Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Words and Metrics Don't Mix

Ever read a review where the author goes on and on about the stuff they hate in a particular game only to then give it a near perfect score. Alternatively, have you ever watched a video review in which it's nothing but praise yet the game still gets less than a perfect score? This is because of a fundamental problem with the way gaming review outlets operate.

If you live in San Francisco and pick up a free copy of their local news publication, SF Weekly, I highly recommend reading their movie reviews for one reason in particular. The editors refuse to have any kind of numerical rating system for the films they critique. This has the highly beneficial effect of forcing the reader to actually scan the words as printed and learn about films and the reviewers' opinions in detail.

Now, some of you might say "What's wrong with metrics? They're quick and easy. Consumer Reports uses numbers and it's a great review magazine!" Well, yes that's true but the reviews you find in that particular publication are different in nature. They are evaluating technical aspects of products not artistic ones. If reviewers of video games were to truly adopt this policy they would have to base their review scores on factors like stability, graphic/sound fidelity, control response and code optimization. Obviously, those are things reviewers usually consider, but I can't remember ever reading a review that exclusively limited itself to considering those rather objective points. Instead reviewers inevitably tend to stray into the realm of artistic critique.

The fact is video games have artistic merit (sorry Ebert) so I can see why reviewers would want to discuss more abstract factors such visual styles, music composition, moods, themes and overall impressions. The catch is these points are extremely subjective and can vary greatly from individual to individual. How then do reviewers expect to justify their review with abstract numbers like "7/10" and "3/5 stars"? It makes absolutely no sense if you think about it deeply. And here in lies the problem with video game reviews. They want to have the name of their magazine or website to appear on box covers and Metacritic so they feel the need to push out a score even if it (in itself) has no meaning, while at the same time tossing out unsupportable opinions in the hopes of getting quoted (with citations of course).

So, in the end it's all about grabbing as many pairs of eyes as possible consequences be damned. No wonder gaming journalism has a very hard time maintaining any integrity. After all you can have your cake and eat it too, but sooner or later pretty much everyone is going to end up thinking your a selfish, greedy pig.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Beggars CAN be Choosers

For the average gamer money is in short supply, and given the choice between a full priced title or several indie games it's not surprising a lot of people on a limited budget choose to go with the latter. I'm here to tell you that downloadable games can sometimes be had for free. No, I'm not talking about piracy (despite that word appearing in the title of this blogging webpage). Rather, certain genres of games have a large number of free high quality flash equivalents.

I'll keep this limit to two genres in particular. First is tower defense. There are great titles to be had on Xbox Live like Trenched and Toy Soldiers, but the catch is they cost money. Don't be disheartened though, you can play some excellent tower defense titles such as GemCraft, Kingdom Rush and The Space Game. All feature deep gameplay and while I wouldn't say the graphics are impressive they run the gamut from functional to stylish.

The second is a genre that is harder to classify, but I'll boil it down to a single title going for $10 on PSN versus a number of flash titles floating around on the net for free. The PS3 game is called Eufloria has alternatives called Phage Wars, a sequel and a competitive online version. Star Baron, another great choice, just make sure to play the full version and not the beta. Then you got Solarmax which is probably the most polished of the three, but also the shortest.

This is just the tip of the iceberg though. There's a vast number of great games I haven't mentioned (or in some cases even played). So go check out some websites like Armor Games, Kongregate and New Grounds if haven't recently already. Maybe you wont like all the games you try, but hey they're free of charge and it's pretty hard to beat that price on PSN, Xbox Live or Steam.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Rise of the Let's Plays

With the advent of inexpensive easy to use video capture software and technology mixed with websites like YouTube it's increasingly easy to find someone’s playthrough of an entire video game floating around on the internet. I suspect that these clips severed as a kind of visual FAQ at first to help other gamers defeat a particularly difficulty boss or overcome a vexing puzzle, but now they have become a form of entertainment in unto themselves.

In some cases the player is content to remain silent and simply let the viewer watch the game play out as intended. I actually enjoy watching these kinds of "Let's Play" videos since I spent a lot of time growing up passing the controller around with friends and family. Hence, the idea of watching someone else play is second nature to me. I've heard some voices on message boards complain that they don't see the appeal, they want to play the game not watch it being played. I can see where they're coming from, but then again playing costs money while watching is free.

Adding to the easy of accessibility and lack of cost is the type of "Let's Play-er" who injects their own personality into the gaming experience. Mangaminx, Nanosuit Ninja and DSP Gaming are just a few YouTube channels were viewers can get an often times extremely amusing commentary in conjunction with video game footage. Some of these "Let's Play" personalities come off more garish than fun to listen to, but for the gamer on a budget and plenty of time to spare I suspect these videos hold a lot of appeal.

There's also the simple fact that there are a huge number of titles coming out on a weekly basis which many gamers cannot realistically hope to play. However, harkening back to my previous blog post there is still that strong social pressure to be in the know, so for those individuals who can’t stand being left out of the conversion I think "Let's Play" videos allow them to absorb a kind of abridged version of the titles they can't take on first hand.

Even now we're seeing major gaming media websites more and more embrace the idea of a spoiler free “Let's Play” sessions that serves as a short glimpse of how the minute-by-minute gameplay works.  In the years to come I suspect that these videos will increasingly overshadow more traditional systems of influencing gamer purchasing decisions such as screenshots, trailers, reviews and even the highly overrated Metacritic score.