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When Review Scores Go Bad: Why Too Much Importance Is Put On Numbers

Posted on Wednesday, October 30 @ 16:00:00 PST by Paul_Tamburro

Upon scrolling through the exhaustively long and vitriolic comments section of Anthony Severino’s review of Sonic: Lost World, in which he awarded the game a lowly one star out of five, I considered how more and more people fail to understand how reviews work.

There were commenters who believed that Anthony should’ve been more objective (because reviews apparently shouldn’t contain their writers’ opinions), those who inevitably accused him of simply “click-baiting," and then those who listed some of the more positive scores given to the game by GR’s fellow gaming websites, before angrily suggesting that Anthony was wrong because his thoughts didn’t completely reflect that of others writers’.

With this in mind, I’ve decided to take it upon myself to deconstruct the oft-discussed rating system, and examine its importance and relevancy in the gaming industry. Now, if you’d like to accompany me down the Rabbit Hole, we must first discuss…

The Review

The review, a.k.a. that big block of text before the review score, is the most important part of a critic’s analysis of a video game, though it isn’t treated as such. The review will often contain a detailed analogy of a game’s strengths and its weaknesses, and will compare both in order to determine whether the critic regards the game to be a success or a failure. As reviews are always subjective, some things that the critic considers to be pros you may personally consider to be cons, and vice versa. As such, if you are interested in purchasing a game but wish to read some reviews prior to you plonking down your hard-earned cash, you should read this text first, rather than immediately scrolling down to…

The Review Score

The Internet has whittled down our attention span so much that for the disturbing majority reading anything that isn’t delivered in 140 characters or fewer is apparently unfeasible. We’re all guilty of scrolling to the bottom of a review to see its score before reading its text, but it seems that those of us who recognise that the score isn’t the most important part of the review are in the increasing minority. Unfortunately, it isn’t just the average reader who considers the score to be the most important facet of a review, as this opinion is now being shared by the publishers of these games, all thanks to…

*From sliverstorm's Vox Pop entry on review Metascores and completion rates

The Metascore

Metacritic is a review aggregator, and achieving a high ‘Metascore’ on it is being perceived as more and more crucial by publishers looking to rake in the big bucks. This puts a much larger importance on the job of the reviewer, whose negative opinion of a game could affect its overall Metacritic score and, as was the case with Fallout: New Vegas developers Obsidian who were tasked with reaching an 85 rating on the site in order to achieve a hefty bonus, can result in people losing a lot of money.

Review scores are now plastered on the front of game boxes, on the sides of buses and on billboards, which means that many publishers want their developers to strive for a high score more than they want them to achieve their creative vision. This results in big-name companies refusing to take risks, afraid of gambling a few Metacritic points by releasing a game which might alienate a few reviewers. The unnecessary level of importance given to the opinions of reviewers is then echoed by…

The Comments Section

Reading the comments section underneath a review is to descend into madness, with frenzied debates taking place among the anonymous hordes regarding the credibility of the reviewer, his/her alleged bias towards or against a particular genre/developer/console, and of course the obligatory frustrated writer who thinks he/she could do better. As a critic, there is nothing more infuriating than scrolling through a comments section of your review and witnessing a crowd of usernames bickering amongst each other regarding just how wrong you are, how the game’s actually great/awful but you’re just playing it wrong/are a shameless fanboy or fangirl/just suck at the game.

If a friend was to tell these individuals that they didn’t enjoy Sonic: Lost World very much, they’d likely engage in a short, amiable debate before swiftly moving on with their lives, but when a reviewer on the Internet explains why they didn’t enjoy Sonic: Lost World, it’s treated as a personal affront by those who did enjoy Sonic: Lost World, and it suddenly becomes SERIOUS BUSINESS. This is because the opinions of a reviewer aren’t treated as the opinion of one lone critic, but of the entire company he/she represents.

A reviewer for IGN, for example, won’t be referred to by name when people discuss their review of a game, but will instead simply be referred to as “IGN," with the conversation going something like this: “IGN only gave *insert name of game* a 6.5. What steaming piles of shit those guys are. I’m going to kill them, and then myself, to prevent ever hearing a negative review about a thing I enjoy ever again.” In actuality, another member of IGN’s staff might very well have given that game a 7.5, or maybe even an 8.0, but that one particular reviewer thought less of it and therefore rewarded it 6.5, which by today’s standards means that a game will be considered absolute tripe, bringing me onto my final point…

The Current, Incredibly Flawed Rating System

For as long as I can remember, media outlets that utilize the 1-10 rating scale have claimed that a game receiving a score of 5 should be considered average. However, that is clearly not the case, with 7 now being widely acknowledged as the score for a passable, half-decent game, and the numbers 1-6 being used to determine just how bad a bad game is. This idea is perpetuated by the gaming community, who will bash their hands on their keyboards until their fingers turn blue if a game they like or are excited for receives anything below a 7.

The problem is that the media outlets who still consider 5 to be the average score for a game will ultimately throw the Metacritic aggregator way off balance, and be penalized by the community for the not conforming to this unspoken reviewing scale. Considering that some people's futures rely on achieving a good Metascore, this is rather unfortunate.

A bigger problem with the current rating system, though, and one which will ensure that it will always be a flawed way of judging the quality of video games, is in the meaning given to each number of every score. Some, myself included, believe that a score should simply reflect how highly you recommend a game, with 10 indicating that you thoroughly recommend it, and 1 indicating that you don’t recommend it at all. However, the majority seem to believe that the score should reflect the quality of each facet of the game, meaning that a thoroughly unenjoyable game which nonetheless boasts exemplary graphics and sound design could earn itself a 6/10 based upon these reasons alone, while a fantastic game could find itself having a few points docked from its score because it is less successful in those areas.

Essentially, this makes review scores all but meaningless. Video games are complex things which can’t really be dissected and reviewed as sums of their parts, and points shouldn’t be specifically designated to graphics, gameplay, sound, story and the like. Doing so only stands to uncomfortably pit the likes of thoughtful PC indie game The Stanley Parable against the gargantuan Grand Theft Auto V, with many in the gaming community scratching their heads when a 3-hour budget release achieves the same score as a sprawling, infinitely replayable bestseller. This is because the rating system is fundamentally broken.

The truth is no one actually knows how to apply a review score to a game, and this is because it is quite impossible. Each media outlet is using its own measuring stick, but given that these measuring sticks are then being collated by Metacritic, those who attempt to break from the trend by choosing to award thoroughly mediocre games anything other than the ubiquitous 7/10 are fighting a losing battle. As a consumer, your best bet when reading a review is to actually read the review and not put too much emphasis on its score, because thanks to the rise of Metacritic and the Internet in general, they are far less indicative of the quality of a game than they ever have been.

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