Talking myself out of a hobby.

So Sea of Thieves is out, and it’s receiving some pretty middling scores… and you know how I feel about review scores. Still, while reading a particularly mediocre review of Sea of Thieves, something occurred to me as I made my way to the comments section to see what others thought.

Many games these days, change.

I don’t necessarily mean all games inevitably get better. Some do, but some don’t. One type of game usually does though, and they’ve become a bit of a bad word in the gaming community.

“Games As A Service”

Destiny 2 Microtransactions

*shakes fist*

Some of the older gamers all remember logging into a multiplayer game sometime in their past only to be confronted with a message saying something to the tune of “cannot contact multiplayer servers”. This is a fear of gamers around the world when it comes to buying a game which is treated by the publisher as a service instead of just a game. Today, the major issue surrounding “games as a service” is that they often include microtransactions, and more recently, loot boxes.

However, one of the nice things about these games in particular, is that they can improve over time, and that introduces a bit of a snag into the whole review process.

Most reviews offer a glimpse of what the reviewed title is like at release, talking about the issues that are apparent when it first came out. I’m not interested in downplaying those problems, because they can be a huge source of frustration for anyone trying to just play the damn thing. Remember Battlefield 4‘s launch problems? Or Grand Theft Auto Online being more or less non-functional? What do those experiences feel like today, now that those issues have been ironed out?

Yet we find ourselves reading reviews that criticize games for things that can – and often are – fixed, but said reviews are never updated when the issue is resolved.

The problem is that so many reviews focus on things that can change quite easily, or issues that are only that way because the critic wants what they’re reviewing to be something it’s not.

Emergent Gameplay

Elite Dangerous Title

In Elite: Dangerous, your experience is what you make it

There are quite a few titles out on the market today which have gameplay that relies on the player to create the experience they want to have. Previously, that only meant role-playing, but in the day of “games as a service”, it means creating your own fun. Games like Elite: Dangerous, EVE Online, Grand Theft Auto Online, and even Sea of Thieves don’t offer massive, overarching narratives or strict quest structures. You’re given a massive sandbox to play in, and you’re funneled towards other players in the hopes of either introducing conflict or encouraging cooperation.

This approach is called “emergent gameplay”, which is defined as a gameplay system that generates complex outcomes from simple mechanics. For instance, in Elite: Dangerous, you may only be given simple missions such as being told to deliver a shipment of goods or eliminating a bounty target, but in your pursuit of completing that task, any number of variables can affect the outcome. In multiplayer games, those variables usually come in the form of other players influencing change. You may stumble across another pilot who is willing to help you out, or you might be ripped out of FTL and forced to defend yourself as you’re heading to your destination.

Games that take this approach tend to attract criticism from those seeking a more involved or defined experiences. They aren’t the type of game for people wanting a story told to them, so review a title like Elite: Dangerous or Sea of Thieves from the perspective of expecting a storyline, and using that as a reason to speak negatively about them is misguided. Looking for a story in a game which focuses on emergent gameplay is like buying a motorcycle and expecting it to be good for moving day.

The Others

Ghost Recon Wildlands Bad PR Trifecta

How rebellious!

Then there’s the sticky issue of other players, and how they can impact the experience. So often in reviews, you’ll find that the influence of other players on the experience can either be a detractor or completely glossed over. For example, all team-based multiplayer games require the player to work with others in the pursuit of winning a match or finishing a raid. However, your success is tied to those other players. Sure, sometimes you can still have fun if you fail, but more often than not you don’t want to jump into match after match only to lose constantly.

That’s why reviewing multiplayer oriented games can be such a crapshoot, especially if you don’t have a sizeable group of friends to call on to help you test out team-focused elements in a game. Without that, you’re limited to random folks, both on your team and against you. In order for you to succeed, you need the luck of the draw. So if you have a bad experience, such as dealing with hyper-aggressive opponents, griefers, or team killers, you’re far more likely to think poorly of the game in question. The key here is that those issues are caused by other players, and many others could have a vastly different experience.

