On Games Journalism: Why Objective, Performance Based Reviews Are A Bad Idea (Reprint.)

This article was originally published on my personal blog, when I was planning to get back to games journalism.

So, one thing that I have seen people calling for is “More objective” reviewing. Sometimes, they mean “Less biased overall” (Which is good to ask for), sometimes they mean “I don’t want political viewpoint X to be represented so god-damn much” (Tough titty, writers have political viewpoints, readers have political viewpoints, and if you don’t want to deal with gender and politics, good fucking luck in life. No, really, good fucking luck.)

Sometimes, however, they really do mean “objective”, in the sense of purely representing the technical aspects, how well it runs, etc. Let’s illustrate how misleading this can easily get with two hypothetical reviewers. Let’s call them Jim and Graham, after Jim Rossignol and Graham Smith.

Jim has a computer which often meets minimum specs for AAA games, but rarely optimal specs for the newer ones. So he can play the game, but he can’t afford to get the whole experience (Because, spoilers, even guys who write full time for a mag don’t get paid a whole lot!). He experiences some slowdown at certain points in the game, but, unbeknownst to him, this isn’t because his setup isn’t top notch. It’s because he’s using an AMD graphics card, and the game was primarily coded around NVIDIA cards. Yes, that’s a thing that still happens, even to this day. So he, naturally, mentions this as part of his review. NVIDIA fans slam him.

Graham, meanwhile, has a swanky computer with all mod cons, an NVIDIA card, and… A top range anti-virus program. This causes some problems, and, because he has a top of the range setup, he makes a bigger deal out of it. A week later, it’s discovered that his particular anti-virus program fucks with the game, and he looks like a twat.

Meanwhile, both of them use different routers, and have exactly the same problems in multiplayer, problems which are widely reported. Their editor, Steve, doesn’t have these problems, and writes an apology about both pieces when the folks who didn’t experience these problems, and didn’t notice all the complaints, decided to write in to say that they shouldn’t lower the score based on this “nonexistent problem.”

…Three months later, the readers look like twats when it turns out that, yes, the netcode was shit all along, and they start experiencing problems and complaining. And nobody’s happy.

All three of these things have happened at least once. Because there are so many different components for PCs, software and hardware, and that means Your Mileage May Vary. I’ve seen windows updates, graphics driver updates, lack of graphics driver updates, all sorts of things fucking with performance in games that sometimes, it’s hard to tell what’s actually causing a problem.

“Ahhh, but consoles are different!”, I hear you say. Perhaps. But sometimes, consoles look like they’re working when they’re actually about to break, and this, too, can occasionally affect reviews. Less than PC reviewing, it’s sure, but you still have to use a router to connect, an ISP, so keep in mind that no system is free of this.

Then, we come to another issue: With only certain exceptions, older games re-released will, on a performance based scale, consistently score higher than newer ones. For example, I can play Jet Set Willy with so much less hassle than I used to have. Before, it was “pop a tape in. Is the tape clean? Is the cassette drive jammed? Do I have the cable connected?”

Now? “Put thing on hard drive, run program/emulator, fiddle with performance settings a little.” 100000/10, much god-damn better than it used to be. Sonic 1 runs far better, on my current system, than Lichdom: Battlemage, and so it scores higher.

“That’s not what we said, though! We meant as they come out!”

Ah, you’re right. But re-releases are often reviewed as new products, because some of them (Not all, but some) come with slightly swankier graphics, and a slightly improved engine, and nothing else. Oh look, that re-release, on a performance base, still runs better than brand new AAA game, because it didn’t have extra fancy gubbins.

Indie games would consistently score higher on a performance basis, because they’re less resource intensive and smaller. The simpler the game, the higher it could score on a performance basis. And then comes the real killer: You then have to consider how much performance the game needs compared to its compatriots. Is it “objectively” better because it needs less resources, or “objectively” worse because it doesn’t need to be as effective in using your computer’s resource allocation?

“But you don’t need to know these things, all you need to know is whether it’s ‘objectively’ good or bad on your system, let readers…” No. Stop right there.

“Good” and “Bad” are rarely objective statements, because they’re value judgements. You’re stepping into “Worth” territory, and if you think that’s something that can be objectively judged, I’m going to laugh. Hard. An object’s worth changes, fluidly, based on subjective factors.

