The financial impact of a lousy Metacritic score can be swift and brutal.
If you want to provoke an instantaneous reaction from a game developer (or for that matter, a game journalist or blogger), you really only need to reach for one word:
Amazingly, the notorious review-aggregator website has been around for a decade now -- yes, really -- and its influence keeps growing, kinda like kudzu, reality TV and Charlie's Sheen's notoriety.
In theory, the concept that drives the site makes sense: Metacritic tracks and collects reviewer scores, assigns them a number on a 100-point scale, and comes up with an average for each game, film, TV show or album. Folks who use the site (and there are millions of them) view it as a USA Today-style consumer service, kinda like when a mag like Entertainment Weekly runs its "Critical Mass" sidebars to let you know that not every major movie critic was in agreement that Battle: Los Angeles was a slice of cinematic genius.
The tricky part drops when you stop to realize that unlike EW, Metacritic's rubric uses a numeric conversion process that doesn't necessarily treat every score equally. A game reviewer who slaps an 'F' at the end of his review may be looking to dramatically express disgust at a game's general lack of quality, but he's not necessarily looking to hand out a zero-pointer on the hundred-point scale. Even one of those F-to-zero conversions can absolutely torpedo a game's Metacritic score, and the number becomes a scarlet "HELLS to the NO!" for the masses who don't click beyond the initial score. (And again, there millions of them.)
Game publishers absolutely hate the aggregator sites, because a) they can't exert influence or control over them in the way they can with some of the gaming press and b) the financial impact of a lousy Metacritic score can be swift and brutal. Recent case in point: THQ's Homefront, a first-person shooter set in a world in which the United States has been occupied by North Korea. THQ was both enraged and dismayed when a disappointing Metacritic score -- low 70s, aggregated initially from some 30 reviews, many of which weren't penned by A-list outlets -- appeared to correlate with a sharp and sudden drop in THQ's stock value. Of course, THQ's outrage might have carried just a little more weight if it hadn't been in the service of defending a game that shipped with a couple of show-stopping bugs that didn't receive a fix until late last week.
At the same time they're hating, game publishers seem only too happy to embrace Metacritic's numbers-based approach to grading quality. Several shops, including bigs like EA and Activision, have tied developer bonuses (and, in some cases, continued employment) to hitting specific Metacritic target scores.
More than a few game reviewers -- and you can count me among them -- have argued that the whole system of grades (used by sites like IGN) and 10-point scales (used by mags like Game Informer and sites like Gamespot) ought to simply be scrapped in favor of simple, you know, written prose. Pauline Kael never used numbers and grades to label movies, yet she spent a lifetime influencing and illuminating the medium through sharp and clever writing. She gained the trust of readers through honesty and expertise, and those who didn't share her tastes either found a critic more to their liking or avoided the flicks she endorsed. The fact that so few game journalists share this quaint perspective is one of the reason why, four years after Chuck Klosterman asked the world why there was no Lester Bangs of video games journalism, we're still no closer to anointing one.
I worry about they ways Metacritic's aggregate-everything can hurt games that lurk on the edges of blockbuster. I happen to love Alan Wake and often recommend it to my friends who are looking for something atmospheric, spooky and head-tripping on their Xbox 360s. Per the Metacritic rubric, Alan and his trippy nightmare adventure only rate an 83 -- not bad, certainly, but not exactly buy-it-now good either. It's a score low enough for someone who wasn't willing to spend more than a few clicks researching the why and the how that went into that score to breeze right on by and check out Mass Effect 2 (Metacritic score: 96). And in our clickety-click world, we're all about the neat, two-digit package.
The ratings-centric landscape shows no signs of shifting, at least in the short term. As if to flex its muscles, Metacritic didn't even wait until last Friday's April Fools to unleash its latest feint -- a brief couple of days where the site went all Mel Kiper Jr. on us and began publishing Metacritic scores for the industry's biggest game developers, guys like Warren Spector and David Jaffe. After a hue and cry about the logistical shortcomings of assigning scores to individuals rather than products, Metacritic dropped the idea, but it's indicative of how the site views its growing role in the entertainment universe and where it's likely to rank next. It's a world of numbers, and we're all just clicking in it.