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Opinion: Are Critics Gamers? I Think Not

In this impassioned opinion piece, industry veteran Keith Boesky -- a long-standing game agent and attorney as well as former Eidos president -- considers the role of game critics, comparing them to critics in other fields and suggesting methods of improv

Keith Boesky, Blogger

October 24, 2008

13 Min Read

[In this opinion piece, following up an earlier one about Metacritic, industry veteran Keith Boesky -- a long-standing game agent and attorney as well as former Eidos president -- considers the role of game critics, comparing them to critics in other fields and calling out common complaints.] The tension between creators and critics is as old as narrative itself. I'm confident Plato's critics were latecomers to the process. But as we enter the season for release of highly anticipated, high production value, very expensive games, the critics seem to be in a bad mood - or, the industry is releasing a string of the worst games in history. I don't think it's the latter because the games seem to be selling very well. Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway is getting an equal number of scores in the 50s and 60s as in the 90s. It's the same for Fracture and Mercenaries 2, and then there's The Force Unleashed. The first reaction is to grab the critics by the lapels and scream, "Have you ever tried to make a game?" I guess it's a common refrain across all creative media. Even though that would feel really good, let's take a look at the issue. There seems be a growing divide between what the critics are looking for and what the game business is building. Critics And Pop Ironically, unlike critics in any other industry who scorn pop-oriented content, game critics embrace it. Film critics look down their noses upon the multi-hundred million-dollar-grossing summer tentpoles in favor of the black and white story of the mentally challenged lesbian in a world of men. Literary critics scoff at James Patterson's tens of million-unit sellers in favor of the starving, under-appreciated literary marvel who drafted his manuscript on leaves while living under a bridge in central park. And multimillion unit-selling, chart-topping music is derisively called "pop." "Pop" in all media is easily accessible. It garners huge audiences because it entertains and does not challenge. Sometimes, like Shakespeare, it endures. Other times, like with music of anyone's generation other than your own, it does not. Our critics, unlike the rest, seem to be embracing the quick fix, pick-up-and-play "pop" games and rejecting the game equivalents of the latest Pynchon novel. Changing With The Times In looking at recent scores, I developed a few hypotheses. Some may be rectified; one, sadly not. The first I call "The Passover Theory." According to the Torah (and Cecille B. DeMille's perennial Easter film The Ten Commandments), when G-d led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, he led them through the desert for two generations because the former slaves did not know how to live as free men. The console cycle has moved so quickly, the critics do not know how to migrate between platforms. I believe people are hardwired when it comes to entertainment. Our earliest experiences are imprinted upon us. The leading edge on the gaming age plane grew up in a world where we could not control the CRT. There were a limited number of television channels and we watched what was on when it was fed to us. Cartoons were only on Saturday. Time shifting happened with the VCR, but there was still no real control, no home computers with any sort of video to replace the CRT and games were crude graphics. My soon-to-be thirteen-year-old son only knows a world where the CRT is completely under his control. Where our suspension of disbelief is broken when we move from passive to active, my son moves seamlessly, and even expects a level of interactivity in his linear entertainment -- not multitasking bullshit, but the ability to focus on things he wants. Whether it is pushing the rewind button the DVR to replay an explosion in Mythbusters, or button-mashing in a game, he expects to be in control. His entertainment exists on a continuum of interactivity. Ours is broken into passive television watching and interactive gaming. We can even see the difference when it comes to cutscenes. He watches them and gains from the seamless migration from cutscene to gameplay. We button through them. His ability to move from lean forward to lean back without breaking the suspension of disbelief drives him to look for content tailored to the skill. He wants a game where the story and characters are compelling and make sense. The gameplay should be fun, but it does not have to be a pop hook -- just something fun and logically integrated to advance the story. Asking him to play anything less is like asking us to listen to serials on the radio after we grew up watching television. We, like he with a single-hook game, will be entertained for a short time, but then put it down. We may pick it up again, but the interaction is dramatically different than with an epic. The critics have been playing games for years and years. Many have been through at least two consoles