Can We Be Done with Metacritic?: Critics Edition
I started playing Star Wars: The Forced Unleashed this weekend. I am not a ridiculous fan who rushed out and bought it on the first day of release. I waited until the second day. My son and I sat down together, put the game in the console, and found comfort in the score’s familiar refrain. The game started, and continued, to deliver exactly what we expected. Of course, relative to Metacritic and other critics of the game, our expectations were somewhat low. We were only looking for fun.
The game was not only consistent with the license, but provided a consistently high level of story and performance. In fact it was the first game I played in which the robots were infused with the same life and humor as those of the Star Wars films. Sure there were glitches in the game, but none of them significantly interrupted game play or stopped the fun. Again, the critics are jumping all over these, but lighten up fellas, we are dealing with complex software. When I watched the season opener of The Office, I saw scenes where Michael had no goatee spliced in between scenes where he had one. And the goatee was a plot point in the script. If the show were a game, this continuity error would definitely cost it at least 5 Metacritic points. As a viewer, I really didn’t care. The same can be said of TFU, which received a middling Metacritic score of 73 and blockbuster sell in of 4.3 million with 1.5 million units sold through. Given a choice, I would take the latter over the former. Unfortunately, we just don’t have a choice. While we can all agree Metacritic is garbage, the publishers continue to cite the data as gospel when making business decisions.
Metacritic is a specious aggregation of an already skewed data set. The site, which is wholly owned by Viacom, places three layers of subjectivity, on already skewed data to manufacture a number it can hold out as objective. The editors choose which sites to include, the relative weight afforded the sites and numerical value assigned to the review.
In the case of TFU, the site included those highly regarded critics at The Onion, Middle East Gamers, maxi gamers of portugal and Thunderbolt to assemble the score. While this score is ostensibly supposed to create a foundation for like comparison against other titles, none are included in the recently scored Brothers in Arms, or the high scoring Braid and NHL 09. Consumers and every other business covered by the site find it no more relevant than a David Manning quote, why do we?
The average Metacritic score for the 17 films exceeding USD 100 million is 62.5. These include Hancock's 49, Sex and the City's 53, Iron Man's 79, Indiana Jones' 65 and Wanted's 64. Had it not been for Wall-E's 93 (which is in 5th position) and Dark Knight's 82 - both outliers- the score would have been even lower. The scores had no impact on box office, and the industry just doesn't care. If studios held scores in the same regard as publishers, Will Smith, Angelina Jolie, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg would all be struggling to find their next deal. Fortunately for them, their industry sees the critics for what they are, they are useful in promotion when they say nice things, and are no influence whatsoever in the decision making process. The studios look to revenue, not Metacritic scores.
As much as I like to put all the blame on Metacritic, we also have to look to the underlying critics themselves. I empathize with them. They got into the business because they love games. I am sure the first game they played was a transformative experience. Unfortunately, like crack addicts chasing the rush of their first high, they will never feel the experience again. Their first games imprinted deeply into their virgin minds. It was a time when they viscerally felt Miyamoto perfection and were untainted by awkward, buggy value titles. Pong would entertain for hours and any game was better than passive television. Now, these people play more games in an afternoon than a normal consumer plays in a lifetime. When a highly anticipated game comes along, the pressure to beat other reviews to the web preclude them from sitting back and being consumed by the game. They are constantly looking for the distinguishing feature from every other game they are playing. It is not at all unusual for a critic to have 10 to 15 games piled on their desk awaiting reviews. Play becomes work, which by definition is not fun. During the 4th quarter it can be even more. The calloused game chops lead to statements like this:
Make no mistake, you can have a lot of fun with The Force Unleased” Says Gamepro as it awards a 70.
A complete contrast to G4TV which tells us "The concepts are solid, the story is excellent, and the characters sustain. Aesthetically it is a beautiful piece of work. It's just not all that much fun to play . . . " supporting its 40.
C’mon publishers . . . are you reading this stuff? Why would you pay attention to it in the first place, let alone after it has been run through the obfuscator we call Metacritic. Take a lesson from the film business - there’s something you don’t see me write often – if these guys say something good use it in ad. If they say something bad, it really doesn’t matter, unless you validate it.