Being a Good Reviewer

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

Professionalism

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?

Yes.

Should you be mean-spirited?

No.

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.

Communication

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…

Rapport

 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?

Wrapping Up

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.



The End of Silence (and Roll20)

“We don’t need more white male teachers.”

That was the moment I lost six months of my life. Thousands of dollars. I began keeping a secret, hiding in shame.

I was a student teacher at a local school, the one I graduated from. My mentor teacher was a new teacher there, one I hadn’t known as a student, and over the course of three or four weeks everything fell apart. My memory of the incidents erodes; from the start of the weeks where I was cheerfully walking to and from the school, poorly-sung words pouring from my mouth to the end, where the only singing was in celebration of the end.

For three and a half years I had been studying to become a teacher.

In three and a half weeks, it was almost undone. When it ended, I was glad for it.

We don’t really need to delve into the details that got me back on track to become a teacher, or the experiences I went through when it all started to fall apart. I stopped sleeping except when crushed by fatigue, stopped eating except to keep up appearances, and stopped living until the storm had passed.

Not all of the troubles I experienced were unjustified; I had been poorly prepared by a program that hadn’t challenged me and hadn’t given me any hands-on exposure to my future trade until after I had “mastered” the theory; something which I have come to understand, on the basis of cognitive theory, does students no favors: the knowledge decays before it can be applied.

But the scariest part of the whole ordeal is the fact that the cataclysmic blow that shook me–the statement by a (white) teacher that we didn’t need people like me to be teachers (this amidst a massive shortage)–was met with a response that looked something like this:

“Well, yes, it would be ideal to have diverse teachers, but I’m the exception.”

The only reason I bring this up at all is that I see echoes of my experiences everywhere.

I’m not an extremist. I’m pretty politically moderate, and shy away from it.

But, at the same time, people don’t talk about this. When they do it meets two responses:

1. Changing the Subject

Polite laughter, minor discomfort. The victim of very real discrimination is written off as an extremist or as having a grudge:

This is what has kept me silent all these years, because simply saying “I experienced discrimination as a white straight male” is capable of serving as a death sentence for your career and your hopes.

I want to make it clear: I faced this discrimination, to my knowledge, exactly once.

The consequences, however, were no less real for me than the consequences of any discrimination against anyone. I was perhaps “privileged” in the fact that I was permitted to recover some of my standing and do the (supposedly) rare feat of acquiring a second student teaching position after leaving a first.

However, I was certainly not privileged by fair treatment and an ability to think of myself as just another person.

Prior to this incident, I had never thought of myself as white, at least not as my whiteness being a distinguishing factor setting me apart from anyone else.

2. Not “Real” Discrimination

The other response is simple:

“You’re not part of an oppressed class, so it’s not real discrimination.”

Where is the line drawn?

At what point is discrimination acceptable before it becomes a problem?

When can you condemn one person for another’s sins and not tarnish your own soul?

When can you take a class and judge an individual by it?

The nefarious element of all discrimination isn’t when it’s seen as awful and unacceptable. I’m glad that people are willing to stand up against people who discriminate; we need to do this.

We need to stand united on all fronts. We can’t just say “It’s never okay to discriminate” and have an unspoken clause of “unless it’s people we don’t feel need protection.”

Ending the Lie

This is what happens when white men don’t get what they want.

I had originally intended to include links to a variety of articles and examples of this statement on social media, but I don’t want to come off as attacking anyone. This is an exact quote that followed the Parkland shootings.

Traditionally, the argument that there can be no “racism against whites” is that there aren’t social hierarchies that oppose them.

However, there are so many memes floating around (in the Dawkins-esque sense) like the one above that they’re far from difficult to find.

I recall a time not too long ago when one of my relatives posted, in response to something political involving some sort of natural disaster or terror attack that she was “more afraid of young white men with guns” than whatever had caused the tragedy at hand.

Is it any surprise that young white men feel afraid when they are characterized in such a way? The only way to steer people away from violence is to show them an alternative. The act of feeding a narrative that white men are perceived more prone to violence is a self-fulfilling prophecy, much as similar narratives devastated minority communities.

