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Should You Ever Explain Your Game's Design?

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... in game or out of game? And no, I don't mean tutorials... I've been interested in the whole mini-controversy over whether or not Tim Shafer's Brutal Legend is an RTS game and how the developer chose to respond to criticism of the game's design. For those who maybe haven't heard, in some quarters critics have been arguing that the game has fundamental RTS characteristics yet is poorly designed because it doesn't have many of the features or modes of play traditional RTS games have had. The designer, on the other hand, has met the criticism by telling people that the game isn't an RTS game and if they try to play it like one they will lose. What do you think about this? Should you explain your design to players? I've heard it said that if you have to externally explain to players the core of what the game is your marketing has failed and your tutorial / demo has failed. What about the idea of embedding explanation of controversial features in the game itself? For instance, in the options menu, as text or a popup. If, for instance, you had permadeath you might explain the philosophy of why there wasn't a save option, maybe by showing the option disabled. But, then again, like a comedian who has to explain a joke the problem may have more to do with the delivery than the audience: If they don't get it, explaining likely won't help and even if it does you then fall into the trap of implying that your audience isn't smart enough or sophisticated enough to "get it." Thoughts?

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This is sort of like the writing concept of the "contract with the reader". The idea is that the book needs to truthfully communicate its basic nature through its packaging and first chapter so readers can tell if it's the sort of journey they want to sign on for. But, if you're making something that isn't bog-standard, there are always going to be people who don't understand it. I think a designer has a right to explain their goals and choices, and that dialogue between designer and players can really contribute to the game's community feeling. An explanation of why a design choice was made can even reduce player anger at what they feel to be unfairness or design stupidity. I don't see how an explanation could hurt, unless it includes spoilers. It won't change how the game plays though, which is always going to be the true reason players do or don't 'get' a game.

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You don't explain the things that aren't there, like a save function in a permadeath game. You explain (or demonstrate, or let the player discover) the features that the game does have. If you worry about the possibility of the permadeath mechanic surprising a player who has put hours into their character, go ahead and show the player a seductive hazard close to the beginning of the game, and let them die to it once. Voila, guaranteed understanding of the mechanic. If that or other demonstrations are out of the question, I guess you could give them an introductory screen, like the ones which say "Your pistol holds eight rounds. To swap to your pistol, press A.", except this one would say "Death is final. If you die, you will have to create another character and start from the beginning."

Not just once, but several times at a restaurant a chef or a waiter has explained me how to eat a particular dish. Good thing they did, because the food usually tasted better when eaten in the suggested way. If (a part of) the audience doesn't get it, then it can hardly hurt the state of affairs if someone informs them. In a perfect world, creators would not have to bother, as critics would do it for them. It's unfortunate that the mass gaming media seems packed with dull and/or incompetent reviewers, and the critics are nowhere to be seen.

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Original post by Stroppy Katamari
Not just once, but several times at a restaurant a chef or a waiter has explained me how to eat a particular dish. Good thing they did, because the food usually tasted better when eaten in the suggested way. If (a part of) the audience doesn't get it, then it can hardly hurt the state of affairs if someone informs them. In a perfect world, creators would not have to bother, as critics would do it for them. It's unfortunate that the mass gaming media seems packed with dull and/or incompetent reviewers, and the critics are nowhere to be seen.


Hey, I've been reviewing games for 8 years and I resent that ;)

But that is so true. I once got a wargame to review. Being a casual wargamer, I went on to play that game. However, the guy who made the game was a hardcore wargamer. The design was made for hardcore wargamers in mind. Firing an artillery required an actual artillery manual because you could choose between ammunitions represented as 7 letter acronyms and a bunch of other parameters that meant absolutely nothing from me. It was the same for the rest, it assumed you knew what a wargame was about. The game got a very bad score, which resulted in the developer sending me a hate mail.

His argument was that I was not a true wargamer if I didn't know what these 7 letter acronyms meant. While it was a fine argument, mine was that we were reviewing for a mainstream audience and if I didn't knew what to do with it, then chances are my readers wouldn't know either. In his eyes, the game was great, but for an uninitiated, it was a pile of random letters without meaning. A simple in-game tutorial or detailed descriptions would have gone a long way to bridge the gap between hardcore and casual and the game may have seen a few more sales.

