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The Xbox One v. Playstation 4 -- History Repeats Itself

First as Tragedy, Then as Farce

It's been a long time since my last post! To be honest, I've been feeling a bit of generational fatigue, and although I've still been gaming every now and then, the only three games that I've really, passionately played in the last year have been Madden 13, FIFA 13, and MLB 13: The Show. In short, like a lot of gamers out there, I'm ready for some new consoles and some new franchises!

Having followed the early leaks and then the formal announcements of the PS4 and the Xbox One, and now with E3 upon us and the details more or less all filled out, I'm struck by the wisdom of a Karl Marx quotation: history repeats itself, "the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce." It is remarkable, looking at this over the arc of the last twelve years, how much the competition between Sony and Microsoft has consisted of first one side, then the other, making the same mistake again and again: alienating gamers.

Flash back to E3 2006, which was a long seven years ago. The Xbox 360 had been out on the market for six months, and although it had suffered some growing pains, the fundamental business strategy behind Microsoft's second cut at the console gaming market was paying dividends. The 360 was relatively affordable, it was user-friendly, it had great online, and -- most of all -- it was built for gamers. Its best franchises were yet to appear, but we had rich previews of Gears of War (which would be released that November) and the blockbuster, show-changing announcement of Halo 3 (which would come out in Fall 2007).

In comparison, Sony's E3 2006 press conference has gone down in history as one of the most notorious flops in gaming history. A few highlights: $599. Rrriiidddgggeee Rrraaacceerrr! The predictable backlash: gamers were disappointed and vowed to stay away. Sony brushed aside those comments as a few malcontents and insisted that the overall value proposition of the multimedia powerhouse (It does Blu-ray! It does internet!) would make it a huge success. Sony wasn't going to listen to its core consumer -- it was going to tell him, tell her, tell all of us what we really wanted. (In other words, it was going to pull off a trick that only one company -- Steve Jobs's Apple -- consistently and successfully pulled off in that era.)

$599 is ridiculous.

This was what I would call the first manifestation of the Big-Tent strategy. By Big-Tent, I mean this is how the meetings went down at Sony.

Kaz Hirai: You know, no matter what, the gamers are going to buy our console. The Playstation 2 sold 100 million. We own them. Let's not focus on selling 100 million, which we're going to do no matter what. (Reality check: As of two weeks ago, PS3 had sold 77 million and counting, and it took a long, painful road to get there.) Let's focus on selling the second 100 million to families that otherwise wouldn't buy a video game console.

Ken Kutaragi: Alright, I'm going to load up this console with tons of extras. It's going to have a Blu Ray. Let's make something that people will aspire to own. I want people to see this and say, 'I will work harder to be able to afford a PS3.' (Reality check: oh wait, he actually said this.)

The Big-Tent strategy takes as a given that the core constituency will be on your side in the end, and that the groups that the business should focus on capturing are the far larger numbers of consumers who reside outside the base. This essentially is how presidential poltiics work in the United States, where the Democrats start with their 35 percent, and the Republicans with their 35 percent, and the two then wage war over the undecided middle. (At least, that's how it once was supposed to work, not trying to get into a political science discussion here.)

Of course, the problem with the gaming market, as Sony found out to its great dismay between 2006 and 2008, is that the core constituency can decamp for the other guy far faster than it had ever anticipated. Tons of gamers switched over to the 360, the Wii, or the PC while waiting for Sony to screw its head on straight and do something -- do anything -- that was gamer-focused, that paid attention and care to the needs and desires of the people who bought those 100 million PS2s. In fact, it really took until '08-'09, with the release of Metal Gear Solid 4, Uncharted 2, and the Playstation 3 Slim at the $299 price point, to finally bring the core constituency back onto Sony's side. And by then, Sony had lost huge amounts of time, huge amounts of cash, and -- worst of all -- huge amounts of its credibility.

The Playstation 180

They're calling it the PS4, but in my mind, with all the recent announcements, the new console should be called the Playstation 180. Sony has completely flipped the script on the new console, and largely replicated Microsoft's strategy from the start of the last generation. Here's what Sony is doing right:

1) No used-game lockdown -- this was a huge issue for gamers, and Sony got it dead right by giving people what they wanted;

2) The $399 price point -- a very affordable price for a new console and exactly where the 360 launched eight years ago, which positions PS4 to be the mainstream console of choice;

3) Show us the games! -- PS4's lineup has not been overwhelming, but it's light years ahead of Rrriiddgggeee Racer! Having an exclusive, flagship franchise (Killzone) releasing a new game on day one is huge.

Killzone: Shadow Fall

These weren't hard decisions to make if Sony wanted to win gamers over. In essence, the company has learned its harsh lesson, and has made admirable adjustments.

In contrast, Microsoft has been backpedaling in the wrong direction since Sony shifted course in 2009. It is bizarre and evenly slightly sad to see a venerable company, which had finally struck upon a profitable and sound business strategy, changing. And it is even worse when every single change hurts the consumer. Locking the games so you can't sell them used? A $499 price point? These are disastrous distinctions in a world where the vast majority of franchises, especially console-movers like Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, and perhaps new IPs like Bungie's Destiny, have gone multi-platform. Why pay an extra $100, and lose the ability to sell a game after completion, for the privilege of playing . . . oh, largely the exact same games one gets on the other guy's console?

This, of course, is the farce half of the march of history. Somehow, somewhere in Redmond, the powers-that-be had a meeting that looked eerily like the Hirai-Kutaragi dialogue I hypothesized above. Of course, they probably added something like, "We're different than them, though. We'll do it better. We'll make it cooler, because we have Kinect and also some flashy stuff like how we can turn the console on just by talking to it." It's this sort of foolishness that ensures that history repeats itself.

Here's to hoping that by 2015-16 Microsoft will have come to its senses, and we'll finally have an Xbox that I can buy.

Young Players: The One Thing Sports Games Just Can't Get Right

In this column, which is directed at hardcore sports gamers, I'd like to compare two of gaming's premiere sports franchises: Madden NFL and FIFA Soccer. Both are magnificently fun to pick up and play, but neither has ever managed to perfect the selection and development of young players in franchise mode. Perhaps I'm especially attuned to this problem because, as a fan of Cleveland sports, my favorite thing to do in a sports game is to build up a sad-sack team over the course of several years. So what do each of the games get right about young players, and what do they get wrong?

Madden NFL 12

In the newest iteration of Madden, EA introduced a revamped scouting system that precedes the NFL draft. During the season, you scout players every 4 weeks to learn a certain set of attributes. Then, at the combine, you get to learn a different set of attributes (speed and strength, in particular). Finally, you have pro days (which reveal yet another set of attributes) and then a very small number of individual workouts, which reveal all a players' ratings. Armed with all this information, you go into the draft and work your magic.

Player progression then depends on their overall potential and their playing time, with players seeing very rapid development in their first few years before levelling off and then declining in their 30s.

