Category Archives: Game Critics

Steam’s doing refunds!

Ayup. Steam is now providing refunds for pretty much any reason. There are only two restrictions: you have to have bought it in the last two weeks, and you can’t have played more than two hours.

So, what’s my Hot Take? Largely positive! The biggest issue with game consumers is that they’re practically forced to be very conservative by the nature of the medium. With the demise of rental as an option and the decline of both demos and shareware, players are forced to make $60 decisions on little more than reputation and trailers.

(Sure, they can go check out the reviews. But for a variety of reasons, that may not be a great option. Let’s Play videos are helping to fill the gap a bit, but your experience ain’t going to match the Pewd’s. That Toast game is way more fun to watch than to play.)

With refund as a possibility, players will be more willing to take a chance. They aren’t really risking their money, just a bit of time and hassle. If they like it? Great! If they don’t? Great! Either way, they’re coming out ahead! As a consumer, hooray for this!

For creators, well…it’s a bit more complicated.

Make no mistake: this conservatism has really hobbled publishers and developers alike. Gaming is a tremendously fear-averse and risk-shy industry. Consumers mostly go with what they already know and trust. This has led to almost every annoying thing about modern gaming:

  • Publishers obsess over brand equity, and jealously guard their precious “IPs” like dragons brooding over their hoarded gold.
  • Sequels are routinely more successful than the first, since consumers take success as a sign of quality, so games end up becoming massive yearly franchises even when they really shouldn’t be. Series, and whole genres, burn out very, very quickly. Look at Guitar Hero.
  • Marketing budgets skyrocket, as publishers do everything in their power to overcome consumers’ conservatism, and those without a AAA marketing spend get left out. Mid-tier publishers are basically extinct.
  • Adventurous creators are forced to either downscale to “indie” level, or to embrace the industry’s conservatism, and either way their creations will end up compromised.
  • And free-to-play has rampaged its way across the landscape, even though so many F2P games are exploitative dreck, since lying to consumers about a game being “free” has been one of the only ways to get past this problem that doesn’t involve billion-dollar marketing spends.

Having more adventurous consumers is a good thing: it’ll give us more adventurous creations. Current creators can become more adventurous, and more adventurous creators will have an easier time bringing both consumers and publishers on board. PC has always been the platform for creativity. Valve is reinforcing that.

But, yes, there are some issues.

(Besides “can’t make bank from a bad game with a deceptive trailer”. That’s the whole point of this exercise. That’s practically a scam and should be wiped out.) 

First, if your game is less than two hours long and has no appreciable replay value, you’re in trouble. Despite the endless complaints and whinging from some game journos—the sort that unironically use the phrase “entitled consumer”—people still really don’t like paying full price for short games. Nothing’s going to change that. There will be people who play a game, finish it, and demand their money back if it’s too short. Valve may rebuff them, but I certainly wouldn’t count on it. Portal aside, Valve may well sympathize.

Second, games that are “slow burns” are also in a bit of trouble. Some games do take a while to get good. Many classic RPGs, like SMT: Persona and Dragon Quest 7, take hours and hours before they hit their stride. They demand patience, and while they do eventually reward it, it’s a long time coming. But with this refund system, consumers are always going to be watching the clock, as they’ll know that their window for evaluation closes after a few hours. If they aren’t drawn in early and hooked well, they’ll bail.

Finally, if your game is DRM-free, it’s possible that consumers might scam you out of money by “buying” the game, installing it, switching the directory, then getting a “refund” and happily playing away. John Walker worried over it on RPS, but I’m not actually that concerned. If consumers are that intent on getting a DRM-free game for free, they’ll just pirate the thing. That’d actually be easier than scamming Steam, and if there’s one thing we know about prospective downloaders, it’s that they’ll take the path of least resistance.

(Easier-than-piracy is a big reason why Steam blew up in the first place! And Netflix! And Spotify! And Hulu! Heck, laziness-trumps-greed is half the reason capitalism itself exists!)

So, yeah. Steam’s giving you more room to bring people in—but you’ve still got a short window to prove yourself. And if your game ends within that window, you have to really justify it, in a way that makes them want to support you despite the opportunity to get their money back.  I think it’s doable, but it won’t be easy.

