Sunday, March 30, 2014

Ethan's Introduction and Review System

My name is Ethan, and I love video games. I really do. And if you’re reading this, I’m confident in assuming that you love video games, too. I’ve been playing games since I was old enough to hold a SNES controller and a Gameboy Color in my hands, and now I own a gaming PC with as many bells and whistles as I could reasonably afford at the time of its creation. And if you’re like me, not only do you enjoy playing video games, but you also enjoy discussing video games. I was lucky enough growing up to have a close circle friends that all enjoyed gaming, and so I had that vocal outlet where I could vent my frustrations and gush over the amazing scenes and experiences we shared together. Now, myself and one of those good friends, Ryan, bring those discussions to you in the form of Bimodal Game Reviews.

Let’s get this started, shall we?

If you haven’t yet, give my buddy's article a read. He does a great job explaining the motivation behind this little project of ours, and it’s important that you, our wonderful reader, get a sense of where we’re coming from with this blog. Just to hit the high points for you lazy lot that didn’t click the link:

  1. We’re not in this for a profit. We’re consumers, first and foremost, just like you. We’re not bought out by the publishers of these games like some of the big name reviewers are.
  2. We’re two gamers with two different perspectives.There are some games that Ryan really enjoys, and my feelings range from “meh” to “that game is literally Hitler”. Likewise, Ryan isn’t afraid to tell me that my opinion of a certain game is objectively awful.

That second point is of particular use to you readers. Normally, a review site gives games of certain genres to the person who will probably most enjoy that type of game.With us, you get two people reviewing the same game, and our personal tastes may not line up with the game we’re playing.

Another Zelda game? Really?

Will this result in certain games receiving better or worse final scores as a result? Of course, but that should be a positive talking point. Have you ever wanted to branch out in your gaming experiences but were too worried about wasting your money on something you might not enjoy because it’s so different from what you normally enjoy? Now you can see what someone who isn’t head-over-heels in love with a series or genre thinks of a game in that genre or series. We believe this little difference in perspectives will go a long way toward providing consumers with a more reliable set of game recommendations.

With that said, two different perspectives necessitate two different rating systems. Ryan and I have some very basic agreements on what makes a game better or worse, but our definitions and systems for quantifying those characteristics are different enough that we want to keep our review systems separate. Again, we want to highlight our different ways of thinking so that the person who can see both systems benefits from a more all-around view on the game they’re curious about. What follows is my personal philosophy for what makes a game great.

Settle in, this is where it gets good.

The absolute most important factor that goes into making a great video game is how much fun it is to play. To me, this should be common sense. If you’re not playing to have fun, you’re doing it wrong. I understand that video games can offer a variety of pleasures, and a large portion of gamers consider video games to be works of art on par, and in some cases surpassing, traditional arts such as theatre, film, and writing.

Art is weird sometimes

While there are degrees of truth to that, the bottom line is that games are for our enjoyment and entertainment, and if you’re not entertained, it must not be a very good game. Now, this concept of “fun” is certainly not an easy thing to properly quantify...which is why I won’t be properly quantifying it. Sadly, I haven’t had the chance to develop a Funness Formula. This category is broad for a reason. There are too many individual concepts that can make a game more or less fun, so I’ll save the specifics for each game as I review it. What you can expect here is my attempt to put my gut reaction into a number. When I think to myself, “How fun is/was that game?”, the answer is the score I’m giving, and I’ll do my best to provide the reasons that made me feel that way.

The second major factor is a broad category that encompasses many common facets reviewers like to use to compare games. These facets are things like graphics, music, controls, and storytelling. Rather than assigning each of these smaller categories its own score, I’ve decided to lump them all together into what I’m calling Engagement.

Maximum Engagement

Different art styles and technological capabilities make assigning a rating on graphics a challenge that has filled internet forum debates since before I started reading reviews for games online all those years ago. Music is most often only noticeable, but can have a profound impact, when it’s done particularly well or poorly, and as such I’d like to lump this category into a larger one as well. The control scheme can go a long way to getting me sucked in to a game, but it can also be constantly reminding me I’m just playing a video game. Like music, this one just isn’t impactful enough often enough to warrant it’s own category. In addition to these three we have the art of storytelling. Especially in modern day, some video games are specifically designed to tell a story, and I want to properly reward those games that do this well. However, some games purposefully and by design have little to no story elements at all. By making storytelling just one more part of Engagement, the games that aren’t meant to have a story will be carried by their other facets, allowing, for example, Alan Wake (a primarily story driven game) to have an equal Engagement score with Civilization V (no story to speak of). The key here is that Engagement, as the name suggests, is how engaged I felt while playing a game and is a function of several different factors that may be more or less important depending on the type of game.