What Madden Gets Right

Player progression. Well, perhaps I should amend the heading to "sorta right." Player progression in Madden is superior to FIFA, for instance, because improvements in ability follow a true-to-life path: big leaps forward in the first two or three years in the league, gradual improvements for the next two or three, and then a plateau before age-related decline. FIFA, in contrast, tends to have players steadily gain 2-3 ratings points a year until they reach their plateau, which should strike anyone who watches the sport as unrealistic. Every year, we see a Lionel Messi, Eden Hazard or Mario Gotze blow up on the world stage and attain a rating 6-8 points higher in the next year. On a less extreme level, players tend to blossom between 18-25, with large and rapid gains in development during those years.

Why, then, does Madden only get progression sort of right? The game is plagued with the typical problems of the genre:

1) Insufficient performance-related decline for veterans: underachieving players between 26-32 stay at their plateau setting, regardless of in-game performance, until they suffer age-related decline.

2) Too much progression for bench players: if you aren't getting playing time, you shouldn't be improving as much as someone who's in the game. Madden adheres to this principle to some extent but doesn't get the magnitude right. If you draft two players who are 80/A at the same position in one year, the one who plays will gain 5-6 points and the one who doesn't will still gain 3-4. The gap should be larger than that and should worsen the longer a player stays on the bench. In some franchises where I've been overloaded at a position, a guy who never plays has grown to 95-97 overall while the starter plateaus at 98.

Madden is also pretty good at personalizing created players by attaching an actual, human photograph to them. (Sometimes this leads to problems, as the number of photos is limited and you will see face "twins" pop up in many draft classes.) This is a small touch but really makes you feel better than being in Year 10 of franchise mode and having half or more of your players being blank spots on the screen.

What Madden Gets Wrong

Scouting is terribly broken in Madden, and is both too easy and too hard. It's too easy, because of certain cheap exploits that remain in the game. When you're scouting players, and sort by "Potential," the game will order players by their potential even if those ratings are all locked as "?". Thus, you have a free and easy way to see which late-round draft picks will have A potential and be most likely to develop into stars, leading to horrifically unrealistic drafts where you can routinely grab multiple 80/A players (who will develop into 90+ stars in two years) in Round 3 or later.

On the other hand, scouting without exploits is too hard, because the game does not give you enough scouting information. In particular, you can only discover the speed and strength ratings of 20 players via the Combine. This is patently ridiculous -- the hard thing for scouts to uncover is knowledge of the game, play recognition, and technique, not raw physical abilities like speed and strength.

Scouting would be more realistic if the series introduced significant error to scouting evaluations, particularly of hard-to-evaluate traits such as potential or play recognition. Thus, while players' physical abilities would be known (with a high degree of accuracy), players' potential would be evaluated by scouts with some margin for error. Thus, a player who has 4.3 speed and a scouted potential of A would almost certainly have elite speed, but their potential could vary anywhere between A and C.

This would also give the computer a fair chance in the game. Over time, by exploiting scouting, you can develop a 95 OVR team while everyone else in the league regresses to 84-86 OVR. This makes for an unrealistic experience where the talent level around the league is extremely diluted with the exception of a concentrated pocket of superstars on your squad. Exacerbating this trend is the fact that the game does not incorporate holdouts or salary disputes, so if you lock up your late-round draft picks to 7-year deals (for 230K a year), they often develop into 95+ superstars while making the rookie minimum.

FIFA Soccer 12

FIFA's another EA product that received a revamped player scouting and development system this year. In the newest iteration, you hire scouts. The scouts then go on trips to various countries around the globe to find players between 14-16 years of age and develop them in Youth Academy. Once they reach 16 or 17, they must be signed to the senior squad and then receive playing time to develop. Progression is somewhat slow and depends more heavily on performance, so the only way to achieve stellar progression (e.g., 4-5 rating points in a year) is to play a young lad constantly and also insure that he's performing at his peak on the pitch.

What FIFA Gets Right

Very little. It's a new system, so I may be a little harsh on EA, but the new Youth Academy is pretty poor. One thing that I approve of is the fact that the system appropriately tailors progression to performance -- only stellar work will earn a player quick progression to star level (which is far too easy to achieve in a series like Madden, where you can become an All-Pro-caliber starter while riding the bench).

Another is the mechanics of scouting. Sending a scout to a specific country, and then having players from that specific country, accentuates the global reach of soccer.

What Fifa Gets Wrong

The game's two biggest problems are:

1) The new system simply does not produce enough high-quality players. This is a huge problem with a lot of sports games: in Year 1 of a manager mode, how many players are rated 85+? Quite a lot, though not an overwhelming number. In Year 20, how many are 85+? Much fewer. At a minimum, games should insure that youth development continues to produce talent on par with what currently exists in the world. After all, how likely is it that in 20 years, the world supply of elite soccer talent will diminish? If anything, given the increase in population, training and sports science, one would expect more and more talents to crop up (particularly from developing parts of the world that are currently under-scouted).

2) Development relies too much on first teams. Barcelona is famous for its well-oiled development machine, which includes not just its legendary youth academy but also its Barcelona B team (which plays in a lower division). It makes no sense for Barcelona to scout in FIFA 12, because it is rich enough to just buy talents when they are fully developed, and the cost of developing talent itself is to give first-team starting opportunities to players who are far inferior to the rest of the roster. The best players I've ever seen coming out of the Youth Academy are rated 69 or 70 as 16-17 year-olds, and would not be good enough to player for a world-class side until they are 20-22. However, they will never develop sufficiently between 16-17 and 20-22 unless they have somewhere to play. In the real world, this development occurs with B teams or with de facto loan partnerships (e.g., teams in other countries that have very good relationships with elite European clubs who will take their young players on loan to develop them). FIFA does let you loan out young players, but it's only part of the equation, and is not enough to account for all the ways in which real clubs are developing high-caliber talent.

Which Game Site's Reviews Do You Trust?

There are few things more disappointing than picking up a game that has received stellar reviews only to discover that it simply isn't very good. Or rather, it isn't good for you-- it's not necessarily the critics' fault that your tastes are different. Of course, over the years, one learns which sites tend to provide the best reviews (or at least the ones that most conform to one's own idiosyncratic tastes). So which one do you trust the most?

In my experience, here are some differences I've noticed between a few prominent sites.


I have to start with these guys, right? Since they're the hosts of this particular blog post, I'll do them the kindness of counting their strengths first.

Overall, I find that Gamespot provides review scores that come closest to my own preferences for games. In particular, they do a great job rating sequels, and take it more seriously than others, dinging games a bit if they don't innovate enough. A great example of this is Bioshock 2, which received a very fair 8.5 here.

Attacking yet another Big Daddy in Bioshock 2

Above: Look familiar? It's probably because you had to take down 10-12 of these Big Daddies already in Bioshock.

