Editor's note: Some developers secretly or not-so-secretly think you better know your B-splines from your framebuffers before you pass judgment on their games. But the history of criticism across multiple artistic mediums says otherwise. Michael weighs in…. -Demian
A few weeks ago, I sat in on the Grubb on Games live stream, hosted by Bitmob's own Jeffrey Michael Grubb. I left for a bit to take a break, and when I came back, Jeff was playing an odd Flash gameÂ that I had never seen before. I wasnâ€™t quite sure what to make of it. The art style consisted mostly of dull greys and blacks, and from what I could tell, the character's movement lacked precision. â€œWhat is this?â€¯ I asked. â€œRocketbirds Revolution,â€¯ several people in the chat channel replied.
â€œThis game looks underwhelming,â€¯ I declared. Jeff and a few others asked if I was trolling, which confused me at the time. As it turns out, one of the people viewing the stream was an artist for Rocketbirds Revolution, and I had just insulted his game based on a three-minute visual demo.
I felt really raw about it. I know what it's like to have people trash your work, and to have it done to your face is one of the worst feelings a creative type will ever experience. My guilt worked its way past the foot in my mouth, stirring up some deeper issues about the role of critics in the game industry. What gives me — or anyone else in the enthusiast press, for that matter — the right to critique the work of others, especially when most of us lack the skill to make our own games? Would I still have said what I said if I knew a member of the development team was in the room? And really, how fair was it for me to form an opinion in such a short time, without having touched the game personally?
I thought about it over the past few days. Eventually, I came to some conclusions.
Flash game, or pathway to catharsis? You decide.
Those Who Can, Do. Those Who Canâ€™t…?
Iâ€™ve tried my hand at coding, art, and sound design, and I can say with no false humility that I have no aptitude in any of those disciplines. My skill lies in communications, so naturally, that skill is the one I need to leverage if I want to enter the game industry. Unfortunately, itâ€™s a common skill, and to be quite honest, one that isnâ€™t always integral to a gameâ€™s success. Designers often handle writing and editing duties in most cases, unless the scope of the project calls for a professional writer on staff. With less than 200 game writers working in the industry today (based on IGDA Writing SIG enrollment), jobs are understandably hard to come by for someone like me.
The solution? Write for the game enthusiast press. Aside from working directly on a game, writing about games is probably the best way for communications specialists to contribute to the industry. And while I love the idea of being a professional journo, deep down, Iâ€™d love even more to work on a game — preferably one spawned from my own ideas and direction. Itâ€™s a common sentiment for many amateur critics; one that guides many young writers to enter the field with the goal of dazzling potential employers with their masterful command of game-design knowledge. Itâ€™s why a lot of the writing you find on the 'net is so lofty and pretentious, actually.
I think thatâ€™s why I felt so guilty about responding negatively to Rocketbirds. If I canâ€™t even make games, who am I to talk?
Can I do better? Probably not.
However, Jeff pointed out to me that most film critics have never made movies, yet theyâ€™re respected for their opinions. Their insight into the industry and love for what they do are what makes their opinions valid. Sure, many of them would probably love the chance to direct their own features, but I doubt that more than a few would be successful. Critiquing and creating are two completely different skill sets, and they arenâ€™t connected in any way.
Creating a game will give you insight into the process, of course, but that doesnâ€™t necessarily mean you have a wide enough knowledge base to write about games professionally. On the contrary: working on one title for so long may result in a myopic view towards games that a critic canâ€™t afford to have. Likewise, knowing the ins and outs of over 1000 titles doesnâ€™t give a critic anything close to resembling the skill to make a game. Sure, they may have a solid insight as to what works and what doesnâ€™t in terms of gameplay, but actual implementation isnâ€™t something you can master by getting all 120 stars in Super Mario 64.
So really, I have every right to be a critic, regardless of my inability to make a game of my own. My qualifications are my extensive knowledge of the game industry, a critical mind, and the ability to write the pants off of a virgin nun (wait, do nuns wear pants?). Thatâ€™s all anyone needs to be a legitimate critic.
