We continue debunking The Myths of Game Criticism in the second half of our two-part series. Do we live in constant fear of Twitter putting us out of business? Are games so spectacular now that the average score really is 8 out of 10? Do publishers send strike teams to our homes and force us to change scores? We set the record straight. With Chi Kong Lui, Brad Gallaway, Mike Bracken, and Tim "Five Point Scale" Spaeth.
Tim Spaeth: On this episode of the GameCritics.com podcast, we continue debunking the myths of game criticism. How well do you need to know your critics? How did 8 out of 10 become the average score? Can a game be fun without being good? And will Twitter put us all out of business? Filipe, fire up the theme song! The GameCritics.com podcast starts right now.
Hello, everybody. Episode 25 of the GameCritics.com podcast. It's also Part 2 of our epic two-part Myths of Game Criticism Extravaganza. I'm Tim Spaeth. Thankfully, we all survived last show's nailbiting cliffhanger. Everybody's back and bloated from Halloween candy (at least I am). Let's say hi to the panel, starting with Chi Kong Lui.
Chi Kong Lui: What's up, everybody?
Tim Spaeth: And Brad Gallaway.
Brad Gallaway: Hey guys. Good to be back.
Tim Spaeth: And our horror geek and yours, Mike Bracken.
Mike Bracken:* Good evening.
Tim Spaeth: So, guys, we're gonna pick up where we left off. If you remember from a week ago, we did four myths last week. We've got four more to go. Although, because you the audience were so generous as to come back for another round, we have added a ninth myth at no charge to you. I think that's very generous of us, don't you think?
Mike Bracken:* Only if you call in the next ten minutes.
Tim Spaeth: [Laughter]
Brad Gallaway: Supplies are limited! Act now!
Tim Spaeth: Now, for the folks who didn't hear part one, and, by the way, if you didn't hear part one, for godsakes, what's wrong with you? I mean, really! It was kind of epic, don't you think?
Brad Gallaway: It was moderately epic.
Mike Bracken:* It was pretty involved.
Tim Spaeth: Now, in part one, we talked about whether or not critics should finish games; is there a difference between a "review" and a "critique": we talked about if game writers should be considered journalists; and if every review should be considered a buyer's guide. So all those myths plus this week's are in the show notes if you want to follow along. But, gentlemen, I think we should jump right to myth number five. What do you think?
Brad Gallaway: Do it.
Mike Bracken:* I am ready to go.
Chi Kong Lui: Yup. Do it.
Tim Spaeth: Let's rock and roll. It's time for myth number five: "The explosion of blogs, podcasts and Twitter has rendered formal game reviews obsolete."
If you guys don't mind, I will say something first and I'm somewhat biased. I think podcasts can sit along formal game reviews or critiques as valuable archived analyses of games. But I am somewhat biased as the producer of a podcast.
The benefit of a podcast, I think, is the back-and-forth, the challenging of people's opinions, and long-form podcasts such as this one and many others can go beyond just talking about games. We can discuss culture and current events, the lives of the panelists on the show. It can paint a real picture of what the industry and the world was like at the time, and can help put the thoughts about a game into context, and in an ideal universe serve as almost an historical document, much like a written review. I'm not trying to sound too self-important. Certainly I'm not saying that we achieve that on every one of our shows, but I think the potential is there in the medium. In a more practical sense, podcasts can be archived, they're searchable, you can listen to every single one of our shows through iTunes just like you can search a review on a website. There's a permanenece to podcasts that will complement a written review.
But as for blogs and Twitter, by definition, these are more off the cuff. They're more informal. They're unedited, usually un-spellchecked. I don't think they're the best venue for thoughtful, insightful analysis. I consider blogs and Twitter more disposable media. Blogs are not easily searched. When was the last time you went out and searched somebody's old blog entries? Tweets are even less searchable.
What it comes down to is any idiot can sign up for Twitter or start a blog. There's no cost to entry, and so the problem is there's just a staggering amount of noise. So if we're talking about creating an archived history of game critiques that will tell the history of the medium, that's not going to happen on a blog or Twitter. That's not to say we can't use blogs and Twitter to express ideas or to spread the word or use it as a marketing tool, but I don't think they're going to put us out of business.
Mike Bracken:* I have a different opinion there, Tim. I agree with you on Twtiter completely, if for no other reason than because it's an entirely disposable medium, and 140 characters just doesn't lend itself to discussing anything with depth, unless you wanna do 140 characters back and forth, back and forth, and again, it's disposable so there's no archive of it.
I do all these podcasts, I'm on all these different shows and everything and I like doing them, but I like my reviews in a blog more than I like them in a podcast—not because I have something against any of the reasons you pointed out about podcasts being really useful, because I think those are all perfectly valid points. My problem with podcasts is I have to listen to them so I don't feel like I'm in control of them, because when people get off on a tangent or something like that, it's hard to skip ahead and get back to where things get back on track. Whereas when I'm reading something, I can skip ahead or read it in whatever order I want. It's a much more interactive experience for me.
I like podcasts, but every podcast I see tends to run—with the exception of ours—like, two hours and I just don't have two hours to devote to listening to them and trying to maneuver through them. I would much rather deal with the printed word.
To answer the broader question there, I don't think any of those things have rendered formal game reviews obsolete at all. There's just more noise out there.
Chi Kong Lui: But at the same time, you have to kind of agree that it's devalued criticism in a large sense.
Mike Bracken:* Right, but I think we would've had this happen even if we didn't have blogs and podcasts, because even before blogs became popular, look at how many fucking gaming Geocities sites there were that were just crappy noise that were devaluing game criticism. I know there's a distinction between "website" and "blog," but to a lot of people, there isn't so much: you go to one to read something, you go to a blog to read something else. If we didn't have blogs, we'd just have a bunch more game websites that guys were hosting on free hosting sites or whatever. I don't know that blogs have hurt it so much. I think game reviews were gonna be screwed no matter what happened.