If you have a mechanic that is so different than everything else, then you should warn the player beforehand of its impacts, else he will assume it's like everything he played before and will stop playing as soon as his usual strategies stop working because he doesn't understand the mechanic.

[Edited by - Tiblanc on December 2, 2009 7:54:47 AM]

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You should check out Fahrenheit (or "Indigo Prophecy" is it was called in the American release).

When you start a new game, you'll find yourself in a stage with many of the game's elements (a police car, a door frame, cardboard walls) together with the Game's charismatic designer, who tells you about the game's concept and also how the game's controls work.

What made this one of the best introductions was simply the atmosphere. The Designer was fully motion-captured, what he said was interesting and well-spoken and the entire setting transmitted the feeling of being about to open the first page of a book you've been longing to read.

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It's a false problem caused by narrow-minded reviewers and fans. Games won't get taken seriously until it's accepted by both groups that they don't exist merely to fit into pre-existing categories (although they certainly can choose to do so) but are individual creations to be judged as such. There's nothing wrong with genres as descriptive labels, as they carry a lot of useful semantics. What's wrong is when they move from being descriptive to prescriptive.

Nobody complains that a film's exact genre wasn't explicitly specified before you watch it. Crossovers and variations are par for the course and often encouraged. Games should be the same. Of course it makes sense to ensure the tutorial enables people to play it 'properly' but that's not the same as explaining your design.

Tycho at Penny Arcade should really know better and I am disappointed at his attitude, wanting to classify games as This OR That and not wanting people to experiment with crossover. Imagine if we'd thought that way 15 years ago. To paraphrase him, "I love action games, but I don't want to play an action game while I'm playing an strategy game". Bye bye to the entire RTS genre then. Luckily, some people at the time noticed that although the strategy aspect did suffer a little, you gained something from the urgency of the action. And thus a new approach was born.

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What do you think about this? Should you explain your design to players? I've heard it said that if you have to externally explain to players the core of what the game is your marketing has failed and your tutorial / demo has failed.

It's arguable that the tutorial doesn't educate the player adequately. But it's nobody's job to explain a game in terms of other games. That way lies a boring future bereft of creativity where games only cannibalise other games when making changes. It's even worse if you're told you're not allowed to even cannibalise from other genres for fear of polluting your binary gene pool. Ridiculous.

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What do you think about this? Should you explain your design to players? I've heard it said that if you have to externally explain to players the core of what the game is your marketing has failed and your tutorial / demo has failed.


Absolutely. Explaining to reviewers after the fact is damage control. If lots of players are complaining, something went wrong in the game design, development or marketing. You can blame one player for being dense, if two players make the same mistake, it's on you.

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What about the idea of embedding explanation of controversial features in the game itself? For instance, in the options menu, as text or a popup. If, for instance, you had permadeath you might explain the philosophy of why there wasn't a save option, maybe by showing the option disabled. But, then again, like a comedian who has to explain a joke the problem may have more to do with the delivery than the audience: If they don't get it, explaining likely won't help and even if it does you then fall into the trap of implying that your audience isn't smart enough or sophisticated enough to "get it."


I don't think most players care about your philosophy of game design. They want to have a great experience. If you've made a controversial design decision, tell (or preferably show) them why it's making the game better. For something like permadeath you probably need a heads up before dying, but don't launch into a history of roguelikes. Tell the player that this isn't a game for everymen but for heroes, where if you die, you're dead and there's no coming back. But the few who survive even an hour in the dungeon of gljksdf will be remembered in legends.

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Original post by Kylotan
Nobody complains that a film's exact genre wasn't explicitly specified before you watch it.


This is not 100% true. You certainly see designers and writers who don't respect a genre's conventions, and in doing so they may disrespect the genre's fans, especially if marketing people decide the maverick creation that doesn't fit the conventions will sell better if labeled as belonging to the genre. Romance novels is the area where I'm most familiar with this - a romance novel MUST have a happy ending where the lovers stay together. Novice authors and authors who aren't really familiar with the genre often consider this cliche and want to twist or temporize this pattern by having a tragic or bittersweet. What they don't realize is, if it doesn't have that ending it isn't a romance novel. It may be a perfectly good novel of a different genre, but it is completely unsaleable as romance, and a romance reader who was given such a manuscript and told it was going to be a romance novel would be highly dissatisfied, and rightly so.

