['HDR Knowledge' is a regular column written by Japan-based Nayan Ramachandran that chronicles his thoughts and wishes for the future of the gaming industry. This week is a probing look at game reviews, and what truly makes a perfect 10.]

By now readers should not be confused that HDRL does not offer letter or number grades with its game reviews. Not only does it inherently carry with it the ability compare disparate titles, but it also forces some to skip the review entirely and check the score.

02.jpg This problem is two fold: not only do many then miss out on our exquisite writing, but often times, readers will never really know why a game received an 8, 9 or 10. One of NeoGAF's long running gags in review threads usually amounts to "So Game α is better than Game β?" or "It's still not as good as Jade Empire!"

IGN's review of Jade Empire is specifically very touchy, because the site, in recent years, has changed the scale by which they review games. The number system itself has not changed, but the level of scrutiny they apply to any game review has heightened, often to the point of rating a game too low to assuage accusations that the site's staff threw 8's and 9's at any game that was generally well built and fun. Now, their scoring makes little sense as staff and guard has changed. Game scores of the past mean very little after significant changes in rating protocol occur, which trivializes one of the most popular purposes of review scores.

What does a number scale even represent? Does it represent the entire outlet's opinion on the game? The reviewer's? Is a score set in stone, or can a reviewer amend it at a later date? There's also the issue of playing an old game years later as a rerelease or as a remake. If the game is exactly the same, should it receive the same score it received years ago? Number and letter scores in reviews will always be a raging debate; now more than ever, the concept has become more heated.

Perceived Value

On the Tokyo Game Show 2007 edition of 1up Yours, Ryan Payton of Kojima Productions expressed his worries concerning releasing Metal Gear Online and Metal Gear Solid 4 as separate products. Originally, the two titles were to ship a long time apart, with Metal Gear Online releasing first, and then Metal Gear Solid 4 releasing some months later. Because of numerous delays, the games are now looking to ship around the same time, with MGS4 releasing first, and MGO right behind it.

The problem lies in the perception of the products because of their timing. If MGO shipped first, no one would have a problem that MGS4 did not contain an online component with it. If MGS4 shipped first and not with MGO, players would consider it a case of bad value, especially when compared to a release like that of Halo 3. This has a bearing on the possible scores of the game. When value is taken into account, games can receive unnecessarily low scores because of its timing of release, such as in the case of Metal Gear Solid 4, and Metal Gear Online.

Same is in the case of game length. While movie studios look to cut out content to meet a certain time length requirement before the film hits theaters, game developers often times try to stuff as much content into a game as possible to hit an arbitrary time mark for maximum perceived value. Bringing value into consideration when reviewing a game is a slippery slope, though. Length and price are both highly subjective, especially with the introduction of digital distribution into the mix. A game available for digital distribution sold for $30, but containing only an online competitive mode might be considered good value. The game is only $30 because there is no physical media, and the online nature of the game makes length limitless.

On the other hand, if the same game was available on a physical medium (such as a BluRay disc, for example), the perceived value of the game would be lower. Most games available on a physical medium offer either only a single player mode, or both single and multiplayer modes. Without a single player mode, the game is perceived as incomplete, and even at the price of $30, would likely be a harder product to sell than the digitally distributed version.

The perception of value based on length and amount of content is complicated further by the differing standards between genres. The Metal Gear Solid games are usually between 8 and 12 hours on their initial playthrough, and normally shipped without an online component until the release of Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence. Shipping the game at the cost of $50 was an accepted practice in the past, and fans were more than satisfied with the final product.

Role playing games, on the other hand, are notorious for lengthy play time, often ranging between 40 and 70 hours worth of gameplay for the same price as a copy of a 8 to 12 hour action game. Should the game's value be judged on how many hours it lasts, or on how much it costs relative to the total play time? Should a game without multiplayer be judged poorly because of its lack of the function, or should every game be judged purely on its own merits?

With so many questions and subjective reasoning attributed to the concept of perceived value, it seems only right to stay out of that venue entirely, when the audience might find the author's value system deeply skewed. Who is the audience, though?

Intended Audience

The two biggest hurdles any major media outlet must overcome when first establishing themselves is the following: intended image, and intended audience. The image is largely important because it helps to show its intentions, its slant, and its target audience in a subtle but relatively overt manner. Image and audience go hand in hand.

