June 02, 2005


by peterb

Apparently, controversy still rages about my article The Best Review Money Can Buy, which was included in the recent Carnival of Gamers.

In particular, Matt at cgonline.com was quite upset. He feels that I'm painting mainstream game reviewers with too broad a brush, and that my description of them as lacking credibility was not fair.

I stand by my article, hyperbole and all. Clearly, though, I'm going to have to start adding little smiley faces whenever I talk about how ultra-credible I am: some folks didn't get the joke. We all know that there are reviewers whose opinions we disagree with. And we can find examples of credibility problems in other fields, as well — for example, in Pittsburgh about 15 years ago, there was a restaurant critic who was revealed to have been taking payola in return for positive reviews.

But be honest with yourself. When was the last time you read a review at Gamespy, or Gamespot, or IGN, and simply said to yourself "Wow! I'm not at all worried that this review might be complete fluff." To use an old but perfect example — we are talking about a group of people who universally lauded the bug-laden, unplayable, and execrable Black and White as the apotheosis of a superb gaming experience.

And isn't this the crux of the problem? Even a movie reviewer with whom I always disagree with has some value. I regularly read Salon and say to myself "Oh look, Stephanie Zacharek liked that movie. I'd better avoid it, because it will be terrible." Stephanie Zacharek, therefore, has more credibility (in a sense) than a reviewer who simply pimps the games with the pretty graphics and the big budgets. Because I can't use that reviewer's work to distinguish between Jade Empire and Gran Turismo 4. He's just going to blather on about how great both of them are. Thanks, but no thanks.

Forget the conspiracy theories about collusion between the game reviewers and publishers. These game reviewers' lack credibility because of what they write.

The other issue I directly raised in my critique that none of the apologists have touched with a 10 foot pole is that of independently produced games (be they commercial, shareware, or freeware). The issue of industry freebies determining what games you review is important, no matter how much you protest, because it means that you are letting the marketing departments of the games industry guide your editorial process.

Spiderweb Software's Geneforge 3 was just released. Did Gamespot review it? Did Gamespy? Did you review it, Matthew? No. Did you review any of the games in last year's Interactive Fiction Competition? No. Any of Everett Kaser's superb logic games? No. Let's make it even easier. There were 78 entries in this year's Independent Games Festival. What percentage of them did the major sites review? Half? 25%? Even that many? CGM did interviews with the makers of Gish, and N, and Lux, and a couple of the other more well-organized entrants. Hey, that's a good start. But why aren't you doing more?

Let me back away from the criticism, and put this in completely practical terms that you might care about. Choosing a game that I enjoyed (and, to be fair, that I reviewed also) I don't need you to tell me about Jade Empire. Everyone and his goddamn uncle is telling me about Jade Empire. Microsoft's marketing department is doing an excellent job of ensuring that I can't even go to the bathroom without hearing about Jade Empire. What this means to you, as a game magazine publisher, is that as long as your agenda is being set by the marketing departments of game developers, there is absolutely no difference between you, and Gamespy, and Gamespot, or IGN, that is worth mentioning. You have no brand identity. Which one of your reviews I read is probably more dependent on which site I happen to have bookmarked than on any desire to read your special, unique take on the game.

Now imagine that Gamespy, Gamespot, and IGN have only cursory coverage of independent, shareware, and freeware games. And imagine that you have deep coverage. Imagine that people know that you have deep coverage. Sure, you're still reviewing Jade Empire, but it's not the marquee item. Your readers know that every time they visit your home page, they'll also read about the games other major media sites aren't covering. Every time I visit your homepage, I learn something new. Every time I visit your homepage, I learn about a game I hadn't heard of before.

Now that's a site that has brand identity. And that's what weblogs — even the lousy ones like mine — are bringing to the table.

Absolutely nothing is stopping you from doing the same thing.

Let me make an analogy that relates to another subject I care about, which is food. Imagine that you write restaurant reviews. If what I paint, admittedly with a very broad brush, as the "major game review magazines" were instead reviewing restaurants, we would have web sites and magazines filled with glowing (or critical) reviews of P.F. Chang's, Bravo Italian Kitchen, McDonald's, Panera Bread, and Starbuck's. If I chose where to eat based solely on Gamespy Restaurant Reviews, I wouldn't know that little hole-in-the-wall Chinese places or quirky independent coffee shops even existed.

