Over the last few years, Metacritic has become a popular whipping boy within the games industry. A recent example would be Adam Sessler’s bit at GDC’s journalist rant session. At the risk of beginning to sound like a reactionary contrarian, I feel a case needs to be made for Metacritic. Unlike my argument for used games (or, rather, for thinking critically about what we are trying to sell consumers for $60), I feel much less conflicted in this case, so let me state my thesis very clearly: Metacritic has been a incredible boon for consumers and the games industry industry in general. The core reason is simple – publishers need a metric for quality.
What should executives do if they want to objectively raise the quality bar at their companies? They certainly don’t have enough time to play and judge their games for themselves. Even if they did, they would invariably overvalue their own tastes and opinions. Should they instead rely on their own internal play-testers? Trust the word of the developers? Simply listen to the market? I’ve been in the industry for ten years now, and when I started, the only objective measuring stick we had for “quality” was sales. Is that really what we want to return to?
Yes, I know translating all ratings onto a 100-point scale distorts them – a C is not a 60 is not three stars – but we need to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. What are the odds that we can get every outlet onto the same scoring scale? Not likely. Can Metacritic improve the way it converts non-numeric ratings into scores? Absolutely. However, the whole point of an aggregator is that these issues come out in the wash. When 50 opinions are being thrown into the machine, a 74 is actually different from a 73.
I use Metacritic all the time, and I love it. It’s changed my game-buying (and movie-watching and music-listening) habits for the better, which of course funnels money into the pockets of deserving developers and encourages publishers to aim for critically-acclaimed products. Have we gotten so jaded that we have lost sight of what a wonderous thing this is? Metacritic puts an army of critics at our fingertips. Further, consumers are not morons who can’t judge a score within a larger context. We all realize that, due to the tastes of the average professional reviewer, some games are going to be over-rated and some will be under-rated.
Ultimately, the argument against Metacritic seems to revolve around whether publishers should take these numbers seriously. Some contracts are even beginning to include clauses tying bonuses to Metacritic scores. Others are concerned that publishers are too obsessed with raising their Metacritic averages. Actually, let’s think about that last sentence in detail. Note that when I just wrote “others,” I was referring to journalists, not to investors. As John Riccitiello famously said, “I don’t think investors give a shit about our quality.” How bizarre is it that once the game industry starts taking journalists’ work seriously, they complain about it?
I’ll give my own perspective on this issue. Over the years, I have seen many great ideas shut down becomes someone in charge thinks they won’t impact sales. However, when I am in an EA meeting in which we talk about the need to raise our Metacritic scores – and the concrete steps or extra development time thus required – I’ll tell you what I feel like doing. I feel like jumping for joy. How incredible is it to work for a publisher who cares about improving the quality of our games in the eyes of critics and uses an independent metric to prove it.
As for the renumeration issue, isn’t it a good thing that there is a second avenue for rewarding developers who have made a great game? Certainly, contracts are not going to stop favoring high game sales, so – hopefully – Metacritic clauses can ensure that a few developers with overlooked but highly-rated games will still be compensated. Now, if a game doesn’t have high sales and also doesn’t get a good Metacritic score, well, there’s a name for that type of game, and these developers should not be protesting. Further, developers also need to stop complaining that a few specific reviews are dragging down their Metacritic scores. Besides the fact that both good and bad reviews are earned, in a world without Metacritic, one low score from GameSpot, GameSpy, 1Up, or IGN becomes a disaster. Score aggregation, by definition, protects developers from too much power being in the hands of one critic.
Journalists also need to have the guts to give games a score and stick by it. Putting a score on a review doesn’t take away the ability to add nuance to one’s criticism. My favorite music book is the Third Edition of the Rolling Stone Album Guide. As the reviews were written by just four critics, I have learned to understand the exact difference between five and four-and-a-half stars (or, for that matter, between two-and-a-half and three stars). If you are a great reviewer, the score you give a game helps me place it in context with everything else you have rated. Moreover, your score lets you contribute, via Metacritic and all the other aggregators, to the meta-critique of games on the Net. What exactly is the problem here?