Sep 102013

The Wonderful 101 is one of the best games to come out this year & is arguably the first truly killer app for the Wii U (though NSMBU was a lot of fun & Zombi U had some interesting ideas). It is also currently averaging around a 78% on Gamerankings.

There are many things that the developers of The Wonderful 101 could have changed to make the game more inviting to the press & general public for that matter but ultimately games like The Wonderful 101 are a poor fit for the gaming press.

The press is well-equipped to handle experience-focused games: i.e. your typical AAA single-player game these days. Play through the game, ooh & ah at all the pretty sights, and then write down your impressions. Easy stuff.

The press is even relatively well-equipped to handle competitive skill-focused multi-player games as long as they’re grounded in a well-established genre. Got a FPS to review? Jot down a list of features, compare its level of execution to the most popular games in the genre at the time, and you’re good.

Where it gets to be a lot more hit & miss is when the press is faced with a skill-focused game that doesn’t easily fit into a pre-established category. These are games designed to be played over a period of months, honing your craft & improving your scores & times, not rushed through to see what happens at the end of the story. And if the reviewer doesn’t even realize that this is a skill-focused game and instead thinks that the game is an experienced-focused game because it’s single-player and has a story? Heaven help the developer of that game who is hoping for a good metacritic score because they’re not going to get it.

Now if someone buys a game like this and doesn’t immediately get it, what are they going to do? Well, they have an investment in the game (the money they spent and their desire to enjoy the game) so they’re going to put in the effort to try to get something out of the game. They’ll keep at it until the game’s systems click for them, or they’ll look online at gameplay videos, ask questions on forums, check out a FAQ, etc. Some of them will eventually end up deciding that the game is bad or just not for them, but many of them will eventually end up enjoying the game. And if they end up enjoying the game, they may stick with the game and compete on the leaderboards, try to 100% the game, get all the achievements, etc.

Contrast this with your typical reviewer. They’re pressed for time so they’re unlikely to really master any of the games that they have to review. They’re unlikely to connect with other fans of the game or look up hints & strategies (and for that matter, hints & strategies may not even exist online since they may have the game pre-release). In short they have no incentive to try to get the most out of a game. In fact, they may even feel like putting any extra effort into a game may taint their “unbiased” viewpoint.

Before anyone gets the wrong idea, I’m not saying this to badmouth the gaming press. Skill-focused games that don’t have an easy analogue in a pre-existing genre are hard to get into for a lot of people. Not having that community support structure online to help makes things even harder. But as someone who loves new experiences & loves a good challenge, it’s frustrating when many of my favorite games, games that I think are expertly crafted (except for, perhaps, not doing a good enough job teaching the depths of their gameplay) don’t get the respect that they deserve. And it’s frustrating because by not understanding these games & by reviewing them negatively, we’re actively discouraging creativity in game design.

And this is not just a “Oh, the game is too hard.” Hard games can get good review scores… if they’re firmly based in a reviewer’s background knowledge. Like take Dark Souls for example. Dark Souls is expertly crafted & has a lot of creative ideas, but it’s firmly grounded in the Action/RPG dungeon crawl genre. It’s not wildly creative; they took a well-established idea, added some neat ideas, and then did a fantastic job with everything.

Compare that to something like The Wonderful 101. If you had to stick it in one genre, you could call it a highly technical Brawler/Adventure game like Devil May Cry. But then you add shape-based controls. And transformations. And minor RTS elements. And level design that completely changes everything on a regular basis the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the NES Battletoads. And then you add a focus on perfection & improving your score like you’d see in a hardcore bullet-hell shmup (the game gives you a score & a rating every few minutes) and it’s no wonder that a lot of people are having trouble mentally parsing it.

Or take one of my all-time favorites, Mirror’s Edge. It’s a cross between a racing game & a platformer which is a combination that you hardly ever see. Then they gave it a first-person perspective (which is never used in platformers and is only sometimes used in racing games). And then they gave it level design that on the surface feels more like a FPS than either a racing game or a platformer and yeah, the resulting chimera takes a while to get used to… but once it does, it’s amazing. I love to say that the story mode in Mirror’s Edge is all big one tutorial and that after you’ve completed it, that’s when the game really opens up and becomes a ton of fun, but I’m afraid a lot of people played through the campaign and then figured the game was over, instead of just beginning.

And don’t even get me started on Siren or Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter.

Okay, enough ranting. Now for some constructive criticism.

Developers, make better tutorials. Hold the player’s hand at the beginning long enough for them to understand the proper way to play the game & give them the tools to progress further, and then get out of their way, and let them play the game & grow on their own.

Reviewers, make an honest effort to find the fun in games. And if it’s easy to miss that fun, either through a poor in-game tutorial or by mismatched conceptions going in, then help others find that fun through your review. You could even link to great tutorials like these:


And everyone, please buy The Wonderful 101. The industry needs more games with this level of craft & creativity.

