me when the basic functionalities of the game has not been listed. A good review should provide one-stop access to the information about a game’s core functionality. E.g. does the co-op functionality work in split-screen? Or only online? How many players can compete in multiplayer? Which game modes? Do you need pass to access multiplayer (e.g. to judge whether rental is a good idea)? Etc. For some games this can be a deal breaker as to whether the game is useful or not.

As always, let me know your thoughts.


Game reviews: It's purpose?

I have gotten an obsession with “defining” a better way to review in particular video games. I have looked around the Internet and it seems that I am not alone in this thinking. In this blog I am mostly focused on the “purpose” part, not “how to get there”. This is the scope of future blogs.

While several people on the Internet discusses the possibility to have “objective reviews”, this is not my key focus. Of course, games could certainly be judged much more objectively on some accounts but as long as people review video games there is no such thing as an objective review. There are examples, however, where adding some objective elements to the review would help “bias” readers (possibly even the reviewer). As one recent example, it was interesting to see how much negativism a game like Resident Evil 6 got because of its Quick Time Events (QTEs). This is clearly a subjective matter, but a measurement of how often you are doing QTE (either by means of numbers per hour or as fraction of game-play) would help the reader understand if this is big issue or not. I was completely surprised how few QTE events this game had after having read lots of reviews, in fact QTE is a very small part of the total time spent in the campaign. There are many similar examples, but this brings me to the main point here.

In my mind, the key purpose of a good review should be to help the reader understand if the game is worth playing or not. There are other purposes in reality of course, e.g. the purpose of sharing an experience with fellow games having played the game (common on forums) or to write down one’s experience in order to assist developers in understanding what worked and what didn’t for a particular individual. I think a review can be written so it serves multiple purposes but to me the key aspect is still to help newcomers decide if the game is worth playing or not.

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