Is it for the fame? The vast fortunes? The prestige? The accolades from an adoring public? What? We do this for free and generally nobody cares? Well why would we do it then, and what does it take? I'll speak for myself at least...
While I took a pretty substantial break in the middle of things, and stopped doing it for over a decade and change, I started writing reviews of various kinds probably almost 25 years ago. Back then I didn’t have enough money to just buy a ton of games so I was really into downloading game demos for my PC. Now, the things to know are that at this time in the world the internet was still in its infancy and that things like cable modems and broadband speeds didn’t yet exist. Since the demos tended to be pretty large, for the speed you could get them at, downloading them could take many, many hours. So I’d generally leave them to download overnight as a result. Even though the demos were free that didn’t mean that it wasn’t aggravating when you’d spend 6 hours downloading something that was an utter waste. It was my irritation with this that prompted me to start my new webpage, Demo Man’s Domain, and a reviewer was born!
Now, the thing about the internet at that time was that search engines and the like really didn’t exist. For the most part what would bring people to you was being listed on other peoples’ own homepages. I doubt my reach was very substantial but the fact that I knew people were not only reading my opinions on things but then thanking me, or getting into discussions with me about what I’d written, and then putting my link on their homepage was a pretty great feeling. It instilled in me a sort of sense of social responsibility, to help people make wise investments in what they got based on information I had that they didn’t. Even though what we were ultimately talking about was free just the time it took people to download a demo, combined with the prospects of them wasting their time playing something that wasn’t very good, compelled me to write reviews for everything I downloaded. I was turning into a sort of reviewer on the cheap!
Since that very early/humble start I’ve written reviews and contributed to (well, or ran) much higher-profile sites, with even an odd freelance opportunity or two in print along the way, but my focus has never changed. My inspiration, as a reviewer, is to try to inform people and to help them make good decisions with their commitments of money and, sometimes more importantly, their time. With that as my goal I don’t take the responsibility lightly, and having interacted with a variety of people from the industry of various kinds I’ll also say that I don’t take my responsibility to them lightly either.
On the one hand you have consumers, many of which I’ll assume don’t have a great deal of disposable income and are looking at their purchase as an investment, not just throwing some money away without there being a consequence in the overall quality. On the other you have developers who have probably made substantial commitments and sacrifices of various kinds to deliver that game experience. Unfortunately for the developers, while I can try to see their point or their vision, I’m not obliged to lie, or at least to diminish what I see as the truth, on their behalf either. It just would also be dishonest to deliberately bring scores down arbitrarily or without sound rationale that could be explained. A reviewer’s responsibility is to balance these things and to at least be fair to all parties.
The next key piece of being a reviewer is you should really love what you’re reviewing as a whole, though you undoubtedly won’t always be rewarded with things that are easy to enjoy. A strange sort of by-product of needing to be particularly thorough: The more you want to heap criticism on a game you may dislike, the more time you’re likely to end up spending playing it. I can’t begin playing a game I’m reviewing, stop, and just proclaim “This sucks! 3/10” I need to back up that claim with evidence (Looking at you 80% or more of app-store-style reviews).
What’s missing or lacking? Is it just me or is there something that anyone could agree is a problem? Am I qualified enough to evaluate it against other comparable games in the genre? Where does this fit into the current marketplace as a whole? Truthfully, justifying why a game is bad is far more difficult (and generally painful) than substantiating why a game is great. If nothing else, “doing the research” on a terrific game is at least far more enjoyable.
Another aspect of being a decent reviewer that tends to make it a bit expensive at times, and doesn’t normally lend itself to you lingering for as long as you may like on your favorite titles, is that you need to be well-versed in the medium. That means playing games you may not normally play, and sometimes longer than you’d like, to better understand them (even when you’re not reviewing them). It means reading through the opinions and criticisms of other reviewers to try to get grounding for where other people may land on different games to better inform or broaden your own opinion. I was heartened to see a great concept come up in discussion about a previous editorial, that meaningful and quality reviews can’t and shouldn’t be written in a vacuum. To avoid that, and the disservice to the reader it represents, you don’t just need to look at the game you’re reviewing, you really need to have a grasp of both the current and historic games everywhere that are comparable to it, the more you can consider the more informed your opinion will be.
What I’m getting at, for people who don’t try to do this, is that if you want to be even half-way decent at reviewing games it can be a lot of work. On top of the factors already mentioned consider the fact that you need to build relatively decent writing skills, you need to be willing to read and re-read just about everything you write to be sure it is conveying the right message and that you’ve expressed yourself in a way that can be clear, and you’ve always got to be ready for taking criticism when solicited. That’s before even covering the modern issues that tend to creep in with things like social networking, possibly trying your hand at live-streaming, building some sort of a brand… it can get a little nutty. If you’re thinking you’d want to do it just because you love playing games or that you may get “free stuff” please bear in mind that nothing is free. You’ll need to work to get to the point you could even hope to recoup your investments, and for anything you do receive there’s an expectation of what you’ll then do (often on a pretty tight deadline, which can make enjoyment of a game challenging, even good ones) in return.
So why do I write reviews? Maybe, more crucially, if I’m saying all of this is quite a bit of work... why did I come back to it after so much time? Speaking only for myself it’s because I’ve regained my passion for playing Nintendo games specifically. After 2 generations of being either burned out or “Meh” (life wasn’t helping either, to be honest) the Switch has started that fire up once more. Just as before my being a massive Nintendo advocate doesn’t, however, mean that I hesitate to be critical of them (I won’t mention the game for once, I promise, but you know which one). In the end, for me, doing reviews is an extension of my desire to help people and since I love and play a ton of games I feel like this is an area I have a great deal to contribute in.
From person to person who is out there writing reviews I’d expect the answer from them would be similar for the most part. For a reviewer, no matter how much you love games, you need to be able to step away from the controller and write things on a pretty regular basis. The blank page and a deadline stare at you, waiting for you to put your thoughts together in your own signature style. As with all things sometimes the work comes easily, with all of the elements coming together, and other times it can be a painful and burdensome chore. So why do people write reviews? Because they’re driven, passionate, and are willing to make a variety of personal sacrifices for the benefit of the people who read what they write. The rewards can be nice but they’re almost always secondary, you have to love to do this to keep it up for any period of time. For me, I think it’s all worth it and I care about this industry, and want everything and everyone to be their best.