Let’s talk about review scores, and how I pick games.


This is the script from the following Youtube Video. Feel free to enjoy it in either format. Though note, this is the script, not a transcription, some differences remain.

Hello, I’m Kinglink and I’ve done two discussions already on Realistic vs Arcade Gameplay, and Microtransactions, and I’m happy with them. But I wanted to have a discussion about Review scores and how I pick games to review. I’ve talked about the criteria in a few places, but I’d like to bring it all together in one video.

Before we begin, I’ll be playing some Tekken 7. I’m a fan of it and I just wanted to highlight my favorite character, Lili. Feel free to let me know I suck down in the comments.

One reason I’ve made this channel is I wanted to try to add to video game reviews or critique and look at games themselves, I’ve always been a fan, but I wanted to take the next step. I really had two major problems with reviews. The first is that review sites really feel compromised. Video game reviewers tended to be supported by advertising, but the advertisers on their site were primarily the products they reviewed.

I mean holy crap, that’s a hell of a lot of reason for video game review sites to be impartial. I was going to table it but as I wrote this script… well, hang out. Sufficient to say for me, I’m self-funded, which is the whole point. I don’t run ads, and in the past, I’ve promised to never run ads. I also am VERY clear about any bias I am aware of, anything from review copies to knowing someone who works at a company (at least when I directly knew that). Honestly, I really only get review copies at this time and have only reviewed one game where I had a conflict.

The other problem I’ve had with review sites is review score inflation. Many major sites have an average review score of around 77 percent. In fact, I often hear “70 percent” is average. And while I would argue it, I can’t deny I’ve read enough reviews of games that sound like the reviewer is indifferent on the game, and yet scores it a 3.5, 7, 70, Good, or any other score that’s not in the middle of the stated scale.

For me, this is a problem. It makes the entire review scale make less sense. I’ve only been officially reviewing games with a score for 10 months. Coming up on a year, woo woo.

But there’s a thing I notice. The games above average aren’t the problem for me. When I look at my scores I find that it’s often easy to find games I review that have earned 3, 3.5, 4, 4.5 and of course 5. Well, the last is rare and may get rarer. It’s the other side of the scale that is less used, everything below average, and in fact I find most of these sites also struggle with those scores. It makes me wonder if that’s the case, why not use more of the scale for good games, not less of the scale. I can’t say for sure but I’d like to propose a theory. Note I have never worked at a major media outlet for games, this is just a theory, but I’ve tried to keep in touch with it as a developer and a fan.

I think part of the answer to this is to appease fans and developers. Calling a game average or below average can upset a fan, but if it’s a 7, I’ve seen fans spin it as both ”unplayable trash”, and “they understood the merits of it, but didn’t like it ”.

This goes back to advertising of course when views and advertisers bring in money, you have to be careful to avoid upsetting either, and as such lifting scores a bit will help. Calling someone’s favorite game “average” or “bad” can lose you a viewer, I will admit to giving up on a site because of that once when I was much younger. And PS, that site was probably right about the game. But developers wouldn’t do that right?

Yeah, they will. An undeserved score (and sometimes a deserved score) can irrevocably harm developer/media relationships. Some developers will straight up pull advertising dollars. Or the entire ad from publications. Allocation of those dollars are important and some publishers are smart and realize that they need to use utility theory to get the best value from the money. But Some developers don’t.

I’ll refer to it a few times, but the base of Utility theory is to make your money, and your work brings back the greatest net results. Spending 10 bucks to advertise in a million circulation magazine versus a local paper, you always go with the larger circulation for the most part. That’s the fast version.

Some people will claim this is hearsay or just rumors, and yeah it can be, but remember I try to give more than just rumors here Everyone should have heard about the Gamespot and the Kane and Lynch situation where the editor Jeff Gerstmann was fired because he wouldn’t change his score. That’s called integrity for those who are unaware of what that looks like.