Chi Kong Lui: As someone who makes websites for a living also, I remember the Geocities days and those weren't blogs. Those were just a lot of crappy websites that could barely be even legible. Blogs really elevated the Everyman into a publisher. That's why blogs are so huge today, because they're just so accessible and they're so legible in a lot of ways as well. [Laughter]
To me it [blogs] has been more the dagger than anything else. Would there have been something else? I don't know. It's hard to say, but I think blogs are definitely taking away from formal criticism or more formal game reviews. I'm not sure if it's ever gonna kill it altogether, but you're always complaining about the lack of work for critics out there.
Mike Bracken:* Yeah. I would totally agree with that. When blogs started out, I thought the level of discourse on a lot of blogs was really good. Now I don't know that it's a whole lot better on a lot of these blogs than the old GeoCities sites. I guess it's nice that they don't have as many crappy graphics on them as those old sites did.
Yeah, I don't disagree with that. But I guess I don't make the distinction. I think you can do formal criticism on a blog. My problems with blogs and the Internet in general is now that the guys who have the money will turn around and just say: "We're not gonna pay you, because we can get some schmuck who isn't as good at what you do as you are, but he'll do it for free, and the audience won't know." I just see that was going to happen anyway, because sites were so easy to build and things like that. I could be totally wrong here, though. I don't know.
Brad Gallaway: Well, the way I see it, there's two ways to tackle the question, and I'm just gonna get right down to it. If you talk about devaluing, I think what you guys have said so far is really correct. I think that because anybody who has a blog, give them six months and all the sudden they think they're a professional reviewer. I've seen them talk like they're a seasoned professional. They've got four reviews up on their site and they've had a blog for like a month or something. Not to discourage people from getting out there and doing it themselves, but there's a difference between doing it hardcore, making media contacts, going to E3, and sitting at home and plunking off a 600-word review after you just got back from Blockbuster.
I do think there's a lot more talent who is trying to get out there, and that is financially devaluing the opportunities that are out there for people who put a lot more time and effort into it, like us. In terms of the other sort of devaluing—intellectual devaluing—I don't know anybody who says: "Oh! Oh! So-and-so game's coming out! I gotta run home and check so-and-so's blog to see what they think!" I don't know anybody that does that. Everybody goes to Metacritic or they go to IGN or they go to GameCritics or they go to some formal review venue to check out what a game is all about. There are certain blogs that I will check once in a while, but only because I have a real intimate familiarity with the writer. I know them really well; I know their tastes really well, or they've stuck out to me for some reason and they're notable. But I don't know anybody who is gonna take just a Tom, Dick or Harry blog over some formally published review. So I don't think that, in that sense, they're having any effect on the role of reviews, although I do think it's getting a lot harder for people to get paid for publishing those kind of reviews.
Chi Kong Lui: It's interesting you say that, Brad. You're right—in a lot of ways, people are still going to the experts and to the main sources. But then when you go to Amazon.com and you see 100 reviews of the latest product, it's just hard to not feel like everything's been leveled off a bit. Although, at the end of the day, I hear what you're saying: people are still going to those sources, but overall it just seems like there's less value to those main sources.
Brad Gallaway: That's interesting, 'cause I don't have that experience at all. I don't know anybody who checks the Amazon stuff. If they're actually ordering, they'll click down—that's kind what I do, but I never go to like: "Oh! I wanna see what all these people are saying on Amazon!" because they're yahoos, most of the time. They're either shills or they're yahoos, and that doesn't have any value. And I don't know anybody that puts any kind of stock in that stuff. What were you gonna say, Mike?
Mike Bracken:* I was just gonna say that's it, exactly. You'll always wanna go to the formal sites because, even though you may not agree with the guys at the formal sites or you may question the ethics of some of them, you still know that they have an editorial staff that's controlling the content. Whereas when you go to Amazon or Best Buy's customer reviews or all that, there is no editorial process. You can look at a TV on Best Buy, and one guy will give it a 5 and another guy will give it a 1, and how do you know snything from any of that? So, yeah, I totally don't think those sort of Amazon reviews or anything like that are ever going to replace formal criticism of any of the mediums we talk about.
Chi Kong Lui: Speaking of Amazon reviews, let's give a shout-out to that guy who plagarized Brad's review of Demon's Souls.
Mike Bracken:* Dude, I have had so many reviews plagarized on Amazon.com that I was on first-name basis with their people who deal with that film stuff. Yeah, I've had a lot of stuff go up there that other people have posted that was mine.
Tim Spaeth: Someone explain that phenomenon to me. What possible point would there be? I could understand plagarizing it if what you were plagarizing was going to be seen, like, published in an official place. But an Amazon review? Why would you even take the time? [unknown]
Mike Bracken: I blame it on when Amazon started giving those "Top 1000 Reviewers" tags to people. There are a couple people who have reviewed at Amazon, like there's a lady who reviews books, I think her name's Harriet Klausner or something like that. She's only reviewed at Amazon, as far as I know, but she wrote *so many reviews there that she started to get attention as a real book critic. So I think other people saw that, and you get a little tag by your name. Never underestimate the power of recognition on the Internet, for some reason. People just want that stuff.
Chi Kong Lui: It's amazing what that little tag will do, I know.
Mike Bracken: Yeah. I've seen people at places like that go nuts over they didn't get a little star by *their name and some other guy did and that guy sucks. It's like: Well, you're not making any money either way, so what do you care?
Brad Gallaway: But that guy does suck, though. He shouldn't get that star.
Mike Bracken:* He does. I agree. Take it back.
Tim Spaeth: We had some interesting comments from the listeners. Just a couple things I'll read here. One from Sinan, who left a post on your blog, Brad. He writes, and I quote:
Twitter, blogs, and podcasts are only broadening the net, and bringing more people into games and games journalism. It's up to print magazines and website to use these new avenues of talking about games effectively. There's no reason why a review and a blog/podcast/tweet have to be exclusive.
We had another comment from Sid Schuman, who I think left this on your blog as well, Brad, he answers the question:
No, not at all, though it has certainly taken some wind out of the sails, a well-written, informative, engaging game review is still going to be in demand online and in print. I think it's time to reevaluate some of the protocols, formats and goals of reviews, however. I do think it's time for an evolution.
