Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Know it when I see it

We talk a lot on the Internet about an ideal for game reviewing. There's no shortage of helpful suggestions out there on blog posts and in forums, which often contain many correctly spelled words. One of the articles of faith among a certain anti-establishment type is that reviewers should complete games before reviewing. I agree with this, generally.


What about when a game just seems bad? How much time and effort are you supposed to put into something that seems disastrous from the start, hoping maybe it'll get better? I'm not talking about games that are slow to get started. It took me a good 4-5 hours to surrender fully to Far Cry 2, which turned out to be one of my favorite games of 2008. Near the beginning of Fallout, I was scratching my head about some of the quest objectives, but 40 hours later that seems irrelevant. Both of these games, though, showed enough of what was good about them to keep me interested until I was fully engaged.

No, I'm talking about games that start off bad and show no signs of changing tactics. Games that seem to be systemically flawed, whether you're talking about bewildering design decisions or rudimentary errors of execution. The kind of game that, if you'd rented it from GameFly, would have been back in the mail the next day. These games are easy to identify right from the start. I've played a lot of games that seemed good off the bat before descending into mediocrity, but rarely have I played the game that seems terrible and winds up being genuinely good.

It's times like this that I have to remind myself that this is work and not play. That's easy to forget during the good times, when I can't believe some sucker is paying me to play Left 4 Dead. I probably am not going to complete this game (what game is he talking about, anyway?), but I am going to continue playing it even though my sanity would have had me stop long ago. Sometimes I envy film reviewers, because a bad movie is rarely going to be longer than two hours. Two hours in a video game might not even be long enough to finish the tutorial.

I am curious to know what you guys think: How long do you need to play a game to know it's bad? The tautology I've used in the past is "long enough to know it's bad," but I'm looking for an estimate of real hours. One hour? Two? Six? Ten?


Trumpcard said...

My knee-jerk reaction is to say that the time required to know the nature of a game, good or bad, is proportional to the length of the game itself, but I know that's the kind of answer you're looking to avoid. For a hard answer I'd have to say five hours. I wish it took less time to pick out something nasty, but I've been surprised a number of times past the two- or three-hour marks. I'll usually give a game up to five hours of my time just to make sure that it isn't for me.

Garrett Martin said...

There's a difference between a slow-starter* like Far Cry 2 and a game that's just immediately awful (hey there, Legendary). I'm sure designers try hard to make a good first impression, and if they can't do that, how can we expect the game to get any better? And when a game that starts off horribly comes out in the middle of the ridiculous holiday time crush, when there are two or three promising games coming out every week, it's not always practical or possible to review it in a timely fashion.

As slow as they start, FC2 and FO3 both have those early blow-away moments when you're first set free in those overwhelming environments. Can you think of a game that's thoroughly inept at the beginning but eventually becomes worthwhile?

Mike Schiller said...

I'd agree with "about five hours", perhaps doubled if the game has a rep as a 40+ hour beast. If you get five (ten) hours into a game and have found nothing redeeming about it, that's enough to skip a recommendation. If you tell anyone they're going to have to slog through five (ten) hours of awful before they get to not-bad, and end up recommending it anyway, they'll laugh and pelt you with tomatoes.

Cyranix said...

Trying to pick a fixed number of hours is tantamount to accepting a false premise. It might serve you well sometimes, but not because you picked the "correct" magic number.

Instead, I'd suggest that a reviewer need not go any further than the point where the game stops introducing new, worthwhile stuff. Once the mechanics become established, once the environments become familiar, once the plot becomes predictable or thin (in other words, when the game decides "This is enough variety, no more!"), then what have you to gain by continuing besides being able to tell how long the game is after that point?

I think this gives everyone -- reviewers, readers, and game creators -- a fair shake. As long as a game shows signs of changing, a reviewer owes it to the audience and the developers to see how the changes pan out. Similarly, when any game stops introducing new and interesting content (e.g. goes through an entire plot chapter without substantial changes), then the reviewer may rightfully exercise the option to tell his/her audience, "If you like what I've described so far and don't mind repeating it for umpteen hours beyond this point, treat this as a recommendation and more power to you."

It's not a question of whether a game feels good or feels bad at any single point. It's a matter of when the game settles into routine. (In the opinion of someone who doesn't review games for a living, natch.)

Cyranix said...

Addendum: I do agree with Mike Schiller, in that you can totally hold it against a game for having a ridiculously slow start. Same goes for the middle of the game, actually -- if so much time passes that you think you won't see anything new, what does that say about the pacing?

This does, however, suggest that developers would benefit from describing some of the late-game mechanics to the reviewer, in order to dissuade the reviewer from throwing in the towel before seeing the final changes.

