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It’s Not Enough to Make 'Good' Video Games Anymore

The sprawling but just OK Destiny proves that all the money in the world can’t make people like you. Mid-tier games find themselves unfairly marginalized for having a few nuts and bolts loose despite, generally, being a lot of fun. So go on...
September 18, 2014, 7:00am

Destiny

Destiny is a hit, no doubt about it. The game—an always-online multiplayer shooter from Halo creators, Bungie—reportedly cost $500 million to make, but it made that money back in just 24 hours of retail. It debuted at number one in the UK, in the process becoming the fastest-selling new video game IP of all time, replacing Watch Dogs. Its sales are roughly split 50–50 between PlayStation and Xbox platforms, proving that despite Sony’s hard sell with the software, bundling it with their PlayStation 4 console, Microsoft-owning gamers have just as eagerly snapped up copies.

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And yet, it’s a not-entirely-surprising "failure," too. Reviews have been mixed, what with the game offering little in the way of genuinely revolutionary elements, with leading publications awarding the game-reserved scores. Eights from the Guardian and Eurogamer are good, but sixes from the likes of Gamespot and Polygon have seen Destiny’s Metacritic average, its "metascore," come in at 76, from a possible 100, on PS4. The Xbox One version rates slightly higher at 79, but is based on significantly fewer reviews: just six compared with the PS4’s 55.

Stop an average man on any average street and ask them what Metacritic is and he'll likely shrug. But to those active in the media—particularly games, music, TV, or cinema—the online reviews aggregator is both a blessing and blight on their industry. It can highlight undiscovered gems from years past, which is great; but equally, it can wreck a release’s chances outright. In the crowded game market, anything that falls into Metacritic’s yellow tier—titles with a metascore of 74 and 50—is likely to be overlooked for those with a green score, 75 and over.

Prototype 2

trailer

The lines are fine, and they not only divide an apparent average experience from ones perceived to be brilliant but can bring about an abrupt end to developers’ ambitions, even their employment. In its October 2012 issue, Edge magazine reported on the fate of Radical Entertainment, a Vancouver-based subsidiary studio of publisher Activision (also behind Destiny, coincidentally), in the wake of a yellow-banded reception to their that-summer-released, superhero-styled Prototype 2. The game was anticipated—its predecessor was well received, being the top-selling Xbox 360 game stateside in the month of its release. And Prototype 2 generally went down well—but its 360 metascore of 74, just a point from that magical green, caused problems.

Prototype 2

Activision, disappointed with reviews and slow sales, called for an end to the Prototype series, stating that the games had “failed to find a broad commercial audience." Substantial layoffs at Radical followed, with the studio’s senior audio director Rob Bridgett going so far as to tweet that the company itself was dead.

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RIP Radical Entertainment 1991-2012

— Rob Bridgett (@rbridgett) June 28, 2012

The Edge piece went on to suggest that “anything under a perfectly respectable [metascore of] 85 might as well be a failure," before highlighting a series of Radical-like situations where publisher expectations were not met by development teams’ best efforts. Kaos Studios created Homefront in 2011, but its lukewarm reception saw THQ, itself now defunct, shut the New York–based studio down. Polygon published a fantastic piece on the Homefront saga, and its bitter conclusion for the game’s makers, in 2012, and it’s well worth a read.

Liverpool’s Bizarre Creations, behind the awesome real-world racer-with-weapons Blur and kill-streak competitive shooter The Club, was acquired by Activision in 2007 but closed just four years later, when (the green-rated!) Blur failed to turn critical praise into commercial points. Creative director Martyn Chudley was damning of the giant publisher’s role in his studio’s demise: “We weren’t making ‘our’ games anymore—we were making games to fill slots. We did believe in them, but they were more the products of committees and analysts. The culture we’d worked on for so long gradually eroded just enough so that it wasn’t ‘ours’ anymore.”

Nobody’s about to lose his job at Bungie as Destiny continues to roll out: With expansion packs coming and a number of timed events scheduled for the next few months, the game is a kind of work in progress, making a definitive rating tough so soon after its release—hence the slow reveal of official scores. And yet its Metacritic reception could cost its makers a substantial bonus payout, as Kotaku revealed on September 16. According to archive documents dating from 2010, if the game was to reach 90 on Metacritic and/or the game-specific GameRankings site—76.21% at the time of writing—Activision would honor an agreement to pay $2.5 million to its developers. Which isn’t looking likely, is it?

