Lately, there’s been a lot of discussion at F:AT about game reviewing. Barnes has been all over the web, talking about how game reviewers don’t have opinions, and numerous game reviewers have been dragged around and then thrown under buses (especially the douche bag who sold his unopened copy of Black Ops on eBay – yeah, you gave that a comprehensive review).
And since the topic has been on everyone’s minds, I thought it would be fun to poke at the open sore until we got just a little more pus out of it. I write a game review site called Drake’s Flames, and most of the games I review are comped review copies, so I have the advantage of being on the business end of the game reviewing scam.
Game reviewing is not like book reviewing, or movie reviewing, or restaurant reviewing, or even video game reviewing. All of those review venues have one major thing in common – the writers get paid by their publication, and don’t do the job for the freebies. Sure, it’s a nice perk, but the guy who writes stilted reviews of art-house movies for your local crappy newsrag doesn’t write just for the movie tickets. He gets a check from the paper. The restaurant reviewer doesn’t even tell the restaurant that he’s writing anything, so he has to pay for his meal, even if it gets comped by his editor. Hell, if I reviewed casinos in Vegas I could make a better paycheck (and probably get laid more often – but that’s a topic for another day).
Hobby game reviewers write their reviews solely for the free games. That’s not always true – I know there are some writers who get paid for their reviews, and when I wrote for the now-defunct Knucklebones Magazine, I did, too. But for most of us, we’re more than willing to spend two hours writing about a $30 game because we got it for free. Hell, we sometimes end up writing about games we bought, just to have some way to get people to pay attention to us.
And that’s where the problem starts. You can’t pretend to be completely unbiased if you’re writing reviews to get free games. Publishers don’t want to see bad press, and they’re often less than subtle about cutting you off if you say their games suck.
I recently ran into this with a medium-to-large game company. They sent me a box of games, which I happily reviewed, until I got to the last one. It was an ugly, boring piece of crap, and I said so. And then when I asked for more games, they were coincidentally out of everything, even old stuff that had been in print for 15 years.
But can you blame them? Publishers want to get paid just like anyone else. They need those sales, and bad reviews might actually cost them a couple bucks. They can’t afford to dump free games in your lap just to have you take away their sales.
Come to think of it, I can blame them. I can blame them just fine. First, if you don’t want a crappy review, don’t make a crappy game. Sorry if I blew the cover off your carefully-maintained façade of brilliance, but if you ask me to share my public opinion of a badly-made game, I will be delighted to tell people it sucks. That’s the deal. For me, that’s one of the perks of the job.
Furthermore, denying games because of bad reviews completely compromises the integrity of the whole game reviewing racket. If you won’t send me games because there’s a good chance I’ll blow a hole in them, you’re just trying to stack the deck in your favor. You’re fine with selling boring games to people who don’t know enough to avoid them, as long as you can hide the truth from your paying customers. And if that’s the case, then you’re a disingenuous lying sack of bird droppings.
Finally, I don’t believe there’s any such thing as a damaging review. A negative review, maybe, but no press is bad press. Like when I said Apples to Apples is a dumb game, and saw what amounted to a public outcry against my horrible treatment of what really is a dumb game. Or when I compared Shadows Over Camelot to prison rape, and then I had more people defending the game as ardently as possible than would have ever surfaced had I simply said, ‘it’s not for everyone.’
And that brings me to another point. It goes without saying that the game you’re reviewing is not for everyone. If that’s all you can say about a game, save us the time and write about your Beanie Baby collection. Of course the game is not for everyone. It’s one thing to tell me who might enjoy the game; it’s another to weasel out of having an opinion with some wormy, jelly-spined excuse for a game review.
That’s the other half of the problem right there – reviewers who refuse to buck the system. Reviewers want more free games – after all, for many of us, that’s why we write (for the record, I write reviews because I’m a total whore for attention. Free games are just a side perk). So to continue to feed your free-game habit, you give us crap-weasel half-opinions and tell us how much you love every game that ever hits your table.
But you know, the situation isn’t going to change on its own. Reviewers who crave their free game fix like a junkie chasing a heroin high aren’t going to suddenly develop spines, or integrity, or honesty. Publishers who can’t see past last week’s sales numbers aren’t going to suddenly decide to take a risk. The only solution I can see is probably the most obvious – money.
If you want impartial referees for a football game, you don’t tell the quarterback to throw on a striped jersey. You don’t take the smart kid’s mom and get her to judge the spelling bee. The only way to make otherwise spineless reviewers actually come out and say what they think is to pay them whether or not they hate the games.
Unfortunately, the cash boat that floats around the harbor and throws out thousand-dollar-bills hasn’t quite landed at the game reviewing pier just yet. There are only a few magazines that write about board games, and most web review sites don’t make enough to cover buying games for their writers. Even some print mags aren’t above compromising their ethics to please an advertiser (having written for one, I can promise that happens). Even when those magazines do pay their reviewers, they still have to supply the games because the checks are so small, you can’t even buy the game with the money you get for writing about it.
So until we suddenly turn into a burgeoning industry with a healthy income and a good level of critical praise, I’m afraid we’re going to have to make do with piss-poor reviews from hack writers who would spell their names wrong if it got them more games. That, or only read reviewers who won’t bullshit you. Like me.