In the second of our Tap vs. Tap, Mat C and Lewis B put the world of journalism to rights and dissect what has become of a bustling industry worth billions of dollars. But has riding this piggy bank come at a cost to journalistic integrity?
Lewis: It’s all blown up a bit recently hasn’t it, with the fact EA forgot/purposefully failed to issue review code on time to big gaming websites (as just one example). I think stories (or none stories as some might see them) such as those really cast an eye on what websites are writing and how they go about it, but more about how developers and publishers use their weight to secure better scores.
It’s all about the Metacritic now-a-days. Rock, Paper, Shotgun recently published their WOT I THINK of the latest Serious Sam and yet the website was plastered in full page banners advertising the game. I’m in no way saying RPS have sold their soul to lavish praise on a game when it wasn’t due (the website is brilliant), but I was a little uncomfortable reading it. You obviously expect something entirely unbiased, only to be surrounded by an advertising push from the developer at the same time. As the saying goes, you don’t bite the hand that feeds you…
Mat: That sort of thing always makes me laugh. When Eurogamer first launched their latest redesign a short while ago, it was so full of Battlefield 3 advertisement’s I wasn’t sure if I’d navigated to Eurogamer or Battlelog. This all coming after Eurogamer became one of the many high profile blogs and websites to fall foul of EA’s review selection process.
Websites are entitled to make money however and advertising is an unfortunate reality wherever we look these days. At least with Rock, Paper, Shotgun they refrain from using a score system and are therefore exempt from feeding the Meta-Monster. Personally, RPS is one of the handful of publications where I feel confident enough in their integrity to not worry about the triviality of advertisement placing, but it’s evidently less excusable elsewhere. Whether that bothers you depends on who you trust and how much weight you place on review scores, I guess.
Lewis: Well it was the same with Brink. When Eurogamers 8/10 review went live the entire website looked more like the Brink homepage than it did Eurogamer. There is a side of me that questions as to how much pressure journalists are placed under from those that hold the purse strings. Inevitably, if you know the website you are writing for is, for that period of time, being partly funded or your wage is technically reliant on that funding (whether freelance or not) it must surely be in the back of your mind as to whether you really criticise a game for what it really is.
You and I both know that a final score often bares absolutely no correlation to what was written by the reviewer and you can, with a little smoke and mirrors, lightly tread over a games faults without ever truly bringing them to the fore and this is what I think most reviewers are currently doing. Remaining tactically neutral as to not upset both publisher and editor. Look at some of Skyrims reviews; I absolutely love the game but its A.I. and combat, two key components of the game, are absolutely woeful. I’ve only read one review pointing this out.
Mat: It’s difficult to say without being in that sort of environment yourself. Talk of reviewers being paid off for scores always sounds like the stuff of conspiracy and fantasy to me, but I’m in no doubt whatsoever that it happens and probably with more regularity than we’d like to think. I’m personally of the belief that a large proportion of those websites and blogs listed on Metacritic now resemble PR mouthpieces rather than sources of critique, even with the world’s best intentions.
Rightly or wrongly, Metacritic plays an important role in dictating consumer trends as far as the publishers are concerned, and if you’re a publication that relies on publisher support either for your bottom line or even just your coverage, it’s difficult to break out of that cycle and make those sacrifices. If you want to get the exposure of going live on Day Zero with a review of Battlefield 3 (just as an example), you’d better be prepared to tow the line with your content.
The unfortunate reality is that whilever review scores “matter”, I can’t see a future where this no longer applies. I’d love to see gamers reject review scores entirely, but that’s not going to happen, and I don’t think the standard of journalism (a term which I use incredibly loosely in our medium) is going to change whilever this cycle of publisher control and magazine/blog compliance exists.
Lewis: I’ve never really understood scoring systems as they seem so fundamentally worthless. It has gotten to the stage now where the differences between 4 out of 5, or 9 out of 10 are so negligible in the grand scheme of things that they provide little inclination as to how good a game actually is. There was a time when Edge or GamesTM would only hand out 10’s for the finest of video games and yet even now (including these two) media outlets are just too willing to lavish perfect scores on everything. In contrast, when you read reviews from people like Tom Chick for Uncharted 3 or LA Noire he couldn’t be further from the mainstream media views. I think part of that is that he isn’t shackled by trying to please editor and publisher but he also has a perspective and critical eye of videogames which appears far above that of your ordinary journalist. That isn’t to say his view is right per se, but he has an ability to really dig down into what the game is and truthfully reflects that in both his writing and scoring.
Mat: I must admit, watching the reaction to scores nowadays has become far more interesting to me than the scores themselves.
One thing that puzzles me is when gamers rage against a critic or the score they’re awarding. You’re talking about a situation where a bunch of people who haven’t played a game are violently disagreeing with a review from someone who has, likely for days or maybe even a couple of weeks, and the meaningless score awarded at the end of it. That always comes across as really bizarre to me. The proof is in the pudding as well with this sort of situation. Eurogamer were trashed by a section gamers after their hate crimes against Uncharted 3, awarding it an eight out of ten rather than a nine or a perfect score. Despite being criticised and labelled as trolls across the internet, retrospectively I think many would now argue Eurogamer were absolutely right. It was only when the game released that many realised Uncharted 3 wasn’t the holy grail they were expecting. In hindsight, Eurogamer’s eight was a far more reliable indication of the games quality – an excellent game worth playing, with but with a handful of issues and a slight regression from Uncharted 2 in terms of pacing, plot and story telling – than those blogs who slobbered and showered the game with perfect scores.
