Thursday, April 14, 2005

Trending Downward

I had a conversation with a friend of mine a while back. Here's essentially how it went:

Friend: You should write a rant about how Game Rankings scores tend to drop over time after the initial reviews of a game come out.

Me: Hrm. That's a good idea.

(Several weeks pass)

Me: What should I write about? Oh, I know! I'll write about how Game Rankings scores tend to drop over time after the initial reviews of a game come out! I am pure genius incarnate!

I guess I hadn't thought about it before, but it's true. Generally, especially for big-ticket games, the scores on Game Rankings tend to start high and drop over time. Since the games don't tend to actually lose quality after they're released, there must be some other explanation for that phenomenon.

It could be the novelty factor. Maybe the earlier reviews are just more hyped on the game, and so they give the game higher review scores than they otherwise might. That doesn't speak highly of the reviewers, but then, none of the suppositions in this rant do.

There's also the fanboy factor. Big magazines and sites tend to assign reviews to the people on the staff who like and know the game in question the best. For example, when I was in the biz, I reviewed a fair amount of action/adventure and PC RPG titles, because I liked those. I never reviewed sports titles (except hockey and wrestling, one of which I really liked, and I bet you can't figure out which), fighting games, etc. So right there, you're more likely to get a positive review unless the game is extremely disappointing. The smaller groups, which tend not to get early copies and can't always manage to get reviews out when the games ship, don't always have that luxury. Maybe that's why the later reviews tend to be lower than the first ones.

There's also the extremely cynical (and poorly named) swag factor. The big guys all get copies of the game from the publisher, well in advance of others. They've also been romanced to some extent by the publishers and have developed some intimacy with the game through demos, press events, swag, etc. When such a game comes out, the review goes one of two ways: extremely positive with a stupidly high score, or sadly disappointed with a much higher score than the review's text would bely. The little guys don't always get copies, and they often have to buy their own at ship, which avoids the swag factor entirely. While the little guys might not have the professional experience that the big guys do, their reviews might be more honest, since they don't have that incestuous relationship with the publishers' PR folks that the big guys do. While I don't think there's a lot of swag whores in the mainstream gaming mag biz, it's hard to ignore the fact that a low score can seriously wound your relationship with the publisher, and the big guys rely on the publishers for early copies, pre-release assets, and early-development scoops. The little guys, who have a frequent buyer membership in Target's electronics section, don't have to worry about that. Also, when a publisher hands you an exclusive review, you're far more likely to be positive in your review. You don't want to shut off your chances of getting other exclusives by giving a poor review, and no one wants to see "IGN EXCLUSIVE!!!!!!!!" on a review for a game that gets a 6.5/10.

Game Rankings is an important site. As journalists, we hated it, because not only does it traffic in others' hard work, but it also gives publishers a crowbar with which to try to pry corrections and second reviews from us. When I gave one game an 85%, I got comments from the publisher saying that Game Rankings rated the game much higher, and that all of my colleagues disagreed with me, so I should seriously rethink my score. Granted, I got much worse feedback from the readers (mostly consisting of variations of "U r teh ghey lol"), but the publisher was trying to use Game Rankings as a tool to get me to say, "Oh golly, I'm so sorry, I'll get about fluffing my score up right away suh!"

Now, as a developer, it's a handy tool. I can tell at a glance how the game I worked on is being received, and I can see how the readers feel about each review. The funny thing is that folks at my company are going, "That low review is crap, because look at how low-rated it is on Game Rankings!" without realizing that the readers who ranked the review are the same folks who gave our game a 63% rating before it even came out. It's the same case of "Everyone's a moron except those who agree with us."

Anyway, as time goes on, scores on Game Rankings tend to slide downward, meaning that Game Rankings is a handy tool only after a few weeks have passed since the game's release. If the big-time reviewers were more responsible and less wide-eyed and likely to spontaneously go chibi when they get handed a game to review, then the problem wouldn't be as bad as it is. As it is, irresponsible reviews lead players to buy games they wouldn't like and developers to pat backs that maybe ought not to be patted quite yet.

It's amazing how much in this biz depends on the whims of poor managers, irresponsible journalists, and fickle end-users. All that money, hanging by a thread.