Reviewing a game seems like a relatively cut and dry affair right? Play a video game, tell people how you felt about the video game, and give it a score based on your experience. These reviews give consumers a chance to read another person’s perspective on a game before it comes out, letting them know whether or not they should spend their hard earned money on the title. On its face that seems like a spectacularly simple idea that seems to be prone to people endlessly trying to further complicate it. While I’m no veteran on the topic, I’ve only been doing this for a site for around 2 years, I felt the need to speak up and tell you exactly what goes in to throwing that score up there from a reviewer’s perspective.
The whole process starts by going to a publisher of a game and asking for a review copy of the game. Typically sites that have been around for a while or that have had previous contact with a publisher are on their media list and will sometimes receive titles without even asking for them. Otherwise publishers and developers will look at your site, and particularly your Alexa score (essentially a scoring of how popular your site is on the net). If they judge that the exposure of your site is worth a copy of a game then they will either mail you a physical copy, or more common lately, send a digital download code.
If you receive an early copy of the game it’s usually under embargo which means that the reviewer can only release certain information at a given time. For instance: recently with Luigi’s Mansion I could talk about certain levels before the game came out in a preview, but could not divulge any information on how to solve puzzles or the location of hidden Boos. I was also given an embargo date that I could release the review for the game on, in this case days before the game was actually released. Often, if reviews have an embargo of an earlier date than the release, there are things you can’t talk about within it as well. Typically these are spoiler related and don’t pose a problem, but occasionally you can’t discuss things that might affect the score, negative or positive such as length. Playing the game, recording the merits and downfalls of the game, coming up with a score, and then writing a review are obvious next steps. Once approved through an Editor and the embargo date arrives we are free to drop our review on the site.
Often on our site we will receive review copies after a game has released in which case we are free to talk about and write a review whenever we can and fill it with whatever content we see fit. Other times, especially for fledgling sites, we will actually buy the games with our own money and review it for the site. Either way upon completion and posting of the review a link is customarily sent to the publisher that provided the review code. However, it’s mostly the point after our review is posted and the masses begin to consume it, that I really want to discuss.
One of the top things that reviewers at our site and across the net hear most often is outrage against our reviews, whether positive or negative. If you give a score that’s too low than obviously you either didn’t play the game, suck at the game, or are just plain stupid. However, if you give the game a score that people feel is too high than obviously the publisher has bought the reviewer’s opinion with free games, monetary compensation, or even an exclusive earlier review than all other sites giving your website a massive boost in visits to your site, which of course can lead to more ad revenue. Certainly there have been instances on the net where it seems that this is likely the case, though most of it is rumor and conjunction with very little solid evidence. At the end of the day it comes down to the individual reviewer and site and how much pressure is put on them to give a positive score. I cannot speak for the majority of sites out there, or even for all the reviewers with our site, but personally I feel this is a grave misunderstanding that I would like to shed a little more light on the matter personally.
I’ve never once been approached by a developer, publisher, or anyone else with a plea to raise my score for something. I’ve given some dismal scores down in the 3.5 range and all I received in return was an email thanking me for my review. Now again, I know that some other larger sites like IGN may have been pressured in the past into giving a better review, but honestly I don’t think it happens as much as so many people seem to think. In fact in my personal experience I’m more pressured to give a game a bad review, to the point where I sometimes find myself wishing to play a terrible game just so I won’t be called biased.
We’ve reached a point as a gaming community where the vocal majority seems to be plagued and overrun by cynical gamers that feel betrayed or angry with their chosen hobby. They roam the internet simply searching for a new reason to be dismayed, downtrodden, or angry and often refuse to believe that any good score or perfect score (as if there is such a thing) can be valid. I receive far more pressure from readers and even fellow writers on our site to score a game lower rather than higher, because I truly believe that in today’s culture it’s seen as better to tear something down than to build it up. Somehow it’s funnier to make fun of and hate everything and simply gets more views, than to enjoy it and praise the hard work that the developers put in. Loving or enjoying an experience that you played through, simply because a publisher gave you a free copy, is somehow considered the norm in all but the most extreme cases. Entire sites exist to be as harsh as possible to games with people like Yahtzee profiting on tearing a game to shreds, no matter how good it is. Along the way it seems that gamers have forgot that the reason they play games, the true reason I hope, is that they are fun. That they entertain us and encourage us, provide us with epic stories and battles, and provide an interactive medium unlike any other.
It’s no secret that I tend to score games I really enjoy high, with no fear of using a 10/10 type of a review score. Personally I feel that if a game is fun and does all of its technical work well and is a must buy, something like that deserves to be rewarded. Often this ends up with my credibility or competency as a critic and a writer being brought into question, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t affect me and wasn’t frankly insulting. It’s disappointing to work hard on a review only to have others completely tear it apart simply because they don’t agree with it, most times when they haven’t even played the game themselves. How is it so different from someone you know, or even people you ask directly offline, what they thought of an experience? A review is simply an opinion, and depending on the reviewer’s specific criteria, will change with review scores varying drastically. It’s okay to have a bad score for a game most people think is awesome or vice-versa. If you love something you should be able to express that without a fear of what people think and without being accused of being bought off. Most times that simply isn’t the case, and I don’t know a single writer at TPG.com that has ever changed a review score because we want to continue receiving games or because we were asked by a developer.
I get it, the review system is broken. With developers and publishers counting on good reviews to get bonuses or to be able to bring home a decent paycheck to their family there will always be some sort of pressure, real or imagined. I wish that we could put out reviews without scores and then people could read them and judge whether they want to buy a game without deciding it based on an arbitrary score. How things are currently set up that’s an impossibility though, if you wish to receive review copies at all or to even remain relevant. The sad fact is, in order to continue to supply you with the most up to date reviews on the most current games we rely on review copies. There are so many times I’ve received a game I wouldn’t have bought otherwise, on a setting or type that I previously didn’t like or wouldn’t have liked, only to find it fantastic. Those sorts of things wouldn’t be possible if we had to buy all of our own games, and the site would suffer for it. If you’ll look among our reviews even now you’ll find plenty that were personally purchased by us, and you’ll also notice that it doesn’t reflect on our review score at all. We don’t somehow decide to score it lower because we bought a game ourselves. You also won’t find a higher score simply because we want to receive more free games and no publisher to my knowledge has ever cut us off for a bad review.
In all I ask the readers of this site and others to take a moment and simply read a review. Stop being so hung up on that number at the top of the page, because it’s really not that important. True it’s an numerical rating that is taken from an individual’s experience which sums up the entirety of the review, but it isn’t the be all end all. Instead read the entirety of the text, see what things the reviewer thought were bad or good and see if you agree. If not, that’s okay, because ultimately even though there are some things in a review that are universal it really all comes down to personal opinion. These people that many readers decide to tear down are gamers just like you, who love the medium. The only difference is we often also share a passion for writing as much as playing games and so we volunteer our time in order to bring you the latest and greatest news, articles, opinions and reviews.
In the end, if you take nothing else from this, please let me assure you on one thing. I want to be completely transparent when I promise you, our reader, personally that I will never alter a review score because of a publisher or developer opinion no matter what it might cost me. Nor will I change my scores for my fellow writers, editors or even my site admin. The day that I feel the need to do these things enough to consider it I will resign from writing reviews all together. Until that day expect my commitment to bringing you my opinions, reviews, and the latest news with a touch of humor and sarcasm here at The Paranoid Gamer.