Journalists' Game Skill, And Why People Think It Matters


Oh oops, now this is my fault for not re-reading the post mortem. :eyes:


I’m gonna be a jerk here and say maybe the problem here is Dean. I’m not saying anything about what skill level game journalists should have generally, but Dean’s the same dude what said that Space Marine was ripping off Gears of War:

And also harshly criticized Mass Effect while failing to engage with an upgrade system he admits he knew was present:


I’m generally of the opinion that people who review games should be good at playing video games. I rarely watch gameplay footage from big outlets anymore because it seems like the majority of people in games media are mediocre to bad at playing games, and that’s really frustrating to watch. I guess I’ll go through the OP and respond point-by-point.

So as long as the game is good for the duration of what the reviewer played, who cares if the game falls off a cliff immediately after? Makes no sense. Plenty of games start off decent enough and degrade in quality towards the end. It should be a requirement that reviewers at least reach the end credits.

One of the most common refrains of the people who think journalists should have more natural gaming talent is “they play so many games”. Well, wouldn’t you also believe that someone who plays so many games is able to figure out what a game is doing and what it does for them without completing it or aceing its challenges?

No. Someone who plays so many games is likely to be able to make a quick judgement about their own personal interest in a game, but that’s very different from a review. If you struggle to perform the basic actions that the game is asking of you, then you can’t even begin to think about higher concepts like depth, or how different mechanics and systems may be able to interplay in interesting ways. You would only have a surface-level understanding of the game at best.

The facts are that not everyone is good at every kind of game, and EVERYONE has moments in a game where the goal is simple but you just can’t seem to figure out what to do.

It’s also a fact that not everyone is good at cooking, but when I go to a restaurant I expect the chef to know what she’s doing. If games aren’t your thing, there are plenty of other professions for you besides being a game journalist. And with so few spots available in the industry, I would rather those roles go to someone more fit for the job.

Just as a general premise, reviewers should be well-versed in the thing that they are reviewing. Film reviewers should understand story structure, lighting, camera angles and movement, set design, etc, and be familiar with the history and many genres of filmmaking. Book reviewers should be familiar with many kinds of prose, and be comfortable with interpreting metaphors. Food reviewers should have a wide-palette of taste and be able to describe what they taste with detailed language.

Reviewers shouldn’t represent the average consumer, they should be experts.

EDIT: Side note, it’s really starting to irk me that this thread is referring to Cuphead as a “Mega Man style game” when it’s clearly borrowing it’s game design from Gunstar Heroes.


I’m a long time fan of GB and, if you’ve been around that site long enough, you know just how hard people go at them for being “bad” at games. Brad with nearly everything from the beginning and more recently Vinny with Shenmue, Dan with Yakuza, and Abby with XCOM. It’s toxic and lame as hell. Thankfully I don’t feel like I’m So Great at any kind of game that I don’t feel compelled to be mad about how other people play lol.

I find this whole premise pretty flawed. I do think it’s a fair expectation that anyone working for a big gaming outlet should probably have a history with games and like them but at what point do you become an expert in something? After a couple film studies classes? After you play exactly 100 games? Is there a certificate that says you are a Game Expert and therefore are allowed to review games now? Who is the arbiter of these things?

Reviews have changed immensely thanks to YouTubers, the changing focus of gaming outlets, and audience expectations. It’s much more interesting to read and watch coverage now than it ever has been and that’s primarily because of the variety we have in people and opinions out there. So I’m 100% not on board with this singular definition of what a reviewer should be. Reviews are not objective screeds and they never have been or will be.


I don’t buy the idea that all reviewers need to be experts in whatever they are reviewing. I think that really depends on what audience you are writing for. If you are writing for a general audience the opinion of an expert is not necessarily going to be as useful as a person who is more on the level of the average reader. To go back to an example you used, you want your book reviewer to be familiar with many kinds of prose, but at the same time taking something out of the London Review of Books and running it in a review column in USA Today is probably not a great idea, even if the author of the review knows a ton about books.

