Monday, November 30, 2009

ICv2 Defends Indefensible WFRP 3rd Review

This is a strongly worded post. Before reading it, readers should know that I am a fan of Bill Bodden's work in general and that I do have a great deal of respect for him. I also think that ICv2 is an invaluable resource on the net. These are some of the reasons I was so deeply disappointed and prompted to write this post. I am not an employee of FFG, or any other gaming company.

On November 25th, 2009, the ICv2 website featured a professional review (written by Bill Bodden) of the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying Game 3rd Edition recently released by Fantasy Flight Games. I wrote about the controversy this new game would stir back in August.

The review rated the game 3 out of 5 stars, not an overly harsh rating, but the review itself was so deficient in substantive details that I was tempted to write a post entitled "How not to write a professional game review." Eventually, I decided not to write the post about the post, but the review itself still bothered me -- for reasons I will explain soon enough. I was prepared to leave the review behind me and write it off as one bad review on a site that has continually provided high quality content. Something happened last night to change my opinion.

First, Christian Peterson (CEO of Fantasy Flight Games) wrote ICv2 to complain about Bodden's review.

Second, ICv2 decided to defend the review.

I could understand ICv2 responding to some of the claims made in the Peterson email, but I could not -- and cannot -- understand any rational defense of Bodden's initial 396 word review. It was hack work, phoned in, and failed to serve the purposes that a review on ICv2's site ought to serve.

These are strong words regarding Bodden's work, work unworthy of a game designer I have great respect for in general, and as such require strong supporting evidence, which I hope to provide as this post continues.

Go back and read his initial review, linked above, before reading further here. Done? Good. Now we can begin.

I would like to start by providing what I will call a "Jefferson's Bible" version of Bodden's review. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Thomas Jefferson edited a version of the Bible which contained all of the important moral content, with none (actually only one) of the miracles. The "Jefferson's Bible" version of Bodden's review is as follows.

The roleplaying game industry is in decline. Fantasy Flight Games is trying to bring new people into the hobby with their WFRP3 game. The game has pretty board game like parts and is expensive. Because it is like a board game, existing gamers might not like it. Because it is expensive, new gamers will not buy it.

That's pretty much what Bodden wrote and it doesn't serve either of the purposes that a review on ICv2 ought to serve -- to be fair it partially covers one of the two purposes, but only just.

ICv2 is a news website for game and comic book retailers, and as such reviews from the site ought to fulfill the two following purposes.

First, and foremost, they must give retailers an idea regarding how well a particular game might perform financially. Retailers need all the help they can get in predicting demand, and it is up to retailer magazines like ICv2 to assist retailers with making informed decisions. A review ought to contain information in this regard, and Bodden's does have a little -- but only a little. He mentions that the game has a high entry cost which might affect sales of the item. This is important information, but it is also obvious information. The item has a suggested retail price of $99.95. This is hard to overlook, and the individual retailer has a better grasp of his own customer's willingness to hand over $100 than an industry magazine. The industry magazine needs to provide some information regarding the general demand, higher or lower than a typical game of this price point, the item might have. This would have been a perfect place for Bodden to discuss the controversy stirred by the release of a new edition of the game.

Rather than expressing his own concerns regarding the system, he could have presented a sense of the sentiment of the gaming community at large -- something that requires more than reviewing online sentiment. It requires market research, something the magazine (and not necessarily Mr. Bodden) should be doing. He does not do this. I don't expect Bodden to have detailed sales figures for FFG, who like most game companies grip their sales figures in a death grip which reduces information in the marketplace and undermines a retailer's ability to predict demand, but I do expect ICv2 to do some surveys regarding the general excitement level regarding WFRP3. They could provide this data to Bodden for entry into his review.

The second, and almost equally valuable, role that a review on a site dedicated to retailers must serve is to provide information about how a product works. When a customer approaches your average store owner looking for a product, he or she doesn't merely ask "is this any good?" On the contrary, the typical customer asks, "what is this game like and how does it play?" If a store owner is armed with information about the workings of a product, it saves him or her the time of playing and examining a game and the cost of purchasing a demo/test copy. Neither of these is an insignificant cost. An informed retailer is a trusted retailer, and it is ICv2's and Bodden's job to help create informed retailers so the hobby can grow. It ought to be a part of their mission statement.

