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In a new Gamasutra editorial, Keith Boesky – “a long-standing game agent and attorney as well as former Eidos president” discusses the problems with game critics. Dismissing him immediately because he was in charge of Eidos would be unfair. I’m kidding, of course. The only reason he can’t be entirely ignored is because Gamasutra publishes his articles.

Boesky actually opens up with some insightful points. Contrasting the game industry’s critics to others, he observes that ours are nearly alone in frothing over huge budget, AAA material. We do not wait for art house games with bated breath, nor condemn anything that cost over 50 million dollars to make and is 90% spectacle.

His next idea is that people of my generation and older tend to mentally separate their passive and active media. I can’t speak with knowledge about children and the way they look at games versus TV, as Boesky does, but I have noticed that my girlfriend and friends who don’t game frequently have little or no patience when it comes to cut scenes and other passive sections in games. Whether this is due to growing up before nearly all media had an element of interaction in it or simply a difference between gamers and non-gamers I can’t say, but Boesky’s claim that it is the former deserves more discussion.

After these two interesting ideas, Boesky launches into a bafflingly stupid attack on critics, who are often bafflingly stupid themselves, which makes criticism of them easy and Boesky’s failed attempt that much more flabbergasting. He insists repeatedly that critics want pick up and play arcade-type titles because that’s what they grew up on. This would be a good argument if it were supported by facts. He chooses to use Metacritic for evidence supporting his position, but glancing at the top 20 lists on each system only illustrates that around half of each list is barely playable to casual gamers.

Bioshock, Call of Duty 4, Oblivion, Metal Gear Solid 4, Half-life 2, Dead Space, Ninja Gaiden, Mass Effect, Fable 2, Resident Evil 4, Metroid Prime 3 and so on fill the lists of best reviewed games. On the other end, games seen as too simple like Wii Music are being ravaged by critics.

Let’s assume that he means critics want hard to play pick up and play arcade titles, as opposed to accessible (what everyone else on earth thinks of when they read the term “pick up and play”) titles and is thus not bringing the concept of casual games into his argument. Most of these titles still don’t support this assumed position.

Boesky complains that critics want shallow games without multiple hooks (plot, characters, etc are hooks, not just game mechanics). All the top games I listed have at least some semblance of storyline, and some are incredibly deep. His attacks that critics don’t want emotionally meaningful games falls short, especially considering he is entirely dismissive of Braid’s narrative.

Beyond the falsehood that critics don’t want games with plots is the sad fact that most games have shitty stories that are poorly told. Boesky seems to be advocating games as a whole package rather than game mechanics with plot, setting and character dressings. This is an admirable perspective. Unfortunately, game designers still do almost everything that isn’t gameplay very poorly.

Suggesting we deal with a mediocre shooter so we can hear a good story about World War II is silly. Why not read a great book on the subject, then play a great shooter? I agree that any game that has both great narrative and mechanics should be enjoyed by as many people as possible, but until titles like that flood the market there is good reason to ignore the plotlines of average games.

Overreaching to make his point that the total package matters more than the gameplay, Boesky makes the shaky claim that titles lacking other hooks (captivating setting, plot lines, character development) offer superficial gameplay. This is a devious move in that he has co-opted the term gameplay and attempted to redefine it as something that encapsulates everything a game can be. To him, a game without a plot is lacking in that area of gameplay. He is speaking a different language in order to insult straightforward games with excellent gameplay and he should be more forthcoming about his intentions.

Boesky closes by lamenting that critics are out of touch with consumers. Asserting this is a negative without offering much explanation why somewhat undercuts his entire editorial. At the opening of the article he is rightfully dismissive of pop music that doesn’t last more than a generation because it is crap. He points out that music critics tend to dislike the music of the moment. Music consumers generally have bad taste and game players are no different.

7 Comments

  1. Keith Boesky said on October 25, 2008:

    Nicely said.

    Thanks for giving me the shot to hang myself, rather than dismissing me based on some of the jobs I had. In defense of my time at Eidos, I was the guy who purchased Final Fantasy VII PC, that should give me a bit of bona fides.

    The point of the article is the metacritic scores do not necessarily align with what people are buying. TFU flew off the shelves, but it scored in the 70’s. Based on the score, if the developer were independent, they would have a hard time getting work after that game.

    With regard to your point about your generation, there is certainly a gap from mine. “Generation” is a generalization for gamers who grew up with games on the CRT. Your non-gamer friends were unfairly lumped into the statement and it would not necessarily apply, I do still stand by the position for gamers.

