Thursday, June 10, 2010

Thursday Thoughts - Negative is Positively Useful

Some gamers love negativity. Well, when it's pointed toward others, anyway. Many of the more popular gaming sites involve a pretty large amount of hatred and aggressive criticism. Lots of people wouldn't find Zero Punctuation funny or interesting if it wasn't for the fact that Yahtzee Croshaw rips nearly everything apart that he plays (to be fair, many others just like that he's an honest gamer, which he is). Lots of developers, on the other hand, like to hear that people are happy with their games. So much, in fact, that they'll ask for positive reviews and some even have rules for certain reviewers on what they can and can't say about games. It's not surprising, really, when you think about it. Hit up a professional review site, you'll probably see a gaming advertisement. Thumb through a magazine and see if you can make it through five pages without hitting a two page advert for whatever high budget AAA title is coming out this month. Money talks.

There's one place where you find a lot more honesty and integrity: the independent game reviews. There are going to be exceptions to this rule, of course, but the fact that you don't see magazine ads for most downloadable titles or annoying pop-up banners for the latest XBLIG offerings will usually lead to seeing that reviewers are more honest and, in appropriate cases, more negative. And I'm here to tell you that this, done well, is a great thing for indie developers and something that shouldn't be shyed away from. In fact, it's something that should be embraced.

Let's give you a quick example from here: my Chime review. Some have told me that this review was too negative. Looking back, I think I could've made it sound a little more positive, but I also think that every single point I made (aside from saying how much I hate Moby) was a valid criticism of the game. Is the game worth your money? Yes, and then some. Is it a great game? Absolutely. Addictive? Dangerously. But is it without flaws? Heck no, and I stand by each word I typed still.

So, what could a developer gain from seeing a wall of text pointing out flaw after flaw with their game? How about the obvious: improving their work. Back in March I reviewed XBLIG Kaleidoscope and said mostly nice things about it. One of the great things about the game, however, was that it was patched after initial reviews and comments dealing with some of the platforming and collision detection. Instead of just angrily taking the ball and going home, developer Morsel went to work on the game and fixed a lot of what didn't work properly. And, in doing so, they made people happy and made a devoted follower out of me.

There's a fine line that reviewers have to be careful of crossing, however. More than a few times I'll see a review come off as far more opinionated than necessary, usually due to a dislike for a certain type of game or even too much of a devotion to another game from the SAME genre. When you drink Pepsi, do you point out that it's a little too sugary and sweet? Say it has a weird aftertaste to it? Or do you just throw it away and angrily protest that it's not Coke? A slightly odd example as you've probably tasted both colas thousands of times, but as a Coke fan would you be able to taste, say, Faygo or RC Cola objectively if you hadn't before? A bias like that shouldn't be in reviews and is as useless as a review that does nothing but shove praise after unwarranted praise at an undeserving game, with both sending the developer the wrong idea.

So where does that leave me? I tell things like they are. If I can do it with Chime, a made-for-charity game that I'd rate at a solid 9 or higher out of 10 but refuse to say nice things about the small songlist and bad design choices, I'll do it with anything. And if I or another honest reviewer say we like your game but think certain designs or choices needed work, then developers should read those reviews carefully, because if we see the same mistakes in later games we probably won't be able to recommend them without reservation.

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