Sunday, 22 February 2015

The "Death of Classic Reviews"

Man, the "death" of classic reviews. We previously had most launch-window reviews of (PC) games as software reviews because most games had glaring UX issues, problems in their mechanics, or simply a lot of bugs that led to weirdness. It was important to talk about how the game controlled, how it provided feedback, how it developed the new ideas and taught you how to play the game, and, only then, say if you enjoyed it. That's where previews (where I really enjoyed writing around the turn of the millennium era when I was doing that stuff seriously) could be really interesting - a lot of that stuff was exposed in a preview build so you could lay it out. This was the era of Dave Perry explaining game design as building the best thing you could around one totally new idea, the hook, that would sell your game.

There was no single, established way to do everything. FPS controls were all slightly different and how you interacted was being developed. I remember the amazing point in our LAN games of Quake where we all migrated to the mouse, because we'd played Doom and Duke 3D with the keyboard. It wasn't obvious that you had to use the mouse, we still didn't know how sensitivity and so on should be set to best optimise our frictionless input onto our avatars. What systems were involved and how you interacted was often bespoke. It's not an action adventure title with this sort of crafting and thumbstick reaction curves lifted from a previous game (pick if you want full-lock to continue to accelerate or be flat, set 80% lock to be flat, do or don't smooth) that you already know intimately. A game was something that you wanted to know about before you tried it because it could be anything, often objectively worse that other potential choices. Reviewers could tell you about the sharp edges and defects that might make it worth sitting this game out.

But now most games are polished in a way that means they are functional. They may not have been refined iteratively in the developer sense of "polished" but the importing of best practices/lifting from genre-defining titles means they don't actually have to. X came from Y, where they got it right and everyone played Y or a derivative so understands the systems involved and the interactions. Everyone is trained in "how things work", you don't need to teach the user how to shoot. We are now trapped in this place of many local maxima. So what's the point of a review when it's not a 50/50 guess if the basic functionality is even there? When 90%+ of games that get a PR push will also be mechanically solid (and people seriously suggest those that aren't shouldn't even be purchasable) and not crashy (crashes being the kiss of death you'll hear about as soon as a game is released) then the only thing left is if the reviewer liked the game.

But reviewers are still operating under the mentality we are taste-makers. Because 15 years ago you could play through a game and explore the "polish" of it and give a good estimation about the objective quality of the software. So you could predict if most people would tolerate a game. But that's not true today, and reviewers don't realise we need to focus our text on "I enjoyed" rather than "this is good/bad". Justifying your enjoyment with objective markers of quality rather than your enjoyment of the text of the game will lead to ruin.

DriveClub gets panned because it doesn't follow the conventional wisdom on controls (it is neither a Forza clone, nor a NfS clone; it's not even a Kart clone) but people who are experienced in the genre have found that it offers its own path that does have significant depth and interesting consequences. Reviewers are painted as lazy when they use shorthands that turn out to be oversimplifications (eg saying AIs stick to a racing line as if on rails). We fail to express our "I don't like this" and go after stuff that is known to be bad design that we may invent to justify our dislike. It's a minefield of ex post facto justification.

Y'know how lots of critics hate so many mainstream films? (I'd say Transformers but those do actually seem like pretty bad movies, even if lots of people enjoy them - but maybe even that helps make my point - classic example might be Pirates of the Caribbean.) Games are there now. Our reviews are filled with a range from hatred to love of games that are technically solid and so entirely reviewed on how the reviewer felt about the story and interactive elements. We're reviewing the game as a piece of media, not a software package (if it becomes a software review the it automatically fails, as it's a crash-prone buggy PoS and none of those need to be given the time of day unless the reviewer really like the game and so ignores those flaws).

Only right now a lot of reviewers are trying to establish our "discerning taste" cred by berating anything not to our palette as "mainstream rubbish, no one should like this, it's just bad". Rather than just saying it wasn't to our tastes. So we get those reviews saying DriveClub doesn't have an engaging driving model or AI, which many fans of driving games (who jumped into that title and waded through the online fiasco) will contest. A game that's compared favourably to Gears and Resi4 is called derivative tosh that's a decade late rather than another solid entry in that genre because reviewers still remember a time when devs were learning how to make games and so sanding away at rough edges.

The Order 1886 is panned for being nothing more than a mix of cinematic and 3rd person shooter in a steampunk world. The high quality of visuals is used as an excuse to pan the title for not being innovative enough. Again, "I don't like this" is warped into "this is objectively bad and justifies my dislike". But people playing in a really nice looking world they've not been to before are transported to a new place where they play a totally solid 3rd person shooter. That's exactly what a lot of people want. And reviewers said it was bad, not just not to the reviewer's tastes, but bad and not worth anyone's time. And bad has always previously meant that the software was either defective as software, often in the UX realm, or the game design failed. But that's not the case.

And now we're here. This is the crossroads we're at. The "death of classic reviews":
"Initially I was caught off guard by the doubt cast by various critics out to smear the game. They ended up doing me a favor, in that I now have a great list of online publications which I know to avoid spending any future time reading." [source]
Flat out sentiment of disbelief between the experienced product and the expectations of how reviews of games software work. "various critics out to smear the game".

Is The Order 1886 any good? No idea, not played it yet and that £45 price tag means there's no chance I'll find out this month. Ask me when it's £20 or less. These early-console-generation prices being jacked up in the UK should end soon and we'll get £30 game releases (if history repeats). Our healthy software market seems to thrive on being cheaper than the $60 US market. But the reviews are 100% useless to me; some friends who buy release games make it sound pretty good. The things it is compared to in reviews, that may not even endorse it, are also a positive sign.

This does seem to mean reviews are basically useless at this point for actually providing consumer advice. And games are too expensive compared to movies to just blindly consume them all (outside of Steam sales - welcome to the pile of shame phenomenon).

It has never been easier to watch someone play a game, from friends or randoms streaming their play to more organised stuff like professional Let's Players. It's never been easier for us to listen to our friends as social media makes everyone a broadcaster of their daily thoughts. It's never been harder for a written review to actually be useful around launch. And attempts to lean into the taste-maker role will only cause this visceral backlash. Maybe it's time to let launch reviews be the domain of YouTube and leave the written work for a month after release when critics can dig deep into the role of deep critical analysis, for the games that generate interesting analysis of their text or mechanics.