There’s a humorous scene near the beginning of Mel Brook’s History of the World, Part I. Presented as the birth of the art critic, it depicts a caveman relieving himself on a cave painting. While clearly intended as a joke, it speaks to the conflicting nature of artistic critique and how that conflict is escalating in the Internet Age. The problem with critiques of anything, but especially art, is a disconnect between what a critic is able to offer and what audiences want.
A critical assessment of something necessarily includes the critic’s subjective impressions of that thing. Even for a consumer good, for example a car, includes the critic’s opinion on feel of the car, handling, ride comfort, placement of dashboard controls, etc. With art, subjectivity is really all the critic can report—there’s no objective way to experience artistic work.
Meanwhile, the audience for critiques increasingly demands objectivity, despite the fact a purely objective critique will be boring, and, in the case of art, impossible. This clamor is further complicated by the fact art has essentially become a consumer good. All consumers want to know is: is the product (even if the product is art) worth my money? But, no individual critic on Earth can answer that question “correctly” for everyone.
Since critics cannot “get it right” for everyone, everyone becomes a critic of the critics. This has been the case ever since “Letters to the Editor” first became a thing a few hundred years ago. Modern media accelerated the dissemination of “reader opinions.” I remember reading critical letters in nearly every issue of the comics I subscribed to as a teen.
Along comes the Internet, and not only is it that much easier to vent your spleen to the “rotten critics,” but everyone now has a platform to broadcast their opinions. Furthermore, the Internet is revealing a nasty undercurrent of psychopathic personalities who viciously attack other people rather than merely debating opinions. The result is a barrage of “opinion pieces” from every corner of the globe masquerading, in some cases, as critical reviews.
Real critiques are an in-depth examination of the subject. Artistic critiques, especially, should be about the reviewer’s experience. What does it mean? How does it make one feel? What questions does it raise? Why are these questions important? Even reviews of consumer product need that human element rather than a rote listing of “features” and “bugs” and “does it work.”
True critiques are diminishing as the rise of loud, often vulgar, and frequently hostile, “review” sites take over the Web and engage in abusive battles of words with their readers. And those types of “click-bait” writers are only increasing. In Pixar’s “The Incredibles,” villain Syndrome says, “When everyone’s super, no one will be.”
When everyone’s a critic…
 ROM: Spaceknight, Micronauts, and Star Wars in case you were wondering.
 For that kind of review, rating aggregators and e-tail “review” systems are a wonderful replacement, allowing, at a glance, what other consumers judge to be a product’s worth.
A gamer tells you graphics don't matter.
Then tells you to play games on PC because, better graphics.
A gamer bemoans the lack of innovation in the industry.
Then screams bloody murder when a favorite franchise updates the core gameplay.
A gamer complains there are too many sequels and not enough new IP.
While buying Super Mario Halo Killzone 15.
A gamer screams publishers are ripping them off with day one DLC.
Then buys the game used.
A gamer criticizes new consoles for not having backward compatibility.
But trades in all their old games to buy new ones.
A gamer argues games are art.
Then demands the artists patch their game because the players don't like the ending.
A gamer objects to the depictions of women in games.
Then treats women gamers like dirt.
A gamer mourns the closing of a studio.
Then returns their game that was only rented.
A gamer is passionate about games.
And passion makes you do weird things.
I’ve been playing video games for almost 35 years. I’ve been reading gaming media (magazines and then Internet sites) for about 25 years. The game press has always been an essential part of marketing games. Developers and publishers use the gaming press to hype games and spur sales. What’s so important about the gaming hype machine? Why is it so important to get those Day One sales?
The answer is simple: the game industry is broken.
In March 2013, Square Enix published a reboot of the popular Tomb Raider series. The new game, titled simply Tomb Raider, sold 3.4 million copies during its first month of release. Soon after, Square Enix announced it was “very disappointed” in those figures, revealing it had estimated TR would sell between five and six million during the first four weeks.
A few years ago, over three million copies sold would have been a success. (Popular 2003 game Knights of the Old Republic sold only 2.2 million.) Now it’s “very disappointing.” There is a fundamental disconnect between the cost to make AAA games and the price consumers pay. While the latter has been steadily rising (easily hitting nine figures for development plus marketing by some estimates), the cost of games has been declining once adjusted for inflation.
This wouldn’t be a problem if the market for games was expanding fast enough for volume of sales to keep up with cost of production, but it hasn’t. While the occasional huge hit comes along to keep companies afloat, the industry as a whole is sick—not dying—just weak and stuck in endless cycles of trying to get more money from gamers.
Day one DLC. Online passes. Pre-order bonuses. Collector’s editions. Micro-transactions. And, of course, endless hyping through the gaming press. Developers try to cut costs, overworking their employees and cranking out endless sequels that can re-use assets. There’s some good things happening in the indie space (and some not-so-good), but, much as I like indie games, I don’t want to lose AAA gaming, and that is what is slowly happening.
The gamers are out there. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 have sold a combined 166 million consoles. If even half their sales are to individuals who own both, that’s still 120 million console gamers. Plus however many play on PC (Steam had 75 million users as of this past January). So why is it so hard to sell to just a fraction of that user base? Why are gamers not buying games?
Two reasons: games cost too much, and there are too many of them.