Guide to Writing
Pocket PC Game Reviews
So you've been thinking about becoming a reviewer? Or just wanting to spread the word on that new game that's draining your batteries like crazy? Or maybe you just bought a really good (or really bad) game and want to share your experience with the world. If you want to go into a little more depth than you can on a message board, there’s always the game review. There was a time when print publications were all there was, and one had to be a fairly competent writer to even compete for space in one of them. But in the mid-90s, fan Web sites catering to gamers began popping up like crazy, featuring amateur reviews written by fanatics that made up for whatever they may have lacked in writing ability in attitude and insider savvy. While uneven in quality, amateur reviews often have a tell-it-like-it-is earnestness that more polished reviews tend to lack.
Gamers, as any developer will tell you, are an incredibly finicky bunch. (Remember the original Tomb Raider on the desktop PC? The first game was smokin', but by the third incarnation, it was a dead fish.) Sometimes, word of mouth is enough to make or break a game. Recognizing the potential in grass-roots marketing, game developers in the mid-90s started to provide review copies to everything from legit sites to IRC-based newsletters like The Game Review, never mind that the latter consisted of short, snippy paragraphs written by software pirates for other pirates (Pirates are a finicky bunch; after all, downloading a bad game means either a wasted CD or having to hit the delete key).
Fortunately, PDA gamers have lots of venues to write reviews. Amateur reviews are, after all, the backbone of the gaming scene, since the mainstream gaming press still has a pretty limited interest in PDA gaming. Since the PDA gaming market is still a niche within a niche, that won't change anytime soon. Still, more reviews are a good thing, and they seem to be getting more popular as the games themselves become more numerous.
What follows are some of my thoughts on what a good game review should contain. This isn't an exhaustive list, nor a definitive one; just some of my opinions as well as observations I've made that should help those of you thinking about writing reviews.
1. Know what a review is. A review is just that--an analysis, an evaluation, a commentary. It is not a list of features, nor is it an extended press release. The descriptive parts of a review (features, bugs, requirements, etc.) are nice to have in a review, but they shouldn't dominate it. You'll have to do some describing, of course, for the reader to know what you’re talking about. But, the descriptive parts should just provide an overview and should largely support your opinions. After all, feature lists about a particular product can be obtained from a variety of sources. You should also keep the instructive parts (how to play the game, how to install it, etc.) fairly brief, and their purpose should also be to support your opinions. For example, if you're reviewing a Hexacto sports title, you'd probably want to give a concise overview of the controls (Hexacto uses a fairly sophisticated input method in some of their sports titles) to comment on how well they work. If there are any weaknesses (Did you have trouble performing any tasks?), discuss them with an eye toward quality of implementation and overall functionality. Remember that you're not out to teach the player how to play the game--that's for the game documentation (it's OK to give a hint or two). Your job is to provide an assessment.
After reading your review, the reader should know what kind of game you're talking about and what you think of it. They should know what you liked about it, what you didn't, and, most importantly, why. From that, they should be able to determine if they're interested in downloading a demo of the game or making a purchase.
A review is not meant to sell a product, nor is it meant to function as a press release. Quite often, I get sent press releases, download links to demos, and review copies. This is fine, and I welcome it--it makes my job easier. A while back, an Asian company launched a campaign where they offered to give registered copies of their new game to reviewers willing to write a review of their new title. I refused to participate in this offer because I felt it would encourage people to write reviews--ostensibly positive reviews--in order to get a free game. Sure, a review--especially a positive one--can help sell games, and many game developers send copies to people in the press hoping to get some exposure with a positive review. Your goal in writing a review should be to let your fellow gamers know about a game and what makes it good or bad. Remember that a bad review shouldn't necessarily "trash" a weaker product; it should just point out the flaws in. We want to support quality titles and help improve weaker ones so that developers will make the kinds of games we want to buy.
2. What to include. Of course, this is going to vary. Some reviewers like to focus on a specific aspect of a game. Others go for a more balanced approach. In general, your review should at least mention the following aspects:
1. Graphics - People have varying opinions on how important this is, but there's no denying that what the game looks like is a factor in how enjoyable it is. It's understood that most puzzle games aren't going to have state-of-the art graphics, but there at least should attention to creating a visually appealing experience. In newer action and arcade games, graphics become more important, since such games are indirectly competing with powerful consoles and coin-op machines. In adventure games, they draw you into the game's mythos and story (assuming there is one). In simulations (sports, driving, flying, etc.) they make the action more believable and therefore more enjoyable. What kind of graphics does the game use? Tile-based? Sprites? 3D models? Graphics can't make a bad game good, but they can really show off the appeal of a good game.
