The Wis-Dumb of Game Review Committees

As a died-in-the-wool game developer who has become a bit of a suit, I’ve been on both sides of game review committee meetings.

These sessions usually involve the producer, designer, and sometimes all team leads, sitting at one end of a big, shiny table while representatives from marketing, sales, tech, art, and other various “stakeholders” analyze the latest build of the game and fire off questions.

This is life and death, folks. The unspoken truth: Every high level review is an opportunity to terminate the game in question.

Amazing producers can face this firing squad calmly, demo cogently, answer questions accurately, and promise clear next steps and deliverables.

Lesser human beings sweat heavily, get red-faced angry, and rant rudely. After all, this is their life here, not just the game’s. They have just invested countless late-night hours and dream-juice into the game and now it’s being flayed in front of them — prodded and poked without mercy.

Everyone has their story about how review committees suck.

I’ve seen committee members that didn’t “have a chance” to play the game in question — their first look at the game is watching someone demo it on a big screen. And having not experienced the gameplay, they make comments and decisions that just aren’t appropriate.

I’ve seen committees cow-tow to stubborn designers or over-invested producers and push through a lemon of a game that should have been killed dead.  (I’ve been that designer.)

I’ve very often seen committees redo the design of games on-the-fly and turn them into mishmashed messes or bland pleasing-everyone-actually-pleases-nobody crap.

I’ve seen committees say to make Game X “more like Game Y” and force the development team to force a rhombic-spirallohedra-shaped peg into a round hole.

I’ve seen review committees become feeding frenzies with execs one-upping each other trying to go for the jugular with spit-fire questions that are rhetorical, insulting, obvious, or downright cruel.

I’ve seen game designers and producers get so disgruntled after a review that they lose all passion and interest and let projects slowly fail.

But… Suck as they do, there’s a lot of necessary good in them there reviews.

For I’ve seen review committees make the painful decision to terminate games that otherwise would have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars and possibly led to bankrupting the company.

I’ve seen committees completely redirect games turning also-rans into hits.

And I’ve seen committees help chisel the feature list of out-of-control projects into solid but smaller games that got done on time and budget.

I hate to admit it, but in the balance committee reviews are essential to run a successful game publishing business.

(I guess I really am a suit.)

Product Review Committees DO know:

  • What they don’t like.
  • What isn’t working.
  • How much money there is to spend.
  • How much money the game needs to earn.
  • When the game needs to ship.

They generally DO NOT know:

  • How to find fun in a game that currently isn’t.
  • What is placeholder art (even if it has the letters “PH” stamped on it).
  • The synergy and cohesive vision of the perfected, polished game in the designer’s head.

As such, the ideal review committee should follow these ten commandments (five positives and five negs):

  1. Thou shalt kill the game if it is bound to fail.
  2. Thou shalt actually play any playable game presented to you before a review.
  3. Thou shalt actually read game design documents and make clear notes (not just look at those pretty pictures).
  4. Thou shalt know thy market and have played competitive games.
  5. Thou shalt point out what is working well in a game and praise the individuals involved.
  6. Thou shalt not redesign a game on the fly, but should register specific shortcomings then let the team come back with a better shot.
  7. Thou shalt not ask to see better art or audio before a game’s schedule calls for those assets to be created (but may and should insist on seeing sample art direction of interfaces, character sketches, or animation clips).
  8. Thou shalt not let the fear of failure get in the way of instinct. If a game is feeling fun, thy track is righteous.
  9. Thou shalt not nitpick small issues in a review forum. That can be done with QA’s help later, via a bugbase.
  10. Thou shalt not kill until a game has had three chances. If thou catchest a major failure with the current team dynamic or game mechanic then give the developers a reasonable chance to prove they can reverse the trend. If, after a fair period of time the game is better but still fails, try once more. If it still fails, three strikes and yer out.

If more committees took such commandments to heart, it would make for stronger games, happier development teams, and more profitable entertaproduct.

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