How to do a silent video game review?
- November 18, 2019
- Maciej Żmuda-Adamski
The success of a video game depends on many factors – the quality of the game itself, catchy ideas, great atmosphere, style and gameplay – as well as the promise that the title gives to gamers.
The marketing & PR activities and all the hype generated before the release date equally affect players’ reception of the game. But on top of all that comes one of the most important factors shaping how the market receives the game – its reviews and scores in VG media.
The moment of truth
The crucial time for the game is either when the embargo lifts and reviews appear, or during the first days following the launch. It often happens at the end of the production process, i.e. in the final “crunch” leading to the game’s launch and preparation of the day-one patch.
This is when the game’s creators keep their tabs on two things: they check whether the sales figures are rising according to plan, and monitor what the media says. Will it get scored green on Metacritic? Yellow? Or maybe the dreaded red, defeating the producer’s ambitions of world dominance, and hitting the creators like a bucket of cold water.
It’s not easy to decide what is really important when you have been “inside the box”, developing and polishing your game for years on end.
To increase your odds, you could prepare yourself according to Sun Tzu’s teachings – “he will win who prepared himself” and “engage people with what they expect”. Proper industry research will allow you to estimate how big piece of the pie you’re likely to win given your product’s release time, competition on the market, pricing and other factors. However, no matter how meticulous, such research doesn’t cut the mustard for completely new ideas, unique gameplay and mechanics. Ideally, you could arrange, preferably outsource, playtest sessions and check how the gamers really receive your concepts, perceive (and understand) the game’s mechanics, logic, visuals, etc.
But is there a way to predict media scores and reviews? You can’t simply estimate them based on your in-house efforts and speculations. Fortunately, we’ve got some good news for you. You can do something beyond just waiting to day one and keeping your fingers crossed. Something that can prevent PR disasters before they happen.
“(…) Forget the story mode, multiplayer is the only thing that matters here. If there were more weapons and character classes to choose from, the game’s score would be one grade higher. It’s quite fine but I was hoping for something more.” How often could we see such words in a review? Reviews like this may even include some direct tips as to what should be changed to make the game better. Unfortunately, though, such suggestions often appear post factum: the game has been delivered as-is and not much can be done.
Developers and publishers receive feedback from the media and the players, but they can only use it effectively in their future projects, or develop patches covering some minor issues in the game. However, working on a patch or DLC is just an emergency action when the title has been released in its original form. The damage is done and the initial impression lingers! Although the title looked promising and had great potential, it may not even have a chance to become better after a false start at launch.
What if you knew the prophecy?
What if you had all this information – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats – delivered to you, as a developer or publisher, beforehand? What if you had it at your fingertips early enough to get acquainted with it, and make appropriate corrections to make the game even better?
Remember: when it comes to media, you only have one shot to succeed. Your game will only live once.
You could add extra content and fix some bugs later on, but it is very unlikely that the media will duly appreciate and mention your effort. If anything, it will only be treated as small news – the kind we see published in hundreds every month. It’s what you provide on day one, usually without a D1 patch, what is judged and stays in media forever. Especially in digital media which “never forget”.
So, is there anything you can do? Apparently… you can!
Have you ever heard of “silent/mock reviews”?
If you haven’t, it’s partly because they are literally silent – NDA-bound, and never published anywhere. They are quite similar to the classic reviews published on gaming sites and in magazines – with the difference that they are based on work-in-progress code rather than complete, final version of the game. Silent reviews are usually done long before you send the review code to the media. That allows to include journalists’ and other experts’ remarks in the development process. They will help you to know beforehand what to expect, prepare for the launch and make substantial changes in the game accordingly.
Friends as prophets
If you have some gaming journalist friends, you could arrange a round of silent reviews and try to draw some conclusions from their texts. It might help, but will be burdened with the emotional bias resulting from the connection with you as a friend, or the journalists’ expectations for further cooperation with you, etc. And most importantly – by following this strategy you’ll only get reviews from local journalists.
The second way to get the “prophecy” is to outsource the process to a professional company providing Silent Reviews for the gaming industry. Such experts take advantage of their connections in the media and access to journos from countries all around the globe. They will
select the proper experts depending on your game’s genre and arrange for them to make a review.
In a matter of weeks (typically 2-4 weeks depending on the length of your game) you could receive a complete action-report with an in-deep analysis and an executive summary: pros, and opportunities that could be implemented in development, as well as cons and threats which you still have time to dodge. Such a report is based on numerous opinions, so you will receive reviews analysis including pros & cons that will be pointed out by media accompanied by suggestions, how to overcome them or get the best use of them.
Such a report includes
the predicted average Metascore of your game, a well as practical insights (for development or communication) helping to get higher ratings.
You will have a chance to adjust your last stage of development to win on Day One. Sometimes just a couple of minor tweaks may have a major impact on how your game is received. Moreover: sometimes critical issues are not related to the game itself, but to its marketing communication. If you make a promise about your game but fail to deliver it could be seen as “lying” in gamers’ eyes, and can hurt your reputation.
One of the most fitting examples here would be No Man’s Sky whose developer was even sued for False Advertising Claims due to failing to deliver several of the features announced to be available in the game at launch. The difference between a promise and the game delivered was disastrous: at launch, No Man’s Sky topped the online player count charts but almost completely disappeared as an online game in a matter of weeks.
Do not promise anything that you cannot provide at the launch or the consequences would be devastating and, in most cases, irreversible. “We’re living in a post-No Man’s Sky world now, and rather than release something that doesn’t live up to expectations, developers are keen to keep their projects in the oven longer” (engadget.com). Mind the words of Shigeru Miyamoto: “A delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad”.
Listen and focus: ready, aim, fire!
Unless you are Hideo Kojima, the best you could do is listen. Listen to your market, gamers during their playtest sessions, focus groups, and the media’s opinion about your title. And do that beforehand, so you could arrange your development plans accordingly, focusing your efforts on what’s relevant and most important. Professional Silent Reviews projects are one of the ways to go, and can save your game before it’s too late.