More on the Escapist, PA, and Cameron Lewis

My comments on the Escapist article regarding responsibility in game review have gotten a little attention. But in the ensuing discussion, an assumption has been made, and it’s a really dangerous one.

GameSetWatch commenter jeffk says:

The thing is, Dan entirely sidesteps the point. Mike’s main criticism is that, having played the game, he was pretty sure that the review hadn’t even bothered playing past the tutorial phase before writing his review.

I didn’t address this for two reasons: 1) Whether or not Cam played the game isn’t what I wanted to discuss, and 2) Mike’s allegation is wrong, albeit honest. Mike doesn’t think Cam played it all the way through, based on his interpretation of the game and how it contrasts with Cam’s. Suggesting that someone isn’t doing their job a very serious allegation, and yet without anything else to go on than a suggestion of wrong-doing, many people were quick to agree.

The truth is, Cameron finished the game when he reviewed it. Even though I didn’t think the allegation was fair, the first thing I did when contacted Cam about it was give it credence. “Well, you did finish it, right?” “Yes, 1000 points.” He didn’t enjoy it, mind you, but he wasn’t hired to enjoy it. He finished it because he was being thorough and professional. Had Mike’s allegation been true, you certainly wouldn’t be seeing me voluntarily bringing it back up in my personal blog; you’d be reading some sort of embarassing apology from GamesRadar for hiring a lazy gadabout. Instead, Cameron has been writing about games professionally since 1994 and has proven himself to be responsible. Someone disagreeing with his opinion does not invalidate that, but defending a person’s credibility often makes you look…defensive. So nothing was said.

Still, since it’s become a sticking point, I was hoping to provide some proof. Camfinished the review on a debug 360 almost a year ago. Unfortunately, the debug profile he used to play the game has since been destroyed by debug firmware upgrades etc. and there is no record that he finished the game. (“Convenient,” say the cynics. But it’s happened to me too — I’m on my third debug profile, due to reinstalls, firmware upgrades, and general debug hardware flakiness. Perhaps you’ve heard, sometimes those 360’s don’t work so well.) I’d hoped that a screen of his debug profile showing his 1000 Gamerscore for Enchanted Arms would make the allegation go away and we could move on. But I can’t offer that proof after all.

Jeffk brings up another good point:

Actually, did anybody ever go back and check the achievement dates on Lewis’s Gamertag? That would clear up the problem pretty quickly.

Unfortunately, the debug snafu kills this…but I looked at Cam’s tag anyway. Cameron usually has his Gamertag profile locked, but he’s on my friends list so I was able to look it up online and take a screen. Sure enough, long before this current conversation came up, he’d finished the game a second time on his retail, purely out of personal responsibility. (He didn’t do a follow-up or post publicly about this, to my knowledge — GamesRadar did not ask him to re-evaluate the game in the light one of loud disagreement.) I knew that he was pretty ripped up about the suggestion that he didn’t do his job, so apparently he wanted to see if he’d really just made a major error in judgment. Mike’s criticism was taken seriously, even if it was based purely on personal interpretation and a guess. The public nature of the situation made Cam take a long, hard look at how he does what he does.

I’d argue that replaying the game and rechecking his instincts was healthy but unnecessary, because Cameron never did anything wrong in the first place. Cameron simply isn’t one of those people who phones it in or does half the work for all the credit (or in this case blame).

Of course, that’s after the fact, so it’s no smoking gun. Instead, we’re left with Mike’s word that he didn’t play it against Cam’s word that he did play it. But as the editor, I gotta point out that that’s the same “proof” any media outlet has ever had. “Are your sources good? Can we say this in good conscience? Did you do the work?” It’s the leap of faith and trust in responsible reporting that comes with the territory. And it’s the opposite of the situation the Escapist article brings up, where editors allegedly overrule their writer’s opinions for their own personal interests. Suffice it to say, in this case…that didn’t happen.