Good example: The white jacket I wanted for ComicCon. It’s worth less to me now that I don’t need it for a costume, because when I tried to get it, it was for a specific purpose. That purpose has been and gone, so it’s “worth” less. If other people don’t like how I look in it, it’s worth less based on their subjective views, because it’s going to get dickheads yelling stupid shit at me, which reduces its worth because of the hassle it cost me. If I lose or gain weight, it’s going to hang differently, look differently, and so have a different worth to my self-esteem.

Then there’s all the factors you’re now leaving out, whether due to space or time constraints. Most reviews are 500-2500 words long. That’s it. Are you going to read an article that’s 2,500 words about how it performs on System X with Hardware Y,Z,A, and B, when you yourself have System X with Hardware C,D,E, and F (Not to mention that the reviewer probably won’t have even noticed that Software G, which you have, and they don’t, causes bugs in the game)?

Would you read it if it didn’t comment at all on the writing, or great moments in the game, or how a mechanic feels like it fits with the theme you think they’re trying to portray? All of these are subjective things you’ll be missing out on: The cornering on Burnout Paradise isn’t, by any means “Realistic”… Hell, describing it objectively, it would be “The lower statistic X is, the more likely it is to rotate the vehicle you are driving in a manner more consistent to ‘sliding’ than ‘turning’ , especially at higher speeds.” … But it’s fun, not to mention collisions. We like collisions in racing games, right? “The collisions are rendered using a physics engine that -” GOD STOP, PLEASE, THIS DESCRIPTION CAN GO ON FOR HALF A PAGE, AND IS NOWHERE NEAR AS EFFICIENT, FOR A READER, AS…

“The collisions, meanwhile, are sufficiently meaty, with lots of crumpling, slow motion replays, and a delicious feeling of ‘Yup, that car is fucked, and there is no consequence for this. God bless Fun’.”

Which is, you’ll note, largely subjective. Long live subjectivity, I say!

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Skyrim (Reprint, Review)

This is a reprint of an article originally published on the older version of Da Game-Boyz. It has not been edited, including the original editorial mistake, as a complement to this article. The game scored a 7.5 overall, with 7 in half the categories, 8 in the other half.

What the hell have I gotten myself into? First I got involved with some rebellion, and that led me to the headsman’s block, and then there was a dragon, and weird voices, and… now, I’m wandering through a dungeon killing some people called the Silver Hand because I didn’t realise my fellow warriors were actually werewolves! Heeeelp!Skyrim1

Okay, so that last bit may seem like a spoiler, but it really isn’t. See, everything except the werewolves happened in my first hour of main plot play, and that last bit? I’m not telling you. Skyrim, to those who don’t know (for shame!) is the latest in the Elder Scrolls series of RPGs, games with lore so deep, and so thick on the ground, that not even a +15 chainsaw could get through it all. The basic idea of this installment is that… well, after centuries of being who-knows-where (maybe having a good sleep?), dragons have come back to the land of Tamriel, and you, through the usual Elder Scrolls mcguffin of the prophecy, are the fated one. Don’t let the corniness fool you, Bethesda are good at their job of storytelling, and I’ve seen them pull off cornier premises. In the same series.



For those looking for an improvement from the last game graphically, there is… and there isn’t. See, the creatures and characters are even more beautiful to look at, although the character engine doesn’t seem to allow true obesity (if it did, my chargen abominations would have been so much more evil). So yeah, the characters look great, most of the creatures look great. Know what doesn’t look great? Watching trees suddenly pop into clarity in the distance as I run forward. On High settings. Seeing the base ground texture if I look at it in just the right way. But in dungeons, and when exploring ruins, my two favourite activities, it’s just fine, and the architecture, as always, is pretty damn stunning. Sure, the cities aren’t always great, but when you see a barrows with huge stone ribs poking out of the ground? You know you’re in high fantasy country, and the immersion skyrockets.



If you’ve heard the soundtracks of Morrowind and Oblivion, you have at least some idea as to the music. The sort of music you’d hear while Aahnold and James Earl Jones have a good staring match, or when Aragorn is kicking righteous buttock. It fits with the theme, is stirring when it wants to be (in combat), and, while it’s nothing new under the sun, it’s still pretty cool. The Bethesda Curse, as it was known in gaming circles, is also much less evident here. No more does it sound like there’s maybe 5 voice actors phoning it in. It’s definitely quite a few of them, and only one or two characters sound like their lines are being read in a classroom. Combat sounds, similarly, are slightly improved, although it’s sorta hard to improve on “BASH, CLANG, THUMP, Urrrrggh!”. They still pull it off, and even manage to make arrows swoosh past. The one thing I personally found special however? The dragons. They’re obviously the focus of the action, and… wow. Every wingbeat sounds visceral, and the sound of dragonfire is audio-coded for “This will roast you. Hard.” Even the other creatures occasionally sound cool, like a wolf howl on the plains at night. How many are there? Daaaamn, can’t tell! And that, again, adds to the immersion.



