Review Scoring: Let the Bottom Drop Out

I’ve been going back and forth with my colleague Toasty about scoring in video game reviews the past few days. (You can listen to his excellent as always take here.) What’s the value of numeric scores? How should we assign them? Should we even use them at all?

If you’ve read my About Reviews page, you’ve seen that I prefer to have a “final grade” at the end of my reviews in words rather than a number. Maybe I should use a number though, since I hear an overwhelming majority of gamers prefer reviews to have numeric scores. That aside, there are 5 possible ratings I can give, so you could just assign them 1-5 and treat it as a number, right?

Well, that’s not exactly how I think of it. If I were to convert my ratings to the traditional 10-point scale as I perceive it generally used, I would do it as follows:

Essential = 10

Strongly Recommend = 9

Recommend = 7-8

Mixed Feelings = 5-6

Do Not Recommend = 1-4

It’s not a linear conversion because I believe differentiation is much more valuable at the upper end of the scale than it is at the lower end.

Cream of the Crop

It feels like we’re in a golden age of gaming. So many games of all shapes and sizes come out, and honestly, setting aside asset flips and shovelware, most of them have at least some enjoyable aspects. At the same time, most gamers have limited time and money to spend on the hobby. The upper end of the scale is meant to help differentiate games that are reasonably fun from games that offer something truly special.

As an example, I’d say Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight and Hollow Knight are similar enough that you could compare them directly. Both are “metroidvania” games with challenging combat and atmospheric storytelling. Hollow Knight is one of my favorite games of all time, and if I scored it I’d give it a 10. I’d probably give Momodora a 7. Momodora is enjoyable, but it doesn’t stand out from the many other metroidvanias that are also good fun, at least in my opinion.

This means I recommended both games. And if you’re a specialist who wants to play as many good metroidvanias as possible, you very well might want to play both. But if you dabble in a lot of genres, don’t have much time for games, or are gaming on a budget, I’m saying Hollow Knight is the way to go when you can’t have both. And metroidvania is a pretty crowded genre these days. There are so many options that for a lot of gamers that solid 7 might get passed up in favor of something that looks to be a cut above. This is certainly how I operate when choosing games to play for leisure. I’d like to start with the cream of the crop and think about the rest if I have the time.

Don’t Look Down

On the other hand, if I don’t recommend a game, I don’t see much point in trying to quantify exactly where it falls among games I didn’t like. I’m saying I don’t think it’s worth your time, and if you want to know why, I’ll explain in detail in the review. Is anyone really going to buy a game because I gave it a 3 instead of a 2? There are so many good, quality options, and I think time is better spent focusing on how to decide among those. If you look at most game review outlets that have a 10-point scale, they rarely use the bottom anyway. 1 represents some theoretical nadir of gaming that in practice is virtually never reached by anything that actually comes across the review desk.

And that’s because, again ignoring shovelware and asset flips, someone who puts in the time and effort to make and promote a game is almost always going to bring something to the table. Making a game is hard. Developers put a ton of work and skill into their products. To produce that 1/10 game requires a level of laziness or lack of self-awareness (or maybe naked greed in the AAA case) that makes it unlikely someone would actually finish and promote their project in the first place. Not that truly odious games never get made. But they’re the exception in my experience.

That brings up another reason not focus on differentiation at the bottom of the scale: there’s no need to be unnecessarily mean. When I start a game, I hope to enjoy it. That’s why I play games in the first place. And I even if I don’t enjoy something, I want to be respectful of the vision and effort that went into it. That doesn’t mean I won’t give negative reviews. If I can’t recommend something, I’ll say that and explain in detail why. But beyond that, I feel no need thrust some number in peoples’ faces to quantify exactly what tier of garbage I think this particular hack job is supposed to be. Even if I find a game is quite bad, that doesn’t mean the developers are hopeless individuals who have no worth. Someone else might like their work. They can come back stronger next time. If developers want to read my thoughts, I hope that even when they are honestly negative I can still express them without being cruel.

Would Recommend?

So that’s how I feel about scoring. Reviews are useful to help us decide which among the many often quality gaming options out there are worth our limited time and money. And I think it’s fine and useful to be honest when you don’t like a game in explaining how exactly you felt it failed you. But I don’t think it’s particularly productive to focus on precise numerical comparisons of bad games.

Have some thoughts on this yourself? Give a shout in the comments or hit me up on Twitter @FairPlayWes

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