The Ombudsman Asks: Playing to the Audience

An odd thought occurred to me as I was playing through my review copy of Kirby: Canvas Curse for Happy Puppy (please, be gentle). The thought had to do with whether or not the experience I was getting playing the game was truly comparable to the experience my audience would have if and when they played it.

This wasn’t purely an idle musing on the superbly subjective nature of interactive gameplay (well, it didn’t start out that way anyway). I thought of this because I happened to be playing through the game using a Mario Kart DS stylus given to me by a Nintendo representative at E3 (who says all swag is useless).

Anyone who has used this stylus will immediately know why I chose it over the tiny, flexible, cramp-inducing piece of grey plastic that comes with the system — the increased size and weight of the E3 version makes playing the DS infinitely more enjoyable. But I couldn’t help but wonder as I played whether that additional comfort was doing a disservice to my readers.

I’ll make a small assumption here and say that most people who will be reading my review did not attend E3 and will not have access to this special stylus, or any stylus besides the one that came with their system. So my question is: should I have used the superior Mario Kart stylus, or used the standard stylus that most of my readers would be using (or a mix of both)? If you think I should have used the Mario Kart stylus, should I have told my readers about it?

This may seem like a trivial example, but there are plenty more I can think of where the same basic question applies. Do you use the fancy joystick or the default mouse/keyboard controls for a flight simulator? Do you test a DDR game with a high-quality metal dance pad or the cheap plastic version? Do I play that new console game on the 52″ plasma display or the 13″ black and white TV (or even the 7″ flip-top LCD screen)? Even things like a broadband connection or an optical mouse can impact the gameplay. Regardless of the choice, how much information do readers need about the reviewer’s setup to judge the review?

On the one hand, readers ought to know if the review their reading is colored by extravagant extras or substandard equipment, even if it doesn’t relate directly to the actual game itself. On the other hand, no two people will play the game in exactly the same conditions anyway. Do we have to set up our reviews like a scientific test, setting the lighting, seating and humidity conditions to present a truly controlled play experience? I know a few computer game magazines list the technical specs of the system they use to review hardware-intensive games (or used to, at least), so there’s a start.

In this case I did use the “good” Mario Kart stylus throughout and didn’t reveal this fact to my readers, so you know where I stand on this particular example. But on some of the more substantial issues I’m not sure exactly where I stand. Where do you draw the line between too much information and too much deviation from the norm? Leave your answer using the comments link below.

14 thoughts on “The Ombudsman Asks: Playing to the Audience

  1. Dance pads in particular vary by quality, though more expensive isn’t always better. In the most extreme cases, the difference can be comparable to playing a game with a working controller versus a broken controller.That, rather noticeably, can have a major impact on the impression of the game by both the reviewer and potential customers.If you read a dance game review and see the comment that it is unresponsive, is that enough information for you? What if you happen to own a high-quality pad, or have improved a low cost pad through various “fixes”? Wouldn’t you like to know if the reviewer found the game unresponsive with a crappy pad (and thus could be the pad’s fault), or that the reviewer used a top of the line pad?As for a stylus, a heavy stylus-use game could be affected by the design. In the case of the DS, most people will be using the default stylus. If the game can be changed from “hand cramp hell” to “quite fun” by a simple stylus change, people deserve to know. Both for evaluating the worth of the review versus their own desires and opinions, as well as being a useful bit of advice for improving the game play.That you choose Boktai to joke about is interesting as well, as reviews that I read did indeed tend to mention the impact of the availability of sunlight on the relative fun level of the game.

  2. If it actually makes an impact on the game in a positive or negative way, then it deserves a mention. And if you are playing non-standard equipment, it might deserve a mention even if you aren’t certain that it makes an impact.In the case of Canvas Curse, it would take little effort to play for a while with the original stylus. If you find the experience doesn’t vary, then there is no need to mention you used a different stylus for the bulk of the play. If the experience does vary, then you should include that the game is improved by using a more comfortable stylus than the DS version. There isn’t any reason to mention exactly what stylus you used, as there are plenty of more comfortable stylus options available. (But it is important to mention if a simple hardware change can improve the game itself.)In the case of a DDR game, if you have access to both a cheap pad and a “real” pad, you should use both enough to get a judge for the difference. And include the difference (or lack) as that is one of the things people will be interested in hearing. Heck, even if you only have one available, in the case of a DDR game you should mention so. The lack of such knowledge could cause them to misunderstand your praise or complaint of a title, if your experience and their experience differs because one of you used a crappier pad than the other.Using better equipment is useful, as long as people know. And is most useful when you actually compare it to using the default equipment. If you have a high quality lightgun and a good game ships with a crappy lightgun, use both and say the game is better if you buy a real lightgun. If a racer is good with a pad but is poor with your choice of steering wheel, say it is so people will know before buying in case they planned to use that steering wheel (and also know they might want to think twice about other wheels as well for that game, as it could be an across the board problem.)

  3. Mention anything that makes a difference. For example, if that DDR game is awesome with a metal dance pad, but unplayable with the crummy one, then say so. If the default controls of the fps are terrible, but you were able to customize them to something better, say that also. But if you played the game at 10am, we don’t need to know that. At least I hope the game isn’t better or worse at different times of day.