So now I’m sure I’ll hear “That was just one incident.” Which, yes, the Gamespot circumstance is a major incident, but it’s also only known because it was publicized due to Jeff Gerstmann being fired and the story getting out. But think about this, this definitely wasn’t the only case, it was the only one that made waves

Beyond that, let me talk about my experience as a dev. The quick litany, 12 years in the industry, major games mostly, all with big publishers, and I won’t be naming names, because with these stories well I think it’s obvious why.

But I will say I’ve seen review copy (the written article) sometimes weeks before they were released because a lot of the press will send it, usually to get approval for breaking a review embargo. Which means at that point the developer will get a chance to comment on the article, score and more, and I’ve even seen some corrections made this way. In addition due to the speed these reviews need to be made, a lot of review sites will review the game, and the developer can flat out tell them “That bug is fixed” “That doesn’t happen in the final version.” Because they are usually on either a review copy, which is not the final code or the unpatched game.

Now all of that should get anyone to say “WTF”, and I’m with you, it’s not a good thing.

BUT, I don’t think there’s anything extremely wrong about this. This is pure “publish or peril” territory. You need to be the first one to review a game, to get the views, the attention, and more. Day one patches are a thing (And I’m not a hater of them). Even if you have a huge fan base, getting your review out a day early will get you additional attention and if you’re consistently late, your fan base might go to another site to get their news. This becomes a whole thing about review embargos, but maybe another time on that.

Here’s the worst story. A magazine was the first one to cover a game we had worked on, we made a special deal to give them the exclusive for other pieces in the trade, and it was beneficial for both sides. I won’t go into names further details there because… you know.

So when the article came out, it wasn’t exactly favorable. Well, it was worse. The article that they promised to write (featuring our game) really wasn’t. It was a piece on an entirely different topic. A piece that was to feature our game really only talked about our game for a couple of paragraphs, and maybe we only saw our name for a third of the article. Let me be very clear. This was not what was agreed to, and iffy journalism.

But our response… well our studio got angry, and it was understandable, our publisher got angry and it too was understandable. But then the publisher told us they decided to pull advertisements for all their games and there was a decent portfolio here. The magazine probably didn’t feel it in the long run, but it still was retribution.

This is exactly what I’m talking about. Publishers can act petty and put pressure on the media. Was the magazine wrong? Yeah, I would say they misrepresented the article they were writing about us. It wasn’t a preview, it was something else. Was the publisher wrong? Their action could be acceptable at other times, changing who you advertise in isn’t a problem. But they did it for revenge and that’s what makes it wrong. But this happens. (I believe eventually they did advertise in the magazine because utility theory wins out even if they felt the sting of anger, though advertising was pulled for a significant time.)

There’s another part of this that’s important. I’ve gone over a bit but viewership matters, publish or peril, review copies… Yeah, so most of the review sites again rely on views, and getting reviews and more are VERY important in the media industry, but not as important as getting exclusive information or interviews that everyone wants to read which leads to views. Want to talk about Mortal Kombat X? Which is better? Just talking about press releases, or showing off an exclusive trailer, or an interview with Ed Boon? I personally would like the latter if I was looking for information and let’s be honest, who wouldn’t.

So with that in mind even with a well-meaning publisher, if you had the choice between running a story with IGN or Gamespot who would you choose. There’s a lot of good answers, but allow me to posit an important question. “Which will give us more favorable coverage?” And yes, this can be absolutely discussed and offered when talking to the sites. IGN might offer front page placement, and Gamespot might offer a week worth of articles based on your game and so on.

This, of course, benefits both parties, but the other side of this also happens. Joe’s review site has a good relationship with Nick’s big house of games, who he covers and gets review copies. But Joe doesn’t like the newest game and gives it only a 6. Nick might take this in stride, but he also might not give Joe a free copy of the next game, or instead of giving it early, he might get it at release, or a million other small changes can happen in their relationship.

