How do we make reviews universal?

Let me ask you a simple question. Who are video game reviews for? The most basic answer is: the curious consumer. Most people assume that anyone reading a review wants to know if the game is good or not because they may be interested in purchasing it at a later date.

But that answer is more complicated than it may first appear. There are lots of types of curious consumer, and it’s impossible to write a review that keeps all of them in mind. Let’s do a thought experiment in order to look at the different types of consumer and what sort of review they might want to read.

Know Your Audience

In this scenario, the latest Call of Duty has released and our thoughtful consumer is wondering whether or not they should buy it. Our first consumer is a borderline professional Call of Duty player, the type of person you think of when you say the phrase “hardcore gamer.” To him, Call of Duty has always been a primarily multiplayer experience. He is looking for discrete info on new mechanics and guns, and wants to compare and contrast them to other COD titles in the past. He wants the review to tell him whether or not this new Call of Duty is fun and competitive, compared to the one he is already playing.

He differs quite a bit from the casual Call of Duty fan. While this consumer still wants the reviewer to compare the newest Call of Duty title with titles in the past, he is concerned with many other aspects of the game. Is the story good? Did they include Zombie Mode again? Can I play this co-op with my friends? While multiplayer is very obviously a selling point, a small drop in multiplayer performance might be worth it to the casual gamer if the campaign is astounding. This very same drop in multiplayer performance would cause our hardcore player to dismiss the title immediately.

Now, let’s call in another consumer – a shooter fan, but one who has only dabbled in the Call of Duty franchise. This consumer understands how shooters work, but he wants to know what separates Call of Duty from other shooters on the market. How does it compare to Overwatch, Battlefield, Destiny, Evolve, Team Fortress 2, Counter-Strike, Titanfall and so on. This consumer doesn’t care at all whether or not the new installment’s multiplayer is better or worse than last year’s installment. Rather, they want to know how the game feels in broad strokes. They want to know if this is the sort of shooter that they will have fun playing.

And our final consumer is one who has rarely even touched shooters before, perhaps someone looking to purchase this game as a gift. This consumer has absolutely no idea what shooter mechanics are, so before they can be told why this Call of Duty may or may not be good, they first have to be told what it is, how it plays, and what its features are. You can’t compare it to anything, because they haven’t played anything else. All the information that our previous three consumers needed is absolutely useless to this individual.

So which consumer do you write the review for? In practice, it’s a bit of a grab bag. Different reviewers target their reviews to different audiences. In general, if the reviewer is a fan of the franchise, you might see them target the review to other fans, while if the reviewer is a newbie they might target it to other newbies. Reviews also change depending on how “new” the game is. Sequels tend to be written in reference to previous entries in the series, while first installments are treated fresh.

Three Questions

But is this the best way to review a game? We essentially have a situation where every review is reviewing something different. Each number means a different thing. So when fans find discrepancies we see claims of bribes or corruption, when really it’s just a matter of coming at a game from a number of different viewpoints. Perhaps there is a way to review that can encompass all of these viewpoints.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was an 18th century German philosopher, writer, painter, scientist, politician and, most importantly, an art collector and critic. He is well known for “Goethe’s three questions,” a three point method that is supposed to lead art critics toward examining the core concept, structure, and impact of an art work, rather than providing an assessment of “liking” or “disliking” an art piece.

The three questions are as follows:

  1. What has the artist tried to do?
  2. How well has he/she done it?
  3. Was it worth doing?

So let’s take a look at those questions in order for our hypothetical Call of Duty title.

The first question is not meant to make a critic research the history of any particular artist, but rather to make the critic examine aspects of the artwork to find the creator’s motivation. In the case of any Call of Duty title, it should be obvious that much of the effort was spent on multiplayer. All other features are secondary. In addition, it should be clear that the game falls into the military shooter genre, which has its own set of rules on pacing and design. Call of Duty is also looking to be accessible to the mass market, appealing to the largest fanbase of gamers possible.

So the answer to question one is, Activision is trying to create a multiplayer military shooter with mass appeal.

