Do we need Metacritic?
No. No we don’t.
It’s more complicated that that, of course. Before today, Metacritic was a good concept gone insane, a website for vengeful gamers to post zero out of ten reviews on games they haven’t played as much as it was an aggregate service for professional reviews. That it carried weight with publishers made us laugh: seriously, publishers, you care a whit about an aggregate of critical acclaim? This makes sense in the world of film, where “prestige” is a major factor: you want to release films that make your studio look good, like its taking chances. There are no prestige games: there are indie games, which court artistic merit, and there are million sellers that make you billions of dollars. Games are too expensive, too difficult to move for a publisher to blow twenty million dollars for “prestige”.
This is a game that made a mega-publisher three hundred million in revenue. It sold 5 million copies. And its developer is in financial dire straits because a bunch of reviewers didn’t give it an arbitrarily high number.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see this system is fucked up. Go down the list of reviewers featured in the metacritic score and you’ll see a lot of big names, sure, but you’ll also see small, hobbyist blogs: you’ll see a lot of low scores from these sites but relatively positive quotes (on line with the bigger sites), most likely because they don’t adhere to the ridiculous review score system created by larger publications. You’ll also note the absence of plenty of other major sites like Rock, Paper, Shotgun, which refuse to offer review scores (though, to be fair, RPS’ review was pretty scathing).
You’ll also note 1Up, a very respected publication, gave the game a “B”, which translates to a 75 for some insane reason. Read their review and it’s more in line with the other 85s.
Judging a game based on a mishmash of randomly collected sources makes about as much sense as me asking all the people in a five hundred foot radius whether they like Fallout: New Vegas. There’s no statistical significance.
Furthermore, here’s the elephant that’s popped up in the room: by taking the cover off publisher incentives for high metacritic scores, now reviewers are screwing over people by posting negative review scores. If you are a reviewer for a publication, your 65 review score might leave dozens of people out of a job. You might get a game canceled. In fact, if 1Up’s scores were calculated reasonably and a bunch of small sites used a traditional review score system, then we probably wouldn’t be in this situation. If there is a “reviewer bias”, even more than advertising, it’s this: a bad review will lose people their jobs.
Good god, this whole situation is ludicrous. It stems from video game publishing’s biggest problem: the insane combination of the “prestige” film with the million seller. The “prestige” film, for the unacquainted, goes like this: major film studios fund artistic films, such as this year’s The Artist, not because they appeal to an external audience but instead because they appeal to critics. The thinking is twofold. One: these movies will tell critics that the particular studio is making important cinema instead of just cashing in on the Battleship fad. Two: it could win, or be nominated for, an Oscar, making millions of dollars.
Video games obviously don’t work this way. Big budget game award shows are more about teabagging and reveals than they are about critical victories; in fact, there’s not a respected critical brain trust about games like there is for films. We don’t have someone like Roger Ebert, whose opinion can move mountains; we have quality reviewers, but no one with built-in cachet. There’s a reason Origin, on highlighting Mass Effect 3, used a review from a major newspaper rather than a gaming outlet: the paper’s name, without a reviewers, means more than any single video game reviewer.
These two factors combine to make video games a prestigeless field. Our The Artist is Journey, a game made by a small, independent company, distributed by Sony for very little risk. The last time a game company funded an “artistic” venture as a major release is probably Child of Eden or Rayman; of the big publishers, only Ubisoft seems to have missed the memo: you make more money pandering to the crowd, with commercial successes, than you do with critical ones.
So video games have created the odd hybrid, the critical/commercial success. Instead of releasing poorly received critical titles that sell millions of copies, publishers want it both ways: they want high metacritc scores and millions of copies. Games like the aforementioned Rayman are seen as aberrations. Critical and commercial success are one in the same in the eyes of publishers.
It’s tough because it forces critics into the position of consumer advocate instead of, well, being critics. The majority of reviews focus on whether or not the consumer would love a game, whether it succeeds at its basic functions, rather than whether or not it is a worthwhile work of art. This slaughters games like Fallout: New Vegas, which brilliantly succeeds as an experience and slips a little bit at basic functions. It’s ugly, it was buggy at launch, but it’s the kind of game I’ll be playing ten years from now, as opposed to more technically proficient experiences without merit as video games. It’s the kind of game that’s successful in terms of critical reception, but took hits as a strictly consumer experience.
For it to be judged on its metacritic score is patently ludicrous.