This is utter bullshit, but again, definitely happens. When sending out review copies to reviewers, or even copies to “influencers” which really means, Youtube, Twitch and I guess Mixer now. There’s absolutely a question of “who will give us the best coverage.” It can be the most favorable, more time on the stream, who’s a fan, or more. You’d be stupid not to make those choices, why give the game to someone who is going to possibly bag on it? But this is a major part of the coverage, and again, is another reason why scores get inflated, to keep publishers happy.

Even stuff as simple as press kits are sometimes only provided to “the right people”. I won’t name names again, but three wonderful studios have allowed me into the press center, just to be clear, these are the dullest things I’ve ever seen, you get press releases, images, and videos to use as you want… Fine. All the information in them get released within minutes anyway so there’s not a huge value but it’s a nice single stop resource for when you need to make thumbnails, have you noticed my new ones, so cool? Also through these sites, you can sometimes request games there (not like you’re going to get them unless your big enough but you CAN request).

There’s one Press site, I can’t get into and I have a need. Let me be honest, there are NO reasons not to let someone in these sites from what I’ve seen. They’re mostly public information, or information about to be released to the public and again favorable sites can get info early through other means, but I have written a couple of negative reviews of the publisher’s game. Am I blackballed? Am I too small? Am I just not favored? They claim it’s a size question, but it also makes me realize that if I was blackballed I could get a similar response… or no response. And yes, some reviewers do get blackballed, but everything short of that still kind of stinks.

Some reviewer such as Jim Sterling will actually revel in being blackballed, showing it as pettiness from a company. I’m glad he openly talks about it, but the fact is, for most reviewers who aren’t fully funded by Patreon, this is a MAJOR problem where they have issues reviewing that company’s games. This can happen for a lot of reasons, such as Kotaku leaking Playstation Home details ahead of Sony.

The quick version on this, as I understand Kotaku heard a rumor, they weren’t required to hold back the news so they released information and ruined Sony’s big surprise. And Sony got mad. That’s one way to think about it, but the other, and more important is that Kotaku did journalism, or at least acted like a journalist and reported on information they got. Assuming the version I understand is true, Kotaku did the right thing there.

But yet still Sony thought they didn’t play by some rule, and blackballed them for a while (I don’t remember how much, but I believe it’s been rescinded). How these blackballs play out in the long term definitely depends on a lot of factors, usually in the size of the audience. Utility theory again, but yeah.

In 2015, Kotaku claims to have similar treatment from Bethesda and Ubisoft. I’m just taking them at their word https://kotaku.com/a-price-of-games-journalism-1743526293

And again all of this doesn’t have to be review copies. Who gets interviews, previews, flights to the office, parties, and more are ALL decided this way.

So yes, this is the world of review scores, and this doesn’t even get into the various other reasons review scores might be lifted (Just poor editorial oversight. I’ve heard from one group that won’t give a negative score to Early Access games… wut? And no, I don’t think I’ll be partnered with them.)

So what does this have to do with me. Well, honestly not much. I appreciate every studio that has sent me a review copy and to those who haven’t, well I’ll review the game when I get to it for sure and give it the same fair review.

But I started this video/article originally to talk about how I choose games to review to make it clear. The fact is there are two pieces that raise my eyebrows at my site. The first is that I don’t get a perfect 50 percent on my review scores on Opencritic It says my average score is 70 which is a 3.5/5.

I wondered about that and then realized some stuff. While they don’t have every game I’ve reviewed recorded, I do tend to review games positively. Even just looking at the games I’ve gotten review copies of, I am overly positive. Does that make me a bad reviewer?

I hope you weren’t expecting me to say yes. I believe I’m honest and truthful, the problem is I already have some checks in place that skew my reviews towards the positive.

The biggest thing is that a review for me takes time. Not only do I have to play through a game, but I then have to write a review. Even if it was a 10-minute game, I usually take between two to four hours to fully write a review, and edit it, then at least an hour for writing a different version of it for the video reviews. I have to gather pictures for the review which takes a decent time if I’ve taken a lot (or even more if I forgot to get them while playing). I then have to film footage for my review (usually thirty minutes), Record my voice over (a 15-minute review can take me between 20 minutes to two hours, depending on how bad I do with it, or how much editing I do as I read). That right there is around maybe 8 hours, sometimes I’ve actually clocked it at around 10-12 hours especially when I talk about promotion of my review, and getting people to notice it and more.

