Good games, bad games, ugly games

Reading through the avalanches of comments on the inappropriate appropriation of Jeff Minter’s recent Livejournal posts by video games news sites, makes me realize the extent of the immaturity of games as a medium and a culture.

Mr Minter made a personal statement in his journal about how he is saddened by the fact that remakes of old games sell better than new original games, based on sales figures he got from XBox Live Arcade; where his own Space Giraffe game is competing for some measly Dollars with age-old classics like Frogger. In any other subculture, the audience would sympathise with the underdog. Not so in the games industry. Most of the comments advise Mr Minter to “stop whining” and “make a good game instead”. The latter really bugs me.

I may not personally like Space Giraffe as a game any better than Frogger (I don’t know that because I don’t own an XBox). But does that mean it’s a bad game?
Gamers, in general, and often hand-in-hand with the games press, seem to think that there is an objective standard for games to be judged by. That there’s good games and bad games. And more importantly, that everybody better agree on what constitutes a good game. Because if you don’t, then you’re an idiot, a moron, somebody who knows nothing about games, etcetera.

Hey, I may have been guilty of this myself on occasion.

But it’s horrible, isn’t it?

Whatever happened to personal taste? Why can we not simply like or dislike a game? Instead calling it good or bad? And how about different people liking and disliking different types of games? That they don’t like to play a certain game, does not mean that they are illiterate idiots, does it? And even if they are not very knowledgable about games, don’t they still have the right to like or dislike a particular game?

Space Giraffe

I may like or dislike Space Giraffe as a game. But I have no end of admiration for what Jeff Minter is doing: to make a game from his own personal vision, to experiment with game structures and aesthetics, to make something that did not exist before! I wish that the games industry would be more supportive of that. If only because it is thanks to the work of people like Mr Minter that the medium grows and the industry expands.
Or is that exactly what those commenters are afraid of?

I don’t think we can do much about the trolls who comment to blogs. But we can support this work on a higher level. Microsoft, for a start, should realize that games like Space Giraffe require special attention. They need to create a custom-made marketing campaign that prepares the consumer for what the game is really like. And they probably need to create a special channel on their service for games like this. So that it doesn’t seem like they’re competing with games that fall in a completely different category. Next, the press should try to educate the audience about this. Instead of circling around people’s personal online journals like vultures waiting for a juicy bit to rise to the surface. Surely journalists have the experience and know-how to realize the importance of exploration and experimentation in the games industry. They should support this practice as much as they can!

I hope, in the future, releasing a game does not feel so much like taking an exam. As developers, we are interested in hearing people’s opinions. But they are only useful when we know where they are coming from. And nobody has the right to “grade” our work. Games are not right or wrong. Games are liked or disliked. By people. Different kinds of people like different kinds of things. There’s nothing wrong with that.

And game developers are only human. They don’t owe gamers a “good game”… Developers owe it to themselves to follow their vision and make games with love and care.

31 thoughts on “Good games, bad games, ugly games”

  1. I’m so glad I caught this post. This is something I’ve wondered at myself. The strange heat and even anger people express toward some games seems misplaced. I don’t understand why people want to categorize games as good or bad. That doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game that didn’t have merit on some level. Even if it was only that it was a step up to the release of the next version or “chapter”.

    Grading work doesn’t make sense if it’s a cut and dried reaction. Games, gamers and game developers go through stages and that is all. Games are what they are as are people. I can say that there are certain elements of games that I wished existed or that didn’t. But to mark off an entire game or to call the makers of it “bad” is ludicrous in my mind.

  2. I think the reason that his post was so poorly received can be at least partially attributed to Minter being a bit disingenuous, in that (a) Space Giraffe is, for all intents and purposes, a remake of an old game (it’s a remake of Tempest in the same way that Geometry Wars is a remake of Robotron or PacManCE is a remake of PacMan), and (b) he is really only lamenting the fact that remakes are selling better than _his_ game, since there _are_ popular “original” games — more than a few are in the top 20 in terms of # of sales as well as total revenue. I think Small Arms is one of them.

