Is Metacritic Hurting Developers?

Is Metacritic Hurting Developers?

Electronic Arts’ Afghanistan-centric Medal of Honor reboot ignited a spot of controversy when the mainstream press got wind that the game’s multiplayer mode gives the option of playing as a member of the Taliban. EA wiped the reference to the Taliban and the mainstream press crept away to busy itself elsewhere, but Medal of Honor is still an active catalyst for hot news. Specifically, the game’s mixed reviews have been hitting the headlines of game websites and blogs, along with (possibly exaggerated) stories about EA’s executives and shareholders pulling out their hair and yelling “AHHH!”

As of October 18, Medal of Honor for both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 have garnered a collective 75% on Metacritic. Breaking it down further, approximately 23 professional reviews are marked “Positive,” 14 are marked “Mixed”, and zero are marked “Negative.”

EA has since pooh-poohed the “middling” score with a reminder that critical scores don’t always translate directly into sales. Further off in the background, there’s noise about EA’s stock dropping by 6%. On message boards and blog comment feeds, some first-person shooter (FPS) fans are asking, “Man, 75%? What did EA do wrong? I’m not touching this.”

All this over a 75%? Think about that number outside of a gaming context. A film that’s given a collective 75% on movie review site RottenTomatoes is considered well above the line that marks “Fresh” from “Rotten,” and therefore comes highly recommended. A 75% is a good score for a solid book recommendation, and a publisher would likely use it in advertising. A 75% is a pretty decent mark for a kid to bring home. It’s not an A, but it’s not worth unplugging the Xbox over.

And critics say the same about Medal of Honor: it’s a very decent FPS with some flaws, but it’s a well-put together package, overall.

How badly have we games writers skewed scores if it means wailing disaster over a 75%? Even industry analyzer Doug Creutz declared that any score less than 85% is “a black eye” for a large company like EA. Does that mean 85% is the new D-? That’s mind-boggling.

There’s no question that we’ve over-inflated review scores. What can be done about it? And does a frosty 75% really equate to poison on the sales charts?

The ideal solution would be to get rid of all review scales. Chuck ’em all out the window–percentages, numbers, letters, stars, exploding heads. Let them burn in Gehenna. If someone wants to know if a game’s any good, he or she can read a few paragraphs of text instead of reacting instantly to a number, like a monkey that’s just been poked with a hot iron.

Unfortunately, the ideal solution will never be a reality. People scout out those numbers first and foremost, then get into long, traffic-boosting arguments on comments threads. No number means no controversy, which means no traffic boost and/or publicity.

Another, more feasible idea would be for some of the larger online sites to put their heads together and apply a universal worth to every number or letter on a review scale. This would undoubtedly make life easier for sites like 1UP.com, which does in fact dole out a “C” for an average game–and most games out there are average.

In other words, start over. Wipe the Metacritic slate clean, stand up against publishers who intimidate their way to a perpetual “8 and Above” for their games, unify and solve the problem as a team–

Also a pipe dream.

So do we leave things the way they are? Looking at the bigger picture, we’ve made a ridiculous mess of review scores, but like a kid who knows where everything is in his messy room, we also know our way around these numbers.

Every review has a context. Clocking in at 75% is in fact a very good score for an FPS–but the FPS genre isn’t exactly lacking for titles. Last month saw the release of Halo: Reach (91% on Metacritic). Next month ushers in the release of Call of Duty: Black Ops. Both titles have been commanding the attention of the games press and community for months. Given the popularity of the FPS genre with Western audiences, companies like Bungie and Activision spend millions developing, polishing, and advertising their works. It’s a crowded market; if you’re gunning for top spot–and that’s the only spot you should bother gunning for if you spend millions putting a game together–you’re taking a chance.

By comparison, nobody scoffs at a 75% if it’s issued for a game from a smaller studio, particularly a downloadable game. People are far more likely to say, “Oh, that looks fun,” and pick it up–especially if it’s a game from an under-serviced genre.

But with a 75%, what chance does Medal of Honor have at staying at the top of a busy, busy market?

A pretty big chance, actually. EA is right: Review scores don’t equal sales. Andy Chalk from The Escapist referenced a remark that came from Ubisoft’s Chief Financial Officer, Alain Martinez, a couple of years back: When Assassin’s Creed launched with an 82% on Metacritic, Ubisoft understandably thought it had reached the end of the world. But the game sold very well, far better than the higher-rated Prince of Persia: Sands of Time.

Review scores generate a lot of short-term bluster, but people have a way of changing their mind when they pass by a game store or click their way through Amazon. Medal of Honor will likely enjoy a long stay on the charts, and when we wake up tomorrow, chances are good that EA will still be with us. Celebrate or mourn as you see fit.

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for 1UP.com, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is About.com’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.

Leave a Reply