Chi Kong Lui: Both comments are well-said.
Brad Gallaway: Yep. I got smart people on my blog, man. I rock!
Tim Spaeth: Fantastic. So our thanks to them, and I think we can put myth number five to bed. Let's move on, then, to myth number six: "Individual game critics and review sites are under constant, unrelenting pressure from publishers to change scores."
Now, before we get into this, the original way I phrased this when I posted it on the website was: "constant, unrelenting pressure from aggregate sites to change scores," and then I modified that to "publishers," 'cause I think that makes a bit more sense, although people did answer both variations.
Brad Gallaway: Yeah, yeah. Well, I'm gonna address the "publisher" side. I don't really think that there's any pressure from aggregates anywhere, so we're gonna let that go for now and I'll just talk about publisher pressure.
I think this is a really interesting question, because I think that there's a big perception that publishers lean really heavily on reviewers. Because we don't get any funding through advertisement at GameCritics, I think we probably dodge a lot of that, if there is any going on in that indirect "We're not gonna advertise your site" sort of way. So we're a little bit immune to that, although I will say that, occasionally, there are maybe overzealous PR people who will say: "Hey, I saw your review and I didn't like XYZ. Would you think about changing it?" But that's a pretty rare thing. I can only think of two or three times in the last ten years that that's happened, and it's never been anything heavy-handed. It's more of them begging than anything else.
But I think there's a different kind of pressure on review sites that people don't really think about if you are a reader, but when you are a reviewer, it's always on your mind. And that is that if you start to review games negatively—if they deserve it—the pressure that you're under is that the publisher is gonna just cut you off, and you will no longer have games to review. So it's not anything upfront, it's not anything very overt, but if you start giving low numbers to a publisher and they're not happy with what you're doing, you will all the sudden find that your e-mails are not responded to. You will find that you're not getting any of the insider e-mails that go out before a game gets released. You will not have your name on the list to receive review copies. And so you will be quietly shunted to the side, and you'll be relegated to the rest of the Internet who is renting stuff at Blockbuster and not getting any early review copies.
I do wanna say that that has never stopped us at GameCritics, at least to my knowledge, of giving a game a better score for fear of being cut off later. But it is something that we always have in the back of our heads, and, for me, anyway, it's always like: "Okay, well that game sucked. I gotta review that really low, so I guess I'm not gonna get XYZ that I was looking forward to next month." And I just kind of resign myself to that. And if the game arrives, awesome. I love it. And in fact, if the publishers see a bad score and they give me a game anyway, they instantly earn mass karma from me, because that shows me that they're really professional and that they're good about what they're doing and they know what we're doing and respect it. If publishers decide to cut us off, well, that's cool. I can rent a game just as much as anybody else can. And the review will get to the site a week later, but it'll still get there, so they're not really stopping us from giving low numbers to their games.
But in my perspective, that's really the only "pressure" that I've experienced at the site. What about you guys?
Chi Kong Lui: There was one variation on that that we recently experienced also: that somehow our lower scores are costing game developers their Metacritic bonus.
Brad Gallaway:[Guild?] approach, yes.
Chi Kong Lui: I guess I should explain this a little bit. Apparently certain game developers, in their contracts with their publishers, are awarded bonuses based on their Metacritic or GameRankings average score on their game. So if our site or any other site gives a low score and it brings that average down, we in effect are taking money out of the pockets of game developers. [Laughter]
Brad Gallaway: Allegedly. Allegedly.
Chi Kong Lui: Yeah, allegedly as it's been explained to us. That's just, to me, a baffling new phenomenon as far as why game developers would agree to such a contract. I guess publishers like holding them over a table that way, and it's unfortunate, but it's gonna cost us our integrity if we start bowing down to that kind of pressure.
Brad Gallaway: Oh, absolutely. I really reject that whole notion, like you said. I realize that it's hard out there for developers, so if there are developers listening, and I know that there are, we don't mean to disparage you guys in any way. We have nothing but respect for developers. As small business owners and freelancers, we know what it's like to have to get out there and hustle. Sometimes you have to agree to a contract that you're maybe not too thrilled about because you really need to put food on the table.
We get that, so it's not like we're insensitive to it. But at the same time, we don't know who's got a contract based on a Metacritic score, and even if we did, we can't really own any of that. Because for us to give honest criticism, we have to tell people exactly what we think. We can't have in the back of our heads: "Oh! Bob over at Developer B is gonna have to get a one-bedroom apartment instead of his three-bedroom house because we gave him a 4 instead of a 6 and his Metacritic score is gonna be screwed." We can't take on responsibility for people we don't even know getting paid. That has nothing to do with us, really. I feel bad for developers, but honestly—I realize you have limited power in doing this—but don't agree to that stuff. It seems like a really bad situation for everybody.
Mike Bracken:* And everybody is screwed with us anyway, because we actually consider 5 average, which makes us killing everybody regardless, since the typical game score now is "Anything below 8 is not worth playing."
All I would have to add to this topic is that this is not something that only happens in game journalism or whatever we're calling it. This also happens in film. I know a lot of stories where if you piss off a certain studio you won't get invited to screenings or they won't do screenings in your area as punishment or things like this. So this isn't something that just applies to gaming. It's the uneasy relationship between critics and the people who put this stuff out in the first place.
Brad Gallaway: Yeah. It's a real juggling act, because you work really hard to get noticed; you work really hard to get your name out there and to be respected as a critic, and then as soon as you start giving low scores to games that deserve it, the publishers get pissed, and then all the sudden you find yourself out in the cold. It's tough. It's a tough situation to be in, but I think we've kinda gotten used to it over the last ten years. We've pissed off a number of people, and we're still here. Like I said, our reviews may get published two weeks later than everybody else 'cause we didn't get a review copy, but it's not gonna stop us from doing what we wanna do.
