Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Editorial: The Emerging Essential Relevance of Value in Game Review

Back in the stone age when I was in college, and the internet was in its infancy, writing game reviews was quite a different animal. Aside from the obvious differences in the online review landscape another massive difference was that this was long before smartphones (and concepts like the mobile marketplace or digital downloads) so it was a gaming world dominated by large publishers. Without the big publishers and both their finances and infrastructure the prospects of putting a game on a shelf would be horrible for a small-time developer. With that same model in mind publishers had an expectation of scale for games tied to the effort and cost it took to put that same game on the shelf. This generally meant that there were only "big" games of various levels of quality and that typically would only ever differ, perhaps, by $10 in their price tag. Games for system X simply cost Y and that was what everyone knew and accepted.


With that in mind game reviews usually didn't take the cost of the game into account very much. Games could certainly be considered a "rip-off" but since the concept of a radically different pricing for different games on the same system didn't exist the mentality in discussing it was just different. Reviews would tend to focus only on the somewhat normal, and appropriate, elements like the graphics, sound, controls, and gameplay and then there would be a score that would usually be a sort of rough average or so of those pieces and you'd be done.


With the explosion of availability in smartphones and the rapid growth of a light-weight and all-digital mobile marketplace, complete even with the various ways you could get and play games "for free", everything blew up! What we thought we knew about what constituted a released game, what price should be paid for it, and unfortunately also the level of quality to expect were changed forever. It was mind-blowing that you could get a relatively simple but engrossing game to play on your phone for as little as $.99 or less! Though, granted, most of these games weren't terribly deep, and may have only been great for quick bursts of play, but it was impossible for the impression that made to be ignored. For a little while, in the Zynga/Farmville heyday, there were even some very boisterous and laughably misguided claims that the traditional video game industry was going to be put under by all of this (file this next to the cyclical "the PC gaming scene will die because console X is so powerful" argument). Of course, not long after, Zynga and its friend-annoying 15 minutes in the spotlight faded and the world moved on. That doesn't mean that it didn't do so unchanged, though.


In general, the other piece of this puzzle for discussion is the explosion of the independent game developer space. Between the mobile markets, the traditional consoles, and the vital success of indies on the PC with Steam Greenlight, opportunities were created that simply hadn't existed in the years before. You no longer were obligated to hitch your wagon to a massive publisher that would stomp on your creativity and run your team's life in the name of meeting their deadlines and expectations. While there will always be an element of commitment and risk these indie devs were able to publish themselves, team with other indies for support, or at least work with smaller-scale publishers to get their work out there. All of this, together, created a sort of gaming renaissance where creative ideas and quite a bit of good luck could score small teams some substantial rewards. A crucial piece of this success, though, wasn't just tied to the quality of the games or people supporting the indie spirit. It was that as the games scaled down in scope and the size of the development teams required to create games were reduced, often the prices being asked for these games also dropped as a result.


That brings us to the Switch launch, comprised of top-shelf AAA titles, games published by the traditional "big boys" that may not be as hot, and a smattering of indie games as well. With the days of the fixed price point now far in the distance I think Value should rightly become a very powerful gauge in game scoring, though probably only to bring scores down and not up. In case the thought that a game’s value shouldn’t bring a score up seems odd consider a free game for a moment. Does the game costing nothing excuse it being poorly made? If you’re saying “Yes” go sit in the corner, please. Much like other factors in reviews ultimately the measure of a game is roughly equivalent to its weakest element. Phenomenal sound doesn’t trump ho-hum gameplay, face-melting graphics don’t redeem slipshod controls. Value shouldn’t be any less important a factor, and in many regards it hasn’t been forgotten, I just don’t think it has been given the reverence and up-front honesty that it deserves either.


