The Peanut Gallery: why can’t developers answer critics?

Wednesday, 5 September 2012 11:31 GMT By Brenna Hillier

After years of work, your video game is finally on the streets – but now anybody with a keyboard is allowed to tear it to pieces. Why aren’t you allowed to respond? Brenna Hillier calls for dialogue between critics and creators.

The idea of a developer, publisher or PR person daring to have an opinion on the quality and accuracy of a review – why, it’s untenable. It’s a crime against free speech. It’s a smack at critical integrity. It’s wilful manipulation of the sacred process of games reviewing in which only diamond nuggets of truth are ever brought to life, deposited in the velvet cases of Metacritic’s luxurious showroom where their sparkle attracts flocks of admiring consumers. What a load of old wank.

“Is there any way to write an email to a reviewer and say ‘hey, I don’t think you got it’ or ‘you missed something’ without being a PR jerk?” Harmonix’s communications and brand manager John Drake asked on Twitter last week – presumably in response to a negative review of the recently-released Rock Band Blitz.

Because Drake is a consummate professional, his question was largely rhetorical – it’s not the Done Thing to complain about your review scores, and when “a PR jerk” does it (or a non-jerk is asked to by a jerky manager) everyone on both sides is rendered acutely uncomfortable.

Drake’s friends and colleagues in PR sympathised with the frustration of negative reviews, but when I broached the topic with other games media pundits, it became apparent that on the writing side, there’s far less empathy. The idea of a developer, publisher or PR person daring to have an opinion on the quality and accuracy of a review – why, it’s untenable. It’s a crime against free speech. It’s a smack at critical integrity. It’s wilful manipulation of the sacred process of games reviewing in which only diamond nuggets of truth are ever brought to life, deposited in the velvet cases of Metacritic’s luxurious showroom where their sparkle attracts flocks of admiring consumers.

What a load of old wank. Who died and made game reviewers perfect judges of what makes a good game? The fact is reviewers do sometimes get it wrong.

Even putting aside the myriad questions which plague reviewing in general, a video game isn’t like a book or movie which you might go through half a dozen times for a really thorough review; it’s something you could invest hundreds of hours in and still be surprised by. In a perfect world, all critics would have months to play and assess games before delivering their reviews; I don’t want to go into details of the business of games media, but the unfortunate reality is many reviewers don’t get anything like the time they need.

Even ignoring time constraints, it’s easy enough to overlook details. This is one reason publishers often provide fact sheets with review code; rushing through a tremendously long game like Darksiders 2, for example, it would be very easy to completely miss the existence of the Crucible altogether, and write a snarky paragraph about how the game fails to provide a decent combat challenge for advanced players. This is not an unlikely scenario; this kind of error creeps into reviews all the time. I have seen a colleague declare a tactics game “broken” in a published review because he didn’t RTFM and played for hours without finding the core command menu.

Quite apart from embarrassing factual errors like these, sometimes reviewers simply won’t “get” a game due to personal preference or inexperience. Think of the way people react to Dark Souls; some love it, some spend five minutes with it and can’t see the point at all. Imagine me trying to review a racer – “you just go round in circles, three out of ten”. Presumably editors do their best to match games to critics within a game’s target audience but there will always be times when for some reason – you’re having a bad day, you’ve had an overload of a particular genre – a game just does not sit well with you, and you never grow to like it. People who get paid to write reviews aren’t exempt from this phenomenon, even though many do their best to avoid it.

If only negative reviews were this funny,
maybe they wouldn’t sting.

When a development team of several dozen people spend years working on a product, it’s understandable that they might become emotional when it is criticised, especially subjectively. But when some neckbeard drops the Metacritic average below a publisher’s target and has obviously misunderstood a central mechanic, failed to take in a decent portion of the game, or otherwise unintentionally dropped the ball – well. That’s heartbreaking.

When it happens, why is the designer, developer or publisher expected to just put up with it? Why can’t we open a line of dialogue and have a conversation? I’m not talking about PR reps on the phone hassling critics about their review scores, but developers and critics communicating with each other comfortably on a topic that presumably interests them both – games. If new information can change a critic’s mind, then surely they’d prefer that to looking like a bit of a tool by issuing an unfair review. Let’s do it in public: let’s allow developers space to rebut critics. Hell, let the critics respond in turn – let’s talk about this.

We don’t do reviews at VG247 for several reasons (which is a whole other editorial). If we’ve got a game ahead of its release and think you might want to know what we think we sometimes tell you, but we’re always aware of and hopefully clear on what we’re actually doing. We’re not saying “we know this game inside out and can make universal judgments on it”. We’re just telling you what we, as regular people who play games, think about it. And we’re more than happy to accept that we could be wrong – for you in particular, or in general. We’re human. We’re fallible. Is it so unthinkable that our colleagues might be, too?

Rock Band Blitz holds a 76 Metacritic Average on Xbox 360; “generally favorable”. Scores range from 60 to 93.

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