July 11, 2007

Game theory

Interesting article in the Times today about why the bestselling videogames are also the best-reviewed, which is not the case with movies or books.

The Top 10-selling games of last year — including titles like Gears of War and Guitar Hero 2 —had an average Metacritic score of 87.5. Only one of the top-selling games scored less than 80. (More about that later.) Meanwhile, the Top 10 box-office films of last year — including titles like “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”’ and “X-Men: The Last Stand” — collected a poor average score of 62.9.

Of Metacritic’s 10 best-reviewed films of last year — including art-house favorites like “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “L’Enfant” — not one was among the box-office leaders.

The leading theories are that game critics are more like average gamers than film critics are like average moviegoers, and that gamers rely more on reviews because a $60/100hr game is a bigger investment than a $10/2hr movie.

Both of those make sense, but I think they leave something out. Writer Seth Schiesel, normally an astute obsever of the gaming scene, gets off-track when he notes, "Some executives in the game industry have their bonuses tied to the Metacritic scores their games receive. The problem is that following the critics so slavishly discourages people from taking chances and a dearth of creativity is the biggest problem in the game business." He adds, "I’m not suggesting game producers try to antagonize critics for the mere sake of originality."

But I think that's exactly backward. When game designers take chances and get creative, critics usually respond enthusiastically — while game buyers shy away. One of the best-reviewed games for the original Xbox was Psychonauts, a notorious bomb with customers. In other words, it was the equivalent of an "art-house" movie. The reason that disparity doesn't show up more often, the way it does with movies and books, is that the economics of the game industry don't allow companies to put out any small products aimed at niche audiences (though Xbox Live may change this in the future). The studio that release Pan's Labyrinth knew it wasn't going to be one of the year's top-grossing films, but it fit their overall strategy to make it anyway; if the company that made Psychonauts had known critics and a few gamers would love it, but that's all, they would have killed in in the cradle. I strongly suspect that if game companies could produce its equivalents of Oscar and Pulitzer-bait products you'd find the exact same divide between critics and audiences as you do with other media.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


It's sort of apples and oranges. Although a video game can be artistic, I'm not sure it can deliver the range of a film. Can a video game offer a truly meaningful experience? Can a video game make you think? Make you melancholy or hopeful?

Whereas films appeal to most people, video games appeal only to people who play video games.

I don't really agree with either your premise or your conclusion, but even granting your point, what does it have to do with the role of critics on consumers? The study looked at music too. Is that an invalid comparison because you can't dance to a novel?

Zack never played Final Fantasy 6 for the SNES. Or Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic for the PC. There are many games that deliver an experience beyond that of a run-of-the-mill movie.

You can dismiss these because you don't like video games, but that doesn't mean you should throw around questions like "Can a video game make you think?" It just makes you look pretentious.

I programmed videogames for about 10 years, so I have some perspective on this.

There's a feedback loop in game publishing that doesn't exist in movie production, at least not to the same extent. Game publishers show early versions of games at trade shows like E3 to gauge the public's reaction. They also do interviews with game magazines where, again, early versions of the game gets played and critiqued by an eager gamer/writer.

Through this mechanism, the publisher not only tests public and critical interest, but gets important feedback about what direction to take the game itself. Often, this leads directly to projects being canceled. (I've personally worked on no less than 4 games that suffered this fate, in some cases to be rescued later by another publisher.) For games that aren't canceled, this feedback results directly in changes to the game: features are added, annoyances are fixed, etc.

By the time a hit game gets released, the content and the marketing has been fine tuned to appeal specifically to both the public and the critics, parties which have both had some say in the development and marketing of the game. The flexibility of software to become what the audience wants is something that filmmakers just don't have to anywhere near the same degree.

yeah, the vast majority of video games cannot, unfortunately, be considered fine art, after all, they're mostly FPS's. Those that are truly art (Katamari Damacy and Loco Roco pop to mind) do sell well, to those that care, which is a much smaller percent of the market. All the attention to replicating 3d environments and satisfying wish fulfillment (kill, kill, kill, race, race, race, fight, fight, fight, etc, etc, etc) has been really detrimental to the art form of video games. Thank god for nintendo! (though I'm really disappointed in the lack of educational software for the DS.).

So I don't really see any difference between Pirates of Caribbean and Gods of War (neither of which I've seen), both are pop art, meaningless, but fun(for morons).

To get to the point, though, the video game reviewers are (for the most part) a bunch of fan-boy cocksuckers. I use to subscribe to all those magazines, but grew to hate them for their ass-licking ways. None of them are interested in art, just corporate dollars.

of course, I don't watch TV either...



Jessica: I haven't played those games, but I do own a PS3. When I asked if a video game can make you think, it was just a hypothetical question -- an opening for anyone who wished to argue that they could. I'm sorry if that came across as pretentious.

Radosh: What I'm trying to say is that because video games are such a refined, specific thing, it limits the extent to which a critic can review the product. It is true that film and music is basically for everyone, but video games are only for people who play video games. If for example, cinema was only for people who liked horror, the reviews would probably match up quite well with the sales.

For a thought-provoking video game, I recommend Shadow of the Colossus, which takes a first-person action template and makes it poetic and morally complex.

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