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The “Citizen Kane of Gaming” is Settled

Yes, in the midst of the comments fighting over some damnfool RPS piece about how game criticism is just fine

(…hint: it’s not, a million untrafficked blogs don’t make up a Pauline Kael, you need mainstream soapboxes to get mainstream cred and TotalBiscuit ain’t that…)

I ran across a comment so glorious I just had to share it. Ladies and Gentlemen: the Citizen Kane of gaming is…

…Ultima VII. It’s always been Ultima VII.

Charles Foster Kane is a thinly disguised allegory for William Randolph Hearst. It is an awesome film even if you don’t understand the allegory, but you can see that it’s the drive to tell a true story in the guise of fiction that pushes the makers to create a truly great film. The story itself couldn’t be told as non-fiction because of the power of the Hearst company and the litigation that would have followed. Citizen Kane is often considered the creators’ best work, despite the fact that it is a black and white film and “old”.

The Guardian is a thinly veiled allegory for Electronic Arts. It is an awesome game even if you don’t understand the allegory, but you can see that it’s the drive to tell a true story in the guise of fiction that pushes the makers to create a truly great game. The story itself couldn’t be told as non-fiction because the Ultima series is fantasy, and slipping a demon-god with a cult into the fantasy world made more sense than having an Eeeevil Corporation(TM) try to infiltrate Britannia directly. Ultima VII is often considered the creators’ best work despite the fact that it is 2D and “old”.

Me, I was always more of a Wing Commander fan. It’s still absolutely perfect, though. There’s little to add, beyond an observation that big open-world sandboxes like Ultima 7 are now the rule in the fantasy genre, rather than the exception. The perspective might change, but the idea’s the same, and that idea’s absolutely dominant.

So congrats to Electronic Arts: you not only were the Hearst analogue in the Citizen Kane of Games…you killed off its Welles. Props.

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Dan Cook and the value of academics

There’s a good piece in Gamasutra by Dan Cook talking about older game designers and the “rebellion” against them that seems to be going on among younger and/or indie designers. I’d recommend you read it.

That said, I was a bit disappointed by the comments. I feel like some people have missed the point. (Or maybe I have?)

It doesn’t seem like Daniel’s trying to argue that the schools are terrible, though he’s certainly making a backhanded case for certification. It seems to be more that there’s a tendency to treat older designers like Cook and Koster as a sort of Authority handing down Law About Games.

Koster’s “Not-A-Game” tendencies aside, that isn’t really how they see things. They’re a generation of tinkerers and wonderers, trying to feel things out, who made some mistakes, had some triumphs, and developed some ideas. They don’t believe that they have all the answers, nor that they’re Authorities to be obeyed or rebelled against…they just have insights and beliefs that come from a long history of design.

(And, as Cook said, the biggest failing of absolutely everybody involved in gaming is that they’re completely blind to history.)

Where I part ways with Cook is on the question of academics. He came across as dismissive. Yes, academic analysis can be dry and jargon-ish. It’s still valuable. Academics worth the name specialize in turning experience, data, and cases into theory. Sure, they may not be game designers, but that isn’t their job, any more than it’s the job of a military historian to strap on a broadsword and go carve up some knights.

I know I keep on banging on about the guy, but that’s one of the reasons I find Grant Tavinor’s work interesting. Yes, he’s an academic. Very much so. But because he’s an academic, his work does a good and careful job developing theories that seem to elude off-the-cuff designers. The reason why his definition of video games is so good…

X is a videogame if it is an artefact in a digital visual medium, is intended primarily as an object of entertainment, and is intended to provide such entertainment through the employment of one or both of the following modes of engagement: rule-bound gameplay or interactive fiction.

…is because he employed the theory of disjunctive definitions (where two things can be sufficient yet neither are necessary) in order to solve the knotty problem of whether games need to be systems-focused.

This definition doesn’t come from vacuum. It’s the culmination of a long and fairly dry essay about the nature of video games. It’s an end-point of a lot of careful, slow thought, instead of some sort of blinding insight. That’s why it works so well. Sometimes you have to take it slow and work it out.