And I did wanna throw in just really quickly about the review score—I'm really glad you brought that up, Mike. Because for those that don't know, we do actually try to use the entire 1 through 10 scale, and I can actually recall a couple converations I've had with PR people who just did not understand that. They kind of got what we were doing, that we were really trying to acknowledge the fact that 1, 2, 3, 4 exist, so that we'd probably use those in some way.
Mike Bracken:* They're not abstract concepts.
Brad Gallaway: Yeah. It's not the Loch Ness Monster. I can point to where those numbers are. But their counterargument is always like: "I get what you're saying," and some of them even say it like: "We respect that." But at the same time, it's like: "But the entire rest of the Internet doesn't, and we kinda would like you to play ball." And we don't. I kinda feel bad for the PR people, but I kinda don't, because how do you fight this giant tide of people who only score from 7 to 10? It's kind of their reality right now and they're stuck with it, and so they're making the best out of a screwed up situation.
But if we don't start fighting that, who's going to? I don't wanna get swept up in that. I think people like us and other select sites have to take a stand. If that gets us off of review lists, or it screws up somebody's Metacritic bonus, sorry, but we gotta review the way we gotta review.
Chi Kong Lui: And let's go back a little bit and talk about the whole 7 to 10—which is technically it's own myth, actually, the whole 7 to 10 score. For gameers, it's code: when a game gets a 6 or a 7, that's in essence, gamer code for: "This game is crap." [Laughter] Even thoug it's not like a 2 or a 3 or a 4.
Mike Bracken:* But it's the equivalent now of being a 2 or a 3 or a 4.
Chi Kong Lui: Yeah, exactly. And let's talk about why that came to be. It's because of the publisher pressure, really. I think you can trace it back to magazines like Gamefan, which didn't want to give a low score for anything.
Brad Gallaway: Yeah, Gamefan and now it's Play. They give the fuckin' sloppiest blowjob reviews out there. Their reviews are a joke. I have no respect for that magazine whatsoever. Okay, their art direction's good. Other than that, I wouldn't wrap fish in it.
Chi Kong Lui: [Laughter] Anyway, the point being, the publisher pressure has basically forced the publications out there to elevate their scores so at least it looks good on paper. But gamers know that a 6 or a 7 means that it's really crap. That's really what that has all come down to.
The one last point I wanted to make about that was—and this was mentioned on our forums by one of our posters, also—is how all these higher scores are devaluing game reviews in general. People don't trust them anymore, because they're all so high. Every triple-A title gets all 9s and 10s at this point. There's just no objectivity anymore whatsoever. Eventually, game reviews are just gonna become worthless if this trend continues, and the PR people are just gonna move on to whatever other platforms they can use to promote their games. People writing these reviews, they need to understand that, eventually, that ship is gonna sail away. You gotta stop this trend.
Mike Bracken:* That's just one more argument for eliminating the scoring system entirely, and just writing reviews.
Tim Spaeth: All right. Well, our seventh myth ties neatly into our sixth myth, so let's move onto that before we take our break. This is myth number seven: "Game scores are often purposefully tweaked to either generate controversy or avoid it."
Chi Kong Lui: As the owner of GameCritics.com, I guess it's appropriate to let me start the conversation on this one. I'll address it a) as an owner of the site, and b) as a critic.
As the owner of the site, let me just first say that I've never explicitly had any conversation with any one of our critics to ask them to lower a rating so that it's more controversial so that it generates more traffic. I've never had that conversation. I don't believe it's something that you can do without costing the integrity of the site and thereby losing the trust of your readers. So even if you do it once or twice, eventually if you keep going to that well, it's gonna hurt you. I don't think it's something that personally should be done, and I don't think we do do that. Of course, inevitably, people think we do do that, because a lot of our ratings are lower than others, for reasons that are clear now, thanks to the whole 7 to 10 rating system.
Personally, as a critic, I don't see why giving a lower score in particular to make a point is necessarily a bad thing. And again, this is if you view reviews as not some universal grading system, where you're evaluating the game as a whole compared to other things—like I said, a review is an opinion. You're trying to communicate something, and when I gave Grand Theft Auto III a 7.5, yeah, I was definitely trying to make a point. I knew the 7.5 was gonna get attention, but not because I was trying to be an attention-whore. [Laughter] I had a lot of things that I wanted to express about that game that I thought weren't being expressed at that time, and I knew the 7.5 was gonna make that point.
Mike Bracken:* And your writing in that review supported that score as well. It wasn't just like you slapped a low number on it.
Chi Kong Lui: For the sole purpose of generating controversy, right.
Brad Gallaway: Yeah. As proud owner of many of the "absolute lowest scores on the Internet" myself, I know all about this. It's been put on me several times that I give the scores that I do just for hits. I will say that, in the entire ten years of being at GameCritics, no one has ever said: "Hey, we should give a lower number to this to get some hits." It's not what we do. It really isn't. I think, like Chi said, we give lower numbers as a consequence of actually trying to use the entire 1 through 10 scale, so of course we're gonna be giving out lower numbers.
But also, I think this ties back to not being beholden to publishers for ad revenue. We're not collecting paychecks at the end of the month from EA or from Capcom or from anybody. So we're free to say whatever we wanna say, and the culture at the site is very much supportive of the writers. It's not necessarily "anything goes," but I think that we do have quite a lot of leeway to speak in our own voices and to not really be worried about what some PR-conscious editor is gonna do to our reviews.
We're an experienced bunch, we've been around the block. We know what we're talking about. When something comes through that people are giving 9s and 10s and we don't think it's that good, we don't really have a reason to not call "bullshit" on it. There's been tons of times when something new and hot comes out, everybody's really high on it, you have that two week honeymoon period where nobody can say anything bad about it, and there's just no upside to us sugarcoating anything. We're just gonna say what we think and it's not for the sake of generating hits, but in my particular case, I may be really sick of hearing something that has obvious flaws just getting blowjobs all across the Internet. It's like: "Am I the only person who sees these flaws? Am I the only person who recognizes that game X is not perfect?" Well, I must be, and if I am, I'm gonna tell people about it. There's gotta be one other person on the Internet who agrees with me, and inevitably, there is. We're not afraid to go there.