Look, I don't determine your editorial policy, Matthew. You do. If you feel the most important contribution you can make is to focus on reviewing the big chain eateries, I can't stop you.

But don't get mad at me for pointing out that in so doing, you aren't as useful or as important as Zagat's.

Additional Resources

  • There is some more commentary on this foofaraw at Cathode Tan
  • In his commentary on this issue, Thomas discusses a certain game magazine and says "It is a tribute, not to playing games, but to purchasing them." This one eloquent sentiment cuts to the heart of the matter. And I wish I had said it.

Posted by peterb at June 2, 2005 06:05 PM | Bookmark This
Casual gaming: the new hardcore
Excerpt: I’ve been enjoying an argument that’s broken out in the States between bloggers and writers for mainstream videogame sites such as Gamepost and Gamespy. It all started with a post entitled The best review money can buy, which appeared on...
Weblog: Guardian Unlimited: Gamesblog
Tracked: June 8, 2005 09:20 AM

Here's your response to your comment over at buttonmashing, peterb, since my comments there are now apparently being blocked. Some kind of accident I'm sure.


Look, peterb, I am just one guy. A freelance writer. Of course, if you had looked on CGOnline, you'd see that still on the front page is my mini-review of Oberon Games' Catan, because I love the board game. If you read the mag, you'd see that there's a monthly section on indie games written by Gregory Micek, and Brett Todd does a monthly section on mods; but then again you can't trust their views on them because they have zero credibility by virtue of working for an establishment.

But since you just assume things because the only thing you know about me is that I've written reviews for GameSpot and GameSpy, here are some things I've written:

Strange Adventures in Infinite Space
Kingdom of Loathing
Knizia's Samurai
Inspector Parker
Wik and the Fable of Souls

So whatever. What are you "bringing to the table" again? It looks to me like Tea Leaves is currently covering those indie unknowns NBA Street V3 and Forza Motorsport. I'm the one who had to take the flak from GameSpot readers for giving Cubivore an 8 for graphics just because I liked the the art style. And my editor allowed me to do it even though Atlus hadn't given either of us any money, or presents, or even a copy of the game! Astonishing, I know.

Yes, GameSpot and other big name sites don't cover the vast majority of indie games. But that's only because:

-There are so goddamn many of them; like you said, 78 in the indie games festival this year-- I haven't done 78 reviews period in the 2.5 years I've been working.
-So many of them are crap, like this year's IGF winner for Technical Excellence, Rocket Bowl. Just like blogs, a game's status as an independently produced labor of love doesn't mean it's any frigging good. Sturgeon's Law applies just as much as it does to games from EA and THQ and Ubisoft.
-The readers send you hate mail when you give the good ones an 8 for graphics.
-When you do cover indie games, people like you say "why aren't you doing more", and more say "why are you talking about these pissant games no one has ever heard of".

Really, don't tell me what I should be doing or how "useful" I am when you don't even know what I am doing. And don't presume that you've angered me just because I tell you where you are wrong. Which, I hope you see by now, is just about everywhere. The real reason I'm even here is, I'm a chronic procrastinator and this is more fun than sifting through the news looking for more crap like your article to make fun of.

Posted by Matthew Gallant at June 2, 2005 07:33 PM

Ack. Your comments don't support the anchor tag.

Here are the links that got filtered out:




Posted by Matthew Gallant at June 2, 2005 07:37 PM

I read the mag. Went out and bought it today.

Wasn't impressed. I'm pleased to find that you have a longer resume than was immediately apparent, but your initial comments on the Carnival were still ignorant, and I still have to go to Wired or gameblogs.org to get any interesting commentary.

Posted by Thomas at June 2, 2005 07:42 PM

Well, the magazine is for grown-ups. Your petulance is charming like a wet kitten and therefore appreciated.

