Matters of Time

If you spend much time writing reviews, or just get unlucky with an unpopular opinion, you’re going to get some pretty colorful comments on your work. They run the gamut from “git gud” to skepticism on your sexual orientation but my least favorite, by far, are about my time played. More than anything else, people use your time logged in a game to attack whatever thoughts or opinions you have about it. That’s not to say some of the arguments are unjustified, but few folks seem to understand what the time element really means.

It’s a unique problem to Steam, as other online gaming platforms don’t include your time played with reviews if they even have reviews at all. And it’s not like Amazon tracks how long you spent reading a book or working through a 20-pound bag of gummi bears. On an objective level it’s a useful metric, allowing you an idea of how much experience the review’s author has had with the title. It must be noted, though, that it’s often not an accurate metric if the person has played the game on other platforms, or if Steam failed to record their time correctly, or if they idled in the game for whatever reason. Beyond that, we still need to take a look at what time played really means, and we can do that through the complaints that leverage it.

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“You didn’t play it enough to hate it.”

I hate this one. Hate, hate, hate, hate this one. It’s the laziest, most illogical complaint you can have about a game review. This is the one that inspired me to write this piece, in fact, because of how aggravating it is. It always comes from fans of the game in question, ones that have trouble fathoming how anyone could dislike something they’ve grown so attached to. And it doesn’t matter if you’ve played for minutes or hours, someone is going to declare that insufficient to form an opinion. That alone should make it obvious why it’s a complaint best disregarded.

How long do you need to play a game before you can hate it? Realistically you can’t put any sort of minimum on that because deal-breakers can arise at any point in the experience. If the game is broken or ugly or impossible to control right from the start, there’s no required amount of time to suffer through it before declaring it bad. I talked about this in the opening of my Lucidity review, about how I knew exactly how I felt about the game the moment I started it. Issues with the mechanics, the art style, and the controls were apparent in the opening minutes of the game, and I felt entirely comfortable saying as much with only 15 minutes logged in the game.

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The goal when reviewing is always to complete a game, to see everything it has to offer, before reviewing it. The more you know about the game, the more coherently you can make your points about what works and what doesn’t. But the average gamer isn’t going to force themselves to finish a game they hate. They don’t treat it like a job or an obligation, and so those deal-breakers are very important to note in reviews. Dropping a game after 20 minutes warrants a review of that experience, to warn others that they could share the same fate. As with any well-written review, it’s up to the reader to decide if the issues outlined sound like ones that would arrest their enjoyment as well.

It’s pointless, then, to argue that someone hasn’t played a game enough to dislike it. There are arguments to be made about rough patches to get past, and nebulous “good parts” hiding beyond the bad. But declaring that those bad parts are enough to turn someone away from the game is a perfectly valid opinion, because those excuses wouldn’t be necessary at all if those parts weren’t notably bad. No one needs to “give it another chance” because no one should have to suffer to find personal enjoyment, especially with how vast the gaming market is now. And really, if I played a game for two hours and hated it, what are the odds my experience is going to improve by forcing myself to do more of what I hated?

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“You played it too much to hate it.”

The inverse of that argument is a much more prickly one to combat. After all, if you’re allowed to punch out of a game if it gets too bad for you, then dozens or hundreds of hours in it means you never hit anything bad enough to downvote. Everyone is different about how they approach game and how they invest time in them, but in general more time spent with a game is seen as a greater value. Plenty of folks talk about dollar-to-hour ratios to evaluate the value of a title, and shorter games always suffer negative reviews for being too short for their cost, despite the quality of the experience. The notion that more is better is prevalent in gaming, and so a downvote with hundreds of hours behind it is much harder to take seriously.

There’s a kernel of truth here, and one that can only be addressed by the review itself. On some level the person writing the review was able to spend however many hours in the game without anything pushing them to turn sour on it, and those hours should be considered alongside the reason for the review. The killer here is that reviews like this often come from online or live-service games and are triggered by poorly-received updates or developer actions. Reviews for games like Team Fortress 2 and DOTA 2 are veritable rollercoasters of die-hard fans turning on their beloved title for a balance change or a new cash grab. Similarly, the Paradox games famously got trashed in reviews when the publisher changed their pricing structure, and Grand Theft Auto V got dragged through the mud for coming down hard on modders.