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Reminds me of that Futurama episode where they do an episode of TV show so that aliens won't destroy Earth:

"But that's not why people watch TV. Clever things make people feel stupid, and unexpected things make them feel scared." -Fry

People want new and clever things in games, but they really just want the same thing made to look new, with maybe a small amount of actually different things.


I just played through the whole Metal Gear Solid series, and when I got to part 4, I didn't like it until sometime after the first Act because the controls were so different. The core mechanics of the game were same, but the interface was very different and it threw me off.

If the series wasn't so popular(and to be fair, it was very well done and polished so maybe not), I think it might have gotten a number of bad reviews for such a dramatic change, even though the underlying game was still largely the same.

Another example, I though Assassin's Creed was an awesome game, but it got some bad reviews because the controls were so different from similar types of games. At first I didn't get the control scheme, but after playing it for a while it didn't bother me.


The reason I think, is that people get comfortable with one way of doing a certain thing, and changing that makes them uncomfortable, and since people don't like change, they sometimes just write it off and don't bother to play it for what it is. Then, they might end up missing out on something they would otherwise like because they are stuck in one mode of thought.

So in the case of game design, Having something different than expected will probably cause player frustration, even if it's a good design. You could "warn" players in advance, but if it's too different they might lose interest.

You might solve this by saying "It's a classic RTS with a twist" or "An action-adventure with some strategy thrown it" so as to warn the player what to expect using the limited language of genre types

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I personally think that the problem with the Brutal Legend situation is the critics viewing everything through the polar "genre lenses". Everything must be a FPS, RTS, RPG, MMORPG, Racing Game, Sports Game, etc. When games get unique and mix aspects of different genres, critics who view games that way get confused. Complaining that a game such as Brutal Legend does not have specific RTS functions just seems ludicrous to me, as it was not marketed as an RTS, packaged as an RTS, and obviously is not an RTS. I had no issue figuring out how to play Brutal Legend through the in-game tutorial, so I feel that they succeeded in that regard. Having to explain the design of your game and how you believe it fits neatly into a genre is a waste of time to me.

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Original post by sunandshadow
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Original post by Kylotan
Nobody complains that a film's exact genre wasn't explicitly specified before you watch it.


This is not 100% true. You certainly see designers and writers who don't respect a genre's conventions, and in doing so they may disrespect the genre's fans, especially if marketing people decide the maverick creation that doesn't fit the conventions will sell better if labeled as belonging to the genre.

That's not the writer who's disrespected anybody. That's the marketing people trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Nobody is bound by someone else's preconception. The idea of "respect for a genre's conventions" is a pretty horrific concept to give to an artist.

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Romance novels is the area where I'm most familiar with this - a romance novel MUST have a happy ending where the lovers stay together. Novice authors and authors who aren't really familiar with the genre often consider this cliche and want to twist or temporize this pattern by having a tragic or bittersweet. What they don't realize is, if it doesn't have that ending it isn't a romance novel. It may be a perfectly good novel of a different genre, but it is completely unsaleable as romance, and a romance reader who was given such a manuscript and told it was going to be a romance novel would be highly dissatisfied, and rightly so.

That's fine. But that's not the writer's fault. That's partly the fault of whoever has presented it incorrectly, and partly the fault of an audience that is less interested in quality literature and more in commodity fiction. I read plenty of generic fantasy fiction which is churned out in great quantities but even there we don't think it's at all wrong or 'disrespectful' if someone kills off the main character in book one or writes from the perspective of the evil side. Surely it's the job of the writers to explore these avenues.

People must be free to create the work that they have imagined and judged on how well they have realised that goal. I think it would be completely ludicrous to suggest that Shakespeare was somehow wrong for giving Romeo and Juliet a tragic ending just because on the face of it the story is a romance. Similarly game makers shouldn't be bound to a certain genre just because people took one look at it and expected to see the conventions in place.

The problem is the audience, not the creator. If someone won't broaden their horizons, they have little right to complain about how little they can see.

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Original post by Kylotan
The problem is the audience, not the creator. If someone won't broaden their horizons, they have little right to complain about how little they can see.


But there's certainly a balance to be drawn. "Know your audience" is common advice for artists. If you don't give the audience what they want, don't complain that they don't want what you gave them.

