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A Different Standard

Lisa Jonte Posted:
Columns Independency 0

Someone I know and respect recently posed the following question,

"Should Indie MMOs Be Given More Leniency During Reviews?"

I admit, it’s not something I’d ever consciously considered before. I (as do other reviewers) certainly have a particular way of approaching games. And I do my best to be fair in all things. After giving the question a good deal of thought, my final conclusion was: No, they should not be given more leniency… except maybe yes, sort of, it depends.

Have I lost you? Bear with me, all will become clear.

I’m not ashamed to say, I asked the opinions of friends on this one. (Well, not so much asked as dragooned.) But with ethical questions (as I believe this is) I like to hear many opinions. One never knows when one might have overlooked an important point.

When I review a game, I review it based on how it meets specific criteria as laid down by this very site. How do the graphics look to me? How does it play? Are there any innovations? And so on. Granted, even with those specific points, reviews are subjective and can vary widely from reviewer to reviewer, and from reviewers to players. (Believe me, when readers think I got it wrong, I hear about it.)

Thinking and talking about it, the idea did occur that those review criteria, while completely valid in most situations, might not necessarily cut it when it comes to independently made MMOs. After all, what indie house is going to have the budget for graphics on par with Blizzard, or Warner Brothers? What indie house can possibly hope to compete with the sheer volume of coding one might find in a corporately funded game?

This then begs the question: If the initial, game creation field isn’t level, should the scoring of all games be done as if it is?

Ultimately, I think the answer lies not with funding and either having or lacking corporate support, but rather with intent and honesty.

Wow. Tough crowd.

What is the intent of the indie house producing the game in question?

Are they just a humble shop producing humble games and content to be so? Are they attempting, through effort and hype, to stride across the same gaming landscape as the corporate titles do? Are they somewhere indecisively in-between?

Aside from buzz and screenshots, how are they declaring their intent? Are they relying on advertising or charging players money? If it’s the latter, how much and when? Are players expected to pay for the base game? A subscription? Both? Or are they monetizing on a shoestring, offering a few cash shop incentives just to keep the devs paid and the servers turned on? Once all that filthy lucre has changed hands, what kind of gameplay experience are they providing in return? Does it match the experience they promised? Does it look like an equitable exchange, like players will get their money’s worth? All these factors matter when it comes to deciding how to approach an independent game review.

When an indie game company arrives on the scene, metaphorical guns a’blazing, touting their product, its graphics and gameplay experience, perhaps even comparing themselves to the established corporate MMOs out there and asking a commensurate price, then there should be absolutely no qualms about reviewing them as if they were a corporately funded MMO.

That said, if an indie house has produced a game and offers it to the world by essentially saying, “Hey, we’re a small crew and this is a small game, but it was a labor of love and we hope you enjoy it,” then I think it’s fair to temper the review a bit; not change the criteria per se, but remain mindful that an unpretentious game from a small company isn’t necessarily going to withstand the full weight of those criteria. Where a straight comparison to corporate games might elicit a certain rating, it should probably also elicit some commentary about how well that game has done based on the kind/size of company (their budget, etc.) it comes from.

If a small company produces a great game, or just a better game than one might otherwise expect, I don’t think it’s out of line to give that game the benefit of the reviewing doubt. The common sense caveat here though, would be to make it clear in the review that that’s what’s going on.

 Are they being honest with themselves in declaring that intent?

This is where things get a bit sticky. Difficulties can arise when making those distinctions, if an indie company isn’t honest with itself when it declares its intent.

Any game, independently or corporately produced, that offers itself up as a professional product, that sells itself as such and chargers accordingly, had better be prepared to be reviewed on that level. Conversely, an indie game that sells itself as small, quirky and/or otherwise beneath the mainstream radar, should be prepared to be reviewed in that milieu. But not every game producer may feel that way.

If a game company isn’t honest with themselves about, say, the scope of their game. If, for example, they over-hype and over-sell a wee cottage as a sprawling mansion, that wee cottage is going to be reviewed as a sprawling mansion. As such, it will fall short in the reviewer’s eyes, and likely the players’ eyes as well. The game company may take offense at having been reviewed “unfairly”, and then no one is happy.

Conversely, if a game company undersells their game, and it gets the wee cottage treatment when it is clearly a sprawling mansion, the reviewer might be seen as being too soft, as cutting too much slack for that game’s potential shortcomings, or too exuberant in its praise for ordinary game elements. As a result, the readers might lose trust in the reviewer, (not to mention the game itself) and again, no one is happy.

So there you have it. Reviewing an indie game is a little more complicated than the usual. But this is just my take on the situation. Do you agree? Or do you think I’m wrong in the wrongest of all possible ways? Take to the comments and let the discussion begin!

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Lisa Jonte

Lisa Jonte / Writer, editor, artist, parent. Currently reviewing games and writing the column, Fair Game at MMORPG.com. One time (print and web) comics creator, and former editor of the webcomic enclave GirlAMatic.com; now a secretive and hermit-like prose writer, (and not so secretive nor hermit-like blogger.)