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Polygon is updating its reviews program for 2018 — and saying farewell to scores

Video games have changed. It’s time we change with them.

Chris Plante co-founded Polygon in 2012 and is now editor-in-chief. He co-hosts The Besties, is a board member of the Frida Cinema, and created NYU’s first games journalism course.

Games have changed since we launched Polygon. We’re changing with them.

We believe that a new strategy, focusing on criticism and curation, will better serve our readers than the serviceable but ultimately limited reviews rubric that, for decades, has functioned as a load-bearing pillar of most game publications.

As part of this evolution, Polygon will no longer score reviews. (As some of you have noticed, we’ve been quietly and gradually rolling out this change over the summer.)

Scrapping review scores, while a big change on its surface, is just a small piece of our plan. We’ve put a lot of thought and effort into this decision and the changes that come with it. We want more opportunities to produce illuminating, witty and challenging criticism for an audience that enjoys thinking about games and their place in the world. We want to serve both tireless players who dedicate hundreds of hours to many games, and those of us who no longer have time to play any games but are no less passionate about the medium, still connecting with new releases and important updates through videos, essays, podcasts and social media conversations. We equally want our writers and video makers to experiment with how they analyze, criticize and recommend games, to push beyond the tired structure and language of review scores that has accumulated like verbal plaque.

At the same time, we recognize that review scores have served a purpose. We don’t see this decision as a stance against scores. They aren’t inherently bad; in fact, they can be very helpful in their efficiency! We don’t want to abandon or shame readers who traditionally rely on scores for their brevity and utilitarian function. Not everybody has the time to read 3,000 words about a new game, or even 300 about an old one. Or even the time to finish this paragraph.

Without scores, how can we serve readers who simply want to know if a game is worth their time and money, without all the friction of a full review?

Our solution is a program we’re calling Polygon Recommends.

To help readers who are short on time know what to play, we will now include the Polygon Recommends badge on essays about games that we strongly believe most of our readers should play (or watch). It is not a final verdict on a game, nor does it suggest we have played every moment of what the game has to offer. Instead, the Polygon Recommends badge is a statement that we’ve played enough of the game to feel comfortable putting our support behind it. When a game receives the badge, it will appear at the top of the essay, review or video.

Some games will receive it. Many won’t. (Here’s a list of 2018 games that will retroactively receive the award.) I’ll dig into greater detail in a moment, but first, here’s what the badge looks like.

[The design is by the incredibly talented Emily Haasch and Cory Schmitz, the latter of whom designed our site’s logo.]

Polygon Recommends helps us improve our criticism. We’re also launching a curation program that will further help you find the best old and new games to play — when, where and how you want, minimal effort required. We call these lists Polygon Essentials, and they have already begun with our rolling collection of the best games of 2018. If Polygon Recommends are the nominees, Polygon Essentials entries are the award winners, the games that we’ll be enjoying and talking about for years to come. Polygon Essentials lists will grow alongside the life cycle of a console. At launch, we’re publishing our Polygon Essentials lists for the best games on Nintendo Switch, with new lists arriving each Friday of this month.

A badge and some lists might sound like a laughably simple fix to a notoriously complex problem, and it sort of is! But sometimes the simple option is the right one.

The Polygon Recommends and Essentials programs free us to approach reviews with different intentions than we have in the past, to cover games in a fashion better suited to how we play and watch them in this moment.

Polygon launched in 2012. At that time, the retail model of the past — plastic discs in cardboard boxes on metal shelves — was being supplanted by a variety of new means of distribution that would inform how games are designed, monetized, updated and consumed. Early access and seasonal updates weren’t the norm yet, but they were coming, even if we couldn’t quite make out their form at the time.

Over the following five years and change, video games and their distribution models continued to evolve and splinter, influencing each other in the process. Polygon changed, too. I can’t say Polygon today looks like the site the co-founders envisioned six years ago. Frankly, the site is more vibrant, more diverse and more ambitious than whatever we conceptualized. With the permission from Vox Media’s leadership to experiment, we have shed the stifling expectations and limitations of a “video game site.”

Now, Polygon covers a nascent, hard-to-name culture, one that has been nurtured by people who love games and the best parts of their community, but extends in countless directions beyond it, from the fandom of superhero films to the financial viability of YouTube celebrity. Polygon is informative and unpredictable, silly and weird. I love it, but I’m totally biased.

Reviews, however, haven’t been allowed quite the same freedom as the rest of the site. Our reviews program was built expertly around the formal games review model, scores and all. While I appreciate that model, I, and the rest of the team, think it’s time we try something new, to free the staff and the many talented contributors to be as creative with reviews as we’ve been with news, features, videos and guides. The internet isn’t wanting for the old model; new outlets and YouTube channels offering traditional reviews sprout monthly, while others are besting us in terms of sheer ambition and creativity. We need to start taking risks of our own.

So: Goodbye, scores. And goodbye, expectations of what a review will be on Polygon.

What now? When a game is released, we may publish impressions of the early hours. We might highlight a small but unexpected detail. Maybe we’ll provide a guide to help you navigate the opaque opening moments. It’s likely we’ll publish something very similar to the classic review every now and then. For the games our audience cares about most, expect a hodgepodge of all these things and other ideas, too.

Games may be reviewed at different times by different authors over many years because games that launch today may look completely different four years from now. For example, a newcomer’s review of Rainbow Six Siege on the day it launches is important for early adopters and fans of the series. But a review of Rainbow Six Siege years later by somebody who has sunk hundreds of hours into competitive play serves a different and just as valid audience. Polygon can and should be a home to both of those approaches.

This isn’t an annihilation of our reviews program. You can still expect Polygon’s reviews to be sincere, fair and insightful. We will always be clear about what we’ve played of a game, on which platform and how we got access to code. The soul of the reviews program is healthy and strong, but now it’s free to inhabit an endless variety of bodies.

In the coming months, the Polygon Recommends badge and the Polygon Essentials curation program will expand to cover other facets of our site beyond video games. But for today, we begin the process of having fun, trying new things and discovering what a video game review can be in 2018. I’m sure it will be different next year. We’ll be different, too.