We’ll start on the easy and positive side of things for the Switch. Even if you may not think it is one of the best games of all time I think anyone at all would be hard-pressed to argue that somehow $60 seems like too high a price for what Breath of the Wild brings to the table. If there was a way for a game to be up-scored on Value it would be a poster child for where that’s appropriate. Another pretty strong example, in part by virtue of its $20 price tag (which I’d argue is roughly at the high end of the sweet spot for an “impulse buy” for most people), is Fast RMX. It has a pretty substantial number of tracks, plays very well, and while it may not be perfect I wouldn’t see where in scoring the game Value should play a role.


Now, to make people more uncomfortable, we should have an honest talk about the other end of the spectrum. We’ll start with a game I bought for a series I like, Super Bomberman R. Without thoroughly getting to its faults with the control being a janky at launch, problems with the online mode, decent but not amazing single-player mode, and the annoying unlock system that then doesn’t award coins for local multi-player (the reason they know most people are buying the game in the first place!) I’d probably say the game should have ended up around a 7 or even 7.5. But then we get to Value and that’s where, for this title, it gets ugly. Even considering the 7 or so I’d rate the game at $50 as still simply way too much to ask by at least $20, if not more. It’s because of that factor that I’d bring the game down to between a 5.5 and a 6, depending on how far off I’d consider the price to be at that moment. The game rightly got some low-ish scores, and there were often generalized notes about how $50 seemed like a lot or made it hard to recommend, but I didn’t always see a very clear line stating the value problem, discussing how far off the price seems to be, and how that issue then specifically affected the final score.


Moving on to one of the games I’ve had a serious axe to grind with since the start we then move on to 1-2-Switch. Whatever you may think of the game, and I’m being very clear I’m not a fan on several levels, at the end of the day what galls me about the game most is that price tag. I’d probably consider it to be a worse offender than even Bomberman in this specific area. I can look past a game for not appealing to me, different strokes for different folks and all, but when there are so few games on the shelf, it is a Nintendo-made title, and it is obviously there to be picked up by families looking for something for everyone I can’t and won’t shut up about 1-2-Switch’s price being outright wrong. It is that high mostly because of the vacuum and because they can, not because it is worth that price. As a $20 game I don’t have any issue at all with it, I can appreciate it being there to demonstrate the capabilities of the system and something that probably has a bit or piece in it for everyone. As a $50 game it’s embarrassing though, and I worry about the people who could buy that as their ONLY game on the Switch and am wondering what that’s telling them about the system as a whole. Disheartening.


While it isn’t as bad as an example, and it didn’t stop me from buying it, I think that even The Binding of Isaac skated hard on the edge of being scored down on this one for value, and its type of gameplay greatly complicates how you’d choose to score it. Rogue-likes, with their more old-school arcade “put your quarter in and play until you die, then start over again” mentality, have enormous replay value for people who enjoy them (very much me) but they’re not for everyone either. In this specific case I guess the process would start with determining the score for the game in general and then figuring out how the pricing could potentially further bring the game down. I’d say Value would specifically be among the factors that would prevent Isaac from being capable of getting a 10 (I’m planning another editorial on what a perfect score needs to mean), or maybe even a 9, but beyond that space you could use discretion to factor it in less harshly.


My goal in writing this was just to note the issue and to try to reach out to the review community to go beyond traditional gauges like whether you would recommend the game or not, treating the value proposition as a matter more of taste. While that can play into things we need to be willing to clearly acknowledge that there are examples to be had in this new pricing world where the price of the game is clearly too high and to then outright call people out on it. Just as you’d say the Graphics or Control brought an otherwise good game down don’t let a lowered score that factored in price get the message lost in the shuffle. No, it wasn’t the Sound, or the Control, or the Graphics (even though those things may have also had issues), the biggest problem was that you sold it for more than it is worth, and there’s an entire marketplace out there full of great games for all prices to help establish that fact. To that end this is also a message for developers/publishers, to stop trying to use the old mentality where we just pay some set price. You should look at each game individually and then sell it for what it is truly worth!

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