Yes, it has jargon. Yes, it’s kinda tough going. Yes, the linked essay and Tavinor’s excellent book Art of Videogames can reveal the sort of reservations and cautions that you see in all good academic analysis. And, yes, reading Tadhg Kelly bang on in bite-sized bloggy chunks about characters-as-dolls and about how the Zinesters don’t get how tabletop proves that players only really care about systems is a lot easier.

But it’s  worth it.

Academics have their place. And, if the job’s done right, they don’t pretend to have all the answers. There’s room for rebels and discontent; in fact, the best academic writers and thinkers practically BEG for rebellion and discontent. They practically feed off it. Something to think about.

(Oh…and they love talking about history.)

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Anita Sarkeesian’s First “Tropes v. Women” Video is Out

Yep. After all the shouting and yelling and accusations and whatnot about pretty much everything but the videos in question–largely revolving around a backlash against their funding and a counter-backlash against the ultra-horrible misogyny embedded in much of that backlash…

…we finally have our first video!

So much for the guys who thought she’d just take the money and run. Or whatever that was supposed to be.

Quick reax based on partial viewing…seems good so far, though nothing that exceeds the sort of work done by, say, Lindsay Ellis  on women in movies at Chez Apocalypse or Campster’s gaming-focused stuff at Errant Signal.   The discussion of subject v. object in games did remind me of something I read recently by Todd Alcott about superheroes, though:

(Technically, the true protagonist of The Avengers, is, of course, whoever is on the other end of the celestial jukebox that Mr. Bigrobe is talking to.  This turns out, eventually, to be a guy named Thanos, and Mr. Bigrobe turns out to be a guy named, er, “The Other.”  The “protagonist” of a story, the way the Greeks used the term anyway, was the guy who set events into motion.  Thanos wants The Tesseract, The Other sends Loki [the “ally”] and The Chitauri to get the Tesseract, and it falls to Nick Fury to stop those guys from doing that. This, technically, makes Nick Fury the antagonist of The Avengers. To make this distinction seems picayune, but, in fact, this protagonist problem is why so many superhero movies suck — it is inherent in the genre that the protagonist of the narrative is the bad guy.  The moment you have a main character whose job it is to run around stopping things from happening, you have a reactive protagonist, which means a weaker narrative.  When you have a weaker narrative, you end up throwing all kinds of nonsense at the screen, hoping that no one will notice that you have a reactive protagonist.  This is, incidentally, why Batman barely even shows up in Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies — he understood that the protagonist of his Batman movies had to be Bruce Wayne, not Batman, and that, for his narratives to succeed, the bad guys had to be reacting to the actions of Bruce Wayne, not Batman reacting to the actions of the bad guys.)

The true protagonist, the true actor, in all of the Super Mario platformers is BOWSER. Mario has more agency than Peach as a player avatar, but he’s fundamentally reacting to Bowser, instead of really acting to achieve anything in his own right. He’s a superhero through-and-through, no different than Spiderman or Nick Fury.

The question may well be open as to whether or not Bowser’s more interested in Toadstool or Mario as an object, too. What if Bowser’s only kidnapping Toadstool to get Mario to go through his troops and traps to rescue her? What if he’s not actually interested in Peach as a possession (as alluded to in Sarkeesian’s “damselball” bit) but is only looking for the challenge, and knows of no other way to goad Mario into accepting it? What if Bowser doesn’t really want Peach at all?

And, weirder than that…what if Mario and Peach both know this?

More later.

Edit: Okay, it’s later.

For the most part I liked it. She did a good job bringing out issues of empowerment and objectification to a popular audience.  I saw two (surprising) issues here, though.

First, it’s barely about games per se. Sarkeesian analyzed her subject games strictly as narrative texts, without any real thought being given as to the reason or motivation for these things from a ludological perspective. Her “players” might as well be viewers, and the games might as well be television. I’m very surprised by this one; anybody who talks or thinks or writes critically about games has been absolutely buried in arguments over ludology v. narrativism, and the war over that sort of thing ended because almost everybody now realizes that you need to look at them through both lenses instead of one.

“Empowerment” in games is as much about play as it is about anything else. A playable character is always more empowered and enjoys more agency than a non-playable one from a strict gameplay perspective. She didn’t really get into that much, and it surprised me. Sure, she’s a media critic and not a gaming critic, but you really must address these things if you want to talk about games in 2013.

