Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, October 15, 2014
On the relevancy of video game reviews

The news this week was that Destiny has 3.2 million players on average every day on the servers, a month after release. That information clashes somewhat with Destiny's bad Metacritic score of 76, which doesn't suggest that the game would still be fun to play after a month. Which leads to the interesting question in how far a review score answers the question "Is this a fun game to play?".

The trope for movie reviews is that nobody wants to see the critically acclaimed movies, while the box office hits get bad reviews. That isn't 100% true, but Guardians of the Galaxy, one of the highest grossing films of this year, shares Destiny's middling Metacritic score of 76, although it scores much better on Rotten Tomatoes. So there is some truth in saying that at least some movie critics review films to answer the question whether watching that movie would make you a better person, instead of asking whether watching that movie would be a fun night out.

Metacritic scores for video games *used to be* more relevant for seeing whether a game would be fun to play, and thus worth buying. Game developers often have contracts that include bonuses based on Metacritic scores, because game companies think that those scores result in sales. I wonder what the bonus for the marketing people is based on. I could very well imagine a situation where Bungie / Activision Blizzard is paying a bonus to the marketing people of Destiny based on the great sales, but not to the game developers, based on the mediocre Metacritic score. And that wouldn't be just.

I do not believe that those scores are much influenced by either marketing money nor by social justice concerns of left-wing video game journalists. Grand Theft Auto 5 has a Metacritic score of 97, while The Sims 4 has one of 70, so violence and sexism obviously isn't a criterion for the score. But with The Sims 4 topping some PC game sales charts, and Destiny obviously being very popular as well, there is an obvious disagreement between reviewers and actual players about whether these games are good or not. The reviewers might claim that the players have been duped by extensive marketing into buying those games, but then why are millions of people still playing Destiny every day? As famous video game critic Abraham Lincoln remarked, you cannot fool all the people all the time.

My personal theory is that video game reviews get increasingly irrelevant because the video game critics have been playing games for too long. They don't answer the question "is this game fun to play?" any more, but are doing a far too complicated comparison of the new game with all the best features of all the games that came before. That is a comparison that no game can withstand, and one that isn't actually all that relevant. Even *if* you played The Sims 3 and find that The Sims 4 has less features, you might still want to buy and play The Sims 4, because you are sick and tired of The Sims 3 which you have been playing for the last 5 years. And even if the MMO elements of Destiny don't compare well with the best MMO games out there, you probably won't mind if you mostly played shooters before and those MMO elements are new and exciting to you. Not to mention that part of the audience for video games is much younger than the reviewers, and simply hasn't played all those previous games for that reason.

To me there is something inherently wrong in a headline like Destiny Is A Bad Game, But I Can't Stop Playing It. It is indicative of the reviewer's gut feeling being disconnected from his brain. And the review readers are probably more interested in the gut feeling than in the brainy intellectual analysis. They just want to know whether if they spend $60 on a game, they will have fun for many hours, or whether they will quickly regret that purchase. When reviews don't answer that question any more, they become irrelevant.

Destiny has a lot of players because -at least ion my country- they made an INSANE marketing campaign: television, newspapers, magazines, ... You could see "Destiny" almost everywhere for at least a month before the launch day.

Even my wife, my dad (who is 72) and a colleague (who doesn't even know what gaming is) asked me about it, with some kind of excitement. I was shocked when my dad (again, he's 72) asked me me "Are you going to buy it? It looks insane, maybe I can have a look at it?".

That's the first time in my life someone completely outside the gaming world showed some true interest in videogaming.

I guess that's why Destiny is doing fine: because it managed do gather a lot of people who can be easily surprised with stuff that doesn't impress any old-seasoned gamer: visuals, special effects, collecting stuff, killing stuff, space, soldiers, music, "wow it looks like a movie!!!!" and so on.

The "seasoned" gamer -who knows Metacritic, for example- looks for something new and likes bashing/overreacting.
All I need to do is bring up the obvious: Michael Bay movies routinely get terrible reviews and frequently mocked, yet those same Michael Bay movies rack in plenty of money at the box office.

The fact that those movies get their take in only one weekend is almost irrelevant, as movies seem designed to maximize opening weekends only, but Michael Bay has raised eye candy fluff to an art form.

If you want to call explosions eye candy, that is.

