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.



Review of Educated: A Memoir

I have a bad habit of accidentally purchasing things for Kindle, a side-effect of having the one-click purchase set up and too many tabs open at any given time.

The reason this is important is because I accidentally purchased Educated: A Memoir (affiliate link), as well as about a half-dozen other Kindle books over the course of the years.

Educated: A Memoir cover courtesy of Amazon.

I have no regrets.

Tara Westover tells her story in a deep, personal, no-holds-barred fashion, and that in and of itself would be enough to make it compelling if it didn’t also deal with a dysfunctional family dynamic that puts King Lear to shame (or, rather, would make him look well-adjusted).

It is impossible to truly describe what Westover manages to convey without taking so many words that it would be unconscionable to suggest reading the description rather than the source it mirrors, so I’ll have to fall back to a more basic description of my response.

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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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Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life Review

I took about a month to finish Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Amazon Affiliate link), in part because I wanted to slow down and try some of the advice in my life.

12 Rules for Life is an interesting book. Equal parts philosophy, psychology, and self-help book, it covers a broad range of topics, with Peterson drawing from life experiences, religion, and history to build a strong case for his points and provide what seems on its surface to be very good advice for people.

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Why Star Wars is Still Good

Yeah, so I’m going to try to write more stuff up here this year. Show that I’m alive. Since I got loreshapers.net up and going, this is back to being well and truly just my personal blog, and I’m also working past my “write something formal” stage and (hopefully) coming out of my shell as a better, more flexible writer.

Today’s topic: Star Wars, and particularly the Last Jedi. Spoilers ahead.

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Review: Starfinder

Alright, boys and girls, I’m back for some more punishment. For those who are new to me, I’ve been working on my own games for a while so I’ve been taking a back-seat on reviews, both because I don’t typically have time, and because that’s a heck of a conflict of interest (so take this with a grain of salt), but I’ve finally gotten my assorted appendages on a copy of Starfinder and I figured I’d write a review, since I was really excited for Starfinder and it was really something that covers a lot of my interests.

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Review: Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is an action-adventure game set in Middle Earth, which is most famous from the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Hobbit. As far as game inspirations go, it is most clearly inspired by Assassin’s Creed and the Batman: Arkham series of games, which it manages to blend together with a mix of the former’s intriguing stealth and the latter’s brawling fisticuffs, and add some of its own twists to the mix.

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