Sell Out

In addition to the writing I do for this weblog, and my day job, I occasionally get the opportunity to work on other projects. One of them has bourne fruit, and I am now a paid and published game reviewer. My review of Civliization IV appears in the latest issue of Please feel free to give it a read (PDF format).

Hopefully, you’ll read it in time to take Civilization IV off of your holiday gift lists. Which brings me, once again, to the topic of game reviews, game reviewers, and why so many of them are so absolutely terrible. I think that I’m in a position to explain this clearly now.

Some of you may recall that I addressed this issue earlier in the year, where I pointed out that Game Girl Advance was engaging in some unjustified apologetics for unethical behavior on the part of a game magazine. The howls from some paid game reviewers shook the rafters. Their defenses were many, but most of them centered around either recharacterizing my argument as claiming that they were all being paid off in cash in a parking garage somewhere, or by simply asserting that, since I was not a professional writer, I simply didn’t understand the time pressures and tradeoffs involved in writing a quality review.

So now that I’m officially a professional writer – although, thank God, not one who has to write for a living – I still think these writers are deluded. Video game reviews, on the whole, are terribly written. Let’s think about why.

It helps, in this context, to look at counterexamples from other media. Film is the example most people choose. But today, I’m going to talk about automobile reviews.

Your average, run-of-the-mill car review, found in your nondescript, middle- American newspaper, is of more use to the consumer than your average, run-of- the-mill videogame review. In part, this is because there is more at stake. Cars are durable goods that people evaluate carefully before purchasing, and if you engage in puffery people will tend to notice very quickly, and complain about it.

It also stems from a vehicle’s nature as a functional item. This is not to say that cars don’t entertain – as anyone who has bought one can tell you, aesthetics matter – but that every car can be described in terms of how well it does any number of tasks. How does the gearbox feel? Is it responsive when you step on the throttle? How much body roll is there going around turns? How much space is there? Are the seats comfortable?

Furthermore, everyone is very aware that different vehicles cost differing amounts of money. The key question we look to car reviewers to answer is not “Is this car good,” but “Is this car a good value.” A review that simply says “The BMW M6 is awesome!” without any reference to other vehicles you can get at the same price point is an utterly useless review.

Let’s look at the BBC 2 TV show Top Gear. This show is incredibly addictive, and watched and enjoyed by a lot of my friends, many of whom don’t even care about cars. The show’s hosts are opinionated, to the point of being crushingly rude about vehicles that they don’t like. But even in their most cruel and cutting reviews, they find time to mention that the car gets good fuel economy for its class, or that it has a lot of cargo space. Even in their most fawning, adulatory paeans to £400,000 cars, they find the time to mention that the fit and finish on the bodywork is garbage, or that the knobs on the radio are silly, or that the trip computer is hateful.

Game reviews – generally – are not written like this. Sure, they tend to divide the game into sections, and then purport to analyze them, but they don’t, in my view, answer the fundamental questions. To pick just one example, none of the “best game EVAR” reviews of Civilization IV that you can find on Metacritic choose to mention that the game is amazingly crashy, or that it’s user interface is worse than its predecessor. One excuse you find people making is that games are primarily entertainment content. That’s sort of true, but sort of not. A game is not just like a movie. A game is like a movie, but it is also like a car. A game is entertainment, but it’s also, in a very real and practical sense, a functional device.

It’s not simply a matter of reviewers disagreeing with my opinion. More importantly, in none of the reviews I’ve read on Civ IV do I see a discussion of value. When discussing automobiles, it’s easy to compare value because cars are sold at so many price points. Value is largely a matter of comparing the vehicle to other cars in its class, and to other cars at its price point. In games, the hidden variable is time. How much time will it take you to play the game? How many hours of enjoyment will the game offer, versus hours of mindless drudgery? How many hours will you spend on the tech support line, trying to find out why the sound stutters?

I’ll reduce it to a simple rule of thumb. I don’t care what game you’re reviewing. I don’t care how perfect (or flawed) it is. I don’t care how pressed for time you are. If you can’t find one bad thing to say about a game (or, in the case of a negative review, one good thing), then you are not doing your job.

So why don’t most of the reviews of Civ IV condescend to mention that the game, as delivered in the box, is buggier than a prison cafeteria? I have a theory.

Game reviewers, like everyone else, are subject to the phenomenon of the latent object of desire. Most game reviewers are not software engineers. They don’t see the meat that goes in to the sausage. As such, they are unreasonably optimistic about game publishers, particulary PC game publishers, ability to fix problems in patches. It’s not just game reviewers. Everyone thinks that software engineering is easy. The other day I was visiting Slashdot and read an article whose thesis was, and I am not kidding, “Why doesn’t Microsoft just fix the bugs?” I nearly choked on the sandwich I was eating, and several quarts of my own bile, out of sympathy for the person in Redmond who was going to read that and instantly have a brain aneurysm.

Game reviewers, I believe, approach games with this optimistic attitude, and they don’t want to be a downer, so if there’s a bug and if the game is by a reputable publisher, they just think “Hey, no big deal. They’ll just fix that in the patch. Since the article I’m writing won’t be published for another month, it might be fixed by the time people read it. Sure, the game doesn’t actually work, but I’m sure that’s just a simple matter of programming. I was having a lot of fun before the game crashed. I’ll just think happy thoughts and say the game is a surefire candidate for Game of the Year.”

I can’t do that. I know you, Firaxis. I’ve been in your shoes. I was in the room with you when the architect said “Hey, I’ve got this great idea. Why don’t we make all the objects in the game fully 3D?” I was reading the memo the junior engineer circulated that compared various 3D libraries, and recommended that you take the one that was cheapest because it had newer features, and besides, none of your customers would be using an old videocard anyway. I attended the presentation from the consultant who informed you that as long as your save game file format was XML, implementing it would take 3 days and it would be impossible for there to be any bugs. I was there. You dropped features, decided not to fix bugs, and skimped on Q/A because you had to make the Holiday season. I feel for you. I’m really really sorry you had to go through it, and I know that you don’t feel any better about it than I do.

But there’s one thing I can’t do for you, Firaxis. I can’t look at the pile of bugs you delivered and call it a good game. In the end, the choice about when to ship, and what to ship, was yours. And you blew it. So when people ask me what I think about the game, I have to be honest with them. I have to tell them the truth.

That seems, sadly, to make me an unusual game reviewer. If that also makes me a poor one, then so be it.

I approached the Civilization IV review, very deliberately, as an attempt to write a review about a game as if I was reviewing a car. I tried to write it as if I were one of the presenters on Top Gear.

I’m sure that my writing isn’t as colorful as Jeremy Clarkson’s. But I hope, in the end, that it is still fun to read, and that you find the review useful. If you have questions or comments on the review, feel free to comment on it here, or send a letter to the editor.