Mitch Krpata said...

Mike, you seem to get at the core of it: even if a game does get better after a long slog, do you just discount how long it took to get there? That's a tough question.

Cyranix, I like your take on it. The fear is always that it does introduce something new after you've decided it's not going to -- and even then, is that good enough? I just don't know. I'm reminded of the Bourne Conspiracy, in which I actually did like the driving levels more than the rest of the game, and it took awhile to get there. But they definitely didn't justify the game as a whole.

"Generic" Joe Tortuga said...

A well done game will have you hooked by the end of the tutorial level (if there is one). I know what you're talking about, GoldenAxe stayed in my XBox for < 30 minutes. I knew it would be bad pretty much from the beginning.

I gave it to the end of the tutorial (or my perception of that) and couldn't take it anymore. If I was getting paid to write about it, I'd probably have gone a bit further, through the first act or level, or narrative chunk. (Since it seemed to be that sort of game.)

While a game's ending can certainly change how you feel about the rest, I think in terms of *reviewing* you want to tell people if the game proper is fun and engaging. That needs to happen reasonably quickly, definitely by the time you start to "get" the game's mechanics and methods. (If not all of the new elements.)

juv3nal said...

It's got to be proportional to what type of game it is and what about it seems awful on first glance. If a turn-based jrpg has woefully simplistic mechanics at the start (even if the "start" drags on and exceeds 5 hours, or whatever number you pick), it seems reasonable to expect the complexity to increase as new abilities are unlocked. On the other hand, with, say an old school vertical scroll bullet hell shoot-em-up, if the controls are sluggish, that's unlikely to change. If your ship moves about like molasses in an ikaruga clone, do you really need to put in 5 hours?

For better or worse, I think it should also depend on how the game is marketed. If a game is billed as an open world experience and the story is awful, but you're locked into the story for the first x hours of gameplay, I'd probably play through those x hours and then some to get a sense of the actual open world part of the game even if x, for instance, exceeds 5 hours.

brilliam said...

I think an important part of the review process is realizing that you can't be objective, and everything is passing through your own subjective view. As such, you can stop playing at any time if you don't think the game's oging ot get any better-- but you have to have some sort of disclaimer.

"WARNING: I heard this game is garbage, and if definitely FELT like garbage for the first four hours I played it. To do more would only be masochistic."

But, then again, I don't get paid for this, and, as such, have a hard time considering how it is when you acutally have a responsibility to your audience.

Gary A. Lucero said...

I don't review games for a living and one reason for that is I can't stick with a game I don't have interest in. I have sent so many back to Gamefly or sold them after five minutes of play. If I expected to get paid I'd have to say I need to finish at least the main story (in RPGs side quests can take far longer and are really optional) to make a valid argument about the game. Why? Because games change and you can't just say "5 hours" or "when they stop changing" because you don't know when that is. Having said all of that, I think you just post your policy ("we don't usually finish games unless we love them") or whatever so people know. I don't think there's any one way to do it, and I apprecaite both (1up vs. Gamespot - I personally prefer long, thorough reviews, but sometimes I just want a quickie).

SR said...

I agree with brilliam - you know when you've seen enough, the key is being up front with your readers about when you stopped and why.

Even if you did a mathematical analysis and demonstrated that no not-bad game in the history of gaming ever failed to demonstrate its redeeming features before the Xth minute of play...there's no guarantee that someone (probably SquareEnix) won't release a game tomorrow that sucks for X+1 minutes and then significantly improves.

If that mythical game someday crosses your path and your review suffers for not having gotten to the good stuff, so be it. You'll take your lumps, but odds are you won't be the only critic doing so.

Mitch Krpata said...

Thanks for all these great comments. I keep nodding and saying "Mmm-hmm" while reading them.

The other fear is that maybe the game isn't bad, but I'm just bad at it, and if I keep trying I'll get good enough to enjoy it. This is what kept me going through Mirror's Edge. Didn't work there, either. But I continue to doubt my own reaction to that game, and to some others in that vein (Mass Effect comes to mind). This seems much dicier than playing a game that is obviously inept in one way or another (although, again, Mass Effect comes to mind).

I did once write a review about a game I only played for two hours, which I admitted in the lede: Godzilla Unleashed. I thought it was some of my better work, oddly enough.

Etelmik said...

Fanboys want ultimate completion of every single game ever.

Anyone with sense want someone who played the game for a while.

Tell me, can you tell how long I played this gamewithout having played it yourself and without reading anything else on the game? If you can't, why should it matter how short or long it really was?

Mitch Krpata said...