    I do think it’s great to see someone at least attempting something weird simply because they want to, it helps push back against super-boring crap like the Wing Commander/Battlestar Galactica games. At the same time, you can’t really make a weird experimental game and then complain when the majority of consumers (i.e Johnny Halo3 or Walmart Grandma) prefer StreetFighter or UNO — no one buys a 360 because they want to be in the vanguard of digital media!

    I can’t see the director of Primer complaining when more people go to see Pearl Harbour than his movie — that’s just what happens, 99% of people have absolutely terrible tastes.

  3. Thank you, Sherry!

    Raigan, this is where marketing can help, I think. Maybe with the right framework and some education we can get that number down to 98 or 97%. And those few percents might make all the difference an indie production needs.

  4. I guess this shows the immaturity of the Game Industry and community. That’s not going to change anytime soon. The games the industry makes (as a whole) attracts that type of people :/

  5. c’mon, the guy was posting on LiveJournal! taking it outside of that context is totally unfair. he had a very human moment lamenting something about his game. no matter what, he had every right to feel that way and to say it in writing. it’s totally understandable and i don’t see why it became game news fodder! like kicking a guy when he’s down!
    all this “objective” ways of seeing, “game A is like game B and so is his so he can’t complain because he shouldn’t have had any expectations”, is just bizarre. he felt how he felt and thought how he thought and thank god he actually spoke out about it. he was neither right nor wrong nor objective… nor was it written to become news of the day for unscrupulous journalists whose only goal was to throw him to the wolves.

  6. Eden, maybe I’m naive but I prefer to believe that the people who make the immature comments represent only a small part of the community. But there does seem to be a tendency to judge games as being good or bad. I often find myself saying such things. And while, technically some games may be better made than others, I think we should never forget that people like and dislike different things. Even in the same game. It’s perfectly possible to find things to like in a game that, technically, is not very well made. I think there’s many different reasons why people play games. And hardcore gamers and many journalists often only cover a few of them.

  7. That’s true I guess, they’re really only a small part of the community. The problem is that they’re a vocal minority.

  8. I think the idea of posting personal stuff on a livejournal account period, and especially when you’re something of a celebrity, is a bit misguided to start with and smacks of “attention whore-ism”.

    If Wes Anderson was upset about the fact that one of his films was less successful than James Cameron’s latest epic, I would hope he’d do the sensible thing and complain to friends, family, or colleagues about it, or perhaps pen a witty and satirical short play on the subject. Or even just get really drunk and start yelling loudly about it to random passers-by.. basically almost anything would be more appropriate than broadcasting it out to the general public via the internet. Unless you’re some sort of drama queen and/or emotional teenager.

    The same argument could be applied to any smaller-yet-famous/niche writers, bands, etc.. can you _really_ see the reaction of the moviegoing/bookreading/musiclistening public being all that different?

    As sympathetic as I may be to the complaint that many “bad” games on XBLA are incredibly successful while many “good” games aren’t, as an XBLA developer you know that UNO is the #1 selling game. You then make a decision to either try to appeal to as many people as possible, and thus make a word-search game, or you decide to make a game based only on what you personally want to create, in which case the only people who buy the game are fans and/or those who share your aesthetic sensibilities.

    Obviously it’s not so black and white, and commercial success is always _somewhere_ in the hierarchy of values rather than only at the top or absent, but I really can’t see how you could make that game and then be surprised when only a small number of people enjoyed it.

    If Squarepusher somehow was granted a song in rotation on Top40s radio, would he really expect more than a few listeners to appreciate it? Would he be incensed when people phoned in to complain about “all that noise” being played rather than “proper music like Celine Dion”? I would expect not, he no doubt knows that his music doesn’t appeal broadly to the masses — it’s not designed to do that. And if this WAS really shocking and upsetting to him, and he took out 30second commercial slots in order to express his disappointment and sadness to listeners, do you really think the reaction of the public would be mostly sympathetic?

