Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes: Discussing Price Versus Content And Review Scores
Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes has sparked numerous heated debates around the internet regarding its short length, and the fact that it is essentially a demo with a price tag attached to it. Now, considering that I will be reviewing this game, I have spent the better part of a week thinking of my approach to it. And the need to actually express these thoughts arose this morning when I witnessed a first review of Ground Zeroes (which most likely broke embargo) that gave the game 4/10, with price and content being the largest determinants of that score, and not necessarily the game’s actual merits or lack thereof. As you would expect, this sparked a large debate in which both sides brought plenty of interesting things to the discussion, and in this write-up I want to address the issue of review score versus content from the perspective of a games reviewer, and hardcore MGS fan.
Before going into the discussion, let’s establish what the two sides in question are. The first believes that a game review should be entirely on the product’s merit, and that price should not be factored in to the score itself as value is subjective and determined by the consumer. The opposing belief is that value for money is essentially what a review is addressing, because if you aren’t coming to a review to get help to make an informed purchasing decision, then what do you want out of reviews? Now, I want to say right out of the bat that neither side is entirely wrong or completely agreeable, as both have merit and as is always the case the solution lies somewhere in the middle.
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I read a comment in which a gamer expressed dissatisfaction at the extremely low score because he or she wondered that if the game had been free, would it have then received an almost perfect score. I want to make something clear. We like to say that games should be rated primarily on merit. This would be ideal, but in reality value for money is a critical factor for any review, as they are theoretically there to help you make a purchasing decision. Of course, value has underlying subjectivity. For instance, I paid $20 for Gone Home, and finished it in an hour, yet I found it to be worth every cent and was overjoyed to have played it. Someone else said that it was a rip-off. Similarly, in my review of Thief I recommended that gamers avoid paying full price for it, yet some gamers said they got their money’s worth. Naturally, that means in addition to the hard value of a product, which is what’s actually in there with strict regards to content, there is also a perceived value determined by the user of the product.
However. This can’t always hold. Games must be mainly rated on merit, of course, but this can’t be done at the complete exclusion of price as a point of consideration. For instance, I consider Journey to be a perfect game, and would give it a perfect score on any day of the week. Just like I would Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. But let’s use Journey since it’s roughly an hour or two in length. If that game cost $60 at launch, it would be a gross oversight to say that, “well if the price was lower or it was free, that score would be justified.” A review surely must consider whether something is actually worth its asking price, and make the fairest possible recommendation based on the writer’s beliefs and opinion. Whether you like it or not price matters when buying a product, and it should be a factor of the review. After all, a five minute game can be flawless too, but can you give it a perfect score if it costs $30? That would be absurd. We don’t live in imaginary worlds where we think in terms of “if it was free.”
But this is not me saying that I side with the other extreme. I do not believe the price is a greater determinant of score than the actual product’s merits, otherwise what are you? An accountant? A game’s merits should be core to a review, and that’s why I strongly disagree with, as an example, a 4/10 score for Ground Zeroes on the sole basis that its content doesn’t justify the asking price. If that was the only reason given for the score. Then, it would appear that game quality does not matter, or that price matters far more, both of which don’t match the intention of a review. The buy-in is a consideration point. No one gets it for free. Ground Zeroes could be money well-spent for an MGS fan. We don’t know yet. So by giving the game an extremely low score because of its content alone, you aren’t equipping your users with the necessary knowledge of the game’s actual quality.
On that note I’ve also seen many fans and gamers defending Ground Zeroes by referring to the additional side missions and bonus content. While this is surely to the game’s credit, I just want to briefly state that it is not entirely fair to gamers to say that in order to get a decent return in hours on their game they must invest into the sorts of things a completionist is inclined to do. There are many who play Metal Gear Solid purely for the story. Also while replay value is a very subjective thing, it ideally should be a result of a gamer actually enjoying a game, and not being made to essentially grind in order to squeeze more hours out of limited content. That is the difference, and why having bonus content does not mean that core game content is extended, especially not for everyone.
Of course, there is another side to Ground Zeroes that makes it get perceived negatively. Aside from its short content, it’s the accusation that it’s a paid demo essentially, and as such should have been free. It’s a poor practice to charge for something like Ground Zeroes. I won’t get into that debate now, as there’s plenty out there already, but I do want to briefly discuss the matter of ‘bad practice’ and its effect on review scores. I personally believe that this is a tricky thing, as it’s very subjective. My conclusion would be that a bad practice should affect a review score if it has proved detrimental to the game’s quality. For example, if you suffered with SimCity or Diablo III server crashes, data wipes or inability to connect due to the always-online thing, it would be fair to have that affect score since the practice you disapprove of actually hurt the game on a functional level. But to score, let’s say Street Fighter X Tekken, really low because you dislike that twelve characters were locked on the disc is moving away somewhat from game merit and objectivity. Unless there were two characters at launch.
By all means, dismantle bad practices in opinion pieces or subsequent articles, but a review does have an objective and a purpose and, even though it may be an opinion, it is not a blog post where you vent your personal principles. You’re assessing a product, and generally you shouldn’t want to over-complicate the review process. You are most likely going to see very polarised review scores for Ground Zeroes, as some reviewers will score it low for its content and on principle, while others will ignore that and rate it only on its quality. But the above discussion brings me to my proposed solution on the matter, which is of course somewhere in the middle of two extremes.
Value should affect score, no two ways about it. Otherwise, you can charge extortionate amounts for games that have little content, but may be excellent. It would distort the entire process of reviewing. However, value cannot be the dictator of a score – of merit. It’s an ingredient. A point of consideration. But it cannot determine a score all on its own. Otherwise, reviews not only become infinitely more complex and have even more subjectivity thrown in, but it also becomes detrimental to allowing consumers to decide whether they want to buy in based on a game’s merits. Basically, content and value should absolutely influence, but not decide a game’s final verdict, as that should always be down to actual merit at the core of the pie. There are the game’s merits, and then all else on top of that.
This would be the way I’d ideally approach a review of Ground Zeroes once the game lands at my feet.