Publishers, reviewers and the blame game
Sure your game mightn't work, but what about all the feels?
Microsoft versus Sony, Battlefield versus Call of Duty and Forza versus Gran Turismo. These are some of the rivalries that can get people talking about console wars. “Game On or Game Over” is your place to get inside the minds of Nicholas and Andy as they seek to find the true meaning of gaming and tackle some of gaming’s most controversial subjects. Both are award winning authors – although the awards haven’t been mailed or created yet — but trust them. Would they lie to you?
Andy: OK, I like to think that I am a pretty even-keeled person. I don’t get overly excited about much, and don’t get overly irritated about much either. With that said, I read something on Stevivor last week that irritated me more than it probably should have. The more I thought about it the more frustrated I got. But then I read a comment on the article and it tied everything together for me. It really summed up my thoughts, as well as some concerns I have about the whole process.
Enough beating around the bush though, I am talking about the article last week regarding Take-Two Interactive Software Chief Executive Officer, Strauss Zelnick, where he discussed the review scores for Mafia 3 and basically said that gamers should ignore the gameplay issues and instead focus on the feel of the setting. You know, ignore the mouldy bread and dry burger on your plate an instead focus on how nice your server is, and how comfortable the seat is. Before I dive too deep into that statement, I’m trying to wrap my head around the fact that he even said that. I get that he’s talking to his investors, but to suggest that people ignore the negatives about a game and focus on other things is asinine in my opinion.
A commenter on the article, Nick, said this – and I quite frankly can’t say it any better – “Every flaw in a video game, whether that be plot holes, graphical issues, bad controls, difficulty spikes, is another point of permanent exit. Reviewers are obligated to finish games to write complete reviews of them. Consumers don’t have that same obligation, and anything that stops them from playing a game they paid for that isn’t the end credits is essentially a waste of their money. Flaws are exactly what reviews should focus on.”
He hits the nail on the head. It’s not a reviewers job to sell a game, nor is it a reviewer’s job to gloss over the negatives of a game and only focus on the positive “feels” of the game. That’s doing all gamers a disservice. Before I climb to high on this little soapbox I am building I wanted to get your opinion on what Mr. Zelnick said. Does he have a point, or is he missing it completely?
Nicholas: I think there are a lot of points to dissect from both the article itself and what you’ve mentioned above. Starting with what Zelnick said, I can sort of see where he is coming from, and it’s spoken exactly like a publisher on the back of a somewhat poor release would say. Of course you’d expect him to focus on the feelings, settings and unique themes/elements of the game to divert attention away from the (apparently many) gameplay issues. Similarly, of course you’d expect him to suggest that Metacritic scores are becoming less relevant when they don’t represent gamer’s experiences with these titles.
While that’s all well and good, he kind of misses the mark when you think about it from a gamer’s point of view. Of course there are times when the ‘feels’ of a game compensate for any gameplay problems, and for me a perfect example of that was Assassin’s Creed Unity, but there’s a line and it’s drawn on a case-by-case basis. While I mightn’t have had many issues with my game, that’s not to say other gamers didn’t, and for them, issues more than the odd NPC walking mid-air might completely spoil those ‘feels’ and experiences the developer is hoping to put across. In those instances it would be negligent to suggest that we ignore these issues or consider them as ‘anomalies’, particularly if they’re widespread.
So yes, while I can see where he’s coming from, because he’s a businessman, what he’s saying is ultimately rubbish, especially given the circumstances where the problems in Mafia 3 impact the enjoyment of the game itself.
So I step off this little box and pass it back to you. You’re stance on the subject is pretty clear, but why is this, and is there any reason why you’ve taken to this so strongly?
Andy: I think the reason I had such a strong reaction is because it seems like Zelnick wants to cherry-pick what’s important when it benefits him the most. In 2011 Zelnick talked about the IMPORTANCE of game review scores and here’s a direct quote for you, “our ability to have high scores over and over again is a huge competitive advantage, and that advantage drives sales, it reduces risks and creates profits.” So, what he’s saying now that if his company is clicking along, churning out awesome games then Metacritic and game review scores matter. If one of his games hits a bump and doesn’t perform as well, then suddenly those review scores and by default Metacritic, don’t matter as much. You can’t have it both ways. If he was on record saying that Metacritic and review scores don’t have much value, then I don’t think I’d be as irritated as I am. But, just based on that one quote he’s been a fan of it before.
