The Critic
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Are Indie Games Getting A Free Pass From The Big Review Sites?

by on April 4, 2014
 

There is an extraordinary bias going on in video games right now. One that threatens to undermine the most important cog in the wheel of the industry – the consumer. That bias is not between one platform or another nor is it the elitist attitude of some PC gamers.

No, it’s much worse than that. I’m talking about the preferential treatment video game criticism has towards indie developers when covering or reviewing their games from the major video game websites.

You take a look at any major video game website and you’ll be hard pressed to find any review of an indie game that score below 7/10. Do all of these games deserve such lofty praise? Is there a different style of reviewing or scoring policy for games coming from developers who don’t have a big team or a large publisher behind them? I would hope that who the developer is or who publishes their games shouldn’t matter at all if someone is evaluating whether you and I should buy the game.

Many indie developers find it hard to get coverage for the simple reason they don’t know the right people. And by the right people I mean the editors and writers of the most popular websites.

I’m not extending this criticism to indie developers as a whole. Many, if not a large majority, do not get any coverage of their work while the same few names keep popping up on the major sites time and again. Is it because their games are inherently worse than any others? Are we to assume that cream always rises to the top?

I think not. Many indie developers find it hard to get coverage for the simple reason they don’t know the right people. And by the right people I mean the editors and writers of the most popular websites.

Naturally people want to help their friends succeed in their endeavours but it creates a very uneven playing field in what is one of the most difficult professions to succeed in. The lucky few are successful and get positive reviews of their projects from the same people that gave them exposure in the first place.

That last accusation is difficult to prove unless you’re aware of everybody’s relationships within the videogame industry. Only a few are willing to disclose that information like Patrick Klepek when he writes about the plagiarism of Threes and that he shares office-space with the developer.

Does it mean his opinion on any indie game or that of the developer he sits next to is utterly tainted and without merit? Not necessarily, but at the very least consumers should be aware of these facts before they make a purchasing decision – especially if it’s based off that critics review.

In a recent interview with the marvellous folks at Indie Haven, Phil Kollar from Polygon stated that “If anyone at Polygon is involved in any way in the creation of a game or very close friends with a game’s creator, our policy is to make sure they are not involved with the review process.”

Excellent stuff. He then adds, “As a recent example we’re doing a series of features behind the scenes of the creation of Defense Grid 2 where our features editor, Russ Pitts, is actually embedded with the developer. When it comes time to review Defense Grid 2, neither Russ nor anyone involved with that feature series will be eligible to be involved in that review.”

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Again, this is an excellent policy. But what kind of pressure, implied or otherwise, is the reviewer of the game going to be under, whomever he or she is? There will still be the association with the same website and you cannot fault readers for being dubious when it comes to the actual review if the same site has run a series of articles on its creation.

Giant Bomb had the same issue when they covered Bastion. Their solution? Not reviewing the game. Seems like a pretty good solution to me – no conflict at all. 

Kollar also adds “ I know one of our reviewers, Danielle Riendeau, has done a lot of work creating small games in her free time. As long as she’s not actively selling them or competing with others, I personally do not see that as a conflict of interest.”

Again I must disagree. It will seem like splitting hairs but that experience of creating your own games is naturally going to lead to a more understanding nature when you review indie games. Hey, it’s human nature to empathise not just in an overt fashion but to be more sympathetic in a subtle way. I imagine most do not even know they’re doing it.

I’m not suggesting that all reviewers of indie games must never had attempted to make their own game or must never have spoken to a developer in their life – Or if you have then that excludes you from reviewing those types of games. Of course not! What I am saying is these critics need to be aware of how even the most subtle or seemingly insignificant relationship may affect their critical evaluation of a product. Disclosing that is essential to building and maintaining trust between critics and their audience and the developers themselves.

If something is crap then it needs to be marked as such. If it’s truly paradigm-breaking then it should be praised appropriately. There’s enough bullshit in video games without having the grass-roots of the entire industry compromised by an old boys club.

It reminds me of the 1980s. When the fledging computer game scene was awash with bedroom coders and part-time developers. There was an incredible amount of dross in those days with a few gleaming pearls hidden within. The difference between then and now is that gaming magazines were quite happy to call a spade a spade and tell people the truth about these games – no-one seems willing to act like a real critic for fear of offending in 2014 – especially when we’re talking about the big gaming websites.

There are sites that do treat indie games with the same critical eye as AAA titles. In the same interview Laura Kate from Indie Haven says, “When I reviewed Anodyne, the Dev pointed out my review to his followers and laughed with a link to my Twitter, that was fuuuuuuuuuuun. That definitely stuck with me, got lots of hate for a few days from his followers, that was a deterrent to negative reviews that really slam a game people generally like.”

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This shows us the other side of the spectrum where critical reviews are personally slammed by the creators. As a critic you have to develop a thick skin for such instances and remain professional, but why is it smaller sites like Indie Haven feel able to be critical of indie games when other bigger sites seemingly don’t? It’s a tricky one, especially with the volume of indie titles being developed and coverage of those games spotty at best.

A network of indie review sites would be a start but I’m calling on the bigger boys and girls to start treating indie developers and their projects with the honesty they deserve. We’ll get better games as a result and less homogenisation from the entire indie movement. Future generations of gamers will thank us for it.

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