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Bill Murphy: My Review Manifesto

Column By William Murphy on March 24, 2011

Some dogs love to eat cat poop. 

They do so, as I’m told by our vet, because the richness of cat food is still present in the excrement.  Now to me, the fact that our dog runs like a fat kid to an ice cream truck whenever our elderly cat misses the box is an odd and disgusting practice that I can’t quite get on board with.  But I don’t fault our pup because of her tastes.  I wouldn’t eat cat poop, but then to me it doesn’t taste nearly as good as it must to a miniature pinscher.  All creatures like food, and we all have different tastes.  I like broccoli, but our dog won’t touch it even if I drop it slathered in bacon grease to the floor.  Similarly, you won’t see me rushing to eat my cat’s feces anytime soon. 

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This in a nutshell is the quandary facing editorial-based reviews.

You may think that something I like is the equivalent of cat-poop.  That’s fine and dandy.  To me it may be on par with chocolate-covered Twinkies: a delicious and guilt-ridden spongy treat.  Neither of our opinions are in any way less valid for being opposing.  But still, for the simple matter of having something on record to point back to when a small or large sect of readers finds something contentious in what I write I’m going to lay out my manifesto on reviewing these games.  You may still completely disagree with my reviews.  I fully expect that.  I hated Titanic in every possible way, so I know where you’re coming from.  But my hope (and it may be against all odds) is that at least now I’ll have something to reference in defense of my work should I feel the need to do so.  I cannot speak for every reviewer on the site, but these are the things I try to take into account before sending my reviews on to Jon Wood, our Editor in Chief.

A Month’s Play

I try as ever to cover as much ground in a game as I can before the review is due.  As an online publication that must keep with the current events, the grim reality is that we have to review an MMO shortly after it launched.  This would normally not be a problem with offline games since their content is often finite and the game ends.  With an MMO however, after even 40 hours a player could just be getting started.  Still I firmly believe that anyone can get a grasp on how any game plays within the first hour or two of any game.  If you can’t, then there is likely something very wrong with the game itself.  And as a result I think the four weeks or so we give most games is more than enough for our reviewers to make an assessment of a title as it stands around the launch window. 

It’s a tricky balance because we want to experience enough content to make a fair assessment but we also have to try and keep our reviews timely and relevant.  What we cannot do is know what the future holds for a game and how it will change (sometimes even shortly after we publish our reviews).  That’s what our re-review process is for which usually will occur a year or more after the initial review, when a title has grown or changed enough to warrant a second look.

All Things are Subjective

When reviewing a game, I take into account the title’s main features.  I try to write about what is both positive and negative in each.  What works and what doesn’t.  The thing is: what works and what doesn’t is purely an opinion in most cases.  Sure if a system is broken and actually does not work in a game then it ceases to become opinion.  But I’m speaking of things like a game’s combat, its progression system, its crafting, or its PvP.  Each of these systems and how well they perform the task before them is something that will differ from gamer to gamer.  I will try to give you details on the systems, and I will take an opinionated stance on how well each performs but it will always just be my opinion.  It’s your job to decide whether I’m right or wrong.

I Don’t Use an MMO Checklist

I know there are a lot of folks for whom there needs to be certain features in any game for it to be worth their time and money.  I don’t follow this route.  I know that may be painful to hear, but in the expanding industry of MMO gaming, I don’t think there really is a “checklist” of features for these games anymore.  Not every game needs to have every lauded feature to be an engrossing and engaging experience.  Similarly, I don’t think every game needs to have content that will last for six months to a year in order to receive a solid score.  Also, it’s worth noting that the amount of content in a game lasts different lengths of time for every single player.  There will be players who cap in a week, while others will take a year.  It’s really something hard to quantify.  All I can do is report on my experience and try and equate that to some generalized value for others.  I won’t be right for everyone, and I won’t be wrong for everyone.  

For me, it’s not about how many different systems a developer can cram together in their game just to say they’re there.  Instead I rate a game based on how well it uses what it does have and how compelling of an experience it can offer with what the designers deemed necessary.  For me, a game that’s designed well and plays well with a smaller feature-set will always trump a game that tries too hard to be everything for everyone.  But I will gladly clap my hands together for any developer who can put a smorgasbord before the player and deliver in most or all departments.  All I ask is that each feature have a purpose and add something to the game’s overall enjoyment. 