Fighting games are probably the best example of this, the way a top player engages with the game is so different from the average joe that they are basically speaking a different language. There may be problems with the game at very high skill levels that make the expert like the game less, but are totally irrelevant at the level that 99% of player are at. On the flip side an expert can’t meaningfully assess how good the tutorial is because they are already so far beyond what it is teaching. Additionally high skill players and the general audience are often looking for fundamentally different things from a game. For example Street Fighter 5 launched with very little single player content, this pissed a lot of people off but if you are super into fighting games it doesn’t matter nearly as much because you are going to be playing almost exclusively in mulitplayer.

Obviously fighting games are something of a special case because the skill gap between experts and the general public is so large, but I think this holds up for a lot of other genres. I know most of what I said about fighting games would apply to me if I was asked to write a review for a general interest site about tactics games.

Also more generally the reviewers skill as a writer and their ability to bring things from outside the game to engage with the themes, provide context etc is very important to writing a good review and the people that are best equipped to do that are often not going to be the people that are extremely good at a particular game. I would much rather read a review of Bioshock from someone who is good at engaging with and discussing the themes than someone who is extremely good at the game.


I can confirm the fighting game bit. As someone who is invested in playing them competitively in person SFV’s release timing, pricing and content was literally everything I wanted. I think it’s great and I wish more games would follow suit. It was kinda frustrating to see more general reception be so harsh to these elements I liked so much. At the same time I could talk somebody’s ear off about deeper mechanical issues I dislike, rambling on about jump-in hitboxes and safe crush counters. None of it would mean a thing to most people, if there had been about 6 hours worth of fun single player stuff they probably would have liked it fine.


Fighting games is a bad example, being an expert doesn’t put you in a situation where you are unable to know what novice players wants out of a fighting game. It’s not an either/or situation, being knowledgeable about a fighting game allows you to bring out the depth needed to understand how a novice player can progress and improve in a FG and put it in writing form rather than stopping yourself at the surface level.

Coupled with the fact that with the rise of e-sports, we are more and more akin to follow what the top players are doing and thinking, I just don’t think using FG as an example holds up. Reading a review from eurogamer who has someone who knows the intricacies of a fighting game versus an outlet that is only at the most basic level and you can see the stark difference from a mile away, and every reader is able to understand what eurogamer is trying to convey.

I don’t think you have to be an expert on everything as a reviewer, but even when catering for a general audience, a level of knowledge goes a long way to help your writing, and ultimately help the reader to make an informed choice about their potential purchases.


I feel like general mechanical competency is important with regards to providing an informed opinion about most games. It’s a medium that is by and large built on mechanics, so if you struggle with/don’t understand said mechanics, this is obviously going to affect your opinion on a game. There’s room for nuance here, of course–like, hey, does this game do a good job of explaining its mechanics? Concerns over bad/lack of tutorials or general obfuscation are more valid than just basic user error when it comes to criticism, at least.

I think that this is somewhat true at least in that the mileage of any criticism of certain genres will vary from person to person depending on how seriously/competitively they tend to play any given game/genre. I know I’ve said it before, but as somebody who grew up playing Quake competitively and who is at least passingly mediocre at fighting games, nothing a journalist or YouTuber says is really going to decide whether or not I buy and play X shooter or Y fighting game.

That said, I don’t think the 99% value is especially fair, especially in the case of fighting games. I’d at least agree that there’s going to be a top 1% and that that top 1% currently hates Street Fighter V for a whole bunch of different reasons than most video game journalists (although they keep playing it anyways for as much as they complain about it, because esports money.) Beyond them, though, is not just a leftover 99% of “average joes,” but rather a pretty wide range of skill levels, with pretty much any skill level above “flailing button masher” having attained some sort of general competency with any given fighting game’s mechanics. Not to make any irredeemable blanket statements here, but, at least based on what I’ve seen and heard over the years, what I would consider to be the “average joe” player in most fighting games often seems far more informed/vested in any given game’s mechanics than most of the people who are publishing reviews of those games, and that all just feels… entirely pointless? Like, if you’re looking to play a fighting game but can’t/don’t want to take the time to learn its mechanics, then yea, don’t buy it. But also maybe don’t review it, either.

