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Weekly Musings #30 Don't Ignore the Number
Author: Michael Ahlf 
Date: February 14th 2005

This weekend, Ferrago kicked out an editorial on a subject that comes up at least once a year. Their supposition was that the score we video game reviewers give a game is meaningless next to the actual review.

It seems that, amazing as it may seem, simply seeing a set of numbers on a game doesn't help people decide whether or not they'll like the game unless said people are exceptionally lazy. From Ferrago's slightly more blunt point of view:

Few things wind me up more than when what appeared to be a well-balanced and thoughtful gaming discussion descends into a successive barrage of review scores and Gamerankings ratings. Recently a colleague asked me what was better; Paper Mario 2, The Wind Waker, Animal Crossing or Four Swords. Of course, there is no answer because each game is utterly different from the others. Although I resisted answering the question, eventually I at least conceded that out of all the games in question my personal favourite was Animal Crossing - though I wasn't necessarily saying that it was the best game, I was more just hoping an answer of any kind would dispel the annoyance. When I was told that I was a "mug" because Wind Waker averaged a 9.1 on some rankings website whilst Animal Crossing merely ranked an 8.1 it took considerable effort to refrain from abuse.

First of all, I'd like to point out that I, too, was amazingly unimpressed by The Wind Waker. While some gameplay mechanics were nice, the vast majority of it was a series of techniques that had been done far better in Majora's Mask and Ocarina of Time, combined with a boring and time-consuming quest to essentially wander the world in a boat until you stumbled across the right spot to drop anchor and go fishing for treasure.

But it got lots of high review scores from game reviewers who just couldn't bring themselves NOT to give a Zelda game a high review score. It's not like this was unexpected; there are a few titles that consistently get big review scores despite low enjoyability factor for many gamers. Grand Theft Auto comes to mind; yes, it was innovative once. Yes, the designers do a good job designing sandboxes for you to play in. Yes, the 1000th time you've been in the shaking car with a hooker, or tried to do some stupid stunt in the airplane, it tends to get boring. But, of course, no review will ever tell you that, because no reviewer will take that amount of time on the game. Ben at Ferrago agrees - there are games he'd rather play that garnered a lower review score, even as he gave San Andreas better than 90% when he was reviewing it.

So what does a game review score do? For many sites, it's not just one score. There's an overall score, but also several categories - if a game's got the most luscious graphics in the world, but trying to control it is going to have you feeding your controller through a chipper/shredder, I'm going to tell you that. If the graphics are mediocre at best, but it's got one of the best storylines and gameplay mechanics you've ever seen, I'll tell you that too.

Ideally, you should read the review of a game. Examine what the reviewer says about the mechanics, how difficult the game was, and how good various aspects are. If there's something that's going to be annoying about a title, likely it's in the review. Most gamers have a few reviewers that they've found whose reviews they read because most of the time, they agree with what the reviewer has to say. They go to these reviewers, and then may go to Gamerankings or similar sites after the fact to see if their reviewer is thinking similarly to more of the community.

Many sites first break the review score into a set of categories such as graphics, story, gameplay, controls. This helps the reviewer figure out what aspects of a game they liked or didn't like, and then condense the categories into the single overall number. At the end, a game that gets an 9.0 instead of a 8.0 may not be any better or worse than the 8.0, but you can rest assured that a game that only garnered 4 points on a 10-point scale is probably NOT a game you want to be buying.

Sites like GameRankings take this a step further; they aggregate everybody else's review scores into a single number, the average score a game gets. For about 90% of game titles, this is a decent way to find out, very quickly, what the gaming community or reviewing community thinks about a title. This is the highest level of an abstraction from actually reading a review - you get a very generic idea of every reviewer's very generic idea of how much fun the game is.

For most games, this works fine. "Sleeper" hits like Shadow Hearts: Covenant still show up decently high in the reviews, and most games that are pure crap rightly show up with incredibly low scores. The problem is with those games that suffer from score inflation and/or deflation. Yes, let's face it, there ARE games like that out there. Super Mario Sunshine was obviously not as good as the original Super Mario 64, but it still got 90% or better on most reviews. Metroid Prime had a rather counterintuitive control system, and very little replayability, and the same applies. GTA: San Andreas is perhaps an 80% title, a sequel of a sequel of a sandbox game where once you've finished all the missions, the replay value degrades quickly. That's the reality of the game, but it seems to be heresy in the gaming community to give it anything less than 90%, and so the scores don't match the game's quality. Likewise with Duke Nukem Forever - when it is finally released, there will be a very quick rush to judgethe game. The response, just as with Daikatana, will either be a mad rush to pan the game as "we waited this long for this piece of crap" or will be a Halo-style "they can do no wrong" reaction. As a reviewer, I try to ignore this as much as possible; for instance, I refuse to touch Gamerankings on a title until my review's already in the system. There are some reviewers who I'm sure do the opposite, trying to tune their reviews to be as close as possible to the GameRankings score.

What is the purpose of a score, for games? It's to indicate to readers, as quickly as possible, whether or not the reviewer thinks the game is worth buying. It's the same thing as Siskel & Ebert's thumbs-up/thumbs-down, the same as the 5-star scale for restaurants and hotels; the point is to very quickly answer the solitary question, "Is this game worth my $50?" With that in mind, game sites that break the numbering down past a simple 1-10 scale, or 5 stars with half-stars thrown in, is getting silly; since the score is a generalization anyways, it should be as generic as possible. There's no need to completely ignore the score, and it DOES serve a useful purpose.

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Weekly Musings #30: Don't Ignore the Number

Added:  Monday, February 14, 2005
Reviewer:  Mike Ahlf


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