On the other hand, some sites have a consistent "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!" attitude toward sequels. That is, if a sequel provides more of what the original does, then it automatically warrants the same (or better) score. However, I've always felt that a sequel usually fails to capture the full impact of the first game. This effect happens in other media, like film or books, but is especially severe in games, because games are almost always a series of repetitive acts chained together by a narrative. Thus, by the time you play a sequel for a game, you're not just doing the same thing one more time -- you've already done the core game mechanic, be it shooting, or platforming, or hitting a baseball thousands of times before. Do you really love it so much that you can do it another two thousand times without a fundamental change, or at least a substantial wrinkle, in the formula?

I also think they have a really solid rating scale, one that IGN more or less wholly adopted recently. Gamespot goes from 0.0 (ostensibly, I've never seen it) to 10.0, with 0.5 increments. This scale allows for more nuance than a five-star system, which tends to glob too many games together (especially in the four-star range, which seems to become the default for a decently fun game with high production values). But it also doesn't aspire toward an unattainable precision, as in a scale with 0.1 increments. (Is that 9.4 demonstrably superior to the 9.3 that came out a month ago, yet somehow not quite as good as this 9.5?)

With that being said, this site has its issues. One is the dark side of the site's appreciation for innovation, which is that it sometimes hands out a harsh review (meaning below 8.0 for a AAA title) to make a point about a series' failure to improve dramatically. There are a few notable examples that come to mind, most recently the surprising 7.5 doled out to Zelda: Skyward Sword. Gamespot has been growing increasingly caustic toward Zelda in recent years, and Skyward Sword's score must have felt surreal to those fans who were up in arms about Twilight Princess's "low" 8.8 in 2006. Both titles have Metacritic scores of 93 or above, which suggests Gamespot's serious departure from mainstream opinion regarding the series.

Of course, the other negative is the site's arguably problematic relationship with its biggest advertisers. The famous controversy regarding Jeff Gerstmann's firing -- which coincided with his 6.5 takedown of Kane & Lynch, which was prominently splashed across the front page at the time -- has left a lasting stain on the site's reputation, and I always wonder a little about the reviews that I read while the game's advertising plays out in the background. Of course, Gamespot gave Battlefield 3 an 8.5 recently, not a spectacular score by any means, even while that game was all over the site. But I couldn't help but wonder what would have happened had the reviewer wanted to give it a 6.0.

Remember when these guys (Kane & Lynch) caused an uproar?

Above: Kane & Lynch, who caused more mayhem in real life than they wrecked on the Xbox 360.


All this discussion of Gamespot inevitably brings us to arguably its biggest competitor, the multimedia juggernaut over at IGN. I always read up on IGN, and think they do a better job of being a one-stop shop, the Walmart of gaming sites. If I want movie news and rumors, the first review of a particular game, or a fun diversion or two, I always stop by IGN.

By and large, however, I don't put much stock in IGN's game reviews, mainly because they are so unrelentingly positive. Bizarrely, the site actually grades loweron average than other game publications, at least according to Metacritic. But I get a sneaking feeling that their lower average score comes mainly from dropping 5.5's and below on terrible games (for example, Lair), while rewarding most well-hyped titles with such high scores that one begins to think 9.0 is the bottomof the realistic scale.

IGN's reviews are problematic, because it's impossible to differentiate true masterpieces from just very competently crafted games. For instance, Jade Empire -- a decent action RPG but by no means a lifetime masterpiece like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic -- received a staggering 9.9 from IGN. Compared to the rest of Bioware's work -- KOTOR, Mass Effect 2, Baldur's Gate 2, etc. -- this seems like a gift. There are less egregious examples, but I still find IGN scores to be largely meaningless, and it's possible to scroll down their list of reviews and keep seeing ones that seem bizarre today: Jak 3 at 9.6, or Resistance 2 at 9.5, ad infinitum.

Jade Empire

Above: Think she looks surprised? She probably just read the review of her game over at IGN.

Giant Bomb

Giant Bomb began as the brain-child of Jeff Gerstmann after his Gamespot days, and I find that their reviews are -- if possible -- even better than Gamespot's in terms of quality of writing and just being on-point about whether or not a game is worth buying. This makes sense, since they're effectively a guerrilla offshoot of this site (the way that Respawn Entertainment is a guerrilla offshoot of Infinity Ward, I suppose).

But the site, although now no longer young, has remained puzzlingly small-scale. Yes, I understand that they want to avoid the same problems of becoming too large and commercialized. But come on -- would it kill you to hire some more staff and review a sports game or two? Madden did get a review this year, but I'm still waiting on FIFA 12, MLB 11: The Show, and NCAA Football 12. Considering this is a hugely important and lucrative genre (just take a look at FIFA's sale numbers year in and year out), you'd figure that the site would prioritize these games a little more.

NCAA Football 12

Above: Interested in what Gerstmann and co. thought about the gameplay improvements (or lack thereof) in NCAA Football 12? Well, you'd better email them, because you're not going to find out on Giant Bomb.

Those are the three sites that I spend the most time reading. What do you guys think?

Tragedy and Gaming

Warning: Spoilers for Prince of Persia (2008), Heavy Rain (2010), and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007) ahead!

Prince of Persia has stuck in my mind far longer than other, superficially superior games. This isn't to say that it was perfect -- far from it! Critics roundly excoriated the game for its repetitive design and poor combat mechanics, and the early enthusiasm for the title (it actually received surpisingly good review scores) faded quickly. In fact, the game's lackluster sales and failure to capture the popular imagination resulted in an abrupt end to this bold new direction to the series, and perhaps rightly so. Yet there is one element of the game that some have criticized, yet on reflection seems to be its finest and most interesting element: its unrepentant embrace of tragedy.

The Prince of Persia with Elika, his companion and his love

Above: From the Prince of Persia (2008): the protagonist and his companion and love interest, Elika.

The plot of the game follows a scoundrel, Han-Solo-type protagonist who encounters a tattered princess in the desert. Together, the two must cleanse a series of corrupted realms (i.e., levels) in order to imprison the dark god Ahriman. Over the course of your time together, you learn that Ahriman was imprisoned for eons. However, he broke free of his prison with the help of Elika's father, the King. The King agreed to release the dark god because only he had the power to grant the King a wish: the resurrection of his beloved dead daughter.

The end-game of Prince of Persia is startingly memorable. You defeat the King and the dark god, and Elika reveals that she must sacrifice herself to restore life to the tree in which Ahriman will be imprisoned once more. Yet by this point, the Prince (that is, you) have fallen in love with her. Devastated, you destroy the tree and release Ahriman again -- and in doing so, you revive Elika.

This conclusion is genuinely tragic, and I mean that in a specific sense. I do not mean, for example, the death of Dom's wife in Gears of War 2. While "sad" (and I may even be stretching that word here, since you never meet her and she has no meaning to you as a character), her death is not tragedy in the artistic sense but rather character motivation. Her death inspires you to carry forward to reach the conclusion of the plot, which is triumph -- the Gears' massive, though costly, victory in the war against the Locust. This analysis would extend even to the death of Aerith in Final Fantasy VII, a moment many gamers consider "tragic" in a more colloquial sense. In contrast, Prince of Persia concludes as a pure tragedy: an ending where the hero undoes everything, even or especially himself and his value system (and, as the DLC reveals, for no individual benefit, for Elika leaves him due to his selfish decision).

