On Games Journalism – Valve’s Future

It’s interesting to note the changes to Steam being talked about by fellow game journalists (Relevant video links w/their names) Jim “Fucking” Sterling “, Son” , John “Total Biscuit” Bain, and, of course, many others, because, for all that TMW is a relatively small critical outpost, yes, these proposed changes, if they go through, if they work, may well be positive changes. So, let’s talk about a few of them, and how they could, potentially, make life a little bit easier for us games writers.

Cleanlight, and Steam Explorers

Greenlight, and the Discovery Queue in general, have not, sadly, been tools this writer has been using a heck of a lot, at least partly because… They’re not exactly terribly helpful to me. As noted in the previous On Games Journalism, my modus operandi, fortnight to fortnight, is to go through the “New Releases” tab (Easy as it is to fi- Ahahaha no, it only just passes my “3 interactions at max” UI test for games, and is not the most visible “feature”), and the Discovery Queue… Mostly tries to get me to try AAA games (Which I can ill afford), or things that, at best, would be good for a Going Back. At worst, I can go an entire Queue without seeing anything that even vaguely interests.

Nier: Automata. Critically acclamed, but sadly, too much for my wallet, and let’s face it, if you’re reading the site, odds are high you already like it. Also, I’d be a *tadge* late on that review, don’t you think?

More transparency in how it arrives at these conclusions would be highly useful. As to Greenlight, sadly, most of the time, I get my word about good things to greenlight via word of mouth, and it has been demonstrably proven that yes, there is an asset-flip problem. The news that Steam is tending toward lower figures on Steam Direct, and the frankly unsurprising revelation that bigger companies appear to have been tending against the lower figures, are respectively okay news, and unsurprising news.

So, as presented by Mr. Sterling, Steam Explorers is for exploring things with low sales that may (or may not) deserve such low sales. It’s not an initiative I personally expect to actually happen (Being, as has been noted in the past, a cynical auld so-and-so), but if it does, it definitely has potential. I’m somewhat more wary of incentivising the system, as that’s a sub-feature that definitely needs a delicate touch (Nothing so simple as “You get store credit for every X thumbs up”, because, let’s face it, that’s going to go tits up rather quickly. Extended refund time, however, would somewhat help.)

More Transparency!

As noted, it has also been proposed that more detailed game data would be publically available. How many buy the game? How many finish the game they buy? And so on would be very useful. I’m all for transparency, because, honestly, I can see quite a few benefits, and the countering of quite a few negatives. It’s useful from an academic standpoint, extra tools in a game historian’s toolbox. It’s useful from a reviewer’s standpoint, perhaps, if you look at the data, giving you fair warning that something does not, in fact, Get Better Later, and…

A prime bit of “Sizzle” from Nintendo’s BotW Review Roundup. GAME IS AWESOME (No Information Why.) Sadly, BotW is not on PC, and I don’t give Pretty Numbers, otherwise it would have gotten a 7/10 (Quite good, but not the Second Coming)

…It helps cut down on some of the shady bullshit that, sadly, happens. SURVEY YOUR COMPETITORS! By, instead of faking surveys to each other (No names named, but you know who you are), actually looking at the data. SOLD UMPTY MILLION COPIES… But returns are also noted, and right where everybody can see them. Along with the “Played for ten minutes, because the game was released in an unplayable state.” I don’t need to name names there, because said names have been shrieked to the rooftops from day one to week twelve, on average. Sizzle, that practice of content free fluff cherry picking the Good Reviews, could potentially be cut down.

All of this, sadly, is potential. We won’t know, until it actually hits, what form this could take. But you can guarantee I’m keeping at least one sleepy eye on that.

Curation Improvements?

I put a question mark here because Curation is one of those features that… Never really took off. I use it myself, but, right now, it’s another social media tool in my toolbox that doesn’t perform nearly as well as other social media tools in my toolbox. But, if what I’m hearing is correct, then it could well prove more useful. While also giving me more work. I’m looking at my current docket when I say that, and sort of sighing. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing.

But in any case, things currently on the table include better organisation and customisation of a Curator page, so, if you’re sad that you want to find a genre of game on TMW, but can’t (I’m still working on a good solution there, not helped by the fact that genre’s a little tough to pin down with a lot of the things I review), then the Curation changes might well help with that. I’m less enthused about “Top Tens” and other such things, due to my noted antipathy toward Pretty Numbers That Don’t Really Mean Anything Two Weeks Later, but hey, I’m sure that’ll prove useful to other writers who do like Pretty Numbers. Go them.

