The Ratings Game

starsThis isn’t about TV shows. That particular Ratings Game would take an entire blog unto itself to even begin to properly discuss. No, I’m talking about when people review things and rate them.

Does Size Matter?

Some people used a 5 point system. Usually 5 stars, but then they give out half star ratings, thus making it a 10 point system on a scale of 0.5 to 5. Then you get 10 point systems, and then they go and try to present averages between multiple reviewers and dish out things like 7.6 and 2.4, thus making them actually a 100 point system ranging from 0.1 to 10.0. Luckily, if a person starts with a 100 point system, they generally don’t do decimals (unless you are handing out grades and want to really rub it into the kid’s face that a 92 is an A and they got a 91.9, a B). Really though, most of these systems exist almost entirely to attempt to set expectations. If a movie review site uses a 5 star scale, 3 usually means “like”, 4 “really like” and 5 is “love”.

But I’m all about managing expectations, and large systems (even as large as 5) start to set them for me. A 5 star film isn’t going to be just good, it’s going to be great. A 1 star film isn’t just bad, it’s awful! And it happens with every scale.

And then you run into other people wanting to fiddle with your system. Tons of game sites rate on a 10 point or 100 point scale, but the vast majority of their scores will be in the 7-9/70-90 range. They save the top score for the absolute best games, and everything below 7/70 is complete trash, and even mediocre games get a “C”. I’m sorry, but on a scale of 1 to 10, 5 is the middle, the average, the “meets some minimum level of entertainment but I didn’t really enjoy it”. You wouldn’t know that from the way most sites work.

A Simpler System

For me, however, I prefer a binary system, a scale from 0 to 1. If I enjoyed something and would recommend it to other people it gets a 1. If I didn’t enjoy it and wouldn’t recommend it to other people it gets a 0. No fractions.

Of course, that’s just the score. Any long review would get into exactly why I liked it, and what sort of people I think would also like it. Or it would discuss why I think the thing failed for me, and perhaps try to understand what sort of people might enjoy this, because you have to assume if someone takes the time to make something they must intend for someone else out there to like it.

I’ve written about this before. In fact, twice before. At a glance, I need only one piece of information: did you like it. Then, based on that I can decide if I want to read your full review. More so, if I’ve read a bunch of your reviews in the past and I have a general sense of “if he likes it, then I like it” I may not even need to read every review. I can shorthand. If I’ve heard about a game and think I will like it and I see that a reviewer I generally agree with also liked it, I can pretty safely purchase it and avoid the possibility of getting spoilers in a review. On the other hand, if there is a game I’ve heard of and think I will like and that reviewer says he didn’t like it, now I definitely want to read his review because maybe there’s something I need to know.

Got it in 1

In the past, I’ve toyed with ratings systems on reviews here. I even invented a 13 point system just so that a 7 would be the middle/average score. And I’ve thrown out ratings systems, insisting that the review is the only thing that matters. In the future, I’m going to implement my more simple 0 & 1 system.

Now I just need to make some nifty graphics for my new rating system, and they need to be self-explanatory because I don’t want any passing creator see that I’ve given them a 1 and think I’m saying they suck.

The Value of Bad Press

I first heard about it back in June.  But apparently it has recently been ruled on by the FTC that bloggers must disclose when they get free stuff.  Personally, I’ve never gotten a free game, and while I’ve gotten free movie passes they’ve never been sent to me specifically for review, I obtain them in other ways (more on that tomorrow).  But, other bloggers do get free games sometimes, or at least offers of free games, so there has been some discussion on the subject.

Being that free games are often sent out by marketing departments, and the goal of marketing departments is to try and get favorable review out in the wild where potential buyers can see them, the concern is that bloggers given free games might give a undeserved favorable review in order to continue getting free games.  Sadly, in part, this is why most game review magazines and sites tend to use the “7 to 9” scale of rating, reserving 10’s for truly astounding games and anything less than 7 for unmitigated pieces of crap, letting even a mildly entertaining game with numerous flaws still get a 7 out of 10.  Of course, the reality is that these places are actually reviewing on a 5 point scale: 6 or less, 7, 8, 9, and 10.  So getting a 7 there is kinda like getting a 2 out of 5.  Do you normally go see movies that get 2 out of 5 stars?

Now, while no game company really wants to get poor ratings, not all poor ratings are created equal.  Rather than trying to seek out favorable ratings, what they should be seeking is “fair” reviews.  By fair I simply mean that the game will be reviewed on its own merits, in detail, and then given a score intended to reflect the value of the game to that reviewer.  THEN companies should encourage people to read reviews instead of just viewing ratings.  Metacritic is the devil because it does the opposite, placing all the focus on the score and the reasons behind the score disappear.  The result is publishers pushing for higher ratings when what they should be pushing for is the abolishment of numerical ratings.  But players seem to demand “at a glance” ratings systems because its easier on them, even though in the end they are mostly being lied to.  Its all counter-intuitive and somehow self-reinforcing at the same time.

