Gaming is the Ebola virus of addictive hobbies; it eats at your guts from the inside and drives you to make career goals deemed slightly over the cusp of madness by your friends and family. Despite the fact that literally everyone you know tells you on a daily basis that it's not only impossible, but hazardous to your health, you dream about making a living in the gaming industry. No need to feel guilty. There are people who routinely do the impossible - they make a living having a sinful amount of fun. They write computer game reviews. Armed with your passion for games, some writing know-how, and this short guide, you'll have your first review nailed and out the door in no time.
Breaking Into the Industry
If you yearn to work in the gaming biz as a programmer, artist, game designer, or journalist, working as a PC game reviewer is an ideal starting point. You may not choose to leave, as it's one of the best gigs on earth. As a game critic, you have to be on top of everything that goes on in the gaming market, and as a result, you end up learning the ins and outs of the industry better than the contours of your mouse.It's also an easy way to make valuable business contacts. Although the job market for these writing positions is fairly competitive, the business of gaming grows profoundly each year. Last year, the computer and video game industry did several billion dollars of business, second only in revenue in the entertainment industry to television. How's that for job security?
Unfortunately, being a card-carrying game wunderkind won't slide you the whole way there. You need to be able to write. Taking writing classes helps significantly, as well as reading as many books as you can get your hands on. Unless you're exceptionally lucky or skilled (or both), you'll most likely end up having to work a period of time for free. I know from experience that working free of charge is frustrating, arduous, and at times thankless work. You, of course, want to avoid that at all costs. Well, if you're crafty, game-savvy, and work diligently, you can blow past those hoops. Occasionally, a writer will be hired on a freelance basis based on a killer sample review, regardless of their relative lack of "established" publication credentials. What you need is an intelligent, comprehensive, and cohesive sample review. Use this guide as a roadmap.
Where Do I Start?
Don't worry - it's easier than you think. I've been writing professional computer game reviews for over two years now, and I've never been accused of having an overly stressful job. This is a guide to writing your first PC game review. It's intended to get you on your feet and get your first review out the door. More than that, it's a guide to shooting from the hip and calling it as you see it.
Perhaps the best starting point is to examine your reader. First, nuke any and all pre-conceived notions that all computer game players are poorly hygiene-educated, obsessive compulsive, antisocial, slack-jawed, teenage nerds. Studies show this isn't even close to the truth. A vast statistical majority of game players are between 25-55 years old. Half of the people that purchase games are women. A majority of them are tech-savvy and well educated. Now that you know the readers, it's your job to write specifically to them. If you decide to use humor in your article, aim your humor at these people. If you use slang to keep the style informal, keep it fairly hip. Most in this demographic are also heavily into movies and television shows, so feel free to tie them into the piece.
The Basic Five
Grab a game from your shelf - (if you don't own any, you're in the wrong place). While you're at it, look around IGNPC and read a few recent reviews. Regardless of the type of game being reviewed, be it action, adventure, puzzle, role-playing or anything else, several topics about the game are sure to be covered. There will always be an introduction, five or more primary paragraphs, and a conclusion.
Your review should include paragraphs that cover:Fun factor Control and gameplay Graphics Sound Replayability
If you're already lost, don't worry -- we'll move step by step through each process, with instructions on how to actually go about evaluating the game. These basic five criteria should be the backbone of your review, so remember them. They will be something you can always count on and will help you keep the review structured and readable. When you first sit down to write, there's probably going to be a certain amount of unavoidable (and quite unnecessary) anxiety about where to start. Most writers, even the most experienced ones, won't be able to pound the piece out from the introduction all the way to the conclusion, so it really doesn't matter which one of the five you start on as long as you cover them all.And, once you've covered them all, you'll essentially have the review finished.
Sitting Down to Write
You've played the game. Maybe it was pure, unbridled gaming goodness. Or, you might not have cared for it. Worse, you may have found it so irreparably flawed and frustrating that it could be deemed morally reprehensible. No matter how you felt about it, you have to start somewhere. If you have a section, such as graphics, that you'd like to tackle first, feel free. If not, we might as well start with...
Nail it, and the rest is smooth sailing
In a game review, the only thing read more often than the conclusion is the introduction. This is your opportunity to display some imagination and develop your tone for the piece. Each writer has a different tactic and style, and the introduction is a good place for you to start developing it.Don't be afraid to get a little saucy. Many writers use the introduction to get the reader oriented, offering the background history and information on the development of the title. Although it's a bit more difficult to pull off, humor can be used as an extremely effective tool in bagging readers.Any way you decide to tackle it, there should be one overall goal when you write your introduction - get the reader to read the next line. It's been my experience that with many readers, you only have a line-to-line lease on their attention, and if you want them to read your scintillating prose in the "graphics" paragraph and your devastating punch line in the "sound" paragraph, you will need to grab them by the collar.
