Game reviews are shit and I hate them.
Earlier this month I reviewed Thief for work and, in many ways, it epitomised why I hate doing reviews now. As editor I get to basically cherry-pick the reviews I want to do and everyone else can suck shit, which is good because it means that I only have to play games I’m interested in but bad because the way reviews currently work (for a given value of my perspective only, your mileage may vary, consult a doctor before reading to the end of this paragraph) means that I end up getting mad at them and often end up slightly resenting their very existence.
Let’s talk about Thief. Thief code arrived on a Wednesday afternoon, and was fully downloaded by Thursday afternoon. The embargo was at 2AM on the following Tuesday, which essentially meant I had Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday to play it. Sounds good, right?
Well let’s actually take the entirety of Monday out of the equation because I would need time to record, render and upload my video. So that’s gone. Okay and I guess Friday is out of the equation as well because, shit, I need to actually do work. Nobody cares that I’m playing Thief, they want to read the news on the site. Where is the news? Fuck you I’m playing Thief… and, okay, doing some work. Actually it looks like I don’t have time to play Thief at all. I’ll play it after work.
Starwipe to 6PM Friday evening. “Fuck this,” I say, getting out of my chair. “I’m done here.”
Suddenly: linear time
Whoops! It’s the weekend now. Conservatively the single-player campaign of Thief is estimated at 15 – 20 hours long. That’s 7 – 10 hours each day of the weekend playing the game. Do I want to spend 15 – 20 hours of my goddamn weekend playing Thief? I guess it turns out that I didn’t, because I sure only spent maybe one or two each day.
Now it’s Monday. “If I play Thief all day, literally all day, I should be able to have the review done by tomorrow afternoon,” I say to myself. I’ve become delusional, an idiot. I obviously cannot do this: I have to do my actual daily work. I manage to get about six hours in by working late that evening.
This repeats over the course of the next three days until, finally, by Thursday, I’ve actually finished the game. I spend Friday cutting and rendering and uploading and finally, on Saturday morning, five days after every other site in the world has put their review up, mine is finally ready to deliver to the world.
Steam says I played for 20 hours but Steam is notoriously full of shit, I make it closer to 28. Add another six for cutting the 15-minute video and recording a voice-over and we’re talking 34 hours of work, nearly a full standard work-week of hours, just to produce one single item of content. In that same time I could have produced literally over 100 news articles and they would, together, achieve 100 times the traffic of this single review and had the bonus effect of not winding up with me hating everything in sight.
Big-ups to those reviewers who spend their entire weekends playing Thief or, for that matter, any pre-launch video game. Big ups to you. I know John Walker of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, admitted as much in his review. That’s not for me. Fuck that. I’ve got things I want to do with my life, actual things that involve my wife and my pets and my house and my hobbies. That’s what the weekend is for.
Yeah but Tim
First-world problems, yeah, I get it. Nice comeback, it’s not like I don’t think about this all time. But that’s the thing isn’t it, even if my job is “play video games” I’m still doing my job on the weekend and that’s just a heap of shit no matter how you look at it.
So what’s the solution? Stop doing reviews? Tempting. More on that later. But I do love games and I think I provide a pretty okay insight into them for others to read. Maybe just give the reviews to someone else? What, so they can work their asses off for what equates to a horrific hourly rate? Yeah, if that’s what they want to do then sure. Maybe just stop trying to finish games? Sure, yeah not every game needs to actually be “finished”. I certainly think some games are so one-note or so clearly bad that you can judge them after a few hours. That’s definitely true.
There’s not really a one-size-fits-all solution. Certainly I’d love it if publishers could provide review code much, much earlier than they currently do. If you’re in print media you get your code like two or three weeks ahead of people who run online outlets like mine. That code is always in limited quantities though, so there’s not enough to just give it to everyone. That’s never going to change and I’m pretty sick of trying to fight the print/online battle anymore even though the audience for online media is a zillion times bigger than print media aaaaaa anyway whatever. So basically what I’m going to do, personally, is just stop caring.
News gets traffic. Traffic is what makes a successful website, and a successful website is what makes my bosses happy. That’s my job. So Thief is the last time I’m going to let myself get pressured into allowing my work life to eclipse my personal life. I’m going to stop caring about missing embargoes and I’m going to stop thinking that I should — or even entertaining the possibility that I could! — spend my whole weekend doing work. Fuck that, and here’s the other thing: reviews are basically pointless and stupid now.
This heading helps break up the text into readable chunks
Take Diablo 3’s Reaper of Souls expansion for example. That’s out tomorrow, and we’ll probably do a review on it (eventually) but… well, we’ve been actually playing it for months now. I mean the whole thing was in beta for literally months. We’ve reported on it to death. There’s actually nothing more to say on it that we haven’t already said. Same deal with Hearthstone, which just “officially launched”.
“Those things we said back then are as true then as they are now,” trumpets another perfunctory review. “Seven graphics out of ten.”
I’m not ragging on Reaper of Souls here or Thief for that matter (although I did bag the shit out of Thief in the end, that’s true) but just the nature of the gaming-game has changed completely. Early access, open betas, call it what you will, but it’s becoming increasingly rare that a “final” released version of a game is actually any different to the one you’ve already been playing. When DayZ Standalone is “officially launched” that’ll mean precisely jack shit, because every man and his can opener have been playing it for fucking ever. Titanfall came out last week. Where’s the review? Well we played the open beta for like, a week, dude. Just watch the video.
Reviews have become this “institution” almost, this “thing” that sites have to have… except that they don’t? VG247 has thrown the baby and the bathwater out of the window on that front and they’re doing stupidly well, and I think it’s a model that we’ll see more and more people begin to adopt. Certainly as an editor of a popular gaming site I have begun to question the relevance of reviews, and when I analyse the traffic I can tell you with absolute certainty that our reviews don’t get anywhere near as much traffic as even simple things like a screenshot gallery. When I saw that my BioShock Infinite screenshot collection got 10 times as much traffic as the video review that I sweated blood to get out in time, I nearly had a seizure. Fuck that noise.
Here it comes
All of this is symptomatic of a bigger issue that I often like to gripe about when deep in my cups (of tea): games media have/has/herp basically become irrelevant*. Before the Internet was a Thing™ there was definitely value in having an independent third-party media to communicate your product and message, but now? Thanks to the crushing onset of technology most big publishers now have staggering amounts of subscribers on their YouTube channels and followers on their Twitter accounts, often much more than many games media outlets (EA has 2.3 million Twitter followers for example, where News Corp-backed IGN only has 1.3) and they can blast their advertising directly to the consumer for good or ill.
Companies like Rockstar basically exist entirely on this model, getting literally five or six thousand comments on their own trailer announcements. I’ve only ever had good experiences with Rockstar’s PR for sure, but there’s no denying that the company itself is at the point where they might graciously give out maybe one or two “exclusive” previews on their titles to a cherry-picked games media outlet and they’ll still sell eight hojillion copies of Grand Theft Auto. And they don’t even need to do that. They could ignore every media outlet for the rest of their lives and still make a stupid amount of money.
I just looked at Rockstar’s Newswire and saw that literally 12,000 people had liked one of their Instagram photos. Fuck off.
*Not really “irrelevant” because yes we’ll still always need someone to cut through PR bullshit, for sure, but definitely the amount of people who even want that bullshit to be cut through in the first place is vastly decreasing. Whether that’s a combination of consumers being more savvy or less savvy I’m not really sure but certainly it’s true to say that publishers see less and less value in communicating to games media and more and more value in communicating directly with their market. Peace