Do videogame review scores matter?

As Eurogamer announces a change to the way it reviews its games, we ask: do videogame review scores matter?

Yesterday, Eurogamer announced a fairly major shake-up in the way it reviews its games: effective immediately, the website’s dropping its traditional system of awarding a title a number out of 10. In its place comes a new format, whereby some – but not all – games will be awarded the label “Recommended” or “Essential”, or the slightly less auspicious “Avoid.”

From one standpoint, it might not seem like much of a big deal. After all, it could be argued that a mark out of 10 (or a one-to-five star system, like the one Den of Geek uses) breaks down along similar lines to the three categories of recommended, essential or avoid. Most would agree that a game awarded between one and four out of 10 is best avoided, while a five to an eight is a recommendation to a varying degree, while a nine or 10 falls into the essential category, for example.

Then again, ratings have been a major part of the videogame landscape almost from the beginning. In the UK, such magazines as C&VG, ACE, or Your Sinclair all carried their own scoring systems, some also marking games out of 10 in such categories as graphics, sound and playability. It made perfect sense: with games being both plentiful and expensive, it was useful to come up with a quick and simple means of distilling an opinion down to an understandable metric. A scoring system is essentially a quick means of saying “That conversion of Out Runs probably best avoided, but Rainbow Islands is a real cracker,” or, “We’d heartily recommend Halo 3 over, say, Haze.”

There’s long been a sense of drama and entertainment to scoring games, too. Over the course of their increasingly protracted creation, major games are frequently unveiled with all the pomp and grandeur of a sports car. They’re shown off at trade shows and press events to eager journalists and public alike, and their images are plastered all over TV adverts and billboard posters. The traditional game review is, in many respects, the final chapter in that long story: years of work and, often, millions of dollars are distilled down to a single score out of five or ten. It’s like a penalty shoot-out, or a high-stakes gamble at a roulette wheel. As a reader, it’s hard not to be entranced by the drama of it all.

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Gradually, however, things have begun to shift in the games industry. Games are no longer finished, packaged and delivered as they once were. They can be fixed up with patches and expanded with additional content over a period of months or years. In the 90s and well into the 2000s, it was taken for granted that a game given to a reviewer would be the same as the one you could pick up in the shop. In more recent times, this is no longer the case – a game that is bug-ridden when a reviewer gets his or her hands on it before release may be fine by the time a day-one patch comes out. Conversely, a perfectly decent MMO could be ruined by a later update which tips its delicate balance.

Then we come to aggregate websites like Metacritic. For several years, Metacritic has held a worrying amount of sway over the industry. Most of you reading this will be aware that videogame companies have been known to watch how a game fares on the site, and will reward their teams depending on the resulting score. Only last year, news broke that Destiny’s middling score of 76.29% on GameRankings may have cost Bungee a $2.5m bonus from publisher Activision.

It’s a strange and worrying situation, considering aggregate sites are essentially taking a series of opinions and attempting to distil them down to a single figure – a figure which holds enough power to cost publishers or developers millions of dollars. Some researchers, meanwhile, have even argued that Metacritic’s means of arriving at its scores are shaky at best.

With such an increased, even obsessive industry focus on review scores, Eurogamer’s stance seems understandable, and even commendable. The number at the bottom of a review is, after all, just that: a number, an imprecise yet efficient means of distilling a critic’s conclusion into a single, bite-size digit. Ultimately, it’s the 1,000-or-so words above the score that really matter: therein lie the nuance, the analysis, the meat of why you should or should not consider laying down your hard-earned cash for the latest game.

Removing numbers from reviews places the emphasis back on the words, while also avoiding the kind of arguments that often break out in comment sections, such as, “The review reads more like a seven,” or, “This is the third game in a row you’ve awarded an eight.”

Most of all, Eurogamer’s altered score system is a reaction to the growing influence of sites like Metacritic – editor Oli Welsh even said as much in his announcement of his site’s plans yesterday. “Over the years, we’ve come to believe that the influence of Metacritic on the games industry is not a healthy one,” Welsh wrote. “It’s a problem caused by the over-importance attached to Metascores by certain sectors of the games business and audience […] The result has been conservatism in mainstream game design and a stifling of variety in critical voices. In short: it’s meant less interesting and innovative games.”

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This, perhaps, is the core of the situation: review scores really do matter in videogames, but the reason why they’re important has become clouded. A number once intended as a rough guide, a summary of an opinion, has been distorted into something more alarming: it’s a cog in a massive engine that attempts to say definitively whether a game is worthwhile or not. The individual thoughts, voices and opinions all get crushed in the wheels of that aggregate machine, leaving publishers and developers quaking at a Metacritic score’s ability to make or break their sales, and users at the other end arguing ever more loudly about “objective” versus “subjective” reviews.

Of course, the changing face of the videogame scene needs to be taken into account. Reviewing a game is no longer necessarily as simple as it once was, with games like Destiny moving and changing all the time – these kinds of games clearly need to be returned to and judged over a period of time, and the task of evaluating them becomes more like plotting the course of a TV series than a traditional game. But criticism is never perfect. It never has been, and never will be. Like the games themselves, reviews are written by human beings, and scored by human beings. Sure, they’re subjective, and imperfect, and you may even think they’re sometimes wrong. But they’re also part of our discourse and the back-and-forth chatter of our cultural landscape.

Ultimately, scores do matter: they help us compare one thing with another and help us to make an informed decision as a consumer. They’re also entertainment: they appeal to our peculiarly human desire to rank things, or confirm our own suspicions: “I thought that Haze game looked iffy from the moment I first saw it.” But scores are useful only when they’re taken as part of the body of the review itself, because therein lies the nuance and the analysis. Two games released on the same day could both, for example, be given three stars by the same critic, but for very different reasons. A score’s value lies not in the score itself, but the thought and human judgement behind it.