Dovetailing with Michael Bay and explosions, Destiny's release through Blizzard means that the average gamer is going to probably pick it up. Even though Blizzard has taken some hits lately for D3, it still has a good reputation which will translate into sales for Destiny that Bungie wouldn't have otherwise had.

If nothing else, Blizzard knows how to market a game the Michael Bay way.
Sorry Rugus but I think that explanation is bogus. No one keeps doing something because it gets a lot of marketing. The hype might explain people buying it, but it doesn't explain why someone would keep playing it if they did not enjoy it.

Tobold the same thing happens in movies as well. Its unavoidable that when you are forced to see or play dozens or hundreds or movies/games a year for several years (much more then any average consumer) your opinions and tastes will end up differing from the average consumer.

Case in point, the transformers movies. Horrible reviews. Universally panned by critics. Yet huge sales every time one launches. Why? Because your average consumer doesn't always care or mind that something is well put together, filmed well, or written well. They just want to sit down for a couple hours and enjoy something. Big robots fighting that reminds them of stuff from their childhood, with eye candy thrown in there? Yup fun to watch if your not stressing out about the story/tone/pacing etc.

This does not make them dumb, ignorant or anything else.

Same applies to videogames. Videogames are no longer niche products. They ARE mainstream. Anyone reading this blog or gaming websites is NOT the average gamer anymore. We are all much more invested into gaming then what the current average game is.

I don't have links to any studies but I would get most people who play videogames these days only by a handful a year. So their taste in games is very different from someone like a game critic who plays several new games each month for their job.
You are a bit harsh on that review from a month ago. It looks like he predicted things very well.

Clearly the headline "Destiny is a bad game, but I can't stop playing it" is intended as a paradox, but he explains in the review what he means by it. I haven't played the game, but I find his arguments convincing.
@ Bigeye

The aggressive Destiny marketing attracted new people. By "new" I mean people who usually don't care too much about gaming, be it on PC or console.

Those (new) gamers are those who can easily be impressed with much less effort, compared to the "old" seasoned gamers who pretend the impossible (and instantly go to Metacritic to explain why the game "sux"). Those new gamers don't even know what Metacritic is.

This is why many players keep playing it: because they're like young teens who put their hands on Doom 1: they get surprised, they see/play something new, special, amazing. It's like my dad when he started playing Hearts on Windows 15 years ago.

To sum it up: I think Destiny is mostly played by the average Joe, who doesn't care too much about gaming stuff/rules/ethics and just sits on the couch and wants to enjoy a game (be it simple or not). The fact that Destiny is quite simple helps a lot too.

Something similar happened to Facebook games (Farmville) back in time and still keeps going on with most of the andrtoid/ios apps. But guess what? People keep tagging Facebook games as "shitty games".

Movies work the same way: they roll out AMAZING trailers and then no matter what you feel you MUST watch the movie. It MUST be amazing. Then it's just a "so-so" thing and you spent your money already.
Candy Crush Saga had 124 million daily users back in May of this year. Is it the best game of all time? Does it deserve a 97 Metacritic score? Or is the 79 it received actually reflective of its qualities?

Popularity != Quality.

I would also suggest that game reviews aren't made for the average gamer, who likely bought the game before the review came out.
I think that video game reviewers have significantly less influence on the market than movie reviewers. Despite the critically panned mega hits many many movie goers do read movie reviews, do visit websites like Rotten Tomatoes and do watch the Oscars. Critics wield real power in the movie industry. I am not convinced that video game critics wield any power. The sales of any given video game seem to depend only on the power of the license and the size of the marketing budget. Very high quality games that don't have a decent license or marketing budget have a small chance of succeeding in a secondary "long tail" market but even that seems to depend more on player word of mouth than on critic opinion.
I see nothing contradictory in the "bad game I am playing it"

I keep seeing different ideas of criticism mentioned. If you go to a person trained in criticism, say literary criticism, who has a formal education, perhaps even a doctorate, then their analysis as to whether this is a good book has very, very, very little to do with "will it sell well" and little with "will I enjoy it"

There are three questions

1) Is it a good game? This is literally an academic question for academics to debate. 99% of bloggers and youtube personalities lack the experience to do this.

2) Will it sell well? This frequently is dominated by things having nothing to do with actual game play e.g. marketing budget and competition. Obviously, this is ultimately the most important question.