  4. You can’t really disclose everything about your review without it getting pretty ridiculous because where do you stop? I remember arguments over whether reviews should disclose how long the reviewer played the game, which is silly. I’d only want to hear about problems with the stylus (for example) is if it was an interface issue with the specific game, not the console. I guess the reviewer would have to try it out at least to discover that.

  5. Thats an interesting concept when it comes to reviewing, well, any thing really. Although i can say that its worth saying that it throws off abosolutly every thing when it comes to the review. Good thought though i have to say.. If you get the feeling that the general gameplay is good all together no matter what equipment you have it should be good enough to just review the game. throwing to many variants in throws every hting off, its reviewing not exactly cant sit in every ones living room playing Conker to get the feel for how you enjoy the game, besides the fact that not every one likes things the same way. some people lay down playing their games, some people sit up, many change to different possitions during a particularly long gaming session.. just to much to think about.. review with what you got and we’ll be sure to take into account that every one has differing tastes for equipment and such

  6. I think it would be best to use the standard hardware that you know every single person playing the game will have (assuming they haven’t lost any parts). This doesn’t extend to the high definition displays, though. I think the HD example is completely out of context in this particular problem. For instance; if a game is made to run natively in 720p, then people interested in the game would probably want to know this in case they have an HD display. If you play the game at a lower resolution then you can’t quantitatively judge the quality of the games graphics. I’m not saying you shouldn’t review a game without playing it at it’s highest resolution; I’m saying that if you don’t, you should tell your audience.

  7. A reviewer should either use the lowest commen denominator or the best possible setup, and then tell their reviewers which setup they were using. If a reviewer says they were using a high quality dance mat or an LCD HDTV, then the reader should be able to recognize that the gameplay experience for them may be a point or less lower. If a reviewer says they were running a moderate PC or a slightly busted controller or a non-HD TV, then a reader with higher equipment can then assume they may have a slightly better experience.However, I can’t imagine any game where something like the circumstances of the review have modified the scoring of said game, except for possibly the EyeToy, where a well designed setup will greatly change the gameplay, and possibly Boktai. Nature always screws things up. If a flight game is only fun with a joystick, then the game should score lower for not supporting everyone. But it’ll only lose a few percents of a point because the game is still fun, you just have to invest a little more to get the full enjoyment.

  8. When I played Duck Hunt for the first time, I bought Nintendo’s official “white piece of paper” peripheral to make it so I got a “hit” every time. If I were revieiwing the game, I think I’d have to mention that one.

  9. I’m failing to understand why using a different dance pad or stylus is different from using a big TV, or a really, umm…dope sound system. Those make the game more enjoyable, right? I remember when I bought Boktai, I also purchased Pelican’s Super Sun peripheral, which had a total visual brightness of -28.2m as compared to the -26.8m visual brightness of your earth sun. Did that make it more enjoyable for me to play? You bet your sweet bippy it did. But I didn’t mention it, largely because I didn’t want my readers to know that I was so extravagantly wealthy as to be able to buy my own sun.And I don’t review video games. If you can believe that.

  10. Of course, if the game itself is packaged with a device – like a light gun, dancemat, joystick – you should play the game with that item rather than anything better you already have.

  11. Unless the game and the hardware come packaged, you need to look at them as two separate products. If your hand cramps up playing Kirby, it would not be a flaw of the game, but rather the Nintendo DS hardware. If you were going to include stylus flaws into the review, you would have to factor it into many stylus-intense game reviews.In the case of a game such as Steel Battalion, it’s impossible not to factor the controller into the review of the game; however, in the case of DDR, review the game, and then review the different floor mats separately.

  12. I think that you would divulge information like that when it directly related to what was going on. If you would have enjoyed Kirby less specifically because of the stylus, then I think it’s worth a mention, and not without precedent: “You won’t enjoy Perfect Dark as much without the Expansion Pak.” I’ve always thought that lots of reviews were higher than I would have scored them because they were played in ideal conditions. Perfect seat, perfect lighting, and of course, MUCH more time to play games.Here’s a perfect example:If a reviewer pops in a crappy game, maybe he’ll eventually find some things he likes about it, find some worthwhile stuff, maybe even enjoy a little over half of the experience. 60%, good enough.If I pop in a crappy game, I have very little time to play, and I stop in 15 minutes, because I’m not dealing with it, you know what that game gets from me? 7%. This admittedly doesn’t extend to a stringer, but you get the point.That’s the difference between me and professional reviewers, they have the luxury of time, and that’s a bigger difference than a weighted stylus any day of the week.

  13. Good point Alex. I mean, this whole argument kind of unravels when you talk about a game like Starsky and Hutch, which utiltized both a wheel and a gun, or neither. You’ve just thrown in about a hundred different set-ups (if you count different brands of guns and wheels) and it would be impossible to account for all those variables.The designers of the game of course made that particular quandry easy on reviewers by making the game generally sucky.And hey, as far as the game being good at different times of the day, I believe we’re forgetting Boktai…-Justin

  14. Well, the point I’d make regarding the stylus is that we aren’t limited to Nintendo DS specific styli (my best guess for the plural.) There are a lot of more comfortable styli out there for the PDA market that any of us could go and buy if we wanted to avoid hand cramps, as such, I think it is acceptable not to mention the stylus selection.I do know that when I reviewed GT4, I made sure to mention my use of Gameshark in order to say, without Gameshark, this game is a good bit worse because you have to deal with the tedium.

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