Personally, when I am trying to decide if I want to purchase something, I actually seek out poor reviews.  For example, on I may skim through the 5 star reviews, but I will read every single word of every 1 and 2 star review.  The reason is simple: people tend to more specifically describe their dislike of something than they do their like of something.  I’ve written about this before.  The main reason for this is that the only thing I can guarantee about a reviewer is that they are not me.

Take movie reviews for example.  Let’s say I was going to review Zombieland.  On a 10 point scale, I’d give the movie a 9, on a 5 star scale it would get a 4.5 or maybe even a 5 (I’m not a fan of the .5 in a rating scale).  But if you were looking for a movie to go see, the fact that I gave the movie a 9 out of 10 is less important than if you like zombie movies, gory movies, or comedies.  Even if you like zombie movies, Zombieland isn’t Dawn of the Dead, it is more like Shaun of the Dead, and that’s more important than my rating.  On the flip side, suppose I had given Zombieland a 2 out 10 and said, “This movie was just as dumb as Shaun of the Dead. If you liked that piece of crap, I guess you’ll like this too.”  And if you loved Shaun of the Dead, then despite my rating of a 2, you should probably see Zombieland.  When I get in to the idea of the value of bad press, well, I’ve already seen many dozens of reviews for Zombieland that were little more than “This was awesome! Must see!”  But all the negative reviews I’ve read have been very descriptive, and I think would actually be more helpful to people not sure about the film decide whether the film is something they’d enjoy or not.

In the end, though, I suppose I do agree with the FTC that people should disclose if they have gotten freebies, especially if they are going to comment on the value, like saying a game is or isn’t worth the $60 box price.  I’m not sure it should be a law with fines though.  At the same time, I don’t think people should discount a review just because the reviewer got a free copy, and I think marketing departments should push for quality reviews and not worry so much about just getting favorable ones.  They should reward reviewers who clearly spend time with the games and write well, not just those who blow smoke and tell them what they want to hear.

Tropic Thunder

10 out of 13 nots.
for kicking Hollywood in the gonads

I am sure by now, unless you live under a rock, you have heard about the controversy surrounding Tropic Thunder.  Ben Stiller’s character of Tugg Speedman portrayed a mentally disabled boy in a movie called Simple Jack.  Yes, the character of Jack is rife with stereotypes of the cognitively challenged… but that’s sort of the point.  Tugg took the part of Jack in a blatant attempt to show that he was more than an action star and to try to nab Oscar gold.  Tropic Thunder is not about Jack, its about Tugg, who himself is a stereotypical action star, doing what we, the audience, already consider to be fairly tasteless (blatant Oscar bid films) and taking it to the extreme.  Much the same way that Robert Downey Jr.’s Kirk Lazarus is taking actors who physically transform themselves for their craft to the extreme (he gets his skin dyed so that he, a white actor, can portray a black man).  Every character in the film is a caricature of people who exist in the real Hollywood, and it is really funny.

However, to every person out there… this movie is rated R for a reason.  Take it seriously.  And its not just for the swearing (of which there is a lot), or the blood and gore (or which there is plenty), or nudity (which there isn’t any, unless you count Jack Black in his underwear), it is also because, unless you are a person who can discern the difference between a joke and not a joke (like, for instance, kids), this movie might be extremely offensive… to everyone.  But hey, if you can take a joke, and if you can separate having a laugh from having a world outlook, this movie is a hoot.

Of course, we could always ban jokes about the mentally disabled… and other disabled people… and blacks, and jews, and fat people, and skinny people, and business people, and homeless people, and normal people.  We could ban all those jokes… but then all we would have left are knock-knock jokes, and not very many of those at that.  Remember, for every movie you think isn’t funny, there is a movie you think is hilarious that someone else thinks isn’t funny.  Even Finding Nemo makes fun of people who have memory problems…

The Reviews Are In

I love to browse Every since they improved the hell out of their wish lists and organizer functions, I love looking at the recommended products for both myself and for the people whom I’ve registered gift giving occasions for. (If you haven’t taken advantage of the gift lists and organizer features of Amazon, I suggest you do.) Its kinda neat to see what gets recommended to me and why it got recommended. Is it from stuff on my wish list? Is it from stuff I own? I’ve even been recommended things because of stuff I’ve rated low… it didn’t come out and say it, but basically it was showing me an item because I’d rated “opposite” items with only one star.

Once I’ve found an item that is intriguing to me, I then find myself browsing the reviews of the items. Sometimes you come across some real comedy gems in there, like the now long deleted review of the xbox 360 where it overheated setting the house on fire and killed his family but he gave it a 5 star rating because up to that point the games were really fun. But mostly, I spent my time actually reading the bad reviews of items.