What Works For Some, Might Not Work For All

One thing I’ve learned during my short tenure of writing reviews, is that there are good and bad ways to write critiques. It’s easy to point out everywhere a game falls short, but there are issues that deserve to be called out, and issues that don’t. It’s one thing to note how a game’s story is weak or unfocused, and another to complain that there isn’t a story in a game that never made a claim to feature one. Lamenting that a game suffers from technical problems is different from not enjoying the teams that you’ve been playing with, or that you had a hard time winning matches because people didn’t work together. Similarly, it isn’t fair to gloss over problems that plague one game, while using those same points to draw criticism for another.

That’s why I find it difficult to review certain titles, personally. It’s why the multiplayer in game reviews I’ve written don’t focus on the quality of the matches, but center in on what sort of modes are offered. It’s why I don’t harp on technical issues so much, and instead choose to call out the video and audio presentation instead. It’s precisely why I don’t focus so heavily on the quest structure in MMO-lite games, because their quests are designed to account for multiple players, not tell a glorious story.

Writing meaningful reviews isn’t easy, and it’s best to write reviews about games only after seeking to understand the intent of the game developers and the audience to which it is aimed. Like I’ve stated before, this is why I don’t write reviews for games that fall outside my areas of interest. I don’t believe it’s fair to skewer a game because I don’t like the core mechanics or genre.

With that in mind, I still think that game reviews do have their place. Not purely out of self-interest, or the fact that I want people to continue reading my reviews (even though I do), but because a review composed in a meaningful manner can help drive discussion about the game, and even help shed light on things that drive people to purchase something they’re on the fence about, or steer them away from something that would be a waste of money.

However, that all comes with a caveat. Composing a review about a game that you don’t like, not based on the quality of the experience, but simply because the experience itself wouldn’t entertain you regardless of its quality, is useless to everyone who views it (apart from those who derive enjoyment from listening to others complain). That’s why some reviews aren’t useful at all.

It’s best to remember that while reviewing games is a subjective affair, they still serve a purpose. Reviews of games based solely on technical quality, wanting an experience the developer never promised, or having a bad experience with other players don’t serve a purpose. Reviews can be more than just a rant about all the things the writer didn’t like about the game in question. They’re snapshots of what games are about, and can help guide those that want to make a decision.

But that’s just my personal take on the matter.

What are your thoughts about game reviews? Are they still useful today? What are your thoughts about emergent gameplay, multiplayer reviews, and technical issues which get resolved? Time to discuss!


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Posted by Shelby "Falcon509" Steiner

I'm just a gamer that enjoys talking about my hobbies. I do a little more than that too. I love cooking, grilling, being outdoors, going target shooting, etc.

16 Comments

  1. Man I can see where you are coming from. However, my only push back is that someone reviewing a game is based on that person’s feeling towards that game and if they feel like that game was lacking, then that should be reflective in his or her opinion.

    That’s also why I don’t like giving a number to a game. Games are so much more complicated then that and the review is reflective upon the person’s experience.

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. I definitely agree that person opinions are a cornerstone of good reviews. I don’t think there’s anything that could be considered to be an objective critique of a game. It’s a difficult process to do well, that’s for sure. It takes a great deal of care to cover a game well, whether good or bad.

      I can understand the reasoning for review scores though. Even if I don’t use them.

      Like

      Reply

  2. LightningEllen March 26, 2018 at 17:41

    To be honest, I don’t like reading any reviews for games I’ve already decided I’m going to play. For starters, my opinion always seems to be different from the masses.. haha. Also, I find sometimes I get spoiled unintentionally. Going into a game knowing absolutely nothing about it increases my enjoyment of it immensely.

    I like to think of game reviews as a hobby. I don’t care about what big media has to say. I enjoy reading real thoughts and opinions from bloggers on WordPress more than anything. When i write my own reviews, it’s just a way for me to have fun and remember the game down the road.

    I think everyone treats game reviewing differently, though! If people see more value in it for making decisions, power to them 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. I appreciate your honesty, and I totally understand that viewpoint. As for myself, I don’t look too much into reviews anymore, but only because I don’t want to influence my own thoughts about a game I might potentially write about. I’ve also noticed that I have tried more new stuff since I started writing about games, which is a nice change. I like the variety!

      And I agree that everyone sees reviews differently, which is good.

