10 min read

Much ado about Dragon Age II: Metacritic’s review fallout and the fans who love Bioware

An examination of fan reaction to Dragon Age II's Metacritic score and how a newbie game industry employee sees its impact on game development.

Much as already been said about Bioware’s newest game Dragon Age II. Set in the fantasy world of Thedas; it is a land of warring peoples. Elves, Dwarves, and Humans fight amongst each other continuously—made increasingly tense by the newly arrived enigmatic horned bronze skinned Qunari. These trials are occasionally interrupted with the arrival of the Archdemon—a terrible dragon who rallies the hordes of darkspawn which threaten to engulf the land. Thedas is a land that needs heroes—brave souls who put everything on the line. For King or Queen, Keeper or Dwarven Lord; they fight onwards towards glory. These heroes must rally the troops, stop the bitterness between nobles houses, mage and templar, elf, man, dwarf, and qunari; in order to bring peace.

It is a task nigh impossible; how can we stop the horde? Far easier it seems, for I would rather brave the Deep Roads with its Broodmothers, than attempt to fight the masses surging onto Metacritic and Bioware’s forums.

Metacritic is a touchy subject. Industry people have chimed in on the merits of the power of the Metacritic.

“The concept was brilliant, though. You know this whole thing with Metacritic where you have to be in the high 70s to mid-80s minimum [to have any success] - well, with RPGs you have got to be in the late 80s. Whilst we had a good game, I don't think we had a game that had enough to get us to that upper echelon and I think that was the issue.” (Sega West President Michael Hayes)

Jesse Divinch, President of EEDAR (Electronic Entertainment Design and Research) said this.

“With the price of a AAA title going for north of $50, it proposes a significant financial risk to consumers, especially since no major retailers have a return policy if you are dissatisfied with your video game purchase. However, a consumer can go out and buy a miter saw from Home Depot without reading a single review, because there is little risk to the consumer. If it doesn't work to one's satisfaction they can simply return it. But again, this is not true for video games, once you buy it, you are stuck with it.”

Game developers have weighed in although being wisely vaguer.

Andy Eades, Development Director at Relentless:

“I’ve heard that publishers will try to put a step in royalty levels depending on Metacritic scores, or some sort of Metacritic-related compensation structure to a deal.”

Paul Wedgewood, CEO and Game Director at Splash Damage:

“Percentiles put too much pressure on a journalist to justify an exact score. It puts too much pressure on the developer to try and identify these criteria that lead to very specific point increases or decreases, which is not at all what the developer should be focusing on.”

This is not about Metacritic’s methods—others have already pointed out the pros and cons of their system. But I would like to draw attention to fan reactions to the Metacritic, as ignoring this phenomenon in not in our best interests.

As game developers, fans are our lifeblood. Without them, we couldn’t sustain ourselves in a hyper-competitive market. Fans will support us out of sheer uninhibited love, play every one of games, and proclaim them to be the best ever. But love can sometimes hurt. 

Fans don’t take well to others suggesting that their love and loyalty is flawed. They don’t play well with others who suggest their favoured company isn’t as wonderful as it seems. That there could be room for improvement, that there could be refinement, that they could *gasp* make a better product.


What a troll! Go play another game and leave us alone!

Reasoned debate is not an option here. Maybe I should have listened to my own advice as I stared down a thread in the Bioware forums, seeing people posting rant after rant.

This poster cited the Metacritic score of 84 for Dragon Age (PC) and its user score at a wonderful 3.1. He also created a link pointing to the user score (perhaps erroneously). He mentioned it was the Final Fantasy 13 thing all over again, where critics don’t have the balls to properly score the game’s merits and fans are ripping the game into shreds.

Responses ranged from poor to quite sensible. Some cited ‘trolls’ as the reason for the poor user score—one rationale was that people who wanted to hate the game decided to invite all their like minded hater friends to re-adjust the user score. Some others agreed with the Metacritic saying that the game didn’t live up to their expectations; these people were promptly told off with the ye olde ‘go play another game fool’ line within the hour. Some decided to declare their disdain of reviews and forge a path of independence. I could go on, but there’s only so much room.

In an effort to try to reframe the issue in hopes that logic would prevail; I waded in the middle of the debate, by relating his concerns to the Japanese fan reaction to Final Fantasy 13. By pulling the topic back to Final Fantasy 13, I hoped that he/she would understand something about review scores. 

FF13 is a highly regarded title in Japan. From Famitsu, it received the near perfect score of 39/40 and was voted as the best game ever in Famitsu's reader poll in 2010. So while FF13 didn’t completely gel with reviewers in the west, it was still a very good game at 83. I cautioned that FF13 wasn’t interested in winning the hearts of a western audience that favours broad ideas of exploration, character customization, big choices and decisions, and endless loot shuffling.