Chi Kong Lui: Right. Sometimes it feels like we're on that episode of Twilight Zone where everyone has the pig face and we're the normal people. [Laughter]
Brad Gallaway: Totally. Totally.
Mike Bracken:* Of all the game reviewing criticism myths, there are two that drive me absolutely batshit insane, and this is one of them. The other one which drives me just a little bit more insane because it's just as stupid is that reviewers should all be completely unbiased. That one drives me incredibly nuts, because it's so stupid I can't believe people say it. This one is equally as stupid, and I'm amazed every time someone says it as well, because it implies that we all sit around like we're all so desperate for traffic that we're like: "How can I get more people to the site and piss them off?"
If you stop and think about it, if I write a review of a popular game—a game that gets 10s everywhere—and I give it a 2, then I get one review where I get a bunch of hits with a bunch of pissed-off people leaving comments who are all telling me how they're never coming back. What would I benefit from doing this? If you're coming one time and you're not coming back…We're all looking to build return traffic and things of this nature. We want people who are gonna be part of the community; who are gonna keep coming back because they like the way we review games or they like the stuff we talk about on the site. Doing this would be counterproductive to growing a site, because you'd get one spike of traffic and then you'd never get that kind of traffic again, because people just stop coming.
It's absolutely stupid, and this is what bugs me about gamers in general. Any time you don't see the world in the Nazi-like view of the average gamer, then you somehow have some nefarious purpose that you're acting out to get attention. It's never that you just don't see the game in the same way they do. They just can't accept that, and that bugs me to no end.
Brad Gallaway: Totally. And just for everybody's information who's listening, we really don't like getting nasty-ass comments left on our reviews telling us that we're doing so-and-so's mother, or we don't know anything about games, or that we're lazy slackasses looking for hits, or that we're this, that and the other thing. We're human beings. It doesn't really feel that great to get all these awful comments, so we certainly don't score something low to get that kind of traffic. To tell you the truth, I'd be completely fine never getting that kind of e-mail or comment again. 'Cause it doesn't really put a spark in my day to get to my mailbox and have people calling me all kinds of profanity. It sucks.
Just like Mike said, you have a different viewpoint on things, and people just go apeshit. Like my recent Borderlands review. I thought that game was getting absurdly inflated scores. The honeymoon period on that game was ridiculous. I've had a few people agree with me once they've gotten into the game, but I gave it a pretty low score and man, the kinds of comments I was getting from that just completely sucked the wind out of my sails. It was like: "Why the fuck am I even bothering to review games anymore, because they don't appreciate it?" People can be so immature and just so lame and hurtful sometimes that it sucks. So I can say, speaking for myself and I'm sure I speak for you guys too, we certainly don't do it for the negative attention.
Tim Spaeth: One of our commenters, Jack Slack, he calls it "Amazon.com syndrome." And I'll quote him here. He says:
Fans like to have their fandoms appreciated, and told they're awesome for liking the things they're fans of. As such, they negatively rate or comment on reviews that give bad reviews, while praising those that praise their fandom object. There's no flipside effect, because if it's outside your fandom, you don't search out those reviews.
Mike Bracken:* Yeah. That's pretty much it in a nutshell.
Brad Gallaway: Good comment, Jack.
Tim Spaeth: Yes, thank you, Jack. So I think we're set there. Time is winding down. Let's take a quick break, though. We'll hit the last two myths when we come back. So enjoy some obscure video game musice while we rest up. Two and two, be right back at ya.
We are back. We're gonna dive right back into myth number eight, and here it is: "A reader should not need to be familiar with the author of a review in order to derive value from it."
As the only person here who is exclusively a reader and not a writer of reviews, I will say this briefly. Great writing is great writing, regardless of the author, and that's not just true of game reviews. That would be true of fiction, non-fiction, screenplays, poetry, whatever it happens to be. I can read a story. will use as an example a story I just read: The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway. I can recognize that as a deep, thoughtful piece of writing, even if I don't know much about the author. Since I do know something about Hemingway—that at that point in his life he was in terrible health, he had chronic paranoia, self-loathing, he was suicidal, he hadn't had a critical success in many years—it makes what happens to the character in that story that much more poignant. It's essentially a story about himself. Again, you don't have to know that, but it enhances the experience.
Bring it back to game reviews. If I'm reading an RPG review by Mike Bracken, who we would all agree is the Hemingway of RPG reviews—
Mike Bracken: [Laughter] Oh, wow. I don't know if I'd go *that far. Danielle Steele, maybe.
Tim Spaeth: —It's going to be a thought-provoking, insightful review whether I know Mike or not, but since I know Mike's work, since I know we're about the same age, although Mike is many years older, we're kind of close. I know we cut our teeth on the same RPGs; I know that Mike is kind of a cranky guy. It takes a lot to impress him. If he sings the praises of an RPG, because I know all that about him, I'm going to put a lot more stock into his recommendation than I would in, say, a 22-year-old guy who started on Final Fantasy VII.
Again, good writing is good writing, and I'm not saying that that 22-year-old kid can't write a great review or a great critique. But because I have a personal relationship with Mike, it certainly can't hurt, and really just serves to enhance the meaning of the work. [Long pause] I am no longer talking.
Brad Gallaway: Everything you said, Tim, totally agree with. I definitely think you're right—that a good review is a good review is a good review no matter what. But I do think that, in the sense that we do put so much stock in scores, having that extra contextual information can really give a lot of meaning and a lot of backbone to why a certain number is a certain number.
People that know me know that I hate games where you grind for no particular purpose. They know that I don't like games that waste my time. They know that I like things that are very creative and fresh. I love really good dialogue. I play all kinds of games; I play almost every single genre, so it's not just like I'm specializing in one genre or another, which some readers are so fond of rubbing in my face when they don't like my review of something.
Chi Kong Lui: [Laughter] They automatically assume that you don't like X kind of game, right?
