Games Criticism When You’re Not an Actual Critic

Been reading a lot of Leigh Alexander lately, and she pointed me to this piece on games, games reviews, and the industry as a whole. It’s an overview with am anonymous game developer and it gives a dev’s eye view of the game-journalist industry, criticism in general, and many truths about the state of the industry. It’s worth a full reading despite its length so you should go do that now.

One of the things it forced me, to do is think very hard about my own efforts at criticism and the industry. Fortunately, much of the industry issues that they talk about in this article don’t apply to me. I’m not a paid games journalist and I doubt I ever will be. (I’m pretty sure I make more pretending to be a grown up anyway). But the central point that the dev makes is worth repeating. Game making is hard. Really freaking hard. And it takes a lot of people and a lot of money.

Decisions get compartmentalized, risk gets spread out, and very often the people who rate or review these things have no idea. When I think back to my own review just last week of Divinity: Original Sin, I couldn’t resist throwing in a jab at the very end about their seemingly poor business decisions.

Now how much actual experience do I have running a video game development studio?

Knowing the answer to that, it would seem really crummy to sit here and bag on them in the face of a single comment that in no way probably explained the full nature of the business.  And by letting my biases intrude on that comment I was able to create an attitude and a narrative that had no basis in fact.  Could it be true?  Sure, but it could also be just as likely that Larian Studios is doing as good as or better than most other game studios.  Making games after all, is hard.

As to the rest of my review, I feel that it stands on it’s own merits.  I spoke specifically about design and design decisions and why I didn’t like them.  They are my opinions and I’m entitled to them.  I tried to write from a standpoint of function and hopefully explain why the decisions that were made were bad, but again it’s hard to say, given that knowing how those decisions were made is context that is simply unavailable to me.  Ultimately it comes down to the overall feeling/impression the game gave me.  While what they did didn’t work for me, it might have for others.

But I still owe them an apology for my snarky little attitude at the end.  It’s easy to feel like I’m owed my snark, given the money I spent, but that anonymous developer’s final statement haunts me a bit:

“No one happy goes out of their way to shit on other people’s work.”

It’s true, and while I still believe my motives were pure enough, taking jabs at people who can’t defend themselves on my site is no way to further the dialogue.  And while I do find that some of the dev’s comments falls under the typical discussion of critics versus artists (and thus a tad bit sensitive though god knows, the internet gives them reason to be), there are a ton of truisms in this article that are worth repeating.

  • How games can be not different enough or too different and fail either way.
  • Or that we’re afraid that we’re spending so much time on ultimately disposable entertainment.
  • Or that most game journalists are paid to find flaws.  A lot more clicks on a negative review than on a positive one.
  • Or that PR people are probably insane, but don’t have a good way to measure their success so they’re doing the best they can.
  • Or how we seem to crave innovation and new ideas and then never support those new ideas with our money.

Any of those could be full articles in their own right and perhaps when time permits we’ll talk more about them.  In the interim, I’m going to try my best in all future articles I write where I’m critical of games, to be cognizant of the myriad number of decisions that went into their creation.  I want to try to be informative in my criticism and not just taking shots.  And maybe someday I’ll even take a crack at making my own games and give the opportunity to turn the tables too.  Fair is fair after all.

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