Part of last month’s curation. I mean, they’re good games, Danforth, but wouldn’t it be nice if you could look back and see what *else* I liked in that genre? Yeaaaah…

Also of interest is the idea of review copies directly being sent through Steam via the Curation page. With the possibility of refusal. This is a feature I’m fond of, not because it cuts down on the amount of work I do hunting said folks down and informally, but politely asking for review copies, but because it would potentially cut down at least some of the waiting and ambiguity that comes with said requests (Which is highly stressful.) As an aside, I love all of the folks who’ve replied positively, and especially the ones brave enough to reach out with something they think I’d like, but weren’t sure. Props to all of you.

So, it should be noted this is pretty brief. I’ve linked Mr. Sterling and Mr. Bain’s videos (and again!), which themselves provide their own personal opinions (And ones much closer to the ground floor, since they were invited to talks on these subjects), but… If these things happen, they definitely have potential, and I’m certainly willing to give all this a chance.

Just like Mr. Sterling, I’m not exactly hot on companies providing compensation for review as a feature, as I’d rather keep that to my already stated maximums, with a minimum of, of course, nothing. I’d much rather ensure that readers who like my work and my approach do that. Speaking of, there are ways to support TMW, and if you liked this article, maybe you should check some of them out?

On Games Journalism – The Grindy Bit(s)

As you may have gathered from previous articles in the “On Games Journalism” series, reviewing is, despite what it appears to be, hard and largely thankless work. Today, we’re going to be talking about one of the core aspects of the job, and one that, for many of us, has actively become more painful as the field has grown: Looking for things to review. It’s a many-headed beastie, but I’m going to be focusing on those “heads” in roughly the order they appear.

First, Catch Your Hare

It’s no exaggeration to say that there are more games, and games creators, than there ever have been before. It is also, unfortunately, a statement that rivals in usefulness with a reviewer’s tools for sorting through the results of that variety… Or, more accurately, seeming variety.

*Half* of one of four pages for the 10th March. On one platform. Skim, and you’ll miss things. Explore everything, and you’ll be very sad.

The picture above represents a relatively DLC free example of what we, on the reviewing and writing end, have to look through at least once a week. A week can, on Steam alone, be anything up to 10 or 15 pages. And this is one release platform. One of several. It is, for PC reviewers, often the most used, because it’s pretty common, but when Desura was alive, there were things released on that that never made it to Steam, but were quite good. There are things on Itch.IO that are good, but never get to Steam. And then there’s games from the creator’s page, and… That’s about it.

Looking through this list can be a painful experience, because, in one form or another, Sturgeon’s Law applies even to this relatively curated release list. These five are shmups/tower defense/Insert Extremely Common Genre Here that look and sound very similar, and also look and sound very similar to the last seventeen you looked at. This one may or may not be good, but their marketing blurb is offputting, self-indulgent, self-mocking to the point of seeming not to want sales… Or just plain trash. This one is an asset flip, and a painfully obvious one. This one has a painful UI. This one’s a HOPA, which, in my book, is a “Nope, right out” 90% of the time (That’s a very small number of HOPAs that get through my personal filters, you may have realised.) That one’s a AAA game that has been around long enough to pretty much ensure people will buy it based on the name alone (And has another issue we’ll get to.)

This particular screenshot, this particular time, I found something that was definitely in my bailiwick, and definitely interesting. Most days, I am not nearly so lucky, and have to gamble, or go back to an Early Access game, to meet my self imposed quota.

But let us assume, for the sake of argument, you find things that firstly, you want to review, and secondly, people might want to read about (It’s a gamble whether they will regardless. A gamble you try and weight as best you can, but luck is a part of pretty much any enterprise involving visibility.)

The Wages Of Sin…

Now comes the hard part. The heartbreaking part. Because, if you’re like me, and want games to thrive, you also want to support the developers of games that interest you. Critique helps, sure. But cold, hard cash pays their bills. And that cold, hard cash is going from your pocket. This isn’t even going into the time budget that this is going to involve.

I’d like to pretend things are going well at TMW. But they’re not. I am, at the present time, making a loss. Some of that loss is gladly given. Some of it… Not so much, as a “bad” game, while good at honing criticism, is time you’re not going to get back, including the time spent ensuring that your mood is conducive to properly reviewing something, rather than taking out your frustrations with Shit Exploitathon or Shoddy Disappointment #253 on something that, if you’d taken that time, would have been “Okay”, rather than the “ARGH, IT’S AWFUL” you’re going to give it when reviewing in a bad mood.

Although messy, it gets across the point that… *sings* One of these things… Is not like the others!