Some possible introduction paragraph ideas:Start off with a memory or experience you had. Tie it in to the game.Consider building a theme from start to finish. If you tie in Chuck Norris in the intro, include him in the conclusion as well.Is the game a sequel? Remember the first game? Did it do well or poorly? How do you feel about the genre? Hate Football games? Why? Ask the reader a question.Have you been looking forward to this games release? Had you never even heard of it until it landed on your doorstep?
For comparison, here are some examples of introductions from various reviews I've written for IGNPC.The first is from Swamp Buggy Racing:"I can't say I'm all that surprised about my final opinion on Swamp Buggy Racing. It's like university cafeteria food - at the moment I saw it, and especially when I first started eating it, I knew it was going to be bad. I just didn't know how bad. Hopeful future game designers, seasoned design veterans, and diehard gamers read on -- this is the unequivocal example of how not to design a game."And here's one from Majesty:"Like it or not, for the last few years the real time strategy genre hasn't exactly been an exercise in originality. Developers have stuck almost exclusively with an effective and tired formula, for a lot of reasons, not the least of which being it sells like mad. Majesty is one of those games that looks vastly different than it actually plays."
As you can see, there are as many ways to write an introduction as there are writers. Find a method that works for you and go with it.
Although they should be, they aren't always
Evaluating whether a game is fun or not is a no-brainer. The entire concept of a computer game is to give the user a fun experience to escape in. Trust your instincts here. If you don't think the game is fun, for whatever reason, by all means express that clearly. You aren't weird or abnormal for finding a game dull. The difficulty of the gameplay can have a major effect on the enjoyment of the game. Remember, just because you can plow through a game like a box of Cheez-its doesn't mean that most of your readers can, so make sure to pay close attention to the game difficulty. If you don't think the game is fun, chances are good there are thousands of other people who will feel exactly the same way. Just call it as you see it, and you'll come out fine.
Control and Gameplay
The fine line between blessed and depraved
The best games are those that allow the player to seamlessly control the events on screen. The ultimate control is one that is so responsive the player doesn't even notice the clunky interface they're using. But, if you've ever played a game with unresponsive control, you'll know well the gritting teeth and unparalleled frustration of attempting to even make the character on the screen walk in a straight line. When you want to judge a game by its control, there's a simple rule of thumb: if you're having trouble controlling the game, then the readers will too. If you're crippled with "Nintendo Thumb" 20 minutes into the title, there's something terribly wrong. You may also want to mention which control setup was most useful for you, and which, if any, joysticks or gamepads you would suggest using. Steer readers clear from frustrating games. They'll stop playing them as fast as you want to, but can't because you have to play through the game to finish the review.
Graphics are extremely important to the mainstream audience - they visually connect the player to the game. In many popular genres, such as first-person shooters and driving games, graphics should weigh more heavily into the overall evaluation of title because gamers put an unequal amount of importance into the visuals. As pretty as many of today's 3D accelerated games are, there are always the ugly ones. If your initial reaction is to physically recoil away from your screen, it isn't a good sign. You should probably note that. Make sure to evaluate graphical clarity (are the characters and actions on the screen hard to understand because of lack of detail?), believability (are you immersed right away just out of the sheer realism of the graphics?), and performance (does the game get choppy and sluggish on a reasonably powerful computer?). Here's an example of a critique on a game's graphics taken directly from a review. In this case, the game being reviewed is an 3D action game named Slave Zero:"The graphics are, for the most part, respectable, but nothing revolutionary. The city and high-rise backgrounds do look pretty good, though, and it's great fun running around obliterating small buildings, local businesses, and screaming pedestrians. The attention to detail is nice -- streetlights illuminate the roadways, bullet holes and craters mar the landscape, and buildings display the occasionalcliché futuristic neon sign (¿ la Bladerunner). The explosions are a mixed bag. While the small ones look a bit dated, the bigger ones are cool enough to get even the most grizzled FPS veteran a little steamy."
We hear all, we know all
While generally less focused on than graphics, sound has the unique ability of bridging the difference between a good title and a great title. When you look at a game's sound, focus on evaluating sound effects and musical score. You know what sound effects are; you've been bombarded with them since birth. If the game is making an attempt for realism, judge the game on how realistic the sounds are. When sound effects are tacky and annoying, penalize the game. As far as the music is concerned, judge it both on musical quality and its ability to add to the ambience and character of the game. You don't have to have a degree in music to judge the music in a title - just follow your gut reaction. Most importantly, don't overlook sound in your scoring, and make sure to alert readers to particularly great or nasty sound work.
