Motivation by Metacritic: How Low Review Scores can Cost Game Devs Money

Videogame developers are always under immense pressure to deliver on the product they are creating, and despite all the hard work, if a game doesn’t sell, the people behind it are in trouble. In today’s gaming industry, sales aren’t the only thing there is to worry about, as publishers are also instituting financial penalties on developers if the average review for a title falls under a certain Metacritic score. So what are these penalties? Most contracts forged with a publisher that entail some sort of agreement on review scores state that certain royalties or bonuses will not be delivered if reviews are not up to the publisher’s standards.

So what if a game sells well but receives poor reviews? Well cases like Steven Totilo’s anonymous source, selling even a million copies of a game was not enough to compensate for the poor reviews it received, resulting in no royalties for the developer after the title’s release.

In his article on the issue, Steven Totilo speaks to other game developers, including President of Silicon Knights, Dennis Dyack, and president of Insomniac Games, Ted Price, who are both aware of the practice and strongly against it. Price explains that the relationship between a game developer and publisher must be one based on trust and common goals, making threats such as these lead to an unhealthy and unproductive working environment. But while making threats based on review scores may not be helpful, what about offering bonuses instead?

According to Matthew of the Magical Wasteland blog, the incentive to chase high review scores for benefits can be harmful to game development as well. Although he could not mention the name of the parties involved, Matthew describes the ways in which game producers for a certain company set about creating their games in such a way to achieve the highest review scores possible. Apparently, this was done by researching what tickled game reviewers fancies the most, such as large set piece battles, robust multiplayer options and more gameplay options in general.

Unfortunately, while trying to cram in every feature that each of the past Game of the Year possessed, several late additions and reckless changes were enacted on the publisher’s titles. These tweaks included multiplayer modes and missions being slapped on in a rush by outsourced workers, and level based games all of the sudden becoming sandbox games. Clearly, having to put such a focus on delivering the right game to the press takes the designer’s attention away from the work at hand, whether fierce punishments reside behind a poor Metacritic score, or extravagant rewards are promised for a positive one.

All of these stories may sound bizarre and cruel enough to be a ruse by angry game developers trying to belittle sites like Metacritic, but notable members of the gaming press have come forth and confirmed such practices. Former GameSpot writers, Jeff Gerstmann and Alex Navarro, can both recall emails from developers explaining that a low score one of the writers assigned to their game caused the Metacritic score to sink below a certain range and rob the developer of a potential bonus.

Game reviews have always been seen as fairly important to the hardcore consumer, and publishers seem to be acknowledging it by bringing the voice of the press right into the offices where the games are being made, in a sense making critics the bosses. Perhaps the publisher’s prevention strategy is really the aggregate when it comes to games receiving low scores, as developers are receiving the wrong kind of motivation, leading to the creation of more bad games than good.

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