Taste the fearsome beak of critical standards!

I’m kind of excited about The Owlbear, a new group blog devoted to RPG criticism, founded by some denizens of story-games.com and other such haunts. Before you assume that this new venture is going to be a big fat hippie-gaming love-in, read their introductory post in detail: “Those who are best informed on the state of the art are least willing to speak frankly about games they think are flawed. Some fear taking a dollar out of some one else’s pocket, others offending their peers. The result is that flawed, weak games make it onto the shelves of stores and onto the tables of gamers, who conclude, understandably, that the role playing industry is doomed. We believe that this well-intentioned self-censorship is doing no one any good.” That’s right, people; it’s time to do some choppin’ with the sword of truth. (It’s startling how similar that introduction is to , that should be read by anyone who cares about judging cultural artifacts of any kind, from issue 1 of populist lit mag The Believer. To half of it, anyway.)


  1. I’m not worried about a “hippie-gaming love-in.” I’m more concerned about an elitist “we’re better than you” attitude. Still, I’ll withhold judgment until I read it a bit.

  2. Ah, right, well, criticism is going to mean one or the other obviously. </sarcasm>

  3. I’m with James S.

    I saw the threads that spawned this … uh … thing. I’m unconvinced, and it kinda does already reek of high-horse-ism.

    Ain’t it just fun when the rebellious new turks become the critical old beards?

  4. I think the thing that a LOT of people are overlooking in this whole thing is… just because “Game X” doesn’t have the best mechanics or has some problems, doesn’t mean that it isn’t FUN.

    I’ve had a lot of fun in the past with some admittedly crappy rules and I’ve had less than fun with some of these new “indie RPGs.” (Mountain Witch excluded because that is just awesome). One size does not fit all.

  5. Foe: did you have a look at any of the reviews posted to s-g.com in the midst of the kerfluffle?

    James: isn’t that kind of a given whenever anyone reviews anything?

  6. Disclaimer: This is NOT flame-bait {snarky, yes but not trolling)

    “Those who are best informed on the state of the art are least willing to speak frankly about games they think are flawed”

    And those people would be? And you are?

    “The result is that flawed, weak games make it onto the shelves of stores and onto the tables of gamers, who conclude, understandably, that the role playing industry is doomed.”

    Really? I haven’t had a bad purchase that I would consider fatally flawed or weak in the last five years of buying games. The roleplaying industry isn’t doomed from poor games – its weakened (NOT doomed) because we’re not actively going out and getting new players and encouraging the hobby. Instead we’re sitting about bitching about minutia – which is fine and a healthy part of fandom UNTIL people start taking it WAY too seriously.

    So, if they’re discouraging weak or flawed design, how are new designers going to get better? By following some group’s mandates that THIS is good design and THIS is not? Again, not being mean, but darned curious as to how things are going to get better if we’re blasting anything that doesn’t meet some arbitrary set of standards.

  7. >And those people would be? And you are?

    You’re missing some of the context here, I think. This is coming out of story-games.com, a designer-rich community for better or worse. That’s the social context.

    >So, if they’re discouraging weak or flawed design, how are new designers going to get better? By following some group’s mandates that THIS is good design and THIS is not? Again, not being mean, but darned curious as to how things are going to get better if we’re blasting anything that doesn’t meet some arbitrary set of standards.

    OK, seriously, any putative game designer dumb enough to believe that game reviews, no matter who’s writing them, constitute some kind of binary code to be obeyed is perhaps not a game designer whose work we need to see. If you haven’t got the balls to get reviewed negatively, keep your game off the market until after you do a couple more playtests.

    Of course, to be fair, you might be thinking of a game review as having to, you know, have numbers for ‘Style’ and ‘Substance’ or just be an unconsidered comparison to the reviewer’s personal tastes, instead of being an actual, thoughtful piece of writing… the latter of which I trust the folks behind the Owlbear to do. I could forgive you for thinking that by default; we haven’t always managed to review things very thoughtfully here at OC, even. But “arbitrary set of standards”?? Before any of us have seen review one? Come on.

