Sections

The Death of Reviews

The increasing irrelevance of game reviews is a huge change in the industry, and ultimately it's for the best

Game reviews used to be an important (one might even say, ahem, critical) factor in the marketing of a game. If you were able to get some advance reviews, you'd even slap a great quote or two on your packaging, and certainly in your advertising. Adroitly timing reviews to appear in magazines when the product was in the stores would help boost sales - and since more than 90% of a product's sales could be had in the product's first month, maximizing launch impact was the most important part of a marketing strategy.

Fast forward to the modern game market, and everything has changed.

The initial sales of console games no longer account for almost all of the revenue of the game; that portion is steadily decreasing, as games get longer and longer lifetimes (especially now that they can be downloaded). The now-obligatory DLC for major console game releases also provides a significant revenue boost, as well as keeping the game selling long after the initial release. Yes, the reviews have an influence on that... but the changing nature of games has affected the relevance of the reviews.

This is the second major point: For most games, the game is no longer unchanging the way console games used to be. Decades ago, once a console game shipped, that was it - there was no way to patch it. That's why publishers spent months relentlessly scrubbing every bug they could from the games before they shipped them. Now, games are regularly patched on a weekly basis or even faster. These patches are often more than just bug fixes - they often have major effects on game play.

Over time, between content releases and patches, games evolve. Destiny already looks different than it did when it shipped. For a more extreme example, look at World of Warcraft... that game is incredibly larger and more detailed in every way than the version that first shipped.

For that matter, the initial ship date of most games doesn't even really matter financially - not when a game is free to play. The challenge is no longer to convince someone to part with $60, but rather to take the time to download the game and give it a try. Reviews may certainly influence that decision, but even if a game didn't get very good reviews you have a much greater chance of giving it a try when the only cost involved is some of your time.

"it's the review of each individual playing the game that really matters. The best way to influence those reviews is to create the best game you can, listen to the audience when they play it, and work to refine the game over time"

The widespread adoption of social media has transformed the meaning of reviews in every medium. Movie reviewers were once fairly scarce, and their opinions were respected and featured prominently in movie advertising. Now, reviewers are anyone and everyone who's on Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr. Each individual review is thus worth much less... unless it comes from a trusted friend, that is. Maybe you'll check Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic to see what the general buzz is among both pros and consumers, but in the end if a friend recommends something you're far more likely to try it. The same is true with games.

This is also why YouTubers and the whole idea of influencer marketing has become so important. When someone you like and believe in tells you something, you're far more likely to act on their opinion. That's why the influencers are very careful in general to only work with products they believe in, because their influence is based on trust. If the audience begins to believe the influencer is merely a shill for whoever gave them the most money, the audience will leave.

The very nature and meaning of game reviews is under examination - what does it mean to review a game that's essentially a service, changing every week? While a review may be completely relevant and accurate when it's published, that gradually declines as the game changes unless the review is regularly updated. And who does that? Some media outlets have made steps in that direction, updating reviews from time to time, but no site has the resources to update all of their reviews. For that matter, no media outlet can even hope to keep up with the thousands of games being released every month, if you count all platforms, with an even greater number being updated in that time frame.

This is why the ostensible reason behind the #GamerGate controversy - that the movement is about "corruption" in game journalism, defined as paying in some fashion for positive reviews - is not credible. While there have been a few cases in the past (the distant past, mind you) of magazines or web sites shading reviews more positively because of advertiser pressure, the issue is really a nonstarter today. Why would a company go to the trouble and expense of trying to manipulate one review, when one review these days has a minuscule effect on sales?

Looked at in the broader sense, we have a perfect counter-example in Destiny. This game had one of the largest marketing budgets ever approved for a game. If any company could ever afford to bribe journalists for positive reviews, it would be Activision Blizzard. The stakes are extraordinarily high for the company, with a $500 million investment in Destiny becoming a profitable billion-dollar franchise at risk. Yet, after months of messages to journalists, trips to Seattle to visit Bungie, and all the PR goodness Activision could muster up... Destiny earns a disappointing 77 on Metacritic. Reviews have been, in general, fairly harsh. That certainly doesn't look like the media has been unduly influenced, does it?

