Simon Byron takes a look at the age old problem of the review scores circus, and the newest ringmaster, Metacritic.

Metacritic under review

The journalist slammed his glass on the table. “The thing is,” he slurred. “I play games all day. I know what’s good and bad about them. I can tell in ten seconds whether it’s a game people should buy.

And that’s why…” a fist came crashing down, spilling puddles of over-priced booze, “…I should write games for a living.”

This ludicrous statement was lost on the table. His peers obviously murmured in agreement. I thought: “You utter idiot, that’s like saying just because I listen to music, I can play the guitar.” Back in the real world, I slapped him on the back, told him he was right and ordered another round.

PR Executive of the Year, 2000.

I’m not sure what qualifications one needs to become a games journalist these days. I scraped in on only five O Levels – but the barriers to entry have fallen so far over recent years that anyone with the ability to type words into the Internet can almost legitimately call themselves ‘press’.

A decent score from a respected games publication can make all the difference at retail. But one 10/10 is no longer enough, it seems – we need to ask more and more people whether what we think they think is correct. Thank God, then, for the Internet, and its ridiculous freedom of information. Now, anyone with fingers can have a voice, thanks to the rise of aggregated review sites which take everything everyone says and distill it down to one happy colour-coded number.

Some sort of central hub of opinion is fine in theory – why make up your mind yourself when you can simply think what everyone else does? – but Metacritic’s shadow is looming larger and larger over the business, its influence largely unchallenged or questioned. Share prices, it appear, can rise or fall on a Metacritic percentage point – investors buy or sell depending according to the Internet average. Hell, even Develop’s sister publication MCV has started running stories about Metacritic scores – perpetuating the illusion that the site has some merit.

Start digging round the site beyond the headline scores, though, and things quickly become worrying. Its sources are a mix of the top specialist review destinations and loads of My First Internet Sites.

A cursory search shows one gave Guitar Hero World Tour’s “story” nine out of ten; another had, at the time of writing, reviewed 24 Xbox 360 games all year – roughly the amount released for the console in one Friday during November. On another, a review for Bioshock on PS3 had been read by 451 people in its month since publication – you could shout an opinion on Oxford Street and influence more people than that, as that God-loves-you man will attest.

Check out some of the forums; they are literally dead space. Eight people had voted on one site as to whether LittleBigPlanet’s delay “would affect it’s [sic] worldwide sales”. Many of these sites appear to have been set up for the sole purpose of getting free review copies from publishers. You may as well ask one of the tramps pissed-up down the bus-shelter whether they’d give Resistance 2 an eight or a nine; get a nursery of one-year-olds to potato-paint a number to signify the success of Far Cry 2’s transition to a sandbox world.

Yet these are the prestigious media outlets that Metacritic has identified as the best in the world. Ones they’ll listen to and allocate a score – once it’s gone through their own secret weighting system, of course. Yes, that’s right: Metacritic reviews the reviewers. We’re told that certain sites and certain individuals may carry more weight and therefore have their opinions counted double or something. Yet we’re not permitted to know how exactly they do this. We’re just supposed to judge the opinion of a site which apparently doesn’t have an opinion.

The system is utterly flawed, pandering to the sort of score-obsessed autism that proper journalists – the ones who actually labour long and hard over their actual words – become legitimately dismayed about.

Warner Brothers’ senior vice president Jason Hall once argued that Metacritic should be used to judge royalty payments. Interesting that the firm’s 300: March to Glory on PSP gained scores ranging from 85 to 10 per cent. Out of those, which would you trust? Most of the Internet is nonsense, words barely spell checked before they’re up online. But to legitimise much of this rubbish into some sort of official catch-all opinion which can influence stocking decisions, publisher commissions and shareholder confidence seems grotesque to me.

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