Size and length do matter
The more games become like big Hollywood movies (some games have budgets upwards of $30 million), they suffer from the same inherent problems as the silver screen - you only want to see them once. A few, rare games a year defeat this by offering a massive amount of sheer content - sometimes just completing a game can take as long as 150 hours. However much parents, bosses, and spouses hate games that suck away productivity, gamers love them. Truly massive and addictive games, like Verant Studios' more addictive than Count Chocula cereal RPG hit EverQuest, have notoriously caused people to fail out of school or lose their jobs, and even resulted in players refusing to take the time to microwave a frozen burrito. Reward addictiveness and length well, because every extra hour of game time translates to better value for the buyer - and, ultimately, that's what you, as a game reviewer, are here to do: advise gamers on what to buy.
Your last words
It's frustrating for writers, but nine out of every 10 readers jump straight to the conclusion and skip all of the divinely insightful analysis you've put your heart into in the previous five or 10 paragraphs. Don't lose any sleep over it; just make the conclusion that much better.
All final thoughts need to be:Exceptionally concise Include all of the major complaints (your chance to bite back at bad design!) What, if anything, you particularly enjoyed in the title.A tasteful amount of comedy (if that's your thing) Most importantly: is it worth picking up?Remember to weigh the conclusion evenly and correctly. If you had a generally favorable feel of the game, don't throw a bunch of complaints in there at the last moment. It's the last thing gamers will read, and they may get the wrong impression. The same goes the other way around - if you hated the game, don't talk it up at the end. Here, again, is a clip from the Swamp Buggy Racing review:"So, I'll make this simple: never, under any circumstance, should you buy or play this game. Although I'm sure the game was under-budgeted (or, as I'm beginning to suspect, perhaps not funded at all), the unbelievably small selection of tracks and cars simply isn't acceptable. Similar to the other excremental dregs floating in the bargain bins of local retail stores (such as the now legendary 'Extreme' series of sports games), the entire Swamp Buggy Racing experience feels like one bad undergraduate Computer Science project taken way too far. When you get down to it, there's really not that much you can say. Occasionally, you'll play a game that's so bad it's good. This isn't the case with Swamp Buggy Racing. It's just...bad. Even though the back of the box urges you to 'plunge yourself into the middle of the fun,' I would vehemently suggest otherwise."
The fundamentals for a game critic never change. They often mark the difference between the amateur and the professional. Getting into gaming journalism isn't easy ¿ don't make it harder by falling in the pitfalls so many others have stumbled into.
Remember:Whether you like the game or not, you owe it to the developers to finish the game before you write the review. Keep bias in check. Erase all previous impressions on the game you had in your memory: the good press, bad press, outrageous boasting of the lead developer, dozens of passed release dates, memories of old-screenshots, secret hatred of the genre, un-returned phone calls from PR people, and what your Uncle Vinny keeps insisting he heard from his high-placed "contacts." It's your job.Avoid using "non-descriptive" descriptive words like "awesome" and "amazing." Find words that more precisely describe your opinion. A good editor will demand review quality over quantity and speed. You should too.Back statements up with proof. You might find it useful to keep a notebook around while you play. When it comes time to take the gloves off and slap around a game, you'll need to be able to back it up with proof. The bigger the stick you use to savagely beat the game, the wittier and classier it should be. If you pull it off you look like a true professional, and it's much more hilarious for the readers.Show editors you're serious by taking the time to check spelling and grammar. Otherwise, they'll throw your review in the burn barrel along with their copies of Extreme Paintbrawl 2. Finally, games should be judged on their ability to compete with games of their genre. As an example, the graphics of a simple chess game shouldn't be pitted against the beautiful visuals from a flight simulator. This is true of all review criteria, as most readers will want to know how the game fares against other games of its kind. Just don't compare apples and oranges.
As for my own conclusion about reviewing games (if you've skipped over the entire article to the conclusion), it's as simple as calling it as you see it. The more experienced you get with gaming and the gaming industry, the more informed and polished your reviews will be. While writing your review, take solace in the fact that you've already got the formula planned out for you -- "the basic five." As long as you cut out the BS and simply tell your readers how it is, you can't go wrong. And hey, who knows? If the planets and stars are aligned correctly, the trade winds are favorable, and the gods of gaming goodness smile down upon you, you could be one of those lucky bastards that write computer game reviews for a living.
-- Erik Peterson