25 Mar 2012

Likes, Dislikes and Opinions

Videogaming is experiencing something of a golden age at the moment. We have largely mainstream acceptance for our hobby, while the creative medium outstrips any other in most metrics. We’re also very fortunate to have open communication with those that create our games, from social mediums such as Twitter through to forums and even large-scale events.

The problem is, we’re crap at providing feedback. Sure, we’ve mastered the art of shouting “This is crap” or “This is good” as loud as possible by as many people as possible. But let’s be honest, humans mastered the art of shouting loudly thousands of years ago. We’ve kind of moved beyond the idea of yelling “Fire!” or “Look, Mammoth!”. We’re dealing with PCs and consoles now, not rocks and spears. Last I heard, your iRock didn’t hook you up with Reddit.

So what gives? In this age of free and frank exchange of ideas, how can we improve the chances of getting the kind of games we want to play? And just as importantly, how can we ensure that when developers and publishers get it wrong that we don’t bludgeon them into silence with noisesome complaints? We want to be heard, but we also want them to take risks and come up with fresh ideas, right?

Right?

Before I started blogging about videogames in general and MMOs in particular, I used to document them on Wikipedia. While it’s great training to help develop research skills, it’s ultimately a soul-destroying experience for two main reasons. Firstly, the publications that covered the early days of videogaming are largely lost to history, meaning articles on many gaming legends have been purged due to a lack of “reliable sources”.

By far the bigger reason though was that it runs counter to the notion of creative writing as a platform for sharing both information and opinion. I was reading all these great articles where authors celebrate the great and good by extolling a game’s virtues. They don’t just stipulate that something’s good or bad, explain their opinions and weigh up pros and cons. And they could do it in such an entertaining way that it was a joy to read.

It’s probably no surprise to you that after a while I grew tired of Wikipedia and its critique by committee and abandoned the project for pastures new. I still had an itch to write, which is how this blog came about. The difference is that now I get more freedom to decide what I write about and, more importantly, how I do it.

But it isn’t as broad as liking or disliking something in general terms. As an example, I like all ice-cream, but I prefer Ben and Jerry’s to Haagen Dazs because of the creamier taste and more interesting textures. Further in, I prefer coffee, banana and toffee flavoured ice-cream because I feel they work better with the cream base, and besides I prefer fruit to be in a frozen yogurt or sorbet. But put a bowl of ice-cream in front of me and I’ll still eat it happily.

It’s this bit about the granularity of likes and dislikes that I wish people would get more, particularly when offering their opinion on videogames and MMOs. I completely get that there are games which have elements we don’t like, or that are made by publishers who’ve done some questionable things. But the important thing is to make sure that our feedback is specific, proportional and targeted. Otherwise there’s a big risk of us being seen of as perpetual whiners, fanboys or worse. Our thoughts and opinions are pretty meaningless if we just operate as a toggle between pure love and outright hatred.

There’s also an important reason behind providing more specific feedback – it helps developers make better games. Sure they might be unable to fix your particular issue for your particular game, but it means that next time around they’ll be able to iterate on it and improve it. You can see this easily through the patch notes for World of Warcraft. If we’d come out raging against the game, bombing review sites and whipping up frenzied campaigns, would the game have lasted through seven years and three expansions?

In the face of a wall of criticism, developers are likely to do something we’ve accused Hollywood for years – play it safe. That means no more risky storylines or plot themes. No more exploratory game styles or new concepts, at least not by the mainstream studios. Instead it’ll be wall-to-wall Michael Bay: grand explosions, impressive budgets and finely polished product, but ultimately nothing new. We want developers to feel they can take risks, safe in the knowledge that fans will be reasonable but fair in their response. Currently we’re not there, favouring the loud and uncompromising approach promoted by many of the online communities in existence today.