    I use metacritic because publishers use it. You can read the blog linked in the introduction to see how I feel about its flawed calculations and arbitrary scores. Unfortunately, in large part, it drives our business. The scores I used were of the most recent games. In fact, your list supports my position. Oblivion was released when there were fewer games on the market. Bioshock Call of Duty, Half Life, Dad Space, Metroid are all FPS’s. Very accessible and flat learning curves. (MGS4 and Fable 2 are sequels so the critics already knew what they were getting and had a head start on reviews and getting into the games. Ninja Gaiden is not only a sequel, but a hack and slash with no learning curve Mass Effect is the only exception, but comes from a pedigreed developer and had a huge marketing budget with significant show time to critics leading up to its release during a barren time of the year. Don’t get me wrong, these are all great games and deserve the scores they got, some higher, they just support the thesis that critics are not spending a lot of times with games.

    I should have been more, clear about Braid. My point was the game is more old school than next gen. Yes the story is great, and if you want to know how I feel about the game in particular, you can see it on my blog. Again, this game has a flatter learning curve than other lower rated games. I am not saying it should be scored lower, it should not. High scores are not mutually exclusive.

    I never said critics want shitty stories, your words not mine. But we all want fun gameplay first foremost. Story, while rising in significance, is still the red headed stepchild of the production process. What was the story in Tetris again?

    My point about Brothers in Arms was the inconsistency of the review. The description of the narrative was glowing, the criticism of the game play used the same words, from the same publication as Halo, which got a 90, but it still received a low score. By the way, it was Blazing Angels that got my son interested in World War II and led him to read books. They can go together.

    I never meant to insult games without setting, plot lines or character development.) Tetris, Geometry Wars, even Super Mario are all great games deserving of their respective places in the pantheon of gaming history. The reference to the games in the article does not suggest they should not receive high scores, only there are other games which should as well. High scores are not mutually exclusive to either category of game. I love both. That’s why I am in the business.

    Critics being out of touch is a negative because their work influences developers’ ability to get games. While it is not the point of this piece, some critics take great delight in writing bad reviews to generate traffic, or promote themselves and Metacritic is a flawed system which is misused by publishers.

  2. jay said on October 25, 2008:

    Thanks for responding, Keith. Pardon the Eidos bashing – at least you didn’t work at Midway.

    I actually think one or both of us missed each others point on the generation gap. I was attempting to agree with you there. Beside people who game frequently, people my age and up seem to force a division between passive and active media, whereas even the young casual gamer likely has the ability to blend them seamlessly.

    I don’t think I ultimately disagree with your point that critics seem to like FPS excessively, possibly as you say because of their accessibility. I don’t really disagree with most of your points but still can’t see the path to your conclusion.

    Reviewers do a bad job in general. They shit on accessible games in genres they don’t like or with dressings they find too immature. They aren’t a good representation of gamers yearning for innovation, originality, and pushing the medium to new heights, nor are they a representation of what the every day man plays.

    Our disagreement lies here – I think critics should be the former, you think the latter. I am tempted to ascribe our positions to our lines of work. Of course I want more good games, but that’s very abstract. Some AAA title I don’t care about is unlikely to influence the sort of games I most often play – if Gears 2 bombs will that do anything to Fumito Ueda’s next project? I’d guess that you, on the other hand, see the immediate results of Metacritic and the economic consequences.

    The solution to both of our problem may lie with the continued expansion of the market. If everyone gamed there would be plenty of space in the critical world for me to analyze the structure of Rune Factory, IGN to declare the new FPS the best game ever, the Daily News to love Hell’s Highway and Tiger Beat to gush over the 17 new Imagine games.

  3. Keith Boesky said on October 25, 2008:

    Again, nicely said.

    I actually agree with both of your statements about the role of critics, but the world is not ready for the former. Because the aggregated scores are placed ahead of sales in making a determination on whether to give a developer work, for the time being, the should be the latter. When the scores take a role like those in the film industry, where they do not have an impact on the ability to get work, I believe they should be, as they are in film, the former.

    It would be nice if the world worked like your last paragraph, unfortunately, metacritic arbitrarily lumps all of those together and runs them through it blender into one score.

  4. christian said on October 25, 2008:

    This is a good conversation so far. I do have a question as to how we are defining accessibility. Do we simply mean how easy it is to understand the controls, or how easy it is to jump in and have fun/eventually beat the game?

