Sunday, April 15, 2012

Metacritic is a joke!

The first time I logged to metacritic, I thought that it was a wonderful idea. A place where you could find links, datas and all kind of stuff about game's and movie's reviews. With a fancy user based score added to the mix, intended as a mean to balance the critics and a nice overall score as an economic index about the trends of the game in the critical world. I know that the metacritic score was not meant to be taken literally. I hoped that everyone would realize that the metacritic score lacked scientific value. I laughed at the fears of the people who believed that the metacritic score would have influenced creative and business decision in a negative way. I was so wrong...

Metacritic is one of the best example of what moral philosophers call the heterogenesis of intents. Some unnamed guys start a cross-reference site with the hope to help customers, reviewers, developers and publishers, giving them a place to share resources. Their idea is so brilliant, so poignant, so perfect for its times and so successful that everyone starts to take it very seriously.... sadly, too seriously. And as a result, everyone is equally harmed. You do not see the harm? Follow me and reach your own conclusion.

For first, let me back up my rant with some facts. Metacritic score is taken very seriously by the industry. There are publishers that are using the score as a clause to establish if a developer deserve a bonus or not for its work. For example, it is known that Obsidian has not received the bonus for Fallout New Vegas only because the game has reached a metacritic score of 84 instead of 85. For one meager metapoint, Bethesda refused to pay the bonus when F:NW is considered one of the best role-playing game of the last years. 

I assume that most publisher-developer contracts in the gaming business use similar clauses and that's simply crazy: I cannot believe that business man are seriously using such a faulty and deceptive instrument to make calls about their money and the future of developers and game series alike. I mean, we are talking of million of dollars here and most importantly we are talking of countless hours of fun. The metacritic score can't be taken literally: it's not an objective report on the value of a game. It's just the media between the votes given at the end of every review that's listed on the metacritic site. I know, it's self-evident but it need to be repeated when everyone in the web use it  to support these or that position, these or that scenario.

There are many reasons why the metacritic score is just a joke. For first, each reviewer in every site or magazine uses a different scoring system with different priorities and approaches (and most of the times, each reviewer interprets the same system in a personal way), then the whole idea of the media does not make a lot of sense. Second: not every magazine, site or journalist has the same ethical and professional standards. Third: reviews are just personal opinions and should be considered more a work of fiction in itself than a paper with scientific value. Fourth: the few features of a game that can be judged on an objective level are the least relevant. And last but not least, most game journalist are just over glorified gamers that do not know anything about the reality of game development.

I guess that most game journalists must be very afraid when they have to score a game. Especially when a AAA title finish in their hands. Those kind of games involve big teams, big budgets and big audiences and even a mediocre review can ruin the career of many workers in the industry (just look at all the layoffs that are hitting Obsidian as I'm speaking). Not to talk about the fans of each franchise that go crazy and stalk reviewers with the worst insults and attitudes when their favourite game receive a score that "ruins the metacritic" (I've seen fans going crazy for a 8 out of 10!). 

As a result, we are arrived to a point where in a spectrum that ranges from 0 to 100, most AAA games will fall in the 80+ category. The difference between a mediocre game and a very good one is just a matter of few points. Every value below 80 is not even considered seriously, especially at release: bad reviews cannot kill the marketing campaign, especially when the advertisement are published in the same places that should review those hyped games in the first place. That alone destroys the whole point of Metacritic: what's the usefulness if journalists have to pump their reviews just to reach an expected value and if their career could be at risk whenever they speak their mind freely and go against the grain? 

Not to say that thanks to the excessive visibility of the metacritic score, anytime a big and hyped release hits the market, you will see a bunch of organized and determined trolls that for whatever silly reason will flood the user score with terrible reviews. You will never know if the game is actually bad or if its score is low just because someone with a lot of free time to kill is masking behind anonimity to ruin it for the lulz. I mean, even Portal 2 had a negative user score after release. I can understand everything but Portal 2? You cannot be serious.

I know: I'm ranting but I cannot suffer a system that rewards cowardice, safety and lack of critical thinking when gaming is first and foremost about boldness and creativity. So, please everyone: stop giving credit to the metacritic score. Take it with a grain of salt: it's not meant to be serious business. And please Metacritic, whoever is playing with us behind that friendly interface: do something to change for the better. There are a lot of measures that can be taken to improve: moderate user reviews, use strict methods to distinguish who's reliable or not, set critical and professional standards for the press and the industry as a whole. Just do something. Or die.

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