Frankly, I could not care less about the opinions of someone who thinks that the product is the best thing since sliced bread, because… well… a gushing “my god this is awesome!!!!!1!1!!!!!” review just doesn’t help. So instead I sort the reviews from lowest to highest rated, and start reading in the gutter. The negative reviews are so much more helpful. Firstly, its easier to spot a negative nutjob than to spot a crazy product lover. “I bought this book and it had pages!! You mean I have to read it myself?!?!” Second, once you’ve decided the reviewer isn’t a nutjob, you can focus in on what exactly they didn’t like and decide if you also will not like it, which is often more beneficial than trying to align your tastes with someone’s positive review, mostly because people who love something tend to be willing to overlook flaws… flaws which to you might be very important.

Anyway, those are my random thoughts of the day…

Batman Begins

When Batman came out in 1989, I was wary of the casting of Michael Keaton, Mr. Mom, as the caped crusader. But it turned out that he was actually able to capture the duality of Batman and Bruce Wayne extremely well. And while I was disappointed with the death of the Joker (why do they insist on killing the bad guys? the comic books don’t), the movie as a whole was just good.

With Batman Returns… well, Keaton was still good, but the way they chose to portray the Penguin was just… well… crappy. Catwoman wasn’t bad (a zillion times better than the most recent incarnation with Halle Berry) but there were issues with the movie.

Then Keaton flees Batman, and we get Val Kilmer. Now, Val, I thought, could make a very good Batman and Bruce Wayne, but watching the movie, he seemed to be phoning in his performance. He was very wooden in both roles. Add to that the introduction of neon day glo Gotham, and the movie’s suck factor began to swell. Making Robin not be a kid was a step in the wrong direction. He’s supposed to be a teenager, that’s the whole point of his freakin’ character, a young foil to help keep Batman from plummetting off the deep end. I thought after seeing this movie that it had to kill the franchise. Whatever pull Bob Kane had he’d use, and DC would look at the movie and say “Oh, hell no.” and we would never see a Batman movie again. Then the stupid thing, propelled by Jim Carey as the Riddler, made truckloads of money. God help us all.

Val exitted stage left, and we got George Clooney. Now, I like George… he was great on ER, he did a fine job in From Dusk ‘Til Dawn and even in One Fine Day. As Batman/Bruce Wayne he brought so much bravado and swagger to the role that the film choked on it. I figured when I saw Batman Forever we’d seen about as over the top a film as could be made… Then somehow Joel Schumacher managed to double and then triple it and cram it all into the godawful Batman & Robin. The plot was horrid, the actors all gave the worst perfomances of their lives, and Gotham became the new Las Vegas. Utter trash. Thankfully, without the odd star power of a Jim Carey, B&R died (well, it made over $100 million, but it was far less than any of the others in the franchise).

Now that I’m done with that walk down memory lane, let’s get to the movie at hand…

Forget all four of the previous films, Batman Begins is THE Batman movie. Much like I pretend that there is only one Highlander film, and thanks to Episode III I now pretend there are only 3 Star Wars films and it ends with Return of the Jedi, I will now happily pretend that this is the first Batman movie ever made.

Christian Bale is Batman. Christian Bale is Bruce Wayne. He’s able to pull off the brooding superhero, the tortured man, and the facade of the billionaire playboy like no one else. Add to that surrounding him a fantastic cast including Liam Neeson, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Tom Wilkinson, Rutger Hauer, Cillian Murphy, Morgan Freeman, and more. Then add a fantastic script that isn’t full of camp and punchlines (though not without its laughs). And finally put Christopher Nolan (Insomnia, Memento) behind the wheel. What you get is a film about the construction of a hero, a crusader, a legend.

If you go to the film looking for the ‘Biff’ and ‘Wham’ of the old TV show, or the tongue in cheekiness of Batman Forever or Batman & Robin, you are going to be horrible disappointed. You’ll probably think this is the worst movie ever made.

But if you go for Batman… if you like The Dark Knight Returns, or Batman: Year One, or the current run of the comic books. If you view the ‘camp’ of Batman as a blip wrong detour of a much better and larger tale, then this movie is for you.

I can only hope that Batman Begins really is a new beginning, and that at least another movie or two with this collection of folks manages to find its way to the big screen.

Get Carter

You know… I’m not exactly sure what the heck I was expecting. I mean, first off let me make clear, I’m not talking about the original, I’m talking the Sylvester Stallone remake. The story is pretty good… a guy finds out his brother has been killed, so he comes home for the first time in a long time to find out who did it. Mickey Rourke is pretty good as one of the bad guys, and Michael Caine makes an appearance (he was the star of the original). It even had one of my favorite B-listers John C. McGinley, and Rachael Leigh Cook… but it was just… ehh. Sly is a pretty good action star, but he just doesn’t have the facial expressions to be able to pull off anything dramatic (except in ‘Copland’, somehow Stallone managed to summon every ounce of acting ability he possessed and pulled off a monster performance in that one). In fact, he looked quite horrible in this… like he’d just had some bad plastic surgery or something, either they intended him to have sacks under his eyes and look both tanned and pasty all at once, or the make-up artist on that flick needs a new career.

In the end, it was moderately entertaining, but if you have a choice, spend the time doing something else…