In my early days as a teenage gaming writer before I joined Coin Arcade, I subscribed to the gaming journalism maxim of slapping a numerical value on my reviews to represent my perspective on the overall quality of a given game. This was and still is a common practice within the gaming journalism industry. At the time, I perceived it as simply just what gaming journalists did and used them perhaps in a misguided attempt to seem more “professional”. What I should have realised at the time was that assigning games a numerical value out of another numerical value is ultimately a flawed concept.
This isn’t a exactly a new issue; whilst I’ve objected to the use of numerical value scores for a few years now, several others have spoken out against this flawed system, most notably TotalBiscuit. During a 32 minute video, he explained his concerns with game reviews at large, making particular reference to the lack of transferability of numerical value scores, the detrimental effect of Metacritic, as well as the issue of a lack of context. “Scores take away from the writing” is a sentiment that I wholeheartedly agree with and really comes close to the core of the issue, but there is an even graver concern that I’ll come back to.
Despite this, I’m under no illusions about being in a minority here, the majority of gaming journalists and non-professional bloggers/reviewers use numerical value scores to support their reviews. In most cases, they don’t detract from the actual content of the review, the writer makes salient points both positive and negative and simply includes the numerical value score as formality. Let’s apply this to the context of a recently released game, Evolve. IGN’s Vincent Ingenito and Gamespot’s Kevin VanOrd, both far more talented and successful than myself, wrote reviews for Evolve which praised the gameplay and atmospheric elements. However, both expressed concerns about the progression system and DLC strategy for the game. Apologies to the writers for my brevity here, the point is that they made good points that accurately reflected the game and I’d advise giving them a read. At the end of the review, there was a score out of ten with a short summary and bullet points that barely summed up the pros and cons – Ingenito gave Evolve 9/10 and VanOrd 8/10.
Firstly, what exactly goes into any given score? I guess my background as a forensic scientist makes me somewhat indisposed to simply accepting an arbitrary qualitative value without understanding what it is attempting to represent. I mean, how does the scale work, is it linear or logarithmic or in other words, how does a score of 8/10 compare to a 9/10? How are flaws factored in, do we just etch off 2/10 because a game is running with an suspect DLC strategy or was released with bugs that a whole two weeks of post release patching still couldn’t surmount? Is an 8/10 for a 3DS game comparable to an 8/10 Xbox One or PS4 game or are they only relative to specific platforms and/or genres? A lot of questions which will obviously have different answers on who you ask, demonstrating the lack of transferability of numerical value scores between different reviewers. Of course, dissent among those reviewing games will always happen and it’s positive in most cases with a wide range of opinions being expressed on games which can only be good for the industry. But taken in isolation, a numerical value score offers little information about the game with little to no context supporting why a game has been given a particular score.
Whilst I mentioned before that numerical value scores don’t detract from the content of the review, this is technically a semi-truth. If the content is there in a review, then that review is valid regardless of whether it uses a numerical value score or not. The issue appears when that score is simply the focus of the reader and I suspect that some readers skip to the end of a review, basing their decision to purchase a game based on that bloody x/10 value. Naturally, they only have themselves to blame for buying a 8/10 game that they didn’t care to learn was completely non-functional on release. But this level of reckless consumerism can only be bad for all consumers in the long run as it essentially allows publishers to release games without due diligence.
This is where I take the most umbrage. The grave concern I alluded to is not with the use of a numerical value score without context by a less than savvy consumer, but by someone with a vested interest in the success of a game. Indeed as a writer, one of my pet hates is the adaptation of one of my reviews to the point where context is lost resulting in my views being misrepresented and the original message being lost. I could say that a game is visually impressive using some form of dramatic hyperbole but express deep concerns about the storytelling or in the case of multiplayer games, net code issues or balance issues, yet the remark about being visually impressive could be seized upon and scored as a point in the game’s favour. Of course, this isn’t proportionally representative of my entire review it doesn’t misrepresent my views as it is expressing an opinion I have made, even if it willfully ignores my criticisms. I accept this as common practice, no sane marketing team would focus their promotion on my criticisms. (Probably wouldn’t focus them on my praise either, given my readership.) By providing a numerical value score, a reviewer gives scope for open interpretation and manipulation by a savvy marketer, a 9/10 from IGN is nothing more to such people than license to print money. Simply slapping that score on the promotional material provides positive input from a credible source that doesn’t provide any context for why the reviewer was so positive in their review and avoids the mention of any of those pesky sale disrupting flaws. Guess they’d never shift the Master Chief Collection if the tagline was “Good luck finding a match in multiplayer”, far safer to lead with an 8/10 from Polygon.
In summary, the numerical value score system is clearly inappropriate for reviewing games and serves only to advance the agendas of review aggregator sites like Metacritic whose influence seems to defy the trend of a more informed market. As well as the agendas of those who publish these games by giving emotionless arbitrary numbers without context instead of honest critique or even praise to the detriment of both consumers and in some cases, developers. Hell it hurts us as writers/reviewers too, remember when Jeff Gerstmann gave Kane and Lynch a 6/10, ancient history for some. It turns out that the silly little number at the end is all that a lot of people see, publishers included.
EDIT – I wrote the draft for this in early February and it seems that several prominent websites are abandoning the numerical value score systems including Eurogamer and Joystiq (we’ll miss you Joystiq), in favour of other systems that provide a very short qualitative summary based on whether a game represents value for money. Whilst I remain somewhat on the fence about the potential effectiveness of these new systems, I applaud what is at least an attempt to develop a more logical way to summarise a review.