That’s not counting video editing, rendering time and potentially doing that again when something goes wrong. That’s a lot of time to devote to ANY game, let alone one I expect to hate. If I was to pick up a game like Anthem and Fallout 76 even if I got it for free, playing 20-30 hours to possibly give it a bad score isn’t exactly a proposition I am looking forward to. I try to find games I will enjoy because I’m spending my time playing and reviewing games. Gaming is the desire. Think of the reviewing of games as a hobby that I do alongside it. I love doing it, but I play games to have fun.

Of course, I probably wouldn’t get Anthem or Fallout 76 for free. The other side of this proposition is I don’t like to just waste money. I believe every game I’ve reviewed on this site was purchased for less than 60 dollars, and all but maybe a couple were bought for less than 20. I try to find games I want to play that are both cheaper and enjoyable Yes that means reviews will come out a little later here, but I also like to find more unique gems if I can. PS. The Hex is coming. Check that one out, it is really cool

I also will review the Humble Monthly Bundle and admittedly that’s because the amount of traffic I get from reviewing those games are massive and that’s important to me. Also, I was going to play them anyway, so why not cover them consistently?

But when I look at a game, even if I’m given a code for a review copy I do a quick evaluation of how long it’ll take to play, do I expect to enjoy it, and what it’ll cost. But beyond that, for requested review copies I only really ask for review copies I’m very excited to play, usually games I am almost sure to love. I knew what Two Point Hospital was before I even wrote Sega. I hoped they would execute on it and produce an excellent game. They did, and I reviewed it fairly. I didn’t go out and ask for copies of Anthem and Fallout 76 because of the opposite reasons. They didn’t interest me.

So yes, my Review copy games ARE higher rated, but that’s because I only ask for them if I expect to really enjoy my time with it. Similarly, I will review games more positively because I only play games and spend the 10 hours on games I find interesting.

One last thing is if I’ve recently interviewed with a company, or know I can’t be unbiased, I don’t cover a game. This probably will come up less because of a few changes, but I think of Overload. Overload is a game I REALLY should cover… but I can’t give a review, because the people who gave me my start in the game industry made the game. By that I mean seven out of the ten employees are people I’ve personal discussions with. One of them, Mike Kulas, was a founders of Volition, the first company I ever worked at, and a guy who was involved with hiring me and making me a video game programmer… Yeah, there’s no way I can give it a fair review.

I thought about it, and I’m considering some coverage because I want to play and enjoy it, but that’s a perfect example of a case where I can’t be unbiased and it blocks me

That’s my criteria. But before we end,I do want to say something about my scores. And this is my dirty little secret.

2.5 is my midpoint. If I overall enjoyed my time with a game, it gets a 3 or above and if I didn’t it’s going to get a 2 or less. But I’ve slowly realized I also say I recommend any game 3 or above, and I started to realize, maybe that’s not necessarily true. I still am marking them as recommended on Steam and Opencritic, but realize 3s… are really borderline likes, and that’s what should be there. If you look back and see a 3, realize I enjoyed it to an extent but… well let’s just say you should probably try a 3.5 or above instead of a 3, but that’s the meaning of the number anyway, right?

I hope this has been interesting. I just wrote this because I felt that I wanted to create something interesting about what my review scores and my game selection process is. My opinions on both the game industry and the media wedged their way in. But overall that’s my opinion. I hope you’ve enjoyed it.

If you want more, consider subscribing to my youtube channel. It would mean a lot. And if you have any ideas on topics you’d like me to cover, please leave a comment down below. I’d love to hear it.

The beauty of these discussions is they take far less time to write and produce, so I can release them with a little less effort, even if they are longer.

Until next time, I’m Kinglink and Thanks for listening.