    I do find it very sad and depressing to see someone expose their pain to the world and get only more pain in return, however I really don’t find it surprising.

  9. I agree that there may be a misunderstanding in the web 2.0 world about the nature of Livejournal. And perhaps Mr. Minter should have been aware of that.

    But I have no interest in discussing what he did wrong or right. At least not behind his back.

    This event is simply one of many that points to a problem that has been around for a while and that we really should try to eradicate. That is the idea that there is only a single scale that we can use to judge games by, as if they are just mathematical constructions and not works of art.

    Raigan, maybe you are willing to accept consumer society as a force of nature that cannot be tampered with. But I am not. I don’t think that this society, and the games community in particular, is as immovable is you seem to think it is. In fact, I see it changing all the time.

    What I am saying is that we should try to contribute to changing things for the better. Instead of only being opportunistic. I agree that one cannot be absolutely idealistic when dealing with a commercial marketplace. But that does not mean we should accept whatever happens. Especially not when we know that we can influence things.

    I’m calling for a greater support of experimental and artistic games from the higher layers of the industry. The console makers and online publishers like Steam and Game Tap have already made a giant step by publishing indie games. Now it is time for the next step: to market these games properly, so that they can find their niche audience. And perhaps even expand that niche.

    It is of vital importance to the entire industry that artistic and experimental creation is a viable enterprise!

  10. Raigan, LiveJournal is a site for one’s personal diary, it’s not a blog site. It’s perfectly reasonable and natural to use it as it was intended to be, a journal. I don’t get the complaint that one shouldn’t have a personal journal online, it’s very convenient and useful. Maybe he should have made the entry friends-only, but the point is that it was a private place that was exposed publicly when it shouldn’t have been. Is your argument that nobody should have online journals at all? There are millions of people on LiveJournal that do, are they all wrong to do it?

  11. I suppose I’m critical of public journals in general — it seems a bit presumptuous to ask the general public to care about what you had for breakfast, how you’re feeling today, etc. When you’re a celebrity rather than a random person, this only exacerbates the problem.

    Also, the notion that works of art can’t be subject to judgement is a bit confusing given the various fields of criticism of film, dance, etc. If you totally dismiss this sort of criticism on the grounds that it is “subjective”, we end up in a world where we all speak our own language and can’t communicate or relate to each other at all, since each person’s experience is totally different from our own and there is no shared reference point. It also leads to problems such as morally objectionable media (child porn, etc) hiding under the guise of “art” in order to avoid scrutiny.

    Concerning consumer society, I just meant that there is a context that needs to be appreciated. When you choose to enter that world, you’re accepting the realities of how that world operates. Or, you should be, unless you’re hopelessly unaware.

    It’s not clear that art or creative experimentation has ever been commercially viable, it’s always been subsidized, either by wealthy patrons or by the authors themselves through other, commercial, activities.

    It seems ridiculous to think that large companies will ever care about anything other than money, that is _the_ only metric that exists in their reality. They are literally alien organisms whose only sensory organ is their wallet. Of course they all appear to have values beyond this, since not keeping up such appearances would harm them financially, but ultimately every decision must be reduced to a dollar figure, whether direct or indirect (i.e “if we do X, it will raise the public’s opinion of us”).

    Changing this would require a new model of socio/economic/political organization.. obviously driving everything based on money has many terrible side-effects, however so far it doesn’t seem like anyone has any better solutions — and being able to implement such a change (moving from money being the only value) is even less likely given the vast power of those invested in the current system.

    This is not the sort of change you can affect from within the system. The most you could reasonably expect is to convince Microsoft or whoever that investing in artistic and experimental creation will equate to more money, either directly in sales or indirectly in public image. Sadly, Nintendo seems to have figured out that you only need to project the image of such investment.

