Peril of Subjectivity

As noted in the sidebar, I have been reading the Art of Game design. One part of an early paragraph sort of jumped out at me, and is kinda relevant to the topic of the usefulness of game reviews:

This peril is the peril of subjectivity, and a place where many designers fall into a trap: “I like playing this game, therefore it must be good.” And sometimes, this is right. But other times, this is very, very wrong. [Art of Game Design, pg 16]

Now, on the one hand, this is pretty straight-forward advice for a game designer. Just because you like the game you are creating doesn’t necessarily mean other people will. But it seems to me that there is a hidden edge to that sentiment, an implication that a well-designed game is one that most players enjoy.

Duh, right?

Well… doesn’t that mean Candy Crush Saga is one of the best games of all time? As of March of this year, 143 million people were playing it every day; the company’s revenue went from $164 million in 2012 to $1.9 billion in 2013 almost entirely on the back of a single game. While the game’s popularity is declining (as is King’s stock price), the takeaway should be that perhaps the quality of a game’s design is not necessarily a function of it’s popularity. Good games can languish in obscurity and bad games can sell beyond all reason.

Which, really, should not come to a surprise to anyone who has ever turned on a television, read a book, or seen a movie.

Here is the Wikipedia link of the best-selling books of all time (minus religious/political works), for example. The top looks pretty good: A Tale of Two Cities, The Lord of the Rings, and so on. Then you hit The Da Vinci Code and your eye might twitch. It’s only when you scroll down to the book series section when you realize that 50 Shades of Grey sold more than 100 million copies. I wasn’t able to find how many each individual book in the series sold, but if we assume 33 million apiece that means the original 50 Shades of Grey is “better” than To Kill a Mockingbird or Gone with the Wind. Or Nineteen Eighty-Four. Or a whole swath of cultural brilliance.

You probably don’t even need to look at the highest-grossing movies listing to know it’s even worse. There is a Transformers movie at #7 and #11, for the record. And the one at #11 was released, oh, a week four months ago. As in literally seven days ago as of the time of this posting [Edit: I misinterpreted the Wikipedia note; the movie is still in theaters though] . I mean, it should really have been bad enough that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is at #48, ahead of all its infinitely better predecessors.

I suppose my point is that, going back to Tobold’s post, it does not surprise me in the least that Destiny received a 76 Metacritic score and yet has 3.2 million daily players. Just as it shouldn’t be surprising to see how little overlap there is between RottenTomatos’ Top 100 movie list and highest-grossing movie one. I mean, Transformers: Dark of the Moon got a 36% score, and is #7 highest-grossing of all time with over $1.1 billion worldwide. That’s more than LotR: Return of the King (94% fresh) which clocks in at #8.

So, basically, no – game reviewers are no more irrelevant than reviewers of any kind of medium. I mean, unless you think movie reviewers are there for some other reason than to direct you towards movies worth watching… in which case they should have just said “Transformers,” apparently.

I cannot really comment on Destiny’s actual merits for two reasons: A) it wasn’t released on the PC, and B) I’ve been playing PlanetSide 2 for an hour or more each day despite actively hating the game at least 60% of the time. I do not consider the latter indicative of Ps2’s game design brilliance so much as a personal deficiency.

Posted on October 17, 2014, in Commentary, Philosophy and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. I’m not saying that quality equals popularity. I’m saying that quality is subjective, and ultimately irrelevant. I don’t want to know whether a video game is “good” in the sense that it will make me a better person. I want to know whether I am likely to have fun with it. Therefore a review score should reflect popularity, not some fuzzy notion of “quality”.

    And yes, I believe that if you want to read a book on the beach for fun, you’re better off with the Da Vinci Code then with “cultural brilliance”.


    • That way lies madness. You may as well shop based on units sold.


    • The likelihood you will have fun with a game is based on purely subjective criteria. Popularity has no bearing whatsoever on what you find fun. The only way reviews can become reliable predictors of quality – for you – is to find someone who has agreed with your assessments of what constitutes quality in the past, and therefore has similar tastes to you, to do the reviews.

      I agree with Azuriel. Basing an inherently subjective decision on a measurable, fuzzily objective (because all popularity contains elements of hype) number, is madness. And, I would venture to say, doomed to failure.


  2. Your response is pure rhetoric void of any argument. Why would buying a game based on which is the most popular be madness? People buy clothes exactly that way.

    And how do you objectively measure whether a game is “good” by your standards? Popularity is measurable, your criteria are subjective.


    • It’s madness because it’s an embracing of nihilism, that because “good” can be subjective that means 50 Shades of Grey is better than every literary work it outsold. The ultimate end of that line of reasoning is wirehead wherein all entertainment (and arguably human expression) ends with electrical stimulation of your nucleus accumbens. And that outcome being a good thing!

      But to answer your question with less rhetoric, you establish “goodness” the same way you establish anything subjective: by persuasive argument. If I say X and Y aspects of Z are good, and you agree, then they are. Someone else can disagree, at which point they make their own case. Historical consensus becomes the final arbiter.

      I mean, do you really believe what you’re saying? That the popularity of something is indicative of its quality or inherent value? If so, that suggests interesting things about advertising, memes, linkbait, and so on.


  3. What I already said is that I don’t think “inherent value” is relevant for video games. I am sure that Depression Quest has lots of “inherent value”, but I sure don’t want to play it, nor do I want it to receive a very high review score. A video game is entertainment, it isn’t high literature. Popularity of a video game is indicative of the fun people have playing it. And a video game review score should reflect how likely it is that I will have fun if I buy that game.


  4. McDonald’s offers the best hamburgers available because all consumers are rational actors and Behavioral Economics isn’t a thing.


  5. ” B) I’ve been playing PlanetSide 2 for an hour or more each day despite actively hating the game at least 60% of the time. ”

    LMAO! Well from personal experience don’t make that the last hour before bedtime or that frustration will carry you to 3AM.


  6. The Transfomers movie at #11 was released back in June. Not “literally seven days ago”.


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