As Easy as A-B-C

I hate scores.  I loathe them.  I feel like scores on reviews cause people to focus far too much on a number and not the actual content of a review.  I love that Kotaku has gotten away from scores, and I hope it leads to a day when we all can abandon them.  But for now, we’re stuck using scores here at MMORPG.com and RTSGuru.com because by and large it’s something our readers want.  So, and this is just my own feelings on the matter, I tend to rate games as a teacher would rate a student.  A 7/10 is a C, an 8/10 is a B, and a 9/10 is an A.  A 6/10 may be a passing grade, but in the same way that constant under-achiever is passing.  He may make it to graduation, but he’ll have a hard time succeeding in life if he doesn’t strive to improve his work ethic. 

In this same stride it will take a lot for a game to deserve a failing grade from me (5/10 or below).  With so many different types of games, with the genre expanding as it is to encompass more than just your DIKU-styled MMOs, I think we all have to broaden our definition on what an MMO is.  Now if a game comes out, tries a few things and fails at them for me on the player-level I’ll tell you about it.  If I find something to be poorly designed and unplayable, I’ll tell you about it.  But if I find something to be entertaining, engaging, and fun… I’m going to tell you about it.  I’ll try my best to give as succinct an example of what type of game and how well it will hold someone’s attention, but the simple truth is that it’s going to be different for everyone. 

The Two Main Pillars

I rate games based on two main aptitudes: how fun they are to play and use plus the technical acuity at which they do so.  I feel that every detail of a game can be quantified into these two main paths.  How fun is the combat?  How well does it work?  How fun is the end game?  How well is it designed?  How well-designed is the UI?  How well does it work?  How fun is the content?  How well is it presented to the player?  Everything about every single game, MMO or not, can be boiled down to A.) how fun is it? and B.) how well does it work? 

The rest counts; don’t get me wrong.  But these are my two main factors.  I will bring into account the community.  I will bring into account the longevity.  I will even bring into account the immersion when I feel it’s necessary as a part of the developers’ goal with a title.  I will not call a game bad because it doesn’t have crafting if the game was never intended to have crafting.  I will draw attention to its absence, but I will not condemn the title for this.  By and large when you read a review by me it’s going to be about how engaging the game is and how well it achieves what goals it set out to accomplish from a design perspective. 

It’s All Just IMO

I will never claim my opinions to be fact.  I will never say that “Game A is the best thing to come out in a long time and this is fact.”  I may say that “Game A” is the best thing to come out in a long time, but it will always just be my opinion.  And that’s key, folks.  Our reviews here at MMORPG.com are editorial in nature.  It’s how we do them.  Like all forms of entertainment critique, that’s just how it works.  That said, I’m not asking you to disagree.  And I will gladly defend my stance when needed.  But please keep in mind that if we come to a disagreement, neither of us is “right” or “wrong”.  We just differ in our thoughts.  My reviews I offer not to try and sway you to buy or avoid any game.  I offer them because I genuinely feel that discourse in this hobby is part of what makes it so special.  I review these games to tell you about what a title strives to do and how well I think it does just that. 

But again, it’s always just “IMO”. 

As You Like It

So that’s how I approach my game reviews.  I hope, if you’ve read this far, that you’ve learned something about me as a writer and a reviewer.  You may still completely disagree with my stance, and that’s okay.  But at least now you have a clearer picture of what that stance is.  I wrote this because I truly believe that as someone who gets paid to do this work, you all deserve to know where I’m coming from in my content.  I’ll gladly answer for any and all questions that are raised by my writing.  All I ask is that we try to share a mutual respect of each other’s opinion, and that we refrain from hostility where mere dissention would do.  We all love this industry.  We may have opposing views on where it should be headed and where it actually is going.  We may have differing opinions on what games are worth our time and what games aren’t.  But we all share at least one thing: we love to play.

William Murphy / Bill is the Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and lover of all things gaming. He''s been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002, and you can harass him and his views on Twitter @thebillmurphy.

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