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How Metacritic rules the games industry

You’re probably kicking yourself for not thinking of it first. Instead of relying on one critic’s point of view, mash them all together into one easily-understood uberscore. Rubbish games will be punished, quality will win out, and the occasional dodgy verdict will be smoothed over by the masses. That’s the theory. Some games publishers hate it, others are trying to manipulate it, and the end result’s a system that might end up misleading you more than the individual sources it relies on. So exactly how much can you trust Metacritic?

Before you decide, you need to understand how it works. Founded in 2001 by three friends, the games arm of Metacritic’s day-to-day running is down to one man – former lawyer Marc Doyle. The site aggregates scores from a variety of websites, newspapers and magazines, ‘weighting’ more popular or reliable ones to give them more input into the overall average.

The appeal of a single score is so overwhelming that everyone from fanboys to shareholders has an interest in the magic number. Some developers even reportedly sign contracts including a stipulation that royalties or bonuses won’t be delivered unless their product hits a certain Metacritic score. “I’ve gotten emails from developers over the years who have said, ‘I don’t think you realize what you’re doing to me with this review’ because my review knocked them out of the range of some bonus that they were up for,” says former Gamespot editor Jeff Gerstmann. “That really troubled me.”

Eidos’ PR firm Barrington Harvey reportedly told website VG247 “We’re trying to make sure the Metacritic score is high,” but later reversed position, affirming that: “Barrington Harvey is not in the position of telling reviewers what they can and cannot say.” Doyle, meanwhile, thinks this approach is unsustainable anyway: “A certain AAA game last year had some amazingly high individual scores posted on Metacritic until about 7 or 8 days after the game’s release, and then the subsequent review scores started dropping like a rock. It doesn’t happen very often, but gamers are smart people, and they tend to sniff that kind of manipulation out.”

Finally, of course, fans themselves are trying to mess with the system. Recently, user-submitted scores for LittleBigPlanet and Gears of War 2 plummeted as rabid fans of each console tried to sabotage the other’s chances – LBP hitting a low of 6.4 while GOW2 hit rock bottom at 2.4.

“If a game publisher does everything it can to achieve a higher Metascore, the end result is probably going to be a better game.” says Doyle. “Publishers have realized over the last five or six years that certain high profile games with massive advertising budgets but abysmal critical receptions haven’t been selling as well as they used to.”