Game reviews are a contentious thing.
At their best they inform the reader, raise issues about a game, dig out deeper meaning in interactive entertainment. At their worst they serve as a platform for delivering free games to the undeserving, help market something not worth buying, act as a sounding board for future design choices and a tool for calculating bonus.
That's why so many game writers, game journalists, gaming publication editors everywhere take this single form of writing so incredibly serious. We're no different.
It took years to finally get around to officially reviewing games. And when we finally did, we did so with three ideals at heart:
No alphabetical or numerical review scores.
Delivering the most critical information in the most efficient way possible.
Making them fun to read and, hopefully, writing them in a way that fostered conversations about what people thought of the game.
The system that came out of those ideas was a system we were quite proud of. But it wasn't without its flaws. So we decided to essentially start over. Here's why:
The biggest issue with our old system was that it fostered occasionally bland writing. Those strongly worded, bolded, big headings of Loved and Hated provided an underlying tone to everything in that section that we never intended.
If we mildly disliked something, falling under the hated heading turned it instantly into something we hated. It also allowed us to be a little milder in our opinions. We could just point out what we hated without explaining why, allowing instead the color of the words and that big, bold word, to do the talking for us.
But reviews need to be driven by critical writing, sentences and paragraphs that can explain how we feel about something without the need of color or headings. Reviews also need to allow for subtleties, something that our red and blue, loved and hated system most certainly didn't.
Perhaps the greatest disservice born of this review system was that it could be used to strip away the context of our opinions.
We are now very publicly working through versions of a new review system, one that takes a lot of this into account. We've reworked the reviews in a way that make scanning bullet points less necessary for those of you without the time to read the full review. Instead we are now including a summary graph at the bottom that is our final thought on a game.
Another thing we noticed was that our reviews, which were designed to be concise, became excessively wordy. This new review format is meant to return our reviews to what we think is an optimal length without sacrificing opinion or the ability to critically examine some of the interesting ideas found in games.
Let me walk you through how the new review system works.
The most notable change is the one you'll almost never see: Editor's Choice.
We still don't score games in review, but we felt it would be helpful to you, and to us, if we were able to occasionally show that a game was one of the best of the year. When that happens we select it as an editor's choice.
This star is meant to show that we as a group agree that this is a must buy game for the year. Ignore it at your own folly.
The reviews kick off with a lede followed by a one paragraph summary of what is new and different about this particular game. This is followed by a section called Ideal Player. The idea behind Ideal Player is that not all games are meant for all people. This is our attempt to say who might like this game. We realize that most gamers don't fit a single niche, but our hope is that this will give people a sense of where the review is coming from.
Why You Should Care is the next paragraph. We changed this from Why Should I Care after a number of commenters pointed out the inherent, though not deliberate, snarkiness of this subhead. This is a paragraph that will explain how this game sets itself apart from the rest of its ilk.
This is the meat and potatoes of our review, a hopefully easy to follow, conversational talk about what we thought of the game.
We've been playing around quite a bit with the tone of this section to try and master it, and it's coming along nicely. We decided to use this approach because we feel it makes the review a much easier read compared to a pages-long paper.
It's important to note that while the format here is a drastic departure from the loved and hated section of our old reviews, the substance is the same. We all take the same notes, categorize what we liked and disliked about a game into up to seven different points. (Down from the maximum of ten allowed in the old review) And then we write them up with a more conversational tone.
The questions are the biggest issue here. We've tried snarky questions, just-the-fact questions, and thoughtful questions. We're still looking for the best way to present this part, but I think it's moving in the right direction. One of the big things that we think will help is that we plan to draw some of these questions from the comments made in posts about games we are reviewing, like the one we did for Castlevania and Medal of Honor.
The next section shows the game in action, typically using video we shot ourselves in-game. Under that we have something we call a Visual Guide, which is a gallery of videos, stills and illustrations that are meant to provide context and background about a game. This can change from review to review, but I'd highly recommend always taking a gander at them.
This is designed for the new reader, the gamer who maybe isn't intimately familiar with a particular title we're reviewing. It's meant to guide these readers through the concept and background of a game quickly to allow them to make a better decision about whether they should pick it up.
We also plan to occasionally use video in the conversation portion of the review itself, to illustrate a point we want to make. Again, we think this is a big plus for readers.
That bottom section includes what is starting to look like a misstep on our part: The Buy It, Don't Buy It sections of the review. The idea here was that we could use these two short sections to concisely explain the best and worst of the game. But frankly many of us, most definitely including I, have fallen into the habit of almost making a joke there. That's annoying, confusing and a waste of space. So we're probably ditching it.
Fortunately, we still have The Bottom Line, which as I said before, is meant to give people our one paragraph opinion on the game. Reading just this section should allow you to quickly see what we think of the game in question.
The only thing that remains unchanged in our review is that bottom italicized graph of information. It includes the details on the game, whether we were given the game or purchased it and both how much of and how we played the game.
Will everyone love our new system? Most definitely not; not everyone loved our old system. And that's OK. While it remains a work in progress, I feel that it's headed to where we want to be.
The bottom line: As a writer, using this system I know I have to be a bit more careful in my approach to the formatting, but feel confident that I'm able to get across all of the things I found troubling and all of the things I liked in a game using it.
Thanks for being patient and providing such invaluable opinion and direction as we work through this.
And for those of you who want long-form critiques of games, don't worry, we're on it. Starting this month we are also rolling out Criticism pieces. These will be reviews that focus on a specific element of a game, and written in the long-form format found in most newspapers. They will serve to compliment the existing review of a game, not to replace it.