I understand that some of Mike’s criticism is that Cameron simply didn’t bring up a lot of good things about the game that Mike liked, or that Mike felt the game had more to offer than Cam gave it credit for. That is a very different point, and certainly a valid one — again, as Warren Spector said in the Escapist article, knowing some of the editorial voice and being a regular reader does give you more insight into personal quirks and values and who to trust, and Mike says he doesn’t regularly read any of them. But I think Mike’s reaction post is actually longer thanCam’s initial review; Mike is blogging and therefore not working under the strict word-count templates that Radar uses. Cam’s trying to get the most important elements in to support the score while working in limited amount of space. Clearly, I didn’t think his review was irresponsible; I think I tweaked the wording a little bit, but I felt I understood, from reading it, what the game’s flaws were and why he gave it that score. But is it bad because it’s misinformed, because he didn’t finish the game? No. Again, I respect Mike’s opinion, but the assumption he made was wrong this time.

Despite seeing or hearing the same thing, two reviewers can have totally different impressions of a film or a book or a CD. It’s not unrealistic to think that two game reviewers might latch onto completely different aspects of the same game during their experiences, and walk away with two very different opinions.

The average score for this title is around a 7. (I see 1UP, EGM, OXM US, and Game Informer clocked in at 6.5; Edge gave it a 6.)Many reviewers found notable flaws in the game, butCam’s 5 is definitely on the low end of the scale. I don’t know what Mike from PA would have given the game if he’d reviewed it (I mean, he’s not a reviewer, so I don’t really expect that, any more than people expect me to start drawing), but it sounds like it would be higher than most other people who played it. Cam’s is lower than most other people who played it. Who is “right”?

Whoever you agree with, clearly!

Harry Potter and the Total Absence of Spoilers

I hate spoilers so there will be none of that. However, with it being an particularly busy week and a half at the magazine, I’ve only just now stayed up until nearly 5am reading Deathly Hallows and it’s been on my mind a lot. I know many of you have busy lives too and may still be savoring your way through the final book, so none of my reactions, I absolutely assure you, give anything away or should color your interpretation in any way.

  • I liked it. It is a different book than the other six, but it sort of had to be. It’s the end, yes?
  • As Rowling promised, yes, there are deaths, and yes, you will cry. Well, I did.
  • Joseph Campbell would be proud.
  • There was literally one line of dialogue I didn’t agree with. An established personality says something that struck me as very out of character. It was a curious choice of words and my only regret reading the book, the only time I got pulled out.
  • Unlike George Lucas, J.K. Rowling respects her own material and the audience that became obsessed with it. I’m sure some story elements gained importance to her over time, and ideas worked their ways in, like “Hey, this thing I’ve already said could support this new thing” — but it’s clear that, at some point early on, she sat down and said “Right, this is how things will play out.” (She actually said in an interview that it was 1990.) As such it was a very satisfying read, even if I did have to ask Kat “Who is this?” or “When did such and such happen?” because I am dim. The continuity itself is a huge achievement.
  • It almost makes me want to have kids so I can force them to learn to read.
  • I said “almost.”

Let’s meet our next contestant

Oh god, how I love game shows. I was raised on them; every day during the summer, I watched four or five a day, and every night, it was Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune, even if the latter is so amazingly easy that it wasn’t much fun. Once I actually guessed the puzzle without seeing any tiled turned over, and my mom was completely floored. I’m like, “Mom…it’s Wheel of Fortune.”

One of my few unfulfilled life goals is to be on a game show. I’ve auditioned — I went down to LA and passed the test for Rock & Roll Jeopardy! , but didn’t get picked for the show. Jude built me some buzzers with a lockout circuit and everything, for trivia fun at home — but I’ve never been on one for real. Last year I wrote a story for OXM saying we needed to bring You Don’t Know Jack to Xbox Live Arcade, let users play against each other in online trivia showdowns, but — can you imagine? — my wish list was not instantly put into production.