Second, it doesn’t have much of a temporal perspective. It treats the Zelda and Mario series (which are nearly completely the objects of analysis) as one big unit, instead of works that evolve over time with the changes in overall culture.

That’s somewhat of a problem with Mario, since Mario has evolved to become a larger franchise with players more used to the playable Peach of the modern franchise than kidnapped object Peach of the “core games”. While you can argue that Super Princess Peach for the DS isn’t a key game in the franchise, or than Peach’s surprisingly active role as an intermittently playable character that plays a key role in her own escape in Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door doesn’t really count, or that Super Mario Brothers 2 was an outlier due to the whole Doki Doki Panic thing (as Sarkeesian does), it’s really hard to argue that Mario Kart doesn’t really “count”. Those games are as popular as the platformer, and an entire generation grew up on those games. They ARE Mario to a big, big audience of gamers. You can’t arbitrarily discount that.  Sarkeesian doesn’t even really address it, though; she just focuses on the “core” games and leaves the others aside.

It’s a big problem with the Zelda games, though, because that evolution over time is by far the most interesting thing about them. Yes, Zelda started off as little more than a plot device in Legend of Zelda.  Over time, though, she’s become a more and more interesting character in her own right, and has started playing more and more of a role as a sidekick instead of a mere object. Sarkeesian did bring up Zelda’s Sheik and Tetra personae as examples of welcome subversions of Zelda’s traditional role, but didn’t really mention that process of change and evolution.

The omission that REALLY surprised me, though, was Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. That’s a game where Zelda is, absolutely, positively, one hundred percent a core character from pretty much beginning to end. Her personality is refreshingly more like the feisty Tetra than the passive Peach.

She’s also extremely important from a ludological perspective.  The way in which the player controls her when she’s using her possession mechanic is the very thing the game is named after.  I wouldn’t even necessarily call her ghostly state in the game “dis-empowered”; her ability to possess Phantoms in Spirit Tracks is as vital to success as Link’s whole werewolf curse thing was in Twilight Princess.  The player is quickly taught that Link’s quest would be utterly impossible without her.

It was a grand step forward, a fun mechanic and a welcome counterexample to the standard trope. So where on earth was it? Maybe Sarkeesian is saving it for the followup where she talks about “flipping the script”. I certainly hope so; the game doesn’t get anywhere near enough recognition.

In any case, I’m looking forward to the next one. I’m especially interested in seeing how she deals with Princess Rosella in Sierra’s King’s Quest IV, since that game’s as clear a reversal of the standard trope as you can get, and by a female game-maker besides.

Another Edit: Shouldn’t give the impression that I’m entirely critical, so I’ll name two things that really worked for me too. That story at the beginning with Dinosaur Planet and Starfox Adventures? Gold. Journalism worth watching in-and-of itself even if you never watch the rest. (Which you should.)   The transformation of the main character of Dinosaur Planet to damsel-in-distress in Starfox Adventures really is sketchy as all hell.

Also gold? That sequence with all the female characters shouting “help!”. It really, really nails down just how formulaic and lazy this sort of thing is. The big takeaway of this for me is that the damsel-in-distress is used because it’s easy. It’s a trivially obvious way to motivate a presumed audience of boys and young men.

That’s why I’m so interested in how she addresses King’s Quest IV. Not only because it’s an obvious and incredibly prominent subversion of the trope in the history of electronic gaming, but because it gets into the fact that PC games had a different audience. It was still primarily male, but usually older, better off, and less interested in adolescent power fantasies. The entire adventure game genre is rife with titles that either subvert this trope or ignore it entirely, and I don’t think that’s an accident.

NEW EDIT: Okay, embed’s fixed.

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Private provision of public goods

This piece by Patrick Miller in the wake of the 1UP/UGO/Gamespy closures is bracing, painful, and absolutely necessary. It details the desperately broken economics behind game enthusiast websites: they have to rely on advertisements, but the audience just isn’t valuable enough to advertisers except in mass quantities, so the sites are forced into churning out lowest-common-denominator, hit-focused pabulum like lists and slideshows and “best ofs” and whatnot. Good articles get overlooked while clickbait rules the day.

And why?

“Compared to, say, selling cereal/hamburgers/cars/video games, journalism works on a different model–a strange kind of model ostensibly designed to produce something approximating a “public good” but produced through private enterprise.”

