How to Fix the Video Game Review System

Over the years, a few things have been omitted from the process of game reviews in favor of a more streamlined approach that is primarily focused on appealing to the lowest common denominator of gamer. Too often have we, as critics, felt satisfied with evaluating games from a shallow perspective without spending the time to dig deeper into the mechanics and theory behind the development of each title. It’s time we make a change.

Simply put, the review system is broken. There, I said it. The grading system is flawed and far too arbitrary, overly optimistic previews generate hype leading to inflated or disappointing scores, and written reviews provide basic information that anyone could glean from the back of a retail box. Games are evaluated in a vacuum, and fail to consider the competition when determining value, innovation, or impact. The notion of an “average” score has been completely destroyed by fans and critics alike, and heavily anticipated titles often find themselves rated upon an entirely different scale altogether. While it’s great that IGN and other sites are attempting to create elegant, magazine-like design templates for their written reviews, it’s the fundamentals that need to be revisited before focusing on making words pretty on a page.

There are three main ways to fix the majority of problems that reduce the effectiveness of game reviews. And here…we…go!

1.) Overhaul the Rating System

From a purely mathematical standpoint, the average score on a 1-10 scale is a 5. When was the last time a game that scored a 5/10 wasn’t being absolutely reamed by critics in their reviews? My point exactly. The scale needs to be driven down and revamped, which will reduce the enormous rift that has developed between games that are simply average, and those that are truly enjoyable. Rating games on a scale of 1-5 drives the average down considerably, and reduces the margin for error or misinterpretation from gamers. It’s a simple change that has a big impact: A game that receives 2.5/5 stars as opposed to a 5/10 is less likely to be immediately disregarded as trash, simply because the difference between a perfect score and the assigned one is much smaller, even though it’s ultimately the same percentage value. With less room between utter perfection and total garbage, gamers will be more likely to read the review to determine what exactly factored into the score.

Speaking of factors, the breakdown is something that needs to go. Assigning scores to aspects like graphics and sound only leaves more room for interpretation that could detract from the words of the review. Less focus on the score, more focus on the details. Gamers should be able to decide for themselves how well the game delivers aesthetically, presentation-wise, and whether or not the length of the experience is worth spending $60 on based on the words of the review. Currently, it’s far too easy to simply scroll to the bottom of the review, get the summary, and pass judgment on the game. There is far more to a game than a few summary sentences for gamers with short attention spans, and we need to do the medium justice by letting the written or video reviews speak for themselves.

Ironically, in summary: lower the amount of total points a game can score (to 5, preferably) and remove the score breakdown.

2.) Dig Deeper into the Game

Reviewing games is a tough business. Believe me, I know. Often times, the gaming community makes up its mind as to what the score of a particular title should be well before it even comes out. This kind of pressure often times leads to games being reviewed with a bit of a slant (even though we may not like to admit it) simply to appease the gaming masses or reward a developer for taking a chance. It’s hard to score a game like L.A. Noire lower than what you hoped it would be, but exploring the mechanics and intricacies of the title in your written review will justify the number next to the words.

A perfect example of not exploring a game’s inner mechanics and regurgitating what fans already know/want to hear would be IGN’s Modern Warfare 3 review. It isn’t so much a review, as it is an overview of the entire Modern Warfare 3 experience. Additionally (and I mean no disrespect to Anthony Gallegos here) the entire review is filled with justifications for outdatedness, recurring problems, and other shortcomings that other franchises are hardly excused from. There isn’t a single paragraph in the entire review that delves deeper into the mechanics, the Call of Duty formula’s aging enjoyment, or really anything that fans of the franchise don’t already know.

Reviews need to explore the video game beyond surface level. Too often do most reviews feel like mere once-overs of experiences that are supposedly incredibly deep. If this means delaying the review past the release date, so be it. The best reviews are the ones that critics take their time on, and if the big gaming news sites are receiving titles days or weeks in advance, it’s not as if the reviews will hit the web weeks after the game actually hits stores. We owe it to developers, gamers, and the industry as a whole to take our time reviewing games.

3.) More Comparisons to the Competition

As I mentioned a little ways up there, games tend to be reviewed in a vacuum. The mentality behind this behavior is that each game is to be evaluated on its own merits, and that it is unfair to compare a title to its peers. It’s a well-intentioned approach that ultimately fails to consider the multitude of innovations and advancements that other games in similar genres have already accomplished. How can a game’s merits be effectively reviewed if the current gaming landscape isn’t taken into account? By reviewing games in a vacuum, gamers have no frame of reference for each score, and unfair comparisons may be drawn as a result. It isn’t exactly uncommon for people to wonder why Game A scored a 9 whereas Game B managed to garner a 8.0 when there’s absolutely no basis or established precedent being considered in the review. Consider the following response to a video I made about Crysis 2′s multiplayer beta, and how it stacked up to the juggernaut competition:

Considering that there really aren’t many original ideas floating around the gaming industry, this is especially important. Either provide direct comparisons to other games that do things better or worse within the review, or follow’s approach to this issue.

By providing a clear, concise comparison to other equally-scored titles in the same genre, gamers will know exactly where the reviewer stands without requiring an excessively eloquent explanation (alliteration, FTW!) It also contributes to the overall purpose of a review: informing the reader what the best possible buy could be for their particular tastes or interests. It also helps the reader determine how much his personal tastes align with the reviewer’s, which makes the reader value the review either less or more, depending on where they fall within that particular spectrum.

In conclusion, the review system does its job adequately. However, with loads of room for improvement, huge industry influencers need to take it upon themselves to lead the charge with more appropriate review strategies. We’re doing alright, but we can do (and should) do better!

What do you think? Are game reviews fine the way they are? Or does an overhaul sound appropriate? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

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One Response to How to Fix the Video Game Review System

  1. Jerry Curlan says:

    Just so you know, if you add 1-10 and divide by 10, the average is actually 5.5. What you meant to say is that 5 is the median of 1-10.

    As far as the whole ratings thing goes, I honestly think it’s fine as it is, and doesn’t need to be changed. The problem isn’t in the ratings system, or the breakdown in the average section, or the 1-10 vs. 1-5 scale, or how much depth the review goes into the game mechanics, or not included comparisons to similar games in similar genres.

    The problem lies entirely at the feet of gamers. Gamers who can’t (or can’t be bothered to) comprehend how game reviews & ratings work, who don’t (or simply won’t) understand that a game review is the personal opinion of the person who wrote it based on their time with it, who absolutely refuse to acknowledge that two different people can have two completely different opinions of the same game and that both opinions are still completely valid, who maintain that if game X is rated higher than game Y by anyone anywhere ever that one of the two reviews was the result of bribery or a back-room conspiracy, and who outright will refuse to admit that there is even the possibility that their favorite game title or series may not be the best in the entire gaming landscape.

    Just like every other thing in life, people only generally give their feedback about the best & the worst things. This is why you’ll hear people talk about the amazing meal they had at Chez Magnifique, or the time the waiter at Bob’s Weiners spilled their drink and got the orders wrong, but not about the completely average meal they had at Olive Garden. This is how the review comments get so out of hand – one side sees this as the best review ever, the other side sees it as the worst review ever, and neither side is willing to admit that there is a third possibility, and before you know it Mr. Burns is releasing the hounds.