Some were enraged by the game's finale. What was the point of playing a game and striving to reach an objective (the imprisonment of the evil force) when, at the end, you released that force? In a certain light, it makes all your effort, and the narrative, a waste of time, or meaningless. It is a game that no one can "beat," since its conclusion is the undoing of its only objective.

Yet these criticisms reveal a deep feature of almost all video games: they must end in triumph and cannot abide by tragedy. This is especially startling, given the desire of many gamers (and game developers) that video games achieve recognition as a form of art. It also leads me to return to a puzzle I've discussed several times before.

Games as Narrative or as Skill?

In two earlier posts, I commented on a growing schism in modern gaming: that between narrative and skill. And regarding this divide, I offered a natural law of gaming: that narrative games will become easier and easier over time, and that skill games should become more and more difficult (or at least, that the difference between the two will become more pronounced).

To briefly summarize my argument, there appear to be two types of games: narrative games, which try to replicate the experience of a movie or a novel, but with the advantages of interactivity; and skill games, which are about mastering a difficult task and defeating others. The contemporary paradigm of the first group is the Uncharted series, which aspires to out-Indiana Jones the Indiana Jones movies themselves (and, no small feat, succeeds). The contemporary paradigm of the second group are sports games, where there is no story at all, only repetition aiming toward excellence. Alternatively, one can consider the multiplayer components of most shooters, e.g., Call of Duty. There, the already threadbare story of the campaign is stripped away in favor of completely non-contextual battles between friends or anonymous foes, where victory means being better than those around you.

I continue to stand by this argument today. In fact, the most narrative games, such as Heavy Rain, have abandoned the concept of difficulty altogether, since it is impossible to "lose," (the idea of losing has no meaning in its design) and you never have to replay a sequence to get it "right" or "win" an encounter.

Scott Shelby, from Heavy Rain

Above: Heavy Rain (2010), another title that offers a glimpse of tragedy and is an exemplar of the narrative school of game design.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Heavy Rain is also one of the few titles I can recall that squarely confronts the possibility of tragedy. In several of the narrative's conclusions, the protagonist does not reach his abducted son in time to save him, rendering the entire playtime effectively "meaningless." Yet as anyone who has played the game and loved it can surely attest, it is far from meaningless to fail to save the boy -- if anything, the failure evokes greater feelings: of despair, of the value of love, and the consciousness of evil.

The tragic ending is most compatible with the player/viewer's experiences the game entirely as a narrative. After all, no one reads Hamlet, or watches The Titanic, to their sad conclusions and angrily asks, "Well, what was the point of all that? What a waste!" No one does so precisely because it takes no skill to reach the end -- you as the reader or viewer are passive, and the play or movie transmit their narrative to you. Thus, it is no insult to your time spent or your endeavors, your awareness of your own effort or striving, when the narrative ends badly for the protagonist.

On the other hand, when the player/viewer experiences the game as skill, tragedy is seriously unfulfilling. The entire point of skill is winning or achieving some discernable result -- after all, there's a reason people rage-quit sports games when they are getting destroyed, and a reason why people become addicted to Call of Duty multiplayer when they gain enough experience to tear apart their opponents with ease. Tragedy unwrites the accumulation of ability and unhinges the fantasy of the skill-gamer: the transformation into someone or something more powerful, even unstoppable. Tragedy is an acknowledgment of vulnerability or, even worse, the inevitability of utter defeat. In Prince of Persia, you and Elika strive together and grow more powerful together; yet it is precisely those shared experiences that result in the ruin of your shared project.

The Birth of Tragedy

The infrequency of such tragic occurrences testifies to the immaturity of gaming as an artistic medium, but also hints at one direction where I believe gaming ultimately will go (indeed, must go). And as it does so, it will strike at the heart of this schism between narrative and skill.

Concededly, gaming will always remain some mixture of the two. (Even Uncharted involves skill portions, such as learning its combat system and then clearing increasingly difficult set-piece battle sequences. Even Madden gives you Franchise Mode, allowing you to craft the story of your own team, your own version of the Browns, or Cowboys, or Redskins.) However, as the narrative portion of some sub-set of games grows in prominence, the medium will attract more and more attempts to depict tragedy. This is a good thing. As tragic gaming develops as a genre, I predict it will produce epics that root themselves firmly in the public consciousness, and establish gaming as art in the mainstream. Even Shakespeare, after all, is lionized more for his great tragedies (MacBeth, Hamlet, and King Lear) than for his more audience-friendly comedies.

Imagine, for instance, a shooter that did not automatically end with a triumph over our enemies. (The Resistance series, whatever its flaws, offers a glimpse of this narrative possibility). The first game could describe a war, and the first major setback of the good guys' efforts. (Imagine if Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare had ended with the famed nuclear strike scene.) The second could thoroughly chronicle the subsequent defeat of the protagonist's side, from a new perspective. And the third would take place in a post-apocalyptic setting and end on a note reminiscent of McCarthy's The Road. Why do we not see this type of game more often, instead of the mindless progression of Modern Warfare, with ever more ridiculous enemy scenarios thrown at us, and ever more ridiculous victories over evil?

This generic growth will demand a change in our attitudes about games -- a shift away from the skill gamer inside of us that screams in protest when a game ends not by celebrating our mastery, but by signalling our futility.

The famous nuclear scene from COD4.

Above: An unforgettable scene from Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007).

Are You a . . . Quitter?

It's no fun getting embarrassed in Madden.

It's no fun getting embarrased in Madden. During one particularly horrendous game against my roommate, I three three consecutive picks -- down 35-7, I called game over before the start of the second half. Hopefully, when you do this with a friend, they take it easy on you. After all, everyone has an off day (or an off month).

On the other hand, it's much easier to quit when you're playing online. It's anonymous, there aren't really many penalties (besides the quit percentage they tag you with), and you don't have to deal with those people ever again.

Being a Bad Sport

There are lots of reasons to quit, of course. If someone is being a particularly bad sport about things -- taunting, running up the score, going for it on fourth-and-long with the lead (in other words, acting like the '07 Patriots) -- then I can sympathize with dropping the game. It's no fun to take a beating when the other guy's acting like a jerk. A twelve-year old jerk. Dropping homophobic slurs left and right. Yeah, we've all been there, at least if we've played a few games of Halo or Gears of War.

However, I also think it goes the other way. If your opponent is beating you fair and square, you shouldn't quit even if you're losing by 30. If they're patiently running the ball and running down the clock, and playing a lot of conservative defenses against your offense . . . then that's really the best you can expect. It's not like they can just gift you touchdowns, and you're certainly getting a valuable chance to practice against a better opponent.

I bring this up because I recently resumed playing Madden online. I induced quits in my first three games, leading me to feel mildly frustrated. I was racking up wins, but I never got to actually play a full game! This was especially annoying because I'm actually much weaker on defense than offense, which meant that a) it's not like I killed any of my opponents, they could definitely move the ball against me; and b) I really wanted the practice!

