I’ve never hidden my disdain for Metacritic (and GameRankings, but mostly Metacritic), the Web site that aggregates review scores for video games (and movies and so forth). It’s an insane concept: let’s round up all of these ostensibly separate opinions, throw ‘em in a blender, and come up with a single, solitary number that conveys a game’s entire worth. Balderdash, I say. Review scores aren’t a standardized measurement—a 9.2 over at IGN doesn’t mean a 9.2 at Edge, or an A over at 1UP.
This latest news pleases me. The Cowen Group (one of those fancy research companies whose analysts are always quoted in news stories) has released the details of a study that shows, plainly, that a game’s review score is the least important barometer that people pay attention to when shopping for games. That is to say, whether a game gets an 8 or higher (or lower!) matters very, very little to a person when they’re at Wal-Mart or Best Buy, or cruising the latest releases on Amazon or Steam.
The study found that people pay attention to the following items, in order of most important to least important, when shopping for video games: genre; whether or not it’s a familiar game series; price; word-of-mouth; advertising; publisher reputation; and, lastly, Metacritic score.
Let’s look at this.
• Genre Obviously. If you don’t like FPSs, odds are you’re not going to like Modern Warfare 2 or BioShock or Left 4 Dead 2. If you are a fan of the genre, then it’s pretty much guaranteed that you’ll derive some entertainment out of said games.
• Familiarity This helps explain why all the big games for the past few years have all been sequels. If you liked Left 4 Dead 1, you can pretty safely assume you’ll enjoy Left 4 Dead 2. Well, unless you’re one of the boycotters. It’s merely more of the same. New Zelda? Sign me up. Final Fantasy XXXIV? I loved the other thirty-three!
• Price Well, yeah. How many people enjoyed all those Guitar Hero games, but then bailed out when it became a yearly $150+ affair? (Not that you have to re-buy the instruments every year, no, but you play one of these games and you’ve played them all.) Remember when PlayStation games were $40?
• Word-of-mouth You’re at the store with your friends, “Oh, don’t buy that, I heard it sucks.” Or, “Dude, did you buy Game yet? The multi-player is wicked awesome.”
• Advertising I readily admit to being susceptible to advertising. I had zero interest in buying Assassin’s Creed II until I saw that slick Justice trailer on TV. A few days later, and I’m jumping around the rooftops of Renaissance Italy.
• Publisher reputation Remember a few years ago when everyone hated EA? You know, ea_spouse and all that. (By the way, what publisher do we all hate now? My guess is Activision.) I’m going to assume that only the “hardcore” gamers give a turkey what company publishes (or develops) a video game. Why haven’t I bought Call of Duty: World at War? Because it was developed by “the other guys,” Treyarch, and not good ol’ Infinity Ward.
• Score Who honestly walks through a Best Buy and says, “You know, I was going to buy Game 2: The Sequel, but IGN (or whomever) only gave it a 7.3”? The number itself is meaningless, and if you’re even remotely interested in a game you’d do well read every single review you can stomach. And by read the review I really do mean sit there and absorb what the writer is trying to convey; don’t just skim it and say, “eh, looks neat.”
In conclusion, review scores are dumb; aggregating review scores is monumentally dumb.