GDC 2012 – “How Games Get Reviewed” panel: Review

by Scott Nichols

At GDC 2012, former IGN Executive Editor Erik Brudvig gave a talk on “How Games Get Reviewed.” To be honest, I expected it to be a bit silly, so I attended in hopes of writing a satirical “review” of the review panel. However, instead I’m shifting gears to do something a little more… shall we say, productive.

The talk was geared primarily toward people in PR, as a means to illuminate what goes on behind the scenes when a game review is written from which writer is assigned a review to playing the game and the process of writing a review. I can certainly see why someone in PR would be curious about that process, much like how I would be curious to hear about the process of which freelance pitches are approved by various outlets. In both cases there is a sense of sending a piece of yourself into the ether, waiting for a mysterious “black box” to produce something in response. So it was a bit sad to sit in the audience and listen to Erik expound on a process that, as a reviewer myself, sounded entirely foreign to me.

Despite both working in games media and writing game reviews, Erik and I both obviously have very different perspectives – him being an executive editor for 6 years at IGN whereas I have been a freelance writer for half that time. So I would never presume to say that his talk on reviewing games was incorrect; it was merely hyper-specific to IGN.

Some parts of his talk did ring true to my experience. For example, when discussing which games get reviewed by outlets and who reviews them. Every outlet that I write reviews for has first asked me which game genres I’m best versed in and which I’m not, which reinforces his point that sites try to fit game reviews with someone familiar with the genre. I have also had editors tell me they were not interested in reviewing certain games that I have pitched, which goes to a point Erik made about sites curating which games to review based on time limitations and audience interest.

However, one point Erik made in particular irked me. In his talk, Erik discussed several “sticking points” that may influence reviews. One of those points was that games are reviewed in a busy office cubicle versus a natural gaming environment. This was made into a fairly major point, emphasized with a picture of Erik with his cat at home on his couch and controller in hand next to a picture of a cluttered IGN desk with three monitors, only one of which was for playing a game. I stared at the slide and simply though, “what?” This seemed utterly bizarre to me, since my own reviewing is done on the same couch as any game I would play for fun. Yes, I’ll have a notepad on hand for review notes, but even when playing a game for fun I am never far from twitter’s reach for a quick quip on something I just experienced.

In general, scanning the bylines on nearly any gaming publication (with the exception of Game Informer) more and more you will see freelance writers showing up for reviews. So it seemed a bit disingenuous to speak on behalf of “how games get reviewed” without mentioning the freelance factor. I’ll admit that the behind-the-scenes discussions about who reviews what and a site’s target audience may take place, but as a freelancer I am not part of those conversations. The only hint I get that those conversations exist is when an editor approaches me asking my familiarity with a franchise before a review. But even then I do not know how my experience stacks up to other writing candidates, having never spoken to them on the subject and usually not even knowing who I would be potentially speaking to. There is an aspect of team collaboration in reviews that Erik alluded to that as a freelancer I have yet to experience.

Never once has an editor asked me to review a game in a certain way for their site’s audience, at least not beyond the standard style guide of the site which is really more instructive on how to format a review and things like whether to use first, second, or third person voice. Erik suggested something of this nature happens in reviews, using the example that IGN and USA Today would review Gears of War 3 and Just Dance 3 very differently; overall making it sound like the reviews and accompanying scores would be more reflective of their audience than the individual reviewer. That may be the case as a staff writer for either publication, but freelance provides a different perspective.

While my reviews are seen as the expressed opinion of whichever outlet publishes them, they are also first and foremost my own opinion. They are my portfolio, used as examples of my expertise in this field when I approach new outlets for written work. The wording and style may differ from site to site, but the overall review and sentiment I write for one outlet will be the same as what I would submit to any other. Maybe that makes me a bad reviewer, but editors seem to have been pretty happy with it so far. Some good information can be gleaned from Erik’s GDC talk, but the message is far from complete. Freelance writers have become an integral part of the industry, so to ignore their impact in a talk about how games get reviewed is a failure of its stated goal.

I rate “How Games Get Reviewed” from GDC 2012 a 3 out of 10.