Thursday, August 20, 2009
Reviews and opinions
I played the Fallen Earth beta about one hour, decided I completely hated everything about this game, and uninstalled it again. Judging whether a game is fun for you doesn't take longer than one hour, and in some cases you can make the decision in 5 minutes. There isn't much of an argument that can be made that it takes, lets say, 20 hours to decide whether you like a game, because there are nowadays so many games much shorter than that, that this would mean you would have to play them through several times before deciding whether the game is a good personal fit for you. Which would obviously be ridiculous. Games simply don't get that long to convince their potential users that they are fun; either a game is already fun in the first hour, or players will just drop it.
Unfortunately we live in the Twitter age, the age of mass opinions, where everybody is constantly bombarded with opportunities to publish his opinions on just about everything. And in this deluge of opinions from everybody, people forget that an opinion is just that, a personal opinion, which in many cases tells you as much about the person who expresses the opinion as about the subject he is talking about.
For example activists with strong opinions on digital rights management have repeatedly used the Amazon user review scoring system to give the lowest possible score to all games with strong copy protection. And because there are not many people really taking the time to review games for Amazon, and hundreds of anti-DRM activists, the score of these games is now considerably lower than the quality of the games themselves would justify. Of course it is totally valid to have a strong opinion about digital rights management, and to express that opinion publicly. But a review score influenced by such strong opinions only tells you a lot about these activists, and very little about whether the game is actually good or bad. For somebody who just installs the game once, plays it through, and forgets about it, a review score decimated because the game can only be installed five times is pretty much worthless, as it doesn't really tell him what he wants to know about the game.
Opinions also reflect hopes and fears about stuff that hasn't even happened yet. If I was to put a poll on this blog, asking "Which is the best MMORPG ever?", and sneakily put Star Wars: The Old Republic on the list of possible choices, SWTOR would get quite a solid amount of votes. Which is obviously completely crazy, because nobody has played SWTOR yet. But that doesn't stop people from publishing opinions everywhere of what a great game SWTOR is going to be. That tells you a lot about the strength of the Star Wars brand, the skill of the Bioware marketing guys, and the general hope people have for a next big thing, but nearly nothing about the quality of the game SWTOR itself. The MMO blogosphere is also full of reports of what a great expansion WoW: Cataclysm is going to be, and that is before that expansion is even announced, just based on a "leak", which still could turn out to be a hoax.
And then there is what I call the "Ed Zitron effect": People become unable to distinguish between an opinion and a review. That is true for both the reviewers and the readers. It is totally okay to have a negative opinion about Champions Online, without having played it, just based on the fact that one leading developer, Bill Roper, produced Hellgate London, which then failed and closed down. It is also totally okay to play Champions Online for a short time, notice that it is more an arcade, console game than a classic MMORPG, and decide that this isn't the game for you. But such opinions do not constitute a "game review". Bloggers, including me, nearly always publish what is more a mix of descriptions and opinions than really an objective review. And opinions are never wrong. The readers' opinions might differ from the author's opinion, and that is what comment sections are there for to discuss.
In a perfect world, everybody would state his opinion in a polite way, and the total collection of all opinions would paint a pretty accurate and balanced picture of the actual strengths and weaknesses of the game. In the real world we get "reviewers" who think that because they personally don't like a game, it is a bad game, and virtual lynch mobs trying to shout down anyone who expresses an opinion contrary to theirs.
Google Analytics tells me that over the last 30 days the keyword that lead to the most visits to my site from search engines was "aion review". What it doesn't tell me is whether these visitors were satisfied with what they found. First time visitors nearly never leave comments. I certainly make a special effort on any post I label "review", for example playing Aion with both possible races and several classes to check for replayability. But what I can't avoid, and I think no blogger, and probably not even professional game reviewers can avoid, is that all my personal history with games affects my judgment of a game like Aion. If I had never played World of Warcraft, my view of Aion would certainly be a very different one. And my "plays like WoW" opinion is possibly only true for the leveling part that I did play, and not really relevant for that part of the population who thinks that any MMORPG only starts at the level cap.
I totally plan to play Champions Online more this week, and all weekend. And I'll probably label the resulting post "Champions Online beta review", or something like that, so that search engine users can find it. I'll have played CO over 20 hours by then, and I'll try to be as balanced as possible, as I always do in review posts. But in spite of all that my review will ultimately be just a bunch of descriptions and personal opinions. It will be influenced by my personal dislike of PvP and twitchy games, as well as my personal like of cell-shaded graphics. And it will be influenced by my personal mood, being a bit burned out from MMORPGs right now, and having done too many "kill 10 foozles" quest in my life. And that mix of descriptions and subjective opinions is all that you really can expect from a review of a game on a blog. By knowing your favorite bloggers, reading between the lines, giving greater weight to the descriptions than to subjective opinions, you will be able to get a pretty good idea about a game. But ultimately that one first hour playing the game will tell you much better whether this particular game is fun to you than ten hours spent reading reviews.