One thing you ought to know, if you’re new to Elder Scrolls games, is that they’re always pretty big, world wise. Not always full of content, but big. At the time of writing this paragraph, I’m 4 hours in, and, while I’ve completed something like 11 quests across 8 or 9 locations (and explored another 4 or 5 on top of that), I have only finished two, maybe three story missions out of god knows how many. Including the mandatory tutorial quest. One thing that old Elder Scrolls players will either take or leave, and experienced CRPG players may be a bit concerned about, is that some quests are not “take the quest and finish it when you can be bothered.” They have to be done, as far as I can tell, immediately after taking them. On the one hand, this means people going for the main quest will be rushing into situations they can’t control, and possibly moving further along than they feel comfortable with, but, on the other, it does keep that vital immersion factor going. Good example: Killing your first dragon. The military aren’t going to wait for you, and so, going seems pretty important. Even if it turns out I’m wrong, and it isn’t mandatory to follow them, it certainly puts some virtual pressure on. But, as my play time increased, I saw the cracks…

Skyrim is the first Elder Scrolls game to be designed for console accessibility, and, in places, it shows. Is this a bad thing? It’s not bad, it’s not good, it’s just different. For example, while the mouse controls for inventory and conversation choices are finicky (and downright annoying in the character creator, due to small sliders), using the keyboard is actually much simpler, and the interface itself has become a lot more user-friendly, with nearly everything do-able with just the direction keys, mouse buttons, E and Q keys. The obviously regenerating health (not ultra-speedy, we’re talking obvious to an RPG player here) feels sort of odd, but considering factors I’ll get to in a bit, it’s nonetheless welcome. What isn’t so welcome is the lack of HUD tips for things previous games told you, like the fact that you have a disease. Check your active effects semi-regularly people, because the messages are easy to miss, and I almost became a vampire, thanks to not realising I was about to catch it. Dual wielding finally came to the Elder Scrolls with Skyrim as well, and good god, it feels good… although instakills for both you and your opponent when low on stamina is a mixed blessing.

There’s too much to talk about in one sitting, so, with these examples in mind, I’m going to say that, where Skyrim gives with one hand, it takes away with the other. Argonians, for example, finally have some semi-regular use for that Water Breathing fix they had back in Oblivion, yet melee characters will quickly find themselves in large amounts of the brown stuff if they don’t also take mage and rogue skills. This isn’t much of a problem, because characters in the Elder Scrolls can learn anything they want, but pure melee characters are definitely a tougher proposition than in previous games.Skyrim5

One thing that I will finish on is the difficulty. To say the difficulty in this game is erratic is like saying ghost chillis are “slightly warm”. One second, you can be happily slaying skeletons in single hits, and the next, a Master Vampire might lay the smackdown. Or you could be walking merrily along, slaying some bandits as you go, and… you hear the dreaded wing-flaps of a dragon, the screech that lets you know it’s seen you, and… you might as well savescum there and then until you’ve got some decent cutlery. It’s also quite glitchy, crashing while screenshotting, screwing up the Steam overlay on PC, and, in one instance, hurling me 200 feet up from a giant’s smackdown, only to crash as I tried to screenshot the awesome. And then refusing to catapult me when I reloaded the game and died again to try and bring you some awesome-sauce.


Skyrim is good, but it’s a flawed good. It’s a different experience in many ways to previous Elder Scrolls games, but, at the same time, it’s still the familiar world Elder Scrolls fans know and love. It has the usual kickass story, but the difficulty curve is a bit wobbly, to say the least, and, in general, it’s a story of give and take. I’d still give this my thumbs up, but only to RPG fans, as opposed to newbies to the genre. You want a “my first RPG” to ease you in, this isn’t it. You want an entertaining, but sometimes frustrating experience? Go for it, empty your wallets, and don’t be like the douches who torrented this game with no intention of buying.

EDIT: The review was written after 33+ hours, the specific paragraph was written 4 hours in. Apologies for the confusion.

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On Games Journalism: The Complications (Edited Reprint)

This piece was originally printed on my personal blog, while planning the move back to freelance Game Journalism. Certain sections have been extended.

