Electronic Arts CEO John Riccitiello has made a mantra out of the idea that making game quality the primary goal creates profitability by its nature -- but the relationship between a game's quality, its Metacritic score and its profitability often eludes precise science.
Metacritic rankings certainly may act as at least a partial bellwether for quality levels in a publisher's portfolio, or for trends within a given franchise. But it's never been proven that ratings directly correlate to sales in any meaningful way -- in fact, recent analyst research has shown that scores are among the least-important factors
to consumers making new game purchase decisions.
EA may have been stung a little by its own enthusiasm for high scores and the quality-to-sales promise back in 2008, when despite what Riccitiello called at the time a "significant improvement" in game quality -- one of his key stated missions since reassuming leadership of the company -- EA's holiday portfolio didn't meet sales expectations
That season, the recession arrived late to the previously-triumphant video game biz -- just in time to put some coal in its Christmas stocking -- so it's hard to discern how much of a role the economy played.
Nonetheless, Riccitiello still stands by his faith, and continues trimming EA's slate of games to focus on higher-quality SKUs and not a higher quantity of them -- he says EA has gone from 50-60 titles in fiscal 2009, '10 and '11 to the "high 30s."
"I'm a fundamental believer that quality translates to success," he reiterates to Gamasutra. "I think the equation is as true as it's ever been, but it requires a modification I didn't emphasize enough two years ago."
A poor sequel in a solid franchise may still sell well, because it takes multiple installments for the consumer base to develop an impression of a property significant enough as to impact sales, he asserts. And it goes both ways: It may take more than one improved-quality sequel to regain gamers' faith after an initial poor experience, the CEO adds.
"Back in the '90s we made a great game... the following year, our game was down on quality, but we also sold a lot," he says. "[It took] one or two poor games to actually turn success to failure of a franchise. Consumers read last year’s Metacritic to buy this year’s game."
Faced with poor franchise sales, explains Riccitiello, "the right first step is getting the quality right... but it might take two, if not three editions to fully put it back to [a good] position."
To prove it, challenges the CEO, print out NPD results, or Gfk-Chart-Track results or any other sales charts and look at the top 10: "They're all sequels to prior titles that had high Metacritic scores," he says. "When you consider that, you start to realize that the correlation is there. There's a time lag for titles rising or falling."
The idea that quality is unrelated to sales is "an insult to the industry," Riccitiello says. "Metacritic is not a perfect assessment of quality; it's just the best we've got. I don't think it's the best for casual games, and I don't use it for movie or book reviews. But if I want to understand a game, I can look at the detail... and come to a judgment."
"In a weird sort of way as much as we [at EA] are believers in building quality, we may have inadvertently reduced the argument for people by being a little too simple in explaining it," he concludes. "Quality -- over time -- absolutely matters."