Finally, I got a complete game in my fourth try. I went up 21-0, and the score was 42-7 heading into the fourth quarter. By that point, I'd been running the ball on pretty much every play (I finished the game with 13 passes, and 35+ rushes). But my opponent kept plugging away, and he started hitting deep bombs on me in the fourth quarter -- before I knew it, the margin was rapidly shrinking. A 50-yard touchdown to T.O. - 42-14. A streak from Chad Ochocinco - 42-21. But I kept running the ball (thank God for Chris Johnson's speed!), and ended up winning 49-28.

It might have been a blowout, but I really admired my opponent after that game. He stuck to it and got quite a few big strikes on me in that fourth quarter (which he or she won, 21-7).

Most of us, I'm sure, agree that there's something to admire in sticking it out until the bitter end. I'm also sure that most of us have been on the other side, wondering why we're wasting a valuable half-hour valiantly denying the inevitable loss.

So, I ask the members of the Gamespot community: are you a quitter?

Narrative and Skill: Two Paradigms of Gaming

There are two stereotypes that always come to mind when one thinks of gamers. The first, and perhaps the most common, is of the antisocial, unathletic nerd, the kid who spent a lot of time by himself reading and playing video games. The other stereotype, a newer one, is of the jock or fratboy gamer -- oftentimes they were an athlete during their high school days, and now relive their glory days playing Madden or MLB 11: The Show.

Of course, gamers rarely tend to fit neatly into such stereotypes. But their prevalence as cultural conceptions speaks to a divide that lies at the heart of modern video games. Broadly speaking, this divide is the difference between games as narrative -- interactive novels or films -- and games as competition -- e-sport, driven by practicing specific skills.

Early games, of course, integrated both elements. I remember playing Super Mario World, which has a crude narrative -- the story of Mario's journey is a paradigmatic romance (in the medieval sense), an adventure in which the hero vanquishes his foes and seeks out his princess. It was also a devilishly difficult game, and required a lot of reflexes and other skills, and levels that could be defeated only through dedicated repetition.

As games grew in complexity, these two elements have diverged and become more clearly defined by virtue of this division. Sports games as a genre, for instance, are almost entirely competitive games. There is very little "story" to speak of, even in these titles' franchise or dynasty modes, and the main fun derives from one's initial incompetence and the fairly arduous process of improving and mastering the game (watch a friend play All-Madden for the first time, and you'll see what I mean). Other genres have developed into expressive media, telling quite intricate stories that may even be beyond the grasp of film -- Mass Effect 2, for instance, seems like more of a television series or serial.

Some of the more daunting enemies from Mass Effect 2Joe Mauer admires another homer in MLB 10: The Show - god, it's hard to hit those!

Needless to say, different demands and expectations come with these two broad categories of games. And, though we don't often think about it, the narrative-skill split has defined many of the trends of the last decade in gaming. For better or worse, the last ten years have been defined by the full realization of the narrative mode of gaming -- a realization made possible by technological advances such as improved facial animation, scripted events (the exemplar being the Half-Life series), and intelligent AI.

The first major trend one should notice, if one has been gaming for a while, is how games have consistently grown shorter. The average first-person shooter's campaign now lasts around six to eight hours long, and even role-playing games have grown leaner with time. Mass Effect 2, for instance, was easily finished in 25-30 hours, while Bioware's previous generation flagship, Knights of the Old Republic, was closer to 40. The diminution in games' length corresponds to the development of tighter, more cinematic narratives. And, given the exponential increase in big game budgets, and the exponential increase in the detail developers must pack into every second of game, this trend will only be exacerbated in the next generation.

The second major trend is the decreasing difficulty of narrative games. I would argue that this is no coincidence. As games converge with film, they will continue to grow easier -- Heavy Rain is a good example of where the industry could end up. After all, there's no such thing as a "hard" movie, or a movie that forces you to replay certain scenes and thereby disrupts its storytelling. Fairly undemanding difficulty is a hallmark of the recent generation's greatest titles -- Uncharted 2 and Mass Effect 2 immediately coming to mind.

The third trend -- and arguably the biggest one in the last ten years -- has been the flourishing of online gaming. If short, easy, but utterly engaging games represent the pinnacle of gaming's narrative pole, then Xbox Live and Battle.Net are the exemplar of its opposite. With ranking systems and constant competition, games such as Halo 3 or Starcraft 2 have completely stripped out the need for story and replaced it with a sandbox in which people are playing a de facto sport. In fact, many people barely bother with the single-player components of those titles, excellent as they are.

Sports for the next generation

The question for the next generation of video game developers is this: now that these two paradigms have been fully realized in separate contexts, will it be possible to reintegrate them into a greater whole? Imagine a real-time strategy game in which hundreds of opponents fight a dynamic war on a map ranging hundreds of square miles, or an eight-gen Call of Duty title in which you and 1,000 other players storm the beaches of Normandy (or the battlegrounds of the Middle East). Such ideas have been dreamt of, certainly -- there have been massively multiplayer shooters and strategy games in the past, though they were usually plagued by technical problems. The failures of the past, however, do not determine the future; they only delay it. Is a reunion of narrative and skill finally within our grasp?

For Love or Money?

The year's first surprise hit has just arrived. Transformers: War for Cybertron has received modest amounts of hype from the franchise's hardcore fans, but it has hardly displaced future blockbusters such as Call of Duty: Black Ops in the the mainstream consciousness. With a 9.0 from IGN and a respectable B+ from 1UP, Cybertron is looking like this year's Arkham Asylum.

Transformers: War for Cybertron

It is really shocking how infrequently a truly remarkable franchised game comes along. For every Batman: Arkham Asylum, we have a dozen Iron Men, Harry Potters, and Terminator games ready and eager to disappoint us. This should be no surprise, however. While Arkham Asylum has proven quite successful, moving around 3.5 million copies and garnering a sequel, the doggedly mediocre Star Wars: The Force Unleashed easily doubled those sales figures.

The fate of established franchises is a case study in rational actor economics. When game developers have no incentive to make good titles -- to put it bluntly, when the final product will sell well no matter what trash they shovel onto shelves -- we find that, most of the time, they won't. This is the sad fact about games sporting premiere licenses, games to which we often attach our greatest hopes. Whenever these titles are developed, someone confronts a fundamental choice: are they in it for love -- or for money?

As expected, the same principle applies in reverse: when movies get the call up to the "big leagues," so to speak, and become film franchises, they almost universally bomb. The Resident Evil franchise has treated its fans to movies that scored 34%, 20%, and 23%. Incredibly, the series is getting its fourth film -- perhaps the studio has become enamored of its Razzie awards. In that same time period, the game series has produced one of the greatest titles of the 21st century, Resident Evil 4 (96 Metascore), and the well-received Resident Evil 5.

A screenshot from Resident Evil: The Movie.

