Time to kill Metacritic

Christopher Dring
Time to kill Metacritic

I've enjoyed reading some recent video games criticism.

Not just because they've been insightful and informative – games reviews often are – but because the critics have been disagreeing with one another.

I always used to be perplexed by video game reviews because, on the whole, all the critics seemed to agree with each other. If one journalist gives a game an 8, then you can guarantee that most others will, too (give or take a point). The occasional outlet that dares to go with a 6 will be accused of click grabbing.

Compare that to film or music. Film critics are always disagreeing on the quality of the latest release, and even the biggest blockbusters can receive drastically different scores.

That doesn't seem to happen in games. Maybe the critics are just too similar, or maybe too many journalists try to be objective in their criticism. Nevertheless, I was still surprised everyone seemed to think BioShock Infinite and The Last of Us were 9/10s. Surely someone wasn't that satisfied?

However, the reviews that have come out recently, whether it was for Destiny or FIFA 15 or Alien Isolation or The Evil Within, have been far more conflicted.

On Metacritic, Destiny for PS4 has been reviewed 89 times. 55 critics liked it, 33 were disappointed, and 1 really hated it.

Alien Isolation is a similar story. PC Gamer's Andy Kelly loved the game (and I do, too). But Kelly was so surprised other critics gave it a bit of a pasting, that he wrote an article addressing those criticisms. Ultimately, what other critics didn't like he loved. They had a different opinion about it. And that's exactly as he should be (something Kelly was also delighted to see).

Polygon recently came under fire from angry gamers after critic Arthur Gies dared to give Wii U's Bayonetta 2 a 7.5. He didn't like the ‘blatant over-sexualization' of the title. And you know what? I don't very much either. It makes me feel a bit uncomfortable. Some vocal Tweeters criticised Gies for that view. How dare he put his own world-view and issues in the way of the review? But that's exactly what he should be doing.

If you are the sort of person that share's Gies' concerns and opinions, then you're going to want to read his reviews. If you don't? Well then he's not the critic for you.

It's the same for me. I have a few ‘preferred' game, film and music critics that appear to share my taste. If they like something, then I probably will, too. I read pretty much every review from Eurogamer's Martin Robinson and freelance journalist Chris Schilling.

You will be the same. You might hate cover shooting (like me) and love RPG systems (unlike me), which makes your opinion on things different to someone else's. Take some of the reviews for The Evil Within. A recurring criticism is that the game is stuck a bit in 2005. Yet in my eyes, that's cool. I want to play a Survival Horror circa 2005. So those criticisms are irrelevant to me.

The problem with such subjective viewpoints, and something I'm sure partially inspires the backlashes against them, is Metacritic. Metacritic matters. And I mean really matters.

For some reason, the Metacritic number is – or at least appears to be – the final say on whether a gamer should or should not buy a game.

It got a 91 Metacritic score? I'm in! Only 77? Yeah, maybe pre-owned.

It's a ridiculous notion. Why is the Metacritic score – which includes the feelings of the reviewers you don't agree with – more important than the scores from individuals that you do agree with?

The Evil Within received a 9/10 on Game Informer by Tim Turi. If you're the sort of person that thinks Turi knows his survival horror, then you should be popping down to your local retailer now and picking it up. The fact the game's Metacritic rating is ‘only' 76 should not matter to you at all.

What's worse is that publishers even give developers bonuses based on the Metacritic performance…. I dread to think how many times a group of talented people didn't get their extra money because one journalist didn't like their game quite as much as the next guy. Metacritic's scores seem to have this illusion that by combining everyone's scores, it reduces the subjectivity. But that's not true at all.

And to the fans, these Metacritic scores actually matter. I'm a Zelda fan, and even I feel somewhat disappointed when a new Zelda title gets below 90 on Metacritic. I'll even try and look at that reviews that marked the game down and, normally, I find the critic would moan about the fact that this Zelda ‘is too much like the other ones'. Which in my view is no criticism at all, and I'll find myself itching to write down how wrong they are in 140 characters.

It's silly. That reviewer is fed up of playing ‘the same old' Zelda game, I'm not. Two different opinions, which are equally valid. It shouldn't matter. But because of Metacritic and the monetary value publishers place on its scores, it does matter.

So what's the solution? Prominent YouTuber Total Biscuit wrote in one of his long tweets recently that we should ‘abolish scores'. The sentiment is right, but it's unrealistic. People are busy. They don't always have time to read the whole critical analysis. Some just want to know if it's good or bad.

If we abandon the review score, will it condition gamers to read the whole review? Or just stop them reading altogether? I hope for the former, but expect latter.

In general, review aggregation sites are not ideal. We shouldn't place so much emphasis on them. But if we will continue to use them, then I think we need to find a different one. A middle ground that the film business has already adopted.

Metacritic rates movies, too. But the review aggregator that the film industry sets its benchmarks by is called Rotten Tomatoes.

Rotten Tomatoes has a very different methodology to Metacritic. Rather than add all the figures together to come up with an overall score, Rotten Tomatoes simply separates reviews into two piles: good and bad.

If a film received 80 good reviews (irrespective of the score) and 20 bad reviews, the Rotten Tomatoes ‘freshness' rating is 80. It means that 80 per cent of critics thought the film was good.

This is not as precise as Metacritic, but it means that the subjectivity of the critic has less impact on the overall rating. It's still not completely objective, but it is closer than what Metacritic currently reports.

Take Bayonetta 2. Gies' 7.5/10 means that the game's Metacritic score is cut to (the still very high) 91. But on Rotten Tomatoes, Gies' review would have been classified as ‘good'. And Bayonetta 2's score would currently be 100% Fresh.

This, in my mind, will have a positive impact in multiple areas. It means gamers will place less emphasis on collective review scores, and develop attachments to their preferred writers (much in the same way YouTubers have managed).

It means journalists can feel more confident in critiquing subjectively, which in turn will encourage alternative viewpoints on what makes a good game and, potentially, inspire creators to do things differently. It will allow alternative viewpoints to thrive and be respected.

Up until now, adopting the Rotten Tomatoes system for review aggregation in video games was not possible. As I mentioned at the beginning, historically most critics seem to be universally agreed on what games are good and what are not. That would result in almost every game getting an aggregated score of either over 90 or under 10.

And you'd find that there would be hundreds of games that would be rated 100% ‘Fresh' or 0% ‘Rotten'.

Yet the phenomenon we've seen lately with Alien, Destiny, FIFA, The Evil Within and so on receiving such differing review scores, suggests to me that we're now ready to change how we rank the quality of video games.