2. Sound - Sound is essential in gaming. The early Intel-based PC was a pretty crappy gaming platform until the first sound cards made their debut in the late 1980s (Anyone besides me remember the SoundBlaster 1.5?) Current Pocket PC models come with 16-bit stereo sound capability. Sound is going to be more important in action/arcade games than in card or puzzle games, but there’s really no excuse for silence. Auditory output gives a much-needed additional dimension to what's being displayed on the screen. It makes the player feel they have a stake in what's going on, and it provides a satisfying extra layer of feedback, whether it's the rev of the engine in a racing game, the sound of a weapon being fired in a “shooter,” or the click of a piece falling down in a puzzle game. How good are the sounds? Do they sound tinny? Or are they overdone (too loud, too quiet, too deep, etc.)? Music, on the other hand, helps set the mood for the game. In Argentum, the music did a good job of setting a tone of seriousness and helped build suspense. Just as carefully selected and placed music can pull you into a movie, it can also draw you a little deeper into a game. In general, the music should match the genre of the game. Music generally highlights the type of game play involved: puzzle and action games usually have upbeat, quick-tempo numbers with repetitive rhythms. Adventure and strategy games will have much more dramatic music, especially if the story involves saving the world from evil aliens, evil humans, exploring a haunted house, and so forth.
3. Interface/controls - Obviously, the way the player interacts with the game is an important aspect to consider when writing a review. The interface defines how the player performs game tasks in most games (setting options, creating a character, starting levels, purchasing upgrades, etc.) In general, the interface should be intuitive and simple. In titles like SimCity 2000 and Lemonade, Inc., which consist of tapping icons and navigating menus, the interface and game controls are effectively the same. In action games, they can be separate. Ideally, controls should be responsive, intuitive, and should allow the player to focus on interacting with the game rather than
getting into a struggle with stylus and buttons. With the variety of devices available, control methods are going to vary, so having them customizable is a definite plus. If the game uses an unusual control method (either good or bad), it's probably worth discussing. A good control scheme allows you to focus on what's going on in the game so that you don't have to think about what button you need to push next if you're approaching a door or if you need to shift gears when going around a curve. When the original iPaq came out, it fairly quickly became the dominant device in spite of one crippling limitation: the device couldn’t accept simultaneous button presses. Developers therefore had to circummvent this limitation by accepting input through the stylus. Today, however, most models have a built-in d-pad and can accept multiple button presses just fine. The functionality of the controls is something to consider when writing your review (it can impact game play, something we’ll talk about in a bit).
4. Design - This is a more encompassing term and includes such things as type of game, control method, level progression and design, player options (including what they’re allowed and not allowed to do), various game options and settings, and other factors. In a sense, it determines what the player will do in the game. Simple games like Bejeweled have simple design elements, requiring the player to swap objects in order to make matches, usually offering two or more game modes featuring progressively difficult levels. Games like RPGs have more complex design, since it's necessary to first determine how the character will be allowed to develop through level progression, then throw progressively difficult challenges at the player that will also advance the game's storyline. In Pocket EverQuest, for example, designers chose the character classes, available spells, skills, bonuses, and the various quests the player would go on. They also had to determine how the various character types would go about completing each quest. One trend starting to appear in games is the have-it-your-way approach, which allows the player to choose the type of game play. The racing game Gangsta Race lets the player prgress through the levels in one of three modes, one which ofers combat, one which offers straight racing, and another in which the main goal is simply to survive. Hyperspace Delivery Boy provides a similar option—although the game is primarily puzzle based, players can choose from one of two game play modes in dealing with the game’s monsters, one of which requires combat, the other requiring stealth. Although you may not talk about design directly, it will have an impact on game play.
5. Game Play - Speaking of game play… this element is a little more inclusive and therefore more abstract. It's also frequently misunderstood. It doesn't just refer to how well the controls work or how the levels are designed. UnrealWiki (Don't ask me what that is-I have no idea) offers these two axioms:
1. The ability to interact with the (computer) game without concious effort in a manner that is both satisfying and enjoyable. – EntropicLqd
2. The resultant interaction of imagination between a collective of entities on a linear basis – be they a human player, or a form of Artifical Intelligence. - DJPaul
Both of these are interesting, but don't quite capture the big picture. The first is a bit too vague, the second a bit too nebulous. I'm including game play last because I'm of the opinion that it involves such things as sound, graphics, interface, performance, controls, and other factors. I would define it as this:
Game play is the ability of the software to minimize the natural barriers between program and player. It is the ability of all its elements (controls, graphics, sound, design, etc.) to come together, allowing the player to be willing and able to accept and accommodate the rules, philosophy, and limitations of the game environment. Ultimately, it is the ability to accept the game on its own terms, and, for a short time, suspend disbelief and become part of its world, disregarding all external distractions.