Above: The undeniably pretty but unfortunately putrid Resident Evil (2002), the film that begat one of the worst series of all time.

Will this paradigm ever change? Ironically, two almost universally reviled factors will play a big role in producing better games (both franchise-based and original) in the future: the economic recession, and the rising cost of video game production.

For a long time, we've lived in the era of the quick money grab. It was only too easy for a studio to turn out an unacceptable title and find it accepted by droves, presumably picking a game up for their kid on the way back from seeing the movie (how else do you explain Iron Man selling millions of copies?). In the future, however, this will only become more and more difficult. Games cost tens of millions of dollars to make, and that figure could increase to $50-100M in the next generation. When the investment grows larger, and the sales figures needed to recoup get higher, development will become a more cautious process. This certainly has its disadvantages -- the reluctance to launch new IPs, for one -- but one positive impact it may have is enhanced quality across the board.

I sincerely hope that Transformers sells like hotcakes (even without a movie out this summer to bolster its Q-score). Only when good games receive their just rewards, and poor titles find themselves in the bargain bins, will developers learn: the choice isn't between love and money -- it's between love and bankruptcy.

Microsoft Fell Flat at E3 2010

In this crazy modern world, the divorce rate is about 50%. And according to some sources, the failure rate of 360's hovers around the same point. Thankfully, my 360 and I have been in a loving relationship for almost three years now (since I sent it in for repairs in November of 2007). I know, I know, I'm a lucky man.

All jokes aside, I'm going to recap some of the big developments from today's Microsoft E3 press conference. No one could describe it as uneventful; the harder question, however, is whether we should describe it as successful. In the midst of this great swell of 360 optimism, I'd like to sound some cautionary notes.

The Gospel of the Slim 360

By now, you've seen the big news from E3 2010: the Xbox 360 finally shed a few pounds and got a hot beach body. Just in time for school's end and some big summer sales, one would hope. Certainly, prognosticators have heralded the Slim 360's coming for some time now.

A side shot of the new 360

I'll admit, it doesn't look bad. It's slimmed down quite a bit from the old monster, and has an improved aesthetic (the sides angle inward so that the front-on view has an hourglass figure reminiscent of the letter X).

But is it enough? The Playstation 3 tried this trick about nine months ago, and it worked spectacularly. The new slim form factor released alongside several heavy hitters such as Uncharted 2 and Call of Duty 4, and the 2009-2010 holiday season was a big success for Sony. Since sales shot up in September 2009, the Playstation 3 has been going strong. I'm not convinced the same happens for the 360, however. For one thing, the drop to $299 was a huge market move for Sony; previously, the Playstation 3 had always been at least $100 above that sweet spot in the console gaming market. Microsoft, on the other hand, has been below $299 for a while now -- its Arcade was actually the cheapest console on the market for a time, when it sold for $199 in late 2009. In other words, to the average consumer, this might not look like radical progress; sure, the console looks better and probably performs better (the new 45nm-powered 360 should run cooler and quieter, while consuming less power), but it's actually pricier than the 360's currently available today.

I think the 360 will see a decent sales bump. But keep your expectations reasonable; this isn't a game-changer in the console wars landscape.

Natal Reborn as Kinect

Kinect, debuting November 4, 2010. And it's coming with 15 launch titles. That's almost better than the PS3 managed, though Kinect's posse looks uniformly undistinguished.

Will the Kinect flourish? I've been a skeptic for a long time, and I'm still going to reserve judgment until someone puts it in front of me and lets me try it. Just a few months ago, the rumbles and rumors insisted that Natal was a hopeless mess, that the time-lag was just too large, and that developers were growing intensely frustrated with the system. If you don't get the tech right from the start, how much room do you have to improve? That's an especially worrisome question when it comes to Microsoft, since their modus operandi since entering the console business seems to be just that -- big mistakes early on, and forgiveness with the next Halo game.

I will say one thing: Star Wars Kinect is going to be huge. Bravo to Microsoft for making the no-brainer move. I know that seems like a back-handed compliment, but it's remarkable how frequently companies fail to execute the no-brainer. Big franchises are going to sell the Kinect better than a thousand appearances on the Jimmy Kimmel show, and it doesn't get bigger than Star Wars. I'm pretty sure that legions of gamers have fantasized about motion-controlled lightsaber combat in the years since the Jedi Knight games. Now we're finally going to get one, albeit one that seems targetted at the "family" audience. Rest assured -- Lucasarts is a consummate pro when it comes to milking its franchises, and we could very well see the next Jedi Knight (or The Force Unleashed 3) supporting Kinect.

Star Wars Kinect - first screen?

And the Games?

Ah, there's the rub, as Hamlet would say. Plenty of big titles shared the stage at E3: Halo: Reach got prominent attention, of course, as did Metal Gear Rising. They unveiled gameplay of Gears of War 3, and debuted Forza 4. Ultimately, however, I couldn't shake my disappointment with a lineup that seems like more of the same.

Take Halo: Reach, for example. Now, there may not be another game which I remember with as much fondness as Halo: Combat Evolved. I was one of the idiots who purchased the original Xbox during its debut. I was a bit put off by the overly large controller ("But I'll get used to it," I told myself); I was frustrated by the power cable, which kept falling out of the machine and killing my console at the worst times ("I'll just walk very, very softly within a 10-meter radius of the TV"); and, worst of all, I didn't have any other games to play. In this ocean of misery, Halo: CE was an oasis of superb gaming, and deservedly one of the most famed titles of all time.

People remember different things about it: storming the tropical beach in "Halo," or getting your first headshot in "The Truth and Reconciliation." Or maybe the revolutionary graphics, or the fact that for the first time on a console, you could move and shoot at the same time. What a radical concept. Of course, I shouldn't neglect the engrossing story, memorable characters (I knew I was going to like Cortana the first time she gave the captain some sass), or exhilarating action sequences.

The problem is that the series hasn't really improved since then. And I'm not sure Reach is moving in the right direction. The graphics don't look great (especially considering it's the 360's showcase franchise), and the gameplay seems even more arcade-like than before. Among various other oddities, the trailer showed extended space combat sequences. This kind of stuff makes me really apprehensive: usually, when you try to take on a Wing Commander component to an action game, what you end up with is half of a mediocre action game and half of a terrible space combat game.

Admittedly, this critique is hardly unique to the 360. PS3's big announcements recently have been Killzone 3, LittleBigPlanet 2, and inFamous 2. And God knows Nintendo's been living off the same three horses (Mario, Zelda, and Metroid) since the 80's. But the other guys' franchises are making dramatic leaps forward -- take the jump from Uncharted to Uncharted 2, or the innovations in Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel that have made them this generation's most critically acclaimed titles. What is Gears 3 going to do to match that? Four-person co-op?

What the 360 Needs To Do

1) Smart money on exclusives - I don't know what Microsoft thought it was getting when it bought "exclusive" DLC for Grand Theft Auto IV for $50M, but in retrospect, it looks like a pretty bad decision. The PS3 got the same content, and the 360 is out one exclusive, original IP. $50M is roughly twice the cost of Bioshock's development, and is probably about the same about of money Bungie's going to end up spending to develop Halo: Reach.