Working with a larger publication sometimes helps offset that cost. Being offered a review code sometimes offsets that loss. Asking for a review code sometimes offsets that loss, and I add that sometimes because not everybody replies… And sometimes, if you’re waiting for them to reply, with nothing in your docket (Thankfully rare here at TMW), you’re falling behind.

But yes, games cost money, and, as we’ve established in previous On Games Journalism articles, games writers don’t get a whole lot of respect, often for reasons of “It’s not work” (The very reason I write “On Games Journalism” … Because it really, really is) or for the more petty reason of “You didn’t like this thing I like.” It doesn’t help that times are tough all over, and hey, why pay for things you read for free, huh?

Answer: So you get more of that thing, and the person doing the thing doesn’t have to worry about whether he can afford to do the thing.

So you’re going to miss things. Sometimes, it’s going to be a thing that, as it turns out, you’re glad you missed. Other times, it’s going to be whatever Next Big Thing segments of the gaming community are feverishly yelling about. But you are going to miss things, from the time constraints alone.

Now, I did mention we’d talk about AAA games here, and how they factor in. I cannot review more than one AAA game a month. And, most months, I’m faced with the choice of at least one Big Name… Or from a couple to several smaller, but potentially more creative, more nuanced, and, most of all, cheaper Smaller Names. To me, at least, this is a no-brainer, but it does provide a little bit of potential insight into the inertia of said Big Name games: Smaller outlets, for the most part, cannot afford to critique these, especially as AAA companies are, as a general rule of thumb, more picky about review copies, more likely to withhold review copies, and more likely to Greylist (The practice of blacklisting someone from review copies… But not telling them.)

There Are, Of Course, More Grindy Bits

This, unfortunately, goes without saying. If you’re freelancing, rather than trying to go fully independent as I have been, you’re going to be mailing sites which hopefully pay (A relatively small list) with review pitches, article pitches, all sorts of pitches which will, like Casey At The Bat, often be ignored. Reviewing, especially, is somewhere where you are more likely to succeed the more obscure a game is, and even then, you’re going to have to be aware of lots of factors, such as whether the site you want to write a review for (In the hope of getting paid for work, time, and the like) even accepts outside reviewers.

Regardless of whether you’re freelancing or independent, you often have a social media presence you have to keep up. There’s the book-keeping associated. Networking. Editing.

There’s a lot going on under the hood of reviewing. And at least some of it is, in many respects, just plain depressing.

On Games Journalism – What A Presskit Actually *Is*

So, quite recently, thanks to the “Games journos are all bribed” crowd and some games journos who drew attention to the arguments (Which are by no means new), I was reminded there was a hole in my “On Games Journalism” series (I mean, there’s a few holes, but I plug them as I go along.) Specifically, talking about Press Kits, what forms they take, and how a respectable games writer deals with them.

PRMail

Speaks for itself, really.

So, let’s begin with the absolute basic form: The PR mail. Almost invariably, any mail trying to get you interested in a PR key is going to have basic info on what’s going on, sometimes with florid language, sometimes not. This one, for Endless Space 2 (already on my docket) is an about average example. Hey, this thing is going on, here’s a youtube link, interested in a key to review it?

If the answer is yes, and you are on the list of “Folks who’re approved for keys”, then you get a steam key. Y’know, a thing you’d need to review the game. So far, so very not bribe, because you are now pretty much committed to reviewing that product, regardless of its quality (or lack thereof), and not doing so will result in an unseen black mark against you. Enough of those, and you are, at best, greylisted (Your emails are not answered, leaving the question open as to whether you’re blacklisted, which is outright told “Nope, if you want to review our products, do it out of your own pocket.”) Yeah, sure, the game could be good, but if you knew it was good beforehand, then you’re a psychic. Many’s the time I thought something looked interesting and cool, and then… NOPE.

But anyway, that’s your most basic level. Then, you have the most common form of Press Kit: The information pack. Sometimes, these physically get mailed to you, with a page of A4, maybe a steelbox, or one of those many ubiquitous “USB keys shaped to look like a thing.” More often, they’re a ZIP file with some screenshots, an info PDF, and it’s usually filled with advertising blurb.

This is what an actual press kit looks like, 60% of the time. Another 20-25% of the time, it'll be the screenshots folder and logo.

This is what an actual press kit looks like, 60% of the time. Another 20-25% of the time, it’ll be the screenshots folder and logo.

If you think a USB Dongle shaped like a car key is a bribe, I really can’t help you. For an idea of what a PR fact sheet looks like, here’s the fact sheet for Colt Express, a game that isn’t on my docket, but I got a PR mail for.