    Along these lines I recommend people pick up a new book by Douglas Wolk called Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean. It’s a beautiful example of Criticism with a capital C that still manages to be accessible, and embraces fun and quality simultaneously: writing meant to elucidate culture, not gate-keep it. Not saying that I know that to be the plan at the Owlbear, just saying.

  8. When the first thing you read is a mission statement trying its hardest to sound like the worst kind of academic elitism, expectations for elitist and holier than thou statements kinda flow from there.

  9. Uh oh, “academic elitism.” Somebody might think they’re better than us, boys! Circle the wagons!

    Why not lose the internalized gamer shame and try to read things for their content, instead of for probably-fantasized status games?

  10. There is no internalized gamer shame, great assumption though, I’m nominally Catholic so it would technically be guilt if there was any hangups. However, I do dislike Foucault inspired writing techniques using obscure or inappropriate adjectives and paragraph length sentences that take themselves entirely too seriously. Could this be a useful place, sure, but again you talk a certain talk you give a certain first impression. James S has some very valid points. Besides if you’re rolling with Foucault there is no truth, just opinions which are all valid and impossibly biased.

  11. I am completely at a loss for words as to how anybody could think this remotely resembles post-modern academic prose, or really any academic prose at all. This thing is 10th-grade reading level at most. You are responding emotionally, and there’s obviously nothing I can do to stop you. Keep hitting that sweet, sweet indignation pipe…

  12. Well you certainly are not at a loss for sarcasm or snark. It’s first impressions given by my experience, I’m trying to figure out where they’re coming from and thats my first impression. It’s obvious you’re dismayed that other people are skeptical instead of eagerly anticipating. The site could be meat could be cake, I’m willing to give it a fair shake but I’m highly skeptical.

  13. Kind of being a bit of a jerk there, Mike – chill out a tad. The fact of the matter is, the tone of the initial post is a bit elitist – the societal context in which it was drafted is less important than the context in which it is presented. Which, IMO, is really why people are reacting like this – the majority audience for game reviews is (unless the industry is in worse shape than we think) gamers, not game designers. Its that initial premise line that seems to call into question the qualifications of non-designers that simply seems a bit on the arrogant side. I mean, last I checked, most professional reviewers do not in fact work in the industry which they review for (wine, TV, film, book [although there is some incest in this one], restaurant). Its more a question of critical thinking and experience than being part of the industry.

    Also, was the cheap shot at other review sites really necessary? Kind of proved the elitism point being made here to be honest.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for thoughtful, well-written game reviews – especially if they’re produced at a consistent quality level. However, there was nothing in the initial post to indicate that would be the case – instead, I got a bit of ego, some “long-windedness” and the traditional “Forge-style” angst over the state of mainstream gaming. Just my impression, your mileage may vary (though I would point out that with this many responses, all saying the same basic thing, one might begin to wonder…).

  14. That opening phrasing — the one that’s driving folks nuts above — is part of why I’m very nervous about this project. Folks eager to do the honest post-publication criticism gig are potentially far too eager to do it without being sensitive to whether or not they’re damaging the brand of the product they’re ripping into. Some brands are resilient (thanks to well-established success) — I honestly wouldn’t fear nasty criticism of Don’t Rest Your Head, Spirit of the Century, or (to go beyond my own games) Dogs in the Vineyard, Primetime Adventures, etc, because of their established success — but others could very easily be damaged if the only voices being heard about those products are ones that are “down” on ’em.

    This is why I made the statements that I feel — fairly, I think — are getting sneered at in the lines you’re quoting from Owlbear (I very explicitly shared that I was leery of taking dollars out of friends’ pockets, among others).