2) Figure out its demographic - the 360 now sells to fratboys (Halo: Reach and Gears of War 3) and their Stepford-Wife mothers (Kinectimals). Is this the right way to go? We've seen "adult" titles bomb on the Wii, and it's pretty clear why: you can't have your cake and eat it, too. I don't know if the 360's actually going to gain much market share in the casual crowd when the Wii's a huge name there already. And, as before, the same calculus applies: however many millions Microsoft sunk into Kinect, they could have invested in another AAA title or two.

3) Star Wars: The Old Republic - enough said, right? This game is going to be the biggest MMO on the block behind World of Warcraft, and it could be the defining game of the next decade. Bioware is the best RPG developer on the planet right now, and the Star Wars universe is one of the five best licenses in the world (behind Harry Potter and arguably Lord of the Rings, I'd say). Bringing SW: TOR to consoles -- or to the 360 exclusively -- would be an earth-shattering coup for the Giant of Redmond.

One final word for Microsoft: as much as I've criticized you here, I really do enjoy the 360 and wish it the best. So, Bill: good luck and godspeed!

Fantasy Baseball Breakouts and Sleepers

I'm not sure if anyone else is really into fantasy baseball, but I'm mildly obsessed. I cancelled my MLB.TV subscription last year, but before that, I used to watch games in class rather than listen to lectures. Anyways, I thought I'd share a few notes from my preparation thus far. I've done my initial research and feel pretty comfortable with this year overall. I don't think it makes a lot of sense to do extremely detailed individual projections, however, since it seems like this year the variance in opinion is crazy. Try asking another player what they feel about guys like Andrew McCutchen or Curtis Granderson, and you'll get people willing to draft them at Pick 40 and guys who wouldn't touch them until 100 or later.

Here are some names that popped out at me, guys I want on all my teams this year:

Geovany Soto (Chicago Cubs) - A sexy pick in 2009, he has been completely abandoned in 2010 drafts following a down year. But his underlying numbers changed very little in '09 compared to his star turn in '08. His K% and BB% were stable (24.5/11.0 in 2008, 23.3/12.9 in 2009). His GB:FB ratio stayed in line as well (41.4% flyballs in 2008, 41.3% in 2009). All of it adds up to some bad luck and -- as he himself has admitted in interviews -- a sense of complacency. That sense of entitlement is gone this year, and I see Soto returning himself to top 100 or even top 60 value: .280/20 HR/75 RBI as a catcher.

Gordon Beckham (Chicago White Sox) - He has the pedigree (No. 8 overall pick in the 2008 draft), the discipline (0.63:1 K:BB ratio in '09), and the youth (he'll be 23 for most of the season) to be a huge breakout player in 2010. Bill James is a believer, projecting a .288/21 HR/96 RBI/93 R/10 SB season out of the youngster. That's a bit high, I think (it would have Beckham selected in the fifth round next year at the latest), but I could definitely see a .280/20/80/80 year out of the youngster. And the best part of all? He's shifting over to second base this season, which means a scarce position just got the year's biggest sleeper.

Alcides Escobar (Milwaukee Brewers) - Sticking with the middle infield for the moment, I'll also talk up the Brewers' rookie shortstop. They thought so much of him that they traded J.J. Hardy, himself an above-average major league hitter, away to make room for the 23-year old. Escobar's AAA stat line was .298/4 HR/34 RBI/76 R/42 SB, and he has great contact rates in his minor-league career, striking out only 15% of the time. He compares very favorably to Elvis Andrus, whose last minor-league season was .295/4/65/82/54 in AA ball. Last year, Andrus made a big impact for Texas, and people are taking him around 100-110. That's not a bad price for Andrus, but that means that Escobar's low price tag (he's being snagged after Pick 200) is spectacular.

Carlos Gonzalez (Colorado Rockies) - First of all, let's make one thing clear: you want anyone with an iotum of hitting talent who gets to play at Coors Field. Remember Matt Holliday's breakout year in 2006? He went from a .307/19 HR/14 SB year (in 479 AB) to starting full-time and exploding to a .326/34 HR/10 SB season. Well, stop me if this sounds familiar, but Gonzalez played part-time last year and offered very serviceable numbers: .284/13 HR/16 SB in only 278 ABs. Now he's inheriting a full-time job, and I think .280/20/20 is the minimum you get out of my favorite outfield breakout candidate. Here's the crazy part: Gonzalez is being taken after pick 100 in most drafts today, while Andrew McCutchen plays (a) for a worse team (b) in a worse hitting park and is being gobbled up around 60-65. And why are people so excited about McCutchen? His .286/12 HR/22 SB line in 433 ABs last year.

Max Scherzer (Detroit Tigers) - Let's play a comparison game between two pitchers, Max Scherzer and mystery man X. Here are their stat lines from their first full year in the majors:

Scherzer (2009) - 170.1 IP, 166 H, 20 HR, 63 BB, 174 K and 9 wins with a 4.12 ERA

X - 146.1 IP, 122 H, 12 HR, 65 BB, 150 K and 7 wins with a 4.00 ERA

Want to see what X's second year in the league looked like? How about 227 IP, 182 H, 11 HR, 84 BB, 265 K, with 18 wins, a 2.62 ERA, and a Cy Young award. In case you haven't realized by now, that's Tim Lincecum. I'm not claiming Scherzer makes the same leap; the vast majority of young pitchers don't follow the same meteoric path Lincecum has blazed, and Scherzer has a few more disadvantages, including his move to the American League.

But let's be clear about some things. (1) Very few pitchers strike out more than a batter per inning. (2) Very few pitchers have the command to boast K:BB rates of 2.76:1, as Scherzer did last year. The list of pitchers who combine the two characteristics are basically the league's superstars. Watch Scherzer work, and you get the feeling he could do the same -- he throws a very hard fastball between 92-97 mph, and his wicked mid-80's slider is a great swing-and-miss pitch. So if you're looking to buy a late-round youngster who could be drafted in the Top 100 next year, I don't see a better bet out there than Max Scherzer.

That's all I have for today. I'll post my picks for busts or overvalued players later this week.

In Praise of Subjective Game Reviews

The fact that I thoroughly enjoy writing game reviews must say something bad about my personality. Perhaps I overvalue my own opinion or like hearing the sound of my own voice. These flaws likely influence the tone and content of my reviews: I attempt to canvas objective components of games when I evaluate them, but in the end the final rating and much of the critique itself center on my subjective experience of a game.