Brad Gallaway: I give a shooter a bad score, and then all the sudden I'm a guy who never plays shooters and hates shooters. Or I don't like RPGs one day, or I don't like platformers the next day or whatever. But if you get to know me after all my reviews and my blog and stuff, you'll get to know what kind of games I like, and then that will inform you the reader as to how much stock you should actually put into my opinion. My opinion's my opinion regardless of what you think of it, but if you know that you like the same kind of games that I do, then I'm guessing that my reviews are probably gonna be more meaningful and more worthwhile to you if we're on the same level.
If we're opposite style gamers…I have a friend who everything I like, he hates. And everything that he loves, I think is completely boring. We're great friends, we get along just fine. But in terms of game taste, when he recommends something to me, I know to stay away from it, and vice-versa. Whenever I'm raving about something, he's like: "Oh, check that off my list." So that is a really good way of…you know who's talking to you. You know who you're listening to. There's definitely value there. It's not necessary, but it helps a lot, I think.
Tim Spaeth: And I think the nice thing about you, Brad, is that if I look at my game shelf and I'm staring at 100 games right now, I know that you've probably reviewed 98 of them.
Mike Bracken:* At least.
Tim Spaeth: I could easily build a database and I could calculate a percentage of games I like versus games you like, because you're so prolific in your writing, just in terms of quantity. I would say, 80 percent chance that if you like a game, I like a game.
Now, where I'm going with this, and I'll turn to you, Chi, Chi, you and I I think have incredibly divergent game tastes. You're enjoying the Pokémon and the Dynasty Warriors and the boxing and the ultimate fighting.
Chi Kong Lui: Tim, I'm shocked, man! I'm shocked! What are you trying to say? I'm hurt. You don't like games that I like? [Laughter]
Tim Spaeth: But here's the thing. When you come out and write a review of, say, Grand Theft Auto, which is a game that I like very much but is not something I would necessarily see you playing and maybe that's not entirely accurate. But to me, that review is almost more meaningful because you're coming from a completely different perspective because I know that about you. So if I see you come out and review Fallout 3 or, God willing, Too Human, I'm gonna go in and I'm gonna read that right away, because here's a guy who doesn't care for this genre necessarily. What does he have to say about it? And I know you're a good writer, so I know there's gonna be something that I can pick up on there.
Chi Kong Lui: And that's one of the core missions of our site: that there's value to diverse opinions and no one's right or wrong. To me, it's particularly fascinating to hear what other people have to say. Exactly. That's great.
Mike Bracken:* For me, the most interesting thing about this discussion is: it depends on what you want from the piece of writing that you're reading. If you're looking at something, using it as a "Should I buy this game or not?" I think it helps to know the author a little bit. But if you're just looking for thoughtful writing about games, then I think you can derive that from pretty much anybody's review, whether you know anything about them in the first place or not. And again, part of the whole process is, every reviewer you end up knowing and trusting, at one point you didn't know them. So clearly you can derive value from them before you know what they're all about. So yeah, I don't think you have to know the person, but it helps if you're looking for a product buying recommendation.
Brad Gallaway: Well said.
Chi Kong Lui: And we all now know that Mike is a big fan of Danielle Steele novels, right? [Laughter]
Mike Bracken: Yes, I *love her. She's like Leah Alexander. Just one of my favorite chicks.
Tim Spaeth: Mmmm. And joining us now on the podcast, Leah Alexander. Leah? Sorry.
Chi Kong Lui: We gotta make that a reality one day.
Mike Bracken:* Jesus, yeah. Can't wait.
Tim Spaeth: Working on it. We had some interesting comments here, and I just wanna read a couple of them before we move on to the last myth. This comes from Davy Pitch. And I will say:
When I read a review, I tend not to look at the name of the person reviewing it, merely look at the quality of the writing and the review itself to see if it's worth taking the opinion seriously. While it would be great to be a famous reviewer whom everyone respects, with so many reviewers around this day, it's near impossible to stand out on name alone anymore. The quality of the writing and the review should always be the things you look to first.
Chi Kong Lui: Yep.
Mike Bracken: Yes. That's a little bit of a cynical take, though, I think. If the writing is really good, then you're gonna look at who wrote it and if that person continually writes those kind of reviews, you're gonna get that following. It's still *possible to do it, but I agree, though: there are a lot of voices out there now competing for attention.
Brad Gallaway: Definitely. Definitely.
Tim Spaeth: That's where I've found Twitter to come in handy, 'cause I've got 40 or 50 people who I trust, who I respect as writers, and then those folks have people they trust, and it's a nice way to be exposed to things you wouldn't have found on your own.
One other comment, this comes from CrashTranslation. These are great names. These folks have fantastic Internet aliases. CrashTranslation—I don't know what it means, but it just sounds great. He says he finds:
reviews without by-lines frustrating, especially when the reviewer in question make a lot of personal statements regarding how they felt about a game, or which aspects they had trouble with. Such relative statements are next to useless without context. If I can see who wrote that review and what they have said previously I can work out what they mean when they describe a game as “not challenging.” Without attribution that statement means nothing as I have no way of comparing the reviewer’s definition of challenging to my own.
Chi Kong Lui: This is a person that believes reviews are opinions, so yeah, I love this guy. [Laughter]
Tim Spaeth: Good stuff. So I think we have come to the end of our eight core myths. Are we ready for the bonus?
Chi Kong Lui: Bring it on.
Tim Spaeth: Bonus myth number nine. We have not previewed this at all. No one has any idea what this myth is. It's not in the show notes. Everybody, hold onto something for godsakes. Myth number nine: "Does a game need to be fun in order to be considered good?"
Chi Kong Lui: This to me is another one of the big, big gaming myths out there. To me it also begins with my hatred of GamePro. [Laughter] They originiated the—
Mike Bracken:* The Fun Factor.
Chi Kong Lui: Exactly.
Tim Spaeth: I'd forgotten all about that. Oh my God, yeah.
Mike Bracken:* Do they still use that?