Who do you trust when asking about a product? Do you trust the guy who says, "I've heard the game is expensive and plays like a boardgame?" Do you trust the guy who is able to break down game play, talk about the types of gamers who might be interested in the product, and who can compare the price point to similar products? I prefer the second guy, and wanted Bodden to provide the kind of information that can make retailers into those kinds of sales people without them having to spend $50.00 in inventory, and a variable amount of money in hours demo-ing, in order to achieve a level of understanding.

What makes all of this more egregious on the part of both ICv2 and Bodden, is that Bodden could have written a better review than he did with only information available on the FFG website. Their website provided the following advance stories detailing components, game play, and containing some actual text from the game itself. Some of these resources are listed below.

I know that this critique of a review may sound like I am attacking the reviewer, rather than the review, but there is so little actual content to the review that one must attack the review for that lack of content. Mr. Bodden received a review copy of the game, a copy he received far too close to the release date to get a good "advance review" and this is a big failure on FFGs part, but his review demonstrates no special knowledge that could not have been garnered from the FFG website or from a press release regarding the game.

Here is a list of the questions Bodden fails to answer:

How does the game play?
Is it like Heroquest, Runebound, Warhammer Quest, WFRP2?
How well written is the product?
Are the rules clear?
Can a new player understand how to play?
Are the components made of cheap materials?
Will they hold up under regular use?
How does the price compare to similar products?
Is there controversy regarding the game?
How can I as a retailer promote this game to expand the hobby?
With a price point of $99.95, the average retailer will be paying approximately $55.00 net, is it worth selling at a $25% discount? (something that would still give me $20 of revenue)

These are all questions that customers might ask a retailer, or that a retailer would want to know.

I should note that ICv2 is right, in one regard, in defending their critic. They are siding with their own staff over an advertiser who wants to control information. It is ICv2's job to ensure that retailers get more than the marketing efforts of companies to base their purchase decisions upon, and protecting reviewers at the possible expense of advertising dollars is a good way to demonstrate a commitment to accuracy. But accuracy isn't the problem with Bodden's review. His review is accurate in all non-normative aspects, what his review lacks is detailed and useful information for the retailer -- or even for the potential consumer.

As a point of comparison, I'd like to offer Aaron Allston's capsule review of ENEMIES for the first edition of the Champions role-playing game. The capsule review is written for consumers, and not retailers, but it is useful to retailers who might have considered carrying the book in 1982. The review is 190 words. (I will remove the review at the request of Mr. Allston, or the current owner of Space Gamer magazine.)

This is one of the first supplementary releases for the superhero RPG Champions. Presented are 36 villains of various experience and intent, each with detailed statistics and illustrations.

I wouldn’t buy this product if it were for an old, established RPG; six dollars for 36 NPCs is a little steep. However, it is worth it to pick up this booklet, simply because it contains so many complete characters. Character generation in Champions is by point-allocation, with some ambiguities in the rules. ENEMIES clears up some of the ambiguities, and corrects some problems that I didn’t know existed. However, editing is sloppy. Several examples of identical disadvantages showed dissimilar point values. This may be because the values of disadvantages vary from campaign to campaign, but this is not explained. There are a number of typos. The first villain in the book, evidently a genius at evasive maneuvering, has cleverly eluded the table of contents. The illustrations are fair to good, but the layout of pages throughout the book is often amateurish and confusing.

Buyers wishing to see interesting and useful applications of Champions character-building would do well to pick this up.

Allston provides specific examples of uses and errors in the book and details responses to concerns some consumers might have. If someone asks why they should spend $6 for 36 NPCs, I have an answer. I also have answers regarding quality of product and overall use within a line of products.

In all humility, I think my prior post on the announcement of the new WFRP game has as much insight as Mr. Bodden's review of a now available game, and that is why Mr. Bodden's review is indefensible. He should have taken the time to write a detailed review, rather than attempt to meet a deadline when the game company gave him the game with too little time to provide an in depth review by Black Friday.


Anonymous said...

May I just suggest you consider how much time Bodden had to turn this review around to meet the demands of his editor? Was he given sufficient time to write his typical review? Or was he told, "It's coming out, get me something fast!"

I find it alarming that all the "firestorm" around this review reflects not at ALL on the editor, who clearly could have rejected it as objectionable or incomplete.

Christian Lindke said...

Oh, I definitely think the editor is to blame and while I didn't mention the editor's role, I did mention FFGs role in contributing to the short time Bodden had available.