“If [game name] cost the same as a soft-shell taco, I’d suggest you run for the border.”
“I’ve found better scripts in amateur pornography.”
“You’re better off using your money to buy a hammer and pound gravel into your forehead.”
Reviews often dance a smug cha-cha over the line between brutal honesty and unrestrained spite. At best, game journalists are helping consumers spend wisely while giving developers insight on how to hone their craft. At worst, they’re defecating on years of hard work like a geekier version of the armchair quarterback.
The above quotes obviously fall under the latter classification. They were all from published reviews I had written during my eight-year tenure as a videogame journalist. At times, I went for the insulting (and hopefully funny) joke rather than helpful analysis.
I called a lot of babies ugly, though not without a tinge or two of guilt – exacerbated by some angry emails from rogue developers and snide comments from PR people at press functions. But my allegiance wasn’t to those making the games; my goal was to inform my readers about which titles were worth their precious time and hard-earned money. Admittedly, this came at the expense of some hurt feelings. When you’re making omelets, you have to break some eggs, right?
A little over a year ago, I switched sides. I accepted a position at publisher THQ, designing and writing for the WWE SmackDown vs. Raw series of videogames. I’m no longer the reviewer; I have become the reviewed. WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2009 was my baby, and it would be up for judgment by my former peers. Somewhere, karma was salivating something fierce.
Like all conscientious reviewers, I was well aware that oodles of effort went into making a videogame – even a lousy one. But I was still unprepared for how much the project would demand of me. As a journalist, when I wanted to write a good review, the burden was, for all intents and purposes, on my shoulders to make it so. All that stood between me and my goal was a finicky editor who may not have agreed with my sentiments.
As I stepped off the bus in Designerville, I could see it was much more complicated territory. My main concern was making the game as epically cool as possible, but that’s not necessarily at the forefront of everyone else’s mind. Much more powerful people than me just want to see the game come out on time and under budget – whether it’s the game of the year or a blank disc in a box. Our licensors are very protective of the IP, and scrutinize the characters’ every line and action. Our developers in Japan have a different philosophy and different ideas, which must integrate with our approach so everyone is – in the parlance of our times – on the same page. That’s a lot of chiefs and agendas compared to one writer advising readers avoid a bad game “like a proposition from a girl walking out of a VD clinic.”
Of course, we weren’t developing our game in a secure bunker deep underground. Rather, it was constantly submitted for preview coverage – a frightening prospect for a designer, but vital for pre-release hype. Things you hold dear yet haven’t been able to perfect are up for scorn – but good can come from it.
When I wrote a preview as a journalist, I gave the game the benefit of the doubt: If something looked wonky, I assumed it would be fixed, and chose to willfully ignore the issue. This creates politically correct but also very bland previews – and explains why I rarely read them myself. Now, as a designer, I propose something different.
It’s in this crucial time period, well before release, that journalists can offer valuable insight to designers. If something isn’t working, writers should say something, albeit a bit more tactfully than in a review when there’s nothing more that can be done. A critical preview may be a thorn in the side of a PR representative, but it can also result in more favorable reviews – provided the developer can correct the issues the preview addresses. When a designer is fighting for an inclusion in his game, journalist feedback is a sharp blade to wield.
While the press was previewing my team’s work in progress, I tried to inwardly review the game myself. At first, I thrilled to every new addition. But I eventually became desensitized to aspects of the game I was initially psyched about and blind to some of its glaring flaws. I was so immersed in the project that the question “Am I making a good game?” was impossible to answer.
Only at the end of a whirlwind cycle, when I could take a moment to step back and reflect, did I discover I had made something I was very proud of: a new mode to a game I thought was vastly improved over the previous year’s iteration. WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2009 wasn’t perfect, and maybe it could’ve used more time, money and manpower. But so could every single other game on store shelves; so could every other product for sale. Only one question remained: Would the gaming world put its arms around me in an appreciative embrace, or wrap its fingers around my neck in an attempt to strangle me?
In the days just before release, I was simultaneously at my most hopeful and most vulnerable. Checking my mail one afternoon, I receive an issue of Official Xbox Magazine. I rushed inside, called my wife over and flipped through the pages. There it was: my first review.
Betraying my instincts, I skipped to the score: 8.5. Hot damn, that’s not bad! I read the review aloud, finally coming to the part about my contribution: “Shining in the spotlight is the new Road to Wrestlemania mode …” The writer sprinkled words like “brilliant” and “great” to describe the new addition to the series. He even said it was “awesome” in the little plus/minus section by the score! I felt that goose-bumpy tingling usually reserved for the sappy moments in movies. My wife said she wanted to cry. It may have been the proudest moment of my life.
After the pride subsided, I told myself that I could not let reviews affect me this much. Since this was my first one, I allowed myself a pass. More positive assessments would come, as would negative ones. I needed to keep an even keel and retain confidence in what I had produced.
More reviews poured in over the following month. The game scored well, amassing a Metacritic score of 80 – pretty darn good for the ninth sequel to a game about dudes throwing each other around. A respected outlet proclaimed, “I’ve never been so compelled to play through the story mode in a SmackDown game.” A smaller, wrestling-focused site wrote, “This is perhaps the best wrestling game story mode yet.” They liked me! They really liked me!
Okay, not everyone liked me. Some called my mode “bland,” “unoriginal” and “dull.” I was prepared for the complaint that not every character had his/her own story. But I relished the constructive criticism. I preferred a seven rating that made great points to a nine where it was evident the writer didn’t bother playing the thing. Of course, that put me in the minority among my cohorts. I didn’t have to endure any epic zingers comparing the game to flaming dog doo, but there’s always my next year-long opus. And that’s a fear that will aid me in future endeavors.
Journalists and developers aren’t all that different in the grand scheme of things – my story is proof of that. Both have what others would consider “dream jobs.” In the social pecking order, the majority of them are seated at the slightly geeky, above average cleverness table. Their goal is the same: to get great games into the hands of gamers. It’s just that one side has the power of judgment and the other the power of creation. If both sides respect each other’s powers, maybe peace has a chance.
Justin Leeper is a designer for THQ’s WWE games. He has experience in game journalism, pro-wrestling and stunt-fighting. He will chop you if you ask nicely.