There’s your problem right there. Good journalism and criticism is absolutely a public good that will pay off for decades or centuries to come. But there’s no possible way that anybody but the wealthiest individuals could pay for it. That was fine back when advertising was valuable, but that’s the problem: nobody’s willing to pay more than a pittance for online advertising. So, now, it seems like there’s only two options: either cater to smaller, more valuable audiences (specialist trade publications and the paywall thing both do this), or try to convince unpaid or underpaid writers to churn out as much material as quickly as they possibly can to the broadest possible audience (the Huffington model). Neither is healthy. Neither rewards skilled writers with fair pay and solid public exposure. Yet those are the only two options.

(Well, okay, unless you’re Yahtzee. But you aren’t Yahtzee.)

Even if you aren’t just writing, you still aren’t better off. The most valuable part of 1UP for me was always its podcasts. The articles and reviews were fine, but 1UP’s podcasts in its heyday were quite simply the best gaming discussions on the Internet. Only John “TotalBiscuit” Bain’s Warcraft stuff even came close. Yet 1UP had to shutter its podcasts, because there just simply wasn’t enough money in it; and judging by what YouTube, it looks like the gaming-focused video market is flooded as well.

So what to do? Damned if I know. I wish I did. I have my own financial issues to work out, and nothing I’ve written about gaming has EVER been paid work. I’ve never even expected to get paid for it; it was all about building a solid portfolio of writing that I could point to when applying for paid work. But what I’ve seen is that there just isn’t a lot of paid work out there, and the people fighting over it are hungrier and more desperate by the day. Talented, skilled writers and analysts are having to look for day jobs or are going back to school to do something else.

And the truly sad thing? This was supposed to be what piracy does, but it’s not even about piracy at all. It’s just a straight-up broken market for writers and journalists, and for the life of me, I don’t see how it could improve. Maybe it isn’t going to. Maybe public goods really do need to be publicly provided. But how?

(I’ll tell you one thing, though…it certainly hardens my heart when it comes to shitty writers. Every time I see a terrible, lazy paid piece, especially from some smug editor or columnist, I just think of all the skilled people who  could put that money to better use. But I don’t think I want to name names here. I’ve picked enough fights.)

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Four in February

Heard of “Four in February“? Basic idea seems to be to take four games that are in your backlog and actually spend a month playing through them.

(It’s also on Steam.)

Rowan Kaiser‘s doing it: he’s doing Cave Story+, Septerra Core, Alpha Protocol and Mark of the Ninja. Not sure where, probably on Joystiq, but I’m looking forward to following his travails. I kinda like like the idea too, so I’m going to do it myself. Thing is, I can’t do anything terribly system-demanding, nor can I do console stuff. Long story. But regardless:

First, I’ll do the AGD Interactive remake of Quest for Glory 2, since I’ve been curious to see how faithful they are to the source material, and the original version is one of my all-time favorite games.

Second, I’m going to do Christine Love’s “don’t take it personally babe, it’s just not your story”. Just a wee little visual novel, sure, but that’s my speed right now, and I REALLY enjoyed both Digital and Analogue.

Third, I’m going to follow Rowan’s lead and do Cave Story+. Why? Why not? It’s in the pile, and I’ve heard it lauded hither and thither forever. No reason not to.

Fourth…well, it depends. I’m probably going to follow Rowan’s lead again and do Septerra Core. I MIGHT do something else, though, since an RPG is a pretty heavy investment of time. I’m possibly leaning towards finally finishing Uplink, since that’s one I’ve started more times than I can count. We’ll see.

I’ll use this space to let people know how it goes.

(And, yes, I plan to get back to the Elder Scrolls thing just as soon as I can. I’ve got MULTIPLE scores to settle in Morrowind. I ain’t forgotten ’em.)

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Gaming and the Election 3: Lady’s Choice?

So. Obama won. The Republicans got routed. But what does that mean?

Okay. It means a lot. It means an awful lot. Since my wheelhouse is supposed to be “the intersection of politics and gaming”, though, it might be a good idea for me to take a stab at what it means for gamingSo I’ve put together a short series speculating on how the Democratic triumph (which, honestly, is what it was) is going to change and/or be reflected in the future course of gaming. This is the third one; a follow-on on the gender issue. 

