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Jun 24

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Just yesterday I ranted about bad game reviews, and today Gamespot announces they’re changing their review system. Surely it can’t be pure coincidence… ;)

Jun 23

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Why are games reviewed like school grades? The whole percentile score baffles me — is a game rated 82% really noticeably better than a game rated 81%? And there seems to be a passing grade: anything rated below 60% is really bad, just like in school. In fact it’s of a 25 points system — from 75 to 95 — because that’s where the vast majority of games lie.

Wouldn’t a 5 stars rating system work better? You don’t really need much more information than whether the reviewer liked the game or not anyway.

I’m guessing the precision of reviews comes from a desire to seem objective and exact. Some magazines and websites even add rating sub-categories, like “graphics” and “sound”, to sound even smarter. Not that their rating in those categories ever varies much, a bad game with great music will still get worse music rating than a great game with bad music.

Games are being rated like word processors, really. They’re evaluated in different categories, then a list of features is made and compared to other similar games to see which are missing. They get bonus points for longer gameplay, but lose some because they’ve got fewer multiplayer modes than the competition. Very few reviewers seem to look at the big picture, they only make a features checklist and then compare to other games.

Can you imagine if movies were reviewed like that? “This movie is 3 hours long, so that’s a plus, but the movie from 3 months ago had 2 more car chases and 3 more explosions, so I rate this movie only 77%.” Everybody would think that this movie critic completely missed the point, yet game reviewers all read like that.

Also, when was the last time you saw game reviewers disagree on the quality of a game? It’s like they all like the same things or something. Movie and book critics vary wildly in opinions, some like titles others dislike, yet all game reviewers rate games the same way…

And that way is to always rate the hyped game well. Spider-man 3 is a highly hyped movie that got panned by critics, but you’d never see that in games. Can you see the next Zelda get a rating lower than 80%? 90% even? I can’t think of an eagerly anticipated game that got panned by critics when it released — at best they get an 85%. Review scores seem to correlate a lot with marketing budget, funny that.
But maybe things have changed lately. For all those reasons I don’t read many reviews these days. I purchase most games through word-of-mouth and by trying the demo — much more reliable than reviews.

Jun 11

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Like a lot of people, the success of Nintendo’s Wii surprised me. I thought it was an interesting new technology, to be sure, but that the hype was overblown: the wiimote didn’t really enable fundamentally new gameplay, and so the Wii would fail to become a Revolution. I don’t think I was wrong with this assessment — beyond gimmicky mini-games, the wiimote hasn’t been used for anything that couldn’t be done with a regular controller — but I was wrong about the system’s success.

The Wii’s success isn’t due so much because of its controller, but because it’s the first console for casual gamers. Casual games are booming right now on PC, on mobile and on the DS — and now on the Wii.

I think a few lessons from casual games could apply to all games, even the most hardcore ones:

  • People have no tolerance for tutorials and reading instructions. Learning the rules of a game is boring, people just want to play. As a rule of thumb, I’d say if people have to read more than 4 sentences (with accompanying pictures) before they can start playing and have fun, the tutorial is too long. Many, many games fail miserably at this (including some of mine).
  • Story doesn’t really matter. After years of designers trying to make games more cinematic and with deeper stories, the hot new console sells on the back of a modernized version of Pong. There’s obviously a place for story-based games, but the need for a story isn’t nearly as universal as some would have you believe.
  • Realism doesn’t really matter. Likewise, games have become better and better at simulating reality over the years — yet Wii Tennis features schematic characters without arms, the position of whom you don’t even control. There’s a place for immersive simulations, but abstract games are fine for a lot of people.
  • Most games’ themes don’t resonate with adult audiences. Most casual games have very down to earth themes: sports, serving in a restaurant, etc. Aliens invading the earth and fantastic tales of wizards and dragons are great for geeks and teenagers, but don’t have much impact with mainstream audiences. Fantasy and sci-fi movies, TV shows and novels aren’t nearly as popular as ones based in reality — why would it be different for games?
  • Price matters more than graphics. While I’m sure casual gamers would prefer games with good graphics than poor ones (why wouldn’t they?), price seems to have more sway. The Wii is the cheapest new console and casual PC games are much cheaper than regular ones. People who don’t put gaming as one of their priorities don’t want to spend a lot on it — makes sense.
  • Don’t underestimate bowling. One of the most popular games for cellphone is a bowling title, same for the Wii. Who knew people loved bowling so much?

The thing casual games have for them is approachability, but they often sacrifice depth for it. I think the key for the future will be to create games that marry the approachability of casual games with the depth of hardcore games. I think it’s possible, but it’s difficult — it’s much easier to focus on one or the other.

Jun 2

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Game design documents are almost universally terribly boring to read — a paradox considering they’re describing something fun. That’s because they describe every part of the game in a lot of details, just like software specs, and software specs are boring.

What we need is to describe the experience we want to create, rather than the piece of software that will create that experience. It occurred to me that the best way to do this would be to write design docs in the form of a walkthrough of the game: describing everything in the game as the player sees and feels them, introducing new gameplay elements at the same pace and order the player encounters them. A bit like movie screenplays: they tell the story and it’s for the movie-making team to determine how to make that story on paper into a movie on a screen.

That approach would make for a much more readable design doc, so members of the team would be more likely to read it (something that happens too rarely with traditional design docs). It would also be easier to get a feel of the game to see if it has the potential to be fun, and some problems with approachability and pace could be resolved before production even starts.

On the other hand, the document would be harder to refer to — if you’re looking for the behavior of one specific enemy, there wouldn’t be an easy-to-find section called “enemies” to refer to. That means more work for planning and separating all the tasks to be done. A separate reference document could be useful for this. It wouldn’t be made to be read from start to finish, but it would contain all the technical elements that are needed in a format that’s easy to refer to. Writing the design as walkthrough would also be harder for non-linear games — how could you cover Civilization entirely that way? — bu that wouldn’t be an issue for most games.

That approach would be a radical change from the established approach: as far as I know, nobody writes design docs in that way. I think the potential for higher quality of design outweighs the cons, so I’d have to try it out to see if it’s still the case in practice. Any thoughts?