 Posted by at 2:51 pm

  20 Responses to “Why Games Like The Wonderful 101 are a Poor Fit for the Gaming Press”

  1. I don’t think the gaming press is fit to write about skill based anything to be honest. Though of course the more esoteric something is the worse it gets.

  2. As with anything in games, it comes down to a clash between business and creativety.
    You can be damn sure that every single GTA V reviewer was made sure he understood that finishing his review in time for the NDA lifting on sept 16 was more important than him feeling that he had played the game enough to make an informed critique.

    It’s all business. The earlier your reviews of games group, the earlier you can attract people to your site and get those clicks, get people to view those ads, maybe generate a lead or two.

    The general way of doing reviews is not to give the game to a reviewer and say: “Make sure to cover it fully.” It’s “Make sure you cover it before this date.”
    Just with buggy game releases, the power of business trumps the power of creativety, and no reviewer has enough influence to go against the deadline set by editors.

    And game companies know this full and well.
    That’s why EA primarily offered SimCity for review at a controlled event, instead of sending it out to the press to play where they wanted. EA knew there would be issues with server loads, but reviews in controlled sessions don’t reveal those issues. And the allure of reviewing this highly anticipated title early was the draw EA used to entice reviewers to review the game in situations not at all reminiscent of the customers’.

    And before we slam EA, Valve did it with Portal 2 as well.

  3. >>>This happened with another one of Platinum’s games, Vanquish. That game was phenomenal if you learned how to play it, but the reviewer on Destructoid just slammed it because he wasn’t any good at it.<<<

    Also Resident Evil 6. All the reviewers were so busy hating on it for not being survival horror enough to learn to play it and notice all the clever shooter mechanics.

  4. What mystified me about the reviews / comments I saw were two things:

    – A total inability to even conceive of having to learn to play a game (on the part of one guy)
    – A total inability to understand risk/reward, the fact that some of the more difficult attacks are harder to execute ON PURPOSE, and not because the game’s drawing system doesn’t work

    In the end, there are a lot of reasons a game like this gets bad reviews, but people fundamentally don’t understand/don’t care/don’t want games like this.

    As for the “hey casuals exist and we are important” guy, that’s super cool, and I’m happy Bayonetta has an easy mode that lets you sleepwalk through the game. What I don’t want to see is more games getting more and more shallow because developers realize all that effort they put into making gameplay that has any depth to it is wasted because most players are sleepwalking through the game. Because by all indications that is happening. BioShock Infinite and The Last of Us say hi.

  5. I agree with this post for pretty much all of it. I don’t like reviewers much, at least not those that have metacritic power. I have seen too many reviewers bomb game scores just because they were biased and didn’t get what they wanted. This happened with another one of Platinum’s games, Vanquish. That game was phenomenal if you learned how to play it, but the reviewer on Destructoid just slammed it because he wasn’t any good at it.

    The same thing happens for a lot of games I thoroughly enjoy, mainly jrpg’s. Hyperdimension Neptunia….First game deserved the bad press. Second game was a large step up, but a step back in story. Hyper-dimension Neptunia V is stellar and light years ahead of the first 2, and yet all 3 games got roughly the same metacritic scores.

    It sickens me sometimes how much power these reviewers get and they have to do nothing but write a review. They don’t have to put out anything of themselves but take the time to write some stuff.

    Surprisingly there is a part in the animate movie Ratatouille that has always stuck with me since I first heard it. It is the scene right after the food critic learns its a rat who is doing the cooking. He is typing up his review, and the first lines he says are this…..

    “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.”

    I thoroughly believe those sentences are the truth about reviewers and their criticisms. Why it saddens me when they have control over something like bonus cash to developers, or over the possibility of a game selling thousands of more copies. Very few reviewers are truly unbiased and its a shame.

  6. “A book critic may remark that a particular work is challenging for example, and written for an esoteric reader. But the critic will not question why the book exists or why bother writing such a thing if only a few people will enjoy it.”

    No, book critics are way, way cattier than that. There’s no reason to question why a book exists when you’re questioning why the entirety of the Bestseller list exists, and actively wishing it all away.

    Also, this person–“Well, they have an investment in the game (the money they spent and their desire to enjoy the game) so they’re going to put in the effort to try to get something out of the game”–is 100% not me, and I doubt it’s as many people as you’d think. My Steam library has a hundred games waiting patiently to be played. If something isn’t good in the first three hours, there’s no reason for me to stick with it, because I’ve already invested in bundles upon bundles of other games that will make good use of my time. If a game’s not going to hint at its potential after three hours, I will not play it. I’m not eighteen anymore. I don’t have forever to wring fun out of games.