Yes, I can see myself being bribed by this. No, re- Of course not really, it's info for convenience of access. :P

Yes, I can see myself being bribed by this. No, re- Of course not really, it’s info for convenience of access. 😛

This is the unromantic, very un-bribe like reality of 95% of press kits. This, ladies, gentlefolk, and folk of nonbinary genders, is all that most reviewers will ever see. So how do reviewers deal with them? Well, it depends how informative they are. A presskit like this will most often be ignored in favour of actually playing the game. Y’know, how a good reviewer will ignore the trailers, except as a point of reference, and instead write their review based on playing the game.

At this level, which is the level most people will encounter when games writing, there’s really not a lot of reaction or thought needed. So let’s talk about bigger press packages. Let’s try the Bloodborne press kit (Youtube link), shall w-

Oh. It’s basically a shinier factsheet with a silly CD case, a notebook, and a small artbook. Yay. These are decidedly uncommon, with only the bigger companies even bothering to send them out. And I’ll let you in on a little secret…

Most games writers who’ve been in the biz for more than six months are slightly embarassed by these things. I mean, that satchel thing’s vaguely useful, the artbook’s kinda nice, but that book CD case? Worse than useless. That notebook? Yeah, I [eyes A4 notepad and, y’know, his computer, which he is writing this from] don’t really see it seeing much use. Of course, there’s bigger tat out there, but, as much as I hate to piss on the poor sods who worked very hard to put on a show? It’s tat. Most of this gets thrown out, and you can tell a reputable games outlet by the fact that they don’t let you sell this stuff either.

So… Let’s kick it up a notch. Let’s talk about the kind of swag you will see handed out if you get a press pass to an expo or con. No, really, this shit’s handed out like god-damn candy. The reality of it is… Somewhat disappointing.

Actual "swag" I have received. T-Shirts. Postcards. Candy (Not pictured because candy, it's eaten already!) ...Guess how many of these things I even covered, let alone was nice about? (Answer: Not a fucking one)

Actual “swag” I have received. T-Shirts. Postcards. Candy (Not pictured because candy, it’s eaten already!)
…Guess how many of these things I even covered, let alone was nice about? (Answer: Not a fucking one)

This is the reality of it. You will get handed postcards. Small to medium, easily ripped bags. If they’re really splashing out, you will get T-Shirts. And nearly everything except the T-Shirts… Just look pretty. The T-Shirts are the most expensive part of this “Con swag”, and a T-Shirt… Comes to around £15. Which, you’ll notice, is below the absolute low end of what I consider “significant enough to declare.” It should also be worth noting that I got an Id T-shirt at the same expo, and you can already see how that came out (The bit about Rage.)

Y’know what I consider more important? These…

...THESE actually have a POINT.

…THESE actually have a POINT.

These are contact cards. Some of these people aren’t in the biz anymore. Some I’d have to rehunt the address for. But these are the real swag. Because the more of these you have, these small contact cards, the more your options open up for who to talk to. Not just developers, but lawyers who work with games stuff, reps for engine developers like Unity. Heck, somewhere in here is the card of the director of BAFTA Wales (Although I highly doubt they’d appreciate me mailing them out of the blue without a good reason.) That’s what’s important at these cons and expos.

But still, sometimes, once in a blue moon, you get big stuff. Being but a humble independent, I’ve never even seen one of these up close. Little statues. Sometimes not so little things. And the weird thing is, most of us are embarassed by this stuff too. Any reputable outlet doesn’t allow resale of such things… They are, again, of no practical use, and a lot of the time? They’re not as hot as people like to think they are. And again, they have no real effect on whether the game’s any good. A good writer is laser focused on the product, and honestly, most of us really wish big developers would save their money and spend it on, Oh, I don’t know, maybe paying the coders better and better coding conditions so we don’t have any of the frankly disastrous Day Ones we’ve had this past two years alone? Because I can say, from experience, that the smaller studios tend not to have those.

In the vast majority of cases, how to deal with Press Kits is, er… To focus on the game rather than the shinies. The vast majority of press kits aren’t useful for anything except quick reference and a lazy source of screenshots (Most games writers prefer to take their own), and the minority with swag are, quite honestly, embarassing, impractical, and our ethical options for them are 1) Throw them in the bin or 2) have them clutter up the bloody place. I can’t show you any of those “USB keys shaped like other things” because they’ve either gotten lost, or been thrown in the bin, or both. I definitely can’t show you any statues, or serious swag beyond T-Shirts (and damn few of them at that), because most folks don’t actually get that shit.