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Someone new to your game is going to approach it based on their previous experiences, and it's only natural for their starting position to be a reference to something else. I only know a little about Brutal Legend, but from what I do know if you handed me a copy to play I'd probably be thinking "so it's a bit like Sacrifice, then?". Once playing, I'd expect the early stages of the game to correct me and show specific how the mechanics differ from my preconception it's like Sacrifice and how to properly play.

The challenge is that everyone is going to have a different preconception based on their prior experiences, and I strongly doubt most players will be making initial comparisons to Sacrifice. If someone thinks the game is an RTS with action-y elements, they'll be expecting something different from someone expecting an action game with RTS elements. I also suspect given that Brutal Legend is on the consoles that more players would be coming from the action background than RTS, which may be why there was an emphasis on explaining those mechanics in the tutorial (note: total conjecture given I haven't played the game. [smile])

For hybrid genre or genre-less games there's always going to be the issue of players and reviewers who expect their favourite single genre, so I think it's fair to them to make it clear that you aren't offering a straight-up RTS (or FPS, RPG or whatever it is) in the marketing and to make the differences clear in the tutorial. If they still buy/review the game and expect just their genre, then I say the fault is on them. Not that it will stop some of them of course [wink].

That said, I think the reception of mixed genre games has got better though, as I remember some terribly blinkered receptions to genres in the past. FPS games seemed to be especially bad; there was a period where a significant a number of print reviewers who seemed to have the misconception that every single game with a first person viewpoint had to play like Quake, which led to some rather cringe worthy reviews for games that had a significantly different focus (like the stealth game Thief, which got a few comments like "I had to play on the easiest setting, as you need a large amount of health to survive storming the front gates of the villa. The sword fighting gets clunky when you face more than five guards at a time. Action not as fluid as Quake. Also: no multiplayer.")

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Original post by Trapper Zoid
That said, I think the reception of mixed genre games has got better though, as I remember some terribly blinkered receptions to genres in the past. FPS games seemed to be especially bad; there was a period where a significant a number of print reviewers who seemed to have the misconception that every single game with a first person viewpoint had to play like Quake, which led to some rather cringe worthy reviews for games that had a significantly different focus (like the stealth game Thief, which got a few comments like "I had to play on the easiest setting, as you need a large amount of health to survive storming the front gates of the villa. The sword fighting gets clunky when you face more than five guards at a time. Action not as fluid as Quake. Also: no multiplayer.")


Yes this prior expectation thing can be a real killer to new ideas. Your example is just the sort of thing that would make me want to put a mentor character in the game that says in tutorial mode to the player, "And Garrett, remember, only an idiot would go rushing into a room full of guards. Remember, you're a thief, not some gung-ho warrior."

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Yes this prior expectation thing can be a real killer to new ideas. Your example is just the sort of thing that would make me want to put a mentor character in the game that says in tutorial mode to the player, "And Garrett, remember, only an idiot would go rushing into a room full of guards. Remember, you're a thief, not some gung-ho warrior."

I think the tutorial did have something like that (Garrett himself would make comments to that effect) and while the missions were fairly freeform (they gave you objectives but didn't set a linear path for how to get there) the first real mission gave hints as to safe stealthy way to get there. However it didn't stop a handful of reviewers who, despite the first objective being "find the informant in the back alley who has a key to the sewer entrance to the villa", decided instead to storm the heavily defended main villa gates. I'm not sure there's much you can do against that. [grin]

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Original post by Tiblanc
But that is so true. I once got a wargame to review. Being a casual wargamer, I went on to play that game. However, the guy who made the game was a hardcore wargamer. The design was made for hardcore wargamers in mind. Firing an artillery required an actual artillery manual because you could choose between ammunitions represented as 7 letter acronyms and a bunch of other parameters that meant absolutely nothing from me. It was the same for the rest, it assumed you knew what a wargame was about. The game got a very bad score, which resulted in the developer sending me a hate mail.

His argument was that I was not a true wargamer if I didn't know what these 7 letter acronyms meant. While it was a fine argument, mine was that we were reviewing for a mainstream audience and if I didn't knew what to do with it, then chances are my readers wouldn't know either. In his eyes, the game was great, but for an uninitiated, it was a pile of random letters without meaning. A simple in-game tutorial or detailed descriptions would have gone a long way to bridge the gap between hardcore and casual and the game may have seen a few more sales.
While I don't know the full context, I'm inclined to agree with the developer. There is no way to write a decent review of a game without understanding it and understanding its context (related games, ...). Only an expert is able to do a game justice - whether it's a masterpiece or crap - and write an interesting review. The one real exception to that is games that are very obviously broken, which is rare. Even the reviewer of mini-games shallow as a wading pool should have an idea of what the other mini-games out there are like.