    But going beyond even that, the folks here are right. The way this is being phrased and presented is very much couched in we-know-better-and-you-don’t language, which is yet another way I think these folks aren’t being aware of the market-place into which they’re shouting their critiques. I’m upset about it, the same way I’m upset about the brand-blindness I think, say, Ron Edwards practiced earlier this year when he took a big crap on games like Mortal Coil and Shock. (Luckily, Mortal Coil was doing well enough that it appears not to have been affected; Shock, I don’t know — I haven’t been watching the numbers closely — but its already coming out with a new edition, just a year after its original release, effectively rendering all those original 1.0 copies inert.)

    Ultimately, I think the small press/indie scene needs to get more aware of how it chooses to craft its messages to the world, in the Age of Google. Opinions aren’t private, or even quiet any more. They’re loud as hell, and they reflect on the topic of the opinion as well as the speaker. If — as others above have suggested — the industry needs help by getting more people into the hobby, we cannot help it by placing ourselves as authorities, by speaking as if we are above others. We get there by reaching out to new gamers from the same level, by saying “you and I are brothers and sisters; we are of a kind; we are peers.” I don’t feel like these activities with Owlbear (or the threads on story-games) are doing that in the least, which is why in the end I am not much a supporter of them (and why I am choosing to continue on my path of minimized interaction with story-games — though I am grateful that they’ve at least seemingly quarantined this effort over to a blog separate from story-games).

  15. ” the majority audience for game reviews is (unless the industry is in worse shape than we think) gamers, not game designers.”

    I think that is where I finally need to chime in an agree 100%. I am all in favor of designers collaborating. Some of the best games ever to appear in our hobby were collaborations. That said, if your site is aimed about people who develop games…you aren’t reviewing anymore, you are critiquing. I know that is some serious semantics, but valid ones IMHO. I read reviews in order to make a purchase choice. Reviews are geared to give me information on a game mainly towards that end.

    If you are designing a site to discuss mechanics, rules theory, etc…I don’t see it operating in a similar vein. I expect it to be, well, critical…for one designer to help another through a process.

    I personally don’t go to as many gaming sites as I once did. That may be somewhat of a surprise, especially considering I do two gaming podcasts and all…but what it has come down to for me personally is this: I work pretty hard to be a general gaming evangelist… what really gets my panties in a twist more than anything is when I see people telling other people their version of fun isn’t right, or as good as their fun. Makes me wanna get a real job again. Seems like this site might be guilty of that very issue. Sadly, I don’t think I am going to go look and find out….

  16. Josh – thanks for your comments. The implication that game designers may be more qualified to be critics of games than gamers is only a problem in certain contexts. You’re putting it in one very valid context – of course producing something isn’t a prerequisite to thinking about it deeply (not everyone signed onto The Owlbear is a designer, incidentally) – and there are other ways to look at it too (such as that, well, the notion of people who produce something having generally higher odds of understanding it deeply than people who merely consume it is also… kind of obvious). But those contexts simply aren’t operative here. What’s going on is, some story game designers asked each other, “so what are the games that need improving? How can we keep getting better?” and were met with stony, polite silence from their community. The fear of offending someone else on the forum was keeping people from improving their craft.

    Now, I didn’t make that context clear when I linked them, so really this whole discussion is my fault. But the assumptions that have showed up to replace it have been… interesting. And some of them, particularly the insecure ones, make me a little crazy.

    As for RPGnet, well, their reviews have actually gotten better lately, but the ‘Style’ and ‘Substance’ thing is still an affront to reason, even more so than number ratings on reviews of other art forms.

    And we’re still leaving aside the issue of criticism, not in Chris’s sense of critique but in the sense of writing about games that tells us something about games in general, rather than just serving as a buyer’s guide. I’d like to see more of that, because I’d like to see gaming become less of a clubhouse culture and more of a resource for everyone. This doesn’t mean that the wrecking balls are waiting outside the clubhouse; it does mean that your fun is gonna get judged now and again. Which is fine in my view, because that means that, over time, all of our fun is going to get better.

