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Reviews are among the most controversial elements of games media, and it's all thanks to one little number. In a review that will contain thousands upon thousands of characters, it's that one tiny figure -- the score right at the very end -- that can mean the difference between war and peace.
Whether the game is scored "too" high or "too" low, there is no denying that otherwise meaningless little numbers at the end of a review mean a great deal to a lot of people. Some argue that the numbers should be ignored, some that the numbers should be removed altogether from reviews. There is little doubt that they cause a lot of trouble and can even cause severe friction within a gaming community or the industry at large.
So, why do we still keep scores around? Destructoid is one of many outlets that use them, and one of many that have been asked to remove them and save us all a headache. Today I'd like to sidestep recent review controversies and focus on a more timeless argument -- the scores themselves, and the reasons why we still use them.
Review scores are, in the grand scheme of things, unimportant. At the very least, we can say that they are not so important as to merit the level of emotional investment and heated personal debate that they invariably inspire. Numbers are not crucial enough to lend validity to the infamous controversies that have cropped up over the years, whether it be GameSpot giving Twilight Princess an 8.8 or Destructoid giving Assassin's Creed II a 4.5.
Scores are flexible things, not the rigid and unconquerable pillars of truth that some make them out to be. A reader can choose to take both a review's text and its score into consideration. A reader can choose to take just the text into consideration. A reader can choose to take just the score into consideration. A reviewer can choose to take nothing into consideration and simply go with instinct. Ultimately, a score is just one facet of a review, and a review is just one facet of many hundreds of reviews, and those many hundreds of reviews still are just facets of an altogether larger frame of reference that consumers can use when deciding which games to purchase.
So yes, review scores are unimportant.
The obvious answer to this debate, then, is simple -- if review scores are so unimportant, why not get rid of them and save us all the hassle? Herein lies the paradox of the review score. Review scores are about as unimportant as they are important. They are a contradiction, and this contradiction is what has kept the art of game scoring an institution that is difficult to shake off. To explain this, it's best to try and help you understand exactly why we here at Destructoid personally keep the scoring system in place.
For one thing, review scores are held in false reverence by a great many readers. Sure, there are plenty of detractors who question the worth of the scoring system, but there are just as many -- likely far more -- gamers who pay attention to the number and the number only, who will choose to skip reading a review if there is not some form of numeric evaluation plastered at the end of it. These people are intellectually lazy, but they are numerous. I ask you, should we really alienate and repel such a large number of readers, all in the name of making a stand over something that we've just admitted doesn't really matter all that much?
There is another reason why scores are simply good business -- Metacritic. Like it or not, Metacritic is important. Publishers care intensely about Metacritic scores, and the only way to get onto Metacritic is with some form of review score system. Getting onto Metacritic makes a site part of an important metric, and publishers will be more inclined to deal with it. This, of course, helps sites get access to games faster and, in turn, gets them their videogame coverage more efficiently. In the long term, Metacritic benefits you, because it benefits us when we try to bring you news and reviews in a timely and useful manner.
I am fully aware that the "greater good" justification is a potentially dangerous one to make. After all, if we justify getting onto Metacritic because keeping publishers happy allows us to do our jobs better, then why not just falsify positive reviews to stay in their good books, or forge negative reviews just to generate controversy for hits? How far does one go in the name of bettering the site's traffic and keeping Destructoid competitive?
This is a very good question, and I could only suggest that our history lends us credence. Reviews like Brütal Legend hopefully demonstrate that we're not afraid to risk the wrath of an insulted publisher, while reviews like Modern Warfare 2 should illustrate that we don't give popular games low scores solely for the free traffic. So, if we're not prepared to invent our opinions in the name of the greater good, why do we justify using review scores for that very reason?
It's all a case of picking your battles. Being honest about your opinions of a videogame is an important stand to take. Sticking a number at the end of your opinions because the industry -- and thousands among our readership -- expects it is not an important stand to take. At the end of day, using a numerical representation of our opinions does not compromise any morals. It's merely sticking a little score at the end for the people who need it.
It is good business sense to use scores. They are easily recognizable, having been in place long before videogames were even conceived. They are a handy reference tool for people who don't want to read through lengthy reviews, as much as I'd recommended they take that time. They are not important, no, but they're useful for readers and handy for publications.