But does that give me the right to crap on a game someone spent so long working on?
I'm-a qualified for to critiquing your game-a!
The Human Factor
Sweat, blood, tears, and assorted other bodily fluids go into making a product that someone else might deem an absolutely worthless failure. Sometimes, we forget the faces behind games — the real people with goals and dreams. If we put ourselves in their shoes, I think weâ€™d be a lot less critical of their efforts.
Unfortunately, we canâ€™t afford to do that. Itâ€™s good to be sympathetic from time to time, but to be truly critical, we canâ€™t think of the people who make our games. We need to let the products speak for themselves. Personal relationships, politics, or hurt feelings canâ€™t enter into the equation if we want to do our jobs properly. Thatâ€™s precisely why much of the writing youâ€™ll find coming out of the game enthusiast press doesnâ€™t resemble â€œjournalism.â€¯ Weâ€™re afraid of burning bridges by asking the hard questions. I agree that we should be fair and try our damndest to maintain an atmosphere of mutual respect and cooperation between game developers and the press, but we canâ€™t pull punches when an actual human face pops up in front of our fists.
Back to Rocketbirds, Iâ€™d like to think that I would have said what I said anyway, so long as itâ€™s what I honestly felt, but in truth, I would have held my tongue if I knew a developer was listening. Granted, I could have phrased what I said much, much differently, and in the future, I plan to. At least now that Iâ€™m aware of the problem, I know what I have to work on if I ever hope to be a professional critic.
But tactlessness aside, was I justified in saying what I did based on such a short look at the product?
One of the guys who makes those game tapes we like to
solve. If you worry about his feelings, you lose.
Can you have a valid opinion of a game without ever playing it? While I would have responded â€œnoâ€¯ prior to my experience, my answer is now a resounding â€œyes.â€¯
Not all games have playable demos. Critics often have to write up impressions or previews of a product based on whatever information they have handy, be it a video, a developer walkthrough, or a press release and a few screenshots. While these impressions may not be 100% accurate, given a lack of tactile experience, itâ€™s human nature to make judgments and react to things we see and feel. Every one of us has had a knee-jerk reaction to something in our lifetime, an unexplained feeling that we donâ€™t have to justify or explain to anybody. Weâ€™re allowed to feel as we choose, and nobody has the right to tell us what we feel is wrong.
Granted, a critic has to rely on more than a feeling to provide a valid response to a game, but a skilled critic can also tell a lot about a game from whatâ€™s happening on the screen. In a way, critics have to put themselves in the playerâ€™s shoes; this isnâ€™t especially difficult, since most critics are avid gamers anyway. But if a product doesnâ€™t grab or impress a critic in a short time, it stands to reason that a portion of the audience may react the same way. This could spell trouble for a game, especially considering how competitive the marketplace is in this economic climate. First impressions count for a lot.
No time to think. Get those previews up!
The trick is to remain open to further experiences after the first impression — a critic canâ€™t give up after 10 minutes of play. Iâ€™m happy to say that I at least succeeded on this front. After I finished swallowing my shoe, I checked out the demo for Rocketbirds to get a better feeling for the game. While I still find the art style a little too bland, my assumptions about the controls were correct, and I can respect the developers for trying to channel classics like Blackthorne and Flashback with their design decisions. I canâ€™t say I love the game, but I certainly donâ€™t hate it, either.
A snap decision may seem unfair, but the more I think about it, the more I see that we canâ€™t ignore our snap decisions. If we do, then weâ€™re not helping developers improve by showing them that their games need to capture an audienceâ€™s attention in a reasonable timeframe. Not all gamers are patient and willing to give an untested developer the benefit of the doubt. Critics must be, however, while still looking out for problem areas that may cause barriers to entry.
While I could have handled the situation a lot better, it did help me come to terms with what it means to be a critic, and why Iâ€™m qualified to be one. Iâ€™d also like to thank the art dev who worked on Rocketbirds for being a good sport about my criticism and taking what I said in stride. I owe you a beer if we ever meet at a GDC.