Also tangentially regarding tutorials, I would argue that expert players would actually be the best judges of what makes a good tutorial (in fact I feel like most of the good fighting game tutorials I’ve seen over the years have had input from pro players during development), and I’ve seen plenty of them praising the likes of Skullgirls or Guilty Gear or the more recent Under Night entry. They don’t need the tutorials and usually don’t care about a story mode, so, at least in terms of general criticism, if that stuff is missing or bad it’s not going to have a significant qualitative affect on the game for them, even if I feel like by and large they would still see a good tutorial and/or a good story mode as nonetheless being a positive. It would benefit fighting games in general if something as popular as Street Fighter would pull its head out of its ass with respect to teaching people how to improve at fighting games, but hey, there’s always next season.


I’ve written about games (albeit not reviews) and I think reviewers should play the game, but I don’t think they have to play it well, but rather figure out if the game is worth recommending to people and I think that’s an assessment that you don’t necessarily have to have mechanical aptitude for, except maybe games that rely solely on just mechanics. Even then, you could muddle through and still recognize what it is doing and what it could do for other people. Knowing games means understanding their value to others even when it provides some challenge to yourself.

As for criticism, I’ve written about games I haven’t even played myself.


I’ve personally been guilty of being that irrational fanboy on the other side, like whenever Game Grumps plays a Souls game I get frustrated at everything from Arin’s play-style to the hapless upgrade choices and even the fashion, and yet, I still enjoy it.

I don’t think journalists or let’s players need to be good at games; as critics, and as entertainers, it’s not essential to their profession. I will say that having a difficult time utilising a game’s systems as the game intended can be hindering to ones enjoyment, but that’s sometimes as much of a fault on the game’s design as it’s the player.

I think a key point here, is the journalists / streamers / let’s players play a ton of different games for their work, and can rarely specialise in one particular game or genre like the rest can. Sure I can complain about someone’s Souls game play, but then I’ve put literally several hundreds of hours into Souls games, I’m incredibly biased.

If I jumped into Cuphead having not touched the game before I am certain I would be absolutely dreadful at it.


I’m definitely not trying to argue that some degree of mechanical competency isn’t needed, just that reviewers don’t need to be experts, particularly if they are reviewing it for a general audience instead of a niche audience.

Like you I don’t particularly value reviews for genres that I am really into, with some exceptions for reviewers that are clearly as deep into the genre as I am. But for genres that I like, but am not super deep into I’ll give reviews some weight. So basically in my experience non-expert reviews are fine for genres I am not an expert in.

Regarding the 99% number I used for fighters, I’ll admit that number was pretty arbitrary and exaggerated. But I think you are underestimating the number of people that play fighting games on a pretty casual level in single player or with friends, particularly for games that sold very well like SF4 or Smash. I think the reason SFV is trailing SF4 so badly is because they completely lost the base of casual fighting game fans due to launching the game in a way that prioritized competitive gamers and ignored casual ones, which is a shame because I actually like SFV a lot.

I think Smash is also a pretty good example of what I’ve been trying to get at. Something like Melee has a high enough skill ceiling that it has sustained a competitive community for years, but if you were to run a review of it at a site like IGN most of the audience is looking for a pretty casual take on it and an in depth assessment of the competitive game would be not be useful for the vast majority of readers.

As for tutorials, you are totally right that fighting game experts are actually quite good at figuring out what makes a tutorial work. I was drawing that line of thought more from my experience not being able to judge how approachable a game is when making recommendations in genres that I have a lot of experience in and lumped it in with fighting game stuff without thinking it through fully.


I think requiring reviewers and game journalists in general to have high mechanical skill in gaming speaks to the gaming community’s fucking intense obsession with skill in general, to the detriment of literally all other concerns, if you want to know my actual honest truth.


The focus on challenge is especially silly given that people don’t expect reviewers to be well versed in script writing, visual art or sound design even though those are all very valuable to games.


it’s insanely unrealistic to expect game journalists to be “good at games” as if that means anything, because it doesn’t. Skill with one game does not translate into skill with another; beating Dark Souls does not mean I can suddenly go into Crusader Kings and kick everyone’s asses. Even in the same genre, skills often don’t translate completely; if you try to play a good Sonic game like you’re playing Mario (or vice versa) you’re going to fuck it up. Playing any game is an individual skill, and even if you’re starting from a place of familiarity it takes time to learn, which is a big problem when you’re already expected to review something that can take dozens of hours to finish.
It’d be ideal if every game could be played to completion for every review, but as long as a journalist plays through enough of a game to form a sincere opinion on it (and doesn’t pretend to have played more than they did), that should be enough.