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  3. Great article. I personally have been using more user reviews to decide on what to buy then professional reviews. I, for example, am a big fan of JRPGs. Honestly, very few of the mainstream media seems to be in touch with my tastes, so even if they can see how good a title like Persona 5 or Nier Automata are, I doubt they could see the appeal Trails of Cold Steel or Atelier Sophie, for example. And honestly, it’s okay. Just as I’m not interested in the same military shooter of the year, they are not in niche JRPGs, i just happens their taste falls more in line with the majority.

    Another thing I try to do is get to know the reviewer. If it’s a person on Youtube it’s easy because it’s always the same person but on some sites I’ll try to know some names. Based on what they liked or not in the past, I’ll base how much strength their opinion has for me for the newly released review.

    Liked by 2 people

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    1. You make a good point about getting to know a reviewer before considering the perspective of their opinions. Knowing what a reviewer prefers can make it easier to understand why they feel the way they do about a game. That can help mitigate hard feelings when you happen to disagree.

      Liked by 1 person

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  4. As someone that has spent the last 15 years writing reviews of games and films, I think a lot has changed in how reviews are approached and there is a disconnect between what some people want out of a review and what is actually being delivered now. Over the last few years there has been a major shift from reviews being a consumer guide to being more of an actual critique of the game and experience. Consumer guide reviews aren’t really necessary anymore because consumers have so many options available to them for game discovery that many readers have already made up their minds on the quality of a game before they read a review. And because of this, I think games criticism has evolved in to a more personality driven medium.

    That said, I do still think reviews are useful. They are discussion starters and venues for diverse opinions to be conveyed. It is also why I disagree with you on this point: “it’s best to write reviews about games only after seeking to understand the intent of the game developers and the audience to which it is aimed.” Personally I don’t think it matters what the game developers intent was because the intent has little or in some cases nothing to do with how it will be received by the player. They’ll perceive it how they perceive it, intention or not. As for the audience to which it is aimed, I think there is value to both writing for an audience that something is intended for and writing for the audience that doesn’t fit in that categorization.

    If we only stick to writing about things in our wheelhouse, we get stuck there. And while that is certainly fine, it doesn’t help us grow. That’s not to say that your writing a review for a genre that you aren’t comfortable with will be useful to someone that tends to play in that area but it may be useful to encourage someone else to try something that falls outside their wheelhouse.

    In terms of reviews for games that evolve, I’m perfectly fine with someone reviewing their experience. I look at it similar to reviews for live performances (concerts, theater, etc…). They are a snapshot of a very particular time of one person’s experience and shouldn’t be taken as the only record of that experience. For example, I saw Guns N’ Roses play at Lincoln Financial Field in 2016. I had seats that were head on but a friend of mine had seats that were on the side of the arena. For me the sound was perfect and the show was awesome but for him, the sound was muffled (vocals were unclear), the screens were at a bad angle, and he ended up leaving early because his experience was not enjoyable. If we were to both write reviews for the show, they would have been wildly different and we were both the target audience. Now add in my wife, who is not the target audience and her take would probably be less explosively positive than mine (she still thought it was good but not amazing) so three experiences for the same thing that are wildly different. And if conveyed well in a review, each one offers something to their readers. And I’ll add in an addition to this as well, both my friend and I went and saw GNR again in 2017, this time at the Wells Fargo Center and we both loved it and the show had evolved. So with that, I’m not sure if maybe a check in review is something that would be useful to basically re-review the state of the game in its current state. I suppose games like WoW get this treatment when their expansions get reviewed.

    Liked by 4 people

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    1. You make some fine points, and I certainly wouldn’t advocate sticking only to things you’re comfortable with when reviewing games. I know I would’ve missed out on games I’ve loved if I didn’t try something new. Still, I feel it’s important to examine why I have negative opinions about a game before using those negative opinions to draw a judgment about it. If I start writing an analysis or critique of a game based on my dislike for its genre as a whole instead of the quality of the product or experience, I feel that I’m not being fair to it.

      As for reviewing evolving games, I wouldn’t go so far as to say we shouldn’t be reviewing those games, but we definitely should be noting that the review is a snapshot of the product. At the very least, it would be helpful to those viewing a critique of the game in question if the author updated the review with relevant information, or gave a new critique of the game at its current state. I’m just as guilty as the next guy for not doing this, but I’d like to avoid that in the future if possible.

