Note: This is an opinion piece. Everything written is only the opinion of the writer. Nothing more or less.
In my last post about this topic, I claimed review scores need to be retired. While that is still my position, many people disagree with me. I got to looking around and seeing how other outlets do it in order to find a way to perhaps better improve what review scores offer, while removing the parts that are obsolete. The problems with review scores are many, but to summarize:
- Review scores are only numbers and when used as a quick glance or summary, do not serve the purposes of the reader.
- When review scores are used as consumer guides, it promotes crappy practices used by developers and publishers, resulting in anti-consumer shenanigans.
- Fear of releasing a game to poor reviews or poor consumer reactions with poor review scores results in some publishers acting in bad faith due to the focus on review scores.
- Reviewers are sometimes subject to the whims of publishers and developers with obtaining review copies. Fear of angering the developers and publishers does exist in some places with the possibility of not getting review copies in the future.
- Emphasis is often placed on speed to get a review out so to capitalize on being seen the most.
- There is a distinct lack of emphasis placed on quality, and honesty in reviews, often to the point of hard questions not being asked.
- Publishers are often times allowed to outright lie to the consumer in the name of good press, and are not often called on it nor held to account for their dishonesty.
So how can those problems be mitigated? For some, they simply fall to reporters and reviewers on doing research and calling bulls*it where required. For others, it has a lot to do with pre-order culture and paid early access to games. For example, when you have games like Assassin’s Creed: Unity having been promoted for as long as it was, with heavy incentives to pre-order it before any review could come out, it more or less forces the consumer to trust the producer or developer to not screw up. Inevitably, they DO screw up. Studios like Ubisoft and producers like Electronic Artists are often given incentive to release games before they are ready, meaning you end up with buggy messes more often than not. That is not something that the consumer should have to deal with if they are pre-ordering a game, and even less if that game comes with a $60+ price tag. These are instances where the only real resolution can come from consumers NOT buying their products and NOT pre-ordering them.
Ubisoft lately has been a major offender in that category, and I need only point at it with Watch_Dogs and their downgrading of the game on the PC to not anger console players. I can also point at the recent Assassin’s Creed: Unity release with severe performance and gameplay problems, to the point where even someone like Totalbiscuit couldn’t manage to play through it on a beast of a gaming machine. Their other big problem is the fact that with AC:U, Ubisoft had an embargo time that landed it being several hours after the game went public. This meant that people were buying a product that they might not otherwise buy if they had seen the reviews it eventually got. Kotaku went so far as to tell Ubisoft that they would not adhere to a post-release embargo again. It seems as if Ubisoft has responded with the idea that nobody at all would get pre-review copies, then with The Crew. Claiming there would be no embargo at all, but with their history it only comes off with the worst anti-consumer attitude possible. In other words, with their sketchy history, they continually ask consumers to outright trust them. Why would you trust someone after they have given you so many poorly made products? You shouldn’t, and Ubisoft should be held to account for it.
EA learned this the hard way when they insisted that Sim City 2013 required online play, despite proof to the contrary that it was simply badly made anti-consumer DRM. For that, it contributed to them earning Worst Company In The United States for a second time. For it, they seem to want to repair the damage done, and it will take quite a long time for that damage to be repaired. The message, however, got across and it was only because consumers said ‘enough is enough’. All too often, that is a large part of the solution to the problems outlined above.
I believe, however, that the gaming press can and should do better. How do we do that? I believe a large part comes down to taking the focus away from numbers or specific grading. For example, many places will color the review scores in colors depending on what any one score, or scoring point ends up being. Usually with red meaning a low, or poor score and going along a gradient to green at the high end. I think using that alone, without the numbers could be an interesting concept. Perhaps a black score could come to mean that the review is very bad, with red meaning only bad, yellow or orange being the ideal average, and either another color such as green or blue signaling a higher end score. No numbers being given means it is up to the consumer to read a review and use the score to infer the overall opinion of the reviewer.
Another alternative would be to significantly narrow the scale down instead, perhaps to the point where there are four overall results, and usually only three: Bad, average, good, and rarely, very good. This would allow reviewers to keep their summaries and scores, while forcing consumers to still read the review and see if they like what they see. I want to be clear that this is not about being lazy, or not wanting to score something. Instead, I believe that evolution from the current models being used is healthy and puts more power in the hands of the consumer, and forces them to take more time to actually do more research on any product they are considering buying. Likewise, this would end up forcing producers and developers to be more honest with the consumer, because they would end up with even less room to defraud their customers when they release bad games.