  17. Mike: Honestly, I think the purpose of Owlbear is valid, and I don’t begrudge the goal. Constructive criticism is good; reaching for the path of continuous improvement is good.

    I believe what I’m reacting to is the initial (and perhaps only initial) tone of Owlbear. Perhaps prejudging to be fair, but 1st impressions count. I call ’em the way I see ’em. As the very least, brevity is the soul of wit, and the initial post / mission statement was a bit long winded at the very least. To paraphrase the site, professional authors would be best able to judge – so I did. 😉

    I’ll also note, for purposes of constructive criticism, that comments like “If you haven’t got the balls to get reviewed negatively” and “choppin’ with the sword of truth cut both ways, and apply to Owlbear, OgreCave, and any public endeavors (my own soundly included). The critics and supporters need to be open to valid criticism of their own efforts.

    In short, if you put out a public website that catches people with, say, an elitist air, expect to get called on it, and have the balls to take it (that is what you’re asking of others after all). You directed your audience there (with great gusto), people went, they came back with feedback and impressions – the common theme of which was the tone of the post – and you haven’t been exactly accepting of those impressions. Whose insecurity is showing there, eh? You want others to be open to criticism – be open to it yourself.

    On hopefully a more positive note, any buzz is good buzz, and you’ve done an admirable job with stirring up some attention for Owlbear. Let’s see what they come up with.

    My sincere hope is that it will be a respectful, honest, two-way discussion. I’m all for critiquing product. I’m not in favor of judging people’s fun. But if you’re going to judge my fun, buddy, then you better be open to my judging your fun. If you’re not, then we’re talking elitism and hypocrisy – and those, my friend, are something we need less of in gaming, not more.

  18. I’ve copped to the poor job I did of making it evident where the Owlbear was coming from, but since then, I think my criticisms of the basis of the elitism accusations has been fair, if not always polite. Honestly not seeing what that has to do with insecurity on my part.

    Judge my fun anytime, man. (But understand its context first!)

    I think it is probably time for us all to take a deep breath here, myself included. (Not least because our comment-moderation system seems to have eaten a couple people’s comments and I don’t want anyone to take that personally. Computers, man. Whatcha gonna do.)

  19. Fair enough Mike, although I likewise don’t see how you don’t see that you’re being dismissive of the criticism. Regardless, I think everyone’s (or me anyhow) likely made their points, and probably the best thing to do – in addition to take a breather – is wait to see where Owlbear goes with, you know, the real content. 😉

  20. Fred: ok, good, your comment didn’t get devoured by the backroom ogres after all. 🙂

    I share your misgivings with people who have conversations in public and expect them to be treated as private. Security through obscurity doesn’t work. But to me, the implications of that really just run counter to where a lot of us seem to be taking them. I mean, from one angle you could be read as saying, “Hey, this is the Age of Google, so keep quiet so we can be protected.” When to me, it makes a lot more sense to say, “Hey, this is the Age of Google, so your contributions to culture aren’t protected, ever, whether a given person is loud or not. The only cure for free speech is more of it.”

    I also have to say, I don’t see how any of this affects new gamers entering the hobby any more than a debate in Cahiers du Cinema affects whether I go to see The Simpsons Movie this weekend or not. If some esoteric critiques on blogs are currently louder on Google than an accessible and welcoming voice, the problem is the lack of that accessible voice, not that we are critiquing each other’s work in the meantime. (That accessible voice is a much more important endeavor, of course – hey, come help us! – but a little inside-baseball is unharmful IMO.)

  21. “The result is that flawed, weak games make it onto the shelves of stores and onto the tables of gamers.”

    I think this is the part that gets me. I think I’d like to see a few examples of which games the Owlbear group flawed and weak. That would let me know pretty quickly whether I would put any stock into the opionions of this site.


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