The third factor is the balance between the challenge the game provides and the reward the player gets for completing the challenges. This concept I’m using is related to the Goal Setting Psychological Theory. In goal setting, the core idea is that people will have increased performance in achieving a certain reward state if they set difficult, yet achievable, goals that will help them get there. For this to work, the person has to want the reward state in the first place and believe that the reward is worthy of the effort needed to get there.

In gaming, the goals are to complete the various challenges in the game, and the reward is whatever comes for beating those challenges. I believe this concept is so important in games that I’m giving it it’s own category. As you’ll come to see if you read some of our non-review-related articles to come in the future, I can get very demotivated when it comes to some games that I feel don’t have a good balance. Over the course of the game, the rewards obtained need to be in balance with the effort required to complete the obstacles.

Please don’t misread this to think that only difficult games can score highly in this category. That’s not at all what I’m trying to say. A game can be a breeze to play through but still offer a rewarding feeling for completing it. On the other hand, a game can be frustratingly difficult and, when the challenge is complete, not provide any sense of accomplishment. It truly is a balancing act, and it can be pretty complicated. In the real world, being overcompensated for a task is usually met with quiet pleasure (think, being paid $100 to clean your room when all you really needed to do was put your dirty clothes away for it to appear clean). But we don’t get this same feeling in video games. If I’m slugging my way through the early stages of a game to get the X back from the Y only to find out that the Y is a complete joke, it ruins the sweetness of finally getting the X.

There’s one final factor that acts more like bonus points, and it’s the concept of novelty and innovation. I want to reward not only the games that are the first of their kind but also sequels of popular franchises that bring enough newness to the table to be commended for their efforts. I feel this category shouldn’t be included in the initial 100 points because not every game can be totally unique and they shouldn’t be faulted for that.

So the final scoring system will look like this:

Fun - 60%
Engagement - 20%
Challenge/Reward - 20%
Innovation - 5% (bonus)

Fairly straight forward scoring system, but I’d like to point out one little controversy that I’ve seen arise in the gaming community and where I stand on it. This controversy is the idea of the “perfect” game.

I’m of the opinion that faults can be found in any game, even our very favorite games, and therefore there is no such thing as a perfect game. With this in mind, you will never see me give a game a perfect score on every category. What this means is that my overall scores might be a tad low comparable to other reviewers. Please don’t take this to mean that I think the game is worse. It’s just a reflection of my personal system. There’s also one more reason my scores will look low compared to most people.

I truly think the entertainment industry in general has grown entirely too top heavy with their scoring. There’s two problems with this. The first is the obvious case where you bought “AAA-Game of Popular Series 47:Moar Pixels and DLC” because you saw every review site giving it 8’s and 9’s only to find out that it really isn’t nearly as fun as previous installments or games from other series. The second problem arises when you’re trying to draw comparisons between games. In the current system, in order to get a 7/10 or higher, the game basically has to be functional with no obvious glitches and enough content to warrant the price tag, which, sadly, happens to be about 8ish hours in today’s market. That’s a lot of games getting 70-somethings, but are they all truly that close to one another in terms of overall quality? My belief is “No”.

Vertical is the game’s score, width is the number of games, butt-crack=6

There’s so many things that can set apart two games, and I think those differences should be highlighted by a wider score differential.  My goal is for a reader to be able to use my reviews to see how I compare games against each other in addition to making baseline purchasing decisions. What this means is that while on one website two games received scores of 74 and 78, on my system they could be as disparate as 65 and 80. In the first scenario, my typical reaction to those scores would be, “Hm, both okay games of about equal okay-ness. Maybe worth a look.” and in my system I’m thinking, “The first is pretty solid, but wow the second one is just in a whole different class.” Remember, these two games were considered equal in the old system. Let me try to make this even clearer. My grading scale looks something like this:

  • 90-105: Words can't describe. This should be on your top 10 best games of all time list.
  • 80-89: Incredible. Fantastic. Other synonyms for great.
  • 70-79: Sooo good. No, really. Worth paying full price for on Steam.
  • 60-69: Wait for a sale, but definitely get it. You won’t be disappointed.
  • 50-59: Probably worth the entire price of the Humble Bundle it’s in by itself.
  • 40-49: Worth giving a shot if you can borrow from a friend
  • 30-39: Eh, it wouldn’t hurt you to play it, but it’s not worth your time.
  • 20-29: Ok this one will hurt you if you play it.
  • 10-19: Bad.
  • 0-9: I do not look forward to the day I can put a game in this bracket.

Hopefully that clears things up a bit. The basic idea is that I don’t want you to see me give a game a 50 and decide to never play it because it got a “bad” score. The purpose behind this spread is to give room to differentiate between all the games that get 8/10 on the major review sites. Thus, we move what’s considered a game worth buying down from the standard 70ish to around 50ish.

That does it for me this time. Hopefully you’re intrigued enough to come back next week when we review two of the games that Ryan and I consider to be some of the best of the best.

Image Credit:


Saturday, March 29, 2014

An Introduction to Bimodal Game Reviews

Hello fellow gamers, and welcome to Bimodal Game Reviews. Bimodal Game Reviews is a two man team made up of myself, Ryan, and my colleague and good friend Ethan. We are two guys with two different tastes and opinions on video games. We are here to sort out the trash that is the video game review industry.

Why do I say it's trash? There is a serious disconnect between what the big name reviewers say about a video game and what the actual users think. For example, Call of Duty: Ghosts currently has a metacritic score of 73 (out of 100). A respectable score, but not great. Meanwhile the user score currently stands at 2.4 (out of 10). Titanfall has a metacritic score of 88 and a user score of 6.2. Total War: Rome II has a metacritic score of 7.6 but a user score of 4. Want more? Because I could keep going. So why this huge gap? Money. Anonymous users on the internet have nothing to lose, or gain, from posting honest reviews. A guy who shells out 60 bucks on a highly marketed game that is a flop is going to be pretty upset, and rightfully so. However, websites that review video games do stand to lose, and if you think that developers don't take reviews seriously, think again. Some developers get paid bonuses for reaching high metacritic scores. So how do developers get good reviews? Did you say, "By making good video games?" Don't be ridiculous!

That's just... I can't believe you said that

They get their money by paying off the review websites. Well, at least indirectly. Gaming websites write reviews to bring traffic to their sites. The traffic means revenue from advertisements. Those same advertisements are paid for by the game publishers whose game is getting reviewed. Ever been to a gaming website the couple of weeks leading up to a AAA title game being released and seeing lots of advertisements for that same game on the website? Me too. That's no coincidence. That's the game publishers paying the website. If that website decides to give the game a bad review, they might not be seeing anymore of that sweet, sweet ad revenue from the publishers. That's not a risk they're willing to take. That's something I like to call bullcrap.

Long story short, Ethan and I have had it with video game review sites. I want to be able to find a reliable review for a video game before I spend my hard earned money on it, and I know you do too. So, we'll start our own review system! With honesty! And without bias!

You might be wondering how we're any different. Well as I said earlier, we're two different people with two different opinions. Two different guys looking at a video game through two different angles and perspectives is an incredible advantage. If a reviewer really loves MMORPG's  then he's probably going to give an MMORPG a really good review whether or not it deserves it, so by having two different tastes in games we'll avoid that bias.

Here's how it works. About every week we will right a review of a video game, and occasionally we'll throw in a miscellaneous article about video game related stuff we feel like talking about instead of a review. We'll each have our own system of how to review the game. Ethan will explain his system in his own introduction, and I will explain mine right now. Let's go!

To get an understanding of how I will review video games we need to go back a few years. Specifically, we need to go back about 2,349 years to the year 335 BC. This is around the time the great philosopher Aristotle wrote Poetics. Aristotle was challenged by Plato before writing this great work. Plato argues that poetry (which in the ancient Greek refers to not just poetry but theater, writing, and the creative process in general) is pointless and serves no purpose. Aristotle writes the Poetics in response to Plato's argument. You can read it here if you like.