To put it simply, the industry is rotten. Even high-volume sites like Gamespot, definitely not short of resources, are filled to the brim with irredeemable garbage reviews which a proficient editor would simply throw out.

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Original post by Stroppy Katamari
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Original post by Tiblanc
But that is so true. I once got a wargame to review. Being a casual wargamer, I went on to play that game. However, the guy who made the game was a hardcore wargamer. The design was made for hardcore wargamers in mind. Firing an artillery required an actual artillery manual because you could choose between ammunitions represented as 7 letter acronyms and a bunch of other parameters that meant absolutely nothing from me. It was the same for the rest, it assumed you knew what a wargame was about. The game got a very bad score, which resulted in the developer sending me a hate mail.

His argument was that I was not a true wargamer if I didn't know what these 7 letter acronyms meant. While it was a fine argument, mine was that we were reviewing for a mainstream audience and if I didn't knew what to do with it, then chances are my readers wouldn't know either. In his eyes, the game was great, but for an uninitiated, it was a pile of random letters without meaning. A simple in-game tutorial or detailed descriptions would have gone a long way to bridge the gap between hardcore and casual and the game may have seen a few more sales.
While I don't know the full context, I'm inclined to agree with the developer. There is no way to write a decent review of a game without understanding it and understanding its context (related games, ...). Only an expert is able to do a game justice - whether it's a masterpiece or crap - and write an interesting review. The one real exception to that is games that are very obviously broken, which is rare. Even the reviewer of mini-games shallow as a wading pool should have an idea of what the other mini-games out there are like.

To put it simply, the industry is rotten. Even high-volume sites like Gamespot, definitely not short of resources, are filled to the brim with irredeemable garbage reviews which a proficient editor would simply throw out.


In the shoes of a game designer, I also agree with the developer. However, the mainstream gamers, which our readers and we(reviewers) are, are used to a set of mainstream genres. We have to relate to these genres to explain positive and negatives points to our readers. A hardcore wargame poses a steep learning curve that is simply not worth it for mainstream gamer. Even if we had had a hardcore wargamer who would have recognized the game as a masterpiece, its grade would have been wrong because our readers are mainstream gamers. In my opinion, it's just as wrong to mislead our readers into playing a game they will not like that is it to burn a masterpiece.

The point I was making is what happens when you don't explain a new mechanic to your players. For the hardcore wargamer, this stuff is bread and butter. However, give the game to someone who only played light wargames and he will not enjoy the game, even if it is a masterpiece. This is because of the player's expectations. The player expects something when he starts the game and if he sees something else, he will try to relate to what he's used to, but will not put the time to figure it out. Thus, you can have the most awesome innovative mechanic, but if you expect the player to figure it out, your game will fail, miserably.

Take for example the flash game Sonny. While it is a standard RPG in the sense it has characters, levels, equipment, abilities and baddies to use it all on, it lacks some key features of the genre. It doesn't allow you to explore, dungeon crawl, go on side quests or dig into lore. Yet, it is one of the best RPGs I played because of its combat mechanics. One of the reason for this is one of the first thing they tell you is "this isn't a standard RPG, in this game, we do stuff this way, etc." When you read this as a player, it prepares you to see the game in a different way that you're used to, which allows you to fully enjoy the game for what it is instead of feeling something is missing from your favorite genre.

As for the high-volume review sites, they have to produce reviews that appeal to the masses, because this is their market. The bigger your target audience, the simpler you have to be in your explanations. Look at who comments on the reviews and you'll see a strong correlation between readers and reviewers. These people gravitate around these sites not because they produce quality content, but because they relate to it. It speaks to them in a manner they understand, which is simple, short sentences that can be seen as garbage to some.