    Anyway, you will never, ever get a big company to acknowledge the value of any metric other than money. Someone working for them might do so, but this won’t translate into action or decision on the part of the company.

    Even Valve is no better — they complain about draconian publishers, but went on to require developers to submit to similarly unfair treatment (such as not being able to sell your game on your website, only through Steam), becoming draconian publishers themselves.

    We went through many heated arguments concerning our involvement in XBLA precisely because it meant legitimizing a world we would prefer to reject out of hand. However we have at no point suffered the illusion that we could complain righteously about the behaviour of the average 360 consumer in response to our game; when we made the decision to deal with that audience we knew exactly what the tastes of that audience were and what to expect.. selling large numbers should only be expected if that’s what you designed your game to accomplish.

    Anyway, sorry for being in such a flamey mood.

  12. raigan, realize that you are coming at all of this from a very cynical position. you should not condemn something you know nothing about. the vast majority of people on livejournal aren’t asking the wide general public to pay attention. it is a community. a community where you post and often you are speaking to people you genuinely care about and who genuinely care about you. yes you met them online, but no that doesn’t make the relationship any less real. you talk, not debate, argue, flame, or whatever, but talk. and, yes, post about what you had for breakfast. and then someone else tells you what they had, and shows you a photo of it too 😉 sometimes its small talk sometimes deep talk about life issues or projects but it is not necessary to broadcast into a faceless void there. when jeff posted that on his journal it was probably because he felt comfortable and among friends. on the whole an illusion, perhaps, but the illusion works most of the time. so take a deep breath and realize that we don’t all feel as victimized as you do by corporations, game industry deals, or other people on the net.

  13. I was not talking about a revolution to obliterate money. I do indeed believe that it is in the industry’s best financial interest to support experimental and artistic games. Even in a very short term: create proper marketing for Space Giraffe and it will sell better. But greater gain is to be made in the long term. Because exprimentation leads to diversification. And diversification leads to growth.

  14. I was going to reply but Auriea pretty much said what I was going to say — writing a journal entry in LJ is not about broadcasting to the public, it’s just intended to be read by a small set of friends. Of course you’re not asking other people besides those friends to care, you’re just presenting it for those that do care. I do care about the people I know on LJ, I look forward to reading their entries each day. Do you really think all those millions of people would stay on LJ if it was just about broadcasting things that nobody should care about to each other?

  15. Also, about “Anyway, you will never, ever get a big company to acknowledge the value of any metric other than money.” — I can think of some big companies which have a mission or purpose that causes them to act in ways which they would not act if they were only after money. You could always argue that they are actually *really* after money and just pretending not to be, but that’s hard to prove and just a theory. There are also big companies that are non-profit, like Wikipedia. But even the for-profit ones often have something other than money as their highest priority.

  16. I agree that criticism of games is a good thing. And that not everything is a matter of subjecive taste. But I question the norms by which games are criticized. If movie criticism sometimes appears a bit snobbish, then game criticism often feels like the opposite: experiment and artistic vision are seldom appreciated. Game criticism is often about how much fun the journalist had while playing the game. If music criticism was like that, then Britney Spears would be considered a greater artist than Johann Sebastian Bach.

    But what bothers me much more than some games journalism, is the comments section. It is quite astounding how intolerant gamers can be towards people with different experiences and opinions. There is a lot of antagonism and a lot of pressure to agree on certain games as “Good Games” and other games as rubbish. These vocal gamers do not seem to realize that there are many different ways in which people play, and thus many different reasons to like or dislike games.

  17. I agree whole-heartedly about not rating any type of art good or bad. I’ve grown so tired of people asking me whether a film is good or not – I simply tell them whether I did or did not enjoy it. Arguing with someone whether a piece was good or bad can be fun, as long as it’s kept in perspective, but too often I’ve found that if you say something is good and your friend says that thing is bad, you sense this odd division between you that feels like it needs mending. People need to remember that it’s okay to like different things.