  7. I think reviews also will vary according to target audience. Generally hardcore gamers, those that spend months perfecting their skills on a particular game, feel they should be the target audience for all reviewers. But the truth is, people play games for a variety of reasons and in a variety of ways. I have never been interested in getting high scores or finding all the collectibles or doing speed runs. I play games as an experience, not because I’m a reviewer, but because for as long as I’ve been playing games, that’s how I’ve played them. So when I review a game, I write the review that I as a gamer would want to read. And I hope that the people out there who play games the way I always have find me.

  8. John, if you think that a game playing itself is a point in its favor then I think you’re kind of missing the point of games. At that point, it’s called a film. You’re allowed to have your own tastes but just know that they are directly in conflict with what some of the best games stand for: testing the player’s capacity for growth and ability to overcome challenge (see: Classicvania games, ActRaiser, Metal Gear Rising.)

    It doesn’t matter how much of a driving market force you are, the fact of the matter is that games that are made to appeal to the gamer that prefers things to be easy are generally not very good on ANY difficulty setting. There are good games that are easy, but there aren’t a lot of good games that are made with the intention of being easy.

  9. Generally speaking, reviewers in other media don’t seem to feel it is their job to act as consumer report advocates telling people where to spend their money – with the possible exception of restaurant reviewers. It seems assumed that people will decide for themselves how and where they experience media. So the reviewer, the critic, is mainly tasked with giving their impression of the media at hand.

    A book critic may remark that a particular work is challenging for example, and written for an esoteric reader. But the critic will not question why the book exists or why bother writing such a thing if only a few people will enjoy it.

    Game reviewers by and large seem to behind the curve with developing a mature culture of criticism and games writing. Games press feels much of its role is to rate the investment value of a game for the widest audience possible. In short: should you spend money to buy this game and will you get a pucker face if you spend your money and hate the game. This attitude leads game writers to frame games in terms of how safe they are to purchase. The safer the purchase, the higher the rating. That’s a great way to review a washing machine, but it’s a terrible way to review creative media. For example, this approach feels as if it has given rise to the worship of the short, experience-based game. The Portal, the Braids, the popular “art game” of the week.

    These types of games must seem like the ultimate slam-dunk review to a games writer: they tend to be really cheap (no pucker face from buyer’s remorse), really easy (anybody can see the end), and really short (even if it’s not so good as a game, it will be over before it gets dull.) So long as these games have some exotic visual presentation or clever gimmick that entertains out of sheer novelty for a couple of hours, we’re good to go. These games regularly get the 90 percentile on Metacritic today and some get lauded as “game of the year”. It’s not that none of these games may ever deserve it – opinions are relative. But more that it’s a sign of how various forces are aligning to pervert perceptions about what is even acceptable as a video game.

    The audience for game media itself has a hand in this as they generally demand that reviewers simply give them a high number and a yes/no question to go buy the game right now. Sometimes I think if number scores were removed from game reviews tomorrow, there would be riots – not from publishers seeking high meta averages but from the casual gamer that has gotten used to game reviews, marketing, and hype campaigns instructing them on what to think about game media. (To a refined degree that marketers of mainstream popcorn movies probably envy.)

    But if the scores did go away tomorrow, it might be some much-needed tough love.

  10. I’m kinda curious how this would shake out for other types of reviewed media? Like movies or television or books for instance.

    The professional review cultures around certain types of media have certain sets of expectations regarding how they interact with what they’re reviewing.

    For instance, a book being difficult to understand, or esoteric, or not very accessible wouldn’t be counted in and of itself as a negative. And who would discount a show, say The Wire, because it’s slow to build and requires its audience to attune themselves to its rhythms and language?

    It seems like because “fun” is so often equated with being enjoyable or entertaining, games can often be knocked for things that other media are not.

    We can imagine a reader failing a book, i.e. not putting in the right amount of work or positing themselves in the right way mentally, but the idea that a player can fail a game is completely alien for the most part.

  11. Decent article. While I agree with the general idea, the supporting points seem a little short sighted/exaggerated as well as the advice at the end.

    Though I’m in support of better ways to teach players, this general idea of “teach the gameplay depth” doesn’t get at some of the bigger problems. You can make as many strict challenges and explain systems to the player as you want. But if they don’t want to play better or learn, it’s not going to do much. Frankly, I think a lot of reviewers and players don’t want to be challenged in a way where they have to really learn much.

    The rating system alone is clear enough feedback that there’s more to the system than just eventually winning. Players know there more depth/challenge there.

    Instead of making strange distinctions for skill-based games or creating a theory as to why reviewers can only handle games that they’re already familiar with, I think it’s more accurate to say that reviewers don’t really evaluate gameplay well at all.