Ultimately, eschewing review scores would be a case of Destructoid cutting its nose off to spite its face. What would it prove, really? That we're different? Do we really need to reduce our traffic and diminish our place in the industry just to prove that? Should we do it to take some big moral stand? A stand against what? What is so terrible about unimportant numbers that they deserve any kind of "stand" being taken? It's simply not a fight worth having. The use of a score demands so little, while the consequences for not using them could be so comparatively dire, so it's simply a stupid idea to discontinue the current system.
We're all about choice here. As already stated, you can choose to ignore the score or you can choose to focus entirely on it. If you don't like what you see, you have the choice to take your business elsewhere. We want to have the most useful reviews possible, and it seems that many people find a score useful enough to warrant our using it.
Yes, these harmless little numbers seem to upset certain individuals, and on that basis some readers tend to feel that the scores "aren't worth the trouble." Really, though, what trouble are we talking about here? Some over-emotional teenagers get upset, hurl insults at the writer, and generally increase pageviews while arguing and headbutting the keyboard in the hope that something vaguely comprehensible will come out. I don't see how that's a bad thing, personally. Sure, it can be annoying if you're easily irritated by fanboys and trolls, but again, it all comes down to the c-word -- you can choose to read or ignore comment threads, should you so desire. If review scores ended in assassination attempts, then they truly would not be worth the trouble, but when all they do is generate a mass of posts that you can read or ignore at leisure, there's really no risk involved in their use.
In some extreme cases, a review score can cause damage. It could potentially fracture a community or sour relations with a publisher. However, if almost ten years of writing for online media have taught me one thing, it's this -- the Internet has a short attention span. World-changing controversies can be forgotten in a day, and even a long-lasting event becomes "old news" within a matter of weeks. I've been told I'll "never live down" a number of reviews over the years. They've always faded away with time. Always have and always will.
And if a publisher gets upset? Screw them. If they wish to take their ball and go home, that's their decision. Yes, it's always helpful and useful to work with a publisher to get your reviews and news efficiently, but we never needed them to be successful. Unlike simply removing scores to make a point, risking the wrath of a publisher is a fight worth having and even then, publishers themselves tend to forget or forgive a bad score. I may have given Call of Duty: World at War a 6.0, but Activision bore me no grudge. It's a relatively low risk, far lower than alienating publishers completely by removing scores altogether.
There are others who believe that a score somehow devalues the text, or at the very least turns what should be a subjective opinion into something more objective and rigid. The theory suggests that, without a score, a review can be taken as a harmless opinion, but due to the "official" and definitive appearance of a number, it makes the review look less like an opinion and more a statement of fact. This is something I simply cannot agree with.
In the case of a review, a score merely exists as a numerical representation of the written opinion. It's not replacing or overshadowing the text, unless you make the conscious decision and allow it to do so. A score is still a subjective opinion -- it's the opinion of the reviewer that a game deserves a 6.0, or a 9.5, or whatever else is tacked onto the end of the text.
At Destructoid, it is company policy to not score a game until the text is done. In 2008, we reformed our scoring policy to accurately use the full ten-point scale, something we believe other press outlets fail to do correctly. Much effort was put into making each number on the point scale mean a specific thing, with summaries that accurately describe the game's content and quality. When a reviewer writes the full review, they read through our score chart, as published in the Review Guide 2.0, and match the overall tone and message of the review with the correct score summary. Whatever aligns generates the number. It's not perfect, of course, but neither is democracy. It's very much a case of "the best we can do."
While we are not leading the industry by removing scores entirely, we have always hoped to provide an example of a working ten-point scale. It certainly means that our review scores can sometimes look ... different ... when compared to other scores on Metacritic. However, this is what happens when you're prepared to use fours and fives -- numbers that often seem to have no reason to exist on the scales of other publications. Every number has a purpose, is our belief. I dare say that outlets that don't make use of the full scale are the ones who ought to replace their systems entirely.
In any case, the driving ambition here is to make the numerical score a supplement as opposed to a highlight. It's there to back up the review, not to replace it.
This is why we use review scores, and will continue to use review scores. They're good for business, there is reader demand for them, they help us do our job, and they require absolutely zero compromise with a low risk factor. It takes nothing away from our reviews unless the reader chooses to let it, and it adds much for readers that make the opposite choice. These arguments might make sense to you, or you might think we're talking crap. In any case, I hope you understand our motives a little better.
Even if you can't understand why I gave Assassin's Creed II a 4.5.
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