Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Metacritic Attacks on the Homefront: Call to Arms Edition

Metacritic is an intrinsically flawed concept based on a corrupt ecosystem. It would not be an issue of the game business, like film, music, television and everything else tracked by Metacritic ignored the numbers. I have never seen a film’s failure supported by a headline pointing to Metacritic. Nor have I seen the film press trumpeting the unthinkable number one position at the US box office of Battle: Los Angeles despite its score of 37 – a number which would get any game development executive fired. Why then, do all of the major game news outlets report THQ’s lost 26% of its market value yesterday because Homefront got a 71 – unless you look at the sidebar which says it got a 72, or PS3 which got a 75. Using this logic, we must also conclude the most recent add on DLC for Call of Duty: Black Ops did not sell well because it scored an anemic 78. and we should be stumped by Take Two’s decline despite the 88 achieved by Top Spin 4 on the same day as Homefront. Maybe this is because even Metacritic acknowledges the score does not influence sales. Ironically, and as suggested on this very blog months ago, the same site reported NPD finally acknowledged the company does not really know how many games are being sold. The industry is able to acknowledge NPD is flawed and acceptance of the numbers caused harm. NPD finally admitted we cannot use hindsight to determine how many units are sold. When will be able to acknowledge Metacritic cannot use foresight either?

I've written about Metacritic way too much already, but I just can not stop doing it. Just when I think the site has stretched credulity to the limit, it goes further – and the press buys it. I wrote about the inherent lack of integrity,t he questionable scores that do not get corrected and the critics, who are somehow, but not directly, related to the scores. I find myself having to do it again. I am not going to try to defend Homefront, but once again, it leads to questions about the system itself. The Metacritic score is more a function of THQ’s poor management of the critics , marketing budget and the consumer than the game itself. Little things, like the company’s failure to release a demo removed the core gamers’ ability to make a decision on their own and forced reliance on those who actually had an opportunity to play the game – the critics . The critics who give the scores must be nurtured, supported, provided information and in some cases, publications must be bought. If the words of the critics about the publications themselves are not enough to solidify the point, gamers need only look to the correlation of exclusive covers and game scores. Cover exclusives are secured months before a game is ready to actually be put on the cover. Is there any possible way the magazine with all the game ads in it can know the game will get a 9 out of 10 when it secures the exclusive? So how does it always happen? How about those great big site ads on the sites with the high scores? These are the only the obvious ones. This corrupt system is then passed through an admittedly bias filter to provide a gentle butterfly’s kiss of influence on a Metacritic score.

If we accept the most recent high scores on Metacritic we would conclude XBL/PSN games are better than boxed product. Not only do the new ones score disproportionately higher than boxed product, old games, when released on XBL/PSN seem to age like fine wine. Homefront's lower scores mentioned dated gameplay, but then I noticed the re release of Beyond Good & Evil scored an 85, only two points lower than the score it received when it was first released eight years ago. Of course the sites selected by Metacritic were different than the ones selected for Homefront.

I became curious as to how an eight-year-old game with refreshed graphics is able to outscore Dragon Age II. Sure, a classic is always a classic and if you are looking for a game with a girl, a pig and a camera, nothing else could compare, but in this day of immediate gratification and ever improving interaction, but when bits of old games are maligned, how does the entire assembly retain its rating? So I clicked through to the reviews. I usually start with the highest and lowest scores. The highest was a perfect 100. As in the past, Metacritic gave the score to a bunch of words without a number. If no score is given Metacritic gives one based on what the company believes to be the tone of the review. Unfortunately, I could not determine whether Metacritic was right because the review was written in Greek and there was no translation on the page. Really, I cannot make this stuff up. Google's translate application gave me this:

The gaming industry is a little more time passes quickly, but it is the same or even more relentless and without grief. The Oblivion is not slow to come, and a masterpiece may just within months of its release, becoming a "classic creation" of those who, as usual, nobody has played.

I guess that could be a perfect score – on some planet. I do not have all the data In front of me, but I am going to go out on a limb and say the Greek game market is not one of the world’s largest. Moving further out, I would venture to guess the portion of the audience influenced by game reviews written in Greek is neither the majority nor the most influential. Why is this review given the highest score and included in the computation despite its outlier status?

How and why do we take this site seriously and why are we not up in arms when the completely arbitrary score, purporting to be an aggregation of an irrelevant and corrupt ecosystem can remove a quarter of the value of a company in a day? This is no less than an attack on our business. An attack on THQ is an attack on the advances in the eyes of Wall Street made by EA, Take Two, Activision and every other company in our industry. When will we mature enough to know a rising tide lifts all boats? EA and Activision both stood up this week to finally point out the fiction perpetrated by NPD for all these years. Isn’t it time we did the same to Metacritic?

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