Essentially, game play is a holistic term relating to the overall ability of the game to engage the player, and make him or her want to make the blocks connect, make the aliens die, fly the airplane or drive the car, and explore the dungeon, essentially becoming the in-game person.
We've all played games with really good game play (the ones that make us miss meetings, arrive late at school, and stay up way too late), and games where it wasn't there, i.e., games we “just couldn't get into.” In order to like a book or movie you have to like the characters or at least what's happening to them, and in order to like a game you have to care at least a little about what the game is asking you to do. Most of us are willing to overlook the other elements of a game if they're less than ideal, but a game without strong game play just isn't a game.
3. Keep it organized. Ideally, a review should have three parts:
Intro - This is where you introduce the game. At the least, you should have the title and
author/publisher. You should give some context for the game--is it a majorly awaited release? A surprising title by a lesser-known author? Part of a series?
Body-here's where you'll develop your analysis of the game. The approach you take depends mainly on your style. I would avoid the narrative approach (I downloaded the game, installed it on my device, etc.) unless there's something specific about the process you want to discuss. Remember to focus on your impressions of the game (keeping it analytical rather than descriptive) while backing up your opinions of strengths and weaknesses with specifics.
Conclusion--the part where you wrap it all up. This shouldn't just reiterate your intro; it should make some general conclusions based on the body of the review. Try to look at the game as a whole. You should tell readers if it's fun, and, more than anything, if it's worth their time. How original is it? How does it stack up against the competition? Readers should be able to read your conclusion and get a concise snapshot of how you feel about the game.
4. Include screenshots. As anyone who's tried to write a review can attest, it's hard to describe visual media such as software (particularly games) with words. Screen shots can help here, but don't include so many that they break up the narrative of your review and you end up simply writing around them. If you want to include many (more than two) screenshots, place them outside the review itself. Remember that screenshots should highlight your review, not dominate it. For shots placed within the text, include a brief descriptive caption. Studies have indicated that many people will scan a review for, reading only the screenshots and captions, to detemine if they want to actually read the review itself. It's usually good to include the title and want you want the reader to notice about the screenshot. If you can, place the screenshot in a place that makes sense. For example, if your shot is meant to show the quality of the graphics, place it near the part of the review where you discuss graphics.
5. Ask for a review copy if necessary. Getting free games is a perk of being a reviewer. However, it isn’t always necessary—sometimes a demo is enough to give an evaluation of a game, especially if the demo provides the full range of options available to the gamer. When soliciting a review copy, remember to give your full name and provide any credentials you might have and be prepared to back them up. Sometimes, companies like to verify identities to prevent people from pretending to be members of the press in order to get full copies (it does happen). If you’re courteous, most game companies will be happy to provide you with a review copy. Also, if you’re not sure if the review will be published, don’t make promises you can’t keep. If you provide a link to your review after it’s published, the company may remember you and send you additional releases to review when they become available.
6. Include some sort of evaluative ranking. This isn't essential, and I just started doing it myself. But it can be very helpful. Basically, attaching a ranking to your review boils it down to a letter grade or a number. Sometimes these rankings can be fairly elaborate and even convoluted (some are given numbers down to a tenth of a point), consisting of a breakdown of individual factors like "playability" and "fun factor" and assigned a composite score based on the overall quality of the game. Other times, the can be simple and even silly. I like the “letter” grade system because a. It’s something everyone’s familiar with; b. It’s very simple to use and read; c. People are expecting it these days on everything from investments to video games to movies. Evaluative rankings are good because, like thumbs-up, thumbs-down movie reviews, they provide a quick-and-dirty assessment of a game. Many readers like this because they can just go by the number, and some use it to determine if they even need to read the review. if you decide to include such a ranking, keep it simple. I don’t think the ratings system for most Pocket PC applications (games or otherwise) needs to be sophisticated; the programs are not quite complex enough, and there really aren’t enough competing products to warrant such sophistication.
Allen Gall is a freelance game reviewer and the games editor for CEWindows.NET. If you have a game you'd like Allen to review, you can e-mail him at [email protected]