While game media struggles to redefine the nature and meaning of reviews in the modern era, game developers and publishers understand that reviews don't mean as much as they used to. Or, rather, it's the review of each individual playing the game that really matters. The best way to influence those reviews is to create the best game you can, listen to the audience when they play it, and work to refine the game over time. Creating the very best game experience you can is the best way to earn positive reviews, and those personal recommendations that increasingly drive game purchases.

The death of reviews is not a development to be mourned, but one to be celebrated. Game developers can feel free to focus on making the best game they can, and the players will show up and spend money regardless of what reviews appear - if you're able to create an audience, that is. That's another issue entirely, but one thing you should know - don't depend on reviews to create that audience for you.

Republished from the [a]list daily. For more, read the [a]list daily and subscribe to the newsletter to get the latest in game and entertainment marketing news, cool videos, incisive opinions, exclusive interviews and industry data.

Related stories

How games PR can work more effectively with the media

Tips and best practices on how to pitch websites and gain more exposure for your clients

By James Brightman

Middle-earth: Shadow of War: Critical Consensus

Does the latest romp in Tolkien's fantasy world live up to the hype? Mostly, but less is more, critics note, as the game feels bloated

By James Brightman

Latest comments (21)

Carlos Bordeu Game Designer / Studio Co-Founder, ACE Team3 years ago
I personally much prefer Steam user reviews than Metacritic (I think Valve should get rid of the Metascore number and only publish user reviews). Nothing can be more honest than the opinions of customers who purchased your game, played it with the intention of having a good time, and in the end said "I like it" or "I don't".

If you want to read a good or bad review you can even see how long this person played the game since Steam shows how many hours the game was played before the review was published.
8Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Christopher Bowen Editor in Chief, Gaming Bus3 years ago
I'm kind of glad about this, if only because (self-promotion warning!) I figured out that reviews were going out of style two years ago: http://www.gamingbus.com/2012/08/18/fireside-chat-jumping-the-review-shark/

Many of those issues have been exacerbated since, and the recent controversy over Youtube reviews only points that out more.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Robbie Cooke Marketing & PR, Rebellion3 years ago
It's not that reviews are dying, they're just changing - like games themselves they're becoming more long tail - less focus on pre-launch, and more post-launch content in the form of Lets Plays and Retrospectives, or Trophy Mining and all sorts.

@Carlos Bordeu: "Nothing can be more honest than the opinions of customers who purchased your game"

True and not true. Lots of AAA games on Steam will notice their most "popular" reviews (with the most up votes) are often negative, one-track reviews slating the game for one aspect that will resonate with a particular cause or audience, (most often "day one DLC" or comments from the game's publisher about 1080ps, or something similar).

While they may be honest, they're also blinded and unhelpful for most gamers (and often because they can't see the dev process, inaccurate to boot) - at least 'professional reviews try to take a holistic, critical view.

On the flip side, we've had big success with games that weren't critically well accepted, yet word of mouth and YouTubers led the games to success. It's win win for devs really.
8Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Show all comments (21)
Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 3 years ago
The first paragraph illustrates nicely why reviews became less regarded. Reviews are described of value to the publisher who is getting box quotes. The writer of a review is described as a person making the player buy a game. No word is wasted on the idea that the consumer pays money to the reviewer so the money the consumer then spends on games is spend better and more efficiently.

