Flaw #3 with review scores: the aggregate

In my previous two posts in this series, I discussed a couple reasons why review scores from individual sources can be problematic.  But what happens when the scores from all the different sources are aggregated to create a single, average score?  Fortunately, in most cases, the effects of the problems tend to cancel out rather than compound, so aggregate scores are a little more trustworthy than individual scores.  There are still a few problems, however, that deserve mentioning.

When averaging a bunch of different scores, aside from knowing the grand average, it is also important to have a sense of the distribution.  Metacritic does a good job of this by providing a “Metascore” along with a list of all the individual review scores in order from highest to lowest, but unfortunately it doesn’t calculate the standard deviation (a quantitative measure of the spread) of the scores.  Knowledge of the distribution is important for understanding how much reviewers agree or disagree on the merits and shortcomings of a game.  If the distribution is narrow, then the reviewers pretty much agree on how good or bad the game is; on the other hand, if the distribution is wide, then the reviews are more of a mixed bag.  This can be particularly significant for games scoring in the 70-85% range, which tend to fall into two main categories:  fundamentally mediocre and love-it-or-hate-it.  Simply looking at the average scores is not enough to make the distinction.

Another problem with aggregate scores is the need to convert individual scores to a common scale.  Both GameRankings and Metacritic use simple formulas to convert letter and numerical scores into percentages, but these formulas prove to be problematic once you realize that two different scores which convert to the same percentage may not have the same meaning.  For example, a 50% from one site might mean average, whereas a 50% at a different site could mean failing.  Trying to compare those two scores based on the numbers alone is like comparing apples to oranges.  It doesn’t work.

One last thing to be aware of when dealing with aggregate scores is how the average scores are calculated.  Are they just straight-up averages?  Are they weighted averages (and if so, how are the weights assigned)?  Are the highest and lowest scores dropped before computing the averages?  This may be a more subtle point, but the more information you have the better.  You don’t want to use numbers that you don’t understand when making your next video game purchase.

While aggregate review scores are less susceptible to some of the flaws found in the scores issued by individual reviewers, there are still a few things to keep in mind when working with them.  Just remember that you can never get all of the information you need to make an informed purchase with only a single number.

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Don’t throw away your old gaming magazines!

Are your old gaming magazines taking up too much space and collecting dust?  If so, consider one of the following options before dumping them in the trash.

Sell: If you have some particularly rare and/or collectible issues, it might be worth your time to sell them for a few quick bucks.  Generally speaking, though, there’s not much money to be made by selling old magazines.  You can’t use media mail to ship them (since media mail is not for items containing advertising, and that’s mostly what gaming magazines are), so shipping costs will eat into any possible profits very quickly.

Donate: Libraries, schools, churches, charities, shelters, and hospitals are all worthy places to donate your magazines that you don’t read anymore.  (Always ask before unloading a ton of mags, though.)  If you know someone who’s a doctor, dentist, or someone else with a waiting room in their office, they might be interested in supplementing their stash of old issues of Good Housekeeping, Time, and Popular Science.  You could even ask around your neighborhood or post an ad on Craigslist.  You’re sure to find someone who won’t say no to some free magazines.

Clip: This is for if you’re torn (no pun intended) between saving your magazines and getting rid of them.  Go through the magazines and cut out the articles that you want to save or you think you might read again.  If you want to keep a record of the magazines you own, you can save the covers and discard the rest.  Another thing you can do is clip out the ads for games you like.  These make great mini-posters to decorate your game room with.  (A quick note:  once a magazine has been clipped, it is no longer considered “readable.”  Donating clipped magazines is usually seen as offensive rather than generous.)

Recycle: Once you clip your magazines, or if you can’t get rid of them by other means, do your part for the environment and recycle them.  It’s up to you whether you want to use them as coasters or dump them in the blue bin, but don’t just trash them.

What to do about games that smell

I can’t remember the last time I’ve walked into a store selling used video games that didn’t have a foul odor.  If you’ve ever been in a GameStop, I’m sure you know what I’m talking about – that mix of body odor, cigarette smoke, and several other unidentifiable smells, which sits stagnant in the store with no ventilation.  If you trade games online or buy them on eBay, you get “treated” to a sample of whatever the other person’s house smells like.  No matter where you go, you just can’t buy a used game that doesn’t smell.

So what can you do about it?  In my experience, replacing the case gets rid of most of the smell 99% of the time.  The discs (or carts) and instructions are generally protected from the outside environment, so they usually don’t carry much of the smell.  That’s why I usually keep some spare new cases lying around.  If you don’t have empty new cases, sometimes it helps to leave the malodorous game in a well ventilated room.  This works best when the smell is relatively mild.  Otherwise, remove the game, instructions, and cover artwork from the case and soak it in warm, soapy water.  Make sure to use a neutral scented soap unless you want your games smelling like lemon or aloe vera.

