Our resident sports gaming expert, Owen Good, recently e-mailed me with some concerns about the way we review sports games at the site. Our reviews all include the question: "Should you play this game?" Owen realized that he was pretty much always saying "Yes", and he realized that it was because of some qualities specific to the current era of licensed sports games.
I like giving readers an opportunity to see how we decide things at Kotaku, so, what follows is my and Owen's e-mail exchange about how Kotaku reviews sports games. We've done a tiny bit of editing for readability. Otherwise, this is the exchange.
The sidebar is the byproduct of this exchange and represents our editorial stance, going forward, for any of our sports game reviews.
Date: Wed, Sep 19, 2012 at 12:15 PM
Subject: Some thoughts on reviews of sports video games
When we get to the end of this year's sports video games (which will be after WWE '13 in November) I'd like to know your thoughts on exempting sports video game reviews from the "Should You Play This Game?" call going forward.
If you look at all of my reviews of sports video games, they have all been Yes. This is not good, and makes me appear to be a shill or critically shallow. But in answering the question "Should You Play This" I feel I'm answering it honestly. It's a gameplay question, not a consumer question, and I have understood this to be deliberately the point of asking it (as a contrast to the gut check experiment of last year).
To answer "no," to "should you play this," to me communicates that the thing is even worse than "do not buy," which is the ultimate standard in sports video gaming, thanks to its annualized nature. To answer yes to "should you play this," likewise can send a disproportionate message of approval in an annualized genre—and it's different from Assassin's Creed or Call of Duty in that this is more of a continuation or a refinement of the previous year's game, not a different chapter in a longer-running story.
Today, with F1 2012, my personal feeling is, no, I'm not a Formula 1 fan, I'm not really interested in playing something this technical and demanding. But I can't find it in me to impugn the overall work of Codemasters and its studio on what is, for those who truly are interested in Formula 1 racing, a very solid simulation that engages its fans on whatever level of interest they have in that sport.
For another frame of reference, see my review of NHL 13. As a fan, I have no affection for ice hockey or real knowledge of how the sport is played. That's not the type of person reading this review (even if it is offered for general consumption to all of our readership).
To give that a "No," is to place my personal, even private entertainment priorities above those of the broader constituency to whom I am speaking, who in this case are assumed to be race or hockey fans. Nor am I prepared to take the heat from them in a subject where I am demonstrably out of my depth no matter how much I play this game. There's a real world knowledge that can be used endlessly against my opinion here that does not factor into other types of reviews.
Do you see what I'm getting at? This sort of calls back to my column last year on whether sports video games are worth reviewing, as they're annualized, typically only one has a league license, and it's basically, yeah, if you want to play Major League Baseball on the Xbox 360, then MLB 2K12 is worth playing, all of its faults notwithstanding. NCAA Football 13 came in short of expectations, and I said so in the review text, but, still I can't sit here and say the whole thing is such a waste of time it's not worth playing.
All of this is compounded by the fact sports video games have now two, three or even four discrete modes of play that could be considered games unto themselves—multiplayer competition, singleplayer or franchise career, and now you have online careers and ultimate teams and such.
The reason The Wall Street Journal's review of Borderlands 2 generated so much heat in the core gaming community is because the guy really did place his narrower personal interest over a broader critical responsibility. I feel like "Should You Play This"—as it is applied to the sports genre—sets up a situation that doesn't say much of anything, until it says something totally uncalled for. The problem is, when we make an exception for a class of game, we risk diluting the overall integrity of the review process. I understand that.
I'm not sure what the answer is but I just wanted you to know I'm pondering all of this, and have every intention of proceeding forthrightly under the current standard, but I worry about its sustainability in the area I am called upon to judge.
The Tendency Toward 'Yes'
Beside every video game review Kotaku makes a judgment on whether it is worth playing. Yes, No, or Not Yet are the responses, and in our unscored reviews, it seems to present a pass/fail proposition on the game's entire merit.
Sports video games, on the whole, show some kind of improvement every year, making them very likely to receive a "Yes" if the worth-playing question is answered honestly.
What forms the spine of a sports video game's critical reception is how much it improved over the last year. A yes or a no to "is this game worth playing?" does not answer that. Still, we think it's vital to have a uniform review standard, and annual sports video games will be held to it.
So even if most titles are likely to receive a "Yes," that should only be considered the starting point if not, frankly, a fundamental expectation.
It should be stressed that "Is this game worth playing?" also doesn't answer whether it is worth buying, which is a question that animates so much of the discussion behind annualized sports titles. Kotaku's reviews evaluate a video game on their critical merits, leaving out questions of their worth as a full-price purchase, as a used or discounted purchase, or where it may fit into a gamer's crowded budget.
There's going to be a big green Yes on a lot of licensed sports video games unless they have regressed to unplayability. Given the genre's iterative nature, and the industry's aversion to reinventing a series with so much licensing money at stake, such cases should be rare.
The Yes/No answer to a sports video game's playability may not fully appraise the game's merit. But patronizing the genre and its constituency by creating exceptions or exemptions in our review policies would not help matters, either. We ask that you read the entire review and use it to inform your expectations of this year's edition.
Date: Wed, Sep 19, 2012 at 6:34 PM
Subject: Some thoughts on reviews of sports video games
This is a really smart e-mail. My thoughts:
1) You're right. Most annualized, licensed sports games, based on the standards we're using, will merit a Yes.
2) The Yes (or the No or the Not Yet) is, obviously, not the only assessment we're giving in our reviews, so I don't think we should worry that it excuses a game's faults and prevents us from offering a nuanced assessment of the game. The Yes tells people it's worth playing. Most of the rest of the review explains why and notes caveats. The Yes is simply a more natural way of telling people the game is worth playing than any number we could put on the review.
3) If there was more competition in sports gaming, I don't think this would be an issue. That's why this feels like a valid edge case to our review system. Should we see alternate NFL games crop up, we could more easily guide people with a Yes on one and a No on the other. It's just not the case at this moment in history. So I'm fine with treating sports games a little differently now, but not ok with excusing them from our system and thereby never being able to gracefully get them back in our review system.
4) So... I'd like to have you retain the YES/NO/NOTYET system for these games. I want this, in part, because the Not Yet is an important tool for us to use for buggy games that cannot be fairly assessed at launch but might be better once patched. But I'd like you to note, in your sports games reviews, that we have a Sports Game Exception or whatever you want to call it. That notation should link to an explanation of how we assess sports games.
5) Our Sports Game Exception is essentially outlined in your e-mail to me, so let's go ahead and publish this exchange on Kotaku for all the readers to see. Are you ok with that?
Owen was ok with me running these e-mails, so now you all can see how we hashed this out. He wrote the sidebar, which we decided not to call an "Exception", because we decided that was too extreme a label.
We both hope that competition will eventually return to licensed sports games and that all of this will therefore become moot.