Monday, May 9, 2011

Critics vs. players: The dividing line

Metacritic recently had an illuminating article about games that have divided critics and players. It was prompted by the reaction to Portal 2, which received glowing reviews from the pros but was - at least initially -  bashed by players. However, the article could just as easily have focused on Dragon Age 2. The article's list of "Games that critics liked but players didn't" includes the following:
2. Dragon Age 2 (PS3)
5. Dragon Age 2 (PC)
9. Dragon Age 2 (360)
For the PC version of DA2, the "Metascore" was 82/100, whereas the User Score was 4.3/10. I gave the game a rating of 70/100, so obviously I think the critic rating is somewhat high and the player rating is outrageously low. The question is, why the difference? Is there a reason why professional critics might rate a game higher than players?

The Metacritic article doesn't address that question, perhaps because it's too controversial. Or alternatively, because it's just too frickin' obvious. There's been a lot of talk about the ethics of video game journalism, but this quote from an article in the Online Journalism Review sums up the issue nicely:
Any player can write a review of a game, but only sanctioned media outlets have access to games before they are available to the public. Brokering these agreements falls upon an untoward mix of editorial and promotions.
In this particular case, PG Gamer was first publication out of the chute with a DA2 review, and guess what? They gave the game a 94 - a score that not only raised the average, but set a precedent. I'm not suggesting the positive review was the result of an explicit tit-for-tat agreement, but it does raise the question of whether there was something - to use the operative word from the above quote - untoward happening here.

The Metacritic article also includes lists of "Games that users liked but critics didn't" and "Games that critics merely liked but users loved." It's perhaps revealing (though not surprising to the jaded among us) that many of the games on these lists were less heralded games from lesser known companies. For example, The Witcher comes in at number 8 on the Critics Liked/Players Loved list. If I were forming a hypothesis about the lack of ethics in the gaming press, it might go something like this: "Games that receive a lot of hype prior to release - as measured by things like preview articles in the gaming press - tend to receive higher marks from critics than players."

"That's the scientific way of saying they're all a bunch of corrupt bastards."

Of course, it's entirely possible that PG Gamer - or at least the writer who did their review - really did like the game that much. I could buy that. After playing the game's demo, I was skeptical of any and all effusive reviews for DA2. But then, as I played the actual game and saw more positives and some of the innovative aspects of its design, I found it increasingly plausible that reasonable people could disagree on its merits - that it was, in fact, possible to justify a high score for DA2 (even if I personally disagreed).

It's also important to note that other factors could explain a difference between critic and player reactions, factors that have little to do with ethics. For example, a common criticism of game reviews is that the reviewer didn't spend enough time with the game (the rush to publish something at, or soon after, release being the reason). This is particularly relevant for RPGs, which tend to be much longer than other games. And in the case of DA2, a quick playthrough would have mitigated the game's biggest flaw - the reuse of assets such as areas and creature models, particularly in optional sidequests.

"This seems... strangely familiar."

But what about that User Score? Despite everything I've said about the professional critics, my own rating of DA2 is much closer to theirs than to the player average. Some of the faithful on the Bioware forums have suggested that there was an organized effort to bring down the User Score for DA2. I don't know about the validity of those claims, but in any case, I don't think you need a conspiracy theory to explain it.

For one thing, DA2 was a very different game than its predecessor, and that was bound to alienate some people. The comments attached to the low Metacritic user scores suggest many players hated specific design decisions, or just resented the overall change in direction from what they saw as a classic game. In short, many of the really low scores could be categorized as "protest votes."

Secondly, consider the nature of the Metacritic site. While critic reviews are pulled in from other sources, player reviews are posted directly on the game's summary page. This juxtaposition is an invitation for players to respond to critics and change the perception they've created. I suspect it's very common for people voting online to make meta decisions, in which they try to compensate for ratings that they believe are too high or too low in an attempt to move the overall impression toward something that reflects their opinion. In this case, players seem to be saying that the professional reviews for DA2 were a little high.

I can't say I disagree.