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Original post by Tiblanc
In the shoes of a game designer, I also agree with the developer. However, the mainstream gamers, which our readers and we(reviewers) are, are used to a set of mainstream genres. We have to relate to these genres to explain positive and negatives points to our readers. A hardcore wargame poses a steep learning curve that is simply not worth it for mainstream gamer. Even if we had had a hardcore wargamer who would have recognized the game as a masterpiece, its grade would have been wrong because our readers are mainstream gamers. In my opinion, it's just as wrong to mislead our readers into playing a game they will not like that is it to burn a masterpiece.
Why do you review it and give it a score at all, if it's obvious it's not of interest to your audience, and you can't make heads or tails of it personally? The seven-letter anecdote you just wrote here us is the entirety of what's relevant about the game to your stated audience: stay away unless you are a veteran wargamer. Best of all, the anecdote is something you are actually qualified to write.

On the other hand, if you had a proficient wargamer on tap who could produce a real review, who says a review score has to be a recommendation for everybody? In fact it cannot be. A RPG's score is never an accurate recommendation for people who hate RPGs from the bottom of their soul, and neither can such a person ever write a meaningful review of a RPG - among other things, the score would be a guaranteed zero. In general, if a reviewer isn't capable of appreciating whatever there is to appreciate in the game, the review cannot possibly be meaningful. In particular that means a reviewer of a difficult game has to be someone capable of handling the difficulty.
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As for the high-volume review sites, they have to produce reviews that appeal to the masses, because this is their market. The bigger your target audience, the simpler you have to be in your explanations. Look at who comments on the reviews and you'll see a strong correlation between readers and reviewers. These people gravitate around these sites not because they produce quality content, but because they relate to it. It speaks to them in a manner they understand, which is simple, short sentences that can be seen as garbage to some.
I have no beef with simple, short sentences. Those are good writing - Hemingway said as much. The thing I have a problem with is the content: incompetents mistreating games, wallowing in their own ignorance, and still having a zillion readers thanks to their Google rank.

The best (worst?) example I can give you on short notice is the review of Contra: Shattered Soldier on GameSpot. The reviewer obviously dislikes the genre in question, which alone would guarantee the review to turn out bad. But it doesn't end there. The review is terrible, any way you look at it: hilariously wrong on the basic nature of the game, wrong on background, wrong on context, wrong on characteristics of entire genres, and vomited full of dismissive babble. You can pull stupid shit out of nearly every paragraph, but for one, the reviewer is confused enough to call a 20-40 hour game "short" and chide it for not having "more filler".

Unfortunately, the one holding the pen is the then-editor of the site, Greg Kasavin. I can't shake the feeling that the highest form of quality control in the mainstream game "journalism" is a spell checker.

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Original post by Stroppy Katamari
Why do you review it and give it a score at all, if it's obvious it's not of interest to your audience, and you can't make heads or tails of it personally? The seven-letter anecdote you just wrote here us is the entirety of what's relevant about the game to your stated audience: stay away unless you are a veteran wargamer. Best of all, the anecdote is something you are actually qualified to write.

On the other hand, if you had a proficient wargamer on tap who could produce a real review, who says a review score has to be a recommendation for everybody? In fact it cannot be. A RPG's score is never an accurate recommendation for people who hate RPGs from the bottom of their soul, and neither can such a person ever write a meaningful review of a RPG - among other things, the score would be a guaranteed zero. In general, if a reviewer isn't capable of appreciating whatever there is to appreciate in the game, the review cannot possibly be meaningful. In particular that means a reviewer of a difficult game has to be someone capable of handling the difficulty.


We have a policy of reviewing everything that ends up in our mailbox, for integrity's sake. What do you do when you have a niche game that you receive for which you have no reviewer which is an expert in the genre? You have to do with what you have.

Anyways, the whole 7 letter acronym thing wasn't the whole review, it was merely a small part of it used to explain my point in this thread. The game was reviewed on more points, like presentation, game flow, ease of use, fun factor, depth of gameplay mechanics and so on. Its score was based on all these things from my point of view, which is the extended point of view of our readers. They don't come to our site to know what a wargamer thinks of a hardcore wargame. They come because they have similar play experiences and can relate to what we write in our reviews. This is the whole point of a review, to get a hands-on opinion from someone which shares your views. Reading a wargame review from a hardcore wargamer when you are not is a waste of time. Sure, the game was reviewed by someone who knows what he's talking about, but you still don't know if you would like the game. Essentially, it's a pointless review because you have no wargamer in your audience.

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