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The early days of gaming were tough – dozens of games on a shelf and it was up to consumers to make uninformed decisions about which were the ones worth spending their money on.  All they could do was go by word-of-mouth and the back of the box to make the decision.  Sometimes they were lucky and walked away with a classic like The Legend of Zelda.  Other times they happened upon an LJN “classic” such as Friday the 13thand instantly came to dread that little insidious rainbow.

Out of necessity, video game reviews began to emerge.  Finally consumers had a voice that could tell them whether or not to spend money on the newest game.  Some of these voices may have been a little biased (I’m looking at you, Nintendo Power) but all in all, they made gaming a much more manageable thing for those looking to game on a budget. 

Today, reviews are all over the place.  With the advent of the Internet, any curious consumer can find a review for any game in the last ten, fifteen, even twenty years in about five minutes.  Heck, they can usually find several.  Quantity does not always make things easier, however.  In the same time period, game reviews have changed almost entirely, carrying much more weight than they used to.  It has evolved into something that doesn’t just inform consumers; it enrages and possibly even influences them.

 I can’t possibly talk about game reviews without mentioning Metacritic.  Over the last generation of console games, Metacritic has become something that any gamer that is even slightly “in the know” has heard of and understands.  For those few of you that don’t happen to know, it is a review-aggregate site, a site that combines all the reviews (from chosen publications/websites) for a certain piece of content (movies, television shows, music, and video games are the current categories) into one combined score, allowing visitors to compare two things at a glance.

Of course, at first mention, that doesn’t sound like such a bad thing.  Who hasn’t wondered the overall impact of a certain movie or game and tried to average the scores themselves?  (I admit, I’ve never done that, but I’m sure someone has!)  It was certainly interesting at first, giving games one score instead of several.  Of course, it has evolved into so much more than that, and in such a short time period.

Surprisingly, Metacritic scores are very interesting to game developers and publishers.  You may be shocked to learn that some publishers have begun to base company bonuses and livelihoods on these Metacritic scores.  A mere five points, from a 85 to a 80 perhaps, could mean the difference between a company making enough money to go on and make another game or failing miserably and being shut down by the publisher.  It’s funny to think that company looks at the opinions of a few publications sometimes more than the amount of money the game actually makes. 

Even a game as big as Battlefield 3 could suffer from this.  Recently, producers on the game have said that the Metacritic score would absolutely affect how EA looks at the game’s success.  There really doesn’t exist anything close to the immediacy of a Metacritic score; within about three days of the game’s release, it has pretty much finalized.  Big companies like to know the overall success of a venture as soon as they can, so they can plan the next project that much more informed.  Furthermore, is a consumer really going to look at the sales of game and go “Look how many copies!  I should pick that up.”?  Of course not.  A review number is much easier to define “quality” from at a glance and that is really why Metacritic has taken off so heavily.

The introduction of Metacritic hasn’t just changed the developer side of things; it’s also started to affect those publications that write the reviews.  One reviewer can sway a Metacritic score pretty significantly, if that person’s review is wildly different in score from the others’.  Not only has it introduced a bit of collective behavior in that some reviewers don’t want to be “that guy that reviewed it differently” but it has also introduced a level of shame into the mix as well.  How many people want to write a negative review if they know that their review may be the one that pushed the Metacritic score low enough to push the company into bankruptcy?  Some may argue that that isn’t the fault of the reviewers but those individuals may feel actual guilt.  I would like to hope that most game reviewers are enough of a journalist to write an honest review but who really knows in today’s world?

Another feature of Metacritic is the user review section where anyone with an account is welcome to submit their own review.  These reviews are tallied into another average score, a different one from the publications’ score.  Of course, giving something like this to Internet users usually leads to bad news.  Recently, there have been a string of people randomly writing multiple negative reviews for games that had been receiving otherwise decent scores.  They didn’t truly think the game was bad; they simply submitted a bunch of zeroes to bring the game’s score down for fun or whatever reason.

Two games that had this happen to them were Bastion and Toy Soldiers: Cold War.  The developers of both games spoke out when this happened, using Facebook and Twitter to inform fans of the game that this was happening.  Each knew the importance of Metacritic and knew that a lot of potential sales could be lost from these negative reviews.  Signal Studios, developers of Toy Soldiers: Cold War, acted on their own, offering potential free copies of the game (in a raffle) to anyone willing to write positive reviews about the game on Metacritic.  This incited a bit of skepticism towards the company, leaving many to wonder how they could take the company seriously.  Metacritic itself stepped in eventually, deleting the negative reviews, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the problem is gone.  To some, a bad review seems silly while others know the power it can now wield in the industry.

This insane level of importance for something so simple is just a testament to how the nature of reviews has changed over the years.  Reviews have always had importance to publishers and developers but never to this amount in the past.  Of course, that isn’t the only way that they have changed.  We as consumers have come to look at reviews in a different light.  In a way, it seems like we have become less trusting of them.

Simply look at the comments of any video game review in the last few years and you will see my point within a page of comments.  The sheer amount of negativity that can come from rating a game slightly differently from another publication is mind-boggling, to say the least.  One point (on a ten point scale) can seem like five and anything lower than an eight is called an outright festering pile of garbage.  It has become so common that I hesitate to call it fanboyism or even people embracing the anonymity of the Internet – this is an outright outbreak.

Now, this paragraph is one that I probably shouldn’t even include.  It might come off as a bit ranty and I was hesitant to leave it in the final article.  It was the inspiration for the entire thing, however, so I feel it deserves a place.  The most frustrating thing about these comments on game reviews has to be the people demanding that the score should be this or that.  I don’t really mind it that much except when it’s on an article about a game that has not even come out yet!  How can they form a valid opinion about something they haven’t played?  It seems like the average gamer feels so entitled to an opinion that they forget when they shouldn’t even have one yet.  (end rant)

Reviews are in a rather scary place right now.  Game reviewers, at least the prominent ones, have taken on a more demanding role then they may have signed on for.  Instead of being a simple buyer’s guide for new products, they are instead influencing things in a way that should be entirely in the hands of those creating the games.  A review can now be a very powerful thing, particularly the score attached to the end (or the beginning, whatever).  I’m personally of the mind that scores are most of the problem and getting rid of them would be a good start.  The power behind a review score has ascended to a level where it can influence more than just an individual’s buying choices?  Whose bright idea was that?