What about Roll20?

Gaming is a passion for me.

I’ve been pretty negative so far in this essay, so I want to take a moment to affirm something positive that I believe:

Gaming is a tool to bring humans together. It transcends race, creed, gender, sexuality, and every other divisive category. Not everyone plays the same games, but play is a part of the human psyche.

Yesterday, I learned about something that moved me to end my silence.

I want to stress that the allegations that have been made are not necessarily verified. I have been through a similar experience, and it rings true to me. I haven’t seen a denial or a contradictory account, and several of the people involved have corroborated the same account.

Roll20 is an online service for playing roleplaying games. I’ve used them a lot in the past, though my use has dwindled because of having more personal obligations now that I’ve gotten more serious about making games.

It’s an okay service, though many people have gotten frustrated with the lack of meaningful changes in some areas of the platform (including, coincidentally, the user whose undeserved ban set off the whole incident). I definitely fall in that camp; I don’t feel Roll20 is as far ahead of some of the alternatives as it used to be, and I feel more and more like it’s outdated every time I use it.

The problem, however, isn’t the quality of the service, but allegations that have come to light about the treatment given to a group of content creators by one of its founders, Nolan T. Jones.

The story as I understand it goes along these lines: a number of roleplaying game content creators, among them Jim Davis and Cody Lewis, wanted to get together to do a show and asked Roll20 if they could get sponsored to do the show with them.

The response was that they wouldn’t, because Roll20 didn’t want to sponsor “five white men,” but Nolan was willing to go into detail about how the company would sponsor minorities (and bragged about a previous instance where doing so made a previously unknown talent famous).

Did Davis and Lewis deserve an endorsement and sponsorship? I don’t know. However, there are so many things wrong with Nolan’s actions, and by extension Roll20’s actions.

The problem lies in the question of why the decision was made. Roll20 can, theoretically, sponsor as many people as it likes, subject to budget concerns. However, the key decision making factor here, as Lewis states, is skin color and gender.

Part of me originally wanted to say that it’s okay in some contexts; Roll20 has the right to brand themselves as diverse, after all, but that argument doesn’t seem internally consistent.

  1. Their own policies don’t allow for people to recruit on those lines when setting up games on their platform, so there’s a hypocritical double standard.
  2. Would that argument hold up if tried with any other demographic and go without at least some condemnation? If they’d flipped the tables and said “Whites wouldn’t like a diverse broadcaster lineup”, wouldn’t they be seen at least as cowardly or bigoted in their justification of how potential talent would appeal (or not) to certain demographics?
  3. The whole issue goes against Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous admonition that people be judged “not by the color of their skin, but by their character”

Many of them prefer not to use the term discrimination to refer to the incident, but Cody Lewis of Taking20 has come forward with a statement involving what happened.

https://i.redd.it/obyrl2tzd2p11.png
Image courtesy of u/takingd20

I won’t be using Roll20 again. I’ve canceled my subscription, more because this incident reminded me that I don’t use it than any sense of offense.

At the same time, it would be nice to have a chance to get some clarification from Roll20. Unfortunately, they have not released any official statements, other than deciding to stop moderating the subreddit on which the allegations were revealed.

I don’t think they owed anyone anything, but if the accounts that I’ve heard were accurate, it sounds like Jones took glee in the revelation that he was willing to do business with some people but not others because they weren’t “different” from the mainstream roleplaying community.

Why It Matters

I’m a believer in the value of principle over expedience.

We want a future where everyone has a chance to participate on an equal playing field. That means moving beyond zero-sum game and identitarian ways of thinking, because these worldviews only lead to conflict.

One day, I will have kids of my own. They will be at least 50% white, and have an even chance of being male. They will have their own dreams, their own hopes.

I want them to live in King’s dream, a world where their character, and their choices, define them more than the color they may wind up being or the biology they may have.

