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Veteran Member - Level 12
I've had a Game Informer subscription for a very long time, mostly for the reviews. GI's crew has steered me toward hidden gems and helped me dodge stinkers countless times. Their reviews are always well-reasoned and honest. However, I was still a bit confused about the actual day-to-day process of playing and reviewing games. How exactly does one review games?
That's why I was so excited to sit down with the Big Cheese himself, Andy McNamara. He's GI's Editor-in-Chief and an all-around helpful guy. He was happy to give me a special look at exactly how Game Informer reviews games.
A lot of people, myself included, are a bit curious as to how the review process actually works. Can you give us an overview of reviewing a typical game?
It’s not as magical as one might hope, Reiner assigns the games to one or two of the various editors [depending if we (A. have the time to devote to a second opinion (B. feel the game is just so big we would be stupid not to, or (C. someone in the office feels strongly about making sure another voice is heard – meaning someone actively believes the other reviewer is wrong], and they play the game.
Knowing what to look for during a review is important, and something the editors here get better with over time. You have to know what makes or breaks an experience and be wary about how a game is presented from the company and PR perspective (they will tell you everything is “super awesome”).
If the game is not a boxed copy like you would get at a retail store, the reviewer needs to understand if they see something wrong or suspect something is amiss that they need to contact the publisher or developer to make sure the problem isn’t on some fix list, and if it is, get confirmation on the fix. We have had to pull game reviews due to our feeling that the pre-release code would not represent the final code, and other times there are just parts of the game that are broken or poorly designed and we need to confirm these circumstances before we publish a review (or just wait and review a boxed copy). With our short publishing lead-time we don’t have a problem too much with the builds we play, but you always have to stay alert.
As far as the judging goes, it’s pretty straightforward. The reviewer plays the game until he or she feels they grasp the comprehensive experience. Obviously, we aren’t playing through the game on every difficulty, unlocking every achievement, and running into every wall to find every bug. We play the game the way you would at home: for fun. There is no assigned checklist of things to consider, but for some games the reviewer might feel getting all the achievements is its charm, so the reviewer does that. For puzzle games like Tetris, the reviewers don’t technically “beat” the game (which is something on a more linear game we demand for the review), but you play it until you feel comfortable levying professional criticism.
The best way to put it is, a good reviewer understands how long and how much you need to play a game to give a fair review, as each game is different so the rules of understanding a product change.
Since you guys play the games before they're released, how do you test the online multiplayer? Is there a secret network for testers and reviewers?
For multiplayer games we set up multiplayer matches either on “secret” networks with the development team, at a multiplayer review event, or against other journalists online. Once again, you have to use judgment to decide if you think what was represented in these sessions is comparable to the released experience. Sometimes the servers aren’t populated enough or we don’t get enough time with the multiplayer mode so we decide to wait for the boxed copy. Many times when a game finally launches, cheaters quickly find things that ruin a multiplayer game that we simply cannot test for ahead of time.
Obviously, you guys work very hard to avoid any kind of bias when rating games- and it shows. As a longtime subscriber, literally all the reviews I've read in GI are fair and well reasoned (except Mass Effect 2, which totally deserved a 10). However,this can't be easy in an industry where huge budgets can ride on a score. Without naming any names, has any company ever tried to influence your reviews?
I think they try to influence reviews all the time. Companies naturally try to get the best scores they can for their product. Everyone here is very aware of this, and we ignore it.
Do you get to keep the games you review?
No. We get some free games here in the office that we pass around or “roll-off” with dice to see who wins, but I think you would be surprised how many games the editorial team purchases with its own money. We do it not only to support games and developers, but also to keep us grounded as critics and consumers.
You guys seem to know a lot of game developers if GI Spy is anything to go by. How do you separate professional reviewing from personal friendships? Say you were friends with the team that makes Mario Party. What happens when you skewer them with a low score?
We have known a lot of developers for a long time, and certainly have created some great relationships with lots of people in the industry. It’s tough to tell your friends you think their game sucks, but we don’t think they would be our friends if we weren’t honest with them, and we don’t think the magazine would be successful if we weren’t honest with our readers. Relationships are great, but they take place outside our business and our business is telling people what we think of games.
How do you guys choose who reviews what game? I can't imagine anyone at GI is eager to review Bratz or My Little Pony.
Reiner gives out all the assignments here at Game Informer, but he is open to debate and also encourages strange battles to determine winners (and there has been some weird showdowns).
When hiring new reviewers, do you specifically look for PC gamers or RPG fans or whatever?
When we look for new people to join the staff we look for people that fill a void on the team, so anything specific we might need depends on the make-up of the team when we are on the prowl for new blood.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to review games for a living?
Practice your writing to make sure it is both factual and entertaining, and obviously play lots of games.
Is there ever any competition with other sites like 1up and IGN or are you guys one happy family?
Of course, but it’s all in good fun. We have many good friends at every major outlet.
Do you guys use a special TV/surround sound setup to review games?
Most games are played at the reviewer’s desk with headphones (some surround, some not), but some are played at home or in our conference room (which offer bigger sound stages).
Have you guys ever suffered backlash for a review? I'm thinking of the DNF tweets.
There is always some measure of backlash because someone somewhere thinks your review is wrong. It’s part of the job; you get used to it.
Have you ever given Miyamoto a high five?
No, but I do give Phil Kollar high fives quite often.
Can you send me an advance copy of Mass Effect 3?
Atlas or P-body?
That's about it. Thanks to Andy for taking the time to talk to me, and congratulations if you actually read the entire interview. As a reward, I had a picture of Andy Photoshopped onto Miranda Lawson... but it's kinda nasty.