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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Don't beat the bell curve, join it.

I have a confession to make.

I hate Mega Man.

There, I’ve said it. There’s no taking it back. I hate Mega Man. I hate his little 3-credit-card jumps (a term coined by my father, to describe the height to which he could be expected to jump: Three stacked credit cards). I hate the fact that he has to tackle enemies in a specific order, but they don’t tell you which order. I hate that death sends you all the way back to the start.

I’m also none too fond of Warcraft 3. I hate the fact that they spend the first few levels teaching you how to build bases and develop resources, and then send you out into the world with a scout, a tank and an archer and tell you to kill everyone else on the map.

Devil May Cry 4? Bleugh. Why does the main character carry a nerf gun around to do battle with mystical demon hordes? Honestly, the game should have been called “Devil May Shoot, but it won’t do a damn bit of good.”

And don’t get me started on The Sims. Oh, Mr. Wright, may I please have a game where I have to tell my character to pee, make him wash his hands, and also spend 75% of the time waiting for him to finish working or sleeping so I can interact with him? Why yes, yes I can. But why would I? Why would anyone?

What do these games have in common? Four words, or at least three words but one of them comes up twice: Ten out of Ten.

Game scores don’t get much love, and there is some merit to the hate. Every video gamer brings a unique perspective, a unique set of experiences that frame his or her gaming experience and affect how that reviewer views a given game. How do you legitimately take all that emotional baggage and boil it down to a fraction of ten?

Well, if you’re Eidos, you buy large amounts of ad space and make the reviewer give you the score you want. But what about everyone else?

It’s preposterous, really. You can’t take something as subjective as personal opinion and convert it to something as unforgiving and objective as math. It’s like if someone asks you how you’re doing and you answer “3.”

Nonetheless, review scores are very useful tools if you understand how to interpret them. The thing to remember is that you need to calibrate the scale in such a way that you understand what a given number means to you, personally.

Take me, for example. When I see a game review with a score between nine and ten (out of ten), I realize that I’m probably not going to like that game. It took a lot of years, and a lot of wasted money, but I finally figured that out when Warcraft 3 came out. I had played other RTS games at that point, and I wasn’t overly fond of any of them. But the reviews surrounding Warcraft 3 made me wonder if there was something about this game that was different from those other ones.

So I bought it. Then I played it. And then I uninstalled it. Then I tried to trade it in at Gamestop, only to find they weren’t accepting PC games anymore. Then I gave it to a friend. He hasn’t emailed me in a while. I hope he doesn’t hate me now.

To me, a ten-out-of-ten review score means “People who are not you will like this. Move along.”

There are exceptions, of course. I played the heck out of Fallout 3, for example. And I found Bioshock as fun and interesting as other people said I would. But a good 90% of games that earn 90% or better are games that I just don’t like. You might think that makes me some kind of jaded, impossible to please jerk; the sort of guy who goes to an All You Can Eat Buffet and complains about the size of the plates. But such is not the case. I’m actually very easy to please from a video game perspective. All I really want is to blow stuff up for points.

Consider five of my most favorite games from the last ten years:
Mercenaries 2 (PS3)
Spiderman 2 (PS2)
Chile Con Carnage (PSP)
God Hand (PS2)
Gungrave: Overdose (PS2).
What we see from that list, other than the fact that I’m an insufferable Sony fanboy, is that none of those games broke the 7 out of 10 mark (NOTE: I’m using gamespot’s scale here). Or, if they did, only barely. None of them approached eight out of ten. I could list another dozen games that I played the heck out of that got mediocre reviews at best. I can count on one hand the number of critically acclaimed blockbusters that I got more enjoyment than annoyance out of.

The term I like to apply to myself is “B-minus gamer.” I like games that would earn a C or a B-minus if they were graded on a letter scale instead of a numeric scale. Just like my weather, I prefer my game review scores in the mid sixties to low seventies.

This has upsides and downsides. On the downside, I miss out on a lot of the New Hotness, because whatever game has people soiling themselves is a game that I know I probably won’t like. Occasionally a high-rated title will catch my fancy, and I’ll make sure I do a whole lot of research before plunking down any money. Fortunately, there are great forum sites like Gamers with Jobs where I can get multiple perspectives and temper the hype a bit. I bought Sins of a Solar Empire primarily because the GWJ podcast crew spent something like two solid months raving about the game in the “Games You Can Play Right Now” segment of the podcast (and Mr. Borges, if you’re reading this, you are the filthiest enabler of them all when it comes to this one) and I have been very happy with the purchase, even if I haven’t yet summoned the courage to try a solo comp-stomp against the AI set above Average. (My failure to engage in battle against other humans has more to do with my schedule than fear. I’m simply not available to play when other people I’d be interested in playing with are. And now that the Entrenchment expansion has dropped, I’ll never get to a point where I could be competitive anyway)

Likewise, I bought Plants Versus Zombies for the same reason. As someone who likes tower defense games, but only the simple ones, PvZ scratches an itch that games like Desktop Tower Defense (INSERT LINK HERE) only sort of scratch. Desktop tower defense is too easy for me on easy, and not easy enough on medium. PvZ is just right. Plus, there’s nut bowling.

