It used to be that if a game was good it received positive reviews, but if it was bad it received low review scores.
It was a system that was innocent and honest, and it made it easy being a gamer, because you truly knew which games were worthy of your cash.
Things were simple back then. Game reviews were honest because gamers respected and valued honest opinions, and because the industry was largely free of the manipulations that now have a choke-hold on it (more on that later).
Back in the 80s and 90s you’d often see painfully honest reviews that gave scores of 50 and below to major titles that simply failed to live up to expectations.
Flash forwards to today and you see a different picture.
How often do you purchase a new game that’s received critical appraisal, only to end up being disappointed?
These days you can sense the inner workings of the gaming industry. Most wise gamers know that game developers have reviewers in their pocket, and that the major media outlets are making mutual beneficial deals with developers; deals that see games rated overly positively in exchange for cash, publicity, or reputation.
And then you get the gamers themselves… we’ll get to that in a second.
Gamers decisions are fuelled by the media. Positive game reviews, lots of publicity and social shares… those are all factors that are designed to help you make the right decisions. But is the system really working? Are reviews truly telling us what we need to know?
Here are six honest to God truths you need to know about game reviews and the media.
1. Game journalists avoid negative reviews because they’re bad for business
Games journalism is a business. Sure, most media outlets like to hide the financial aspect behind a friendly face. But at the end of the day, for gaming magazines and websites to survive they need to make cold hard cash. That’s just reality.
The problem is there’s no financial incentive in writing a negative review.
Developers will pay for positive reviews. Publishers will share positive reviews, giving sites and journalists PR that can help develop their reputation. Gamers will share reviews that speak highly of franchises they like.
But negative, honest reviews? Nada.
That’s why journalists will usually be dishonestly positive when reviewing games. In fact, year on year game reviews have been using a more limited amount of scores.
That’s also why critics tend to review games much more positively than gamers themselves do.
To prove this, simply take a look at a few MetaCritic scores. You’ll notice one trend: the Critic Score is almost always 10% or more higher than the User Score. Grand Theft Auto V, for instance, has a Critic Score of 97 and a User Score of 82 (you can see this here). That’s a difference of 15 out of 100.
Journalists inflate positive reviews. Because of this, smart gamers will generally take the average critic review score and subtract a few points from it, leaving them with a review score closer to the truth.
- 2. Reviewers naturally want to be nice to game developers
A lot of gamersforget that game developers are people. That’s understandable to an extent. While we see a developer’s products all the time we rarely see the people themselves. The result is that it can be easy to forget the people behind the products.
Reviewers, however, have to actually reach out and share reviews with developers. We send emails all the time to game developers letting them know that we’ve reviewed their game. There’s nothing worse than emailing a developer to tell them that you’ve written a negative review about something they put hours and hours of work into.
Writing for NintendoEverything, Austin says, “[When writing a negative review] I use words like “decent” or “alright” instead of “mediocre” or “bad”, because I know these guys- at least to an extent- and having to send an e-mail to a developer with a negative review you’ve written about their game stinks. I hate it. It’s my least favorite e-mail to send in the entire world, because you never hear back and you know they looked at it and saw that you didn’t like it and augh. It really sucks. Then I sit there and wonder how they take it. I guess maybe it’s giving up my integrity as an honest game reviewer to change the way I state my opinion due to some external factor, but I can’t help it!”
- 3. Developers threaten people who tell the truth
Do you remember when Activision took down Youtube videos showing glitches in Call of Duty?
That was a dark day for games journalism and for the community in general. Talk about Big Brother. The fact that Youtubers were allowed to show Call of Duty in a positive light but not in a negative one is an affront to freedom of speech.
Activision’s reason for this is self-evident: they want to guarantee high sales by taking down honest but negative videos. Imagine if that were extended to across the entire industry. You’d never be able to speak an honest word about games. You’d be reduced to brown-nosing.
- 4. Gamers themselves need to make more of an effort to support honest sites
Bizarrely, gamers themselves do not value positive reviews, or at least that’s what our research suggests.
In creating this site I went to extensive lengths to research precisely what types of article and reviews get shares and comments. My research made it glaringly obvious that positive reviews get far more shares than negative ones, and that negative reviews hardly get any shares at all.
At the same time, gamers actually protest against honest but negative reviews. Should a journalist review a negative game and be completely honest about it, they’re likely to receive a barrage of hate mail from die-hard fans of that franchise.
And that is simply mind-boggling. Because here’s a reviewer helping you to make smart decisions with your money by avoiding a dud game, and in exchange he / she is met with a hailstorm of insults.
- 5. Social media favours positivity, so for new sites to take off they have to be positive
Social media has become an absolute must for games journalists (and for journalists in general). But, as I mentioned earlier, social media is highly biased towards positivity over negativity.
Many gaming websites often share a positive review solely for the purpose of getting social shares.
Followers are the same. My research shows that positive articles will generate around 10x more followers than negative ones.
If you’re wondering how I conducted that research, I used the Social Metrics add-on and went through the top 21,000 websites recording what articles generate what responses. The results confirm that if you want to succeed in social media you have to be positive, because very few people will share negative articles, even when that negativity is in the form of an honest review.
- 6. Games have become more about marketing than gaming
We’re lucky to live in a day and age where gaming is such a rich community, and where we gamers have a constant stream of articles, videos, developer diaries and other pieces of content to keep up entertained.
But there’s one negative to the current gaming scene: It makes games more about marketing than about actual gaming.
How many games have you played over the past year that failed to live up to their marketing? Many people would point to Evolve as the perfect example of this. Mike Boccer at GameZone says, “Turtle Rock and 2K set the bar insanely high with Evolve and there was no way it could live up to the hype.”
At the same time, there are tons of amazing games that don’t receive the recognition they deserve simply because they can’t fund a competitive marketing campaign.
Take Spec: Ops, for instance. It’s an amazing shooter that simply couldn’t afford a marketing campaign to compete with Battlefield and Call of Duty. Chris Reed at CheatSheet says, “Most war games these days are about as serious as a Transformers movie, with big action set pieces that come off as more awe-inspiring than emotionally draining. That’s where Spec Ops: The Line comes in. The whole point of this game is to illustrate just how awful and destructive war really is, and to give lie to the bombastic military shooters we take for granted. Spoiler alert: It works.”
It works, but Spec: Ops didn’t receive anywhere near as many sales as other FPSs, simply because it has a more limited marketing budget. Back in the 90s, honest, positive reviews would have made Spec: Ops a tremendous success. Not so today.
Picking games used to be easy. You used to read honest reviews in a magazine and purchase the game you liked the sound of. But the gaming community is so vast and complex that hundreds of great games are being lost in obscurity while many supposedly amazing games sell excellently but ultimately disappoint.