Destiny is not an example for the press taking a stand against publisher pressure, it is quite the opposite.
1Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Anthony Gowland Consulting F2P Game Designer, Ant Workshop3 years ago
I wonder if people will throw a shit fit about the title of this article.
2Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Carlos Bordeu Game Designer / Studio Co-Founder, ACE Team3 years ago
True and not true. Lots of AAA games on Steam will notice their most "popular" reviews (with the most up votes) are often negative, one-track reviews slating the game for one aspect that will resonate with a particular cause or audience, (most often "day one DLC" or comments from the game's publisher about 1080ps, or something similar).
True Robbie. I hadn't thought about this case. I agree that this somehow degrades the whole user review metrics a bunch, but I think the 'day one dlc' or '1080p' criticisms are less misguiding than reviewers who are told to play a game just to get the review out quickly (and get coverage), while having no interest in the game or genre at all (something that'll affect the score of many less well known titles but which doesn't happen to AAA's). I'm pretty sure the big games get the more responsible reviewers to play them, but that some places just basically hire gamers who can write to review titles that are low on the radar, and many times those reviews are pretty bad and biased because the person never had any interest in the title (or genre) at all.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
@Carlos
I agree I like Steam users reviews. I dont think users writing negative reviews about day one DLC is a problem, its an honest fact, one potential buyers should be aware of.
For me I read a few positive reviews but to me cheerleading is easy ( and I wouldnt be there reading reviews if I wasnt already very interested), I more often look to the negative reviews and take a quick look at them to see if there are any consistent/trending criticisms that would or are relevant to me. That way I know full well what to expect.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 13th October 2014 10:03pm

1Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Christopher Bowen Editor in Chief, Gaming Bus3 years ago
I do want to address one thing:

"Yet, after months of messages to journalists, trips to Seattle to visit Bungie, and all the PR goodness Activision could muster up... Destiny earns a disappointing 77 on Metacritic."

Maybe the fact that 77/100 has been turned into "fire everyone" is part of the problem? Just a thought?
12Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Kingman Cheng Illustrator and Animator 3 years ago
The game reviews I like these days are user reviews, the opinions of many are better than the opinions of a few.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Kingman Cheng on 14th October 2014 12:16am

1Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Bob Richardson Server Developer, Frontier Developments3 years ago
The "hours played" component is a huge part of the trustworthiness of Steam reviews. You can see that they actually own it, played it, and exactly how much time they invested in it before writing their assessment - allowing you to establish whether their review is reactionary, reasonable or frothing fanboyism based on the standards of the genre.
1Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development3 years ago
I would be a LOT happier if they introduced this onto the mobile App Stores.

And whilst about it, how about we make the review button active only when the hours played goes past at least 4.
4Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 3 years ago
@Bob: Unless you play games offline, like I prefer to - then Steam doesn't track your time at all save for something like a mandatory minute or so if you happen to be online, hit Play and log off after you realized you were online and quit out of that game you fired up. Personally, I hate that people can see how long I've played a game, so I find Steam's tracking of that annoying to a good degree (I tend to play more methodically these days).

That said, I do see its usefulness to some folks where you've noted.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Daniel Trezub QA Analyst, GameLoft3 years ago
In Brazil we are facing a huge amount of reviews in the app stores like "1 star. I am installing now, if the game/app is good I'll give it more stars". I did not take the time to look at other regions, but this is driving developers crazy there. It seems people didn't get the whole "rate" concept.
4Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Shehzaan Abdulla Translator/QA 3 years ago
Anthony: This article would have to be entitled "The Death of Reviewers" for it to be inflammatory. And in any case I think even that title would be correct. Reviews (as consumer advice) are finally going out of the window and being replaced with critiques (much like we have with film). Reviewers are dead, or at best they metamorphasized into critics.

Actually, this is a process that has been on-going for some time now. But journalists have insisted that they should not get flack for not being the consumer's ally (writing from their specific point of view) as they are just another opinion. They then point to film critics and say "no one gets mad at them".

Of course it's not an equal comparison because film critics aren't highly regarded and people don't seek them out for advice (if anything they're a circus act that are let out of their cages once a week for a local news segment). In other words most people think of film critics as eccentric coots, something journalists (always the proud) are not willing to be reduced to even though they want the same benefits of critical immunity of their film critic counterparts. It's absurd that journalists think they should be able to keep such a high level of vested credibility when critics in other fields are widely considered outspoken nobodies.

