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Simcity and the review score problem


Review scores matter to gamers. Wars have been fought over them. I've been in the trenches with both hardcore Nintendo and Silent Hill fans through multiple sequels and a generation leap. I've seen things you people wouldn't believe.

Rewind the clock to the run up to The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess' launch. By this point in the game's lengthy development cycle anticipation was at a fever pitch and the regulars in the Nintendo forum I used to post in were anxiously awaiting the first review scores, specifically IGN's which tended to be seen at the time as the prime arbiter of quality. The absurd element to all this is that the focal point of their speculation wasn't what score the game would get but how many decimal points above 9.5 it would be awarded in comparison to GTA IV, which came out shortly before. To many armchair analysts anything less than a 9.8 would be a failure, with a below-9.5 review unthinkable. IGN's semi-mythical four point review scale had been reduced to a 0.5 scale.

So game scores matter. But the disastrous launch of Simcity gives us more reason than ever to reject them.

If you've had any contact with the gaming world at all this week you're probably aware of Simcity's predictable server meltdown. Comment threads are on aflame. Polemics have been penned. Pre-release screenshots of burning buildings have been gleefuly re-purposed by journalists for hilarity by way of visual metaphor. But there's a smaller, almost as interesting story unfolding in the shadow of the larger Simcity release disaster.

I discovered Polygon.com a few months ago and it's quickly become one of my favourite gaming sites due to its insightful journalistic approach and classy visual style, which I have shamelessly ripped off for my own humble blogging efforts. So I was interested to see that their Simcity review has undergone quite an odyssey over the last few days. Starting off with an excellent 9.5, the score was reduced to 8.0 after the game's server woes before being dramatically chopped down to a 4.0 yesterday.

Other review sites such as Gamespot and our own Destructoid have given the game mediocre to bad scores, based partially on intrinsic design flaws such as the small amount of land available to players and the lack of a true single player mode but also to an extent on the server issues, with Destructoid's Joshua Derecher unable to tell if some of the gameplay problems he experienced were inherent to the game's design or due to the broken connectivity.

These are situations that don't lend themselves to review scores. A 4/10 says "bad game" whereas the text of the review itself says "game with problems, some of which might not still be around this time next week". Strip away the rather startling drop in Polygon's score and the reviewer's change in opinion seems a lot more reasonable- from "this game is great" to "think twice before buying" to "I can't recommend this due to technical issues". And yet it's the review score that anyone who visits the site months and even years from now, assuming Polygon doesn't change their score again once the servers stabilize.

Obviously most game don't have this issue, but I think it serves to illustrate the fundamental problem with condensing a reviewer's often nuanced opinion into a simple number or even a five star scale. In even the best of circumstances it's a compromise, one that often only serves to distract attention away from the writer's opinion and facilitate toxic flame wars.

I've heard from many reviewers both inside and outside the gaming world that they don't like using review scores but feel obliged to do so due to audience expectations. In today's rapid fire internet communication age people seem to need some measure of summary to make quick judgements. Kotaku's current binary "should you buy this?" system may be a decent compromise, eliminating a lot of the potential for squabbling and readers demanding that a reviewer explain the difference in quality between a 9.5 and 9.8 score.
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About PenguinFactoryone of us since 3:15 PM on 08.18.2011

Long-time game player, first-time game blogger. I'm a news junkie and quite fond of armchair analysis. Hit me up to sate your craving for uninformed opinions about the Future of The Industry.

I play all games, on any platform that's available, but I'm always looking for games that offer unique experiences. I am one of Those People who payed money for Bus Driver, a game about driving buses. This should tell you everything you need to know about my tastes.

I'm interested in the development of strong narrative in games and seeing them expand their scope and inclusiveness. Expect politically charged opinions. Polemics are a distinct possibility. Take appropriate safety measures