From Good to Excellent

This article is dedicated to perhaps one of the most devious trends introduced to video game journalism as a whole, and considering it originated as little more than a catalog of paid advertisements aimed at children, that’s really saying something. Of course, I’m talking about what’s been referred to the “four-point scale”. By this point in time, it’s probably been around for the better part of a decade, with some notable exceptions. Unfortunately, the impact it’s had on the industry was both quickly apparent and toxic, especially its effects on the psyches of many core and hardcore gamers today.

For those of you who haven’t heard of it before, the “four-point scale” refers to a common phenomenon in modern video game reviews. Many journalists have a tendency when gives scores ranging in the top 40% of their respective scales. On a ten-point scale, this is represented by scores between 7 and 10 points, but in other scoring conventions it may manifest itself as scores between 3.5 and 5 or 70 and 100. Regardless, the trend basically shows that unless a game is entirely non-functional or the reviewer has some grudge against the game, the lowest score it can possibly get is would be a 7.

Of course, that explanation doesn’t explain the detrimental effect this trend has had on gaming. After all, a 70% score in education would either be considered the bare minimum for a C- or D-, depending on which scale the school in question uses. So, by extension, a 7/10 score would generally be considered a poor grade in any context. Unfortunately, the effect this has on the entire scale is profound. If a 7 is the lowest score commonly used in reviews, this affects the way the other scores in the scale are interpreted. Regardless of what most gamers think, an 8 out of 10 is a good score, NOT a bad one. Yet if a game that is generally well-liked by a significant grouping of gamers gets anything below a 9/10, even if they miss that by a tenth of a point, it’s considered a devastating insult and they end up going rabid about it. Granted, this doesn’t happen quite as often or as violently as it used to (probably due to a growing negativity amongst internet cultures in general, but that’s a topic for another time…and probably another blog), but I can still remember the fallout of Gamespot’s review for Twilight Princess way back in 2006. Over a score of 8.8.

Unfortunately, backlash against “unfair” reviews are probably the least serious of the negative effects of this trend. Even worse are the people who buy into the hype. Many gamers feel like any game that scores lower than an 8.5 or even a 9 has no right to exist. Another horrible side effect is that even reviewers are buying into the hype of the four-point scale. Take a look at a review for a game rated 7, 7.5 or even 8. If you ignored the scores, you’d think they’d given the game a 3 just based on the bile they spew at the game. Granted, maybe they would’ve given it a 3 but were forced to increase it to fit in the four-point scale. Regardless, it seems fairly unprofessional to see something with a relatively high score paired with an extremely critical review.

Perhaps worst of all is how it amplifies the effect a bad review can have on the game’s developer. Even a single low score can taint a developer’s reputation for years. Take Double Helix, when they were revealed to be the developers of the recent Killer Instinct and Strider games, gamers threw a collective tantrum, bringing up how shoddy their licensed games were. Because most tie-ins are of the finest quality, right? The gloom and doom became so impenetrable, even in my own small circle of friends, that I went from hating KI 2013 as much as everyone else did to playing Devil’s Advocate for DH to a bonafide defender of their work. I ended up being vindicated in the end: both KI and Strider turned out well. The point is, developers should not be forever tainted by a poorly-rated game. Pretty much every company in existence today has made their fair share of crap.

Why is the four-point scale so pervasive in gaming journalism? Most other forms of media criticism allow for a wider spectrum of scores, so why is mainstream video game criticism so limited by comparison? I’m not going to pretend I know exactly why this occurs, but I have heard some popular theories. Perhaps the most pervasive of these theories is also the simplest: it’s good ol’ fashioned bribery. Game journalists have a lot of expenses to deal with, and a great deal of their advertising budget comes from game publishers themselves. Considering Gamespot’s spotty reputation in this regard, it wouldn’t really be surprising if most (if not all) major game review websites fell prey to this kind of thing. A much more charitable theory, however, would be that it was just a natural evolution. Like I said earlier, bad reviews of popular games tend to get serious backlash. So maybe sticking to the four-point scale is a distinct strategy to reduce tensions. Of course, if this was the plan, it’s clear by now that it’s backfired spectacularly. One last theory I can think of is that, maybe the professionals just aren’t that good at their jobs to begin with. Wouldn’t surprise me, anyway.

Of course, the four-point scale isn’t literally a constant in the field of game journalism by any means. Many publications do use other scores on occasion. For example, it’s not exactly unheard of to see scores of 6, 5, 4 and especially 3s, out of IGN. Their review for Double Dragon Neon managed to only score a 3/10 back in 2012, and I’m still reeling over it. Of course, in my experience these lower scores only tend to occur when a game is assigned to a reviewer who either hates its genre or hates the game itself for some reason. Hell, even the widely acclaimed Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze only managed to receive a 6/10 from Gamespot, and rumors indicated there was a chance it may have been scored even lower prior to the review being posted. Unfortunately, these exceptions pretty much prove the rule at large, due to their overall rarity in mainstream video games journalism. The fact that I can point out specific examples quite easily is evidence of just how rare this kind of thing is in modern games journalism.

Personally though, I just think the four-point scale is an incredibly stupid trend in general, regardless of the collateral damage it has had on video games themselves. For one thing, there’s an odd trend in the prevailing viewpoint regarding video game criticism: only scores matter. In this age of Metacritic and other review aggregate services, all that really matters is getting a high score, regardless of the quality of either the reviews or the product itself. Even I’m guilty of glossing over the review itself and just looking at the score, though by this point, that’s mainly due to the fact that the quality of criticism somehow managed to get worse from the early 90’s, where they were pretty much either fluff pieces written to avoid any real criticism of the game or were just straight-up advertisements (sometimes, even posted side-by-side with actual advertisements for the game being reviewed). In the end, the four-point scale is more of a symptom of an even greater problem with modern game criticism, as opposed to the underlying cause in general.

Fixing this whole problem would be simple: just abolish scores in general. Hahahaha, yeah, THAT’S gonna happen. I guess a more practical solution would be to find some alternate way to quantify quality, as opposed to just cut-and-dry scores or letter grades. When I entertained the idea of going back to reviewing games after a long hiatus (don’t ask), I had grown weary of simply using the traditional points-by-category method of scoring that was the standard for the site I used to write for. I figured a better way to quantify a game’s quality would be determining how much I thought it was worth. How much I had paid for the game would be the maximum possible score for the game being reviewed, allowing for proper scaling between games of different price points. Of course, this whole concept didn’t really go that far: I never really determined a good way to properly weigh the worth of whatever game I was playing, attributes like playtime, replayability and most importantly, how much I enjoyed playing the game itself would have been key to these determinations. In the end, I still tend to use this method to assess games, but only simply as a way to determine whether or not I feel like I’ve been ripped off. I’ve seen certain sites go for a “buy it/rent it/avoid it” system, in addition to a conventional scoring method, which while a little simple, seems like an overall better way to deal with this kind of thing. I guess the simplest solution of all would be to have critics adopt a literal 4-point scale. You know, like the stars ratings movie critics tend to use. Give them half-points for good measure too.  At least that would be more accurate than what they’re currently doing.

By this point, the four-point scale has pretty much become another one in a long line of wisecracks and punch-lines regarding “professional” video game criticism. The fact that no amount of mockery can stop it is a little disconcerting. Nevertheless, it needs to end. Regardless of the reasons why, flooding the market with nothing but inflated scores is a significant blow to whatever reputation video game journalists and critics want to cultivate. Judging by their recent preoccupation with social issues and “watching the medium grow up”, I’m sure they would rather be considered true journalists than a bunch of spineless cowards. That’s just my opinion, though.

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