Back in the pre-Internet age, there were only two ways to know if a game was worth buying: play the game yourself (either via rental or at a friend’s house), or read the reviews in gaming magazines. As a resut, many players spent hours poring over the pages of GamePro and Nintendo Power, squinting at grainy screenshots and memorizing (often incorrect) details about the most-anticipated games.
Now, consumers have a myriad of ways to learn about upcoming games. New trailers come out almost every day. Twitch and YouTube streams showcase games in action. Console gamers can download demos of new and upcoming titles. There are so many more ways to learn about what to buy (and what to avoid), it raises a question: are traditional press reviews obsolete?
Justin Bailey, COO of Double Fine, certainly thinks so. As reported by gamesindustry.biz, Bailey told a group at the Montreal International Games Summit that press reviews and review-aggregator sites like Metacritic “[don’t] really matter, as far as the sales of the game”:
“I think who’s looking at the gaming press are for the most part other developers. And so it seems important to other developers. I’m just not certain how many gamers are going to the press. It seems they’re being siphoned off into Let’s Play and other avenues.”
Bailey didn’t dismiss the importance of the media entirely, and noted that news outlets — particularly mainstream publications like USA Today and Forbes — were a huge help in raising awareness about Double Fine’s record-setting Kickstarter campaign. However, Bailey argued that promotions like Steam free weekends or Let’s Play videos are far better than reviews at actually driving sales.
For the past few years, many publishers have tied developers’ bonuses to their games’ Metacritic scores. If what Bailey’s saying is true, then not only do these “incentives” not help sales, but many hard working men and women are losing money for essentially no reason. In some ways, it’s easy to see where Bailey’s coming from. The traditional review format is a relic from a time when details were harder to come by. Interested consumers have access to more information than ever before, and press reviews are only one part of a much bigger picture.
But a well-written review is more than just a score; it’s a chance to engage with a product, and foster the type of discussion that moves a medium forward. Film critics like Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael aren’t revered because they offered reliable recommendations, but because they made the audience think about the movies they were watching.
Calling press reviews “obsolete” seems short-sighted. There’s no doubt that the gaming landscape is changing; maybe it’s simply time for game reviews (and the expectations placed upon them) to evolve as well.