Bonuses based on how a game (meta)scores is nothing new. Obsidian Entertainment missed out on substantial money from their publisher, Bethesda, when their 2010 role-playing game Fallout: New Vegas came in at 84, a single point south of activating the extra payment. Missing out on the cash resulted in necessary layoffs at the Californian studio—which was behind the surprisingly excellent South Park: The Stick Of Truth earlier in 2014—and had Ars Technica calling for an end to such a bonus system, writing: “Publishers… are using [Metacritic] improperly as some sort of final, objective arbiter for the quality of games its developers are putting out.” Which, of course, is crappy in the extreme, as we’ve all played through enjoyable games that have fallen into Metacritic’s wide yellow waters.

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I can name a bundle of games that Metacritic will tell you are, at best, to be picked up in the bargain bins for a spot of attention when you’ve exhausted all the big-hitters but that I’ve fallen for fairly heavily. I was absolutely smitten with the art and atmosphere of Dontnod’s future-Paris-set adventure for Capcom, Remember Me—and I wrote about its appeal over here. Its metascore: 70. I played through the whole of The LEGO Movie Videogame with my oldest son, and we both adored its humor and simple, building-block puzzling—but there it is with a metascore of 69.

Remember Me

—this game is goddamn gorgeous

Binary Domain, released in 2012, is a third-person shooter from veteran Sega designer Toshihiro Nagoshi, a man with credits on some true classics: Daytona USA, Super Monkey Ball, and the celebrated Yakuza series. Like Remember Me, its (near-future-Tokyo) setting is excellent and its action incessant, but a few minor shortcomings saw it saddled with a 74 on GameRankings. Sales were low, with only 20,000 copies sold in two months of US retail. Despite a great team behind the scenes, a decent publisher in Sega, and some positive reviews from key publications—8/10 from Eurogamer, 8.5 from Machinima—it’s one of those Edge “failures," falling into what the magazine’s 2012 piece termed the “dreaded mid-tier."

It’s incredibly difficult to bring a truly shitty game to gold status—the moment at which its code goes into mass manufacture and reaches store shelves (and digital shop fronts) the world over. Most likely fuck-ups are aborted long before the public gets wind of them. But some developers have, admirably, achieved amazingly abysmal results with relatively recent offerings: 2013’s Ride To Hell: Retribution, by Newcastle-upon-Tyne studio Eutechnyx, rated at 19/100 on Metacritic (for Xbox 360—other platforms scored lower), and the same year’s DARK, from German developer Realmforge, averaged 38 for the same system. And we definitely don’t need to say any more about Aliens: Colonial Marines, DO WE?

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In its time, the massively popular Wii played host to some spectacularly awful games. These ranged from terrible movie tie-ins like Ice Age 4, to the Far Cry series’ low point Vengeance, to the abject disaster that was futuristic racer Wheelspin, a game so bad that Official Nintendo Magazine—yup, the system’s official magazine—called it “one of the worst games we’ve ever played… (that) falls apart quicker than a roll of toilet paper in a car wash." Then there was Ninjabread Man, considered “unbearable” by IGN as it awarded the game 1.5/10 and the utterly bizarre Sukeban Shachou Rena, which apparently sold just 100 copies in two weeks in Japan. The player must dodge flying cats that have taken over an office, while catching friendly ones. Or something. I don’t know. Watch the video below and try to make sense of it.

Sukeban Shachou Rena

Makes pigeon dating look totally reasonable. But legitimately bad games are becoming fewer and further between—look at the PlayStation 4’s all-time Metacritic scores so far, after almost a year on the market, and very few indeed fall into the red, with a score of 49 or less. Which goes to prove that the mid tier is becoming the new bottom rung, and going forward no developer can afford to have their game slip into the yellow if they’re to genuinely see a return on not just their hard work, but keep the faith of their number-crunching publishers.

Octodad

Destiny is fine—it’s not a great game by any means, but its shooting works, and it looks really pretty. You can be a sexy blue lady with a big gun, and that’s cool. It’s less-mainstream, lower budget, more creative efforts like Octodad: Dadliest Catch—metascore, 69—that can find themselves unfairly marginalized courtesy of being divisive, for having a few nuts and bolts loose despite, generally, being a lot of fun. I guarantee you that playing Octodad will make your life better for half an hour—and if you spent those same minutes on Destiny, you might not even get beyond its hypnotic menus.

So, go on, embrace the mid tier, and brave some of its yellows. They’re a lot brighter than so many of the formulaic greens above them, and you might even keep a few people in game development long enough for them to realize your next console obsession.

Follow Mike Diver on Twitter.