Game Reviewers Will Never Win

Every few weeks there’s some new drama in the games industry, usually revolving around review scores. The latest centers around Dan Stapleton’s review of Prey; he gave the game...

Every few weeks there’s some new drama in the games industry, usually revolving around review scores. The latest centers around Dan Stapleton’s review of Prey; he gave the game a less than desirable four out of ten. His reason? Well, for him, the game was literally broken. Here’s a snippet from his review:

My experience with Prey on PC started out as a promising dark science-fiction adventure, but after 40 hours in this atmospheric first-person RPG, it’s descended into a literally unplayable technical nightmare. Due to repeated save game corruption I’ve been unable to complete the campaign, even with assistance from the developer. This issue might not affect everybody (and as of now we’ve heard only rare reports of similar issues on consoles), but even though I like a lot of what Prey does when it works I can’t recommend that you take the chance.

Quite a few people have taken exception to the review’s score of a four, regardless of the fact it’s only in relation to the PC version of the game. The review even notes they will score the console version of the game differently if they don’t encounter the same issue there. Ok, great – so why are people upset? Well, let’s take a look:

I recently had a conversation with a Twitter user who said they should have waited to publish the review until the patch that fixed the problem was out. Oh, and that Stapleton was bad at Prey because it took him 40 hours or so to play through the game.

In summary, IGN should have removed the score because it’s “bad for IGN, Arkane, and consumers.” IGN used the score as “clickbait” because IGN really needs the traffic. IGN should have waited to publish their review of what they played until they played it again post-patch, and IGN publishing that review could possibly affect developers’ pay.

OK, so there are a number of reasons why IGN’s review of the game is trash according to readers? I italicized ‘readers’ there because it’s obvious that most people didn’t actually even read the damn review, which is mostly positive about the game itself.

Stapleton referred to IGN’s score breakdown on Twitter for why he gave Prey a four, though I’m not sure it really helped out his argument. Here’s what a four means via IGN’s score breakdown chart:

For one reason or another, these games made us wish we’d never played them. Even if there’s a good idea or two in there somewhere, they’re buried under so many bad ones and poor execution we simply can’t recommend you waste your time on it.

First of all, I will say that description doesn’t say anything about the game being broken. It mostly focuses on ideas and poor execution, which I assume refers to gameplay systems – nothing really about making sure a game actually works.

Looking at the text above, I think it’s fair to assume the obvious that the controversy surrounding Stapleton’s review is focused squarely on his scoring of the game and not the review itself. Not having a score on the game would have probably allowed Stapleton to avoid all this drama, but the review was published branding that number. Part of Stapleton’s reasoning for throwing up that number was to “raise a red flag” for consumers, but I don’t agree that a score is the red flag consumers should see. Much like the description of what a four actually means on IGN, scores themselves are pretty vague in what they actually mean.

Seriously, what does a two, three, or four actually mean in regards to review scores? Every person on the planet probably has a different opinion of what it means.

That goes without mentioning that seemingly everyone seems to have a different opinion on what a game reviewers job actually is. For some it’s to appease the developer and/or publisher, but for others it’s to critically analyze a game and recommend it to consumers.

But wait, there’s more!

On another hand, reviewers are expected to provide their honest opinions on what they played and provide a score or recommendation that reflects that. Reviewers are also expected to appease the public and provide a score that matches up with what everyone else is saying otherwise it’s considered clickbait and an invalid opinion.

Hold on, I’m not done just yet.

Reviewers are expected to go back and replay/re-review games after they’ve been patched. Reviewers are expected to keep in mind a developer’s pay because of how their score could affect a game’s Metacritic rating. Reviewers are expected to hope for the best and assume other people aren’t also experiencing the rare problems they are. Reviewers are expected to fix the game they’re playing so it’s in a playable state so they can finish their review.

OK, that last point was just a joke – or is it?

Game reviewers are constantly put between a rock and a hard place. More often than not, if your opinion doesn’t match up with the masses you’re going to get some crap for it. But that’s part of the job and unfortunately review scores often dilute what our reviews actually say. That’s part of the reason we just switched our system to a three tier system using simple words like ‘Recommend,’ ‘Consider,’ and ‘Avoid.’

Should Stapleton have used a review score to signal to his readers that they shouldn’t check out Prey because of a technical issue? No, I don’t think so. His intentions were in the right place, no doubt, but I also think Stapleton knows how the majority of people will react to a review score, especially a four. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that most people associate a four with a bad game. From reading Stapleton’s review of Prey, it doesn’t read at all like he reviewed a “bad” game. A broken one, yes, but bad? No.

As the title implies, though, Stapleton and other reviewers will never win. His intention was to warn consumers of the PC version of Prey that the game was potentially broken. Now that it has been (presumably) patched, readers want him to go back and change his score, regardless of the fact that he reviewed what he, the reviewer, played. The game broke on him, and he provided an accurate review (never mind the score) of what he encountered while he played.

If reviewers waited to publish reviews until every issue in a game was fixed, you would never read a timely review again.

UPDATE: IGN and Stapleton have updated the review for Prey, now giving it an 8 post patch and after checking out the console versions of the title.

Note: If Bethesda did away with their silly policy of not providing reviewers with copies before a day in advance, this might have been avoidable. 

Note 2: I have not played Prey, and did not provide any opinions of my own about the game in this piece.