I leave you with a simple comment that spells out my opinion on “swag” , from my twitter feed.

shinytweet

EDIT: Another, calmer perspective comes from fellow games journalist Nick Cappozzoli, who points out that another, better way of looking at the situation would be to consider the “Tchotckes” (another nickname for this kind of thing) as inherently tainted… Since he’s worded it better than I, I’ll just let this speak for itself also.

nickcomment

On Games Journalism: Why Even Review A Bad Game?

So you might get the feeling, sometimes, that games reviewing is all about hyping up games. I certainly do, whenever I see some poor developer selected for the Hype Train (Making all stops to Consumerist Oblivion! Thanks to Katherine Cross for that one. ;D )

However, there are several reasons to review a game you either don’t know about, or have a distinct feeling, beforehand, is going to be bad. By the title, we are, obviously, concentrating on games that make you sigh gustily once you’ve realised what you’re in for.

Improving Your Craft

Yes, you can tell what’s good about a game. But all of a sudden, you’re having difficulty, because… You’re not enjoying whatever’s on your review docket, but you don’t know why. Sometimes, this is because you’re writing while depressed, or angry, or otherwise in less than tiptop critical shape (I’ve written about this before, when talking about the process of reviewing.) Other times, it’s because a game has something off about it, and you haven’t trained yourself to see it.

Sometimes, a game is bad because of something obvious, like conflicting art styles, bad UI, or a difficulty cliff that somehow manages to wing Icarus as it shoots on by. Sometimes, however, it’s more subtle. The pacing is off on the story (Something I now keep a hawk’s eye on.) A core mechanic is conflicting with another core mechanic (Example: If your game emphasises speed and agility, why’s all this armour here?) The sound design is dull (Not outright awful, just ho-hum or boring.) There’s a lot going on in a game, and even if you’re not necessarily going to write about it, it’s good practice to spot it. Repeated vehicles. Plodding game progression in an otherwise quickly paced game. Because, all too often, those little things can pile up to turn something okay… Into something thoroughly unenjoyable.

Also, it makes you appreciate the good more. I appreciate MoO2016 that little bit more because, hot damn, I’ve played some garbage 4X games in the past. And space games. It helps keep you critical, and honest. Similarly, you can never have enough learning. The more you understand of a particular genre, its history, its limitations, its follies and greatnesses, the better you can criticise it. This includes seeing what good there is in a bad game, because this is just as helpful as being able to understand why you’re wanting to play something, anything else.

Improving Their Craft

Two things can safely be assumed with developers, with a third being “Until proven otherwise.” That they are fellow human beings, and should be treated as such (A given.) That they want to make money from their craft (A given.) And finally, that they wish to improve their craft (Until proven otherwise.)

Written well, your critique is helpful. And your critique will get better if you understand why a game isn’t all it could be. Just as importantly, it’s important to know when something is definitely beyond a developer’s reach. Let’s take first person horror games, a genre that seems, at first glance, saturated with cash-in merchants, and treat it as if it were a genuine genre that deserves critique. Because, despite this perception, there are very few genres out there that don’t deserve critique.

Many first person horror games follow one of a few formulae. The two most common ones you see are your “You are alone in a creepy, seemingly endless place, collecting things”, and “You are alone, something strange begins happening, and SUDDENLY HORROR AND INVENTORY PUZZLES.”

Both of those formulae, done well, can be entertaining. No, really, they can! The main problem, though, is that making them entertaining, or even unsettling, requires an understanding of horror, as a genre, and how much it relies on two things: Pacing, and engaging the senses. While engaging the senses can be expensive in terms of sound design, visual design, modelling, and the like, it brings good returns to indie horror devs because nobody is laughing at whatever gribbley or Dark Force they’ve picked. This is a stumbling block surprisingly many folks don’t get… If you’re going to have a monster, take your time with it. It’s the real star of the show.

Pacing, in terms of equipment, is the least expensive of all. And, in terms of time? Research, and taking time to edit your own work. Does it add more assets? Not necessarily. Paranormal, by Matt Cohen, is at least okay despite its flaws and slow dev time, starting relatively normal (A lonely house that people claim is haunted), then building up over time, from things moving when you’re not looking, to being shoved back from some stairs, to fire and death. It’s by no means a great game, but it understands that you don’t need to show anything immediately. Similarly, Oxenfree, while not a first person horror, starts with utter normality, wrenches you suddenly into weirdness, and then sustains the pace. Of course, it’s very difficult to describe good pacing, because it’s very much an art, not a science. I didn’t think Oxenfree could keep creeping me out… But it does, and at least part of that is the moments of relative normality. That’s right, sometimes dialling it back, even for a short while, can benefit your horror game. Who’d have thought it, huh? If I wanted to use a first person example, look no further than The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. The pacing is pretty damn good most of the way through on that one, and it engages the senses wonderfully.