cycles, and some many more than that. They love retro games and wax nostalgic about the greatness of the Amiga. They cut their teeth on the single hook game. They are hardwired to the "pick up and playability" of the great old games. The games had to have a hook, because the technology would not support story, depth, or compelling graphics. None of these can replace great game hooks, but they can work together to meld a number of hooks into a single deeper game. These games meld what used to be multiple genres into a single title. We can tell a story, fight, shoot, and drive, all in the same game. The cost is emotional commitment. There is a time commitment and learning curve as well, but this investment bonds the person within the game. Culture Evolves It is definitely possible to make a game too hard for the audience, and as Raph Koster and Nolan Bushnell tell us, games have been getting harder for years. But you know what? So is every other form of media. Have you looked at CNN lately? There are people talking, screen crawls on the bottom of the screen, graphics on the top, words on the side -- if you broadcast this screen in the sixties, people would have thrown up and gone into epileptic seizures. Like people willing to read a Neil Stephenson book (the ones after The Diamond Age) there is an audience who want to invest and be challenged. Sure, these games are not going to reach into the mass market, and my wife is never going to pick one up, but my wife is not the target audience. These are games for gamers. These games strive to engage and make you care about the characters -- and it works, at least according to this GameDaily review: "Few World War II video games are as gripping and brutal as Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway. Expert storytelling merged with bloody and intense first person shooting keeps you pushing through the narrative and empathizing with its grizzled soldiers, who repeatedly trudge through the Nazi war machine armed with such weapons as the M1 Garand and M9 Bazooka. "Commanding squads adds depth to the action, and the impressive graphics, which include gorgeous fire effects, sprawling environments and an action cam that highlights the gore, further immerses you within the game's war-torn world. "Simply put, this game succeeds because its developer, Gearbox Software, went where no video game company has gone, delivering a horrific slice of WWII usually reserved for movies and documentaries. "A character plunges his combat knife through an enemy's throat, blood splatters against walls, charred bodies sail through the air and victims get torn apart. Meanwhile, Americans and Germans scream in their native tongues, planes crash into buildings and ceilings collapse. You'll score nasty looking headshots, watch rockets rip through buildings and strap explosive charges on tanks." This is what a gamer who never knew a world without a game console is looking for -- someone born post-1985, or most of the hardcore gamers. Metacritic decided the review quoted above equated to a 70 based on the rest of the analysis. The critics are hardwired for the short arcadey experience, and the world is passing them by. This truth is played out in the most recent ratings. If we look at the most recent scores, everything above an 80 on Metacrtic (yes I know I said it sucks, but what else do I have to support my point?) is a "pick up and play." Titles scoring 80-plus include full-priced games FIFA, NHL Live, Pure, Rock Band 2, Viva Pinata, Tiger Woods and Madden. Each is a single hook game, to be enjoyed without emotional connection. The higher echelon of the charts is dominated by XBLA games, including Braid, Bionic Commando, Geometry Wars, Castle Crashers, Duke Nukem and Mega Man. The common underlying factors are fun, superficial gameplay, and no emotional engagement. Fellas, aren't those the very thing you were complaining about in the last gen? I agree, a great game is a great game, is a great game, and Duke Nukem is just as fun to play on the 360 as it was on my Pentium 133, but new games have a lot to offer as well. Is it possible the critics' hard-wiring is precluding them from seeing the quality in the new games? Is it possible it is putting them out of touch with the consumers whose purchasing is closing in on 2 million copies of The Force Unleashed, a title the critics collectively gave a "C." Preconception And Circumstance The other possibility is the critics don't have enough time. Maybe the critics are not hardwired and do have the best of intentions, but don't have enough time to get into a game. Another common element of those high-scoring games is the ability to play for 15 minutes to half an hour, in some cases significantly less, and know exactly what you will be doing for the rest of the game. Other games like Brothers in Arms, Mercenaries, Dark Sector, or just about any RPG start slowly and develop over time. The consumer is expecting a deep experience for his or her $60 and doesn't want it to be over in the first 20 minutes. The critics on the other hand do want to get a handle on the game in 20 minutes so they can make a dent in the pile on their desks. Wait, you say, Oblivion scored a ninety. Yes it did, but how many games were on the market at the time? The