Inevitably, gamers always demand that the enthusiast press utilise the full scale when reviewing a game, but some cant help but get all bent out of shape when somebody actually does. I didn’t particularly agree with Edge’s condemning three out of ten score for Dead Island, but they were entitled to issue that score based on their written criticisms, and I thought they received an unreasonable amount of backlash for what was a pretty honest and fair review.
Lewis: Well that’s just it- if a game journalist can justify their score with what they write, to become enraged by it is just ridiculous. I think part and parcel of this attitude is that many gamers become so addicted to following a games progress; scooping up all available news, previews and media content until launch, that in their heads they’ve built the game up to what they want it to be, rather than what it actually is and so when a review score doesn’t reflect that, it becomes instant nerd rage. But, and what I’m also finding annoying at the moment is reviewers continually rolling out “safe scores”. Eurogamer are a devil for it and although it’s becoming a little tiresome reading the comments section of the website, to always use an 8 is just incredibly throw-away.
Mat: You’re absolutely right to be fair. Without wanting to call out Eurogamer too much here – along with RPS and Edge they’re generally one of the only other major sites I take seriously – their eight score has almost become a meme when you read forums and the like. It’s the safe alternative to seven, which is ridiculously considered a poorer score in our industry, and the conservative alternative to a gushing nine. Of course, that’s not to say all the eights they award are just cop-outs. Uncharted 3 sounds relatively deserving of the eight in this case, as was Red Dead Redemption which was another much maligned review, but one I agree with in hindsight.
In fact it’s curious to see just how often people disagree with scores at a games release, only for time to eventually vindicate those early thoughts once the hype has passed. I’m hugely in favour of “late” reviews, “revisited” or “Late to the Party” pieces or anything that can pass judgement on a game with the benefit of time. I think there’s something significant to be said for reading the thoughts of someone who has played and enjoyed the game in their own time, without pressing to meet a pre-launch deadline and with the benefit of full online functionality in multiplayer games. But, as with scoreless reviews, this isn’t something that can be supported en-mass in the current climate without sacrificing review code or publisher relations.
For all the criticisms about the mainstream press though, I’m equally uncomfortable with some of the content at the other end of the spectrum. In the constant quest for the games industry to mature and for a higher standard of critique, there’s plenty of higher brow coverage available for those who want it. But personally, I find myself finding some of this difficult to relate to and dare I say it, even overly pretentious. I’m all for the progression of our medium and enjoy reading a higher standard of critical analysis than say, IGN, but I’m finding a certain element of web based videogame coverage increasingly distant from my own interests.
Lewis: Hindsight definitely plays its part; bursting that bubble you become wrapped in as you follow a game can make a huge difference. When I was playing World of Warcraft for dozens of hours a week I would have told anyone at the time that it was the best game ever created and would have likely reviewed it as such. Taking a two week holiday away from WoW completely altered my perspective, so much so that I couldn’t fall back into it. Glaring faults I must have been constantly overlooking came to the fore and still remain to this day. I must add this isn’t MMOG exclusive and I’ve had the same happen many times with various big titles. Based on having experienced this regularly, rushing a review of a brand new game to coincide with its launch leaves me slightly uncomfortable as I know the reviewer, regardless of how neutral they consider themselves to be, will be wrapped up in all the hype and press.
Inevitably, we will always tend to gravitate to websites which align to your own personal views of games. I can’t remember the last time I visited Kotaku or IGN as I tend to see them as the red tops of the videogame world. Of the websites I do follow it tends to be in pursuit of a single journalist I trust, but, that trust has only been built up on the basis that their views fall into line with mine which in itself slightly defeats the purpose of a review; when you follow a journalist in that way you pretty much know what you are going to get (so why read it in the first place I ask myself?).
Mat: Exactly the same situation happened to me earlier this year with L.A Noire. I bought the game pretty much based on hype alone, and for the first few hours of the game I was sailing on the back of that hype nicely. Then I went on honeymoon for two weeks, came back and physically couldn’t play the game again. When I tried, everything negative about the game screamed out at me and I was unable to finish it.
A large portion of that was down to L.A Noire just being a really disappointing game. It’s straight out of the original Assassins Creed school of “play 2 hours, you’ve played the whole game” and the illusion of detective investigation and choice became paper thin as the game went on. Once that illusion breaks, L.A Noire fundamentally collapses as a concept. What’s interesting is that it took me to take a two week break from the game to really see that. While I’m not suggesting every reviewer forces themselves to stop playing for a fortnight before going live with a review, and not every game will be as obviously dividing as L.A Noire, it’s certainly an example of how pulling myself away from the hype affected my view of the game. Time (or rather, my lack of) dictates that I often can’t afford to buy, play and complete a game within a launch week, so I generally miss much of the hype train as an independent blogger, but I feel being able to look on a game weeks, months or even years later allows me to cast a more objective glance on a games flaws and qualities.
This is easy to say though for us, because as a smaller independent blog we work without the constraints attached to so many mainstream publications, and it’s not realistic to expect those people to adopt a “wait and see” model. I think much of the responsibility on improving the state of videogame journalism actually rests with gamers themselves. To a certain extent, it’s up to the gaming community to choose not to throw it’s toys out of the pram when Eurogamer gives Halo a score one point lower than required to validate a purchase, and to not lambast the likes of Tom Chick for calling out a major games flaws.
Lewis: So what we’re really saying out of all of this, is carry on reading Tap?
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