The carte blanche denial that whites can be discriminated against fuels the very extremists that the denial is supposed to restrain. Left without validation for your experiences, it is very easy to walk the road of bitterness and hate. Only God saved me from bearing a grudge against a person who discarded my dreams, who took my hopes and tore them up because I didn’t fit the demographic that she desired to see.

You don’t have to go very far to create resentment. It starts with a drop, but it’s a bucket that fills quick because people only see their own experiences.

Unfortunately, it’s become expedient to blame a class rather than a person, to seek correlation rather than causation. We don’t want to confront the things that lead to evil, because they can be found in us.

The truth is that we should evaluate everyone on their merits. That means moving beyond simple explanations like “privilege” and “hierarchies”, and embracing individuals for who they are.

I think we can all agree on that.

Finally Reviewing the Samsung HMD Odyssey

Samsung HMD promotional image courtesy of Amazon (affiliate link).

Alright, I’ve been using my VR headset for months now, so it’s time to review the Samsung HMD Odyssey.

This is something that was an incredibly expensive “impulse” purchase for me, in the sense that I was planning to eventually get a VR headset, and I’d been saving up money for one, but I basically tried it out in the store and then knew I had to have it.

First things first, you need to understand where Windows Mixed Reality stands on the VR Headset market.

What is Windows Mixed Reality?

Windows Mixed Reality is basically what you would call a VR headset.

The Mixed Reality term is something of a misnomer; the system doesn’t support any AR or MR features, like interacting simultaneously with physical and digital objects. The outward cameras are apparently IR-only, though I haven’t heard much about this or checked it out myself, so don’t expect further support in a software update.

The Windows Mixed Reality platform works well on Windows, obviously. There are some third-party open source systems that claim to have some support for them, but the only experience I have is with OpenVR, which only works with WMR on Windows through the Mixed Reality Portal, which is a native Windows application.

However, once you have a WMR headset, you will find that 90% of the VR software out there is compatible with it. I haven’t had any issues with abject incompatibility, and while many experiences are designed with the outside-in tracking rather than the inside-out tracking of WMR that won’t be too much of an issue.

Inside-Out Tracking

The selling feature of WMR for me is that it has inside-out tracking. This can create a handful of issues (for instance, I find it hard to get height scaling correct at times), but it also means a vastly reduced setup and the ability to play in any environment.

I literally just push my chair back from my desk when I’m ready to use the headset, and then back up to it so that I have a frame of reference so I don’t start punching furniture.

This means that there aren’t any cables or battery-powered equipment required other than the headset and motion controllers. Low setup, low maintenance, and low clutter are the selling points of the WMR setup.

I have occasionally experienced some minor hiccups with tracking, but it’s not usually significant. The tracking FOV is pretty good, and you usually can figure out what went wrong and fix how you’re holding the controllers once you’ve spent as much time in VR as I have, which is not an astronomical amount of time.

An important note here is that not every VR device has the same controller, but the WMR controllers are pretty robust, with trackpads (that have touch sensitivity and d-pad style pressing functionality), thumbsticks (that click in), menu and grip buttons, triggers, and a Windows button, they really are as functional as a gamepad with the extra feature of motion tracking to add icing to the cake.

Why Samsung?

Well, I’m a little brand loyal to Samsung. I can’t really afford many Samsung products, or at least not cutting-edge ones, but I’ve always had good experiences with them.

However, the real selling point on the Samsung HMD Odyssey is that it’s got a little bit more cutting-edge technology in it than some of its competitors. This is marked by a higher price-tag, but it is made up for in a couple ways.

First, there’s a higher FOV and vertical resolution, which pays off. The 110 degree FOV is nice, though I don’t have experience with other headsets for a comparison. You’ve got about 160 more pixels of vertical resolution (1440×1600 panels), with AMOLED rather than LCD displays.

Let me just say this: looking through the lenses, the only obvious difference between reality and VR comes from how stuff is rendered and the occasional grid effect, which only happens when you’re really focused on certain things (I find it to matter only in rare cases where I’m closely examining distant objects).

