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Is it Metacritic that seals the deal?

In this post I discuss Metacritic for video games, how and why the industry adopted this standard and where it may be relevant or not.

Majdi Kraiem

September 14, 2013

7 Min Read

It would come as no surprise that Metacritic is still a big deal in the video game industry. Metacritic targets are assigned to internal development teams and studios, and we've even seen job ads mentioning such requirements. Metacritic itself attempted to assign career scores to developers. 

Despite the video game industry making its way just fine during a couple of decades, passing by revenue the film and music industry without the need of review aggregators, Metacritic became something major and seemingly difficult to escape from. 

The point of no return was perhaps reached when an important industry figure stated that Metacritic is “an accurate measure and assessments of core games”. At the time it was probably not an isolated view and to this day it isn't uncommon to find mentions of Metacritic scores in various publishers’ earning reports.  

It was maybe just a short-cut to speak to shareholders and analysts, but with the accumulation of Metacritic related practices, from inclusions into work for hire agreements to the elaboration of strategic plans to boost ratings, the industry publicly endorsed the following message: Metacritic equals quality/better games. 

But would a definition of quality derived from averaged review scores be a reliable measure of what our industry is primarily supposed to provide, which is good interactive entertainment? Not really. The specialist press is really selective with the kind of entertainment it rewards (while entertainment comes in many forms).   

Maybe it works to some extend for "core games" but more likely it works only well on some of their aspects. For instance a developer can concede that he missed the mark, and with a game like Diablo 3 still review really high by the initial feel and look of it. This example is probably not the most representative, but it is just used in the context of Metacritic considered as an “accurate” assessment of core games.  

On the other hand, a game like Payday 2 which is maybe lacking technically and with a limited scope will rate below 80% while still being a word of mouth hit. Among recent games I can also think of State of Decay.

What’s the bigger sin? Is it to have a big budget game that doesn't play that well (or flawed on its core promise) or is it to deliver a good and well aimed experience to players who can get past a few bugs and dated graphics? (And bugs are not often a sign of laziness; more  the result of developers efforts to push a tech to its limits and more content into a game until very late). The answer will vary considering a lot of players can’t stand bugs or not so great graphics, but as far as Metacritic is concerned it will reward the former rather than the later. 

The use of Metacritic as a key performance indicator just led “to bigger, fewer and better [reviewed] games”. And that is where Metacritic is certainly more relevant - but we will get to this point later.

This strategy probably worked for western triple-A games. They did not really suffer from a decline in review scores despite a growing sense of déjà vu and a retail market largely dominated by sequels. 

With this sort of observations, usually, I simply break-down the key Metacritic influencers this way: production value, scope and execution. The later being the most important obviously, but enough display of Hollywood-like production value (from a great cast of actors, to the soundtrack and "mind-blowing" sequences) will easily offset flaws in more interactive areas of a game. 

When there is no definitive standard for a game category or its sub-components - like doing something original, innovative, or addressing an abandoned niche market -  an average score gets more complicated to estimate as it requires to take into account a higher level of subjectivity and varying expectations of reviewers. Such game developments involve additional risks, but the final product can stand out if it does what it tries to do right and resonates well enough with reviewers. 

A very demanding well executed console rpg like Demon Souls can approach the 90% mark with what looks like to be a reasonable budget. Same goes for the best rated indie games, and despite all their distinctive qualities, most of the Metacritic top spots on consoles are held every year by big-budget productions - and we are getting to this point just now. 

A lot goes into a Metacritic average, and it definitely measures something, otherwise it wouldn't be more or less predictable and it wouldn't be something the industry would have adopted. It may not be the most accurate measure of all forms of interactive entertainment, but it tells something about the type of entertainment offering that matters most to the big businesses: triple-A blockbusters.

A strong Metacritic as the expression of wide press adoption, helps to position a triple-A IP as a reference in the market; and establishing such games on top of their category is the best way to take and secure a solid market share in a particular genre – possibly for as long as a console generation. 

It is hard for a game to get peoples’ attention and it is even harder to get a slice of players’ spending. More particularly from players who only buy one or two full-priced games a year. 

The game industry is more sensitive to ratings because of the nature of its short sales cycle and pricing policy compared to let’s say the cost of a movie theater ticket. The 60$ game model is something that Marc Doyle, Metacritic co-founder, has mentioned before as what makes his website useful for consumers.

Metacritic gets far less web traffic than the likes of Ign or Gamespot, so the website is probably not moving many sales directly. However, as a well maintained and accepted industry standard, the expectation of a top Metacritic ranking - and I am only guessing – can help to get retail chains support, ahead of (sell-in, pre-orders), and after a game release (selling out, display). And retail to this day is still the best way to reach the average console game consumer.

Rating estimates will also tell if a game is a serious candidate for the end of the year sales party. Retail or even platform holders will advise a potential 70% first person shooter to try a more reasonable time of the year for its release window. A retail shop salesperson will usually not sell an average shooter when he can recommend the last critically acclaimed game that everyone else is currently playing (and for the same price). 

Games before Metacritic would also eventually find their most suitable release dates; we could live without it. But it is an effective way to convey in which league a game belongs. As such Metacritic can influence positively or negatively any part of this cycle between, an impressive game (and its resources allocation), media coverage, retail commitment, publisher media investments, a favorable release window (and some competitors staying out of the way), and players purchase intent and confidence. 

To conclude, even if a first “hit” will lead to brand attachment, and more predictable sales, development teams will very likely experience significant pressure to maintain that leading position. It makes logical sense in this case. Also, if bigger is better, a sequel will also come with more budget and resources (but I’m not sure it helps for better sleep). I’m also not so sure it makes complete sense to use Metacritic as much as we do in the industry.

The most detrimental effect of the bigger/better game approach is when a good IP tries to reach a wider audience. Sometimes, like with Skyrim it works very well but more often an IP loses its identity and players at the same time. 

Metacritic certainly means something when it comes to the business of very high-end games and it will surely have a big role to play in the upcoming battle between established IPs and new contenders for the next generation of consoles. 

Nevertheless it doesn't look like it's an absolute necessity to use it for any kind of games and to push rating targets in every contract; it is not like Metacritic is the only, or most relevant kpi available or a very good tool to drive decisions. But for more on the matter there are already very good reads here and here.

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