Tobold's Blog
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.
Well, that's a bit hard considering my first hour of champions was spent in the character creator. In that case, the game is worth $50 to me.

I'm a bit annoyed that a great deal of the character creator is not in the beginning. There are some heroes I'm not making simply because I don't know if I can.

I'd need an online database that says, "Get arms training in ordinance so that you can make a space age double-bladed axe that will then unlock and be usable by your 1 sword abilities."

There is so much information this game is missing IN GAME (there is alot in there, but things like how Super Stats works, in that it becomes that stat that increases your damage output, need to be made more clearly).

As for how you review things, or Ed or anyone else, I've always viewed even professional reviews as opinion only. And I wonder how there are so many people with such a sense of entitlement these days, whether it's commenting on your blog or in an MMO forum (both WoW and Champions).
I'd like to give another mmorpg a chance one of these days. So I look out to a great review of a game.

And of course, reviews are made by reviewers. Movie reviewers tend to prefer foreign or small scale indie movies. Game reviewers can see compare a game to thirty year old classic games. They don't really match the average movie goer who likes hollywood blockbusters or gamers who enjoy FPS games with fancy graphics.

But in a review, you should point out what you think would interest some people. PVP players would enjoy this game for example. Even if you don't really like PVP yourself. It might be a game that is going to appeal to hardcore gamers only. Or a game that takes dozens of hours to grasp. It's all fine but a good review should point this out. If you don't personally enjoy a game, you should try to see if other people might like this game. Or compare it with similar games.

And that of course leads to the "it's a fine game but its not as fun as WoW" statements. I think that's what people like to know anyway. I've tired of playing WoW, how does this game compare to it?
We have a saying in Australia that opinions are like arseholes.... everyone has got one.

Your observation regarding context and accepting personal preferences is very apt to this discussion.
A "review" is only really objective when it is a statement of the quantifiable aspects of an object. Exact and factual: this game claims 3GB of harddisk space and has 1500 quests. A fact cannot be disputed and a review done in this way will always yield the same result, regardless of the "reviewer". Expanding the scope of a "review" beyond the exact, quantifiable and factual equals losing objectivity. An objective review as you mention in your article just does not exist.

I think i said in an earlier post that reviews (in a more commonly used sense) do not have a lot of practical use at all (this doesnt mean they cant be extremely entertaining). If i write a review about an object it is a summary of my perception of its usefulness or entertainment value at a specific time, influenced by an unknown number of variables. It is by definition completely subjective. Only loyal readers who read between the lines, know the writers characteristics, writing style and peculiarities may be able to get some value (other than entertainment) from it. Maybe.

Apart from entertainment there is another unmentioned function of reviews which involves the processes in the mind of the reader after he bought a product. A large percentage of readers of reviews already own the product and just want confirmation: i did really make the right and sensible choice! This is a very powerful mechanism and -imho- explains a lot of the vitriolic reactions on unfavorable reviews.
The only reviewer you should trust is yourself.

Furthermore, there seems to be a natural need for people to gain some form of reinforcement that they have made a good choice about a product. Be that a console choice, a choice of car, phone, a film they like or games. Anyone with a different opinion must be ridiculed or slated in order to reinforce your own. Perhaps thats innate insecurites coming out in us?

Anyway, surely all a review is basically a subjective opinion delivered in a structured analytical form?

I am going give CO a chance to prove itself to me. I'm always interested to hear what other people think about what I'm about to play, so I know about the negative feedback it has been getting. But ultimately, I'm interested enough in the game and genre to want find out for myself whether I agree :)
Comments aside, I've never played Fallen Earth. Looks kind of cool. Did I write something about it, Tyler Durden style?
I just love the fact that now, thanks to EG, we have a quick way of saying "I've never actually played this game, but I did read a forum and look at some screen shots, and I'm going to use that and pretend I know what I'm talking about on this subject". In that regard, Ed and EG have done the MMO genre a great service.

