I have some good news and some bad news for everyone. The bad news is that metacritic scores matter a great deal to the livelihood of game developers. The good news is that you, dear reader, can find reviewers that you can trust to share your tastes in games.
These two facts are causing a great deal of suffering.
For several years now, our increasing access to online information has caused our interactions with movie and game reviews to change. Games, due in part to the historic affluence of most game players, have seen increased traffic drawn to Metacritic.
With the dominance of console games and the high price of smartphones, the Metacritic of yesteryear saw its hits coming from people with money to burn on unnecessary gadgets. However, as smartphones became more common over the years, more and more people grew used to checking reviews less often from their website or newspaper of choice, but on their increasingly-cheap smartphones. Now that always-on internet connectivity is more common at all levels of income, we’re seeing a wider audience making purchasing decisions based on review aggregators rather than pull-quotes in commercials and on packaging.
Headlines about the forecasting of Summer blockbusters made this even more clear. Rotten Tomatoes is having a detectable impact on movie sales. As a person who has followed games for decades, this comes as no surprise, but it is playing havoc with film forecasters. Movie ticket sales are currently more closely tied to review aggregators than to forecasting and advertising spends.
Years ago, the now-beloved Fallout: New Vegas made headlines when layoffs and project cancellations followed their initial Metacritic rating of 84. 84 was just one point below their required 85 from their publisher Bethesda. Hilariously, many reviews cited crashes and performance issues as the core reason for poor reviews. Similar issues would also later plague Skyrim’s initial console release. These games use offshoots of the same engine. Luckily for Obsidian as a corporate entity, many of the issues which plagued New Vegas’s release were patched out well enough to make the DLCs and Ultimate Editions of the game into a smashing long-term success.
This, of course, did nothing to help the many people whose lives were affected by the low Metacritic score.
It would be difficult for me to discuss this nearly as well as Kotaku’s wonderful long-read on the subject of Metacritic-tied bonuses. That said, let me tell you a bit about it from a developer’s perspective.
Some of the best games of the recent console generations have been incredibly risky. Bioshock took on Objectivism head-on at a time when a rising political force was waving Atlus Shrugged and The Fountainhead as a blueprint for a better nation. Red Dead Redemption – which is the most successful game I’ve ever worked on – labored under the repeated and continuing discussion that Westerns are a dead genre. Gone Home explored homosexuality and family in a way that no wide-release game had before.
All of these games were created in an environment of extreme risk. All of these games are landmarks in the history of game development. They leave a lasting influence on the medium and on the journals which write about them.
The recent Mad Max, however, is more likely to be remembered for its controversy than its substance.
Jerry Holkins is angry. He enjoyed Mad Max. Someone did not enjoy Mad Max. Jerry has decided that there is something wrong with the man he disagrees with. I’m glad that I’m not Philip Kollar, because I would hate to be the subject of the ire of such an active group as Jerry’s fanbase.
Mr. Kollar is now plagued by the same horde of people shouting about ethics and corruption as has been hounding reputable journalists for over a year now.
Let’s make something clear here: Phil Kollar’s review is correct. The review by IGN’s Brandin Tyrrel is also correct. Polygon and IGN have built up different audiences with different concerns. Their readers know this. Both publications have remained remarkably consistent with their criticism, and they’ve built up followings which share their interests.
Not only is there nothing wrong with a reviewer criticising games based on literary analysis, but there is also nothing wrong with a reviewer being purely concerned with technical and mechanical achievement. Different readers are interested in different facets of game criticism. That’s why there isn’t just one review site on the internet.
And there’s the rub. As long as there is a wealth of human experience and an interest in expressing those experiences, review aggregators will continue to be a flawed method of judging games and movies.
For publishers, there are a great many better measurements of a product’s success than its Metacritic rating. Market performance is a good measure, as could be targeted meta-analysis from a certain set of review publications. (A weighted text and numerical algorithm based on defined market goals.) By limiting the scope of the reviews taken into account, a publisher can provide clear feedback to a developer for a definition of a product’s success.
For consumers, there are far better resources for learning whether you’ll like a game than just aggregators. Find a reviewer or group of reviewers that you agree with. When picking consumable media, it’s fine to have an echo chamber that matches your tastes. It’s preferable even. More likely than not, you’re looking to have fun. If you find yourself looking for media that will challenge you, consider reading the reviews written by people you disagree with. You might discover something that will change the way you play games, watch movies, or – perhaps – even change how you live your life.