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More Thoughts on Game Criticism

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games, Rants | Posted on 20-03-2016

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No game should be immune from criticism – let’s just get that point out there first so there’s no misunderstanding.

But this whole mess with Digital Homicide and Jim Sterling about which Mr Biffo has written a couple of excellent opinion pieces here and here got me thinking, especially the latter post. I’m not going to go into this particular debacle here, but rather the principle and to do that we need to travel back in time…

*wibbly post-production effect*

I started programming and pixel art (actually, let’s not call it ‘art’ – it was just ‘pixel’s) on the Commodore 64 which was, obviously, way pre-Internet. No-one really saw anything of what I produced except sometimes my parents (because I had to use my dad’s camera to take photos of the telly as you couldn’t save your work with the Koala Pad art software unless you had a disk-drive) and my brother. My earliest game attempts were terrible but, hey, I was only seven or eight. By the time I was in my mid-teens I regarded myself as pretty good in the old programming and graphics departments but still everything I made was shared only with people who were as good or worse than me at making it. School chums, etc. Obviously they’re gonna think the stuff you make is pretty neat – especially if they have no idea how on Earth you achieved it.

My very first exposure to actual real criticism was from a chap who came to my school to give a talk on the games industry. He was a professional pixel artist, having worked on actual real videogames – including the then newly-released Cybermorph on the Atari Jaguar – and his talk was incredibly inspirational. We got chatting and he invited me round his house to talk in more depth – it was an opportunity to see his work in more detail and to learn about how he produced it, and also an opportunity for me to show him my work.

I showed him a few bits and bobs, he really liked one or two pieces I’d made – my God that felt awesome – but then… oh dear… this one particular sprite animation…

“yeah, that’s complete shit”

I was crushed. I tried not to show it – I pretended to agree and possibly to pretend that actually I hadn’t spent very long on it. But he continued to talk and point out all the reasons why it was shit, and how lazy I had been in comparison to the other work I’d showed. He was right. It was lazy. It stung horribly at the time, but twenty two years later I still remember that moment vividly. It was probably the most critical moment in my games career. I needed to hear that – before I went to University, before I did any freelance work, before I got my first job in the games industry. And it needed to come from a man who I had considerable respect and admiration for.

Back to the present…

*wibbly post-production effect*

Now I acknowledge that I don’t exactly have a flawless track-record in handling internet abuse but that’s a slightly different issue. In terms of criticism, I’m fairly okay at handling that – and I’m convinced I’m a million times better at it than I would have been had I not met Ian Harling (for that was his name) as a youngster. How would I have reacted, though, if instead of the criticism coming from a guy in private who I looked up to as an example of what I wanted to do, who I wanted to be – if instead that criticism was public, scathing, relentless, and backed up with the fury of tens of thousands of their fans? It probably would’ve finished me, right there and then – before I’d even really got started.

The trouble with this kind of scathing and public criticism is, as Mr Biffo points out, that you don’t actually know who your target is. When terrible singers audition for X-Factor, we all laugh at their expense – but if they’re really young, we react differently. We tend to blame the parents for encouraging their kids into embarrassing themselves publicly. With Steam and the openness of Greenlight, any of these games which we’d regard as really rather awful could be the work of a young kid just starting out. I would definitely have put my early work on Steam had it been an option and, frankly, thank Christ it wasn’t.

A year or two back, pre-refund systems, it’s a slightly different story. It’s important for critics to serve gamers, steer them away from awful and over-priced games. But even then, there’s no real need to actually rip the thing to shreds for shits and giggles. You can be critical without being a merciless brute. But now? With refunds it’s not so big a deal. The targets now would be games which abuse the two-hour window, making the opening fantastic and then not giving a shit once that mark is hit. Spot-lighting those games serves gamers – spot-lighting games people would otherwise not have encountered and which, if they do, show themselves to be awful after a few minutes of gameplay does not.

Words like “scam” get bandied around an awful lot. But it’s not a scam to simply over-value your own work – everybody does that, especially those who are fairly new to games development. It’s extremely difficult to objectively gauge the value of your own work when you can’t separate your pride in your accomplishment (I made a game! OMG!) and the time, energy, and expense from that result. You get better at that as you gain more experience, but very few people are going to get it right first-time. That’s not a scam, it’s just inexperience. I wouldn’t expect an average game player with, perhaps, no real knowledge on videogame development to be tremendously good at making that distinction, of course. But I’d expect a professional critic to be able to or, if not, to at least criticise the quality in terms of the price rather than the skill of the developer. Even E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial on the Atari is worth at least 1p – no game, no matter how badly it plays, is utterly valueless.

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