Aristotle does a beautiful job of breaking down the creative process and storytelling. He lists six elements of tragedy in order of importance beginning with the most essential: plot, character, thought, diction, melody, and spectacle. He explains that plot is essential, and there is nothing without it. I like to think that Aristotle was a pretty smart guy and knew lots of stuff about things, so I'll take his word for it when he makes his arguments.

Knowing this, I want to take what Aristotle said about the creative process and tweak it to review video games. I have come up with my own 5 elements that a video game must posses, and they are, in order of importance: Gameplay, Story, Graphics, Music, and Controls. Out of these five elements, gameplay is the most important with story followed closely behind, and not unlike plot in Poetics, gameplay is the essential element. Without gameplay, there is no video game.

Gameplay, as stated earlier, is the essence of a game. It's what makes the game fun. Additionally, story encompasses everything that Aristotle discusses in Poetics, so it is incredibly important in video games as well. Story is totally separate from gameplay, however. You can have a video game that is purely gameplay and no story, and it will still be a good game. On the other hand, you could have a video game with very little to minimum gameplay and a great story, and it can also be a good game. But when you have a game with great gameplay AND great story, then you have stumbled upon a fantastic game.

So gameplay and story are the two things that I value the most. The next three things are also important, but not nearly as important as the first two. When it comes to graphics, music, and controls, these three things aren't something that can totally make a game by themselves (like gameplay and story). For example, a game can have amazing graphics, but if it is a dull cookie-cutter game with unoriginal gameplay or a bland story, it is nothing more than a really nice looking cookie with boring chocolate and tasteless dough.

Anyone else hungry all of a sudden?

Graphics, music, and controls are typically things that, when done correctly, go unnoticed. That's because they're doing their jobs. It's like the garbage man. He's an essential part of society, and we very much need his services. But the second he stops working, trash starts piling up. It's sad but it's the truth. The same goes for these three elements. When done well they can really add to the game, but most of the time they are overlooked. If, however, one or more of these three things are done poorly, it can really put a damper on a video game.

To summarize, gameplay and story are by far the most important and essential parts of a game. Graphics, controls and music are things that don't necessarily make the game good on their own, but still have the potential to add or take away from the game itself.

I will score a game based on each element. Gameplay and story will receive a score out of 15 and 10 respectively while the last three (graphics, music, & controls) will not technically receive a score. If I believe one of these last three is done so badly that it takes away from the game, then I will deduct one extra point. If one of these three is done very well, then I will add one extra point. If they neither add nor take away from the game, they will receive no points. For these to add or deduct points they have to perform above and beyond (or below) the call of duty. These points will be rare. To see it visually:

Video Game X
Gameplay: 13/15
Story: 8/10
Graphics: 0 (Neither done well nor done poorly)
Music: +1 (Done very well)
Controls: -1 (Done very poorly, somehow made the game worse)

Total:  8 + 13 = 21 + 1 - 1 = 21/25 = 84%

In this example, music added a bonus point because the game had amazing music. The controls, however, were so bad that it made the game less fun, so a point was taken away. Graphics were up to par, so no changes were made. The game scores a great score of 84/100.

Here is how my scoring system should be interpreted:
100/100: The game in every sense of the word perfect. No flaws and an incredible experience. Must own.
90 - 99: The game is an amazing experience. A couple of flaws are found. Must play.
80 - 89: The game is great. Some flaws are found. Would recommend playing.
70 - 79: The game is good. Some flaws are found with one or two large ones. Worth trying
60 - 69: The game is decent. Several flaws with some large ones. If cheap price, should play.
50 - 59: The game is poor. Many flaws large and small. Only play if very cheap or free.
0 - 49: The game is considered a failure. Flaws outweigh the pros. Do not recommend.

In conclusion, Our goal is to bring you unbiased opinions on video games. Period. We want you to feel comfortable buying games based on our recommendations (or not buying them). We're just as sick as you are of greedy game reviewers giving biased opinions. Hopefully we can shed some light on this industry and learn a few things along the way. Tune in next time when we review the only game I consider to be a  perfect 100/100. Then after that, a game Ethan considers to be as close to a perfect 100/100 a game can be. We will be setting the standard for all video games to follow. If you're going to set the bar, you might as well set it high!

Until next time,