The Value (or not) of Video Game Ratings ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Remember reading game review articles in retro computer magazines and seeing a summary rating at the end listing evaluation scores distributed across several categories of game attributes? They usually included evaluation of various elements such as graphics, sound, gameplay, etc.  The reviewer typically also included an overall score or rating for the game a a whole.

While online and print articles containing video game descriptions, walkthroughs and ratings can be interesting and useful tools for the potential video game purchaser, they are not without their flaws.

Surely I can’t be suggesting the possibility of a perfect video game rating system can I? Nope. Although I think we should be able to come pretty close. (Believe it or not).

What are the challenges when it comes to rating video games? Well the obvious answer would probably be the subjectivity that is involved. However, there are several factors to consider when rating a video game and even those factors will hold different importance for different people. What make one person love a game that another person absolutely despises and how can one rating system possibly work for a multitude of people - let alone everyone?

Luckily, video game ratings are rarely unaccompanied by a descriptively worded review outlining the various features and attributes of a game. Video reviews often even include a real-time walk-through showing the game actually being played.

So then, what is the usefulness of rating systems at all when we could simply rely on the detailed review in either print or video form? That’s a good question. One answer may be that it is quicker to just glance at the game rating summary rather than reading or watching an entire review. But are we ever really in that big of a hurry to buy a game that we can’t take the time to examine the review? Or, at least absorb enough information to be able to form a decision on whether or not to buy the game? Doubtful.

Perhaps the game rating is useful for being able to quickly compare one game with another to determine which reviews we want to read? Or maybe the rating allows us to hone in on games that are considered worthy by a particular reviewer whose opinion we trust?

Regardless of the actual usefulness or raison d’être for any game rating system, what are the aspects that could (or possibly should) be evaluated when rating a particular game?


This is one category that should actually be able to be evaluated somewhat objectively.  Although the quality of the graphics usually has absolutely nothing to do with how fun a game is to play, there are certain aspects of the game graphics that can be observed easily by a trained (or even novice) observer.  How many colors and shades of colors are utilized and how well are they implemented considering the hardware limitations of the platform? 

Remember the infamous color/attribute clash issue of the original Spectrum computers? (of course you do - how could you not?).  Some clever programmers were able to minimize the effect of color clash significantly by using techniques such as carefully position graphical elements in precise locations on the screen and designing the characters with this issue in mind (for example, putting a character's body parts in different screen locations that wouldn't clash. Other less diligent programmers were happy to let their game characters gleefully prance around the screen at will while clashing with the background with every step.

Other graphics attributes can be evaluated also. Are the characters well detailed or blocky? Is the pixel art done skillfully using shadow effects and smooth animations?  Are the colors combined in a pleasing manner or are they eye-burningly garish?  

With the Spectrum Next sporting triple AY sound chips there are no more excuses for producing games with ear-bleedingly brain numbing Manic Miner-esque soundtracks.  While everyone has different opinions and taste when it comes to music it is fairly easy to accurately evaluate whether the in-game music and sound effects of a particular game are impressive or lame.

What is playability? Well, it means exactly that. Is the game able to be played effectively the way it was intended? Do the characters and game elements behave in a predictable way?  Are the controls responsive or sluggish? Is the collision detection spot on or do you find yourself repeatedly saying "Hey, I'm sure my bullet hit that monster!".  Does the game crash easily and for no apparent reason? All these factors and more can determine how playable a game is which is a very important element in determining how fun a game is to play.


Addictiveness is a measure of how much enjoyment a player would experience playing the game for the very first time.  Would they be bored or frustrated and give up after a short time or would they find the game to be completely and utterly engrossing and so addictive that they are motivated to  it to the very end.  If the latter is the case, they may even have a desire to play the game again once they have completed it the first time, which is dependant on another factor called "Replayability" as we will discuss next.

