Video game reviews may no longer be the sole and final word in criticism and engagement – but they’re not done yet.
Reviews have lost some of their relevancy.
Times are changing. Reviews worked best back when games were easily summarised, often finite experiences, and nobody got to see anything but screenshots till they took the box home. Reviews informed consumers, saying “gonna be pretty good” or “probably pretty bad” with a big range for “tolerable, but you don’t even know better; it’s 1993 and you take what you can get”.
Nowadays, some games are almost impossible to review. How can you write with authority about an online experience when it’s not populated while you’re supposed to be assessing it, and may well fall on its arse at launch? Whats the point of reviewing a game after launch, when you’ve had to wait for everyone else to buy it so you can see what it’s really like?
As a result of these changes, one thing you’ll hear a lot is that traditional games media is dead, and that Twitch and YouTube is all that matters now. Written reviews, or even traditional video reviews, take a back seat to real people playing games where other people can see.
It’s 2015. Can we agree what written reviews are over and it’s the world of YouTube and Twitch now? See the game, and decide. Words? LOL.
— George Broussard (@georgeb3dr) February 20, 2015
There is a great strength in Let’s Play culture, because there are very, very few games that genuinely aren’t worth playing, but many of them never get a glance in traditional games media. Moreover, it’s easy to read a text description of a game and come away unimpressed, but then to see somebody actually enjoying it may give you an entirely different impression.
It’s really important that Let’s Plays and live streaming culture exists. It is a weakness of traditional games press that it has a limited reach (core gamers), and that it is hit driven. It’s frustrating for those who labour over their games to be dismissed by core games media, but on the other side of the fence, we only have limited time and “if you build it, they will come” simply isn’t true. (We wish it were. We’ve tried. Polygon’s very famously tried. Everyone’s tried.)
The hive mind of Let’s Play culture gives games that otherwise slip under the radar the exposure they deserve and which we, with our much more limited resources and audience, cannot provide. And Let’s Play culture has a much greater power to convince people to try new games than the traditional games media cycle of preview-review-community coverage can. This is good for the industry, and where creators are happy to be honest about the junkers that come their way, good for consumers, too.
The existence of and alternate source of gaming information doesn’t mean traditional sources aren’t relevant. The thing is, people are interested in review scores; if they weren’t, we wouldn’t keep rounding them up. It’s not just something we decide on a whim.
But the existence of this alternate source of gaming information doesn’t mean traditional sources aren’t relevant. The thing is, people are interested in review scores; gamers, consumers, are interested in review scores. The reason sites try to get into Metacritic’s chosen ranks, and the reason we continue to round up review scores, is that they still hold intense interest for core gamers. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t keep rounding them up. It’s not just something we decide on a whim, because the wind is blowing from the south or Pat eats a bad pie.
Enough gamers are interested in reading reviews that it justifies the continued existence of reviews in the face of the increasing difficulty of actually writing the bloody things. That’s not in question. It really isn’t.
Why do these people care? I don’t know! Like many of my colleagues I half-believe nothing we do makes any difference to public reception of a product; you all seem to have made up your mind ahead of the fact (this is a cynical reaction to the unrepresentative sampling that is: comments sections). But the point is: they do care, and while they do, it’s worthwhile providing what they want.
Preaching to the choir
There is a kind of gamer who is only interested in Let’s Play culture; that’s their entire exposure to the wider world of gaming. They get their news and reviews (and often their opinions) from personalities with whom they feel some sort of accord or rapport. The whole Minecraft massive is likely in this category. Developers absolutely should speak to this gamer; it’s an extremely important demographic for them, financially, and in general just deserve respect.
But then there’s another kind of gamer, equally and sometimes more passionate, who is just not into Let’s Play, and prefers to get their information and entertainment via traditional games media or core-serving communities like NeoGAF and /r/games.
And then there’s some in between, of course; the great teeming masses of people who click on websites like VG247 all day every day, never commenting or engaging. The great anonymous group of people who buy and play games but don’t necessarily feel attached to the hobby the way we all do. The mass bulk of the 35 millions.
What worries me about this movement to do away with and dismiss game reviews, one of the pillars of traditional gaming press, is that it closes off an option and an alternate voice, which is never a good thing, and it suggests that there’s only one type of gamer of “use” to the industry.
What worries me about this movement to do away with and dismiss game reviews, one of the pillars of traditional gaming press, is that it fails to serve those last two groups. It closes off an option and an alternate voice, which is never a good thing, and it suggests that there’s only one type of gamer of “use” to the industry.
The “reviews are irrelevant” argument also hinges on games being impossible to asses before launch, which is not – I mean, as a consumer myself, I don’t really like the idea of needing to fork over my $60 only to find out a game is broken or just mediocre. I’d really like to be able to find out first.
Anyway, my point is: reviews existing doesn’t harm anyone, bar those weird and horrible Metacritic bonus developer contracts (which, as a consumer, are not your concern at all – and if reviewers start thinking about them we’ll have a hell of a time claiming to be unbiased). Reviews existing benefits a significant subsection of gamers (after all, we’re still here, aren’t we? So clearly we’re speaking to someone).
I think it’s important to ask yourself why anyone might want traditional games media and reviews to disappear. Sometimes it’s just because they don’t like what is being said.