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80 or death – When numbers can kill

This week it was announced that shares at THQ had fallen by at least 20% following early reviews for Homefront. Reuters reported that THQ’s shares had fallen on Tuesday afternoon: “This score is a bit of a disaster for THQ and the share price today is reflecting that,” said Janco Partners analyst Mike Hickey. “The market is a quality driven market (and) you need at least a score of 80 and above on Metacritic to do well.”

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The current Metacritic score as I write this is 71 (on the Xbox 360). The scores range from 50 all the way up to 93. That’s average to brilliant; not quite the devastating reviews the report suggests. So what is about an ‘8’ that makes it such a desirable, or in this case, minimal score? If 5/10 is average, a 6/10 would make it instantly better than 50% of titles out there. You’d think that but would be wrong – 5/10 is not the industry average, 7/10 is.

To try and explain this, we’ll create an example. Let’s say that we’re creating a film review guide for magazine we work for. We come to a decision and agree of a scoring format of 1-10. To help our writers better understand what each score means we create this guide:

1 – Abysmal
2 – Too many frustrations to be enjoyable
3 – A few good ideas poorly executed
4 – For fans of the genre only, let down by too many flaws
5 – Average, won’t blow you away or disappoint
6 – Enjoyable, if flawed, film
7 – Definitely worth checking out
8 – A great film and highly recommended
9 – Brilliant
10 – Legendary; will be loved in generations to come as much as it is now

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Looking at the above, anything rated 6-7 is still worth checking out, especially if you’re a fan of the genre. A Metacritic score of 70 would put the game between average and legendary; not a bad thing. It’s a score that is higher than average and fun – however, would you buy a title that had a Metacritic score of 70? Possibly not, and so ‘80’ becomes the magic number. A recent article stated that research showed ‘there is a correlation between all the games that sell over that amount (one million). They all had 80 per cent and above on Metacritic, more or less. It seems there’s a correlation between reviews and buyers, and usability matters to reviewers’.

Perhaps it’s psychological, that last remaining piece of prehistoric jelly deep within our brains that refuses to accept an average score. When survival of the fittest really did mean just that and only the top 20% of each species had a chance of reproducing and continuing its bloodline. The video game market is a rampant beast, annihilating everything in its sight, fended off only by the strongest titles. Anything seen as weak is swept up and consumed, to be replaced by the next contender to the throne. However, evolution in this playing field isn’t as it once was, and rather than create an infinite range of possibilities, all beautiful in their own design, we have a market that some feel is stagnating.

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Or could it be that there simply aren’t enough truly bad games out there to create an average of 5. If a game is really that poor, and the producers see it, it would make more sense to cut their losses then, without paying to release the game and have it tarnish the studio’s name. Sure, there is the odd stinker that slips through the net, but with most of these titles not being released and therefore reviewed, we’re left with average games being seen as the bottom of the rung.

The whole situation, and belief that anything less than 8/10 equates to the death of a game, gives some insight into why triple-A titles could be heading to a standstill. How can a developer take a chance at something new, when a Metacritic score of less than this could lead not only to your game being seen as a financial failure, but your team losing their jobs?

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This is where download-only titles have found a market. They’re cheaper to produce, advertised within the dashboards of consoles and £8-10 titles don’t appear to be reviewed with the strict criteria £40-50 games are. They’re the straight-to-DVD titles of the video game world, occasional gems appearing and blowing their big-screen relatives away.

If Homefront was a downloadable title, stripped completely of its single player campaign, would the scores have been higher? Compare the game to reviews of FPS titles like Blacklight: Tango Down and Breach and the evidence would suggest so.

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Are we killing the market? This isn’t the ‘royal’ we, or you as a gamer. This ‘we’ is us, the reviewer, the games journalist. The obsession with review figures and solely what a game scores is worrying. The news that we can collectively kill a game and its studio by scoring a title as average is a worrying proposition. You can’t develop and work on positive feedback. With negative feedback, however, you can see what went wrong, open discussion and work to correct the issues in the future. But if being in the position to receive negative feedback can inherently cripple a studio, there is no hope for progression. And we wonder why the same irks in games constantly repeat themselves.

A title is released by a studio that you love. The game is good, and by the end of it you’re settled on a 7/10. Now, you know the last title of theirs didn’t succeed as well financially as it should. So do you become part of the reason that ruined the developer, or nudge the score up slightly? Not even taking into account whether the company has already paid for advertising on your site/magazine, this is a true test of a reviewer’s journalistic integrity.

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How deep the need to hit certain scores runs within the industry can only be fully understood by those that reside within it. This search for the crucial ‘80’ may create a video game industry of soulless, overpriced triple-A titles and inventive, cheaper downloadable titles. Are we currently going through that painful time cinema had when films like Batman Forever were called the greatest films ever made? It’s a worrying sign for those of us who’ve grown-up through many generations of gaming, and a shame for newcomers too.

The author of this fine article

is the Deputy Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in December 2010. Get in touch on Twitter @shaneryantb.

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