Blog Post

Do Zero Punctuation Video Game Reviews Influence Video Game Sales?

escapist-review-of-braidIt’s been over a year since Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw was plucked from YouTube obscurity to host Escapist Magazine’s Zero Punctuation video series, and the acid-tongued Brit with the surreal, machine gun patter remains the undisputed star of game reviews, with regular appearances on G4 TV, at the Game Developers Conference, and more. But does his massive fan base buy the games he loves (which are few), and skip the titles he hates (nearly all of them)?

[digg=]Depends on who you ask. Here’s a case study on the relation between an online video celebrity and the consumer behavior of his fans:

Croshaw recently gave a rare rave to indie art game darling Braid, available on Xbox Live’s download service. (Conquering its mind-bending challenges, he memorably noted, is “a more satisfying feeling than teabagging a hundred noobs in any deathmatch shooter you care to name.”) But did his fans follow his advice with their dollars?

“I don’t see any real case for Zero Punctuation increasing sales by a lot,” Braid designer Jonathan Blow told me, after checking his game’s Xbox Live purchase stats. Looking at the period when Croshaw’s review went online, he added, “There definitely isn’t a visible sales spike or anything like that.”

painkiller-amazon-salesThat isn’t the full story, however. Last May, Croshaw effusively praised Painkiller, a somewhat obscure, hyperviolent first-person shooter from 2004; a pull-quote from the review (“All you really need to know is there is a gun that shoots shurikens and lightning”) showed up as an ad on Steam, the game download service, generating big gamer acclaim. On Amazon, sales of the old game immediately jumped 7,400 percent.

Yahtzee’s impact in this case was so notable, Escapist publisher Alexander Macris even cites it in the company’s marketing brochure, to demonstrate the site’s reach and influence. “As I’m sure you know,” he told me, “media companies are always fighting to prove audience engagement and relevance.” As to the comparative lack of consumer engagement after his Braid review, Macris speculates that the game “was already a breakthrough hit by the time Yahtzee reviewed it, while Painkiller was a lesser-known title that was given a new look based on his review.”

Maybe. My personal guess is that Croshaw’s audience is overwhelmingly comprised of gamers who enjoy the vulgar smack talk in his reviews, which are almost always of hardcore titles from established genres, but no matter what he says, are less interested in experimental games without the usual rock ’em sock ’em conventions. That would be a sad irony, given Yahtzee’s passionate advocacy of games as an art form. But then, that’s generally the challenge of online video stardom — once your fans decide why they like you, it’s difficult to stray outside their expectations.

Image credits: Amazon screengrab courtesy of Escapist.

28 Responses to “Do Zero Punctuation Video Game Reviews Influence Video Game Sales?”

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  2. Braid’s release was the main reason I bought a factory refurbished XBOX 360 last month, rather than waiting until late next year. My computer teacher brought in his machine and put it up on the projector. Yahtzee panned Castle Crashers, so I didn’t purchase the full version. If he’d disliked Braid, I wouldn’t have an XBOX right now.

    … I guess that means that his review made me comfortable with a purchase I was already going to make?

    His reviews have helped put in perspective how many times I’ve been burned in the past, but I also want to see the new stuff coming out, so I’ve become a habitual renter at Blockbuster.

    I expect that current sales won’t be affected much one way or the other. I’m looking for two things to come out of his reviews:

    One: Positively reviewed games will, a few months past release, be being grabbed off the shelves of used game stores at a much higher rate than otherwise.

    Two: His reviews will be played and dissected by the Game Design classes of the future, affecting (one way or the other) what kind of games they put their time behind. I mean, its a bit like the effect the Evil Overlord list has on writers, right?

  3. Or maybe he’s aware that game reviews have the potential to be more of an opinion-based dialogue rather than the jargon-filled consumer recommendations they usually boil down to. Croshaw is a darling of videogame review because he’s one of the only people doing what other media have had almost since their inception, ie providing actual criticism rather than mere review. Perhaps his thousands of views suggest that people are interested in hearing people talk about games as creative product rather than just giving them a score between 7 and 10 and telling them to buy it.

    I venture to suggest that an exploration of the commercial viability of such an approach is rather missing the point, unless you’re talking about whether he’s increased traffic for the people who pay him.

  4. Angry1541


    Ya, I bought Psychonauts based on his review also–any review that claims that a modern game brings as much enjoyment as gaming back in the C64 days convinces me.

  5. creatorswhim

    Perhaps the gamers who watch Zero Punctuation don’t own XBox 360s, (I sure don’t) or perhaps those who do already bought Braid. (seeing as they are paying attention to reviews)

    In any case, everyone who watches Zero Punctuation has access to a PC, and as the Yahtzee sold Painkiller as a best-of-generation FPS (a genre that has been mined into extinction recently) rather than a cute, fun puzzle game for a console that not everyone has, maybe the markets for these two games are incredibly different.