Another feature is the integrated headphones and microphone. These weren’t necessarily deal-breakers, but certainly set Samsung apart from the other WMR headsets.

It’s worth noting that the headset is a little heavy. If you strap it down right, a lot of the weight balances well, but wearing it too loose will cause issues, something that I often encountered during play sessions when it was pushing 85 degrees in the room.

My Experiences

One of the things that I noticed about myself when I play in VR versus outside VR is that the experiences are a lot more personal. One of my favorite VR experiences is Skyrim VR, and it definitely feels more frenetic and emotionally charged than standard play (and I’ve got over 400 hours to compare to). Archery and gun-play cannot be approximated by traditional control schemes, but are really fun with motion controllers.

I haven’t really tried any of the VR setups that are intended for mouse and keyboard or gamepad play. I’m strictly using motion controller-based titles.

The motion controllers are pretty nice; I have some issues with the battery hatch coming loose on the right controller from time-to-time, but I also have large hands and tend to mash my grip down really hard, which means that I’m essentially pushing on them in exactly the way you’d want to open them. It’s not a huge issue, and being conscious of my posture when I hold the controllers mitigates this. Every game has a slightly different control scheme, which is a pain, but not insurmountable.

I’ve generally found that many of the “issues” with VR can be overcome if you’re willing to invest a little time in it.

Motion sickness, for instance, was an early issue. After a few hours, however, I found that it went away in 90% of cases. I also keep a physical frame of reference (the seat of my chair) and a fan blowing toward me, which helps as well. I’ve found that with this setup I don’t even need comfort settings in many games.

I did have an issue where one of the lenses of my display cut out while I was playing. Samsung was pretty easy to deal with and I was able to send it off for service and have it back in about a week (service was covered under warranty).

Wrapping Up

In general, do I recommend a VR headset?

Definitely. Maybe not yet; $500 is a little steep, but if you want a much more immersive experience and you’re going to use the headset a lot, then I think it could be a good investment.

The Samsung Odyssey has been treating me really well. Barring that one incident I described above, it’s functioned flawlessly. I use rechargeable batteries in the motion controllers (affiliate link), which reduces the cost of operating the system a little over the long run. Each charge lasts for about a week or two of fairly “heavy” use for me, or a month or so if I’m using the headset very intermittently (like, say, during July when it was too hot to wear the headset).

As far as the different options go, I wholeheartedly recommend the Samsung offering, which is available at Amazon (affiliate link). When I got mine, I got it from a Microsoft store physical location and got a 10% educator discount, but if you’re not getting it in person I would strongly suggest Amazon; I haven’t had a bad experience with the Microsoft store online, but I don’t trust their shipping quite as much as I trust Amazon’s.

Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game 30th Anniversary Edition Review

Alright, I couldn’t help myself and I stopped by my FLGS. While there, I found a nice surprise on one of the shelves: the Star Wars WEG 30th Anniversary Edition.

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Audioshield and VR Design Experiences

I got Audioshield on sale, and I was pleasantly surprised by how different it was from the other VR experiences I’ve tried. I’m generally quite pleased with VR in general, but I noticed a few things that really stood out about how Audioshield was using its design in a much more efficient and smooth method than other games.

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Wrapping Up an RPG Campaign

One of the things that I’ve been asked about a few times is ending a campaign of D&D or other roleplaying games.

It’s the sort of thing that comes up from time to time because of the fact that many of these games are entirely open-ended. There aren’t any real stopping points or times to end the campaign scripted into most games, and barring a catastrophe that kills all the player characters (deserved or not), it’s hard to reach a point where the game comes to a satisfying conclusion.

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Extra: Gamer Guilt

I know a lot of gamers who won’t admit to it, or if they do will only admit to playing things like Portal or other cerebral but less mainstream games. Personally, I don’t go around saying that I’m a gamer either, even though I, of all people, recognize the value of gaming and I make it an important part of my studies, and have generally come to the conclusion that gaming tends to give people certain advantages. There’s a few reasons why I don’t really describe myself as a “gamer”.

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