It’s time to retire game rankings

Infendo

The futureI doubt they realize what they’ve done. The couldn’t possibly, unless it was some kind of grand satire experiment where they themselves were trying to epitomize — using a mirror — what was wrong with their medium. A certain web site today gave Halo 3 (which I am 100% positive will be amazing for a Halo game) a perfect score. They weren’t the first, and certainly won’t be the last, and that’s unfortunate.

How ironic that a vote of perfect purity actually betrays how sick the industry’s press has become.

On that note it’s time to banish, eliminate, put down or otherwise kill — or at least modify in ways that would leave them looking nothing like the do today — video game review scores.

What’s going on today isn’t really fair to gaming. It’s not. While some people out there might be dancing in the streets over the bevy of perfect 10’s a few FPS’s have received over the past year, what they’re really doing without even realizing it is breathing a huge sigh of relief. They’re content because it seems that nothing is going to change, and life will remain as it has been for the past 10 years. How boring that would be.

By a show of hands, who here thinks that the perfect 10’s we’re going to see this week (and to an extent saw with BioShock) are being accompanied by an unconscious “take that, Nintendo!” by the reviewers? Sure, in 1up.com’s case (how is ZDNet doing these days, anyway?) the disdain for all things Nintendo is palatable, but for some of the less obvious venues you can’t help but notice that the most significant part of the review — the text, not the number — comes up woefully short of perfection. And yet the prize is awarded, and a blind eye is turned. Denial, they say, is not just a river in Egypt.

What’s troubling is when I see a lot of something like this being repeated over and over again at completely different sites: “It’s not perfect, oh no, but it’s perfect Halo. 10/10.” On the face of it, that’s not a bad review to get, but it only helps you make a buying decison if you’re a Mountain Dew drinking Halophile in the first place. Everyone else, which constitutes the vast majority of people, will not be enticed to try new things by these reviews. In fact, as I’ve said before, I believe that in two weeks’ time we’ll all be moving on to something else.

Meanwhile, there was yet another geezers playing Wii Sports article today. Was the reporter perhaps a little late to the party with this one? Yes. But that’s attacking the messenger, and not the message. The message? Great games that introduce paradigm-changing mechanics rule the day as they change the playing field forever. Wii Sports’ aggregate score? It’s not a 10, of that you can be sure. Hey, at least it won an award last week, right?

But Jack, you say, Halo 3 wasn’t designed for those people. You are being an obtuse and — as usual — obnoxious fanman. That’s completely true! I’d say. And great for Bungie. They know their audience and the game was marketed to that audience about as perfectly as could be expected. The marketing gets a 10/10, and 10 out of 10 Halo lovers agree that this is a good game. But that’s not what we’re talking about here, remember? Don’t get distracted! That’s how the terrorists win!

The “problem’ here is how an industry has become an echo chamber for only one type of gamer, and how the objective press, which is supposed to do its research and present facts and truthful analysis, is actually more like a fan club executive council. That’s not an environment conducive to inviting in new people to try gaming — which is today considered an obnoxious club by many parents and young adults — which in turn will beget a smaller and smaller base of consumers. With that dynamic, we all lose, regardless of individual gaming preferences.

The great thing is we consumers and readers get to vote with our wallets and our eyeballs. I haven’t visited 1up.com in months, because it offers nothing different from far better “hardcore” sites I frequent (hardcore gaming sights, you pervs). I’ve also eliminated Kotaku’s RSS feed from my Google Reader. Not because I don’t like them, but because I already had Joystiq in there first, and they’ve managed to break down their coverage into far more targeted and relevant Fanboy sites. There’s no real differentiator there, so I cut the redundancy loose.

What I hope will happen, in addition to a streamlined review process that uses 5 stars (or 5 whatevers) like the movies, is that new review sites will begin to pop up to feature intelligent, eloquent reviews and commentary. The number will be the least important part of the review, and readers will make their decision thanks to exhaustive research of the genre, humor, scathing commentary, snarky headlines and context. Oh, and then there will be this tiny little box with a score off to the side. People will actually be encouraged to discuss a given game, rather than start a conversation with an arbitrary number.

This won’t happen at first. It may even take to the end of 2008. But it will happen. The ridiculous hardcore-only review sites will consolidate and fade away, with only the best of the best remaining. Filling the hole will be an intelligent system of well-read, well-played writers that will show that the industry has become mainstream and accepted by all walks of life. There will be women and young kids; fathers and a crusty old elderly man named Ned. And then there will be everyone else in between, all reviewing every type of game category with equal weight and comparing notes to see which game can actually achieve perfection and touch all categories equally. Does that kind of game sound crazy? Does it sound impossible? Does it sound too good to be true? Well, good. That’s what perfection is, and it isn’t something I want to see very often. As it stands today the game ranking press is positively polluted with perfection. It needs to be flushed.

Like I said, it won’t happen overnight, but it will happen. It will be, to use a cliche, a perfect 10.