Comedy aside, I think it should become standard practice when reviewing an MMO to up front state what level you achieved and the highest zone/rank/dungeon you experienced, just to set baseline expectations. If "amazing gameplay feature X" does not become available until level 50, and in my review I state I only played till 45, that just eliminates the immediate "zomg noob the game is totally different with feature X" reaction. It also lets the reader know exactly how deep you got into the game. If for whatever reason I only played with the character creator for my 'review', if I at least state that up front readers know the baseline of the reviewers time with the game.
Re: SWTOR, it's also riding on the skill of Bioware's writers, designers, and programmers, not just the marketers. In fact, I suspect even if there had been no marketing at all, there would still be extremely high hopes based on past results by Bioware. I believe this is what is truly driving the positive opinions, similar to any product Blizzard has announced.
What did you hate about Fallen Earth?

= # # =
Tobold said:
"I played the Fallen Earth beta about one hour, decided I completely hated everything about this game, and uninstalled it again."

I really enjoyed your installment on 'Why we play'. I would like to see one on 'Why we stop playing'.

For example; I really liked the gameplay in Vanguard Saga of Heroes, but quit due to the random frame stuttering.
Guild Wars is fun, but if you have to log out in the middle of a quest you have to start over again at the beginning. I have very limited free time and I can't afford to do that.

What are some deal breakers which have caused you to quit an otherwise good game?
I think the opinions held by others can be as informative (and perhaps more) than someone attempting to do an objective review. I make that case here.

Listing the facts about a game usually will boil down to bullet points from a press release with some of the bubbling verbiage stripped away. That doesn't give me the information I need to know if I'll enjoy the game. 1,500 quests and 8 classes for 6 races means nothing to me. Hundreds of terrible games brag those facts as well.
If "amazing gameplay feature X" does not become available until level 50, and in my review I state I only played till 45, that just eliminates the immediate "zomg noob the game is totally different with feature X" reaction.

LOL! No it doesn't. It just changes the reaction to "zomg noob, you should have played 5 more levels because the game is totally different with feature X". Being rational and honest never shields you from the internet dickwads. :D

I agree with the sentiment, though...
"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..."

I agree 100%. My friends and I have a great time trying new games together and seeing how long it takes us to immediately recognize a game's potential for success or failure(to us, fun or not) the quickest .

Example: CoH takes 20 minutes of gameplay for me to realize it's a flop. LOTRO took me an hour to decide that I liked it. Tabula Rasa took me a record 3 minutes to... well you know where that went.
COH was not a flop, particularly if you consider how long it has been around. Maybe you should just be sure to make it clear that it was a flop for you, otherwise I'll notify CO fans that you have been desecrating CO potential again..
It can take an hour (or 15 minutes for that matter) for me to decide if a game is bad; but in takes longer to decide if a game is good; especially if the game is expensive. CO is a good example; first 4 hours I spent in character editor and tutorial and thought it was "ok." Next 8 hours I thought it was fun. Then the next 8 hours I thought it was pretty "meh" and not worth playing any more.

In a perfect world, I'd like to have a game demo I can play for an hour or two, and then reviews to read that would say "if you liked the demo, you'd love the game" or "the demo was better than the game" or "the demo does not represent the game" etc.
@ Pangoria Fallstar

About a character planner, there is a great one stickied in the forums, but you can get it here:

I agree that in game it doesn't really let you know what to expect later on. Sort of like how CoH lets you see down the tree. One of the problems i guess is that you can pick from pretty much any tree, so it would be odd in game. Thankfully though they seem to be listening to players, at least from what i've seen.
Something about reviews i can't stand actually, is when a reviewer doesn't like a game, and therefore is a "bad game". I think that now with how many mmos there are, some fit the way people like to play and others don't. I personally can't see why people enjoy Guild Wars as much as they do. I've played since it launched, but i play for about a week, get horribly bored, don't play for months, and then try it again. I've bought all boxes, and just don't see it as anything special. I also played EvE, can't stand it. Love the idea of space combat, hate the real time skills and other players. Do i think others shouldn't play these games? Not really, if it is something you enjoy, go for it. So often i see though players who enjoy one game dump on players or games they don't enjoy. Call it the WoW factor, people who hate wow love to call the people who enjoy it stupid noobs.

Sorry this got long, people just need to realize some games aren't "bad", they just don't enjoy them, but others may way more.
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