3) Will *I* like it? Most games will be liked by some and all will be disliked by some. Instead of trying to, in spite of lacking the training/experience, pretentiously giving an academic dissection of whether it is a "good game", why not say who will and won't like a game. There are EVE pvp players, people who mainly craft, people who mainly RP, arena PvP, ... Just because one group likes or doesn't like a game does not make it a good or bad game. If the goal of a review is to decide whether *I* will like a game, then why not address that.

By now, Metacritic is a medium to be manipulated according to your agenda. A FOX or CNN poll on "Obama's job performance" may be interesting, but it is pretty irrelevant to finding out what the general population thinks. Same for metacritic.
Contrary to what a lot of people seem to be implying, I've been playing games since the mid-80s, and I enjoy destiny because it's fun, not because I'm some sort of simpleton that doesn't know better.

I like being able to drop in for short periods of time and make progress.

I like filling up bars and increasing numbers and meeting small, achievable goals.

I like that I don't have to listen to asshats online being asshats.

I honestly don't understand why the game would be rated so low. As a game, it's fun. It makes you want to play more. I can totally see dinging it for the utterly incoherent story, however.

I think this is another case in a long line of so-called hardcore gamers confusing accessibility and polish with 'dumbing down'.
76 isn't even a bad score, whether you ascribe to the 1-10 review range or the A-F range where anything below a 70 is crap and not worth your time.

A 76 taken most pessimistically is at worst an average game, and at best a fairly decent game. I'm not sure why anyone would call a 76 a "bad" score.

Well based on the latter range, 76 would be a solid C. A solid C is bad. If you get straight solid C's, you get kicked out of college.
A solid 2.0 GPA would get you graduating through colleges here in the US. Maybe a C is different where you are, but here it's a perfectly acceptable grade, meaning average.
And don't forget, it's only a C if you assume the most pessimistic scale, in which C/75 is line between crap and ok.

From metacritic's own site about their metascores, they measure a 75 as a B, or a 3 out of 4 star game.

Would you consider a B or 3 out of 4 star rating to be considerably low score?
Game developers only get bonuses if their games score 85+ on Metacritic. So in that respect, 76 is bad. And the bonus to score link is bad, it would be a lot fairer if game developers were given bonuses for sales, not for scores.
I really think critics and reviewers were bamboozled by their own efforts to peg Destiny. It's a sly but inventive FPS and people who like the sort of game it is find it compelling to play and enjoy....I've never had so much fun in a shooter that manages to provide fun, open content and punctuate my activities with relaxing cut screens and mellow level-up activities. It's not an MMO, but a great many people approached it as if it were. It's not standard shooter plot fare, either.....but many people expected it to be, or expected it to be somehow a more revelatory story experience despite the fact that this is the same team which coughed up Halo, a franchise that only gained a meaningful identity in its fictional world after a great deal of post-game effort. What it is, however, is a giant cure for the stagnant FPS formula that's been causing CoD, Halo and Battlefield's diminishing returns over time. Bungie did what they set out to....innovate the FPS genre just enough to make a permanent impact on the future of the subgenre.
Game developers only get bonuses if their games score 85+ on Metacritic. So in that respect, 76 is bad.

Sure, but that's like saying because a kid didn't get high enough grades to warrant an extra boost in allowance, he must have done badly in school. By any objective measure, he did fine. Just because he didn't do well enough to get the extra rewards doesn't mean he did a bad job.

Not to mention that the measure by which a game is good or bad is not by how much a game developer gets in his bonus check. No one even thinks that except maybe the game developers.
Well, game developers aren't exactly paid THAT well --particularly given the insane hours they put in to get the product out the door-- so a bonus is really something to shoot for.

People are "still" playing Destiny because, despite its shortcomings and despite it falling far short of the hype, it brilliantly hits the compulsive drip-feed-reward style of gameplay.

Every day you log on, do a few activities (ones you've done dozens of times before at that point) in exchange for either random rewards and/or some amount of various forms of currency which you can use for purchasing rewards you want from NPC vendors, some of which are always present and some that only appear at certain times and that carry a new set of purchasable items each time they show up. And it's all held together by an extremely compelling gameplay loop, giving you an extremely satisfying payoff for each newly earned reward.

It's absurdly addictive. By design. And for the time being I'm helpless against its pull.