You know what else they want? Validation.

Gary A. Lucero said...

Mitch, I find you Mass Effect references interesting. That was my favorite game at the time, and playing it now I still think it has such an incredible story and combat system. Is its world detailed believable in comparsion to Fallout 3? No. But we're talking about the first game with a new engine and what Bioware crafted satisfied me and many other people. It's not an approachable game for many others, but in my mind it's a great game.

But my own reactions to plenty of games (demos of Left 4 Dead and Mirror's Edge, actual game play of COD:WaW, Prince of Persia, and Dead Space) tells me that what I like isn't always what others do. My review of Dead Space, for instance, would be worlds different than many others. That just means that I don't like the game, not that it is truly bad.

Gary A. Lucero said...

Mitch, your comments about validation are true. I find it interesting that reviewers/sites/magazines seem to all have different goals. Some want to provide a buyer's guide, others a discussion piece or analysis, and still others just opinion. I think each review/site/magazine has to make a decision: What are we going to give our reviewers?

None of this is necessarily right or wrong, and it can all have value. Ultimately the reader has to make a decison: Do I want Newsweek or People? Entertainment Weekly or Rolling Stone?

As I mentioned, I want different things at different times, and sometimes its validation, other times it's analysis, other times I want someone to tell me a game is good or bad. Ultimately I have to make the decison, and that really doesn't happen until AFTER I buy and play the game. Demos and reviews help, but are not always effective.

Jebus said...

Last year I beat almost every game I played. I ended up playing over 50 games through to the credits, some of which I loathed. Near the end of the year I started asking myself why am I doing this? I don't even review games for a living, this is a hobby of mine.

If you play games as much as we all do, you probably have a very good grasp on where a game is going fairly quickly. That is obviously going to vary from game to game, but I can think of maybe two titles of the 50+ I played last year whose endings really sealed the deal for me. The thing is, those two games weren't among the ones I loathed, I was genuinely interested in finishing them and the ending just made them that much better. Funny, one of them is Mass Effect.

I do think you should leave a disclaimer if you haven't finished the game, but I can't imagine someone would hold it against you if a game was so bad you couldn't stand playing it anymore. What does that say about a game? The only people that would argue that are fanboys that absolutely love the game you hated on. Those guys clearly don't need a review as they've already fallen madly in love with whatever it is you hated so much.

Also, with how late your reviews generally come out, don't you usually know if your opinion is very far off from the MetaCritic score? I imagine you don't read a lot of reviews of the game before you write yours, but a quick glance at the MC number would give you an idea of there possibly being something more for you to experience.

Gary A. Lucero said...

Good points Jebus. And at this point in my life I really don't know who reviews are for anyway. People who play games as one of their main hobbies don't really need them, but to be honest, I also loving reading about games, so reading reviews is really just another party of the same hobby. Do gamers who are less involved ("casual") read them? What do they need out of them? At this point reviews of games are like reviews of music and movies: People check them so they don't make a huge mistake and ignore them if they really want the game. In the end that seems to sort of nullify their usefulness except as a way to satisfy those of us who love to read them just for the heck of it.

Ed Borden said...

If I get agitated enough with a game that I feel like I'm wasting my time, I'd call it right there. It's a game. Needs to be fun.

2 hours max. I'm busy.

Mitch Krpata said...

Jebus, sometimes I see a Metacritic score before I write my own review, and sometimes I don't. I have found in most cases, without ever applying any rigor to it, that my own scores are usually about a point lower than the Metacritic average. When my score is wildly different from Metacritic's, as was the case with Mass Effect, it really does make me wonder what I missed. (But I didn't need to see the score for that. I couldn't figure that game out at all. Maybe someday I'll try to revisit that one and see if I can crack it.) Other times, though, I sort of enjoy being the dissenting voice on something like Halo.

Gary, your last point's a good one. Good criticism is that which you want to read it after you've seen the movie/read the book/played the game. That's what I think we don't have enough of right now, although blogs are filling that void.

Ed, you're merciless, man.

BenzeneChile said...

While I have often gotten entangled in long-winded discussions about the nature of "games I like," I still look at them (naively, at least to some folk) as what I think they're meant to be: entertainment. When the fun stops, so does the game.

Inspired by Art Garfunkel's carefully curated list of books he's read since 1968, I have been trying to catalog all games I start and games I finish. (On a side note, does anybody else do this, or does anyone think it's extremely strange? Mitch, does a reviewer ever get I've-played-this-somewhere deja-vu, and catalog his games as a result?)

Looking back, it seems I give most games about 2 hours before officially considering them "started," but the number varies with my intuition and mood.