But we’re getting closer. Scene It? was announced at E3, and that’s a good start. Now, Sony has finally gotten of its ass to bring Buzz! from the European market to the US. Crucially, both games feature custom, big-button controllers (four infared controllers for Scene It, a lovely eight wured USB ringers for Buzz). Buzz is about two years old, and since it’s music-trivia based, maybe there were legal things to clear…but I really, truly believe that this is the next avenue for the recently-discovered casual market. Game shows are back on TV (and have been for several years) and the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire PC games spawned like rabbits. Why console gaming has been so slow to adopt the genre, I can’t say. I’m just glad to see it’s happening.

I haven’t played much PS2 of late, but I’ll definitely fire it up for Buzz. And while Scene It is offline, Microsoft did say at E3 that they have plans for the controllers in other games. My Live trivia showdown dreams could become reality.

How dumb are gamers?

Every so often, someone sends me a link to this image:

It’s an old scan from an old GamePro, before my time there. The house rule at GamePro has always been to caption each screenshot with a ProTip — actionable strategy advice, so the player gets a little something extra whenever they read the review. I always thought that was a good idea and enjoyed writing them, even though sometimes you had to balance “useful advice” with “dynamic/interesting/important screenshot.” In this case, Major Mike wanted to show a screen of the end boss, and realized there was no strategy, so he did this caption as a joke. He showed it to me, proudly, because he was happy that he had gotten something so obviously silly into the magazine.

Apparently, gamers have gotten dumber, because nobody seems to realize it was a joke. Now people send it around to each other, hold it up as evidence of how stupid GamePro is.

No, look at how stupid the audience is. Seriously. If the game magazine-reading audience really takes everything at exact face value, where there can be no winking aside, no subtext, no jokes…that leaves us all in a very sorry state.

Then and now, gaming is simply not that serious, guys. Here’s hoping you will be able to download a sense of humor from Marketplace soon.

San Diego Comicon

I’ll be there Thursday, on business. I’ve always wanted to go but I have to say, I’m not actually happy about it now that I finally have the chance. I won’t be going in costume, I won’t be there long, and I almost didn’t want to look at all the events going on that I will need to miss. I’d like to go back some day for real on my own terms, but I haven’t even set foot in there and I’m already disappointed. Bummer.

However, if any of you folks out there will be in attendance on Thursday, let’s see if we can meet for a brief nerdgasm.

Critique of game critique #287,892

More wringing of hands, navel-gazing, good ideas, and interesting (if sometimes uninformed) opinions at The Escapist this week, as the staff takes a critical look at “games journalism” (a term I still don’t like to use out of respect to real journalists). You will find the usual tale of corruption that seems to inevitably crop up; I understand (and have used) the fact that sometimes you can only obtain the truth through anonymous sources, but again, when you don’t name names, these things make my skin crawl and I always feel like someone’s giving me the stink-eye. I guess I take it too personally, but I can read these articles and go “Well, yeah, I agree that that’s horrible, but that’s not what I do,” but nobody else knows that but me. But hey, if nothing else, I bristle when I see evidence of those things happening in my industry, and I can only try to avoid those mistakes and present a decent, albeit invisible, example.

But I’m going to drill down a little bit, because an old wound has been opened by Russ Pitts’ article. In the same way that I am infuriated when I read a game review that starts with “I don’t like Game Boy games so…” or “I hate real-time strategy games, and…” I cannot give much credence to a Penny Arcade “review of a review” (written by someone who has never written a game review) that begins with “I don’t read game reviews,” as this one does. Full disclosure: I assigned that review when I was working on Radar; the reviewer Cameron and I are longtime friends and I’ve hired him a lot as a freelancer. I don’t always agree with his reviews, but I do trust them.

The game in question is Enchanted Arms, one of the first RPGs to come out for Xbox 360. Cam didn’t like it and his score was lower than the average. Mike from PA did like it and expressed his disagreement pretty savagely. Mike summarizes:

He didn’t like it for all the reasons I like it … had I seen that write up before I purchased Enchanted Arms I might have believed some of his bullshit and skipped over what I think is an extremely good game.

