Why game developers need to look beyond Metacritic
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This is one game that the industry - and gamers - might benefit from skipping...
When Karsten Lund of IO Interactive boldly claimed that the reviews for Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days were going “to be a lot better” than the franchise’s first title, most thought that that outcome was a given. After a month of reviews from every man, woman and child, Dog Days has in fact only received a score of 64 out of 100 on Metacritic, 1 point worse than Dead Men. Should Lund reconsider his career choice, or should we as an industry stop placing so much faith in these decidedly subjective scoring systems?
Lund isn’t the only one to put their faith in hitting a predetermined Metacritic score, with Peter Moore of EA Sports famously asking the FIFA 10 development team to deliver a 90. Unlike Lund, though, Moore’s prediction was surpassed, as the annual football title scored an impressive 91. However, during a recent interview Moore expressed his fear that the games industry is getting overly obsessed with Metacritic, as “it’s the one thing we can look at and say it’s a subjective medium.”
That subjectivity is often a source of great pride within gaming circles. Where one person may abhor a game, there is another who will exalt its virtues. In the end, finding the middle between the two is more often than not the correct and fair assessment. When a game is universally approved, this score will go up, but if it’s widely slated, the score will plummet. This may seem like a fair system, but it leaves the way open for overtly positive or negative reviews to be included which skew the results. Considering this is an industry that almost defines the subjective experience, the chance of extremes is greatly increased compared to other media like movies and literature.
There are also titles which defy critical reviews, with many supposedly average titles shipping millions of units, whilst others that are lauded languish. In these situations, it becomes clear that consumers are not always bound by the scores that reviewers give when it comes to purchasing games. If this is the case, then what purpose does Metacritic serve? According to Moore, “in our world it’s the only thing – other than internal metrics – that we can look at” in order to judge the titles that they produce. However, to simply aim for an increased Metacritic score could be to the detriment of the gameplay experience.
You can break Metacritic down and if you’re sharp you can say: "I know we can get two points doing this". But it may not actually enhance the gamer’s experience and I think that’s a line we have to be careful we don’t cross—in other words, to artificially create a Metacritic score. Look at the Wii, there are so many fun games that do so well but get savaged. It’s a slippery slope.
Peter Moore, President of EA Sports
Although many of Nintendo’s titles fall short of expectations on Metacritic, sale figures consistently show that they are well received by Wii gamers. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that Metacritic is constructed solely for the use of Western developers, publishers and gamers. Square Enix recently announced at CEDEC—a Japanese developers' conference—that their Japan studio were collaborating with a Western developer to produce a new triple-A title, with an aim to reach a minimum Metacritic score of 90.
Although it is admirable to set such objectives, the price of underachieving is hugely increased and it puts many necks on the line. In Lund’s case with Dog Days, the price of failure is uncertain. Who takes the blame in this situation? Moreover, who takes the blame when a game improves from its last iteration—like THQ’s UFC 2010 Undisputed—but then underperforms in sales? THQ’s UK Marketing Director Jon Rooke explained that their “sales were softer than where we would have liked them to be. We know our UFC and MMA fans have bought it, but we haven’t delivered the broader sales yet.” The reason: “Red Dead Redemption. Rockstar have probably taken a fair amount of our market share. They shipped 5m units, taking a lot of consumer dollars.”
"As consumers we complain when developers churn out the same type of games over and over, yet we continue to purchase every title that they put on offer to us. Furthermore, with reviewers generally scoring titles between 70 and 90, their meaning completely disappears"
When things go well, all of us are happy to take the credit; when things go wrong, we frantically search for someone or something to blame. But ultimately, everyone is to blame. As consumers we complain when developers churn out the same type of games over and over, yet we continue to purchase every title that they put on offer to us. Furthermore, with reviewers generally scoring titles between 70 and 90, their meaning completely disappears.
So what is the point in scoring games? Whose benefit is it for? The games are still bought regardless of what scores they receive, whilst the words in the reviews clearly convey the thoughts of the reviewer. This obsession with scores will drive many good games and developers into the ground, even when they don’t deserve it. Additionally, if a prospective gamer requires a score to make up their mind on whether they should buy a game, then they deserve to be let down by the odd high scoring title. A game can never be judged by a single subjective view, whilst the averaged scores of a collection of subjective views doesn’t give an accurate account of what the collective thought of the title.
So, should we as an industry stop placing so much faith in these decidedly subjective scoring systems? By placing so much emphasis on something that they’re unable to control, more developers will come unstuck like Karsten Lund and the THQ crew. However, without these people making fools of themselves now and again, some of us won’t have a career.
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