As another side note, I find myself obsessed at times with total-hours-played; I want to know if a game will take around 8 hours or around 50 before I start. My justification is my game backlog, which has dozens of supposedly-superb games waiting for me, and the thought of even a wasted hour is devastating. I actually found a thread on the CheapAssGamer forums where people share their hourly estimates, and I use it often.

Kind of a dichotomy, I guess; I stop playing when things stop being interesting, but there's also a nagging voice in my head saying "You know, you should really put this trash away and get around to playing Planescape: Torment..."

Kate said...

BenzeneChile: have you seen Backloggery? It's like one of those bookshelf things, but for games. Very addictive (here's mine!)

Jebus said...

Benzene, I actually at the start of this year started doing that exact thing. Thanks to Xbox Live keeping track of all my games and when I got the achievements, and gamefly, I was able to fairly accurately recount all the games I played and when I played them. Also due to circumstances in 2007 that led me to play not that many games, I was able to make a list for that year too.

I just do it because I don't want to forget a game I played and it seems like it would be easy to do as time goes on. Though I imagine 20 years from now I'd still remember if someone asked me if I played a certain game.

We might just both be extremely strange however. Kate too.

Ben Abraham said...

How about applying something like "Enough to guess you're at least 1/3 to 1/2 completed" and if you're still hating it completely and there are no redeeming qualities by then... at least by that point I know I'd feel fine calling it.

Chris Dahlen brought up an interesting issue the other day though, about whether the ending of a game can change your opinion of the previous experience all that much. Recommended reading:


Jon said...

A game should be good enough to hold your attention for any amount of time, the fact that you choose not to complete a game because it bores you rather than any time restraints shows up the bad game design.

Put simply, a game should be as long as it needs to be, it depends on the type of game and its content. Over stretch things and you feel like your wasting your time, make the game too short and you feel short changed. What we need is the happy, tasty, middle ground of games that know when to end and when to keep going.

Dave said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
BenzeneChile said...

Kate: HOLY CRAP, that site is awesome! It's so good, and I've never even heard of it before. I think it deserves some high-profile gaming blog press. Thanks for the link!

Nerje said...

I'm going to start reviewing games on my own blog soon, but here's as good a place as any to discuss my philosophy on it.

If you can't bring yourself to put more than four hours into a game, then hey, there's your review. It's important to outline what you're trying to achieve in a review - whether that outline is defined within the review or by the media which it is presented (magazine, blog, podcast, conversation with a friend). I think if you're going to give a game a score out of five, ten or one hundred, then you have a duty to put in the amount of time a game was intended to recieve, and you should try and experience all of the different facets that a game provides e.g. multiplayer, single player, and isolated challenge modes.

To use my own example, an upcoming review of Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts will have the summary "just shy of a must buy" and the reasoning behind that summary will be explored within the preceding review. I will not give it a score out of ten, because I'm a busy guy with a lot of games to play, and I haven't experienced everything the game has to offer. The reader will know that. I am holding out on my Fallout 3 review, because I think that my time with the game has not drawn to a close yet (well into 30+ hours) and may not be completed by the time the review is written. If I try to play a game that is so terrible I can't play past the three hour mark I probably won't review it but I'll make it known via a small post what my experiences with the game are. If I was reviewing the game for a magazine, though, with a definitive */5 or */10 score, then I have no right to assign it a value until I've experienced whatever the game intended me to experience. No matter how horrendous my time was with the game.

I can't tell you how many Halo 2 or Halo 3 reviews have pissed me off because the reviewer has not had any experience of what multiplayer truly has to offer. They assign a score based on their time in single-player, and multitudes of people take that score on face value and miss out on the joy that is team slayer on Live.

The opposite example would be GTA IV. In the immediate sense, the game was a classic. But there was not a whole lot of play beyond what the campaign presented, and this wasn't accounted for in the review scores it garnered. Millions of people bought the game then traded it in after completing the story.

Gary A. Lucero said...

Nerje, the whole multiplayer aspect is yet another thing to consider. I almost never play multiplayer, so while COD4 was a good game, for example, it never reached greatness for me and that's probably because I spent 0 hours online with it. Because I'm a single player kind of guy, I just ignore multiplayer and rate games accordingly, but if I were a professional reviewer, I wouldn't be able to get away with that.

Clint said...

The concept of 'finished' is inherently flawed in games to begin with.

Simply - you need to play the game until you have fully experienced the mechanics, dynamics and aesthetics of it. In some games - this can be minutes - the entire game is comprised of repeated, iterated mechanics and dynamics and nothing else (ie: Tetris, Chess).