But things are changing. Perceptions of reviewers are finally beginning to align with their new role as critics. That is eccentric nobodies who exist to entertain rather than inform. Right now videogame journalism is going through convulsions of change to try and adapt to its new found (lack of) place. Kotaku for instance made a statement recently about switching their focus to on-going post-launch coverage of games.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Shehzaan Abdulla on 14th October 2014 5:46pm

1Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Igor Galochkin Game Programmer 3 years ago
As a mobile developer I'd love to have something closer to the old reviewers system on mobile. Funny enough, on GooglePlay you can write a review even BEFORE your download of the game is complete (I frequently get "doesn't download" 1-star reviews). If you look at the reviews on mobile stores, most of them are garbage. Also, the star ratings are usually very noisy. There are people saying "great game" and giving 1-star, or others saying "the game is crap" and giving it a 5. With so much noise, the ratings converge to 3. As a player of mobile games, I find most reviews coming from users on mobile stores utterly useless. And sorting by "most useful" which GooglePlay has doesn't really help.
So much for democracy in reviews.
For PC games, I still read professional review sites and prefer them to Steam user review. Professional reviews are much more objective and detailed than users can possibly write. For more objectivity, just read reviews on a few different websites, also (if you can) in different languages/countries.
But the article is right that game media is dying out. E.g. it's not worth to pay anything for reviews of mobile games on any websites at all.
2Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Igor Galochkin Game Programmer 3 years ago
Btw I once tried to contact Google explaining the problem with the users being able to give 1-star reviews before they have even completely downloaded the game. After a 2-hour talk with their support I'm not even sure their dev team got this feedback because Google's support seems to not know how exactly downloads work as they aren't Android users themselves :((
On the other hand, on AppStore I frequently see my reviews of apps just not coming thru. Dunno why. Maybe their servers are overloaded, or it's just some bugs on AppStore.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Joshua Hagood Moderation Project Manager, Metaverse Mod Squad3 years ago
I was just thinking how now, more than ever, we need good reviews. There are just too many good games for a human to play, so you need someone to play them for you and tell you what to skip.

I think they've always sucked, it just didn't matter as much since reviews essentially boiled down to "Good, play it", "Play if you like the Genre" and "Avoid" in the 90's/200X's when there weren't these great indies coming out alongside AAA games and B-level games too. Now that we're relying on reviewers more, it's highlighting that the medium isn't set up so great.

Hence, the explosion of User reviews/Crowd-sourcing and Youtube LPs and first looks. They fill the void pretty well, actually.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
James Gallagher Marketing Manager, Futuremark Corporation3 years ago
I personally much prefer Steam user reviews than Metacritic (I think Valve should get rid of the Metascore number and only publish user reviews).
The publisher/developer decides whether to include a game's Metacritic score on its Steam store page. Valve gave publishers this option some time ago.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Carlos Bordeu Game Designer / Studio Co-Founder, ACE Team3 years ago
The publisher/developer decides whether to include a game's Metacritic score on its Steam store page. Valve gave publishers this option some time ago.
Are you sure? I haven't seen this being used at all. Can you point me to one game where the Metascore is not present?

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Carlos Bordeu on 15th October 2014 2:31pm

0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
James Gallagher Marketing Manager, Futuremark Corporation3 years ago
Are you sure? I haven't seen this being used at all. Can you point me to one game where the Metascore is not present?
Try games that have had terrible reviews? :-D

In any case, the setting is under Steamworks > App Admin > [GAME TITLE]. Go to the Basic Info tab. In the External Links section you'll find a field called Metacritic entry. If that field is blank, the Store page won't have a Metacritic score.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Jamie Knight International Editor in Chief, Playnation3 years ago
Here's the thing, everyone 'says' that the want honest reviewing, but you are only going to get that from the Indies not part of the very closed clique circles in the gaming industry. Now, you can get issued the odd game code, review it, tell the truth and as a result you will then be paying for review copies for the rest of your career.

The publishers don't want honest reviews, the developers don't want honest reviews, the PR's certainly don't want them either.....but it is still your DUTY to give just that to your readers.

Take Destiny, for example,, look at some of the gushing nonsense from the established outlets and then compare these with the 'true' reviews of indie outlets and gamers themselves. Who do you think the dev's, pubs and PR's will be accommodating in future?

Honest reviewing is a double edged sword, but ultimately one that has to be plunged into the heart of the BS publishing house/old school tie cliques
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply

Sign in to contribute

Need an account? Register now.