This is an often (or always) overlooked quality when it comes to rating games.  Who cares about replayability? if you want to play the game again after you've already finished it - go ahead, right?  Wrong. Replayability can contribute greatly to the value of a game.  Unlike a movie which is exactly the same each time you watch it - a video game has the unique potential to implement a replayability factor.  The game (or programmer rather) dictates what will be presented to the player each time it is executed. If the game incorporates no random elements and presents itself in exactly the same way to the player every time, then the only replayabitly factor is just the enjoyment the player may get by repeating the same experience.

It is interesting to note that some games are designed in such a way as to have inherent replayability built into their makeup.  Take games like space invaders, missile command, pac-man, and any host of other similar arcade style games.  Replayability in action games is much more forgiving as the player is expecting an arcade element that theoretically can be extended forever with infinite levels of similar action. The maze in pac-man for example doesn't ever really need to change in order for the game to be replayable since the whole point of the game is to see how long you can last. The whole maze is presented on the screen at the start of each game so there is no element of mystery in trying to figure out which way to go. It's just a matter of using your joystick skills to the best of their abilities to prolong your life and gaming enjoyment as long as possible. 

Adventure style games are very well suited for implementing random game elements such as not knowing what you will find inside the next chest or who lies waiting for you behind that door.  

Even puzzle games can be made replayable by implementing an arcade element to them. Since even once you have solved the puzzle and know the solution, the arcade element (if implemented properly) ensures there is no guarantee that you will actually have the skill to solve each level on every attempt.

So what type of game would garner a low score for replayability? Put simply, a game where most of the enjoyment experienced while playing the game comes from solving puzzles and/or discovering the answers to mysteries where the answers never change. A game of “guess the number” for example would have zero replayability if you knew the answer was always 7. Even puzzle/strategy games such and chess, checkers, tic-tac-toe or even Risk (all of which would normally be considered inherently infinitely replayable by their very nature) would be rendered un-replayable if the computer opponent played with exactly the same strategy every time.  Once you know the computer opponents strategy and how to beat it the game would quickly lose its challenge and appeal.

User Friendliness

This is a category you won't find in game ratings, but it is one that can contribute greatly to the overall enjoyment the user experiences while interacting with the game.  You will notice I said "interacting with" the game as opposed to "playing" the game, with the latter being limited solely to the interactions during the gameplay phase.

Ever game consists of some user interaction outside of the actual gameplay itself. These include things like the loading screen (if applicable), welcome screen, startup menu, configuration menu, in-game interactions and even entering the players name or initials into a high score table.

Who cares about user friendliness as long as the game is fun to play?  You may not care about it if your sole consideration is the quality of the actual gameplay but the user interaction of a game is worth considering and should have a rating of its own.

Let's take some examples.  

Instructions: Is the game intuitive enough that you can just start playing without reading any instructions or does it include intricacies that are of vital importance in order to have any success playing the actual game? I'm not talking about a printed instruction manual (either a booklet included with a physical game or an online instruction sheet). Any instructions needed to play the game should be included within the menus of the game itself in the form of a selectable menu item or better yet a tutorial or in-game hints that can be disabled.  The player should not be forced to read instructions, back story (or even game credits for that matter) on the startup screen every time they play the game.  If we really want to know who composed the soundtrack or designed the sprites we can click on a "Credits" menu selection. They could also be put in a pause routine when the player has left the startup screen sitting for a period of time without any input.  

Game options: The game should provide options to make reasonable adjustments to common settings before you play the game. Some of these would include adjusting or disabling in-game music, re-defining the keys, controller selection and difficulty settings.

Contols: Does the game provide options for different controllers to be used or are you forced to use the keyboard? If the latter is the case there should at least be an option to re-configure the keys.

In-game experience: Sometimes the game itself may have annoying features that fail to show consideration for the player.  Extremely long load time between levels? Sections that are too difficult? Un-solvable puzzles with no hints? Lack of in-game save points requiring the entire level to be re-played and completed in one shot?

