Friday Slide: What’s in a Review Score?

The review aggregating behemoth Metacritic recently started tracking iOS game reviews, and we’re honored to be one of the sites they use to tally their scores. But as useful as score aggregating sites are, they have the unfortunate effect of boosting the importance of numerical review scores. Take it from someone who spends his days playing games and writing reviews: Scores are only part of the story.

In the text of a review, a writer can explain the ways a game succeeds and stumbles until his or her typing fingers fall off. Writing a thoughtful review is like making a statue: You chisel away at your ideas and judgements until what’s left reflects precisely what you want to say about a game. Assigning a numerical score, on the other hand, is like carving a statue with dynamite. It gets messy.

In some ways this applies especially to iOS games, because the scope of games on the App Store varies hugely. iOS is home to epic adventures that take hours to beat (like GTA: Chinatown Wars, Aralon, and Chaos Rings), as well as bite-sized games (like Canabalt, Tiny Wings, and Fruit Ninja). Saying that Aralon is just as good as Tiny Wings because we gave them both scores of 4 is almost criminally misleading. To know the difference between those games, you have to be familiar with both of them– or read the reviews.

Another issue reviewers sometimes wrestle with is feeling versus fact. For instance, I adore the game Death Rally. Can’t get enough of it. The entire time I played it for review, I planned to give it a 4. But when I started typing out the review, I had to reconsider. Thinking about what the developer could have done to make it a better game made me see that there were quite a few missed opportunities.

Did I have nonstop fun while I played Death Rally? Absolutely. Did I play it obsessively until I’d maxed out the specs on all of my cars? Sure did. Could the game be improved? Yes it could. I’d love to see them add more tracks, a multiplayer mode, and more player direction. But those drawbacks didn’t make me any less ecstatic about the game while I was playing it. I ended up giving Death Rally a 3. Should I have gone with my gut and given it a 4? I don’t think so. But regardless of which number I settled on, the numer alone wouldn’t have told the whole tale.

We had a similar situation a couple of weeks ago with Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery. That game is breathtakingly beautiful and engrossing in ways I hadn’t experienced in an iOS game before. On the other hand, the gameplay is lacking. The reviewer gave it a 4 because the pros far outweighed the cons. Still, you could make a strong case for giving it a 3. Again, readers who only look at the score will get a very limited idea of what makes the game worth buying.

There’s a lot more to a game, and a lot more to a review, than a number. So please don’t use Metacritic’s scores– or any website’s scores, for that matter– as a replacement for reading the full reviews. The best thing you can do is find websites you trust and read what they have to say about the games that interest you. It’s the only way to know whether a game succeeds or fails in the areas that are important to you.

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