Percentages. Who, what, why, where, and – dammit - when? As loonygames’ own top dog, loonyboi, puts it, "isn't it flaky how Game X will get a 76% and Game Y will get a 75%? What the heck's the difference? With loonygames I decided early on to do no ratings, and screenshots only rarely. I want people to read what I have to say, and make their own conclusions about the game." While I’m on the subject, what’s with these "3.5 out of 5" scores? Why pretend you’re using a five-point scale when you’re blatantly using a ten-point one? Is this some sad attempt to create the impression that your magazine reviews with greater accuracy than the opposition? Scales like that are almost as annoying as those that use smiley faces, or those totally cheesy temperature readings - because the game’s just that hot!!! Sorry, I got all Gamefan for a moment.
Rich Wyckoff raises another interesting problem with the typical magazine score: "If you look at a year’s worth (or even a month's worth) of reviews from any American magazine, one thing should become immediately obvious: reviewers are highly reluctant to give below a 75% (or the equivalent) to any game. In the magazines which use a 1-100 or 1-10 scale with decimals, you will also note that there is a large gap below 75%, with the rest of the ratings given usually 35% or less". Whether this is due to bribery and corruption, or just reviewers ‘being nice’, it really does render use of a percentage (or ten-point) scale pointless. A truly average game should get a score of 50%, but I think any game given 50% (instead of the current ‘average’ of around 75%) would sink without trace given the influence of reviews in today’s market. That said, somebody has to go out there and buy Deer Hunter III. If reviewers are just going to group the vast majority of games together in the same 15 - 25% of the score band, it really does seem a waste of time.
A number of interesting differences can be found in the scoring philosophy of British and American games magazines. Despite our comparatively small size, the UK has a huge number of video game magazines. Although circulation figures probably don’t begin to compare with the likes of US giants such as EGM, Gamefan and PSM, the UK’s gaming populace manages to sustain a wide range of titles. US magazines (which a large number of newsagents import) have an appalling reputation over here for being simplistic pap, filled with puerile advents and sloppy journalism. In the interests of fair comparison, I tried to get hold of some of the US magazines I mention above (which I used to read regularly when I was at US schools but haven’t read since for a good few years), but only the March ‘99 issue of PSM was available. I have to say, it was a lot better than I was expecting – certainly better than many of the UK’s (frankly embarrassing) PlayStation-specific magazines. An exclusive interview with the Silent Hill (my game du jour) producer was my particular highlight (most of the UK magazines seem to have been rehashing the same year-old interview). However, I felt the text of the reviews was too short and uncritical, and relied on the scores to carry the impression of the game over.
I do feel there is a tendency for UK game reviews to be a bit more critical and honest in their appraisal of a game - even the British, Official PlayStation Magazine has got stuck into some of the real stinkers Sony have seen fit to release over here. While previews in American tomes tend to focus on the exciting new features a game promises, British magazines tend to focus in on the negative aspects almost immediately. Case in point: every FIFA soccer game preview, for the last two years, has contained a sarcastic dig at EA’s seeming need to update the franchise every six months or so, with very little in the way of real (and needed) improvements. Maybe it’s a reflection of our (dour, sarcastic) national character? If you’re visiting the UK, I highly recommend you pick up a few of our games magazines; EDGE, Computer and Video Games, OPSM, N64 Magazine and Arcade should provide you with a healthy spectrum of British games journalism.
I think I can comfortably describe myself as a ‘hardcore’ gamer, for want of a better phrase. I take this to indicate a number of things - not least the amount of time and money that I dedicate to my favourite pastime, but also the time I take to check out what’s new on the gaming scene. When I’m researching an article, or looking for information on a new game, I like to visit as many web sites as I can and lurk on the appropriate newsgroups before coming to any conclusions. This ease-of-access to information makes me an unusually well-informed consumer, to the extent that I tend to know some months in advance the titles I’m likely to be buying. I can’t remember the last time I walked into a games store and saw a title I hadn’t already formed an opinion about through reports on the Internet – and part of that mentality means I can’t understand people who hardly know what they’re handing their fifty bucks over for when they buy a game (and then moan because they’re disappointed)!
I understand, though, that mine is not normal behavior. This is the behavior of a net addict (one who gets antsy if he can’t get online for a few days). Most normal people do not relish the opportunity to crawl the Internet looking for snippets of information about the new Sony machine. Nor should they - I do not choose to thoroughly research every movie that I go to see (although A Night at the Roxbury came perilously close to changing all that).
I think what I’m getting at is that perhaps casual gamers really aren’t so interested in the nitty-gritty of detailed review text and just want a general indication of whether a particular game I worth playing or not. While we may be a few years away from having a famous thumb-wielding, game reviewing duo of our own, Aaron Loeb feels that such a development is inevitable. "Five years from now, we'll have critics that everyone knows and simple reviews that everyone reads. There will be personalities like Siskel and Ebert, and people will be more interested in their thoughts…" It certainly appears that gaming is heading for the true mass market. With each new generation of hardware, the number and demographic of games players seems to swell. With this new audience, a wider range of approaches in covering the gaming scene will be both viable and valid. The "hardcore" gamers can scour the web for 2000 word anal-retentive reviews of lost gems, and the less obsessed will be happy playing the chart favourites – just like any other popular media. In many ways, this is just an extension of what is already happening.
I can certainly imagine myself playing games for the remainder of my life – whether I’ll want to spend anything like the time I do now trawling the net for information on the latest thing is another question. Maybe when the wonderful freedom of university life comes to an end this year, I’ll end up becoming a casual gamer, too? Hey, FIFA 2000 looks pretty good…
- Nick Ferguson wishes to thank everyone who contributed to this article (those quotes really helped pack out the word count)!
Credits: Pad Happy logo illustrated and is © 1999 Dan Zalkus. Pad Happy is © 1999 Nick Ferguson. All other content is © 1999 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't try it, or you'll get some real force feedback.