Posted by Matthew Gallant at June 2, 2005 07:52 PM


Yes, I was actually quite pleased that you reviewed _Settlers_, and considered mentioning it in the article. My point is not that each and every game reviewer never ever covers an indie game ever, but that _as a whole_, the environment of the major gaming magazines is toxic to coverage of indie games (and, as you well know, most of the indie games that _do_ get covered are those, like Gish, whose publishers are fairly media-savvy and work hard to get that coverage).

I will, however, give you extra cool points for covering Kingdom of Loathing.

And sure, we cover the non-indie games, too, like Forza. But I'm more than willing to say that our coverage of indie games is excellent, especially if you express it as a percentage of our output.

To some extent, I'm saying "mainstream game writing, on the whole, sucks," and I feel like you're saying, "I've written some (or many) things that don't suck." Even if everything you've written is absolutely brilliant, I don't think that invalidates my larger point.

Thanks for your comments,


Posted by peterb at June 2, 2005 08:00 PM

I tend to write about the non-indie games, because I am a mainstream soft core wanabee who plays mostly Halo 2. My idea of an edgy game is Shadow Hearts.

Posted by psu at June 2, 2005 08:05 PM

This blog is about things that hold the author's attention.

Professional gaming magazines are are about things the editors feel will cause people to buy the magazine.

This causes a very significant divergence in what these two different publications choose to review.

I'll give Matthew ten points for occasionally reviewing indie productions, and I'll remove ten million points for not recognizing that this weblog is not the kind of publication that peterb is talking about, for attempting to refute the ills of an entire industry with a single counterexample, and for resorting to ad hominem when none of those weak tactics were even vaguely effective.

I realize that when peterb writes about review publishers you see him talking about yourself, but the truth of the matter is that his points are pretty accurate for the industry as a whole.

Please grow up and learn how to engage in civil discourse with people who hold opinions different from your own.

Posted by joshua at June 2, 2005 08:16 PM

"Well, the magazine is for grown-ups. Your petulance is charming like a wet kitten and therefore appreciated."

Very clever. Regardless, it's just another insult instead of a real argument. Have you actually made any substantive points today? Or, like research, is that something that you guys just don't do?

Posted by Thomas at June 2, 2005 09:27 PM

"I realize that when peterb writes about review publishers you see him talking about yourself, but the truth of the matter is that his points are pretty accurate for the industry as a whole."

How so? What specific examples does he cite? What first-hand knowledge does he have?

As far as I can tell, he has an impression of how things are, which is easily refuted, point-by-point.

The GameSpy incident could implicate GameSpy, but extrapolating that single incident into a blanket condemnation of all editorial entities is the same sort of critiquing everyone is up in arms over about Matthew's comments about Carnival of Games. Only now is peterb qualifying criticisms, like saying, "_as a whole_, the environment of the major gaming magazines is toxic to coverage of indie games." Previous entries condemned everyone.

I have no problems with someone criticizing the general poor quality of game writing, or the ethical lapses, or the inflated review scores. That's all true. But once you go to "all sites/publications are like this," you've taken a leap that is indefensible. Or at least easily refuted.

Posted by steve at June 6, 2005 12:26 PM

I'd just like to bring something to your attention though peterb - I discovered this hoohar via Guardians' gamesblog. (http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/games/archives/2005/06/08/casual_gaming_the_new_hardcore.html#more)

Have a look at the comments on that site about the Lionhead visit. (http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/games/archives/2005/06/07/black_white_war_immigration_and_the_next_three_games_in_the_seriesa.html)

GAMERS liked Black & White too.

Not reviewers paid to play games, not just Molyneux and his crew, but gamers, like me and maybe you.

(for the record, I hated it too... couldn't understand what all the fuss was about... wow, a creature who poops... whooptido!)

But you can't dismiss an entire website, an entire industry, just because you didn't like a game and they did.

Remember, it was these websites that helped expose that god aweful mess that was driv3r, that challenged the notions of those magazines who gave it glowing reviews of 90+.

Was that some kind of abnormality? Some kind of glitch in the matrix?

Posted by Funky J at June 9, 2005 04:16 AM

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