Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Na na na na na, We're Not Listening....

Seeing game reviews from the other side, as a developer, is proving an interesting experience. Compared to writing reviews, the reviews themselves have more weight when they're about your product. This is your hard work on display, with some outside voice you've never met (though actually, I met a lot of these folks when I was in the biz) bridging the gap between your company's carefully phrased marketing and the gamers hungrily awaiting the game.

Despite what everyone in development says (until the review is positive), reviews are extremely important. Many times during the development of our latest game, I heard people refer to how they thought something would be reviewed, often in the same sentence that they trashed reviewers for being ignorant shills who give every game high ratings. Really, reviews are part of the two-part axis of success for games, sidling up next to sales success in the horrible mixed metaphor of life.

We've had generally ridiculously high scores for our reviews thus far, which leads people here to giddy optimism. Now, don't get me wrong, I think our game is good, but I also think it's far from perfect. In fact, some here have expressed that development on this game was a nightmare compared to previous titles. One guy even told me, "Don't judge [company] by this game. This game is being handled horribly." But so far, well, the reviewers have been, well, ignorant shills. And the folks here are eating it up.

The two voices so far that have bucked the trend have been Gamespot and 1UP, which is often the case. When I read the review on Gamespot, I found myself thinking that the reviewer wrote exactly the review I would have written: insightful and honest and both brutal and fair. The game came out positively, but Gamespot didn't blow sunshine or anything else. The reviewer listed what is, in truth, the comprehensive list of what is good and bad with the game. 1UP was likewise honest, though quite a bit more harsh in text and less harsh in score.

Reading the Gamespot review gave me hope. While I don't want our game to fail in any way, I would like its flaws to be realistically acknowledged, and, well, it's hard to be realistic about stuff when someone is tossing your salad. Gamespot is a popular site, and better yet, it's respected, unlike IGN and its apparently random scores. Surely the folks here will see the mostly positive review, think, "Well, yeah, he touched on some things I thought were wrong with the game," and keep in mind ways to make it better. But no. It wasn't long before the attacks began.

"Don't let one lone dissenter get you down." "Look how low that review is rated on Gamerankings.com." And my personal favorite: "He must be confused, because he gave our game the same graphics score he gave Cubivore (note complete with screenshots of both)." Never mind that Cubivore came out in 2002, three years ago, before research and development led to improved graphics and performance on all platforms.

People who were, weeks ago, saying, "I generally trust [reviewer's] reviews," are now saying, "He was confused." The same people who were buying PSP games based solely on this reviewer's recommendation now point out how poorly that reviewer is doing on Gamerankings. Did the reviewer get hit by the retard stick in the meantime, or something?

I wondered why things never seem to change at this company, or indeed, in any company in the game industry. It's because people don't trust professional, outside feedback, and the majority of such feedback is so afraid to be honest or so filled with blind fanboy lust that they give everything a glowing review unless it's safe to do otherwise (i.e., the game is so crappy that the publisher goes, "Yeah, well, we know."). Intelligent, fair, and honest reviewers need not apply. We're only here to polish knobs, not to inform readers and help developers improve.

The frustrating thing is that we all suffered for this project, and taking the bad to heart might help reduce the suffering in future projects. While I'd love for this game to sell kajillions, I'd rather our next few titles not be exactly the same. Most reviewers bend over and don't ask for a reach-around, and developers, blind with love for their babies, slide right in and go to town. And when one guy doesn't bend over, and rather stands up face-to-face and asks for a handshake instead of a right royal rogering, developers are caught holding themselves. Now all of us who worked so hard on this project can expect to do so on another project exactly like this one, and it'll be justified, because everyone but "that psycho child-raper at Gamespot" gave us a infinity-bajillion-on-a-ten-scale rating.

Now, I understand morale and the need to keep it up (since I seem to be so good at inadvertantly harming it with my presence), but I also understand the need for honest feedback and for people to be real about what they've accomplished. It's all well and good to think, "Cool, we got awesome reviews, look out, world!" but we need to look at the big picture and accept that every review is an opinion, including the slavering fanboy ones. As the career counselor Marty Nemko, Ph.D. says at the end of his weekly radio show on NPR, "We gain comfort from those who agree with us, and growth from those who don't." We're getting plenty of comfort. Now for some growth.