Games Reviewers Are Dead?

With the disconnect between reviewer and user scores becoming evident, is it time to admit the games reviewer as we know it is dead?

You’ve probably heard now that there is a significant figure discrepancy on Metacritic when it comes to Fallout 4.

Whilst the Critic Reviews give the game 86, based on 18 positive reviews and one mixed reception, User Reviews have given the much-hyped PC version of the game a stomach-punching 5.1 based on 868 positive reviews, 192 mixed reviews and more than 1,200 negative reviews. This has led some people, in the press and outside of it, to proclaim this is evidence of a rotten core in the heart of the gamer crowd. That it shows we have some “entitled” people who are “bombing” Metacritic.

I’ve always had a problem with the terminology of an “Entitled Gamer” however.

Video games are not an inexpensive hobby; you buy a console for say £300. Then you pay £10 a month for the online access. Then you’re spending £50 on each individual retail-sold game for the most part. Multiply that by three and you have the console industry – four, if you want to count the PC Crowd within it, although a decent gaming computer is often twice to three times the cost of a games console. When you’re spending such an amount of money on something, there should be an expectation of quality. You should be expecting to get your moneys worth, and you should be able to complain if said product isn’t quite what you were hoping for. It’s not “entitled” to expect an expensive luxury item to at least be functional, let alone enjoyable.

Yet all too often, the press mocks their readership by suggesting we’re whiny crybabies for expecting some standards, and that we should shut up and enjoy the games – even if, it turns out, we’re not actually enjoying them.

Whilst I certainly am not entirely sure about giving Fallout 4 a zero score, I can certainly understand the frustration of gamers.

The last few years have been a hard time for gamers. Generation 8 has been a bit of a let-down; much-vaunted promises of 1080p 60fs gaming never materialised for the most part, leaving us with games with often severe problems at their core. There have been fewer games as costs have risen, often sadly leading to corners being cut – often, this ends up being the QA Department, because gamers will buy any old crap, right? And with larger patches, unstable online and other myriad problems simmering underneath, you also have a press that has the last year attacked the demographic they’re meant to be catering to, using sweeping statements and provocative wording to intimidate and stir up a revolution.

And gamers are rising up against this!

Did gamers stand for Batman: Arkham Knight on PC? No. Did gamers stand for Square-Enix’s terrible “Augment Your Pre-Order” campaign for the new Deus Ex? Of course they didn’t. Gamers soundly mocked Mortal Kombat X and its microtransactions for easy fatalities, because of course it’s so hard to pause the game, go into the moves list and read the button string required to perform a fatality, isn’t it? From the graphical downgrade of The Witcher 3 right through to Konami’s poor handing of Metal Gear Solid 5 and so many other examples, it’s hard to argue that if gamers are waging a war on their hobby, the chances are they are succeeding.

My proof? Sales figures for most games have been down all year. Hardware sales have been shrinking too, although this is often seen in the run up to a new hardware generation/cycle (of which the NX absolutely is by definition of generational cycles). But the biggest signal for this is simply to look at the community reaction to games, versus the critical reception. Because it is here which paints the most enlightening picture.

Take, for example, Hearthstone: The Grand Tournament. A critic average of 84 – yet a user average of 3.9! Or maybe Destiny: The Taken King on XBox One. I mean, games reviewers have been showering it with praise and articles for weeks now, with a critic average of 90! Yet your consumer/user average sits at 5.0! Even the PS4 version, at an 85 critic average, sits at a user average of 5.8.

Let’s go further. Skylanders Superchargers on the Wii U, an Activision staple, got a critic average of 88. User average? 4.8. This years FIFA 16? A critic average of 85 on XBox One, and 4.6 from users. Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 for PS4 has a critic average of 81, and a user average of 4.7. For the PC, how about Civilization: Beyond Earth? The critics seemed to like it, with an average of 80! And yet, users scored it 5.9 (as someone who played it during a free weekend on Steam, I’d have been pissed to spend £10 on the game, let alone £30+). Even Metal Gear Solid 5 can’t escape it, at best for the PS4 version sitting at an impressive 93 average from critics, yet a good but still quite tempered 8.0 from users. Disney Infinity on XBox One? 78 from critics, 5.2 from users. And the insanely named Inazuma Eleven Go: Chrono Stones: Thunderflash on 3DS got a critic rating of 77, whilst users expressed their disappointment with an average of 2.3!

There are plenty more examples from this year, but I don’t want to get bogged down in this.

