Tobold recently blogged a post about how videogame reviews are no longer relevant. In it, he compares sales of the games themselves versus the aggregate Metacritic scores and how in some cases these two diverge. His follow up post on McDonald’s popularity makes the point that a measure of quality isn’t really worthwhile because “consumers are quite rational, and that they make choices on a highly complicated multi-factor analysis.”
I think he’s right in that later statement. But Metacritic is useful, not because it’s a measure of good fun, but because it is an entirely subjective measure of things reviewers found interesting. It could be because of fun. Or it might just be because it was something they’ve rarely seem before. But before we get there, we need to understand why it diverges from sales figures.
Let’s go back to McDonalds. That fast food franchise isn’t popular because it sets a minimum quality of food. It’s popular because it sets an extremely low variance in its food quality. If you bother looking up patents actually owing to McDonalds, they’re primarily focused on quickly batch-cooking large quantities of food with little to no operator involvement and little to no variation in outcome.
US 3397993 A Process for preparing frozen french fry potato segments – use of raw potatoes vary too widely during the seasons. Frozen potatoes are a good substitute but they don’t match fries from raw potatoes. The entire patent focuses on the preparation of raw to frozen segments such that the final outcome is consistent.
US 3255570 A Means for filling containers – manual filling of bags using tongs tends to crush or deform the food. The patent outlines methods and means for rapidly, easily and controllably filling such containers.
US 3517605 A Bun toaster – a specially designed bun toaster that ensures consistent contact on buns of varying thicknesses.
US 3260419 A Dispenser with plunger and diffusor outlet – it is important and desirable that condiments to be provided on the food product are applied in uniform quantities, and preferably in predeterminable patterns which best distribute the condiment over the food product. That is important both in terms of uniformity of taste of the food product.
… and so on and so on.
When customers go to McDonalds, they for the most part get exactly what they wanted. Matching their expectations equals satisfaction. This is why franchises exist. In video games and movies, the same could be said. Players who already love a franchise, a director, or any specific aspect of ‘quality control’ will likely buy the next game in line; critics be damned. As long as their expectation of what they’re going to receive matches what’s in the box, it’s all good.
With fans, where Metacritic only starts coming into play is at the lower range. They might start looking at critic reviews to make sure the game wasn’t drastically altered. That it’s not bug ridden. But as long as those glaring flaws aren’t the reason why it was panned, as the saying goes a Michael Bay fan will continue watching Michael Bay movies. Critic opinions based on tastes are easily mentally discarded.
Metacritic is immensely useful though for new player acquisition. Players and movie goers aren’t immutable beings. Eventually they will tire of the next Michael Bay movie and look for something different. As a pre filter, anything below 80 metacritic is automatically discarded as something not worth their time. Within that span of 20 metacritic points lies the realm of possibilities for the person interested in finding something new and interesting. Because everyone’s taste varies, ranking within that is pretty much immaterial other than just being the order that its presented. In effect, it’s the Oprah’s Book Club except on a universal scale and slightly less directed.
Not making such lists doesn’t mean a game or book wasn’t fun on any subjective scale. But it just wasn’t interesting enough to be worth discussing. The main consumer for ‘consumer critiques’ is the person looking for something new and interesting. It isn’t the person looking for validation that their choice or tastes were correct.
An interesting corollary of all this is the franchise reboot. What is the point of resurrecting a franchise that’s effectively dead? In very basic terms, a known brand-name or IP showing up on the high metacritic range will garner clicks just out of simple curiosity, especially if the list itself is long. Rebooted franchises aren’t directly targeting the older fans. They’re targeting everyone else that only know it in passing. That’s why they can vary so differently in expectations for the old crowd.
Mind you, this entire essay is predicated on most people being very brand and franchise driven. They stay in their satisfaction comfort zones. This idea isn’t without merit though. Food, clothing, cosmetics, TV, film, and pretty much every single cultural product has had some psychology experiment listing the strong effects of this. Constant cinephiles or ludophiles are an extremely rare breed.