Posts Tagged ‘game media’

"I'm here to kill your studio and eat your money."

This morning contained some heartbreaking news, as we found out that Obsidian, the studio behind Fallout: New Vegas and numerous other titles is on the brink of ruin. The company had to lay off several employees yesterday, and also saw their next-gen game projects canned. Today we got a peek behind the curtain, as we learned that a big reason for the sudden issues was that Obsidian missed an important benchmark to receive royalties and bonuses for sales of New Vegas. That benchmark, a Metacritic score of 85. What did they get? An 84.

I’ve railed against the very concept of Metacritic in the past, and virtually everyone I talk to in the industry agrees it’s a terrible metric. Media hates it because it takes complex, suggestive concepts and attempts to aggregate them in an objective manner. Developers hate it because many times their contracts are written in such a way that they only get real money for the work they put in if their game scores exceptionally high, and PR people despise the pressure it puts on them to get scores up so everyone makes their benchmark. The only people who like Metacritic are the super-high-ups who use it as an analytic and see the world in numbers and spreadsheets. But this isn’t an article about why Metacritic goes away (because it never will), but rather a piece about who’s to blame for this situation. And I’m sorry to say fellow media types, but it’s us.

The fundamental flaw of “game journalism” (or game writing, or reporting, or whatever you want to call it), is that there is no required level of standards for entry. All you need is an Internet connection and an opinion to be a part of the “games media,” and as well all know it tends to be the folks with the most negative things to say who get the most attention. Because of the mass influx of writers the media landscape is a savage one, with websites constantly battling for eyeballs. Oftentimes, the best way to do this is to be as outrageous or combative as possible. I love the Destructoid crew and think they do great work, but would that site be even remotely as popular as it is without human rage ball Jim Sterling? Would anyone ever talk about Edge Magazine if it weren’t for the fact that they often score triple-A, mainstream games well below their contemporaries?

The games media, rolling the dice with developers' futures since 2005.

When it comes to reviewing games there’s a very clear dividing line amongst publications. Those outlets which secure exclusive coverage rights, be it the first announcement of a game, a cover story, an exclusive interview or something else, are often more generous in their reviews. I won’t name names about what outlets promise scores in exchange for coverage, but it happens, and it’s shameful. On the other side of the fence are the smaller sites trying to make a name for themselves, and for that group it’s often a race to the bottom. You don’t stand out on Metacritic by being one of the outlets that gave a game a 7 or 8 out of 10, you get attention when you’re either at the top or the bottom of the scale. Since ours is an inherently snarky profession, a lot of perfectly decent games get torpedoed by websites trying to draw eyeballs because they gave the season’s big release a 5 out of 10.

That of course raises another issue; the fact that, say it with me now, REVIEW SCORES ARE MEANINGLESS. the number, which carries oh so much weight, is the least thought about factor in any review. It’s another aspect of the industry that faces universal hatred, and yet nothing can be done about it because it’s too ingrained in the culture. We’re never going to banish review scores, but we damn sure better unify them before we wreck more lives. Right now some outlets treat a 5 out of 10 as average, while others look at it as barely playable. Metacritic doesn’t adjust scores, so if your site’s 5 is another site’s 7 then guess what? You just inadvertently screwed over someone who put years of their life into making the game you took a week or less to review.

And therein lies the thesis to this diatribe. If we’re going to continue to score reviews and to let Metacritic be the standard for such judgements then it’s time to set some ground rules. Outlets of repute need to come together and create some sort of unified scale, and strike a deal that only those magazines and websites which follow the guidelines set forth can be used as measures for Metacritic and thus influence developer contracts. There would need to be policing and compliance set up so that outlets couldn’t just swear fealty to the system and then continue to undermine the industry, but without order we submit to chaos, and perfectly good developers like Obsidian pay the price for our lack of consistency and professionalism.