  18. Totally agree on the marketing. Of course, it takes industry leadership (read: balls) to educate the public on anything new and ground-breaking. It ain’t an easy thing to do, for sure.

    But you mention maybe XBLA should have a special channel for “out-there” games. I imagine this could appeal to stoners, who just want a trippy experience and not some stressful twitchy game. I’m being serious here :) A lot of stoners own XBox’s – imagine if they saw a “Trippy” games channel – they would check it out! I haven’t played Space Giraffe, but it looks like the “Dark Side of the Moon” of games to me. It just hasn’t found its audience yet. But I believe the audience is there, just waiting for a game to trip on, holding their bongs in silent anticipation.

  19. I like the idea of a special channel on XBLA.

    Might this divergence of perspectives be based on the idea of games as craft versus games as art? Because when you are crafting something, that usually implies that it can be of high quality or low quality. Whereas artistic quality is usually seen as something more subjective. Games at the moment seem much more to be products of craft than of art. Over time that balance may shift.

    Games aren’t the only things that get judged rather presumptuously by large amounts of people. See the Newgrounds Flash Portal for example, with animations as well as games. If people are used to thinking in terms of rating and judging, that’s what they’ll do, most of the time. Newgrounds is just one example of a place that provides the structure to foster that sort of thinking. I’m not saying it’s bad – for Newgrounds it’s probably necessary. But if that’s what you have, that’s what you get. And that’s how game culture is right now.

  20. Great Article!

    Reviewers are people too. With opinions and tastes of their own. They should be respected for that and the willingness to put them out there.

    It isn’t important if you agree with a reviewer of a game, but that you can use that opinion to gather information on whether or not you, the end user, will like or dislike the game. In an era when games are $60+ each, it’s important to be able to gather as much information on our purchases as possible. That is what reviews bring to the table.

  21. The real problem here seems to be two-fold…

    1) The perception that Space Giraffe is just a “remake” of Tempest with trippy visuals. As Jeff has maintained constantly, it is a *different* game, and if you play it like Tempest you will lose

    2) That Jeff’s blog post was saying “remake = bad”. No, he was asking why something as *unchallenging* to players as Frogger outsold something genuinely new and interesting by 10 to 1 in that particular week.

    I’m glad there is someone like Jeff there to push boundaries. While I agree that there has been a lot of negative reaction towards critics of the game, Michael’s blog sums it up nicely.

  22. I agree with Jeff Minter and his general disgust of reviewers. I’ve been the in the videogame journalism business for over 15 years now, having co-founded the ancient Online Gaming Review ( back in the 90s, I’ve written over 20 strategy guides for Prima, and am currently the senior editor at Game Almighty. Space Giraffe is a brilliant game, pure and simple, and it’s my personal pick for arcade game of the year. One of the problems within the industry is the overwhelming number of reviewers who truly have no basis for their beliefs, no historical perspective on the industry and, more often than not, have only played games on one generation of system. You simply cannot be an effective movie critic if your entire basis for critique is having only seen movies made within the past five years. It’s important to know what has come before, what worked, what didn’t, etc. As a 40-year-old dude who remembers playing Pong at Shakey’s and Space War at Nellis Air Force Base, I feel, rightly or wrongly, that my critiques at least have a historical perspective and come from a mind who has probably played more games than most. Unfortunately, I’m a minority.

  23. Hi Dustin,

    I agree. These days I’m only interested in games that have a score of 7 or less. I know that I’m not going to like anything that gets a higher score in the games press. The most important keyword I look for is “boring”. When game reviewers call a game boring, I know that there’s a chance that I might like it.

    I wish I didn’t need to use such upside-down logic though. I guess what I would like is a little more variety: different kinds of people reviewing games in different ways.

    Anyway. My gripe is not with journalism. I think most journalists are doing a fine job. And they are indeed expressing their own experience and taste, There’s nothing wrong with that.