Clearing your backlog

One problem many of us gamers have is that we buy games faster than we can play through them.  It all begins with that first game that we start but never have the time to finish.  Then we move on to a different game, but it also falls by the wayside and we never finish it.  As new games keep coming out, our attention gets diverted from one game to the next and before long, we have a whole bunch of games that are unfinished or, even worse, unopened.  Since I tend to buy games whenever I can find a decent sale, I’m guilty of owning more than just a few games still sitting untouched inside their shrinkwrap.

Backlogs are unhealthy for a number of reasons.  Not only do they collect dust and clutter your collection, but they also tie up your financial resources so that you don’t have money to spend on other games that you’ll actually play (or other important things in life, such as food).  Even worse, video games depreciate fairly rapidly (see this article), so your backlog actually costs you money.

Not too long ago, my backlog was getting to be unwieldy.  I literally had more sealed games than opened games.  I finally decided that it was time to start trimming my collection and eliminating my backlog.  I’ve been pretty successful so far, and I thought I’d share some tips that I found to be incredibly helpful.

Admit that you have a backlog.  The first step to solving any problem is being able to recognize the problem, and backlogs are no different.  You can tell yourself until you’re blue in the face that you’ll eventually get around to beating that one game, but if you haven’t touched it in five years and probably won’t touch it again for at least another five years, you aren’t doing yourself any favors.  Once you can admit to yourself that you have a backlog, you can work on getting rid of it.

Identify the games you dislike.  This is an easy first step and might be all it takes to reduce your backlog to a more manageable level.  Go through all of your games and pick out the ones that you did not enjoy for whatever reason.  For each one, decide whether or not you’re willing to give it a second chance.  Did you just get stuck at one part and got so frustrated that you gave up?  If so, maybe leave the game in your collection for now.  Or did you find the entire story and gameplay unappealing?  If that’s the case, there’s no hope of you ever finishing the game, so get rid of it.  It has no place in your collection.

Determine your needs.  What is your priority – free space or money (or something else)?  If your primary concern is clearing up some space, then you’ll want to trim as much as you can from your collection.  If you’re short on cash, then you might only need to get rid of a couple high-valued items.  Or, if you have some other need, figure out the best way to achieve it.

Write and follow rules for getting rid of games.  No exceptions.  If you try to go through your games first without having a set of rules to follow, you’ll find a reason for each game to keep it in your collection, and you’ll have made absolutely no progress in eliminating your backlog.  Instead, before picking games to go, come up with a list of rules that will dictate whether a game stays or leaves.  For example, you may decide to get rid of any game that you haven’t played within the past year, or that sells for more than $10.  They’re your rules, so you can write them however you want.  The purpose of these rules is to allow you to be much more objective when deciding which games to sell.  If your rules say to get rid of a game, don’t try to formulate reasons for keeping the game – just get rid of it.

Change your habits.  Once you’ve made your backlog much more manageable, don’t go out and buy a bunch of games to fill it back up.  It’s like being on a diet – you can’t go back to your old habits and expect to keep the weight off.  Figure out what you need to do to keep your backlog from increasing again, whether it’s spending less money on new games or devoting more time to finish older games, or both.

5 tips for successfully trading games online

With retail used game stores offering pathetic trade-in values in the form of store credit and online marketplace sites charging hefty fees to list and sell items, it’s no wonder that many gamers are turning to online forums and other free community websites to unload their old games.  You often get the best value for your games, and you can get good deals on games that other users are offering.  It’s a win-win situation, but many potential trades fall by the wayside because the parties involved fail to click with each other.  Below are five tips to help improve your success with trading video games online.

1.  COMMUNICATE!!!  Many trades never happen because communication between the traders breaks down at some point.  Unlike in online stores, where transactions can occur without a word of communication between the buyers and sellers (the buyer clicks “Buy” and the seller ships the item), an open dialogue between trading parties is essential for any trade to take place in a forum.  With every trade there are three phases:  negotiation, exchange of goods, and feedback.  Negotiation involves detailing the terms of the trade (i.e., who trades what); exchange of goods is when the traders swap addresses and ship their games; and feedback allows the traders to conclude the exchange or address any problems that arose during the trade.  Timely and informative communication will ensure a successful and positive trading experience.

2.  Be realistic.  Don’t be of the mindset that you’ll only trade your games if you can get a stellar deal.  It’s always a recipe for disaster when two traders come together, each expecting to get the better end of the bargain.  Know the value of your games, know the value of the games you want, and try to come up with an arrangement that’s fair for both traders.  Lowballing (or offering substantially less than what an item is worth) just insults other traders, and expecting too much won’t get you anywhere in negotiations.  Trades are mutual agreements and should be mutually beneficial to everyone involved.

3.  Be friendly.  This should be a given, but you’d be surprised how many people think it’s OK to be picky, stingy, patronizing, or downright rude.  It never hurts to be friendly and have a positive attitude, and other traders will certainly appreciate your demeanor.

4.  Try to trade multiple games at once.  Traders always prefer to trade multiple games at once with the same trader rather than send individual games to multiple different traders.  It’s easier, more convenient, and costs less to ship.  If you plan on purchasing multiple games from the same person, you can often get a nice discount for saving them some hassle.