In other (typically more modern)games, there is a lengthy complex pattern to how the mechanics and dynamics are played off against each other and this progression is probably something you should have a solid understanding of before it is fair to review the game. Depending on the game, this is something that can be experienced in less than an hour, up to maybe 4 or 5 hours. You need enough 'data points' to reasonably project the progression curve... but do you need to actually experience the difference between Hyperjump Level 5 and Hyperjump level 6 to review the work? No - you can project it based on your understanding of how the rest of the progression functions.

Some games - like chess again, or perhaps Far Cry - are built out of repeated low level mechanics, but there is a certain level of mastery required before you see the point of their bredth and depth. Chess and checkers are both made out of repeated moves and chess does not have a lot more moves or rules that checkers - but you undoubtedly need to be able to play chess 'well' to fairly review it becuase the beauty of chess is in advanced play.

For games with a story, there is perhaps an argument to be made that you must finish the story before you can review the game. I think that's retarded. If the mechanics and dyanmics don't sustain you for the length of the story then the story is improperly calibrated to the game, and therefore badly written, and so you should feel free to say so. If the story does sustain you through the game, and you still want to go back and play more, then - hey, it's clearly not the story that has you interested. I cannot (personally) name a single game that I wanted to play more than once *for the story* - IMO story should not be a considration.

However - since audiences often consider the story to be important, or at least they have not yet wrapped their heads around the concept of reviewing mechanics, playing the story and framing the review in the terms of the story is probably a kindness you may wish to extent to your readers.

If you are being paid to do it, you should probably make it know what your specific policy is, that way you can do it the way you think is best and people who disagree can read elsewhere.

Gary A. Lucero said...

Jon, I understand what you're saying, but sometimes games are a slow burn and it takes a while to figure out if you like them or not. For example, I bought and sold Grand Theft Auto IV several times before completing it. Once I realized that the open world aspect of it was a hindrance, that the mini-games, lack of checkpoints, forced relationships, and even something as mundane as having to travel from point A to point B didn't really matter any more; that those things were the worst parts of the game, I was able to enjoy it.

In the end GTA IV is an excellent action game, with an outstandating story, great gun play, and pretty good graphics, but it really is a departure from previous games in the series, and thinking of it in terms of those games is a mistake.

I had to force myself to play through the game, examine what I enjoyed and hated about it, and then, finally, I was able to complete it. And it's one of my favorite games of 2008! Had I reviewed it after the first or second attempt, I would have rated it very poorly.

Flashman said...

I was going to mention the Backloggery too, glad to see other people spreading the word. The mention of that site, and the original blog post, made me think of something on the subject though. Your exposure to games will likely have an impact on how long you will stay with a game. Think about gaming when you had very few games - you likely played the hell out of even the ones you didn't like or weren't good at. The more options you have, the less likely you are to tolerate a bad game for long. Because of this, there's no way to have any kind of objective scale for a game being intolerably bad based solely on how you feel about it. I have a ridiculous backlog (http://www.backloggery.com/main.php?user=flashman) and I have almost zero tolerance for bad or boring games. I hit that "Oh, go fuck yourself" point within maybe 20-40 minutes on a lot of games. What I've found on returning to some of these games is that that's a monumentally poor way to judge a game's quality.

I also have to agree with the questioning of who reviews are even for. The general population buys games without checking them at all, and the enthusiast market basically runs on a hive mind as a poisonous tone spreads across the internet about the quality of some games, making reviews considerably less relevant to those of us who just want to dodge a making a mistake.

Quiche Poireau said...

The right amount of hours to "classify" a game as worthwhile change a lot depending on one main factor: "Am I renting a game or not?.

If the consumer is renting a game, I would say that is tolerence is really slow, and islimited to the time he is allowing for his first game session time: so that can be down to 2 or 3 hours.

Now, for those who bought the game straight from a shop; I think they are willing to give them a deeper try; an attitude probably motivated by the 60£ they just spent for it.

But I agree that the time I spend on a game before droping it depends as well of it all lenght... The best exemple is final Fantasy 8. I kept a memory of a game i didn't like at all and droped maybe to fast. One of those rainy evening, I felt guilty after reading an article about it, and dig out my old ps1. Looking at my memory card i was realy surprise to see that I did play that game 13hours still!

But I tend to force myself to play those bad games, because they do have one quality: I discover there are often a good original of gameplay in those: the little thing that allowed a publisher to greenlight the project; idea usually wasted...

Because i think the true question to be asked is this one:
How long does a publisher play a prototype; or any other "WIP" version to not realise that teh game need to be stoped on teh way as most playuer will drop it in between 1 and 5 hours?