more crowded the market become, the lower the scores of the deeper games. This is odd, since the second gen games of the cycle should be getting better. Movie and television critics are not necessarily any more aligned with their audiences than game critics, but at least they can experience the entire product before providing an "expert opinion." Very few critics, if any, play through an entire game, as it is meant to be played, before writing about it. Finally, there may just be unrealistic expectations. After spending so much time in multiplayer Halo, Call of Duty, Guitar Hero, Rock Band and others, the critics forget the shortcomings of computer AI. Let me fill you guys in on a secret: the singularity is not here. Computers are not as smart as people. Especially computers using most of their power to throw lots of polygons on the screen while reloading the next set of polygons and calculating the trajectory of your shot. The critics seem to be so conditioned to real people's reactions, they forget how NPC's really behave, leading to comments like this for Brothers in Arms from IGN: "Unfortunately, your teams are sometimes stupid when it comes to responding to commands maneuvering them to safety, which is one of the core gameplay mechanics. "For example, you'll tell soldiers to run over in cover and dig in behind a low rock wall, intentionally placing the command ring behind the middle of the structure to ensure the safety of your troops. Unfortunately, instead of running under cover and crouching, your soldiers will sometimes run directly in front of enemy positions and leap over the wall, frequently getting turned into Swiss cheese. "Even worse are the moments where you clearly direct them behind a wall and instead of digging in behind the wall, they dig in on the side of the wall, again leaving themselves open to fire. This is a problem that has always existed within previous Brothers In Arms games, but you'd think that it would have been fixed by now." They gave the game a 76, or a C where I went to school. But when they encountered the same issues in Halo 3, before the multiplayer callus formed, this comment from the same publication led to a 95 review score: "The enemy AI is generally solid, but the same can't be said for your teammates. It's been said that the world would be doomed without Master Chief. After seeing the other marines in action, that makes a lot of sense. "The AI drivers are less like marines and more like Mr. Magoo; support troops are just fodder for the Brutes; and the Arbiter makes me question why the Elites were ever feared in the original Halo. "Let's get the Arbiter clear. He's the bad ass 'Chief' of the Elites. He should be able to handle his own. In the campaign, the Arbiter and Master Chief are BFF. If you play alone, the AI takes control of the Arbiter and allows him to tag along. Enjoy watching your supposed equal getting shot in the face repeatedly and generally making himself utterly useless. What is the point of sticking you with an AI compatriot if all he's good at is respawning?" This is not an attempt to say Brothers is Halo 3. I am saying it is more fun to play with other people than with yourself. Read whatever you want into the previous sentence. Other players think better, respond better and collaborate better than the CPU in the console. But Mr. Critic, please don't let it color your review. Cleanse your palate with a little bit of alone time in your favorite game before diving into your test run of these new games. Whatever the reason, these guys are out of touch with the consumer. Hopefully the consumer starts to see it as well. I was looking around for a pithy quote about critics to lead into this post, but instead, I found this from Jean de la Bruyere who lived from 1645 to 1696 and it sums up the thought better than I could: "Criticism is often not a science; it is a craft, requiring more good health than wit, more hard work than talent, more habit than native genius. In the hands of a man who has read widely but lacks judgment, applied to certain subjects it can corrupt both its readers and the writer himself." [Keith Boesky has been active in the content and technology communities as an attorney, a senior executive, an agent and now as principal of Boesky & Company. Boesky & Company closed more intellectual property and game development deals, making more money for its clients, than any other agency in the world. The Company’s clients include The Robert Ludlum Estate, Clive Barker, Spark Unlimited, Liquid Entertainment, Riot Games and GDH. The company also provided guidance regarding the structure of the game industry to Morgan Stanley and Thomas Weisel Partners. Mr. Boesky draws upon his experience as an attorney in intellectual property and public and private finance where he represented Qualcomm, Angel Studios, Presto Studios, Rebellion, The Neverhood and The Upper Deck Company; as president of Eidos Interactive where he expanded the Tomb Raider franchise from games to other media; and as an agent with International Creative Management where he worked with talent and properties like Peter Jackson’s King Kong and Jordan Mechner’'s Prince of Persia, to bring value to the company’s clients.]

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