Really? I guess I meant a university as the one I went to in California kicks people out at 2.3.
Shouldn't the take-home point be that despite its grinding and 10yr 'sustained play' quasi-MMO mechanics and plan, over two thirds of players aren't logging in anymore?

I think a lot of people in the, "people wouldn't keep doing it if they weren't enjoying it," camp dramatically underestimate the power of sunk-cost-fallacy in how long people will play past the point of enjoyment, or due to social pressures.

Much like drinking booze, some things aren't that great alone, but become much better with friends. But once that fades? I predict we'll see a pretty dramatic decrease in those stats after the typical MMO honeymoon period as the cascade of people who can't put up with the repetitive grind just for the sake of hanging with friends ends up migrating to the flood of better games which are coming out in the next couple months.

There'll probably be a DLC-related uptick (which is the only time you'll see them publish stats again - when it's favourable), but otherwise I'd say this is going to be on a pretty steady trajectory of reduced numbers thanks to disillusionment and boredom.
Sort-of counterpoint: As a veteran gamer, reviews by veteran reviewers are useful to ME, because I am experiencing exactly what the reviewer is. I really don't care how many fresh faces new to gaming are buying and enjoying the game... I care about what my jaded-gamer experience is going to be, which by Destiny's reviews, lines up pretty closely.

I had fun for the first few days, searched desperately for the fun for the next couple weeks, now I only log in once a week to do the raid with a handful of my mates and make futile rolls on the RNG because I dunno... it's there.

I'll play the DLC that I stupidly already paid for, and then I'm probably done. The expectations (which are not unfair, given what they advertised) I had of an epic world to inhabit with a deep, epic, gripping story... all let down.

All there is is a sub-standard MMO grind (relying purely on limited-variety dungeon-grinding and daily quests; two of the most-maligned end-game padding techniques around) and some very solid shooting mechanics. More than most, perhaps, I require a compelling narrative, some kind of meta-reason to enjoy the solid shooting mechanics. As it is, I have all the motivation to play Derstiny that I do to run the Call of Duty training course against paper targets. Same mechanics, zero motivation.

Plenty of colleges and universities in California allow a 2.0 GPA. All of the UCs have 2.0 as a minimum, as well as USC. Caltech is 1.9. Stanford just requires you have the units completed as far as I can tell, so theoretically you could pass with all D-'s, as even D-'s will earn you a passing grade in classes everywhere.

I don't know what University you went to in California, but of all the major ones, 2.0 is will get you through..
@Psychotix: If we could get back to the ratings of video games instead universities...

Imagine you plotted a graph with all video games on Metacritic, with the Metacritic score on the X-axis, and the number of sales of the game on the Y-axis. I am pretty sure that you would get a correlation, with the highest scoring games selling millions and the low scoring games selling very little.

My point was that if you then added Destiny to that plot, the point would be well outside the correlation curve, with much higher sales numbers than the Metacritic score would suggest. Or that if you considered other games with equal sales numbers, it would suggest that Destiny deserved a higher score.
Or maybe reviewers are starting to follow the path of movies and reward "artsy (boyhood)" games while putting down the "transformers" of games.
@Tobold: Sure, I got the point. But it seems really silly in the first place to look at one game and use it as evidence that video game reviews are irrelevant in the first place. Any game can be an outlier, especially when there a millions of other confounding variables, least of which is the fact that not all buyers even look at a review score before purchasing.

My point in bringing up the 76 as not an entirely low score was that a 76 score game can still provide decent amounts of fun, and given enough marketing, plenty of people will latch onto "decent amounts of fun". Popularity != quality, as has already been mentioned. Certainly there needs to be some amounts of quality for a game to be popular, but a 76-score game can certainly meet the very low bar that is "is it fun?".

Leaving that score stuff aside, it's a given that reviewers are not the population, and cannot represent the views of an entire population. They can only give their own viewpoint, which is only possibly in line with a vanishingly small minority of gamers. The question of whether reviewers are irrelevant is a pretty boring question to even explore, since it's obvious that no one viewpoint can be shared across the human population. This is why people who even care about video game reviews in the first place find reviewers who are relevant to them, and the rest of the gaming world doesn't even touch reviews.

So yeah. Video game reviews are very irrelevant to the entire game playing population. Big whoop.
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