5.  Be safe.  Always, always, always purchase delivery confirmation for any packages that you ship (unless you personally know the recipient).  Without it, you have no proof that you ever mailed your games, and in forums where the members are all very close-knit, it is especially important to be able to defend your honesty and not be ostracized as a scammer.  Also, take special care when dealing with new users who lack any sort of reputation or traders offering deals that seem too good to be true.  The last thing you want is to be scammed and cheated out of your hard earned money and/or games.

Make money with shipping insurance on eBay

Many sellers on eBay fail to realize the profit potential from shipping insurance.  For the uninitiated, shipping insurance is a fee paid by the buyer for protection against lost or damaged packages.  At the time of this posting, the USPS’s insurance rates for small-value items such as video games range from around 3.6% (for a $60 game) to upwards of 8.5% (for games costing $20 or less).  I, personally, have never dealt with a lost package either as a buyer or seller, and judging from others’ experiences, I would guess conservatively that less than 0.5% packages (or 1 out of every 200) are lost.  That’s a pretty big disparity between the rates for insurance and lost packages, so why not capitalize on it?

Sellers who offer USPS insurance are giving up a precious opportunity to make some extra profit, and because they are forbidden to charge more than the USPS’s rate, they actually lose money due to Paypal fees (only a few cents, but still…).  Don’t be like those guys.  Instead, offer private insurance at a slightly lower cost.  You can use whatever fee structure you want – a tiered rate, a base price plus a percentage (e.g., $1+1%), etc.  Just make sure to outline all of your terms and conditions so that customers know exactly what they’re getting when they buy insurance from you.  If you can offer complete coverage for lost or damaged items along with lower prices and less (possibly zero) paperwork, you’ll make insurance a very attractive option for buyers.

WARNING:  By offering private insurance, you assume the risk for any lost or damaged items.  Therefore, there is a small chance that you will lose money, especially if you only sell a few items.  For example, if you sell 10 items, assuming that 0.5% of packages get lost, there is a 4.9% chance that at least one of your packages will be lost.  If you mainly sell small-ticket items, chances are that you could stomach the loss if an item goes MIA, so the risk would be worth the expected reward.  On the other hand, if the items you sell are usually worth hundreds of dollars and any loss could cripple you, private insurance might not be the best option for you.

How to grade the condition of your video game discs

When selling online, one of the keys to getting top dollar for your disc-based video games is being able to describe their condition accurately.  Overstate the condition and you’ll likely earn a bad reputation as a seller.  Understate the condition and buyers won’t pay as much.  The term “condition” actually refers to two separate things – completeness and disc quality.  We’ll start with completeness.

In general, a game is considered to be “complete” if it includes the game disc, instruction manual, original case (not a regular DVD case), and cover artwork.  For games that come in a jewel case, the cover artwork is usually referred to as the case insert(s).  If the standard retail version also includes something extra, such as a soundtrack CD or bonus DVD, then the extra item must be included for completeness.  In the case of multiple retail configurations, the leanest configuration (i.e., the one with the fewest things included) is used as the standard for completeness.  Generally speaking, however, the exclusion of certain documentation items (such as precaution manuals, advertisements, and registration cards) does not affect the completeness of a game.

In regard to disc quality, it seems as though everyone uses their own grading scale, and words such as “new” or “mint” have different definitions to different people.  I feel strongly that a more universal scale should be adopted in order to reduce confusion and ensure that buyers know exactly what they’re getting no matter where they shop.  I propose the following scale, which I have used for a long time and found to be very helpful whether I’m buying or selling:

New:  Brand new and factory sealed.  The disc has not been touched or inspected.

Like new:  The packaging has been opened, and the disc may have been inspected, tested, and/or played once or twice, but it looks no different than when it was first opened.

Mint:  The game has been used, but there are no readily visible scratches on the disc.  There may be one or two very small, very light scratches that can be seen only upon close inspection, but otherwise the disc looks perfect.  (For most games, this is the minimum acceptable condition for collectors.)

Excellent:  The disc has a few minor scratches, but they appear to be located within a small region.  In other words, the scratches aren’t all over the disc.

Good:  The disc has many scratches all over, but none that are real deep.

Fair:  There are deep scratches, scuffs, and/or minor cracks in the disc, but the game is still playable.

Poor:  The game is unplayable due to scuffs and scratches on the disc, but it could become playable after being resurfaced.

Beyond repair:  The game is unplayable and cannot be made playable again.

There are also a few special conditions worth noting.

Resurfaced:  The disc has been resurfaced with a low-end resurfacing machine (e.g., SkipDR) and has circular buffing marks all around it.  It may have been unplayable at one time but is playable now.

Professionally resurfaced:  This disc has been professionally resurfaced and may have some light buffing marks.

Former rental:  The disc was formerly used as a rental copy and may have permanent rental stickers on the top (label side).  It is usually implied that the disc is in fair condition.