So as long as the game is good for the duration of what the reviewer played, who cares if the game falls off a cliff immediately after? Makes no sense. Plenty of games start off decent enough and degrade in quality towards the end. It should be a requirement that reviewers at least reach the end credits.

I’ve mentioned this in other threads, but while I think that might have been true at some point, I don’t think it holds up very well any more. What would reaching the credits of Destiny or The Division tell you about the game that playing 30 hours of side content wouldn’t? Or say 2 people review the upcoming Shadow of War. One mainlines the plot, playing just enough side missions to progress through the game. The other basically ignores the main quest, but spends 20 hours setting up and knocking down various Nemesis scenarios and playing with different upgrades and play styles. Which one has more value?

Obviously the best answer would be “do both,” but I think the value of playing a game to completion is greatly diminished from what it once was, and emphasizing “the game must be finished” is going to lead to reviewers prioritizing completing the game over actually playing the game.

I do think there’s a bit of wisdom in the way you phrased your point, though. It’s necessary to play more of a game to say it’s Good than it is to say it’s Bad.

Tangientially, I’m trying to think of a game that so drastically changed in the last, say, 1/3 that it would’ve changed my overall thoughts on the game one way or another and I’m struggling. That could be because I, personally, don’t really care if I finish a game, so if it hits a wall I usually don’t mind just dropping it. I really liked Watch Dogs 2, for example, but haven’t finished it. That doesn’t mean the 20+ hours I did spend with it were less enjoyable or wasted.


For me, in terms of recent games : Deus Ex Mankind Divided has a very lackluster ending, Metal Gear Solid 5 crumbles towards the end, too.

Metal Gear Solid 5 is especially important because they were done in boot camps, which means that reviewers probably didn’t have the time to get to the ending, and/or they didn’t have the time to think critically about what the game has to offer in such binge sessions. All of this resulted in a huge dissonance between what players and reviewers felt.

So, I do think finishing a game is important, because 1) productions with higher and higher budget makes the final stretch always an afterthought compared to the first hour experience, 2) Allowing reviewers to not care about the ending just drives home the point that devs themselves shouldn’t care. I feel like we’re easily ending up in a cycle where there happens to be a crucial loss in value as to what a game can offer in its final hours, especially in an era where studios can know the exact amount of players who reached the ending of their game.


and in today’s abundance of game coverage if you do want to hear the opinion of someone who is very skilled at a certain niche/genre, you can usually find a youtuber that focuses on just strategy games or ARPGs or whatever.

that’s ultimately why I don’t think it matters that an individual journalist should have some sort of skilled gamer certificate - is Dean from VentureBeat the only person in the world covering Cuphead? no? well i can just go find someone who’s good and watch their 26 minutes of gameplay instead.

and i think for me gameplay skill ranks pretty low on what i actually want from a games journalist’s review. usually i prefer to hear the opinions from people who share my tastes in writing or art style, and if i hear them say “oh mechanic x is super confusing and hard” that is extremely easy to double-check by watching someone else play the same game.


Gears of War wishes space marine was ripping it off. That game was like a perfect blend of third person shooting and God of War style combat. Man, I loved that game. Are they ever going to make another one of those?


Somebody who is a veteran of a series or genre can easily have an entirely different time with a game than somebody who has less experience.

I think both backgrounds can lead to an interesting approach to a game review, but somebody does need to have certain base competencies. I don’t pick up an issue of an automotive magazine and expect somebody without a driver’s license to provide an effective review of a new car model. At the same time I can’t drive stick, so somebody who sneers at every automatic they review wouldn’t really be helpful either. Likewise, my mom has never mastered looking and moving in a 3D game so I wouldn’t turn to her for buying advice, but somebody who eat, breathes, and sleeps MOBAs isn’t going to necessarily provide me with helpful advice either.

I guess as long as somebody can say they’ve played a game even without being particularly good at it, I think their opinion’s worth hearing, but really, when it comes to purchasing media I think it’s critical to get a bunch of opinions. An honest opinion from somebody not great at a game is still valuable in the aggregate.


I would expect and hope that a professional critic would have as much of a grasp on those things as they would on the mechanical side of games, to be honest.