And that’s really the nub of it. We live in a world that’s more connected than ever, where the only thing faster than the speed of light is the speed of bad news. It takes mere moments to write a forum post, start a campaign and amass a legion of followers with a common grievance. Sometimes that’s a great thing, but when it becomes our default response it loses its meaning, instead being seen as a knee-jerk reaction rather than a considered response. It’s the same with review-bombing – if we grossly penalise games for proportionally minor yet significant issues, we’re destroying the value of those outlets as a reflection of opinion. Knowing what goes on with Metacritic user reviews or Amazon product reviews, would you pay them any more than a cursory glance?

It’s why, in the absence of a reliable and reasonable way of aggregating public opinion, we still need people to write about videogames and share their views. And let’s be honest – reviews aren’t there to help validate your own opinions or justify which games you buy. They’re there to help you make an informed choice if you’re unsure what to buy. If someone rates a game differently to you then that’s fine – it probably means that they have different opinions of the game. But that’s the thing about opinions – there’s no right answer. Scores are all subjective, and wailing against someone for giving a game a different is like wailing against a friend for liking a different band or film.

That doesn’t mean that as individual consumers our opinions aren’t valid – far from it! But we need to get better at articulating and expressing our opinions as sharp tools operated with precision, rather than crudely wielded blunt objects. A carefully written blogpost, an expressive YouTube video; there are several tools that allow us to put our stake in the ground and say “This is my opinion and why I have it”. Several videogame critics have started their career in that exact fashion, through developing a voice for their opinion.

As a culture, we have one of the most effective ways of providing feedback to those who provide us with our entertainment. Developers and publishers are keen to talk with us, discuss our concerns and use that to make better games. Community managers are there to help us share our opinions with those developers and publishers. But the system is only as valuable as the information we as players and consumers put into it, and collectively we’re doing a pretty poor job.

So the next time you’re asked to jump on a campaign or help promote a cause, ask yourself some questions. Does the response we’re giving fit with the size of the problem? Can I help with making the message clearer or more specific? Does this encourage developers to make the kind of games I want to see? And most importantly: does this help move gaming culture forward?

The future of gaming and games development is in our hands. Our opinion governs what games get made and how they’re created. Let’s make it count for something.

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7 Responses to Likes, Dislikes and Opinions

  1. jay says:

    This is a very eerie post for me. It’s quite disturbing just how in sync, our thought processes on issues like these are. Just an hour ago on m alter-ego, i was stating exactly the same thing.

    ‘Feedback is the coin of the realm. Don’t abuse it. Don’t hoard it. Spread it around. Treat it with the love of a warrior, who depends on his blades on for his life. Use it with the precision of a modern day surgeon, wielding a scalpel and saving someone’s life. ‘

    Eloquently put Gaz. A really good read.

  2. Syl says:

    The thing with very balanced, multi-angle posts is that they tend to get incredibly long. it’s a practical issue sometimes. I like writing in-depth analysis and looking at features from many directions, but it can be difficult to wrap something like that up and keep your readers interested. that said, I think I’ve done an okay job in the past when I was criticizing things in earnest (I create loud hype or gripe posts for my own enjoyment sometime and I trust they can be told apart from others. there’s a time for all things).
    Syl recently posted..On (Im-)perfectionMy Profile

  3. Milady says:

    “In the face of a wall of criticism, developers are likely to do something we’ve accused Hollywood for years – play it safe.” I suspect that they are doing this already. Most stories in AAA games are quite predictable, which is proof of them being unoriginal, stories already told. Blizzard has been systematically delivering safe stories, and still has received much more praise than criticism (and any criticism has rarely been directed at the stories in their games); modern FPS games rarely innovate, and tell the same story with different faces, and still they are very successful. Latest Bioware’s games are not particularly original: almighty hero faces unfathomable evil (Dragon Age), and now in space (Mass Effect); robots (synthetics) as enemies of organics; the one weapon that is key to solve it all, etc.

    Well, Hollywood is successful after all. Those who go to the cinema to watch these movies also play videogames, and they will not be disappointed when the game developer chooses a safe story, because it is what they have been fed all the time.

    As with movies, we will have to turn to alternate markets, like the independent’s, in order to try games that might not cater to larger audiences. Videogames used to be that alternate market, and wonderfully original games were made by “leading” companies (Planescape: Torment is the best example). Now that mass audiences consume videogames too, these leading companies will acknowledge the need for mass-appealing narratives. Playing it safer has less to do with the harsh criticism than with AAA companies reaching for bigger, less exclusive audiences.