    Sure, the more familiar genres allow them to use phrases and descriptions that seem like they’re getting at the core challenges and dynamics, but many times they really don’t understand the gameplay enough to offer any insight beyond “I had some options and I used them however I wanted because I didn’t play on a hard enough mode therefore I think I’m being creative.” or “I felt like I was powerful”.

    The real issue is these reviewers aren’t very insightful about gameplay, stories, or how these elements come together. Maybe a better way of putting it is that they’re critical (opinionated) but not insightful.

    Certainly the Wonderful 101 isn’t that different from other games. The touch screen controls and other unique features aren’t what throw people for a loop. If a reviewer knows their history, then comparisons to other platinum games or viewtiful joe would help bridge the gap.

  12. Thoughtful, practical analysis, and without being provocative.

    Allow me to say some press could learn a bit from this blog post…

  13. John, the game starts out with Very Easy, Easy and Normal unlocked, and if you play on either of the first two you get given an item that automatically triggers special moves so you can mash buttons instead of learning to use rising, charge and cyclone attacks yourself, just mash A, and draw the shape of the weapon you feel works best on the enemy every so often. If you fall in love with the game and want to see how deep the rabbit hole goes after that, no worries, different difficulty modes will have different fights(e.g. more complicated enemies appearing sooner and more often) so each difficulty level is a distinct challenge, not just a matter of more HP on the enemies. Some unlockable characters require feats of skill, but only one or two absolutely require you to excel at the harder modes.
    If you just want to just play it for the story, the sights and sounds and the varied gameplay modes it throws at you without thinking too deeply on the combat system, I’ll argue that you’re missing a lot, but you’re still getting a wonderful experience that stands well enough on its own if learning the minutiae and fully conquering a game isn’t your thing. It’s simply wonderful and I strongly recommend it.

  14. Some of the comments were getting a little heated so I went ahead and removed them. Please be civil and share your opinions without attacking others.

  15. So… Its not Pikmin Tokusatsu Edition?

  16. John, I think you’re misunderstanding me; I’m not talking about the decision to purchase at all or even difficulty. I’m talking about how gamers are more likely to give a game they’ve purchased a fair chance & how originality tends to be punished in the industry.

    In the specific case of The Wonderful 101, there are two difficulty levels below Normal (Easy & Very Easy) and the game has a VERY generous checkpoint system. You can also buy single-use items to make things even easier (although using some of them lower your score).

  17. “Now if someone buys a game like this and doesn’t immediately get it, what are they going to do? Well, they have an investment in the game (the money they spent and their desire to enjoy the game) so they’re going to put in the effort to try to get something out of the game.”

    On the contrary: Seeing stuff like that makes me not buy the game in the first place. I have no time in my life for a brutally-difficult game without an easy mode. Bayonetta? Hard as nails on highest settings, but has an easy mode that actually plays the game for you; Bought it. God of War? Can be brutal, but also has an easy mode that I enjoyed; Bought them. Super Meat Boy? Bought it on sale by the strength of people saying how good it was, played for half an hour, uninstalled it, regretted the purchase, and decided to not buy anything from that developer ever again because they’re not willing to support my playstyle.

    Call me a casual that’s ruining videogames all you want, but there are a LOT of us, and that means a lot of money. Nowadays, with more and more people actually checking their purchases before buying, and talking to each other about the games with massive Internet connectivity, we casuals are a driving market force.

    Which do you think is the bigger loss: My disappointment at not playing some cool games, or the company’s failure to acquire my money? I know which I think is the bigger loss.

  18. I think this is ultimately a failure of the reviewer culture currently surrounding video games. I would think that a pretty fundamental qualification for a game reviewer would be to very quickly grasp the systems at play in a game and understand what it’s trying to go for and how well it achieves that. I’m not really sure how someone who can play and write critically about games for a living can not develop a critical eye for what is going on in any given game.

    The analogy would be a film reviewer who watches something like 2001: A Space Odyssey, and complains about how the plot was really slow to get going, and the ending made no sense, and makes no mention of the cinematography, or the meticulous detail in world-building, or the slow and steady buildup of tension. Someone who only watches summer blockbusters might not get why people fawn over 2001, but it’s a critic’s job to do that.

  19. An excellent written and concise article that I think addressed an important point affecting the videogame market that too many writers are afraid to touch upon – the recent ‘template’ behind videogame reviews is centralizing the modern market. The issue with big-time review sites like IGN and Metacritic is that they employ their reviewers, and as such reviewers are expected to review in a certain manner. When confronted with a game which confounds that manner, they rate it harshly in an attempt to drive those irregularities out of the market and shift it into a direction they feel comfortable with. It’s worrying, tedious and slightly sad – especially in a media which used to show promise of the greatest creativity.

  20. Good article, man. Still waiting on this game stateside.

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