Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Art of Review

I do read game reviews on the Web. Sometimes, I even buy the games based on reviews. Sometimes, though, there is a clearly biased review, when the reviewer is applying his prejudices to a product. Almost without exception, the reviewer provides excuses as to how his review can stand without change. I hope that by writing this essay, I can persuade them otherwise. Not hopeful, as biased reviewers don't really care what other people think, but perhaps there are those future writers who do care about their readers. This will give you a change to see the other side.

A Bad Hammer

There was a salesman who provided a craftsman a tool for review. The craftsman stated "This is a terrible hammer! The handle is too short. The metal is too slender. The weight is unbalanced. It is too light to hammer effectively. You will get tired too easily. I just can't see how anybody can be stupid enough to buy this hammer!"

Having thus voiced his professional opinion, the craftsman gave the tool back to the salesman.

The salesman said, "It's a screwdriver."

We can all laugh at the story. Who in the world cannot tell a screwdriver from a hammer? Nobody, that's who. However, in the world of computer programs, that is not so easy. In fact, it happened with rather alarming regularity.

The spectrum of Racing: Mario Kart - Forza Motorsport

Let's take a very successful game: Mario Kart. I don't need to tell you that this driving game is extremely fun and energetic. It's very popular with a lot of people, and rightly so. Very easy to pick up, and caters to a wide variety of people.

Here's another game that is just as well done, but without too much fan base: Forza Motorsport. It's the ultimate driving game. The simulation is highly detailed, and I was impressed by the accuracy of it. But it's not as exciting, and the courses are rather plain. Coming from Mario Kart, the feel is rather boring. Does that mean Forza Motorsport is a bad product?

Of course not! They are two different products. How can that be? Aren't they both driving games? Well, yes. How can they be different? Isn't Mario Kart with its hugely successful sales numbers clearly a "better" product? Of course not, and here's why:

It's a question of a driving GAME, and a DRIVING game. That is where the emphasis lies. Is it about a GAME? Or is it about DRIVING? Mario Kart is a great GAME, but bad driving. Forza Motorsport is a great DRIVING, but a bad game. Neither is "better" than the other. They are both great examples at what they want to achieve.

2 Different Games

It is a great mistake to treat them as the same game. Let me put it this way. Mario Kart is a game where you go from one place to another, in a frentic manner, fending off all kind of obstacles and enemies. Forza Motorsport, OTOH, is about finding that ideal line in which to make the turns, speeding up and slowing down as required, making the turn JUST RIGHT as to preserve as much speed as possible.

Read the descriptions again. Now tell me, am I wrong to say that those descriptions describe Super Monkey Ball(1) and Downhill Snow Racing? Will you claim that Super Monkey Ball and Downhill Snow Racing both represent the same game? Of course not, don't be silly! Likewise, Mario Kart and Forza Motorsport aren't the same game. They're the same GENRE, but they're not the same game!

(1) I actually haven't played Super Monkey Ball, so if it isn't accurate, substitute it with something else. Follow the reasoning anyway. Or how about this? Take Doom/Quake Deathmatch levels where you go from start spawn point to end level. The fastest player get shot in the back! That sums up my feeling about Mario Kart. If that's your game, then you'll like Mario Kart.

The Shifting Expectation

So, now there's another racing game. Let's take Ridge Racer. We can see that although the game isn't a hyper realistic driving simulation, it still leans toward the DRIVING aspect of it. Take another game, such as OutRun. It clearly leans toward the GAME aspect of it.

It is folly to review Ridge Racer while applying the standards of Mario Kart: No bombs. No holes. No beach. No underwater course. No missiles. Gosh, how boring!

It is folly to review OutRun while applying the standards of Forza Motorsport. Roads don't look like that. Speed of cars are off. How about some reasonable damage behavior here?

And yet, game reviewers would review the games per their preferences. If they like games, then they will think Ridge Racer is a bad game, citing that Mario Kart is "better". If a game review like RPG, they will rate Mario Kart as insignificant toys. In either cases, the game gets low marks for "not living up to the expectation."

I argue that as a good, impartial game reviewer, you need to be able to handle different expectations. You can't just say that you don't like the game, therefore the game is bad. Having an opinion is fine, but back it up with facts, and details about the game so that the reader can make their own mind about the game.

What Should We Do?

It's not easy to write enough details to satisfy everybody. It's even harder in print format where space is at premium and that there's only room for so many words. I tend to discount reviewers who would use their alloted words to bring unrelated scenes just to make a point. It may read better, but if it's done at the expense of missing details, then I get upset.

There's not so much excuse when it comes to On-line review, though. A whole new page is only a couple of kilo bytes. 15 minutes if you type fast. There's just no excuse of not doing your homework when it comes to the web.

There's opinion and there's fact. I do not want to catch you saying that a particular game does not feature "drifting" when I drift in that particular game in mid level! That just smacks of either stupidity (and nobody is THAT stupid) or laziness (he didn't bothered playing other than easy level? If the reviewer complained that the AI is so easy to beat, then yeah, I'd say so!)

Then it becomes his reputation that is tarnished, because I find in 5 minutes that he was wrong! I'm not saying that he only spent 5 minutes reviewing the game, but it sure looks like it! This has happened many times over the years, with many games, by many reviewers.

One of the victim was Chris Crawford (Yes, THAT Chris Crawford) who detailed the incident in his book (on Game Design), about how a review is riddled with so many factual errors that Chris Crawford wasn't sure that the reviewer got past the title screen. I am sorry to say, that the tradition of lazy reviewer continues to this day.

Is There a Bad Review?

I'm not saying reviewing a game properly is easy. It's not. It's hard. I would have said that Tetris game is boring. Then, again, I would have been very, very wrong. But at least I would describe the game properly and tried to find a demographic for it. The game may be niche, but if it's well done, and it's great for that niche, then I will give a favorable review, EVEN IF I PERSONALLY DON'T LIKE IT. I'd say something like, "Not for me, but for these [demographic] people, it's a great product." I clearly state my opinion, and yet, I give a fair review so that people other than me can still enjoy the products. I think that's important.

It's very hard to critize something after "walking a mile in their shoes." Yet it must be done that way. It's very easy to critize something you are ignorant about. Yet, it is clearly wrong. So, walk a mile in their shoes. Try to find a positive thing or two, and always give detailed factual reviews, while keeping your opinions to a minimum.

I am not saying you can never roast a product. If the designer of the game is clearly ignorant, such as putting the levels in reverse order of difficulty (Yes, it happened!), then by all means, say so. If the program is so buggy as to be unplayable, it is a disservice to your reader for you to hold out that information. But do research the issue, spending time with it, and make sure to show that you did.

This message is intended for all reviewers out there, but especially the pros. You do not want to see your scathing reviews compared to runaway sales figure, ever. By keeping your opinion to yourself, you give yourself an excuse for not being enthusiastic about it. And you really, really do not want to do a cursory review ever, only to see an amateur did it a lot better, while claiming to spend no more than one hour. And if you are the rare reviewer who lashed out to every criticism, then don't be surprised if you stay in the niche market because, really, you don't learn nor improve, and there is no hope for you.

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