    PD: Loved the plugin you have for tracking commenter’s RSS feed, I’ve added it to my blog too.
    Milady recently posted..[ME3] The Intentional FallacyMy Profile

  4. Liore says:

    Good post, although I disagree with you on most of it. :)

    1) More than cogent reviews, or even ranting reviews, the biggest impact players have on the gaming industry is how they spend their money. You want to speak clearly to big publishers in particular on what works or doesn’t work for you? Money talks. Everything else is just publicity.

    2) Telling consumers that they should try and phrase their concerns in a more professional manner — even though they are not professionals — will not encourage more feedback of better value, but in fact will just prevent people from commenting at all. Sure, if you want to be a professional game reviewer then a catchy YouTube video that considers the state of the industry at large will help, but what if you’re just Joe Average who hated Halo and wants to warn others before they buy it? Asking Joe to first consider “does this help move gaming culture forward?” is basically telling him to sit quietly unless he can write with the big boys.

    I mean sure, you and I might do that because we’re writing blogs that purport (in my case) to look at MMOs and speak with some authority or at least insight, but that is why we have blogs. I think you’re asking too much out of the average Metacritic voter.
    Liore recently posted..GW2 Beta in Someone Else’s WordsMy Profile

  5. Attic Lion says:

    I have to agree with Liore, asking average people to provide more intelligent, thought out feedback isn’t a very meaningful request. If only because giving accurate feedback is a skill that has to be taught, learned, and practiced just like any other. Your baseline consumer is unlikely to have the knowledge necessary to constructively analyze gameplay or story flaws, and even if they can intuit those issues they are also unlikely to have the vocabulary to succinctly explain their thoughts to a developer without any form of dialogue to clarify their points.

    To paraphrase let me just quote Scott Jennings here, “The players are often WRONG. What’s more, they will lie to you. DIRECTLY. TO YOUR FACE. […] Of course the players are also often right. There’s a whole discipline of development which revolves around figuring out which is which.”

    Now the bile and venom could certainly be toned down, but I don’t really believe there is much you can do about it. People who really cared spewed the same things about games, movies, books, and tv shows well before the internet became commonplace. All the net has done is made sharing criticism with producers and consumers much easier to do than writing a bunch of letters and mailing them. As such the volume of criticism has increased proportionately.

    No doubt there are other factors at play too, but they delve more into social issues and I don’t feel this is really the place to voice them.

    • Gazimoff says:

      I find this pretty interesting, although I disagree with both you and Liore. I think people *can* put better form and structure to their likes and dislikes with no training whatsoever. I’ve seen it happen all the time, from the days when I worked in retail through to the times I’ve debated games and movies with friends in the pub. Sure they might not be as eloquent as you or I, but they still know how to articulate themselves.

      I also think that just dismissing people as unable to develop or improve is’t really giving them the opportunity to develop. Just as computer and technology literacy has improved in the past, so can online culture. It’ll take a strong movement by online communities to foster this change, but there are signs that this is already happening in some.

      • Attic Lion says:

        Three things:

        1) I didn’t mean to say that people need formal training in order to give worthwhile feedback, but they do have to learn it somehow. How they learn it is immaterial, they can learn it by mimicking other people, be self taught, or even other ways I’m sure I haven’t thought of.

        2) I’m not “dismissing people as unable to develop or improve” but I am questioning their desire to learn how to. Only people who need these skills for their jobs or are driven enough to learn it on their own time want to possess them. Which is only natural.

        3) But even beyond that, I don’t even recognize this as an actual problem. So long as you have a good core of people who can provide well thought out feedback (and the ability to find those people among the flood) it doesn’t really matter if the range of the average schmucks opinions is “MAN THAT WAS COOL” to “HOLY BALLS THAT SUCKED.” Even those simplistic, and/or crass, opinions have some value, it’s just that they’re more noise than signal. Separating the two is the job of Community Managers, not forum posters.