You and I have talked about reviews previously and what purpose they should hold in a gamers decision-making process. No one review, even one from Stevivor, should be taken as the be all and end all for how the game should be judged. Rather, compare not just the scores, but the pros and cons of a game from a variety of sources that you trust. If there are themes across the reviews that emerge, either positive or negative, chances are they paint a clearer picture of what the game truly is. A review is merely the experience and opinion of the individual reviewer. The only person who can truly decide if a game is “good” or not is the individual gamer.
With that said, the job of a game review is to (shockingly I know) review games. That means talking about the issues a game has. In the case of Mafia 3 you better believe me, as a gamer, I want to know about very basic gameplay issues, bugs and other questionable decisions made in the game-making process. Sure the setting, the look and the non-traditional protagonist are nice and all – but if I can’t play the game because of bad controls, bugs or what have you I want to know. It seems to me that Zelnick thinks it is a reviewer’s job to help them sell his games by glossing over the negatives and focusing on the positive “feels” stuff.
To me this whole thing just comes across as disingenuous. He lauds the virtues of reviews when things are going smoothly, but then tries to lessen their importance when things don’t go as well as he had hoped. Was his response just simply poor word choice on his part or do you think he is just in damage control mode? Would he maybe have been better off acknowledging the gameplay issues and saying they were addressing them with a patch?
Nicholas: I’d like to mention that the two quotes we’ve mentioned today are five years apart and there’s a lot that can change in five years, but given the situation, I think it’s most definitely a case of cherry-picking when it suits him. It doesn’t seem right that a publisher would praise Metacritic and reviewers’ scores when they’re at the upper end of the spectrum, but then claim they’re not as ‘relevant’ when they start to slide towards the other side. I don’t think the idea of a game’s review score has changed since 2011, so to suggest that they’re suddenly less relevant when nothing is different, sounds a little suss to me.
This entire discussion though makes for a perfect opportunity to discuss the entire concept of a review to begin with. Absolutely, a review should discuss those ‘feels’ that a game might have you experience – after all, while solid gameplay is all good and well, it’s the experience that you’re after that’s important. What does the game leave you with once it’s done. At the same time, like you’ve said, a review also needs to cover what’s bad with the game – be it sloppy controls, poor writing or in the case of Mafia 3, gameplay bugs and issues. The review would be incomplete and quite frankly, useless, if it glossed over the problems and only focused on the positives.
Off that, the final score needs to reflect the content of the review as well. If a game has a great story but there are so many bugs that you’ll never be able to experience it, it wouldn’t make sense to rate it highly. What question we need to ask ourselves though is what do the numbers themselves represent. The problem is that there are so many websites that write reviews and for each, the 1-10 scale can represent absolutely anything. While some scales would suggest that anything under 8 isn’t worth playing, another site’s 5 might suggest that the game is still good. Tack onto that that a 5/10 game could still be enjoyable, just not amazing, and things become more complex still. I don’t think I’m too out of line by suggesting that for most gamers, anything less than 8 out of 10 is not worth owing, and I think that’s potentially where Zelnick has a case. If gamers look at a Metacritic score of 6 out of 10 (for example), but each review mentions that the game is still really fun to play, it’s just not amazing, but gamers don’t buy it because of the score, then yes, it’s not a representation of what gamers really think. That said, that isn’t the case with his game and Mafia 3. It rates low because it’s broken.
To answer your question, his response wasn’t a poor choice of words, he’s simply in damage control. The best response would have been to acknowledge the issues, acknowledge the feedback and acknowledge that they’re working on a solution. To just say that reviewers are wrong and gamers are loving it, yeah, that’s just playing the blame game. I’d like to ask you, with everything that’s been said above, it almost sounds like Zelnick’s expectation is for reviewers to help sell their games, but the entire point of reviews is to provide non-bias (in that, influence from the publishers) opinions of a product. If our job is essentially help market these products, does that not bring our legitimacy into question? Do you think this says more about what publishers expect and think of reviewers, and do you think it’s shared by more people than just him?