    It’s the comments section that I have a problem with: the way in which gamers think of the quality of a game in absolute terms. I would like to see a little more nuance and tolerance in that area. And some understanding of why some people like Guild Wars because of the landscape and don’t care much about PvP. For instance.

  24. Does anyone else remember the interview with Marc Ecko (or however you spell it) after Gettin’ Up (or however you spell it) was released.

    “How would you compare working in the fashion industry to working in something completely different like the videogames industry?

    It’s totally different. It’s completely the opposite. If you think that the fashion industry is filled with divas, no, the worst divas are the guys who got wedgies in high school. Game divas are the worst divas than a guy reviewer in a Helmut Lang suit standing in the second row of a show. Those guys are easy compared to the pissy gamers.”

    The man did have a point, regardless of what you may think of him or his game. Naturally, depressingly, he and his game got absolutely hammered, even before the game was launched. It wasn’t a great game – frustratingly buggy – but not deserving of the reaction it got.

  25. I think the problem games journalism currently faces is not whether games reviews are worthwhile, but the current Gamespot scandal. Still, I don’t doubt that as soon as a new release appears that looks interesting, 90% of the people commenting here will seek out a review.

    As for the good/bad game argument, I’m sure that most reviewers recognise that their review is simply their opinon. I’ve rated games generally considered average higher because they struck a chord with me. I think the reason that games are considered more binary good/bad, and the reason the metacritic scores for a game are generally more compressed than a film, is that games have a mechanical element as well as an artistic one. So you have some level of objectivity pulling against the subjectivity of the artistic elements.

    It’s far easier for a game to become frustrating, dull or repetitive owing to its mechanics than its artistic intentions. And you’ll find a broader range of people agreeing that a game is bad or good based on these elements. After all, you may have a real passion for Wild West zombie settings, for example, but if the game is deeply mechanically flawed, you may not be able to muster the urge to continue, even though you feel artistically it has merit. Chances are, those journalists will agree, maybe to the point of saying ‘Wow, I really wish someone would make a better game with this setting.’

    Also, when was the last time you saw a film that was fundamentally broken? So, the camera was pointing in the wrong direction during a crucial scene, cutting off half the character’s face, or a similar fundamental collapse in the film making process. It doesn’t happen often, but in games that mechanical element, necessary for interactivity, often gets in the way, making it a ‘bad’ game.

    Every so often there’ll be a game that polarises opinion, where the mechanics are consciously different from the majority of games and the artistic style is an attempt at something interesting. At that point, reviewers will disagree more, as with Space Giraffe, and you’ll just have to read those opinions and decide for yourself based on their arguments. Which, I feel, is sort of why we have critics in the first place…

    Apologies for length, and as an aside, if you want snobby (sorry, thoughtful) analysis of gaming, my friends at have the PC gaming side of things down. :)

  26. I think you have a point about the mechanic leading to a more objective judgement, Mike. But only in so far as game journalists consider the mechanic to be more important than the artistic quality. An ugly game with a stupid story will still get decent marks if the gameplay is amusing. A deeply moving story that looks very beautiful will be destroyed if it isn’t “fun”.

    That’s just hypothetically speaking, though, because I can’t remember having seen a game that would fit in the latter category. In the end, of course, mechanics and content should go hand in hand. And that is still very rare.

    Anyway, this doesn’t excuse the right-or-wrong attitude of gamers. People should realize that there are different ways to play games. And different things that people care about. I know many people who will gladly deal with an “inferior” game mechanic if the story moves them or the images are pretty. Those people are not wrong.

  27. Here’s a clever quote about the objectivity of game reviewing:

    The fundamental problem with game reviews is that they’re analyzing products, not pieces of art. Or more clearly stated, art reviews decide if something is worth your time; game reviews decide is something is worth your money.

    Mark Wilson on Kotaku

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