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February 08, 2005

Qualities of Quality, Part 1

Jamie Fristrom recently posted in his blog some thoughts he had about quality as it applies to games, and it got me thinking about my own thoughts about quality. I started writing a comment over there, but it started getting out of hand in length, and so I've moved it over here. Not to mention that I'm just getting warmed up¹: I think there's three or four posts worth of thought that I have about the subject.

One of the things that I think makes games so difficult to describe or rate in terms of quality is the mere fact that games encompass such a wide variety of experience that it's difficult to measure them in any reasonable way. When you are speaking of a genre that can have high quality from GTA 3 to Half-Life 2 to Tetris, you at least appear to be describing a fairly wide variety of possible experiences.

When I look at a game like GTA 3, for example, I have a hard time calling all of it "high quality". The graphics are merely average, and the storytelling is not particularly strong (for someone who is a fan of storytelling in games, as I am). Yet fans of this game love the immense variety of choices -- the options you have for playing the game. The game presents an astonishing variety of play styles -- from the range of vehicles to drive and pilot to the weaponry to the sorts of missions -- and later installments extend that even further. It presents enormous breadth in its play space.

GTA 3 is a very, very different game from Half-Life 2, which presents a story told in a compelling way, incorporates some new and pervasive physics gameplay, but is very, very linear -- your play space choices are limited to things like weapon choice (itself constrained by ammo, though infrequently) and very quick tactical issues². It's a very different experience, presenting a very different set of play styles. Like GTA 3, it would be hard to describe it as anything but a high quality game.

Then you take Tetris. With Tetris, you're talking about a game which can be described fairly mathematically: at any point there's a very clear set of input states (possible blocks to drop in addition to the current alignment of placed blocks) and output states (the combination of ways in which those blocks can be added to the current placed blocks). It appeals to our pattern-matching and the intuitions that derive from that -- things that we're good at, that as a species from which we tend to derive some short-term pleasure. Again, a high-quality game, but quite different from the other two examples I've mentioned.

Add in your favorite RPG, your favorite MMORPG, your favorite text adventure, your favorite platformer... you see where I'm going. There is simply an enormous variety of possible gaming experiences to be had, and addressing them all with some sort of common metric seems very difficult indeed.

And yet, critics and their audiences in other media have found some sort of common ground for discussion even when they rate a variety of examples of the medium. Take movies and Roger Ebert³. I was quite surprised a few years ago to read his review of some sort of light summer movie and give it four stars. I'm not sure now what the movie was -- I think it might have been The Cell -- but I remember being thoroughly surprised. The movie in question was formulaic, and not all that interesting.

I had the opportunity to hear Ebert speak directly about that movie a year or so later, when a friend was interviewing him for City Arts and Lectures and asked him, "How did you come up with that rating for that movie?" reminding him that this was the same rating that he would give a masterpiece like Citizen Kane.

He said, "Well, when you're talking about this sort of film, there are... gradations." He was pointing out that people should be aware that he's not making a direct comparison with Citizen Kane, just indicating that this was a really great film... of that sort of film.

What does this mean for games? Well, one thing that it means is that you probably can't look at scores of one game absolutely against another -- you might try and use relative ranking against others of its same type. For example, if Half-Life 2 or Halo 2 is at the top of the shooter category, and Zelda is the best action-adventure title, then you might say those games are roughly equivalent in how great they are, in how high quality they are. And that might be a useful way to look at GameRankings. Also, you're unlikely to be able to look at two games that are too distant at time and directly compare them -- keep in mind that the greatness of today's game (like the greatness of a film of today) is built partly on the back of the common knowledge of some game of the past. That's a topic for another time, but in our medium especially, you can't set something from even five years ago next to a game from today. GoldenEye may have been great when it was out -- but how many people will choose it over Halo?

Another thing that stuck with me from Ebert's talk was the following quote, which speaks a little bit to criticism. "A man walked into a movie theater, and the critic was that man." But that discussion is for another post.

¹Actually, exactly to mention it.
²Where to take cover, how long, etc. Very good twitch players may find they are capable of not even really requiring to make such tactical decisions, as enemies may not live long enough to be a threat.
³I'm going to use Roger Ebert a lot as an example here, since I've read more reviews by him than any other film critic, not because he's the best living critic, nor because he's an expert on criticism, simply due to familiarity.

Posted by Brett Douville at February 8, 2005 08:27 PM

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