Meanwhile, I took a break from playing Joana’s Life about five or ten minutes in, firstly because the monster gets revealed, just a few minutes after oh noes creepy small child laugh from nowhere and oh noes the lights have gone out… So, pretty damn predictable, and I was pretty much waiting for something truly scary at that point (Needless to say, I wasn’t terribly impressed at that point) , but secondly, because the game had items that I knew I would need (Front door keys that inexplicably won’t work the first time round. A flashlight because yes, the power’s going to go out, of course it will. Little things) , and then kept too tight a rein on its story by not letting me deal with these things until I’d touched the broken mirror that kickstarts all the horror and please, can I play a protagonist that’s not a bloody fool who’s going to do the obviously bad thing? While lack of control over the situation is a common theme in horror, lack of control in a game is something to be handled carefully, lest you irritate the player unduly.

Understanding what makes something badly designed can help a developer who hasn’t learned these things that yes, this is where they might do better. Everything mentioned here is potentially helpful to someone who wants to make an indie horror game.

There Are, Obviously, Limits

This does need to be said. Sometimes, a developer really is a shovelware merchant, cynically trying to cash in on some internet meme, or monetisation method. And many of them use exactly the same methods, much like the fifty or so spam emails I have about Search Engine Optimisation and Brand Marketing in my inboxes today. Thankfully, much like those spam emails, many of these are obvious, and you don’t need a whole lot of critical training to spot one from its video footage. Do yourself a favour, and limit your exposure to these. Examine them a few times, by all means. But once you’ve spotted the tricks of the trade (Asset Flipping, largely empty worlds, obvious signs of bad world modelling, and the like), stop. You’re only going to make yourself angry and depressed.

Similarly, if you find yourself getting angry and depressed about a game with a good idea, but some godawful or tedious execution, stop. Take a break. This is the point at which you have understood that the game is bad, and it’s time to think about why. Don’t go back until you’re calm again, don’t go back once you’ve understood, don’t go back unless you want to examine things further. Yes, you’re learning, but pace yourself. Learn what you can, then move on. Yes, if you’re reading this, you’re interested in games writing, which involves a lot more reviewing bad things than you’d at first think. But you’re not going to be writing well from a place of ennui and frustration.

Improving your critique is no different from improving any other art form. Knowing where the mistakes lie is useful. So please don’t disregard them. But also, please don’t disregard your health. Hope this helps prospective writers some.

 

On Games Journalism: The Reviewing Process.

Last time we talked about reviewing, we talked about how much time should be put in to a review. But this is by no means the only facet of what goes into a review. So I’m going to pull the veil on my own process, and show you that yes, it is a bit complicated. This should hopefully be useful to readers (Who sometimes don’t get this) and aspiring writers (Who probably don’t know this before writing.) Keep in mind, this doesn’t cover asking for review copy, or what to do when people don’t answer (And, if you’re a freelancer, or otherwise fall under the radar, that’s perfectly possible), just the process of reviewing a game when you’ve got it.

Question The First: Is It “Day One”?

Review Copies are an interesting business, as it means that, a lot of the time, we get the game earlier than anyone else. We can even see patches coming in before the game releases. Not all “Day One” issues are actually “Day One”, but “Days -14 (and “above”) to 1.” But whether you’re reviewing the game on release or not is nonetheless an important question. Especially if you’ve both got hold of the game on release day, and are writing about it on release day. Try to avoid that wherever possible, please. You’re much more likely to be dismissed as a “Day 1” review if you do so.

However, hopefully people are now aware, thanks to Early Access, that yes, games don’t always stop developing the day before launch, and should already know that yes, sometimes, reviewers get the game earlier than you do, to give them time to review it properly.

Nonetheless, there is a kind of sweet spot, and it varies depending on the next question.

Question The Second: How Big Is It?

The majority of the time, you can tell from the genre and the PR mails you’ve gotten, but, as I mentioned in the previous article, that’s not always the case. Nonetheless, it’s an important consideration. Since we’ve already dealt with “how long”, we’ll simply note that this is an important consideration into how much playtime you put in, and how long it should take.

Question The Third: What Am I Meant To Be Looking At?