So now we have to ask how well they accomplished that goal. First, we would look at how good the game is at being a military shooter. Does it include elements the military shooter genre is known for and does it do them well? Is cover utilized in different ways? Do guns feel unique, distinct, and realistic?

Then we should look at how well the game executes its multiplayer. Does the netcode work? Does matchmaking work? Is multiplayer fun? Is it balanced? Is it challenging? Is it accessible?

We also have to examine whether or not it managed to have mass market appeal. Were the extra features like single-player and Zombies worth it for the market that is looking for a bigger package? Was the game easy enough for unskilled players to get into it? Was it competitive enough to make e-sports players purchase it?

The Concept of Timelessness

But it’s the final question that is the trickiest. Was it worth doing? It’s this question that all our comparisons get folded into.

There are lots of reasons a new Call of Duty might NOT be worth it. Perhaps the previous one was better. Perhaps the most recent installation doesn’t change enough to warrant a purchase. Perhaps this new installment stagnates rather than furthers the franchise. Or maybe the market is just saturated with military shooters.

But Goethe’s third question had another dimension. He asked, “Is the concept underlying the world valid?” Should we even have made this work in the first place? Another interpretation is, “Is this work timeless?” Will we remember this work of art well after new works of art take its place?

And while the first two questions seem to apply decently for video-games, the last is particularly difficult. Many would say a new Call of Duty is worth making, but timeless? Outside of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, very few COD’s can be called timeless. In fact, very few video games are timeless. Super Mario Bros. 3, Chrono Trigger, and Counter-Strike are just a few that we may remember for eternity, but most games these days are flavors of the week.

It’s tempting to think that this means most video games simply don’t deserve good scores, but Goethe’s questions are limited in other ways. For example, he always considers what the artist is trying to do. But what if a game is good independently of what an author was trying to do?

There is a concept called Death of the Author, made popular in a similarly titled 1967 essay by French literary critic Roland Barthes. The general idea is that a work of art exists independent of its author. It doesn’t particularly matter what the author was trying to do, but rather any work of art takes on its own personality once it is released to the public. It is sure to mean different things to different people at different times, and these multiple meanings should be embraced.

This, too, applies to videogames. For example, Goldeneye was never meant to be made into a historical example of multiplayer FPS design. In fact, the multiplayer was secondary to the campaign. If Goldeneye were examined in the context of Goethe’s three questions, then it would be largely considered a failure. It was a licensed game but it did little to support its licensed property, had a frustrating campaign, and did not have mass-market appeal at all. However, it was a revolutionary title for competitive console FPS, especially in the way it was controlled. At the time, if we examined Goldeneye in the context of Goethe’s three questions, we might give it a bad rating, but today, independent of the desires of its author, we have a very different perspective.

A Fourth Question

So I’d suggest adding a fourth question - “What does this give us now?” It’s impossible to review a game in a timeless context because our industry, fandom, and society are always changing. But that question, itself, is timeless. We can always examine what a game means to us now.

With these four questions we can, hopefully, produce reviews that can be somewhat universal. In answering the first, we examine who the game might appeal to. In answering the second, we examine its quality. In answering the third, we examine its relevance. In answering the fourth, we examine its meaning. So when reading a review, ask yourself, does this review answer these four questions and, if not, what information is missing? Then, look for that information in other reviews if possible to get a true feeling for what the game is like.

But, more importantly, this thought experiment might be pointing us toward a different solution altogether. Maybe games shouldn’t just be reviewed once? If what a game is and what it means changes as time goes on, then maybe most titles deserve a second look. Sure, the release day review will never go away, but maybe there is some value in going back and asking, “two weeks/two months/two years later, is this game still good?”

Of course, it’s possible that these questions, too, aren’t really answering the question for the primary review audience. Because, outside of the wary consumer or even the dedicated analyst, the main audience for reviews appears to be people who already have an opinion about the game, and want that opinion confirmed and supported by outside sources. This is why you see people get so upset if they disagree with a reviewer.

But one has to ask, if you already have an well-formed opinion about the game, why read a review in the first place?

Well that’s a question to answer another time, perhaps when the next Call of Duty releases.