Basic editorial standards in game reviews

Published on Monday, April 25, 2016 By Brad Wardell In Ashes Dev Journals

Gamergate & Reviews

Back in 2014, The Escapist interviewed me regarding my opinion regarding the #gamergate controversy.

Ashes-1My position could be summed up that I felt awful for those who had felt mobbed by jerks on the Internet but that the core issue – that the gaming media has some serious problems – is legitimate.  I was asked if I was concerned that our upcoming games would be retaliated against by social justice warrior (SJW) journalists and I said no. I wasn’t worried because professionals can separate their politics from their job.

The problem, however, is that since then, more and more game sites have stopped using staff writers and begun farming out their reviews to “freelancers” which I use scare quotes around because it increasingly means whoever is willing to put a few hours into a game and write something up for $200. 

There are still plenty of good game sites who either have staff writers who handle reviews or have a trusted set of reviewers that they work with to obtain reviews.  I have never liked how #gamergate proponents would lump all gaming journalists together without realizing that there is just as much of a gulf between the professionals and the SJW clique as there is between professional game developers and the “indie” clique that talks about social justice endlessly without producing much in the form of games.

Fast forward: 2016

So I said back in 2014 I wasn’t concerned that we’d be retaliated against due to having voice sympathy to some of the stated objectives of #gamergate which was, simply, getting gaming journalists to quit using their platform as a means to jam their personal politics down our throats. 

Clearly, I was mistaken.

This past month we released the highly anticipated massive-scale real-time strategy game Ashes of the Singularity.  The reviews have been all over the place with the general consensus of the professional reviewers that it’s good/very good with a smattering of low scores mostly by kids who happened to get the review gig for some site that still has a legacy metacritic position (as in, they literally let their forum users write the reviews and their scores are relatively meaningless).

Frankly, some no-name site giving us a 6 because it “didn’t grab him” doesn’t mean that much. It’s still bad because it affects our metacritic score but what can you do?

That brings us to GameSpot.

GameSpot: You’re supposed to be an actual real site

This past Winter we released our first expansion pack for Galactic Civilizations III.  I wasn’t that involved on it but the reviews for it were decent with one exception: GameSpot gave it a 4.  Not many people agreed with that review and I’ll touch on the Mercenaries expansion pack briefly here:

GalCiv III: Mercenaries is a $20 expansion pack that introduces 2 new civilizations with their own unique tech trees, space ship styles, parts, along with several dozen Mercenaries that can be hired, each with its own unique ship and set of abilities.  It also included a mini-campaign regarding it. 

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Dozens of unique ships? Lots of fun? New campaign? 2 alien civilizations each with their own tech tree? Only $20? 4/10.

 

Now, we can quibble over whether that’s worth $20 or not.  But as an expansion, it’s pretty decent. It’s not buggy. It adds some new gameplay elements and provides some content.  Traditionally (as in, from 1989 to 2015) a 4/10 means a game has fundamentally failed in whatever it was trying to accomplish either due to bugginess or just general awfulness.

When I looked into who had reviewed it I noticed that this guy had blocked me on Twitter sometime after GalCiv III was released (which he gave an 8) and this Mercenaries expansion (which received the ridiculous 4/10). A little more research showed he’s one of those “aGG” people (anti-GamerGate). 

Mind you, my crime isn’t that I’ve gone around and harassed people on the Internet or done anything particularly awful. Rather it is, based on my personal experience, that these freelance journalists sometimes use the platforms they write for to push their personal agenda.

When I found out this guy was also assigned to review Ashes of the Singularity I sent this off:

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with this image

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Gamespot never responded. 

Instead they put up this garbage: http://www.gamespot.com/reviews/ashes-of-the-singularity-review/1900-6416414/

A 4/10.  And this from someone who rated Goat Simulator a 6.

Can I prove that he has an axe to grind? Of course not.  But it is my professional opinion, having been working with the gaming media on game releases longer than,well, anyone you’re likely to encounter (over 20 years) that it doesn’t pass the smell test.

A couple things I want to add here:

#1 Does the review have legitimate criticisms of the game? The answer is, no.  You can read my dissection of it here.  That isn't to say there aren't lots of legitimate criticisms to be had of the game.  The consensus criticism is that there's not enough content and the campaign is too short and has low production values. Fair enough.  By contrast, the Gamespot review doesn't realize how many resources the game has, complains about missing features that are not just in there but couldn't have been missed if the campaign had been completed or having played a few different maps.   