Andy: Before I dive into an answer to that I want to start with another quote from Zelnick, but from the initial article talking about Mafia 3. And I quote, “I spoke earlier about a sort of an anomaly in the Metacritic scores, and to be clear, I’m not being critical. We take these as we find them. But I am observing that it’s unusual to have great reviews from IGN and Forbes, and then some bad reviews that hold the scores down.” I think he has a very skewed reality on what a reviewer’s role should be. I find it ironic that he points out reviews from bigger sites who, at times, have had their review scores (and content of the reviews) called into question by many gamers. Some of those bigger sites seem more, shall we say, pliable in their scores because they don’t want to upset the developer or publisher.
I would be remiss if I didn’t touch on one more part of that last quote. Zelnick talks about “some bad reviews that hold the score down.” I really dislike that line, probably more than others he has said because it implies that some reviewers intentionally give bad scores to get one over on the developers/publishers. I think I can speak for many reviews when I say I never “give” a game a score. The score assigned to a game, as well as the content in the review, was earned. There have been games I was a big fan of but once I played it I discovered flaws, so I wrote about them. There are games I want to be good, but for whatever reason they aren’t so I write about it. For me it’s about responsibility. When a reader trusts me enough to read my reviews, or opinions on a game, I owe it to them to tell them my experience with the game. Not what I was hoping it would be, not sugar-coated and not some idealistic “think of the feels”, but what I experienced. That means talking about the good and the bad. The beauty of Metacritic is that it brings all those reviews together into one place and let gamers make the most informed decision they can.
I do think we need to expand on the issue of game journalists being perceived as part of the marketing team for a game. Sure Zelnick doesn’t flat out say it, but he sure tiptoes around it. I also think it’s an issue that the industry is struggling with right now. Awhile back we did an article talking about how developers/publishers pay for trips to come and see the game, send press kits (often times with swag), access to lounges and other perks at conferences and such. I think some developers and publishers try to piggyback off of those things and garner some positive coverage through the life of the game. Of course, this isn’t something that they expressly say because that would blow up in their face sooner or later, but it’s hard to deny that it exists.
It’s time to tackle the other elephant in the room that maybe a lot of people either weren’t aware of, or don’t remember. Take-Two Interactive made the decision to hold review copies of Mafia 3 until the games release day. Traditionally a publisher holding back review copies until the games release signifies a publisher has some doubt about how a game will perform and by delaying the availability of the game to review outlets they try to garner those purchases until the reviews start to roll out. Of course this may not be the case with Mafia 3 but the industry practice is to get those copies out so the reviews can show up before, or at least the day of, the game’s release. So I think it’s insincere of Zelnick to try to place blame on reviewers trying to bring down the game when they didn’t provide those copies like many other publishers do. Instead of looking at this as separate segments, if we look at it as one thing, it sure seems that the Take-Two knew the game had some issues and did the best they could to at least delay the information from getting out there. Have I connected too many dots there, or do you think there is some truth to that? I’m no conspiracy theorist, but it sure seems like Zelnick is in full damage control mode, and has been for quite some time actually.
Nicholas: It seems very likely that this was the case, doesn’t it? Like you’ve mentioned, a developer withholding review copies going out or placing an embargo until (or after) release usually indicates that they’re worried about the ’truth’ getting out and impacting sales, and it seems all too convenient that this was the case, and that Mafia 3 just happened to be riddled with issues. Not to sound too pessimistic, but I think there’s definitely plausibility that these issues were known to Take-Two prior to release.
If we circle back to the beginning of your last response, there’s one part of his quote that really struck a chord with me as well. The idea of saying, “great reviews from IGN and Forbes, and then some bad reviews that hold the scores down” is so frustrating. I understand that IGN sits up there as one of the more popular gaming news/review sites, but that doesn’t necessarily indicate quality. To suggest that IGN can write a positive review and then another site writes one which is negative, and that’s seen as a ‘anomaly’, what exactly is he trying to say there? Is it to suggest that the views expressed by a smaller site aren’t relevant or important? Is it to suggest that the views of smaller sites shouldn’t be considered alongside heavy-hitters like IGN or Gamespot? Perhaps I’m overreacting, but it really rubs me the wrong way to read that line and think about what he could be insinuating.