Now, usually when people lob accusations around that the gaming press are just shills pushing whatever pays best, I roll my eyes. Partly because I wonder – your point is? They do need ad revenue to survive and to be fair, when that ad revenue comes from the games industry itself there’s no question that it will influence things a little bit. This is arguably a problem, of course, but no-one seems capable of suggesting a better alternative so it seems like a cheap stab most of the time. Of course the gaming press is, where possible, going to err on the side of positivity.

However, the disconnect between gamers and the gaming press has never been so obviously wide. The gaming press may be content with fielding the same tired crap year in and year out, but gamers are now expecting something better. And if we’re to take Metacritic scoring into account, when it comes to some of the bigger titles from big publishers, the gaming world often reacting the polar opposite of the gaming press. It’s becoming clear as crystal that gamers do NOT agree with the critical consensus, and if they’re not agreeing with you – then what are you offering them, exactly? What role do you as a reviewer play when the market at large is in disagreement with your “professional opinion”?

There has been no mistaking that gamers are fighting their own battles – and what do you know? They’ve found out that low sales hurt publishers! That publishers pay attention to Metacritic, and the user scores, so you can go express yourself directly to them cutting out the middle man! They’ve discovered that some of these games are a ‘little’ more broken than the gaming press would have you believe! I mean, that’s not looking at all like many responsible gaming outlets are deliberately taking from the advertising revenues of many publishers, is it?

Gaming press – from a former writer and journo, pro-freaking-tip; your readers are your livelihoods. If you lose readers, your value to publishers in the advertising wheel diminishes proportionally to how many readers you’re losing! Calling them “entitled” or “cry-babies” for expecting a $60/£50 video game to work out of the box is the one thing you need to NOT be doing. Gamers have not lowered their standards – they expect the best for the amount they have to pay. Because, ultimately, gamers are the ones paying. I said back during the XBox One launch debacle that Ryse: Son of Rome as an apology offering was odd, because the game isn’t great. But for free – I’d find something to like in it. I’d probably find MANY things I’d like in it.

Therein is the rub, and for me the one thing many reviewers often forget. They get their games sent to them for free, they (often) get paid via the ad revenue from the publishers and lead pretty cushy lives considering. As a critic, you usually DO get things for free. Everyone wants press, right? And everyone wants positive press. The thing is, you also need to review from the perspective of if you HAD paid money for something. “Would I have bought this for £50 if I was on minimum wage?” – that’s not a dumb question, it’s the EXACT question they should be asking themselves. We can all find positives in things, and especially when we haven’t actually paid money for them. But others will be paying – and they need honesty, not marketing spiel.

As I said earlier – this is not a cheap hobby. We pay a lot of money for consoles, accessories, games and collectables associated with these games (Cloud in Smash? DAMN! I know I shouldn’t but I want that Amiibo sooo badly…). From their gilded cage, the gaming press and reviewers seem often as oblivious as the publishers themselves of the fiscal realities many of its customers face today. And I use the term Gilded Cage deliberately – for whilst they have a pretty place with affords them a great vantage, the reality is that it is still a prison. A prison where they are unable to maintain professional distance, or break free to alert gamers when a doo-doo train is about to hit the shelves. They have one of the most privileged jobs in the world – playing and writing about video games, and getting paid for it. But the price being paid for that…

Can this gap be closed? I’m not sure. In a sense, I think this can only get worse before it gets better. Because if the press and reviewers start answering back, they risk not getting review copies to compete with rival sites, effectively being blacklisted. Of course, if they don’t, the games industry is going to start looking at these gaps between critic scores and user scores, and wonder what exactly they’re paying the gaming press for. I mean, they clearly can’t convince users their game is awesome so what is the point of spending these ad budgets in and on places which aren’t influencing gamer opinions?

It remains true that the winner here is the gamers though. By hook or by crook, the gaming landscape can no longer afford to ignore the voices of its customers. Gamers are making it very clear that they are the people holding the trump card – by which, I mean credit and debit cards – and it’s THEM who need to be catered for, not an elite group of professional reviewers who seem to have become comfortable with their positions to the point that they no longer represent the mindset of their readership.

A year and a bit ago, mid-2014, the siren call from the press was “Gamers are dead.” What delicious irony that at the end of 2015, that it may be the traditional games reviewer who is dead. Without reviewers, the gaming press has a serious issue – what are they then? When more often than not they churn out PR blurbs and marketing speak to fill up most of their pages on a daily basis – something which can be done via social media more efficiently these days – what value do you retain?

But be warned Twitch and YouTube; for the advantages this has given you, this could also be cyclical. Fall into the same trap the gaming press have, and a whole new gaming press will rise up to replace you in ten or fifteen years. This is the warning, not the template.

If the gaming press today wants to avoid irrelevance… they’ll have to change. The question is, of course, whether it’s too late for that – that is, if they can change at all…

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