#2 What about other reviews? The major game sites have given it almost universally positive reviews.  There are some no-name sites I've never heard of that gave it a mixed score. GI gave it a 7/10 which was disappointing.

#3 When you read the dissection, replace our game with say Supreme Commander or Starcraft or Homeworld and do any of his criticisms stop being true? 

#4 This same review normally gives RTS games 7s, 8s, and 9s.  I couldn't find any RTS games he gave less than a 7.  Act of Aggression? 7. HW: DOK? A 9.  Say what you will about Ashes but everywhere else, Ashes scores in the same ballpark.

 

Ashes of the Singularity: What is it?

Let’s go through a check list of Ashes of the Singularity and what it is.   Remember, I don’t have to prove it’s amazing (even though yes, I think it’s pretty amazing). I only have to make the case that it isn’t the worst game to be released this year (as GameSpot has not, to my knowledge, given anything less than a 4 and only our other title, Mercenaries, got a 4):

Ashes of the Singularity feature list:

  • Gorgeous visuals
  • Rock solid (not a single review has had technical issues)
  • 12+ campaign missions
  • Strong, highly replayable skirmish game
  • Built in, active multiplayer community
  • Built in ranked multiplayer system with thousands of active players
  • Multiple single player scenarios
  • Dozens of single player maps on release
  • Combines game mechanics of Total Annihilation (streaming economy) with Company of Heroes (region based territory control)

Even people who criticize Ashes of the Singularity usually admit that it’s the best real time strategy game since Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance (2007). 

We can quibble on a long list of faults that can be pointed out (the campaign is too short or the maps trade detail for variety or there should be more units, etc.).  But none of that even comes close to a 6 let alone a 4.

 

Do we even need a Gaming Media at this point?

The best-selling PC strategy game right now is called Factorio which has received virtually no coverage from the gaming media.  Which begs the question, why even deal with these guys anymore?  My kids go to YouTube to find out if they want a game (or Twitch).  And no wonder.

If you’re a game reviewer you got one job: Tell your audience whether a given game is any good or not.  If you have some hard-on against the people who made it then disclose it or recuse yourself.  But don’t piss the the work of professional game developers who spent 3 years making a ground-breaking new game so that you can do your little part to get back at “the man”.

The problem: Yes, Metacritic still matters

So these drive-by reviews will hurt us. A lot. You, reading this, may not care about Metacritic but thousands of others do. They look at whether to get a game or not and now we’ll have a sub-70 Metacritic score.  It’s hard to come back from a 4 out of 10.  It will affect sales negatively.

For us, we make games for a living. It takes years to make a game.   If you have some problem with the people who make it, recuse  yourself if you can’t separate your personal politics from your subject.

I’ve heard every argument on reviews over the past couple decades. It’s just one guy’s opinion, he’s entitled to his own view.  Here’s my two cents: If you’re a gaming site you have editorial standards. You have rated game X an N and game Y an M.  That’s how it works.   If you want to post your half-baked idiotic review on your Word Press blog knock yourself out. But when you write for a real publication, be a professional.

I was very outspoken some years ago when we released a bad game: Elemental: War of Magic.   That’s a game with a nearly 60 metacritic score.  I bring this up because I am notoriously open when we mess up and make a bad game.  When War of Magic wasn’t good, I gave away its sequel and expansion to everyone who bought War of Magic for free.  That’s how serious I am on the issue of integrity in gaming.  I put my money (millions of dollars) where my mouth was. 

By contrast, Ashes of the Singularity is a very good game, easily the best RTS that has come out in years.  Usually the only debate I see is whether it is better than Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance or not.  You’d be hard pressed to find a lot of people who think the game deserves a 4. That’s insane.

I can’t even begin to express how disgusted I am. I’ve been doing it a very long time, arguably longer than any gaming journalist and I’ve never seen it as bad as it is now. Get your shit together. I was here before you and I can assure you I’ll be here long after you.

References

Ashes-2

Multiple factions, thousands of units, fun gameplay, rock solid

 

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Includes a campaign and scenarios for single player

 

Ashes-3

Single player skirmish with the first multi-core RTS AI that makes it arguably gives it most challenging and intelligent player computer players ever seen in a real time strategy game

 

Ashes-7

Lots of different maps, right out of the “box” gives lots of replayability

Ashes-6

Includes a world-wide ranked multiplayer system with intelligent match making that is robust, fast, and well populated with players

 

Score: 4/10 apparently…

 

Then again, it’s not Goat Simulator

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6/10 (from same reviewer)

I’m sure there’s no bias…