Posted by: Tom | March 10, 2010

The trouble with Metacritic…

I’m sure most of you have an idea of what Metacritic is. But for those who don’t, here’s a handy link: http://www.metacritic.com

It’s a review aggregate site. Which means it vacuums up all the reviews about a particular game/film/CD/book, smooshes them all together and spits out a nice colour-coded average score at the end. It’s a great idea -in theory- allowing you a handy one-stop shop to see what a selection of critics are thinking.

The Telegraph are on Metacritic for videogames. And we do very well out of the association, thankyou very much. In one of our more smug-mode inducing moments, Metacritic approached us, after publishers questioned why we weren’t on the site.

Aren’t we prestigious? Well, maybe not so much. I won’t delve too deep into the hodge-podge collection of sites that do make up Metacritic’s pool of opinion, I’ll leave that to the always excellent Simon Byron and his column from Develop.  Go, read!

Back? Good.

Now, it’s most certainly not my business to decide what sites ‘deserve’ to be on Metacritic, and what sites are ‘weighted’ more significantly, but you’d be hard pressed to argue that the barriers to entry are …hazy, at best. That wouldn’t be such a problem, if Metacritic didn’t loom so largely over the video games industry.

There’s talk of publishers basing bonuses and payments on a Metacritic score. At a FIFA 10 presentation last year, EA Sports supremo Peter Moore spoke -at great length- about how their games’ ‘metascore’ has greatly increased over the past few years. Somehow, somewhere along the line, Metacritic has become a barometer of quality for not just consumers, but developers and publishers too. That little number somehow means everything, and it’s rotting the core of the industry.

Let’s talk criticism. Here’s a God of War III review I wrote.

I gave it an 8. Which, in my book, is a very good score. I thoroughly enjoyed God of War III, it was a technical marvel and a blistering adventure. I’m playing it again on Hard, I liked it so much. But as I felt it didn’t break out of the template laid down by its PS2 predecessors, struggled with capricious controls and crunched my pad over a few dodgy sections, I thought 8/10 was about right.

But look at the comments underneath my review, just look at them. You would have thought I had gone round to each of these people houses and toe-punted their grandmother through the TV and pissed on the smouldering reamins of both. They run the full gamut of fanboy accusations, tried-and-tested:

*I ‘have no credibility’

*I haven’t played the game, or only played the demo/full game for five minutes

*I’m fishing for hits

*I’m unprofessional, naive, unqualified, biased (against what I’m not entirely sure)

*The Telegraph is, and I quote, “a fake-ass site that noone’s heard of”

I’m told on frequent occasions that it’s a ‘horrible review’. While it’s not my place to say if that’s true or not, I know that’s not what is meant. What they mean is “I’ve shit myself because of that little number you’ve put at the top.”

I’d bet the farm on the fact that 90% of the commentators didn’t even read the thing. If I had replaced the 8 with a 9 -which i very nearly did, incidentally- everything would have been fine and dandy.

I’ve been doing this long enough now to have hard skin against this kind of thing, fanboys who trawl the lower end of Metacritic, log onto ‘offending’ sites and type one-handed, illiterate invectives while dribbling on the keyboard.

And before you say it, you cheeky blighters- no, it’s not just me- check out this thoughtful review on Video Games Daily -also an 8/10- then look at the comments.

Notice anything familiar? There’s one particular comment that caught my eye though. One guy says this: “I hope your [sic] happy about vandalizing God of War III’s metascore.”

So this is what it comes down to? Anything that doesn’t fall into conformity is to be ignored and dismissed as critical vandalism?

I must admit to being a little deflated at it all. I worked hard on my review, labouring over every word to make sure it was as decent and honest an appraisal as my limited talents could muster. And at the end of it all, I realise that the majority of people who clicked on it, didn’t even read the bally thing. They were more concerned about that 8…

1800 words worth of thoughts ignored for one tidy -apparantly disagreeable- number.

It was ever thus, of course. Check out any games forum and arguments over scores permeate the entire site, and have done for some time.

It’s interesting, really, as I’m fairly certain this kind of thing doesn’t happen with film criticism, at least not on the engulfing scale it does with games. I’ve felt for some time now that it’s much to do with the nature of the score system, “out of 5 stars” is containing enough to be able to tell a good film from a bad one, but it’s vague enough to place much more emphasis on the words -you know?- the actual criticism written down by an apparant expert.

Games critique, on the other hand, is almost obsessed with pinpointing opinion to a decimal point. Surely, the more specific you get with that score, the less emphasis there is on what you’re actually saying?

Another problem that games writers have is that games are getting so good now -so advanced in their ideas and execution- that it’s a matter of months before the ‘next big thing’ arrives, and publications and websites find themselves “scored into a corner” where their  scale is all to cock because they blew it all on the last game. There’s an added wrinkle,  in that there are so few genuinely terrible games out there that a lot of places don’t even use the the full breadth of the scale they’re using. Only in video games can 7/10 equate to ‘average or mixed’. So the entire scoring system, across the board, needs a subtle realignment.

If I had my way though, I’d abolish scores altogether, put the emphasis on the reviews themselves, or at least switch to a five-star system. But it will never happen, it seems, as the industry is currently so score-obsessed. I wouldn’t dare inflate the self-worth of us games journos -lord knows we’ve done enough of that already- but I think you can tell a lot of a medium through its criticism, and the audience reaction to that criticism. At the moment, games suffer from an astonishingly childish attitude towards its critics. Many would argue -quite possibly correctly- that it’s because the standard isn’t high enough (someone let me in, after all), and the kind of low barrier of entry that sites like Metacritic encourages only make it worse.

But there should be give and take for both sides, a little more emphasis on how well a games writer can analyse and, y’know, write about games rather than this focus on a consensus of score would go a long way.

Hey, one can dream, right?

____________________

Disclaimer: I’d just like to point out that I don’t have any ill-will towards Metacritic, as in the site itself. Having spoken to the founder Marc Doyle, and read the site’s remit, I’m almost certain that it was never their intention for the site to play such an integral, high-pressured role. That’s the fault of the industry itself.


Responses

  1. Tom,

    Keep doing exactly what you’re doing, and don’t let your users, publishers, PR firms, etc. deter you from telling it like it is. We included Telegraph on our slate of critics on Metacritic because of, among other things, the quality of your analysis, and I’d never want you to compromise your editorial voice because it might not sit well with proponents of the games you review.

  2. I couldn’t agree more, quite why video game critique started and persists along the line of scoring out of 100% in many publications is beyond me.

    Also the format war that occurs exclusively in gaming doesn’t help the reaction to fair critique, the fact films and books are not exclusive to one format means their consumers are fans of the medium first and foremost, in games people tend to draw sides and fight for their team till the death, ergo a strike against a big exclusive and their side attaining ultimate score based victory is seen as a personal injury.

    Just so you know I read your review and appreciate your measured opinion, the game looks very good and, had I a PS3, would make sure I picked it up.

  3. […] Jump to Comments Right, I’m here to show solidarity with wordsmiths Chris Schilling and Tom Hoggins by talking about the Internet for a minute. Or, rather, the people who do their best to ruin […]


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