What then is the target audience for the average gaming enthusiast media outlet? Past the obvious and spineless answer of "everyone," who is the intended audience? Is it the hardcore or elite gamer, who lives, sleeps, breathes and eats games 24 hours a day, 7 days a week? Is it the casual couch gamer, who checks the news only for his favorite series and genres, and gets on with his life? Or, is it for the accidental viewer, who was subversively coerced into entering the site through a network of links and referrals?

When writing a review, intended audience is obviously important. After all, the purpose of a review is simply to recommend the game to the audience, letting them know that the game is either good, or not. Both online and print outlets do a number of features and interviews as a large portion of their content, but it's no secret that the majority of traffic to most gaming enthusiast press sites is for exclusive or early reviews.

Most reviewers, I assume, would hope that their audience and they are like minded. Many hope that their experience and discerning taste in games will possibly help to shape their reader's taste, allowing them to make better independent decisions in game purchases. It is common to listen to gaming podcasts, and hear staff members of major publications either complaining or laughing at the concept of bad games selling.

Pitfalls start to open when reviewing niche or largely unpopular games. A perfect example would be games developed by perennial shooter kings Cave. Cave shooters are largely very niche. Their titles are usually incredibly hard, require boatloads of practice, and often times only yield real payoff after a number of retries.

Cave games notoriously receive middling reviews from major publications, citing that the game is not for everyone, largely designed for fans of the genre, or the given series. Review detractors often cite the reviewer's inability to play the game properly because of a lack of talent or practice, or even cite a bias against the genre in question.

While that may be nothing more than conspiracy, there is incongruency in the text of the review itself. Is a game that is not for everyone a bad game? Not every person enjoys action games like Halo, yet the series (deservedly in some regards) receives superb reviews. Why then does a game like Dodonpachi or Ibara receive disappointing reviews for the same reason? Does a small audience for a game mean the game itself is bad? This cannot be the case, as some "diamonds in the rough" such as Treasure's Sin and Punishment, and Sega's Panzer Dragoon Saga received fantastic reviews in their time, largely attributing their lack of success to either lack of exposure, or poor marketing.

So who is the review for then? If the review is for the average gamer, then who is the enthusiast fan to turn to for a review that reflects their demographic? Many review sites remedy this issue by handing the review to a freelance writer with a particular interest in the series of genre, but this does not always happen, resulting in a less than fair shake of the game.

What is a Perfect 10?

In every score based review, there is an ideal to meet. Each game is measured against that ideal, and given a score accordingly. The most common scale is the 10 point scale, which is easiest for people to understand, as it resembles that of a business performance review, or a school report card.

The biggest contention in the past has been what exactly the scale means. As is the concern in any rating, what is the cut off for mediocre material? Is anything under a 7 a mediocre game, or is 5? Most review sites now agree that anything above a 5 is a good game, but many gamers (including myself) have a difficult time considering a 6 or a 7 an acceptable score for a good game.

With that argument out of the way, a new problem arises: What then is a 10? The credo that many reviewers repeat again and again is that there is no such thing as a perfect game. If there is no such thing as a perfect game, what is the essence of a 10? Perhaps 10 is the ideal to adhere to. Because there is no limit higher than 10, though, giving the game a 10 would mean that it cannot be further improved upon. Giving a sequel that improves upon the formula the same score as its predecessor seems inane. Creating a score higher than the previous upper limit seems equally inane, as it now changes the bounds by which previous games were reviewed. No matter the scale given, whether it be 10 points or 1000 points, reviewers will always place an exceptional game at its upper limits, as a reviewer would subconsciously review based on its contemporaries and past games, rather than inferring on games in the future.

04.jpg It's a small point, but one that should be addressed. Computer Gaming [EDIT: World!] attempted to do away with scores completely in their reviews, but it was surprisingly met with a large amount of resistance, forcing the magazine to return to its score system shortly after.

A World Without Scores

Scores are not terrible, but they are inherently flawed. Something is seriously wrong with attributing a numerical score to a subjective activity as reviewing, especially when, past graphical and aural prowess, the gaming rating criteria are in many ways, unexplainable. Not many can explain why Halo, a game series with uninteresting and often terrible single player level design is still so incredibly fun, nor can anyone explain why Super Robot Wars, a series that has largely remained unchanged for 15 years, is still so addicting in each installment.

Gaming is a hobby about emotion, feeling, and connection with the medium. Attempting to quantify that connection through arbitrary numerical value feels silly. Words speak louder than numbers in the end, and offer a much deeper look into what makes a game truly great. A world without scores would be a beautiful thing, if gamers were not so damned lazy.

[Nayan Ramachandran loves change. He also loves his weekly blog, HDRL.]