The other seminar I attended at GDC was called “How Games Are Reviewed.” I don’t recall the name of the speaker, but he had spent six years at IGN and now works for a market-research firm, so he’s got some cred. One of his major talking points was about the speed of reviews, about outlets working hard to get reviews out to the public on release day, to which I thought: Why bother?
A quarter of a century ago (am I really that old?), I had one source for my video game news: Nintendo Power magazine. The only way I’d learn about the new Zelda or Mario game was via that bi-monthly, and later monthly, outlet. NP didn’t do reviews, of course, being a house organ for Nintendo, but suppose that it did. Even when more magazines, like PC Gamer or EGM, hit the scene in the ’90s, the Internet was still fairly young, and video game manufacturers hadn’t figured out how to fully leverage it for PR purposes. Facebook, Twitter, and the entire concept of “blogs” were still years away.
When a review was published, it was the do-all and end-all of video game coverage. You might have read about the game beforehand, but here was the first (and maybe only) hands-on, no-doubt-about-it look at the game. And without social media or websites like Metacritic, your ability to find other viewpoints was mostly limited to a few local friends, many of whom might not have played the game, or maybe chat rooms, BBSes, or other various “Internet friends.”
It’s easy to see that this is no longer the case. For months, or in some cases years, prior to its release, we’re deluged with information about a game. There are a million places you can learn about it online, starting with a very shiny official webpage, and extending into any number of social media outlets, both official and personal. You can find the game discussed on professional media websites, personal blogs, TV shows, and at conventions. In some cases, you can even try it out for yourself, via betas or downloadable demos.
With all that available, what’s the point of a release-day review any more? Why should a writer kill himself to provide up-to-the-minute info on a game that not only has already been covered extensively but has maybe even been played by a large portion of its potential audience?
Take a recent well-known game like Mass Effect 3. One of three things were true about you: You were going to buy it on release day, you were not going to buy it on release day, or you were up in the air about whether to buy it on release day. In the first two cases, reviews were irrelevant; you’d already made up your mind, and you’d probably made it up based on that vast repository of information regarding the game that I talked about earlier. If you’re in that third category, how did you make your final decision? Was it by reading a professional review? Or was it by talking to friends, watching videos on YouTube, or scanning through user comments and reviews on various sites?
These days, the real reason these reviews go up the same day of a game’s release is probably to generate page views and provide reinforcement rather than to actually inform. If you think a game was great, you’d probably like to read a positive review, and vice versa if you think a game is lousy. And, naturally, some people want to troll the comments section on a review that’s opposite to their opinion.
And then there’s the question of how comprehensive a release-day review can be in the first place. The GDC speaker used Mass Effect 3 as an example of a game that can be “beaten,” and so could be fairly usefully reviewed after beating the main content, but then brought up Tetris and World of Warcraft as games that you’ll never really “finish.” With more and more games falling into that “uncompleteable” territory — not to mention the difficulty in properly experiencing a multi-player game before its launch — the usefulness of release-day reviews is even more questionable.
As for me, I don’t think I’ve read a professional, release-day review of a game in years. Not that professional reviewers can’t do a good job of it, but I’m more inclined to see what the masses think and go from there. Even more often, I tend to find myself in one of the definitely going to/not going to buy on release day camps rather than the “maybe” camps because of all that information that’s already out there by the time a game launches. I’m going to buy Guild Wars 2 as soon as it’s available for purchase; that’s a decision I’ve already made, and I’d wager most of you have already made your decision on that title, one way or another. For other games, I might read a review a ways down the road if I’m looking at picking it up a few months after its release, but, for me at least, release-day reviews just don’t serve much purpose.