The upside of being a B-minus gamer is the fact that I get a lot of value for my gaming dollar. Every game I’ve bought that was rated between six and seven has seen more play than all of the 9-out-of-10 games I’ve ever played combined (with the possible exception of Fallout 3, which is obscenely large.) I played Gungrave: Overdose from start to finish six times in a row before I started thinking about playing other games again. And I didn’t even use the alternate characters. I beat God Hand twice in one day, and only stopped playing it the third time through because I had to eat and go to work.

And the thing is that 6-out-of-10 games are cheap, because they see price drops way before 9-out-of-10 games do. Ratchet And Clank, Tools of Destruction was still an unconscionable $60 on Amazon in December 2008, yet when I played it and beat it I couldn’t trade it in fast enough. I spent a good seventy percent of that game just being annoyed at it, and I only beat it because I kept waiting for it to get as good as everyone told me it would get. What did I get? A freaking (SPOILER ALERT!) cliffhanger!

Meanwhile, I just got Ghostbusters and Call of Juarez: Bound In Blood for only about $20 more than it would cost to get Ratchet and Clank brand new, and I’ll probably enjoy them more than I enjoyed R&C:ToD.

In fact, I’ll go you one better. I got more fun out of playing the Iron Man movie tie-in than I did playing R&C:ToD, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. Ripping the turrets off of tanks, then flying up into the air to catch incoming missiles and throw them at helicopters never, ever gets old. Even if Robert Downey Junior delivers his lines like he’s reading a phone book.

In addition to the value, there is a lot more selection out there if you actually prefer games that rank between six and seven on the ten point scale. There are only a dozen 9-and-up titles per year, but the market is saturated with average games. If you can enjoy a moderately well done licensed game (like Ghost Rider on the PSP), or a workmanlike beat-em-up (Like Vikings on the PS3 or Xbox360) then you have a whole lot of games to choose from.

I’m not sure why the B-minus games fit me so well. It might be that I can’t stand hype. Maybe it’s because the flaws in B-minus games are more thoroughly examined in the text of the reviews than the highly rated ones. For example, the stability issues present Knights of the Old Republic were barely touched upon in all the glowing reviews I read, yet the game ran so poorly on my computer (which I bought almost a year after the game was initially released, and met the tech requirements) that I was able to convince Best Buy to give me a refund for an open PC game. True story.

How a game that runs like a slide show on a PC that’s newer than the game due to known driver issues that the developer failed to fix in the gold edition of the game can get as high a score as KOTOR did, I have absolutely no clue. If the game had rated more poorly, perhaps someone would have discussed the horrible stability and bugginess of the game. But even the folks at SomethingAwful.com (warning: NSFW) congratulated Bioware on making the first Star Wars game since Tie Fighter that didn’t stink.

Incidentally, I’m running Sins of a Solar Empire on the PC that KOTOR wouldn’t run on, and it runs smooth as glass even when the fleets of ships start exploding and my Novalith Cannons start demolishing enemy homeworlds.

But I digress. Another possibility for why I prefer B-minus games is fact that my expectations for B-minus games are lower. Instead of being disappointed because that “perfect” game wasn’t so perfect, I end up being pleasantly surprised by the little game that could. There’s a lot to be said for reducing your expectations.

This is not the same as lowering your standards, by the way. Lowering your standards means you can’t tell the difference between filet minon and a pile of fresh monkey poop. Reducing your expectations just means you aren’t disappointed when you specifically order fresh monkey poop and fail to get filet minon by mistake. It’s the same principle behind enjoying Michael Bay movies. I can still enjoy something by Alfred Hitchcock, but the fact that I don’t expect Michael Bay to be Alfred Hitchcock means I can walk out of Transformers completely satisfied with the experience.

At any rate, that’s how I game. Give me something that critics think is average at best, and I’ll be happy as a pig in excrement. But once you start telling me a game is the greatest thing since silicon wafers, and I’ll probably just go back to playing Chile Con Carnage