As is the subject of another article on this site, the player deserves to be shown consideration rather than being forced to experience the game the way the programmer sees fit. The whole point of video games is that they are an interactive medium which means - the player has control!  While there are always limits that dictate what a player will experience while playing a particular game, the programmer should strive to provide the player with as enjoyable a gaming experience as possible which includes giving them reasonable customization options.

Category Weightings

Although the individual attributes, features and qualities of a game can be evaluated and assigned a rating score (albeit subjective), how do you combine those individual category ratings into an overall game rating?

Should each category simply be weighted equally with the overall game rating being simply an average of the individual category ratings? Is this a fair way to do it? Suppose there are 6 categories for a particular game being reviewed - 5 of which having been rated at 5 joysticks (or stars or what have you) and the 6th category being given a rating of zero (yes, there should always be a zero option) due to a catastrophic and unforgivable oversight - such as the game not running at all. The equally weighted average overall rating for this game would be 25 out of a potential 30 joysticks which translates to a rating of 83.3 % for this non-playable game. Based on just the overall rating you may be more than happy to plunk down your hard earned cash for a game with an 83% rating with the anticipation of enjoying a pretty decent gaming experience. How decent is a game that doesn’t run at all and how much would you be willing to pay for it? I hope you answered “crappy” and “zilch”.

While this may (or may not be) an extreme example, you see the dilemma. Ok, so an evenly rated average is obviously not the ideal solution. How about a weighted average with each category being rated differently? Um, who decides what level of importance should be assigned to each category? The reviewer? Suppose the reviewer doesn’t give a hoot if the game even runs as long as the graphics are stunning?

Well how about if we just add up the total for all categories and convert that result into a percentage overall rating? Possibly but the un-playable game may still receive a high rating using this system. A more useful system may be for the overall rating to be shown not as a percentage but a general appraisal based on the reviewers overall opinion of the game as a whole. In this way a game with high marks in most categories would still be given a low rating due to one or more un-forgivable faults.

Still, maybe the reviewer absolutely loves the repetitive droning in-game background music that can’t be disabled whereas you can’t stand it. Once again the spectre of subjectivity rears its ugly retro head. Unless you and the reviewer happen to share exactly the same taste in game elements, their rating for any particular game may not be of much use for you.

So it’s obvious we can’t get away from subjective in video game ratings but, aside from just eliminating them altogether. So, what’s the answer?

Power to the people
I believe the answer to providing truly useful video game ratings is by having them reviewed and rated by as many people as possible. I would say this is comparable to the system used by a certain online shopping colossus (named after a rapidly depleting rain forest), but we all know that particular resource is rampant with fake reviews.

Remember the good old days when Netflix shows were accompanied by percentage ratings based on submissions made by real people? Now that was useful. While the ratings were still subjective, they were generally a somewhat accurate indication of the true quality of the show since they represented an aggregate of opinions from a cross section of the viewing public. You automatically felt confident passing up shows with low ratings (unless you have a unique appreciation for poor production value titles) because you had a fair idea of what to expect.

There is no reason the same system can’t be used for rating (and reviewing) video games. A central online portal for submissions (or one that extract data from other portals) is all that would be required. You probably already have a pretty good idea of how you opinion about certain things (movies, music, games, etc) compares with the majority of the public at large.

It takes a village to raise a child and (in my opinion) it takes a community to rate a game.

But how about the individual reviewer wanting to provide a written or online rating for a game? How about putting out a request for rating and review submissions from the public before divulging their own rating? At the very least they would then be able to show how their rating and review compares to the summary of the submissions they received. The alternative is to continue with the status quo of relying on the wholly subjective evaluations of individual reviewers.  While game ratings produced by individual reviewers may posses some usefulness as a general benchmark, the real value of these evaluations may be in the informative and entertaining nature of the descriptive analysis of the accompanying review.

Oh, and be sure to keep an eye out for game reviews to start appearing soon on this site - accompanied by our own rating system of course 😉

- Spriteworx Team