This is the meat. As much as you humanly can. For example, you start to get a feel, over time, for a “good” or “bad” UI (My general guide: If it blocks important information/controls, or takes more than three interactions to get to an option, it’s “bad”), and can spot that, and some other things, very quickly. Other things, however, you need to digest, to think about. This is why taking breaks is important. Not only are you doing a thing that’s good for you (Not staring at a monitor for hours on end), unless those breaks are completely ignoring thinking about the game, they still serve an important work function.

You want to think about the writing, how it’s paced, how it treats people, what it’s trying to say. You want to think about the visuals, and the music. You want to think about the numbers, and the gears, how you’re feeling (We’ll get back to that) versus how the game wants you to feel, and how well or badly it all fits together. A developer could have the best combat system in gaming history, but it wouldn’t count for much if you don’t know what the buttons do. Music, taken on its own, can be great, but again, if it doesn’t fit what you’re doing, and makes no sense even after consideration? It’s not so good. Disconnects between elements can vary in importance, and sometimes, they’re deliberate.

Trying to break the game is also sometimes helpful, although risky. For tips and tricks on things that potentially work, you can’t go wrong with speedruns. Speedruns past and present show that there’s often a way to leave the map.

You’ve also got to consider who it’s aimed at. Is it for someone who likes long games? Short ones? Button mashers? Who would like this, and who wouldn’t? This becomes important when you get to the writing stage, and it’s something you’ll want to think about. It’s also helpful to put yourself in the position of the new player, the person who’s never played videogames. It’s difficult, I know, but to review well, you also have to at least try to consider viewpoints that seem alien to you at times. So ignore the tutorials (if you can) the first time you play, and try to work out how easy it is to learn things without it. Because, believe me, there are players who ignore tutorials, even when it’s against their best interests to do so.

Sometimes, there will be things you’ll miss. When you’ve written a review, go back and check things. Because you’ll feel pretty bloody stupid if you missed something obvious, and it affects your review badly.

Problem The First: Oh Shit, It Crashed/Hung/I Fell Through The World!

This is a pretty common problem, especially with early copies. When this happens, you can almost guarantee you aren’t getting it out on day one (Not that you should, but some places really put the pressure on for that.) Check with other reviewers, if you know any. Put your computer through a checkup, especially in the case of a BSOD. This is only the first step, however. The second step is why you have little chance of a Day One Review.

Confirm that other people have had the problem. Confirm whether steps are being taken. If at all possible, confirm that they have been taken. I know it means slogging through pages of vitriol on Steam and official forums (When they exist), and waiting for said notes to crop up, but it can sometimes be rewarding. When I was researching problems I’d encountered playing Blur? I found people had released beta footage. And they showed many of the exact same problems I was encountering. During my re-review (More on that later), I found that, increasingly, the same replies were being posted, and talk was already underway on a sequel (Not always a sign that a game has been “put to bed”, but it can be). Together, those things didn’t exactly paint the most flattering picture, even considering that three months is not a terribly long time to be able to fix, say, connection issues (You’d think it wasn’t, but no, that sort of dev problem can often be a very thorny one.)

Besides, you’ll often get a better idea of what causes it (A thing that could be useful to mention) and what fixes it (Not guaranteed, but nice when it does happen). And you’ll have continued in the fine tradition of checking first.

Problem The Second: The Game Is Soooo Good/Bad!

You might not think this is a problem. But this can just as much be a result of not looking or not seeing as it is of no flaws or too many flaws. It’s sometimes difficult to achieve balance in a review, but it’s an ideal you should strive for. I can’t think of a single game completely without flaw. There’s always a reason someone won’t like it, even if it’s the one of certain people not liking that type of game (Which we’ll come back to in the Writing part). Similarly, I can think of few games that are completely irredeemable (Limbo of the Lost would be one of the few in this regard.) Another part of this is…

Question The Fourth: What Mood Am I In?

You are going to have a personal, subjective opinion on whatever game you’re reviewing. That’s without doubt. But if you’re in the wrong sort of mood, it’s going to affect your writing. An example in my case is that I never review when I’m depressed. I know all too well that slights will get magnified, that it’ll feed back on itself, and that I’m not going to check as well as I’d like. This doesn’t exactly do wonders for my workflow, but it ensures that I’m not going to be harder on a game than I’m meant to be. See also being drunk, being angry, or being tired. Yes, with many places there are deadlines… But your health is important, not only for you, but for your work.