Sometimes, this can verge on the extreme, and I concede that I may often be objectively unfair. About half a year ago, I posted my review of Metal Gear Solid 4 after getting the game for my then-newly acquired Playstation 3. I gave it a 6.5 and stand by that today. Before starting Kojima's "masterpiece," I was incredibly excited about it, as I had seen the stellar critical reception back in 2008 but had no way of playing the title at that time. However, I found the game deeply disappointing and wrote a review that reflected that disappointment. Admittedly, it was over-the-top. In the tagline, I set the tone by saying, "For Classification, I struggled to select between 'Overrated' and 'Pretentious.' Yup, that bad." I then proceeded to lay out a fairly narrow critique: I found the storytelling mechanism, with its long cut-scenes, unbearable (as a student, I often like to play for 30 minute to 1-hour chunks in between classes or at the end of the day, so I get annoyed when half that time ends up being absorbed by a non-interactive experience). After playing for a few hours, I actually found that I would rather do something else -- anything else -- other than load up Metal Gear Solid 4 and progress further. And given that I'm in law school and the alternative is reading Supreme Court opinions, that's really saying something. As I put it then: "Every time I think about taking it for a spin, I get this reluctance deep in my gut. Few video games make me actually cringe at the thought of playing them, but Metal Gear Solid 4 is one of them."

Solid Snake on his final adventure.

Above: Hopefully this isn't the guy out to get me for my Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots review.

People did not necessarily take well to this review. Judging by the Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down mechanism the site employs, it is both my most read and most reviled piece, with just 7 of 31 users finding it helpful. One Gamespotter had the kindness to send me this thoughtful email (which I've included in full with only minor censorship):

"long story short, you are a c**k.

1st. you havent played any other metal gear solid game, why not you ch*de? maybe you would of enjoyed mgs4 more if you did c**kface.

2nd. you only played act 1?

to summarise, you are a c**k and should appreciate masterpieces, pr*ck."

I wouldn't expect it of an argument presented in this manner, but he (or she) actually makes good points. My review failed in at least two gigantic ways: (1) I hadn't experienced the rest of the series, as I never owned a Playstation console before the Playstation 3 and (2) I didn't even finish the game! From an objective perspective -- or more precisely, a perspective that expects and values objectivity in reviews -- I was in the wrong.

With all that being said, I'd now like to present my argument in praise of the completely, unabashedly 100% subjective game review.

The Minority Report

What exactly do I intend with this reference? Well, for one thing, I encourage you to see the movie and/or read the Philip K. Dick short story, both are spectacular. But more immediately relevant for me is the idea of the one voice that disagrees with the majority; in legal parlance, the dissenter, though some (see above email) have more colorful terms of art for it.

There are two ways to see your user review. One is as a standalone object, an evaluation that will be the only one that a person will see before making their decision whether or not to purchase a game. If seen in this way, a purely subjective review may be misleading, even irresponsible, and is certainly not the best way to proceed. Most game sites still review in this manner. The second way, however, is the way that I see reviews; and, I would argue, the better way to view them in today's world. This way envisions the review as part of a larger dialogue, a highly subjective opinion written in response to previous pieces and setting itself apart from those pieces in some meaningful way. User reviews in particular capture this new paradigm perfectly; most of the time, when I look at user reviews, I try to pick out at least one that rates the game extremely highly and one that rates it much lower (say -2.0 or more relative to the most ecstatic writers advocating a score of 9.5 or 10.0). This tactic helps me understand both sides of the ongoing argument about a game's merits and is immensely helpful in making purchasing decisions.

In the larger dialogue of critique, one highly relevant viewpoint is the person who says, "X was so boring or alienating that I couldn't even finish it." It would be disastrous for us if we only considered the opinions of people who made it through a game (or any work of art) entirely. After all, half the English majors you ask about James Joyce's "Ulysses" will tell you that they found it unbearable and couldn't finish more than 50 pages of it. It's worth hearing from those people; pick up the book tomorrow, and there's at least a 50% chance you'll have the same reaction.

Interestingly enough, this sentiment cropped up in the most recent column from Penny Arcade regarding Final Fantasy XIII. I'm not even sure if I'm permitted to quote from their site, but until someone tells me otherwise, here goes nothing: "We have at times considered the plight of the games reviewer. Forced by the mechanism to consume games, because more games are coming, cresting the hill, and these games must be consumed also - but at least someone is compensating them for their time. I considered loading it up last night, just as I have every night since I got back, and I could make no cohesive argument for why I should do that and not something else. It's horrifying to think that I had defeated Uncharted 2 by this point, traversed a full narrative arc, in the time it took me to hate Final Fantasy XIII."

Going back to the subject of my Metal Gear Solid 4 review for a second, I believe I approached it with some traits that must be shared in common with other gamers. I'm of a similar age to many (22); I have enjoyed stealth action games in the past, such as Splinter Cell; and I had not played any of the Metal Gear Solid games prior to the last one. For people with similar characteristics, perhaps the reaction would be similar, and they would be served well by heeding my warning. Then again, maybe not. In the larger picture, the great thing about user reviews is that they average out over the entire Gamespot population. Considering Metal Gear Solid 4 still boasts a 9.4 weighted average, it seems clear that not many people experienced the same problems I encountered with the game. But if a larger percentage had, wouldn't you want to know that? And what better way would there be to convey that issue than for those gamers to give the game a low score and consequently drive down its average?

Games as Lived Experience

Most importantly, we should remember that people don't play games "objectively." They experience them, and while their enjoyment certainly bears some relation to the graphics, gameplay, replayability, and story, those simply cannot explain the entirety of any person's encounter with a particular title.

This phenomenon is most readily observable in our attitude toward sequels. Some take the following attitude: X was a 9.0 game; X II adds gameplay feature Y that is a marginal improvement on X, so it must be 9.0 or better. But this simply isn't what happens, at least for myself, when I play a sequel. Gears of War (2006) was an unforgettable experience, because it was the first "next generation" game I played, the first I purchased for the Xbox 360. Rainbow Six: Vegas, released in the same month, also enthralled me. Yet when I visit their sequels, released years later, that same feeling doesn't automatically come back. My jaw dropped the first time I played a UE3 game, but after it became the standard, I began to see the flaws of the series more clearly. I believe the same thing just happened to me with Bioshock 2: a return to Rapture, to be sure, but not the one that captivated me in 2007.

The Cogs step off their noble steed in Gears of War (2006).

Above: Delta Company's first adventure blew my mind, and I reviewed accordingly (9.5).

Below: Don't these games look awfully similar? Gears of War 2 had the same gameplay and a story equally as over-the-top as the first. But after two years had passed, the "Wow" factor was gone, and it was an 8.5 at best in my mind.

Cole returned for his second tour of duty in 2008.

Certainly it seems unfair at first for Bioshock 2 to receive a lower score than the original based on a subjective feeling. But consider the alternative: what if a reviewer who did not enjoy the sequel as much as the original feels compelled by that logic to give the game a score at least as good as that given to its predecessor? When readers rush out to buy the game and then feel the same sense of subjective letdown -- for surely the feeling cannot be entirely unique to that reviewer -- who is to blame? Considering that the worst feeling one can have after making a purchase is buyers' remorse, that sense of disappointment that comes with excessive anticipation or failed expectations, shouldn't we take special care to capture that subjective element in reviews?