  6. You know, I absolutely love watching Zero Punctuation, and I held my breath, and couldn’t wait for him to rip apart Fable 2, which I had just beaten twice, and for the most part I liked. Yahtzee is exactly the same as any other gamer, like my husband or his best friend, or my brother. After beating a game they can have it ripped to shreds in ten seconds, and generally all of their arguments are true.

    But do they stop playing? Of course not. And those same titles that they bash for not being up to their expectations they keep buying. (Note Yahtzee’s love for the Silent Hill series….)

    So a good review might make a difference, but people watch Zero Punctuation so that they can hear someone else say all the things they were thinking while they beat the game, and that’s basically it.

  7. anonymous

    I like his reviews, but his review of the witcher was made it seem like i did not want to play it. I eventually bought the game and i love it. His reviews prolly due because ppl are stupid

  8. I know I bought Psychonauts after hearing his review. It was right when I discovered the site and I figured if this crazy bastard liked anything it was probably goddamn awesome. This philosophy has served me well. Not buying things he trashes would make it impossiable to actually have any video games, but I do avoid things he really wails on. If he calls it out on story or retarded mechanics, I usually avoid.

  9. As other’s have said he is guilty of hypocrisy when he rehashes the same format over and over again in his reviews. But it’s funny, and enjoyable.

    If I wanted to buy something I would regardless of his review. However, if he really panned something I was intending to buy I might at least spend some time getting other views before splashing the cash.

    No he rarely likes anything, but then most publishers put out crap 99% of the time.. and it’s very rare that there is a game that is universally lauded.

    As an old hand at both playing and writing games, and doing the latter because I too am looking for that Nirvana game… he tells me what I have already guessed about most games before even looking at them.

    Zero Punctuation is entertainment. Childish, obscene and repetitive, but damn enjoyable.

    More power to the dick wad IMO!

  10. Brain couldn’t have gotten any more sales from Yahtzee’s review than from anyone else’s. Braid’s metacritic score was already the highest on 360 in months, so his also-positive review couldn’t pursuade anyone who didn’t already read a review on other sites. For Painkiller, sure, because of its obscurity.

    All you guys arguing about the quality of the reviews, recall that all reviews are opinions, and be thankful that Yahtzee doesn’t go to all the trouble everyone else does to pretend that they are more than that. I watch his reviews mostly just for the entertainment.

  11. Not sure if anyone else pointed this out, but the key difference between ‘Braid’ and ‘Painkiller’ is that Braid is a recent and already-popular game, while Painkiller is an old game that wasn’t well known. A popular review forum like Zero Punctuation would likely have an effect in re-invigorating interest in Painkiller, but there’s not a lot of room to move in the former scenario. The constraints of Xbox live (compared to PC) might have had something to do with it as well.

  12. I like Yahtzee’s reviews. sometimes I disagree with his POV and sometime I don’t. I am not a zombie and have my own POV for liking a game. even when it does have the warts that reviewers point out. for example, I like dark sector, they game has some very annoying control issues and some gameplay flaws ( damn killing moves get in the way more than I would like and can be repetitious ) but, there is something appealing about it to me.

  13. Or braid actually did receive the yahtzee bump. But Jonathan Blow has such a humongous ego that he refuses to admit any of his sales can be attributed to anything other than his astounding genius. (Ironically by the transitive property that would be the case if he acknowledged the yahtzee effect.

  14. spoonyfork

    “I watched two of Yahtzee’s reviews, and i realized… all his reviews are the same. he NEVER LIKES ANYTHING.”

    Maybe that’s because most of the games out there are crap. Video games are a lot like movies. Hundreds are released every year but only one or two are actually any good. And by good I mean from the pure aesthetic, not by popularity or hype. Although most good games tend to be quite popular but not all popular games are in fact good. You know what I mean.

  15. I like how he shows the negative side of games more than the positive. Some negative things I dont mind but others are deal breakers. It helps me sort through! Most normal reviews gloss over the negative parts, which every game has.

  16. It actually didn’t seem like he especially liked Braid. I must say I was more interested in checking out Painkiller after he mentioned it, as I never heard of it before. I find your generalization of his viewers to be incorrect as I defiantly see the potential for games as an art form and feel very disappointed when I buy a game who’s story is lacking.

  17. I bought The Witcher thanks to his review. Yes he did bash it for being a mmorphuger but when the guy finds something he likes about a game it is usually amazing.

    I was quite satisfied with the game.

  18. Fishlicious

    I watched two of Yahtzee’s reviews, and i realized… all his reviews are the same. he NEVER LIKES ANYTHING. well… never’s not quite accurate, i guess the article above mentions 2 games he liked, but really, when all he can say about a game is how much he hates it, it gets old real fast. When he hates it, he doesn’t mention any redeeming features of the game in question, and in fact, turns his reviews into the very same class of “boring same old same old” crap that he accuses the games he reviews of.

  19. I enjoy Zero Punctuation reviews, but as a long time gamer, I see them as telling me what I already know in a new and interesting way.

    I did buy Braid based on his review however.