Why User Reviews Are (Mostly) Useless.
The whole idea of boiling down an entire game experience to a single number is something that’s started to wear on me of late. It’s supposed to make for an easy judge of the overall quality of the game, combining all aspects of it together to give you something that makes it easy to compare it against other titles. However there’s usually far too much nuance in any particular game for that single number to be meaningful and whilst I still give them overall ratings I hope that the readers go through the whole review before reading the score so they can understand what lead up to it. There’s also the question of innate quality and how that should be reflected in the overall score, something which has lead to many questioning why critic reviews scores tend towards the upper end of the spectrum.
For me the explanation is simple, it’s survivor bias for the games that I actually finish (I hate not finishing games before reviewing them and will point that fact out when I do). This means there’s a certain quality bar that has to be hit for me to make it the whole through before giving it up and that pushes my average scores upwards. At the same time the objective quality of games (things like bugs, how the game plays, performance, etc) is actually quite high when you compare it to the past and thus it’s hard for a reviewer to give a game an absolutely terrible score when for the most part it’s a well done game.
Users on the other hand aren’t so sympathetic. Take for instance the current review scores for Call of Duty: Black Ops 2:
Taken at face value that’d have you thinking that it’s an absolutely atrocious game, one that the vast majority hates with an unbridled sense of passion. Contrasting that with the critic reviews and it’s easy to see why a lot of people jumped on the DoritoGate bandwagon, proclaiming loudly that all the reviewers where in the publisher’s pockets. The complaints are almost identical to all the previous releases most stating that it’s the same game with nothing new to offer or saying that the previous ones were better and they can’t believe they shelled out for it. Digging into the reviews however I started to notice some patterns that tell you that these user review scores are for the most part, total crap.
The first type of review pattern I came across was what I’ll call the Negative Nancy who’s long history of reviews are dominated mostly by scores in the 0-2 range. I’m not exactly sure what these users get out of writing and rating all these games so lowly but it seems like they’re dedicated to sending the user review score down as far as they can go even if they admit that the game has some redeeming features. Suffice to say it’s hard to take someone’s opinion seriously if all they’re doing is rating everything badly as you have no reference point to determine whether their style of reviews lines up with yours (unless you too, hate every game released).
The second, and most telling, are the Extremists. They are capable of dishing out both positive and negative reviews but do so only on the extremes of the spectrum with everything either being perfect or nothing at all. This kind of reviewing can be fine, if you give a rating in the form of something like recommend/don’t recommend, however their scores aren’t really any indication of the relative quality of the games due to the lack of graduation between the good and bad titles. That might be enough for some people but in all honesty if you want to know if a game is worth playing or not these kinds of reviews aren’t great indicators of that.
The final piece of information I’ll leave you with is the fact that there’s many people who are reviewing Black Ops 2, and in fact any of the most popular games, have just a single review. Now I’m not saying that only having one review discredits them completely but the fact that most of them have signed up just for the purposes of giving a negative review says a lot about their motivations for doing so. Indeed I believe many people will probably see an article like this one posted on a website and will immediately hop on the negative review bandwagon simply to be part of the crowd.
After saying all that though there were some negative reviews on there from people with long histories of reviews with varying levels of scores and those are the kinds of user reviews you can put some weight behind. They’re annoyingly rare unfortunately with most falling on either side of the extreme, rendering the overall score completely useless. The critic reviews are only better due to the long articles that come along with them (and not because of their overwhelmingly positive scores) and not the 2 sentences that accompanies the user reviews.
If you’re actually interested in proper reviews though I’m probably preaching to the choir here. We all know that games are incredibly hard to boil down to a single number and that’s usually heavily influenced by the reviewer’s biases. I try to lay all mine out on the table so you can get a feel for what led me to give the final score but I can’t say the same about the vast majority of user reviews on Metacritic I’ve read over the years. There are some good people on there but it’s akin to finding that elusive needle in a haystack, something that’s just not worth doing all the time.