#3: Games aren’t just boys’ toys.

I think there’s a connection to gaming in a more general way, though. Right now women are still seen as a bit of a secondary audience in gaming. They aren’t “core”, whatever that means, and games that are aimed at them tend to either be half-assed girly-game crap that’s drenched in pink or social-network games that cynically attempt to ruthlessly exploit society’s pressure on women to be helpful and cooperative.

That should end. It must end, because the lesson of this election is very simple and very applicable to the gaming industry: white males just ain’t enough. The targeted audience for the Republican messsage are white males, just as the targeted audience for console gaming is (generally) white and (definitely) male. The former failed, and the latter is failing too, because there just aren’t enough to sustain the enterprise.

It’s becoming really, really clear that games should focus a bit more on the sorts of things that girls and women want in their games, and a bit less on the things that (the industry thinks that) boys want in their games. What are those things? Don’t ask me: I’m not in a place to say. Go ask Mattie, or Patricia, or Kate, or Leigh. Go ask girls and women. Go ask your girlfriends and partners and mothers and sisters and daughters and wives.  Ask focus groups if you must. But don’t ask me.

I do suspect, though, that it doesn’t mean that there won’t be shooters or action games. That sort of essentialist attitude makes no sense and is rooted in the same beliefs that generate “girly games”, and it’s just silly when you’ve got Patricia Hernandez writing great pieces about her experiences playing shooters. It may well just mean having female protagonists that are well-written and visually reflective of their audience. It works for boys. Why not for girls?

(More tomorrow.)

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A One-Star Review Isn’t a Troll

Okay, I’m already starting to see a lot of drama over Tom Chick’s one-star review of Halo 4. (There’s a ton of it on Twitter. No direct links, but it’s not hard to find.) People are complaining about how he “couldn’t possibly think that the game was a 20%!” and how “he’s just trolling! and how “he’s ruining the MetaCritic average!”

Sorry, no. That’s all complete nonsense, and in a lot of ways, it smacks of people wanting to have it both ways.

You can’t have it both ways on scores. If you’re calling out score inflation and piously claiming that “a fifty percent is an average score” on your site, then you have to allow other sites to choose their scoring meters too. Chick’s site, “QuarterToThree” uses a film-like “star” system. Anybody who has read a movie review in the last few decades knows that a one-star film is not execrable, but definitely flawed, and will likely disappoint anybody but the most dedicated fans of the franchise.

I read the Chick review. That score is absolutely backed up by the text. He makes it abundantly clear that he is disappointed by what he played. He praised the original Halo’s “raw genius” and called the recent effort “a drawn-out retread without any fresh perspective”.     You can agree, you can disagree, but that’s a one-star review.

And if you think that single star is a “20%”, then you don’t “get” measurements, because ordinal and ratio data aren’t interchangeable.  The gap between 1 vs. 2 stars in a score may be enormous compared to the gap between 2 or 3 stars, depending on the reviewer, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If MetaCritic translates one star as a “20%”, and directly compares it to some other site that gives an equally disappointing game a 60%, then guess what? MetaCritic screwed up. Don’t apologize for them or make the same mistake.

You also can’t have it both ways on reviewers’ freedom. I’ve read game critics and game reviewers bitterly complain about fanboys’ angry reactions to their reviews over, and over, and over again. It’s why I’ve never really been tempted to write the things. Who needs the grief?  Reviewers certainly don’t; they want to be able to express their opinions and criticism, and truly hate it when they’re accused of “trolling” or “bias” or being “on the take” or some such thing. They get especially peevish (and rightly so!) when their words are skipped over and they’re castigated for their scores.

Well, guess what? IF IT’S GOOD ENOUGH FOR YOU, IT’S GOOD ENOUGH FOR TOM CHICK. You may disagree with him. Lord knows I have in the past. I’ve read reviews of his that I thought were so completely out to lunch that I was tempted to put in a comment asking Tom to pick me up a turkey club, hold the mayo. But if you accuse him of simply “trolling”, instead of being an idiosyncratic reviewer that you disagree with, you’d best have a damned good reason. A reason that’s one hell of a lot more compelling than “here’s a set of reviews I disagree with and also look at that score!” 