It’s clearly a matter of personal taste and preference. It’s just a disagreement, but instead of saying “Wow, I got much more out of the game than that person did,” Mike goes for the jugular (which he can do — it’s his opinion, it’s his blog, and he’s not speaking for anyone but himself). But the character assassination always seemed needlessly cruel for someone who claimed to not even read reviews on a regular basis. “Oh hai, I’m in yoru reviewz, cleanin’ mah clawz, kthxbai.” It’s a slap at the medium, when all he really wanted to do was slap the review itself.

Note: In reporting on this particular item, Russ Pitts really should have contacted either GamesRadar or Cameron to discuss their reaction or find out what impact, if any, Mike’s criticism had. Did that criticism change processes at Radar? Did Cameron take it to heart, shrug it off? The article is very concerned about what developers feel when a three-year project gets a bad review, but this one’s left very one-sided. Telling both sides of the story…hey, that’s journalism. Missed opportunity, I think.

But here’s the bigger problem: I fear that Mike, like many people who read and vehemently disagree with reviews, doesn’t fundamentally understand them. “Had I seen that write up before I purchased Enchanted Arms I might have believed some of his bullshit and skipped over what I think is an extremely good game” suggests that a) Mike trusts reviews (remember, he doesn’t read them) and b) he might think they’re marching orders. In case that hasn’t been articulated, here goes: they are not. In the Escapist article, Warren Spector shows that he gets it:

A review serves one purpose and one purpose only,” says Warren Spector, the legendary designer of System Shock, Thief and Deus Ex, “to give readers data they need to make a buy/no buy decision. End of story. To do that, the reviewer has to have a consistent editorial stance. It doesn’t matter if you agree with a reviewer on a particular game or movie or book or record as long as they’re consistent enough that you can determine from reading the review whether you would like the game, movie, book or record yourself. Reviewers and readers have to develop an ongoing relationship of sorts.

By his own admission, Mike hasn’t built up that relationship with any reviewer or outlet, let alone GamesRadar or Cameron as an individual writer…and he’s not reading the review for consumer purchasing “buy/no buy” advice. He’s reading the review for personal validation. He already bought the game; the review he read after buying it isn’t something he agrees with, so it’s wrong. If there’s one problem out there I don’t feel I can fix, it’s the audience misinterpreting the nature of the medium. Reviews are not telling you what to think; they’re giving you what you need to think for yourself. It’s why city buses don’t run the Indy 500, folks: They were built for an extremely different purpose.

The funny thing? Mike does understand this concept. “If you bite into an apple and expect it to taste like an orange you’re going to be disappointed,” he says in his review-of-a-review. But he doesn’t seem able (at least in the moment that he wrote the passionate blog entry, which is now being held up as important canon by The Escapist) to apply that lesson to his own consumpion of review content. I find it intensely frustrating.

I do recommend reading this issue of The Escapist. It’s coming from the right place, the dangers are real, and hey, it got me talking. I didn’t agree with everything I read in this issue, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

EDIT TO ADD: Wow, I wrote this before seeing today’s Penny Arcade comic. Who knew?

It’s the end of E3 as we know it and I feel fine

The show was very good this year. Quieter, calmer, a hell of a lot less crowded (last year I had to take a weekend job at GameStop just to get in), and so much quality software on display! Happy to be back, but definitely came back inspired and hopeful that this will be a banner year for interactive entertainment.

However…does this really count as news? Ryan’s main hobbies are cool cars and baseball, and he was fortunate enough to get one of his dream cars right away, a DeLorean. He drove down to LA for the show and had his car serviced by a DMC specialist there (why not? He’s gonna be down there for three days) and they gave him a loaner while they worked on his. So it was really fun see the reactions of the valets, because let’s face it, it’s a cool and iconic car, and as Ryan points out, people smile when they see it, whereas when you see someone in a Ferrari or something, a lot of times it’s a sneer. But does it really warrant its own news report? C’mon. Point the cameras at the actual celebrities, please.

And for the record, no, Ryan takes all the BTTF jokes in stride. He knows what he bought. Duh.