Chi Kong Lui: I don't know. I stopped reading them since I was a teenager, I think. But ever since they coined the term "fun factor," people have never forgotten that, unfortunately. I hate to blame GamePro for that, but they coined it, so I'm gonna blame them for it. [Laughter]
But to me, the problem with judging games based on fun, is that fun is a completely abstract and subjective term. Not that it's something that we shouldn't be talking about, but as a critic, we're trying to find intellectual ways to justify our opinions, to justify the value of what we think these games are, and fun is just lazy. That's what it is. When you say something is fun, well that's it. You're done. It's fun. Great!
But what is fun, exactly? It's so much more than what that three letter word is. What's engaging about this experience? What's engaging about this game? In order to get to that, you need to stop using the term "fun" and actually really try to think about what the hell makes this game great. That's my whole problem with the whole "fun" thing. I just really think it's just lazy and it's counterintuitive to intellectual criticism.
Brad Gallaway: Yeah, you're totally right. There's not really anything else to say about that. But I did wanna mention that I don't think anybody really knows, but it's an unwritten rule at our site that we never use the word "fun" in any review. I bet people haven't even really noticed, but if anything comes through that says it's fun, it's stricken. It's out. You gotta rewrite it, because like Chi said, you cannot quantify what "fun" is. My idea of fun is totally different from Chi's idea of fun, which is different from Tim's, which is different from Mike's, which is absolutely gonna be different from Joe Blow who clicks to our site from Metacritic. You can't just say something's fun. It's totally pointless. It's nebulous. It doesn't mean anything, and if we are ever gonna elevate games criticism to a level where people can actually start giving it a little bit of respect, you're gonna have to start explaining what it is you mean.
Maybe we need to further our lexicon. Maybe we don't have enough words, or maybe we could adapt some words from some other usage somewhere else, but "fun" is ridiculous. I can hear people describing spending three hours on a multiplayer shooter and getting all these headshots and saying that's the most fun thing, and to me, that sounds like fucking torture.
There's so many things that would be more fun to me than that. Just saying "fun" doesn't serve any kind of purpose.
Mike Bracken:* Yeah, I'm with you guys on that. "Fun" is such a vague term. Not to get into semantics or anything, but I just look at my own even film writing: there are a ton of movies that I know are shit but I like and they're fun, but that doesn't make them good movies. Just because a game is fun doesn't automatically make it worthy of praise. I think we're all looking for a lot of different aesthetic things in our games. Fun is one component, if you can figure out a way to define it that applies not only to yourself, but to your audience as well.
But that alone is not enough to make a game good. It's a component of it—certainly everyone wants to have fun when they play a game. I don't know anybody who says: "Oh man, I wanna play this game but I sure hope it sucks," or "I sure hope it's drudgery or like work." But at the same time, just because it's that, it doesn't automatically make it worthy of praise.
Tim Spaeth: People play games for so many different reasons. You play to satisfy your OCD tendencies like half the World of Warcraft players. Some people play to obtain a measure of control that they can't obtain in their own life. I keep thinking back, for a year and a half I did almost every day the same quest in World of Warcraft to get this stupid chocolate cake recipe. And it was not fun, I assure you. But when I would finish the quest, and it was like two minutes out of my life every day, I would finish the quest, I would get the reward, and that two second period between the time I got the reward and the time I opened it up to see if the recipe was in there, there was this little charge that went off in the back of my head: "Will this be it? Will this be it?" And then it wouldn't happen, soul-crushing disappointment, drink myself into a drunken stupor.
And then repeat the next day. But when it finally happened, when that recipe dropped, I cheered and I yelped and I was overjoyed and in that moment, it was all worth it. But no, that wasn't fun. It was kinda sick, actually and embarrassing to talk about on a podcast.
Chi Kong Lui: If it makes you feel any better, I spent three months playing the same stage of GoldenEye over and over again so I could get the Invinvibility code to beat the game in two minutes and five seconds, and I did this religiously like it was a job for three months so I could get that Invincibility code. Like you said, it was all worth it once I got it. [Laughter]
Brad Gallaway: You guys got problems, man.
Mike Bracken: If we're revealing our secret shames, I will tell you that I spent five months to catch 10,000 moat carp in *Final Fantasy XI so I could get a Lu Shang's fishing rod. Oh, the fishing rod was awesome. Dude, that fishing rod caught everything and made me a ton of money, so it was totally cool that way. But I wasn't like Tim, where it was only two minutes a day. I had to fish all day for months on end, which was the epitome of really not fun. It was totally worth it.
Brad Gallaway: Well, I don't have an OCD story like you guys, but I kinda wanted to bring up the issue of enjoyment versus quality. There's been a number of games that I've played where I didn't think what I was doing was fun, but on an intellectual level, I respected what the developer was doing or I liked the idea of it or I liked what they were going for.
For example, Disaster Report, if anybody remembers that game for the PS2. That game had some serious production issues. It was hurt in a lot of ways. But the people that made that game had so many good ideas and it was such a fresh game that even though there was a lot of parts that I really just did not enjoy in any way, shape or form, I was really compelled to see where that game went and to see what else they would do. It was really stimulating from a design perspective and from just an originality perspective.
So I did wanna make the distinction that there are games out there that—I don't wanna say "fun," but since that's what we're talking about—they're not fun. But they are respectable or they try something or they're pushing a boundary that maybe it works, maybe it doesn't. It may not be the best two hours you spent of your life, but you may be a little richer for having tried it.
Chi Kong Lui: Right. The related myth to what you were saying there, Brad, and what Mike was saying earlier is that what we personally like and love is not necessarily what is "good art." It's almost two different things. I know that's a mouthful and something that's very difficult to explain, but Brad, you kind of just did it right there. As a critic, we have to appreciate things that aren't necessarily things that we enjoy or what we consider to be "fun," but we understand that it's groundbreaking, it's revolutionary, it's original. And for me, that's like Grand Theft Auto III. I didn't enjoy one second of that, but it's undeniable the mark that that's left on the video game industry, as far as what it did for the culture of games and the perception of games, and what it did for storytelling in games.
Brad Gallaway: Oh, absolutely. Number one, I guess you don't have a soul, Chi.