I’ve disagreed with Chick before. I haven’t played Halo 4 yet, but I may well think that he’s completely full of shit on this one as well when I do get the chance to play it.  That doesn’t mean he’s “trolling”, any more than you are when you write a review that people disagree with. Go after Chick, and you’ve given the fanboys every legitimate reason to tear you limb from limb in comments. You’re no different than he is.

Mostly, though, you can’t have it both ways on MetaCritic.

Reviewers regularly respond to angry fanboys screaming about their scores lowering metacritic averages by saying that “Metacritic averages don’t or shouldn’t matter”…usually right before insisting that they don’t think about the effect on metacritic averages when they write their own reviews.

Thing is, the fanboys are actually on pretty good ground on this one. The dirty little secret at the bottom of all of this is that they have absolutely EVERY reason to pressure reviewers for better scores. MetaCritic averages do affect their favorite developers’ bonuses and job security. They do affect unit sales of the games they enjoy. They do affect whether beloved franchises get new installments. Rational arguments won’t work against that, because they are making the rational move. Scary, but true.

So the only way to stop the harassment is to make it perfectly clear that, rational or no, you don’t CARE about any of this. Reviewers need to make it clear that their only concern is expressing an informed opinion. Their scores are a reflection of the text, and the text is what it is. Full stop.

You need some demonstrate some solidarity to pull that off. The fanboys are going to notice if you start carving up some other guy on Twitter for hurting developers giving a bad score, and guess what? They’ll do the same thing to you! Sure, you might think that his “20%” (it isn’t a 20%, it’s a one-star) is totally different from your 6/10. You might insist that your score is sensible whereas his is nonsense. Guess what? It won’t help. They won’t believe you. They’ll hammer you for ruining a Metacritic score and throwing young developers to the welfare lines just as quickly as you hammered Tom Chick.

Don’t get me wrong. Disagreement is fine. Disagreement among reviewers is great. Disagreement among reviewers is what will help kill this toxic notion that you’re nothing more than MetaCritic input devices and that your words are a bunch of meaningless bullshit that distract from the all-important score.  Disagreement among reviewers helps show that you’re people, not  commodities.

Don’t confuse this with an endorsement of Chick’s opinions (hah!) or a condemnation of reviewers, either. Like I said, I don’t even write the things. Even if I disagree with a review, I still have immense respect for the people who stick their necks out like that. Some reviews are straight-up terrible, sure, but there are loads of reviewers and critics who demonstrate professionalism and care in a field that often doesn’t reward it like it should.

But, please, don’t fight this battle. Remember Franklin. You hang together or you hang separately.

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Diablo and Local Toronto Gaming Stuff

Hey, folks. Just a quick note to say that I kinda want to do more of this sort of thing; writing about local Toronto gaming stuff instead of simply doing broad discussions that everybody else is doing. I’ll flag it with a “Toronto Gaming” category and tag.

Also, really happy with the response to my piece on Diablo and economics over on Nightmare Mode. Being able to contribute to Patricia Hernandez and Tom Auxier’s site has been an honour; they’re both excellent writers that I respect a lot. Only thing I’d add to it is what I said in comments: that the issue with Diablo is that it’s a deflationary economy, at least at lower levels. Gold comes in, Gold goes out, but good gear sticks around indefinitely. That’s going to lead to prices going down as more and more goods are being sold to chase a stable amount of cash.

I’ve heard that it’s different at the high end when you hit Inferno. I had an interesting twitter exchange with Stephen Keller on that. He’d said that Inferno is actually wildly inflationary. I don’t have any experience with that, or at least not a ton. What I’d say in response is that the two problems are linked; the dispiriting nature of acquiring gear at lower levels probably has a lot to do with the lack of people who are getting new gear at the higher end. If people drop out, their gear is going to drop out with them, unless they decide to cash in once-and-for-all with the real-money auction house. The few left over at Inferno aren’t going to be enough to contribute the volume of gear needed for price deflation to happen.

If people were playing through to Inferno, we’d likely be seeing the same thing happen there.

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Gamespot, Goodrich, and Games about War

So, yeah, this happened:

As I said on Twitter, this was actively (nay, “authentically”) painful to watch.