    I ask because Ninja Gaiden is one of the hardest of the AAA action games on the market. The controls are simple on the surface, but randomly hacking away at enemies is an easy way to get smoked.

    My point is that it appears that some reviewers are getting a bit better at recognizing the audience and scope of a particular game, and scoring accordingly. I doubt one would find many reviews of Ninja Gaiden claiming it was easy, but because the combat is challenging and deep, it is a worthy play for those interested. I think NG was scored highly for the same reasons that games like Mega Man 9 and Bangai-O Spirits have 80+ Metacritic averages. These kinds of games are being scored based on who is willing to play them, rather than wondering how much the general populace will like them. So, that might be a point for reviewers. This doesn’t counter the overal point about the popularity of accessible shooters, but might be an interesting trend.

    Another question for Keith: Based on your comment above, are you saying you feel that reviewers are spending enough time actually playing the games they assess, or just not spending enough time throwing certain kinds of games into the disc tray? I think both are worthy of discussion.

  5. Keith Boesky said on October 25, 2008:

    Thanks Christian.

    NG is a great example of a great game design. You can pick it up and play. You know what you are doing and the interaction with the game is not complex, but it is not simple to play. There is enough challenge to keep you from getting bored. This is really easy to write, and really, really hard to do. Kudos to them for doing it. Like I said, this kind of accomplishment in game development should be rewarded.

    As far as time, I believe the critics would love to have more time. At the risk of sounding immodest, take a look at this older post and you can see what happens in the 4th quarter http://boesky.blogspot.com/2008/06/fourth-quarter-releases-stop-insanity.html. There is simply not enough time in the day to devote time to all the game to be reviewed. The highly anticipated games and sequels get great coverage because the publishers bring the reviewers in early, and the reviewers look forward to playing them. Other new franchises and sleepers don’t get as much coverage simply as a function of time in the day. I don’t think it is a conscious decision.

  6. christian said on October 25, 2008:

    Keith, that blog post brings up very good examples of the trend you are mentioning. I remember being convinced of it a few years ago when I bought Resident Evil 4 on launch day in January. The game still sold well post holiday. This year, the only guaranteed buy for me is Fallout 3, because the Fallout games are my favorite RPGs ever. Aside from that, I would like to buy Valkryia Chronicles, LitteBig Planet, Persona 4, as well as catch up on some past releases like Dragon Quest 4 DS. This doesn’t even include older games (Uncharted, Skate, Burnout Paradise) that I would like to catch up on. It is madness, and every year seems to get worse (though I think record holder for big releases might be 2004, with Halo 2, Half Life 2 and World of Warcraft). The February/March release window meanwhile has just one game I know I’ll be buying. Spreading them out a bit more would guarantee that I have lots to play all year long.

    I have always heard that the summer months traditionally got dryer in regards to quality releases because no one played games as much in the good weather. Maybe that was true in the days of the NES, but I think the market is big enough now so as to support a quality release regardless of the time.

  7. Golden Jew said on October 27, 2008:

    A big part of the problem, and this is not limited to the gaming industry, is the fact there is not a quantitative way to know where a reviewer comes from. I say quantitative because marketing and biz dev pukes worship numbers. And since you can’t determine if a reviewer is reviewing as “Joe Plumber” (couldn’t resist) or a niche gamer by a simple number, you’re always going to fail to have accurate representation based on a meta-number. As Keith points out, metacritic is a critical metric for big game studios, so if you’re using it as a tool, you’re talking about a very crude, dumbed down metric.

    But this isn’t so different from other industries and it doesn’t mean there isn’t money to be made for those who shun this tactic. Big movie studios rarely gamble on “outside the box” scripts, preferring that to be left to the indie regimes. That doesn’t mean people aren’t making money on indie movies (interestingly, hollywood has a pretty terrible business model for big budget flicks). The biggest loser is the consumer, because we’re forced to do intense research and legwork in order to find the good products that the mainstream media and publishers don’t draw much attention to. Seeing as this is a fairly standard challenge across many mediums, I think expecting the beast to change is unrealistic, instead, it’s better to focus on the “counter-culture” of bloggers and the like who can serve as word of mouth outlets and do the legwork of finding quality independent games that don’t come from EA type behemoths. Expecting to buck the trend of metacritic is unlikely and unrealistic. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t money or quality games to be made through other channels.

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