My first paid videogame review was in 1994 for c|net’s Gamecenter. I’ve been writing reviews as a freelancer ever since then. By my math — hold on, gimme a second… — that’s either 16 or 27 years of experience as a freelancer. Today, it comes to a close.
After the jump, why you won’t be seeing my byline out there anymore
For the past 29 years, I’ve been very fortunate to consistently write reviews for other people’s publications. But publications come and go. Editors are replaced. Content disappears. I wrote a short fiction series for several years for various outlets, and if felt a bit like flinging pages into the wind. After so many years, can you blame a guy for wanting a place to call his own? That’s how Quarter to Three began a decade ago, only to lose its funding after a few months when the internet bubble popped. And as of today, that’s finally what it is again. As of today, any Tom Chick review you read will also be a Quarter to Three review.
This is good news for me because it means I am now my own editor, assigning assignments to myself, setting and missing my own deadines, taking issue with my own scores, changing my own wording. This is good news for you because it means it’ll be easier than ever for you to find or avoid my reviews.
Quarter to Three will use a five-star scoring system. You can check the “reviews” tab for a table that lets you easily find whatever reviews you’re looking for. Previously, that list had included games I’ve reviewed for other sites. Now it consists only of reviews exclusive to Quarter to Three. That list is going to get a lot longer in the coming months.
Furthermore, Quarter to Three is now on Metacritic and Gamerankings. Although I have reservations about how people use aggregate scores, I have no reservations about the actual concept. In fact, during the process of getting Quarter to Three listed, I was delighted that the folks I spoke to agreed with two of my core values when it comes to reviews.
First, the full range of any ratings system should be used.
Unfortunately, I feel it’s a lost cause for many folks who use the 1-10 (i.e. 7-9) scale, which is frequently interpreted as a grading system in school rather than a full range. Five stars feels to me like a clean, neat, easily understood range of values that doesn’t get tangled up with schoolroom anxiety about how a 60% is an F and therefore a 40% is inconceivable. Because, you know, how can you possibly get lower than an F? Furthermore, I have no problem with three stars on Quarter to Three — I consider that to mean officially liking a game — being rendered to a 60 out of 100. The larger problem is that many people who can accept three stars have schoolroom anxiety blinders when it comes to a 6/10. I consider that their problem.
Second — and more importantly — there needs to be a wider variety of opinions about videogames.
This is why I’m adamant that Quarter to Three should be a voice in the industry conversation and not just a place to blahg. Those of us who write about games professionally need to bring more and different kinds of opinions into the conversation. I’ve had my share of disagreements with editors, but in the last year, I have run into a disappointing number of people in positions of editorial power who told me that a review needs to fall in line with the Metacritic average. I am astonished that anyone would believe that.
You can find a wide range of opinions about major movies like Hugo, Mission Impossible 4, or Contagion. Read ten reviews and you’ll probably find a thoughtful spread of points and perspectives. That doesn’t seem to happen in videogames. The size of the budget is often proportionate to the enthusiasm of the critical response. Yet I feel there are important problems with blockbuster series like, say, Gears of War, Uncharted, Civilization, and Elder Scrolls. Those problems should be part of the wider conversation. Similarly, I feel that indie games shouldn’t be held accountable for being indie games. My first and second favorite games of the year were made by teams of five people and two people, respectively. I wish more industry writers would include smaller games in the conversation more frequently, and with as much enthusiasm as the big-budget franchise games.
Again, consider movies. Budget, production values, and an ongoing franchise often seem like a direct determinate of box office success. The seven highest grossing movies of 2011 are each part of an ongoing franchise and they each have budgets well in excess of $100 million. Yet, in each case, that commercial success seems entirely decoupled from the critical response. Enough people loved the latest Transformers movie that they turned out in droves to buy tickets. But when it comes to critical conversations, the shortcomings of Michael Bay’s crassly commercial filmmaking are a significant talking point. That’s exactly as it should be. And there is no analog for that in the conversation about videogames, which is too often a matter of cheerleading on behalf of the already winning teams.
It’s time that changes, because videogames themselves are changing. As the people who make games start to respect us, the players, by providing character-based stories, powerful senses of place, carefully considered design choices, and inventive gameplay mechanics, we need to return the favor. We need to elevate the level of conversation by talking about videogames with an eye towards the great things they are — and aren’t — doing. We need to write criticism and not just enthuse about production values. We need to realize that the Metacritic average is an end result and never a goal.
If you’ve read my reviews over the past 51 years, you know that this is the approach I try to take. I’m often accused of being contrarian, or an outlier, or a troll, or just plain out of touch. And while I disagree with how those points are expressed, I don’t disagree with the basic sentiment. Because I believe the reviews that are part of the industry conversation need to say more things.
I was worried about expressing these sentiments to the folks who mind the gates at Gamerankings and Metacritic. I was concerned it would be an obstacle to getting Quarter to Three listed. I was wrong. In both cases, the response was an enthusiastic agreement. Which makes me even more proud to count Quarter to Three as part of the official aggregates.
So assuming I’ve done my math right, this brings to a close 34 years of freelance reviewing and begins hopefully just as many years writing reviews on Quarter to Three.