Why? Bunch of reasons.

First, I don’t feel like this interview should have happened in the first place. It wasn’t even really an interview, or at least it wasn’t clear who was interviewing who. It LOOKED like a designer taking a writer to task for what he’d written about the game. If it really was that, then there was no reason for Gamespot to go through with this, because it opens the door for developers and publishers to gleefully intimidate everybody and anybody who says a mean thing about their games. Writers aren’t necessarily going to be the snappiest debaters, and that’s not what they’re being paid to do.  McShea would have been better served by some sort of email exchange scenario…which would have been interesting to read.

Second, there was just a complete lack of communication there. Someone needs to tell Greg Goodrich that “authentic” is basically a synonym for “realistic”. Claiming that you’re being “authentic” but not “realistic” just doesn’t work as a defence.  I’m not saying he was being deliberately disingenuous. How could I? I’m not camped out in the man’s head and have no idea why he’d make one argument over the other. I believe he was being honest, but never clearly communicated what he thought the difference was.

Third, though, was the fact that Tom McShea is a game writer who should know what the hell ludonarrative dissonance is. I feel like Clint Hocking needed to roll in from stage right, yell “LUDONARRATIVE DISSONANCE!!” and then run off or something, just to tell Tom what he’s on about. The thing he’s complaining about, and that Goodrich is avoiding, is that attempts to add in plot and characterization moments that are “authentic” mean absolutely jack if they’re being constantly undermined by the gameplay.

I can understand why Goodrich wants “fun” gameplay, and why he’d be following the Battlefield/Call of Duty lead. They’re popular and, yes, they’re a lot of fun. But those games aren’t remotely “authentic” in their combat in any way, shape or form. Attempts to try to make a serious, authentic, powerful story in the face of this cartoonish version of military combat is going to be so incoherent that it’s just going to come across as laughable. No matter how many real Marines or SEAL guys you base your story on, it’ll end up as farce.

Yet McShea never really brought that one home.  Maybe he would have if Goodrich hadn’t been in his face.

Another thing that bugged me, though, is one that never really gets discussed that much, either in the McShea piece or in the interview:

What about the guys on the other side?

One of the reasons people were really offended and disturbed by Medal of Honor, from what I saw around Twitter and elsewhere, was that real-life tragedies were being served up as gaming content. The tragic situation in the horn of Africa that has given rise to the Somali piracy problem is not something to be treated lightly, and a lot of the people in those situations end up having little choice about who they can or can’t fight with. It isn’t just the stories of the western soldiers that deserve telling; there’s a lot of stories on the other side too, of people who are just as human as the men they’re fighting against.

Yes, the men (and it is almost universally men) who send them in are often brutal warlords and dictators. Many will be violent thugs. But you can’t blithely assume that most of the people you’re fighting are going to be like that. That was already somewhat of an issue with Modern Warfare, but Modern Warfare carefully subverted and leveraged the issue; from what we’ve seen with Medal of Honor, that isn’t happening here. It’s played straight.

That’s where these claims to “authenticity” completely fall down, unless there’s a whole lot more here that I haven’t seen.  These are complex sociopolitical and geopolitical issues that sweep up a lot of people into conflicts that they don’t really want yet can’t see the means to avoid. If you want to be “authentic”, you can’t handwave that away and turn the opposing force into straw figures in a warmed-over shooting gallery. You can do goofy depictions of violence, and you can do realistic, disconcerting depictions of violence…but mixing them together ain’t gonna fly.

(McShea did touch on this a bit with the whole “headshot!” thing, and that’s where I thought he was strongest, but he didn’t seem to follow through on it.)

One last thing:  I winced a little when I found out that McShea was making these critiques without first-hand experience of the game. Goodrich had a fair point in bringing it up; McShea probably should have made a point of trying out the game before sitting down to discuss it. In fact, a really great way to do this would be to have the discussion while playing the demo, which would have given McShea the opportunity to show what he was getting at. He needed to know what he was talking about, and it would have been good for him to be able to illustrate his points.

I suspect the PR handlers wouldn’t be okay with it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Goodrich were wary too; but if Gamespot had made it into a condition for the interview, it might have made for an excellent moment of game criticism, instead of the somewhat painful experience we saw here.

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