Reviewing Reviews: A Guide to Helpful Reviewing Practices

Wednesday, May 13, 2020
I'd like to talk a bit about my views and opinions on reviewing products like games and books, from my perspective as someone who has written a lot of reviews and also designed and developed a lot of products and books. This shouldn't be read as a chastisement or argument, it's just me talking about the things I do and don't find helpful in a review, and why I feel that way. So let's get into it.

Why Are Reviews Important?

If you spend much time around creatives (virtually or in person), it's likely that the topic of reviews will come up. This is because there's often no better marketing tool than word of mouth, and reviews posted on a product page are one of the most visible ways that word of mouth happens. A product with bad reviews will probably still sell more copies than a product with no reviews at all, if only because people are going to get curious about whether or not the product could actually be that bad. Sure, bad reviews will ultimately shorten the sales life of the product and might have other repercussions, but at least people are talking about the product and, hopefully, providing the creator with some insights on how to make the next product better.

Some Reviews are Better Than Others

If you ask a product creator about reviews, they'll generally encourage you to write one whether or not you liked the product and regardless of your intended rating. This is largely for the reasons mentioned above, and because content creators don't want to scare off potential reviewers. There's a relatively small portion of any given customer base who are inclined to write reviews in the first place, and the people who are inclined to write reviews skew towards the negative, which is just human nature. But the reality is that there are some reviews that are actually helpful and some that aren't; contrary to what you might assume, the difference between a valuable review and a review that is less helpful has very little to do with the actual rating and a lot to do with the content of the review itself.

Less Helpful Reviews

Reviews that are less helpful to content creators are reviews that don't contain any actionable information or descriptions. A 5-star review that says "Loved it, great product!" lets the creator know that someone appreciated their work, which is nice, but it doesn't tell them what they did right or what they should be replicating to make more products that people will enjoy. Similarly, a 1-star review that says "Hated it, absolute garbage" is also not terribly helpful, since it lets the product creator know that someone didn't like their product, but not why or what the content creator could improve on. A good review has actionable data, so let's talk a bit about what that means next.

Actionable Data

Knowing whether the reviewer considers a product good or bad is a start, and some might say the foundation of a review, but it shouldn't be the destination. The more information you include in your review about why you did or did not like it, the more valuable the review is going to be to the content creator. Saying "I disliked this product because I felt the product was poorly written or edited" is stronger than "I disliked the product", and "I disliked this product because I noticed frequent errors in grammar and spelling throughout and I felt the difficulty of doing the things the product wanted me to do was too high for the experience I was hoping for" is stronger still. The more detail and explanation you include in your review, the more valuable it is to the content creator and anyone considering purchasing the product. From a personal perspective, I won't factor any review that doesn't include specific details about how the reviewer arrived at their rating into my decisions to buy a product; I don't care that your grandma and brother thought your product was great any more than I care that some slack-jawed racist thought your product was "standard SJW crap".

Facts and Opinions

Strong reviews are high on facts, low on opinions, and include a clear statement from the reviewer about their biases. This can be a hard thing for a potential reviewer to execute well, because many people aren't aware of their inherent biases and may feel that their opinions are facts. Self-awareness is a big component here and it's not necessarily something people will know how to advertise unless they spend a lot of time talking to a diverse group of people and reading other reviews by experienced reviewers. It will always be a work in progess task for a potential reviewer, but the better you become at it, the stronger and more useful your reviews will be for potential purchasers and content creators alike. Some examples for reference-
  • "This adventure was too hard and the writer didn't know what they were doing" is a less valuable review. The reviewer hasn't explained why the adventure was too hard, and by attacking the writer directly they're telling that person that they (the reviewer) are a jerk and thus their opinion is one the reader should put less stock in.
  • "My group thought this adventure was too difficult for the following reasons" followed by a detailed list of the reasons (such as "the enemies were too high level", "the particular composition of the enemies was unusually challenging for a group of our composition [then describe the group composition]", or "the organization of this adventure made it difficult for me to understand how to run it") is a stronger review that can make it clear to potential purchasers why the reviewer thought the product was subpar so that they can draw their own conclusions, and it conveys to the writer where they failed to hit the mark for the reviewer.

It's also extremely helpful to clarify what some of your personal stances are as you launch into a review, particularly if that review is going to give a particularly high (e.g. 5/5 stars) or low (1/5 stars) rating.

Disclosing Your Bias

To disclose your bias, you need to know what your biases are, and as previously mentioned, that can be difficult. Biases are typically developed environmentally, and they're a part of how you think that you may not recognize as being a variable across a wide group of people. Some examples of biases in the context of tabletop RPG adventures-

  • "I don't like 'railroad' adventures." It might surprise some reviewers to realize that this is a bias, but it really is. For every 1 person out there who just hates it when they realize that the adventure is pointing them in a specific direction, there's at least two more who appreciate having clear directions on where to go and what to do. What this tends to come down to is a difference in preference between stories with clearly defined plot points and "sandbox" adventures where the players determine what the story is and where it goes. Acknowledging your preference for one type of adventure over the other helps contextualize your review for the reader so they can determine whether they might share or disagree with your opinion (in the case of a potential purchaser) or let the content creator know that they might benefit from better advertising the target audience for the adventure.
  • "I prefer high fantasy power games / high lethality 'gritty' games." Some people just want to feel like Big Damn Heroes for a couple hours, swashing a few buckles, rescuing a few damsels or dudes, and punching a few dragons in the snout. Other people want a dangerous adventure where any of the characters might die at any time to a couple bad dice rolls and the setting itself assumes that the heroes aren't much different than someone from the real world. Both types of gamers are often buying their products from the same source, so specifying which type of game you prefer will help content creators and potential purchasers decide how your review should influence their decisions.
  • "Political" Inclinations. This is a potentially difficult subject, so I'm going to keep it short and sweet. If someone's product includes queer representation, or skews heavily towards POC, or anything else that basically comes down to representation of a minority group, they probably did it on purpose and if they didn't, it's because their worldview doesn't see those people and that representation as abnormal. Every time some reviewer dabs the tears from their eyes with their neckbeard and laments how "their" hobby is being ruined by "SJW propaganda", the content creators are probably smiling to themselves knowing that every person turned away by the review is a toxic community member they don't have to deal with, who will almost certainly be replaced by two or three more people who respect the author's vision and bought the product specifically because of the representation included therein. So to everyone bitching about "SJW propaganda" while stamping a 1-star review on a product, thank you. You're the best marketing TTRPGs have gotten since the Satanic Panic of the 80s told rebellious youths that the best way to rebel was to play Dungeons & Dragons.
  • Length of Play. Some people like long games (a year or more of regular weekly sessions), some people like short games (1 to 4 hours of content played in a single session). If you have a preference here and your rating of the product will be affected by that preference, you should mention it somewhere in your review, preferably towards the beginning.
So, at this point this probably feels like a lot. You might even be thinking "Oh man, maybe I just shouldn't write reviews since I don't feel like I'm 'good enough' to do them right." Please don't feel that way, and please don't let it be your takeaway. If the only thing you have the inclination to do is a star rating and one or two sentences about your general inclinations towards the product, do that. Something is better than nothing. But if you're looking to improve the value your reviews bring to a community, consider some of the points above and maybe even see what other reviewers are doing. I'll cap this off with some links to some reviewers I think do a great job of reasoned reviews where they talk about the pros and cons of the product while making their personal preferences pretty clear up front.
Who are your favorite reviewers? Who do you look to for advice on your gaming purchases? What kind of info do you look for in a review? Thinking about the answers to these questions can help you become a better reviewer whose reviews help a larger portion of your community.