What about you though – what do you think of what I’ve just said there? You expressed above that Metacritic is great because it brings all these voices together, but do you think there are personalities out there who think that there are voices that aren’t worth hearing, mainly because they aren’t major players? Isn’t the whole beauty of the internet that it gives the smallest voice a platform? To dismiss a negative review without understanding why it’s negative, is that not just utterly ridiculous and damaging to the whole idea of reviews and putting work into articulating an opinion of a product?
Andy: Since we started this topic I have been throwing around ideas in my head on trying to make sense of what Zelnick said and understanding it from his point of view. I think it’s natural to want to stick up for your kids. Sometimes sticking up for your kids is overlooking their faults and trying to devalue anyone who points them out. Yet, if you really want your kids to grow and blossom, you have to take a step back, look at the big picture and correct them when they go astray. I don’t think games are any different. Sure, Zelnick can sit in his lush office with his rose-coloured glasses on and deride those who wrote less-than-favourable reviews of Mafia 3, but that won’t fix anything. The flaws will still be there. The gameplay issues won’t go away and the bugs will still sit up and rear their hide from time to time.
For him to imply that only the big outlets can write good review is a slap in the face to anyone who has ever written a game review. Are there some reviewers that are better than others? Sure there are. Are there some that are better at articulating their thoughts than others? Absolutely. However, working for IGN or Forbes doesn’t mean you are somehow granted this special power that makes your opinion the right one every time. There are reviews on both that I fully agree with, yet there are also reviews on both where I question if they played the same game as I did. You are absolutely correct in one of the beauties of the internet is to give everyone a voice and a platform. From those who work on small hobby blogs to those who write for sites that get several thousands of views a day. None of us write reviews with the intentions of bashing a game, or praising it. We write based off of our experience with it. Good or bad, perfect or deeply flawed we talk about it. For Zelnick to come out and try to dismiss those who didn’t write glowing reviews of the game, I think he does more harm to Mafia 3 than anything.
As we close out another discussion I want to put you in the role of Zelnick. You are the CEO of Take-Two, you have a hotly anticipated game release to a varying response from reviewers and gamers alike. You are scheduled to be on a conference call with investors how would you address them? Do you follow Zelnick’s response or do you do things differently? Furthermore, do you think his response would have been different if it wasn’t to a group of investors? What if he was doing a normal interview with say Stevivor? Of course, if you don’t agree with him your opinion is probably invalid anyway, but go with it.
Nicholas: I know it doesn’t work as ideally as we would hope, but my response would be honest given the circumstances. I’d recognise that the game received some great reviews from some outlets, which we’re pleased with, and then I’d recognise that the game received some less-than-favourable reviews as well. Off the back of the last point, I’d note that we understand where some of the criticism is coming from, and would speak about our plans to mitigate it (be it a patch or not). At the same time though, I’d also focus on the positives – the uniqueness of the character, the setting and the themes that Mafia 3 does well, and I’d speak to those points more than trying to dismiss the negatives. This way, it’s not to suggest that gamers are ignored or certain reviewers are wrong, but that we admit there is work to be done but to celebrate that great things we’ve achieved.
Whether Zelnick was speaking to investors or doing a press interview with a site like Stevivor, I don’t think his response would have been fundamentally different. He’s perhaps in more of a damage control mode when speaking with the people that own him, but he wouldn’t be as quick to admit fault if he was speaking with the press either – he’d probably be less inclined to suggest people like us are ‘anomalies’ that should be overlooked.
At the end of the day, there’s no denying that what Zelnick said was kind of dickish, but like I said at the beginning, it’s understandable. To keep the industry honest we just need to continue to highlight not just the positives but the negatives as well, and challenge those who say things that we believe is incorrect or not ground in any logic. Gamers, publishers, journalists, etc. all have a role to play in keeping gaming great – one to make them, one to critique them and the other to enjoy them. Sometimes those roles overlap, but let’s never forget what part we all play.