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Review bombing is a topic for its own article someday but the point is that intent is key when considering these sorts of reviews. Most people don’t play something for a hundred hours and then ultimately decide it wasn’t worth the time, if for no other reason than no one wants to admit they wasted their time like that. Negative reviews backed by enormous time investments are very often triggered by a specific event, and it’s important to consider that and how it might impact you when reading the review.

With that out of the way, those rare reviews with tons of time logged and no single offense to build on deserve extra consideration. Time is an excellent informer of a game’s quality, because the longer you play it the more time you have in proximity to its flaws. The same caveat applies here, of course, that you need to examine the points the review is structured around and consider how they would affect you. It’s a cardinal rule for readers but becomes more important with more time invested, because the issues clearly had a disproportionate impact to spoil dozens or hundreds of hours of enjoyment.

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“You played it too much to like it.”

This isn’t an actual complaint from anyone but it touches on an important effect to be aware of. When considering time played for a review, it can be very helpful to consider the average playtime for the game in question as well . You’ll want to know if you’re looking at a game with two hours or two hundred hours to completion anyway, but how close someone got to that figure can speak volumes about their experience that their own words did not. Someone with a hundred hours in a game that can be beaten in twenty clearly liked it enough to clear it multiple times or to turn up every single secret and feature in it. And someone with a thousand hours in an online game must have found something to get thoroughly invested in and practice constantly,

Positive reviews out of experiences like this are common, but they should be approached with greater skepticism. The more time someone invests in a game, the more invested they themselves can become in it. Too many players take their appreciation of the game as a part of their identity, as a fan, and turn out to defend its reputation against even reasonable criticism. I’m not saying that people that play something for hundreds or thousands of hours are crazy but their investment in it can make it harder to evaluate it objectively. No one is immune to this, and I would consider my 629 hours in Marvel Heroes disqualifying from writing a serious review of it (if it weren’t already defunct, R.I.P.). I certainly think I could write a reasonable review of it, but after that much experience and investment in it I’m so far from the new player experience that I don’t know if my words would be all that useful to a theoretical newcomer.

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“You didn’t play it enough to like it.”

This is the real killer, and the ever-present enemy of those who review games. As I said before, the goal is to complete every game and see as much of it as possible before reviewing, but sometimes that just isn’t possible. Sometimes you don’t leave yourself enough time to get through a game, sometimes your mood changes and you don’t feel like finishing it, and sometimes you realize a game is good, but not the kind of good you appreciate. I’ve written several recommendations for games I haven’t finished or even logged that much time in, PidMutant Mudds, and Screencheat chief among them. The question gets asked how I can recommend something after so little time, and it’s almost a good question to pose.

I say “almost” because I try to always explain my experience as thoroughly as possible in my reviews. I may have only played something for fifteen minutes but I have six paragraphs explaining how I felt about those minutes. It would be a question worth answering if I hadn’t answered it in so many words already, and that’s what I want to convey here. Recommendations for games the writer hasn’t completed really need to be scrutinized more than perhaps any other. They’re making suggestions based on incomplete information, and no matter how good initial impressions or the early game can be it can all fall apart by the end. I will never forget reading a positive review of Metal Gear Solid 2 when it came out, and then seeing that review amended once the reviewer actually reached the end and saw how badly it fell apart.

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Ultimately, the takeaway from all these cases is that a good review will have answers for any sort of criticism stemming from time played. A decent reviewer is going to be aware of how that figure will look next to their downvote or upvote, and will write accordingly. Last week’s Starbound follow-up was a product of such a concern, the realization that tacking another 50 hours to my time played would undermine my original review. It’s because comments on reviews are so often used for attacks and arguments instead or real discussion of issues that any of this even needs to be said, but there are just as many bad reviews that don’t address the questions they raise themselves. That’s why it’s worth examining metrics like time played and what they mean, because a little introspection can make for better writers AND better readers.

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