So, Joe Martin, a short while back, wrote a deservedly scathing piece on Games Journalism and Money , specifically the phenomenon (Which I myself have fallen victim to at least once in the past, for reasons I’m going to go into) of unpaid reviewing, often badly justified. I’d recommend you read that piece first, because it’s an actual concern, and it’s pretty widespread. Furthermore, I’m going to go into a bit of detail as to why this hurts the industry in general.

So, the problem of pay is one that has struck journalism all over, but has affected Games Journalism on pretty much an endemic basis, pretty much since the internet hit. There are also several factors that complicate things, and it’s those I want to go into a little.

There Is No “Ideal” Pay Scale

I thought I understood this game at about five hours. Then I hit the biiiig difficulty spike for completionists at around fifteen. I still play an hour or two every now and again, but it will be a long time before I finish it.

That you should be paid for your writing, and that the review copies are tools for your job, not the pay itself, is indisputable. It is a product you are meant to review, for your job. But there are only two types of payscale out there: Flat rate, and per [X Period]. Neither of them are ideal for games reviewing. Let’s start with per hour, to illustrate the point.

Let us say I am paid £6.75 an hour (Pretty close to the minimum wage for my country) for reviewing one of two games. One of them takes four hours to complete (Allowing a complete picture of the game), another can be completed in thirty hours, but a complete picture of how the game works may take up to fifty. Bam, instant lack of incentive to choose the smaller (But possibly better) game. It doesn’t help that, unless it’s on Steam, your editor can’t actually check how many hours you’ve played unless all work is done in the office. As any freelancer can tell you, this mostly isn’t where you’re doing things from.

The same applies to a flat rate, but the other way around… I am encouraged to pick the smaller game to review, because it will give me a better return on my writing. It must also be noted that how buggy a game is can further skew this, one way or the other. Sword of the Stars 2, for example, brought my computer to a BSOD four times when I reviewed it, and if that had screwed my computer? Well, then either the editor has to fork out for replacements (Providing the company has such policies, and really, since they’re also tools of work, they technically should), or you’re out of pocket for not only the review (Which won’t be able to be technically finished), but also the replacement parts.

“What about a sliding scale?” Ah, well that disincentivises the editors and owners from larger games. They have to pay you more, for a larger product.

Personally, I’m okay with a good flat rate, and so are most folks I know. But it’s not ideal, and I doubt it ever will be. But so long as I feel compensated for the hours of work, I’m good. Of course, this segment applies mainly to places with multiple writers, and for freelancers wishing to work for said places. For writers who wish to go it alone… It’s somewhat different.

Many Editors Won’t Take Ex-Unpaid Writers

You may like my writing, you may not. I hope you do, because I enjoy writing, and I enjoy talking about games. But the very fact that I have, in the past, gambled on a startup which has pulled this unpaid (Oh, but we’ll pay you if the site starts paying out!) bullshit has, and will bar me from writing for many paid sites.

In my defence, I will say that unemployment makes you do desperate things at times, reaching for any olive branch that will even have a chance of getting you out of the dole queue. But it also needs to be said that punishing the potential writer for taking such a gamble, out of desire for entering a field that, quite frankly, isn’t amazingly friendly to newbies (Due to limited paid positions, and a relatively low turnover in writers) is Not Cricket.

Judge a writer by their writing, by their passion, their style, and their eye. Please don’t judge a writer for falling for promises, because as it stands, it’s not easy to get in to the treehouse.

Why It’s Hard To Get Into The Paid End

A selection from Gamejournalismjobs.com … Most of these adverts can and will use the language in Joe’s article. Oh, it’s always so fun to scroll through the- [shoots self]

Go google game writing jobs. I’m a member of a LinkedIn group for video game writers. I search every now and again. And 90% of what you find will effectively be these unpaid internships. Even many of the “paid” positions will either have some restrictive conditions, or will have catches. I’m looking at one right now that isn’t paid in the work sense, but offers $30 for the “best contributor of the month”. Of the month. I’m looking at another, and I don’t actually see a mention of pay beyond its existence. I may ask them what, exactly, they’re paying… But I don’t expect a very useful answer.

I can remember the last time PC Gamer made a call for new freelancers. because I sent a piece in. I can’t recall getting a reply back, though. And you can guarantee a lot of writers applied. We’ve already mentioned low turnover on paid sites, but another problem is knowing which sites pay. Because you can guarantee jobsites like Indeed or LinkedIn aren’t too helpful. You can definitely guarantee many places and groups specifically for game journalism are going to be a fucking slog, because all of them, to some extent or another (With an average of “Two hours before potentially finding an actual paid job on a given day) suffer from the problem I’ve already mentioned.

