I read MTV Multiplayer’s article “Trying to Make Sense of so Many ‘Perfect’ Games” with a bit of sadness in that many are realizing what I realized when I first started working in this industry – review scores are arbitrary.
I’m reminded of a conversation I had with one of the senior designers here around when Bioshock came out. This was when it was averaging a 100 metacritic, making it the critical best game of all time. He said “Is it that good?” I replied, “It’s pretty good, yeah.” His response: “How is the multiplayer?” I told them there wasn’t any multiplayer. He then said, “How can Madden get dinged every year for wish-list features like Online Leagues that no other major sports game has, yet Bioshock can get away with not including a mode that every major shooter has?” I tried to defend it, “The game is really about the story not the shooting bleh bleh bleh” but he was right. Expectations are arbitrary and set by the PR firms and gaming press. No one expected there to be a multiplayer mode in Bioshock, so it wasn’t an issue that it was absent. But why didn’t they expect it? I don’t know.
Look at Mario Galaxy. It has camera issues as every 3d Mario game did before so no one took those issues seriously and it got showered with 10s. But what if it was a Crash Bandicoot in space game? What if it was an original title from Ubisoft? I doubt it would get much better than 8s. But the expectation is that a Mario game will blow the doors off the place and so that’s what reviewers will see. Nintendo has earned the cultural significance for this willful blindness. Sony hasn’t. Look at Lair. Sony clearly hasn’t. Nintendo can release a buggy Smash Bros. Brawl with a truly insipid single-player mode and because they’ve earned their cultural significance, a blind eye is turned. You don’t get that amnesty forever, though – look at Sega.
If we are giving every good game that comes down the pike a ’10’ if their expectations are set high enough and they deliver on some of them, then the future looks bleak for blockbuster franchises. Look at how Grand Theft Auto has been rewarded. It hasn’t taken any major design risks in comparison to previous titles with the notable exception of adding multiplayer. Some bugs that we’ve seen way back in GTA3 remain. Where’s the drive to make a more technically sound game if you call what we have here the pinnacle? Where does one go from here? What can GTA5 possibly deliver?
The Madden team gets that criticism all the time. They have nine months or so to make a game and when they don’t reinvent the wheel every year, when they don’t address some of the bugs that have been lurking for the past three years,they are slammed and torn apart as lazy or stupid or unskilled. But when Rockstar has four years to deliver the same, they are heaped with praise. GTA4 is a better game than Madden 08, so it isn’t necessarily an apples to apples comparison, but the similarities are striking.
I’d love to just say “abandon Metacritic” and be done with it, but the industry uses it as its primary quality barometer. So I guess I just wish reviewers acted like critics and criticized rather than being awestruck little fanboys. Is there a solution or am I fighting windmills here?