Editor's Note: In this article Alan shares his personal views in response to a similar Soapbox by our YouTube man Alex, in which Mr Olney (he of the "hello there lovely people" intro) shared his views on why reviews should have scores. When Alan wrote this counter-piece and sent it to me I thought it seemed like a perfect way to give both sides their fair hearing.
To be clear, however, we visited this topic in the past and let you, the community, vote on our scoring system. You voted to keep the existing scale, and so that is the continuing policy of Nintendo Life. We also remain committed - to the best of our abilities - to utilising the full 1-10 scale in our reviews, aiming to avoid some of the pitfalls highlighted below. Of course with a topic like this debate can be fierce, and views diverse. Not all like scores, but many do, so each website has to make its own choices or let its community decide, as we did.
With that said, it's an interesting debate, so now I hope you enjoy Alan's article - as a point to make, one image has some swearing in it but is key to Alan's argument, so consider this some advance warning.
At the beginning of 2016, game blog Kotaku ditched its entire grading system for video game reviews.
This change was already the second revision to its traditional grading policy, the first one being a pivot from grading on a traditional scale to that of using a simple "Yes/No/Not yet" answer. The latest revision has done away with any highlighted grade altogether.
Major gaming outlet Polygon, on the other hand, still maintains a 10-digit numerical grading system for its reviews, but has in recent times allowed a game to become revisited if for whatever reason the title received additional content, or if its primary experience saw any additional changes. In ways that bridges the gap between these two approaches; many smaller journalism outfits have slowly phased out hard review scores in a myriad of different ways.
There is a new era dawning in the gaming journalism sphere. And in fact, there are many serious reasons why professional critics are ditching the review score. Unfortunately, much of the reasoning goes directly against what we as a journalistic industry have been force feeding you, the reader, for years: that in-depth number grades have any sustainable worth.
The Metacritic Problem
Perhaps the most tangible reason for why the industry is slowly becoming cognizant of the problems with number scores is the "Metacritic problem". There are plenty of excellent articles that dive into this issue in depth, but for a primer: Metacritic is a review aggregate website that collects review scores all across the internet to provide a colour-coded, median score. These numbers have now become mental shorthand for eager consumers, as well as an economic crutch in the eyes of game publishers across the table. Taken from Jason Schreier's article on Metacritic's negative impact:
"It's pretty common in the industry these days, actually," (Kim) Swift told me. "When you're negotiating with the publisher for a contract, you build in bonuses for the team based on Metacritic score. So if you get above a 90, then you get X amount for a bonus. If you get below that, you don't get anything at all or get a smaller amount.
"In other words, a developer's priority is sometimes not just to make a good game, but to make a game that they think will resonate with reviewers, which could mean anything from artificially extending a game's length or adding superfluous features that they believe reviewers like."
This problem is not to be taken as the inherent fault of Metacritic, or even the innocuous idea of averaging reviews. But in a job field where money and talent changes hands in massive quantities, the latent result of producers coming to commonly expect a 90th percentile review score can and should be described in only one word: bad. It is bad for developers, bad for consumers, bad for journalism and bad for anyone who cares about video games, because it fundamentally changes the way games are made and the way we are told to perceive and purchase them.
This is only half the problem, and knowing this is still not enough. All parties involved must additionally ask themselves a far stickier question: why do I want a review score so badly anyway?
The Reader-Scorer Problem
Exhibit A: This popular Reddit image:
Vulgarities aside, this chart's sage wisdom can hardly be contained within its pithy vessel: a meme pushed forward for laughs and, perhaps, cynical finger-pointing. To be frank, if you care about games and their wellbeing, this chart is not a laughing matter. Even in jest, this chart describes the landscape that we as critics have seeded, watered and harvested throughout years of treating review calendars with the similar veneer of a professional wrestling event: hyping the next contender in the digital arena to either massive fanfare or broiling disgust.
This chart is also the reality that we as consumers perpetuate with our reluctance to think critically beyond iron-clad expectations of what a game might, or should "get". A review score is no longer nuanced criticism. It is flat out entertainment. And this is bad.
Exhibit B: Video games are very unique medium, and their appraisal is where it most shows
In an essay housed within Daniel Goldberg and Linus Larsson's book State of Play, we learn of the history of gaming reviews as originally more of a consumer report: what are the graphics like? How does it control? What is the replay value? This makes perfect sense in an evolving medium where aspects like these contribute more directly to an experience than they applicably might in a movie or a play. But questions raised on these factors are what we have told our readers to expect and demand, and furthermore, that they should especially be concerned about them, as they convey net "worth". And yes, now readers have come to expect and demand these things, in droves.
On the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, we are beaten to death with the platitude of never judging a book by its cover. But for video games, "the cover" effects ostensibly a game's entire net worth: its review score (and thus its entirely liveliness) now depends on how good the sand looks and whether we want to play it twice, even often in cases where those things do not contribute to the game's overall goals. We've peddled fidelity for so long that it now is an inescapable part of our shared analysis; we demand the consumer report.
Ironically, gamers often loudly decry that games ought to be considered art, and yet we still heavily grade on these identical variables, as if to quietly suggest that games are soulless machines.
Our very own Alex Olney makes a claim in the video titled "Game Reviews Always NEED a Final Score" that he feels one game he reviewed deserved a score of "8 out of 10", despite claiming he had more fun with said game than a separate title he strongly felt deserved a "9 out of 10".
This is a disconnect. This is a known problem many of us - myself included - share in willingly with little effort to change it.
And this is not to even begin on the statistical uselessness of a scale in which 7/10th's conveys the same meaning to the majority of people: "not good".
Game reviews have taken on their own language, one in which we all have unknowingly learned over years of devotion to game writing, or unfortunately happened across when curiously searching for an honest opinion. The legacy of review scores proudly represent taking stock of a game's parts instead of the summation of its whole, which is a huge way the industry still lags behind other mediums more aged.
My Review Score
We need to do away with the acceptance of hard review scores until our audiences and our industry can come around to understand why they can exist and how they can work to actually serve them.
If you actively enjoy review scores and feel they help you better understand what a title provides, like even I still do, you need to further examine why a grade colours your expectations more vividly than a paragraph, or even an actual playthrough. You need to berate years of commercialism that brought you to the conclusion that a well written article is incomplete without a number. You need to study the placebo effect.
Even well intentioned journalists have overseen a positive feedback loop that consists of macho scores and satiated readerbases. Instead of erring on critical analysis, or even doing as little as informing the public on how to use their dollars, many media outlets insist on utilizing this one method over something that an informed opinion could provide far better, with far less negative repercussions.
This weird dichotomy between what's good for the industry and what's good for readers is the reason The Daily Dot's Dennis Schimeca can say in one breath: "If outlets want to abandon review scores in an effort to reform video game culture by removing the fuel for arguments between gamers... or to lessen the influence of Metacritic... they ought to follow their conscience", and then in the same interview, "I am personally not sure that removing this aspect of video game culture is possible, unless everyone chooses collectively to drop scores. And I don't think that's reasonable…"
To quote the genuinely wonderful Alex Olney on video game reviews that feature no score: "You're just giving an opinion; you're not providing a review."
It's time we kill the review score until both "review" and "opinion" become synonymous once again.