Now, with all of those things considered, we come to writing the review. Take notes as you go, working them into a first draft. Most of the time, this first draft will not be useful as a review… But it’ll order your thoughts. And then, a few more questions to think about while writing. All the while, you’ll want to look for spelling errors. You won’t find them all, but the more you find, the less hassle for either you (If you self publish) or your editor (If you write on commission/contract.)

Question The Fifth: What Am I Focusing On?

It is a safe bet that, even if people didn’t hate spoilers, you’re not going to write a blow by blow analysis of the entire game from start to finish. You have, at most, 3500 words for a review (More when you’re writing later, more thoughtful articles, but reviews are generally between 500 and 2500 words. It varies by publisher.) So what are you going to focus on? Extremes are generally on the list. If something is particularly noteworthy, or particularly cringeworthy, it’s something you want to mention. But that list is, excepting big games with lots of problems or particularly praiseworthy elements, generally fairly short. Even so, you have limits to what you can say. Pick what you’re talking about wisely.

Question The Sixth: Experiences or “Mechanics”?

There’s different schools of thought on the M word, including whether it’s really a useful word at all. Is the writing a mechanical device of the game? Is the UI? Are these, individually, important to mention? Generally, the answer is “Not on their own”, which is why we have reviews that focus on the stories, the experiences. Whether readers or the writer like it or not, how you feel during a game is a factor, as many games try to make you feel a thing. The Last of Us, in terms of actual rules and numbers, is not vastly different from many other modern games. No, it’s the writing, the music, the voices, what’s being said and what you feel versus what the game’s developers want you to feel that’s notable. But purely experiential writing can, done poorly, confuse. Purely “mechanical” writing fails to take into account how things fit together, and ignore the feels and thoughts to their detriment. Ideally, you want a mix. How much of that mix is really down to your own style, and there’s no guarantee you’ll achieve the right mix for a particular game.

I wish there was… But it’s not guaranteed. Do the best you can.

Question The Seventh: Does It Flow?

Flow of writing is important. And it’s not just about rhythm, how stilted or natural it sounds. It’s about point to point to point in a conclusive, thematically linked “argument”. It’s like a debate. It’s also part of the reason I don’t like compartmentalised reviews (Even though I’ve written them many a time.) They don’t acknowledge that you can segue from the audio, to the play, to the writing, and back to the audio. Because you can. And often, you have to, if you want to explain a thing well.

The rhythm, thankfully, is an easy one to edit. Read the review out loud. Notice where you’re actually pausing, and for how long, in what you read. As you’re reading, think about whether you’re actually saying the things you want to say.

Then go back and do it again until you’re at least relatively happy. I’m rarely more than “relatively” happy with a review, but other folks do seem to consistently disagree with my own opinion on that, so “relatively” happy is good. Of course… You’re still not done.

Question The Eighth: Am I Being Fair?

Remember how I said you don’t want to review when angry, or depressed, or drunk? Yeah, the same applies at every step, and you should be questioning yourself at every step as well. Because sometimes, we Get Personal. As I’ve said before, game devs are human, and companies are not people. Nor, in fact, are games themselves. Talking about what a company or a game has done, good or bad, is okay. Framing it in terms like “[Company] are evil” or “[Company] wouldn’t be able to develop their way out of a brown paper bag” is Getting Personal. True, the folks who actually fucked up are being told they fucked up somehow. But you’re also putting folks who did the best job they could, and were not responsible for the fuckup you’re talking about, in the same sentence.

You didn’t mean it that way? Well, boo-hoo, but unfortunately, you wrote it that way. Similarly, consider scale in what you’re saying. A game constantly crashing is definitely bad, and can be described as definitely bad. But some problems really are niggles, small problems, and if you’re going to mention them, make sure you say that.

Hopefully, when you’ve considered these things, you’ll have, at the end, a fair review that tells people what they can expect. It won’t have everything. It can’t. But there’ll be enough there that people can get an idea, and hopefully look at other perspectives on the same thing.

Now, it’s important to note that this article is just about actually writing a review. It’s not about any ethical problems that might come up. It’s not about interviews, or op-eds (Although it can be useful for those, situationally). All of these words, all of these considerations, are what goes into a single review. And in the case of many of these questions, there are nuances I could go over, edge cases and specific practices for specific types of games.

Still think reviewing is easy? I sure hope not, I’ve tried pretty hard to show you otherwise. For other perspectives on this, there’s Cara Ellison’s “How To Write About A Game“, Erik Peterson’s “You Got Game, But Can You Write?” (Although I’m not sure the words “Lucky Bastards” can be applied to reviewers…), and the book “Critical Path: How To Review Games For A Living“, by Dan Amrich, among many others.