Before I started making games, I reviewed them. I see a lot of novice mistakes in reviews I read, and I made them too. Heck, sometimes I still do.
However, at a certain point people started evidently caring about my reviews, including to the point where I started not just getting regular reviews but actually wound up writing for publication from time to time.
At a certain point I hit burnout and stopped reviewing as frequently, and now I’ve got a conflict of interest for reviewing games (so I mostly just review the biggest names around or things I really like), but I still feel the reviewing itch from time to time.
I’m also testing the water for doing a whole series on this, so let me know if you have any feedback, concerns, or good thoughts. I’m going to outline a number of different things here
The first rule of reviewing is “Don’t be a jerk.”
As a reviewer, you are obligated to both the audience and the creator of anything you are reviewing.
Your first commitment is to your audience. You want to treat them with respect and dignity. Don’t inflate value to drive sales (ah, affiliate programs!), and make sure to respect their intelligence.
Some of this just comes down to writing good reviews. Be detailed but not manipulative. That’s basic stuff.
The part of professionalism that doesn’t come across as often is your obligation to the creator of anything you’re reviewing.
You can call out garbage, that’s one-hundred percent fine. One of my greatest regrets as a reviewer is not calling out a particular product enough on some of its flaws, in part because I wound up going a little too soft on it, and while my voice probably won’t change the universe, it’s worth noting that a person who shared my preferences and followed my reviews may not have realized my true feelings about the game.
However, you also want to respect the effort and time that a creator put into their work. If it’s fundamentally flawed or entirely schlocky, then that’s the sort of situation where you come down hard (the example I mention above was fundamentally flawed in execution), but a good reviewer is not an internet troll.
Can you be colorful?
Should you be mean-spirited?
The general rule of thumb is that if you wouldn’t be okay with someone saying it about the product if you made it, don’t say it about something someone else made. Speak critically, but not rudely.
I struggle with clarity.
I’m a fan of long sentences and weasel words. I studied English in college.
As much as I used to make fun of communications majors, there is something to be said for the art of effective communication, especially in a review.
Make sure to format your review in such a way that you have clear points.
Always start with an introduction that talks about the product and makes clear which genre it’s in. I don’t suggest assigning a target audience (I occasionally see reviewers do this; it’s usually either unnecessary or patronizing). Give an initial first impression if doing so isn’t prejudicial to your later review content.
Wrap up with a clear conclusion. Make it clear whether you recommend the product, and if you have any concerns with it.
Remember that your most important part is the conclusion. If you whine about something for 80% of your review, then give a glowing conclusion, the people who skip to the end will see the glowing conclusion.
Though, generally, whining is not a good idea, which brings us to our next big topic…
You want to build a connection with your audience. Let people know what you think and how you feel; give them an insight into your judgments.
The big idea behind this is that you want to give your audience a feel for what you generally like or don’t like.
If I were to review a wargame of incredible complexity tomorrow, I’d have to be really clear about where I’m coming into my review from. Yeah, I work with games all the time, and I also have a decent interest in military history, but I won’t be describing anything for which I have a giant corpus of experience.
I always suggest drawing a lot of comparisons to other similar products to draw a line between what you like and how the product you’re reviewing either does it well or doesn’t. You want to be careful here (you are, after all, not reviewing every product simultaneously).
However, if you look at any major serious review (Consumer Reports stands out to me for this), you’ll see that a few references to other products slip through.
This is because the reviewer needs to build a rapport with their audience, and that’s including shared experiences. I’ve played more video games than I care to admit, so if I review a video game I share my experiences with seminal works that are similar to it (if possible), or otherwise draw comparisons to literature or film as I can.
You also need to be clear about what you like and don’t like. I’m not a huge fan of death spirals and complicated resource management that leads into death spirals. I’m the sort of guy who plays Forza Horizon with the rewind mechanic turned off to build up the challenge and I just restart a race if I’m doing poorly (in single-player, of course), to get practice in doing it right. That tells you a lot about my gaming preferences; I’m skill-driven, but I hate losing.
If I’m playing a survival game with really onerous resource mechanics, I need to make it clear in my review that a lot of my criticism comes from the fact that I don’t enjoy playing a game where eating becomes a concern every three minutes.
Qualification and Quantification
Qualification and quantification are two of the hardest parts in reviews, and I generally don’t like doing them unless I have to.
Qualification involves categorizing, tagging, and describing things, and it’s going to make up the majority of your review in a broad sense.
More particularly, however, the act of qualification in a review is boiling down whatever you’re reviewing into coherent units.
The big problem I see most people do with qualification is treating all products the same. If I took a roleplaying game like Rowan, Rook, and Decard’s Spire (link leads to my review) and compared it to GURPS Lite, I’d have a hard time qualifying them in the same way, even though they’re nominally in the same genre.
I like them both, but I am forced to confront the fact that different audiences will like each, and that I can’t do an apples-to-apples comparison with them.
In other terms, it would be like comparing Monopoly to Sim City. Yes, both offer play experiences, but they are very different experiences.
For this purpose, I suggest simply finding the four or five main “selling points” of the product and then trying to qualify them. For instance, in Spire I love the dice mechanics, the narrative-game interactions, the setting, the artwork and layout, and the prose. In GURPS Lite, I love the dice mechanics, characters, flexibility, speed, and robustness.
Quantification is something I have gotten much less fond of over the years. I used to try to do 1-5 scale ratings on multiple categories, now I do a 1-5 star scale overall if I’m required to do so.
Honestly, quantification is a bit dangerous. It can lead you into a lot of issues with practice; a 10/10 from one reviewer is meaningless, while a 7/10 may be high praise.
Notwithstanding all the controversies about games journalism, the problem with such a quantification is that it is entirely subjective in most cases, or too complex for the audience to appreciate in others.
Remember that reading a review is not a major investment. People are looking for guidance, not scientific dissertations on other things.
The one thing that I would even care to quantify is when that is an integral part of the experience. Cars have a lot of good quantifiable elements: how likely is it to break down in the first year, how much fuel does it consume, what is its resale value?
Games and literature, the two things I tend to review, have nothing like this. You can describe their general length, but that’s not necessarily going to reflect individuals’ experiences (or, for that matter, whether the time is well spent).
Cost can be mentioned, but I find this to be more important in tabletop roleplaying where pricing schemes are less standardized and value tends to be more wildly fluctuating than in video games, where costs are pretty standardized.
Even here, I tend to qualify. Does it offer more value than any other game?
I have more to say on each of these points if people are interested, but I think I’m beginning to go outside the bounds of a general overview.
Reviewing is a process of determining value, and estimating how the value you find applies to other people. I’m not a giant economics buff (though I am a bit of a dilettante and my interests have led me to that a little), but value assessment is one of the most important skills to have in daily life, to say nothing of difficulty.
A good reviewer is careful to make judgements, rather than emotional decisions. They can’t just follow a formula, but they need to make their ideas clear.