There is no such thing as a magic number.
When browsing through game review websites, most decisions made on video games come down to the “magic” numerical grade, or the review score, that appear beside a detailed hand-written review. For some reason everyone uses this number- public relations professionals base their careers on it, while gaming junkies sculpt their GameFly queues to it. However, no one needs it. Only the so-called “truly superior” games get high scores, while other games fall off the radar if they approach a demeaning score of six or less.
Do gamers place too much of our stock in review scores? I think so.
It’s easy to see numeric scores and grade systems rule the wallets of the gaming world. Hardcore gamers would never go out and buy a game rated 7 out of 10, or even a B-. If a highly anticipated game release lands an 8.25, expect an uproar from fanboys and PR alike. But is an 8.25 really that bad? A big issue with the scoring system is that it’s not properly understood. A saying going around is “7 is the new 5.” Look at the game ‘Dante’s Inferno’, which received a 73 according to Metacritic.com. A “mixed or average review” on Metacritic is represented by a score of 50-74. Wouldn’t it make more sense for the average to be represented by a score of 40-59? All math aside, the average means the middle- not 73. How then does a game get a fair chance to be understood for what it is? Simple- read the review. Take a step back and see how a particular reviewer rates their games. Some reviewers give an average game like ‘Dante’s Inferno’ a 5 rather than a 7 like some other publication. In essence, the scores are the same- they are just rated differently.
So why was there a shift in mediocre games previously scoring a 5 now landing a 7? To a development team, a score of 7 looks much better than a 5. This matters because PR reps rely on Metacritic scores to judge the success of a game. Anyone experienced in the game reviewing world will point out that the relationship between a game journalist and a PR rep is a funny one. When a game is released, PR will do almost anything they can to help the game get a high review score. They might even leverage the privilege of reviewing their games as a plea for a favorable score. This isn’t the case for all companies, but it will occasionally pop up as a pimple on the face of video game journalism. At its ugliest, a company might sever ties to a journalist because the company feels like the inferior score they were given came from a writer who wasn’t “experienced enough.” These fears loom over the heads of game reviewers- they walk a fine line between expressing their opinion of a game and harming a relationship with a company.
It may seem like I’m bashing the idea of scoring games, when in fact I think it’s a great tool to measure a game. Recently, there has been an outpouring of terrible games that have terrific sales (despite how good or bad the review score was), all because of a new demographic in customers. Since the Wii has been released, parents and grandparents everywhere have made it their duty to buy some of the worst games imaginable on Nintendo’s “Next-Gen” console. Review scores may have helped this new gaming crowd out had they known where to find them. The scoring system appropriately caters to a demographic who is new or uninformed to the world of gaming- but not for core gamers. Most review sites do seem to judge games based on the quality of the game the majority of the time. But occasionally, outside influences come into play- someone might rate a game high because they had a really awesome interview with the developers and don’t want that networking experience to go to waste. Either way, they are quickly overshadowed by the masses. The gamer has to learn how to compare scores and relate them to the written reviews they accompany.
Score systems are popular on sites like GameInformer and IGN, but you won’t find scores when you find reviews at Joystiq.com. They follow a strict, no-score policy that causes the reader to shift their focus from the number to the content. In theory, this system works great. Unfortunately, it turns gamers away to other sites where they can rely on a scoring system. My guess is most people avoid reading the reviews and prefer to just browse the scores. This is a terrible idea, and it’s completely ignorant for any so-called “gamer” to do. (Turns up nose.) Don’t bank on a score to tell you how good a game is going to be- read the review and see what the experience was like for the writer. Reviews without scores are probably the best method to help gamers find the games they will enjoy the most. If every video game review were stripped of its score, then more people would be forced to read the reviews and base their choices on more than just a number. Within each review is a personal experience that only the writer, who has played the game, can describe. Learning to trust this experience should be the entire purpose of a review. A writer’s score of 7 may be a 9 for you, but you wouldn’t know that without reading the review. Did I mention you should read the review? You should probably read the review.
Will websites start posting scoreless reviews anytime soon? No… scores will always be a part of video game reviews. It’s what gamers want and it’s a reviewer’s job to make sure it’s what they get. It just seems that too much faith is put in those scores. Even though it’s a necessity, scoring systems should not replace familiarizing yourself with a game before making a purchase. The more money the gamers invest in high review-scoring games, the more likely the companies are to produce more products just like what’s already on the shelf. It’s the hardcore gamer’s responsibility to read the reviews journalists are taking the time to write. Still want a score? Fine, just wait to look at it after you have read the review. Don’t abandon sites that rate games- just remember that the scores are relative, but the written review is the best tool available to decide if you will enjoy a game. Do publishers, developers, and the gaming community a favor- ditch the numbers, and GET LITERATE!!!!