Thursday, 31 May 2012

Old Games Journalism & Diablo's Grind Problem

Thinking about some of the backlash around Diablo 3 recently - without having the somewhat masochistic urge to play it myself - some thoughts started to slot together around objectivity in video games criticism, and the ways in which we judge and award certain mechanics.

It seems to me as if, awesome a pursuit though it is, New Games Journalism has not achieved widespread adoption (not that Kieron was necessarily seeking as much). If the emphasis in games criticism were on subjective response then the Gamespots and IGNs of this world would be giving games like Diablo a far broader spectrum of scores that reflect opinions like Walker's, rather than the full house of scores in the 80s and 90s it's currently sporting. No, games criticism tends to make some claim to objectivity.

As long as we're treading this path, objectivity needs some rules, and top amongst them must be that a critic's job is to report the actual quality of the actual game. When he awards a game 90% it's because the game was good. Obvious enough.

In order to do that, reviewers tend to avoid referencing (explicitly or otherwise) anything that isn't common to their audience (or a decent chunk of it). Tractor Sim can't be a great game because I grew up on a farm and found it enticingly authentic. Unless, that is, I run Sim Tractor Fan and can safely assume my audience shares those interests.

Critics also tend not just to report their subjective response; they identify it, analyse it, and report the facts about the game which causally underpin it, so that they can explain to an audience with similar tastes what it is about the game that they will or won't appreciate.

When we consider what it is about a game that contributes to its quality the interesting thing that crops up is that it can't be anything that isn't relatively unique to this game. When the first talkies were made their dialogues were rightly praised for all the obvious reasons. Years later, when almost all films feature speech, it would be ludicrous to praise a film for doing so. This is not, of course, to say that the dialogue contributes nothing to the film.

I'm going to argue that there are techniques in games that are analogous, and there are techniques that are still on the cusp of familiarity. We would no longer praise a game for simply featuring physics; but we're still at a stage where a game's physics may be such a step up that it makes sense to laud them critically. Presumably there will come a time when no more advances can be made in that area.

The techniques I have in mind, though, are exemplified by Diablo 3, but also by a growing number of other titles, not to mention the vast majority of successful Kongregate games. Levelling up, RPG elements, character progression... whatever you want to call the steady grind of selecting and unlocking new toys that's a part of everything from Saints Row to Infinity Blade to Farmville - I'm arguing their critical heyday ought be over.

These systems are powerful models of psychological manipulation. This in itself is no problem - manipulation is what we do in games. But these mechanics are so effective - and hence so widely used - that just like using physics in your game, their critical impact ought to be zero. If this game can be rendered engaging in just this way, what can we really say about Diablo 3 other than that it's the same sort of thing with prettier graphics? What is there in Diablo beyond the grind? Why should this sort of entertainment be identified as anything that's even vaguely unique to a particular game?

Diablo was a great game. It did something other games hadn't done - at least not so well. Diablo 3 doesn't exist in the same environment. The major publications may be tied to an objective way of doing things that promises to tell people how fun they'll find the game rather than how much the reviewer liked it, but that need not mean they must award five stars to any game that entertains regardless of how it does so.


  1. Honestly? I want to know if I'm going to enjoy a game. 'Criticism' is for bloggers and academics. I want games reviewers to write games reviews that can tell me whether I should spend thirty quid and twenty hours. As an evolutionary step, NGJ wasn't a total waste of time, but games journalism as creative writing is more fun for the writer than useful for the audience.

  2. My biggest thing with Diablo is that in all right, it should have come to market 6 years ago as it. And likely that was entirely possible if it was just about the game. But diablo and Blizzard represent something different entirely and that is a companay and a product where there is honest recognition of recouping a fair profit for a game. Diablo is more a war against people who don't pay for games. Blizzard is committed to running their game development as a business and being successful at it. Its something that we need because people who free load games are ruining the industry.

  3. Absolutely in agreement, Tom. To limit one's criticism to the fun factor is to ignore the more and more behavioristic handling of player faculties by contemporary games. You wouldn't see movie reviewers limit themselves to an edge-of-seat:movie-length ratio.

    As you say, most of the current techniques to entice players are very old hat, and the few fresh coats can't excuse the price tags and DRM absurdities.