As to going it alone, it’s decidedly difficult. No matter what people will tell you, you have to advertise. You have to push yourself out there to get noticed, and, if you’re going the crowdfunded route, to get paid. In a very real sense, people will resist this, not only because there’s this (false) perception it’s not a real job (More on that below), but because even the majority of folks who have a stable income will, on some level, resent the idea of paying for what manifestly appears free. They resent adverts, but, paradoxically, won’t support a writer to ensure said adverts don’t happen, and that the articles keep coming. And there is this perception that any nonstandard job that requires a Patreon or the like to stay alive is “Not real work, just begging.” Let’s discuss that for a moment.

It’s Not A “Real” Job (AKA “Fuck You, Got Mine”)

I’m writing this one from a mainly UK perspective, but it’s true nearly everywhere that, to many folks (Including our “lovely” Department of Work and Pensions), writing reviews, much less games journalism, isn’t a “real” job. Never mind that breach of contract is a real thing. Never mind that reviewing and games journalism has a code of ethics. Never mind that, if you’re doing the job, you should get paid for it. Getting advocacy for rights to the pay that you deserve is an uphill struggle, because the majority of folks who could advocate for you, who could punish potential employers for an unlawful (and unethical) internship contract, aren’t going to, because people still think of games as this limited, almost whimsical field.

“Oh, you play games for money? How quaint.”

Yeah, tell that to the QA Team who are tearing their hair out (sometimes literally), right this very minute, when they’re told “Oh, we’ll wait for the Console QA team to report this bug before we take it seriously” (An actual thing I have heard from at least one QA lead, although I will protect the sources). Tell that to the copywriters, panicking because there’s no way anyone’s going to buy this thing the company rushed, no matter how they dress it up, all over a fucking release date. And tell that to me, who lost at least one computer in the line of reviewing, who has had companies stop talking to him because he wasn’t afraid to say that their product was deeply flawed , and who has been told at times that 33 hours is nowhere near enough to have an idea of how to review Skyrim… Despite the fact that the game can be completed in less than 20 if you don’t faff about, and a number of other factors that conspire to say “Why yes, actually, you can get enough of a picture in 30 hours to review quite a lot of games.”

It All Ties Together

Image Source: An article by The Drum on “The Ad Tech Minefield”. Only somewhat fitting, but still…

Of course, this leads to a gigantic interrelated clusterfuck. We’re saturated in potential viewpoints, and that’s good, variety in viewpoints is useful for reviews! Problem is, for the newcomer to the field (Or even someone like me, who did 3 years of reviewing and games writing), it’s not easy to get paid. You’re going to get a lot of heartbreak, a lot of applications with no reply, and you’re going to be told that it isn’t a real job. It’s tempting to write somewhere for free, but the very act of doing so, no matter how much it builds your skills from practice (And hopefully mentoring) is going to close doors on you.

It’s small wonder so many folks are trying to pay their bills through crowdfunding, and though I don’t hide things behind a paywall, make no mistake… I have bills to pay too, and if I can’t pay them, I can’t keep writing. Because we’re not a friendly field… In fact, right now, we’re a minefield. And it’s going to take a lot of work to dig out those mines. I want to work toward that, and so do many others. David Wolinsky, who has tirelessly been interviewing games industry figures to combat misinformation about the field. Lana Polansky, who covers Alt-Games and the oft-forgotten artistic side of the industry. Tanya DePass, who shows us that diverse viewpoints allow games to grow, to reach more people, and to speak to more people. Rock Paper Shotgun, one of the relative success stories, who, just like me, aren’t afraid to talk about The Publisher Silence, celebrate games for what they are, not just how much they cost. And many more. There are people out there who want the games industry to improve, for it to gain respect. There are people out there who, like you, are groaning in metaphorical agony when a game is released in a state best described as “A buggy, poorly written, corner-cutting mess” for £40.

But for the games industry itself to support them is unethical. For governments to support them takes away from education, healthcare, and other things that, were they to degrade, we’d notice. You want change? Support good games. Don’t pre-order. Look for diverse views on a product before buying, to see whether it’s really for you… And help keep those view diverse, by supporting a writer. Doesn’t have to be much, individually. Because, even in my own bailiwick of PC Gaming, there’s 14 odd million folks who play. And the more who help, the less an individual “needs” to pay to support better games writing.

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