Trying to drive my point further, I replied to poster who regarded the Metacritic as a tool for ‘simple minded plebes’. Quoting what Sega West President Michael Hayes said about Metacritic; a man who I hope is not simple minded, didn’t help. One minute later, the thread was locked; citing too much arguing as the reason. My quest ended, and too much did the debate fall on the deaf ears of the hyperventilating fanbase.

Having only played the PC/PS3 demos, I can’t comment on Dragon Age II as a product. According to Bioware’s Mike Laidlaw, Dragon Age II re-adjusted a lot of things deemed poor about the original. They removed the ‘shuffling,’ overhauled the art, fixed up the engine, rebalanced the game difficulty. They created a new hero, and decided he/she was destined to change the world, rather than save it.

Sounds terrific, who doesn’t want to play this game?

Looking at the review fallout; Bioware fans in particular were not gracious at all. At 84, the mark was simply not enough.


They are haters who hate.

This bodes ill for the people who work in the industry; who try to figure out every day what fans want. It is a fool’s errand to wade into the masses, attempting to measure every angry rant and love letter. An angry fan is not a useful data source, nor is an overly praiseworthy one.

So if the fanbase is not the solution, then we must rely on the critics. Ideally, the critic cuts through the crap, and has the ability to provide an evaluation, not a mere opinion. They have the ability to take that squealing fan and turn it off, which the masses simply can’t do.

I have tried to read the majority of the DA2 reviews, including the unlisted 3/5 review by Adam Sessler at G4TV. All of them have their own take on the game, but it was certainly not the unadulterated love-in that Mass Effect 2 received. In fact I was pleasantly surprised by the more sober responses after reading adrenaline fueled preview after preview of the game prior to release.

I’m not going to get into great detail here; only a brief mention here of common review particulars:

  • Sped up combat, Game Trailers put it so eloquently by saying the combat has ‘dynamic violence.’
  • The majority of the reviews cited recycled area usage whereby multiple quests would takes place in the same map, just with different sections blocked off.
  • Reaction to the story and the characters was mixed. Some thought the plot was not powerful enough. The overall writing quality is on par with other Bioware titles, which is generally of high quality.
  • Morality is actually grey—the difference between suck and blow.
  • The camera for the PC version is not as zoom-able or as free.
  • The game is a more contained experience, which contrasts with the larger sprawling original installment.

As a person who has played Bioware games since the original Baldur’s Gate, I took criticism of the sequel to heart. As I make the wobbly transition from fan to game industry employee, I don’t want their successes to be empty victories.

What I don’t want is to encourage those fans in that locked forum thread; that don’t care what drives the industry and what external forces affect game development; be it Metacritic, Michael Pachter’s musings, the economy, the size of the budget, or technology.

Here’s the thing, I don’t want this bitterness to de-evolve the industry into a sector where they sell games based on promises and hype, filled with frills and shallow systems, and fail to inject soul into their projects. I don’t want the talented people in this industry doomed to forever chase the almighty dollar while being propped by a system that can’t or won’t critique properly, in an effort to silence the clamouring of crazed fans who won’t accept lower than a 95%.

At the same time, I don’t want the industry’s efforts to be stymied by things that can never be controlled. We can never fully predict anyone’s response to our products. The market is always in flux; tastes change over time. We can’t simply follow the trends and figure out who the latest tastemaker is.

We could gather data and have people help us interpret it, but it can only take us so far. How would you interpret the results if only 50% of people chose the female protagonist over the male? Do you cut that out deeming it a failed feature? Or were there mitigating circumstances; such as they didn’t like the female voice acting, or a lot of male players found out they liked playing their own gender, more so because of a really cute elf lady in the game?

The industry deems the Metacritic to be important; it behooves game developers to create ‘better’ games. But only to a certain set of specifications. What features gain the most points? What characters are deemed necessary to raise a game’s prospects from a 70 to an 80? If I want to build an RPG, what ingredients do I need to ensure at least 85%?

Trying to build a game like that in my opinion is equal to tying your shoelaces, tied to a tree suspended on a boat, which is taped on a plane. It might be too much to handle. 

I’m not saying numbers and critics aren’t important, but we should consider the information carefully.

I am new to the game industry. I have 7+ months of experience working on small Flash games. It’s sad to say, but gamers will not care about the stuff I’ve worked on. But I don’t believe building games should be like building furniture. I don’t believe that a game needs a certain amount of points to pass the test. All it does is that it creates an atmosphere where the fans, the score, and the dollar are more important than a person’s passion and the sheer love of making the game.    


[Rebecca Phoa is a newbie to the game industry. She is currently playing Hyperdimension Neptunia which received a 43 on the Metacritic. Whoops, no sequel for this one!]

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