Games Reviewers SHOULD Be Bad At Computer Games

game difficulty

A couple of months ago a writer and game reviewer named Dean Takahashi (@deantak) posted a YouTube video of him playing the Cuphead tutorial very badly. He even admitted how bad he was in the video. Yet that video ignited a firestorm of controversy. He was insulted. Calls were made for him to be fired. Racist comments were even made. That little corner of Twitter melted down with fury against the idea that games reviewers should be bad at computer games.

Actually. I think video games reviewers should be bad at computer games.

Or at least, as good as the players they’re writing for.

My Confession

Here’s my confession to you. I’m not that great at computer games. I reckon I’m an average player.

I don’t raid. It’s not usually the hardest difficulty level that I play on. I sometimes pick the easiest difficulty level. I’ve even been known to drop down the difficulty a bit if the level I’m on becomes too hard. (But by the same token, I’ve sometimes bumped it up when it’s been too easy.)

if I find something too easy, then it must be mindbogglingly simple.

Having said that. I have played a lot of games. So I’m no noob. And I’ve played a fairly wide range of game genres too. So undoubtedly I’m better at some genres than others.

Ninja Gaiden Is Really Hard

Back around 2004 I bought an XBox. I bought a few games for it, as you do, and one of those was a game called Ninja Gaiden. I bought it based on a review.

It was touted as a fairly challenging game, but the reviewer said that he’d been through the whole game and while challenging it was also really good and rated it fairly highly.

I started the game, and it IIRC was fairly reasonable. I got through the first level without too much of a problem, and then got into the second level. I’m taxing my memory here, but I think it was on an airship of some sort, and it was harder than the first level. Which is as it should be. Until I got to the second boss fight.

I got creamed. Again and again. And again. Repeatedly. Ad nauseam.

I must have attempted that boss dozens of times over the next several hours. Nothing I tried worked. I think I even tried to find a walk-through on the web, but that didn’t help either. It seemed to me that I was just incapable of beating it. I finally gave up in disgust, chucked the controller on the couch, and never went back to the game.

Reviews Should (Mostly) Be Aimed At Average Players

This is the thing. Video game reviews should be aimed at average players. Mostly.

There’s certainly a place for elite players to learn about games that are for them. It’s obvious to me now that the Ninja Gaiden reviewer was an elite player, and that perhaps the review should have been explicitly aimed at that level of player. It might have saved me some money. And aggravation.

But most players are average at the games they play. Like everything else, player skill falls on a bell curve. The following graph rates players based on their kill/death ratio in Planetside. (From this thread on the forums.)

Planetside Player Performance

Planetside Kill/Death Player Performance Bell Curve

The graph shows that 16% of Planetside players are good or high performers, 68% are average, and 16% are poor performers. Only 16 in every hundred players are good, but of those only 2 are what you’d call elite.

That means that 84 out of every 100 players reading an review need to have that review tailored to them or they are not going to get an accurate account of the game in terms of how they are going to be able to play it.

Reviews Are Biased

Here’s the thing. Someone who is exceptional at computer games is going to automatically weight their review of a game based on their own skill level.

Let’s say a player is in the top one percent of Racing game players worldwide. That player is asked to review an upcoming new Racer. They have all the skills necessary to write a good review and have writing experience.

The player plays the new Racer and finds the control systems a bit simpler than the game they are used to playing, a bit more forgiving of mistakes on the track. So he breezes through the game. That experience is going to be a significant aspect of the review. An average player who likes easier games will read that and come to the conclusion that this is a game that they won’t have too much trouble with. But when they start playing they find it’s a lot less forgiving and less enjoyable as a result.

If they’d had a more accurate review, then perhaps they would have chosen a more suitable game.

What Games Reviewers Need To Be Good At

There are things that a games reviewer does need to be good at. And the better they are at these skills the better.

They should be good at writing. It should be clear and concise. There should be a minimum of typos, and the grammar should be good. The reviewer should write at a level appropriate to the age and education of the person they are writing for.

A good reviewer also knows how to communicate. That’s part of writing, sure, but there’s more to communication than knowing how to string a few sentences together with good spelling and grammar. Knowing how to arrange your words to get your point across is an art.

These aren’t just skills for people reviewing computer games. They’re not just skills for people who write for a living. They’re skills for anyone who has to write something to communicate to someone else whether that is a novel, textbook, interoffice memo, email, or video game review.

But. The one essential characteristic a video game reviewer needs for writing games reviews. The attribute that is more important than anything else. He or she must have a love and a passion for the medium.

If it’s just a writing job. If there’s no love for games, then that will show in the writing, and the review will be lacking.

Concluding Thoughts

When I said that reviewers should be bad at games I was using a little hyperbole to make my point. It’s probably better to say that a reviewer should have average skills in the games they play. That way they can write their reviews for the average player, who is in the majority of their readers.

It’s easy for players to think themselves to be in the top 16% percent. It’s easy for anyone to think they are better than we actually are. Most of us think that way. That is human nature.

The reality of course is that both you and I dear reader are more likely to be average players in whatever game we choose than elite players. And the same goes if we think of ourselves as crappy players. We’re probably better than we think.

What we need are reviews that reflect this reality if we are to make good decisions when we are choosing a game to buy. If we use reviews that is. I know I make emotional purchases from time to time based not on anything rational, but on how I feel about a game. That, however, is something else to post about.

The other day I wrote about how death threats and insults against game developers because they don’t respond the way a player would like, or change a feature, or do something controversial like overdo the loot-box monetisation, accomplishes nothing.

I kind of wonder what the Tweetie-storm fury accomplished. Aside from showing more of the toxicity that has come to be associated with gamer culture, that is. In the grand scheme of things, does it really matter if a game reviewer is an elite player or not. If they love and have a passion for games. Is that not more important?

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1 Comment

  1. pasmith

    There’s a guy names Martin Robinson who reviews & writes about racing games for Eurogamer. He seems to be writing them for the elite racers, but he does it in a way that it seems pretty clear who his target audience is. I think this guy is great because I won’t buy a game based on his review…it’s clear I need a 2nd opinion from a less intense racing game player to see if a title would suit me. BUT I still read his reviews because his passion shines through and it’s actually interesting to hear the things he picks up on even if they’d probably go over my head. Here’s an example:

    I wish we could get more reviewers like this, though if everyone was like him then I wouldn’t be able to find a review that would guide me. In a perfect world it’d be cool if a site could have 2 reviews. One from an expert in the genre and one from someone with a more casual interest. I know the economics of that wouldn’t work for the publisher, but it’d be cool if it did.

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