      Liked by 1 person

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  5. I have to take them with a grain of salt. There are a lot of games that have gotten universally negative reception (Splatterhouse remake immediately comes to mind) that I had a blast playing, and then there are a lot of games that have gotten nothing but praise (Super Meat Boy and almost every clone of it for instance) that I struggle to see the appeal for. I also agree with not writing reviews for games that go outside of what you’re interested in. I’ll gladly write reviews for stuff like Sonic Mania, Cuphead, Wonder Boy etc because I adore traditional action platformers and devote most of my play time to games of that variety. I’ve played hundreds of them over the years and while I wouldn’t consider myself an expert, I’m confident in my ability to differentiate what works and what doesn’t with games of the genre. You’ll never see me write a review of something like Dr.Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine or Columns because, quite frankly, I don’t care for puzzle games. I wouldn’t know what makes a “good” or “bad” puzzler and therefore a review would be a waste of both my time and the reader’s.

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. Based on that, I think you and I would agree about reviews in general. Likewise, I don’t always just take a reviewer’s word for it, especially with highly charged wording used. That’s part of the issue I have with sites like Rotten Tomatoes when it comes to scoring movies, because there are plenty of movies that have reviewed poorly with critics that I adore.

      Liked by 1 person

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  6. This is a very good point, and I totally see where you are coming from.

    I’ve thought of the idea of reviewing games that were initially received poorly a year later to see how they were doing then. No Mans Sky and Mass Effect Andromeda both came to mind. Although Andromeda isn’t a game as a service, it did launch with many problems that I understand were fixed since.

    And it is a very good point about Elite Dangerous. At launch there wasn’t much to do, but as the game grew, things were slowly added and the experience now is totally different, and was actually quite a journey for those who stuck through it. Getting planetary landing, having Thargoids make their first appearance must have been such an exciting time for early pioneers of the game.

    I remember digging through many reviews of Elite Dangerous to run into quite a few negative ones that kept complaining of how little there was to do, but were reviews that were posted near it’s release. There were a few that talked about what’s changed, but there was an overwhelming amount I felt that focused on early negative aspects,

    i think reviews won’t go away, but perhaps evolve into something where we check in occasionally to see how the game is doing. We can review X game at launch, site it’s strengths weaknesses, but discuss future additions that we know about. Check in later and re-review or update or do a whole new review altogether focusing on the experience with the new additions.

    Running the podcast now, I see myself doing this where I check back in several times for a given game depending whats being added.

    Liked by 1 person

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  7. You bring up some great questions!

    I like reading reviews, but mainly because they provide an interesting perspective for games I may not otherwise have heard of or wanted to play. I also find the analysis to be helpful! I totally hear you about MMO’s and games that are patched, though. Maybe a simple solution would just be for reviewers to mention when the game was reviewed and who played with them?! But that’s kind of difficult to enforce.

    And agreed, if a person is asked to review a title from a genre they just hate, it’s gonna be a different perspective than someone who loves that genre and plays games from it regularly. But that’s okay… good to have multiple view points. Having more reviews is probably not a bad thing.

    To address your other points, it might also be interesting to take a look at player (or reviewer) feedback over time from a data analytics standpoint. Usually reviewers wouldn’t really have access to that kind of information, but I feel like that’s what you would need in order to properly gauge how a game is doing. But you could theoretically pool multiple game reviews and attempt to plot the data vs time to get an idea of trends. Like, are the devs fixing bugs? Are the players happy? Etc.

    Probably overkill, though 😝

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. Given my interest in data analysis, I’d love to look further into the metrics of how people respond to a game over time. I’d agree that more reviews wouldn’t be bad necessarily, and it’s possible to get good input from someone who isn’t interested in a game’s genre. You might get valuable feedback about it that isn’t through the lens of a fan.

      Thank you for reading by the way!

      Liked by 1 person

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      1. Yeah! No problem! Seems like there are some interesting research opportunities to explore 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        Reply

        1. I’m trying to think of ways to do this now. Stay tuned.

          Liked by 1 person

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          1. Nice! 🙂 good luck!!

            Liked by 1 person

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