In what presents itself as a simple act of consumer courtesy — collecting reviews from various publications and issuing an average — Metacritic has changed the methodology publishers use in measuring a game’s success. It’s not strictly about sales anymore; the amalgamated review score is important enough that people have found themselves unemployed by missing the quota by merely one point. The quality of a game as determined by opinion, as an aggregated score, is so immeasurably powerful, it influences all facets of a game’s shelf life. Including developers’ jobs.
As an entity, Metacritic aggregates for all consumable media — music, TV, movies, and games — but only for the gaming industry does its score hold high regard. It’s now standard for publishers to account for Metacritic scores when hiring PR people, and new and innovative ideas are quickly denounced by publishers because the lack of precedence on Metacritic. Not only is the presence of the site stifling creativity and limiting the boundary for success, publishers are incredibly cautious even with established franchises.
The unfortunate thing is Metacritic isn’t at fault. It collects for other media as well as games, so to single it out as ruining the industry is unfair and not the right approach. However, its standards are questionable because it gathers reviews from every corner of the Internet — from trustworthy publications to small-time blogs (like Holygrenade!) which all practice ranging degrees of professionalism.
Released today, Forza Horizon is a perfect example. The current score sits comfortably at 86, a fact Turn 10 would love reiterated again and again, with 90s across the board. Even a perfect score from Giant Bomb. Metacritic also judges lesser-known sites like Game Over and Canadian Online Gamers. Though the score barely moved because those sites also registered positive scores.
By pooling these reviews together, we can determine Horizon is awesome according to reviewers. But where most consumers go wrong is staring at that number without understanding why Horizon received so well. That collective score negates the need for prospective buyers to read on about gameplay or other distinctive features, giving the assumption the game is worth purchasing. Hence why publishers care deeply about those two digits — the score now acts as the sole determinant for many, and this very situation is how rampant accusations of journalistic bias begin.
One of the most pointed examples of Metacritic’s influence was when Obsidian missed bonus royalties by one percentage point, as I referenced in the first paragraph. Working on Fallout: New Vegas, the studio apparently agreed to hit 85 aggregate on Metacritic or be cut bonuses. The story broke when New Vegas measured an 84 and was hit with layoffs and a game cancellation the previous day, resulting in thirty jobs lost (or “redundancies”; the media’s way of sounding less harsh).
Another discouraging example is Ubisoft’s objection to an 81% for Red Steel 2. The sequel surpassed the first game everywhere, and was properly rewarded with the appropriate score. But Ubisoft saw the 81 and denounced it as “acceptable”. In the age of Metacritic, where most games average out into the seventies anyway, an 81 is classified as “acceptable”.
Speaking about the game, Creative Director Jason Vandenberghe wrote per GoNintendo: “”Let’s start here: if you clicked that Metacritic link back there, you know that (as of this writing) our average rating is hanging out at a solid 81%. Anyone in the industry will tell you: that doesn’t suck, but it ain’t the bestest [sic] ever. It’s the kind of number you need to be in the running for serious sales, and given the nature of the market we are releasing into, etc, blah blah blah [sic], it’s pretty darn acceptable, but of course you always hope for more.”
What Metacritic has inadvertently done is cultivate game development like a minefield, where a non-perfect game means a studio wrestles with tough decisions. It’s alright for publishers to expect perfection. We should expect perfection in anything we do. But as just seen with Medal of Honor: Warfighter, development is never a smooth process. And studios will miss release dates time after time, because you can’t rush perfection. But basing a decision on Metacritic is ill-informed considering many opinions are calculated, not just a select few.
In the eyes of Metacritic, sites like mine are equated to sites like Game Informer and Joystiq. It’s endearing to think that, but to how credible those mid-sized sites are is impossible to determine. And that’s the central problem of the Metacritic fiasco, and why publishers prioritizing these scores is dangerous.
But at those respected sites, the ones with paid, dedicated writers, Metacritic is breathing down their necks. Potentially their opinion could cost a studio major “redundancies” and inflict other complications. Pressure at its finest. Reviewers, right now, are perhaps the most closely watched analysts of any industry due to Metacritic’s prevalence.
The ultimate question is how to approach a conclusion. How to rationalize a Metacritic ranking without rationalizing a Metacritic thinking. In doing research for this article I came across this piece from IGN discussing this very topic. The writer, Keza MacDonald, made one incredibly vital point that needs repeating:
“Meanwhile, there’s been a recent shift in how games are marketed: even the biggest publishers are now realising that Twitter, Facebook and their own community sites are an extremely good way of communicating directly with their fans, who will often have made up their minds on whether they’ll be buying a game long before review scores are out. All of this makes that average review score less relevant, because it can’t be directly correlated with sales so easily.”
Though, as Keza and I are in agreement: “But it still has too much influence.” The industry has never had a preferred grading system. However, arguably, what’s happened with Metacritic is exactly the same as the film industry and Rotten Tomatoes, another aggregate site. It’s a major hub for moviegoers but I’m unsure how much attention the movie studios give it.
For whomever bothers to read this, I wish you do one thing: Instead of blankly staring at a Metacritic score, read some reviews and learn why that game works. Not only will it better yourself, it’ll better the process.
First long post! This is how I plan to make them from now on, containing much more detail and insight from other sources if it works nicely. I hope you guys enjoyed.
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