Chi Kong Lui: [Laughter]
Brad Gallaway: And number two, I'm really glad that we're talking about this now, because that's one thing that I think a lot of readers get really hung up on. They can't really make the distinction in their heads between the fun that they have playing a game, and what quality design is and what originality is worth.
Any of these games that come out recently that have the multiplayer shooter modes. To me, it's very rare that a mode like that comes out that's worth my time, because it's just a repetitive action. They all build off what the last one did; they're not really groundbreaking in a lot of ways. There's some that are, but in general whenever a game sticks a multiplayer mode on that you just shoot your friend in the face: I don't fucking care. It doesn't really do a lot for me, and it doesn't do a lot for games in general, either. But a lot of people enjoy those, and they enjoy the hell out of them. And I don't begrudge them that joy. It's there.
But as a reviewer, I can't sit there and say: "Well, this game is really fun because I like to shoot my friend in the face over and over and over. That's a good time to me, therefore this game gets a 9 'cause I had a great time last Friday!" We have to look at what the game does. Does it move the genre forward? Does it bring anything new to the table? Does it improve upon a known formula? You can't just bring polish and "fun" for some people, because that's not something that you can review. We look at different criteria, and so many readers can't even conceive of what that means.
And I don't mean to be insulting to our readers and our listeners. I'm not trying to look down on you guys. But I've had this discussion with readers so many times, and they just don't get it. You try to explain it a million different ways and they just don't get it, because they had a great time playing multiplayer on game XYZ, and I thought the production level was really low and it was a "me-too" clone of five other things I've already played. They can't see that other perspective. They can't get outside of their own personal enjoyment, which I think causes a lot of strife at our site, anyway. I'm sure it does at other places, too. Do you guys find that to be true also?
Mike Bracken:* Yeah. Totally true.
Chi Kong Lui: I'm hoping that this podcast will put the argument to rest or at least you can always just point to it every time it comes up again. Because, yeah, I see you having that argument over and over again.
Brad Gallaway: Oh, man. It's once a month. Seriously. I should just write a document, and then whenever somebody slams me on the boards, I'll just like, cut and paste: "Here's my answer. You had a great time, you really loved it, that's great for you. But this game sucks anyway. Here's why." I can have that conversation at least three times a week, and it never dries up, as far as I'm concerned. I wish it would, but it doesn't.
Chi Kong Lui: Point them to this podcast.
Brad Gallaway: I'm going to, man. I'm going to. I was just about to say: If nothing else, I hope that people listening to this will at least start to understand that critics can't just look at how fun something is with your buddies. You get some pizza, you get a beer, any fucking game is fun. You can have fun playin g checkers. That doesn't mean that checkers is a bad game.
Chi Kong Lui: Or the critically-acclaimed game Making a Sandwich that you mentioned last time. [Laughter]
Brad Gallaway: Yeah, I know. Seriously. Making a sandwich is fun if you have the right group of people, you have enough alcohol, it's fun. But it doesn't mean that I'm gonna give making a ham sandwich a 10, even though it may be the best thing on earth, but it's not.
Tim Spaeth: Now that we are transcribing the podcast, you can just copy and paste everything you just said into an e-mail, hit send, you're done.
Brad Gallaway: There we go.
Chi Kong Lui: That's gonna be a long e-mail.
Brad Gallaway: Yeah. And thanks to Tera Kirk for actually transcribing those. I can't believe that she actually does this, because I've transcribed a number of things myself. And it's the most painful, tedious, time-intensive process in the world. I can't think of anything that's worse than transcribing.
[Transcriber's note: I enjoy it, actually.]
Mike Bracken: She actually transcribes our *whole shows?
Brad Gallaway: She does. She does. And she puts it up so…Her dedication to people who need a transcription is awesome, because you could not pay me enough money to transcribe this podcast.
Mike Bracken:* I wonder if she just has "fuck" macroed by this point.
Brad Gallaway: Control-F, Control-F.
Chi Kong Lui: We heart Tera. Absolutely.
Brad Gallaway: Yeah, yeah.
Tim Spaeth: No question. Let's give her a break and end this show before we go too much longer. Before we end, I want to offer some warm, mushy thanks to everyone who left comments and ideas for this episode. Everybody just came out and left us with so much good stuff, and I feel really bad that we couldn't include everything. But I just wanted to do a quick roll call for the following people: Sid Schuman, Dalton Kolchmeier, joetbd, our own Richard Naik, Mac, Sami, Sinan, Sparky, Jamie Love, DaveyPitch, CrashTranslation, Parker, Jeffrey, Jen, Sol Invictus, and Sidemission Cris. Thanks again to all those fine people, and thanks to you the audience for listening.
Remember to subscribe to the podcast at the iTunes Music Store or the Zune Marketplace, and if you really like the show, leave us a review. Tell the world of your love for us. You can also listen right off the GameCritics.com front page. Leave comments there as well. Our Twitter handle is @GameCritics. And folks, you should know. Every time Twitter goes down, it's due to people sending messages to @GameCritics.
My thanks to you fine gentlemen: Mike, Brad, Chi. As always, it's been a pleasure. We're one quarter of the way to 100 episodes, and I hope we can go all the way with it.
Mike Bracken:* Let's hope.
Chi Kong Lui: No problem.
Tim Spaeth: Well, let's play the music. Until next time, folks, I'm Tim Spaeth. Good night, and bonne chance.
But then a friend introduced her to the seedy underworld of the Mario brothers and she spent her saved-up birthday and Christmas money to buy a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Her mom didn't like the Nintendo at first, but The Legend of Zelda changed her mind. (When Tera got Zelda II: The Adventure of Link one Christmas, she suspected it was as much for her mother as for her).
Though she graduated from Agnes Scott College in 2002 and recently learned how to find the movie theater restroom by herself, Tera still loves video games. Far from being a brain-rotting waste of time, they've helped her practice spatial skills and discover new passions. Her love of games like Kid Icarus and The Battle of Olympus led to a degree in Classical Languages and Literatures. She thinks games have a place in discussions on disability and other cultural issues, and is excited to work with the like-minded staff at GameCritics.com.