What makes a game review popular? Controversy.
In the game review world, in those sites ranked by Metacritic, it seems having a extreme opinion, aides in popularity of reviews.
This was something I’ve been interested in for a while, but I think I might have actually found a decent case subject, one of the most controversial game reviewers in the business Destructoid’s Jim Sterling.
I’ve followed Jim Sterling for a while, both on Destructoid and through his weekly video series on the Escapist called the Jimquisition where he talks about contemporary gaming issues. I don’t always agree with him, but he always speaks his mind, however infuriating that might be at times. It seems he often makes a point of upsetting his viewers intentionally. Especially in his show.
But before his Escapist vidoes, his game reviews on Destructoid were infamous for being harsher than most, and I wanted to find a reason why either the rest of the industry was mistaken, or he was. So I took a look at a few of his more controversial scores, and I find out that there’s a built in algorithm for extemes in Metacritic that leads to SEO benefits. Especially if you’re the only one giving a negative score to a game. This ensures your top billing on the Metacritic page for reviews, and it usually ensures the highest click through rate.
This investigation has brought me to the conclusion that Jim Sterling’s Reviews are extreme to receive more attention, and that’s exactly what he gets. The problem is in these cases the people who pay the price for these reviews are the developers. But more on that later. Lets see a few of Jim’s more polarizing reviews.
Assassin’s Creed 2
Metacritic Review score 90
Sterling Review 45
Now in this review Sterling gave the lowest score and the only review counted by Metacritic to be in the “red” band (meaning less than 50%).
Taking a look at the metrics for this review, it is the most clicked review of all other 82 reviews.
While Typing in “Assassin’s Creed 2 review” into Google Sterlings review also makes it to the top page, which is actually quite difficult to do from an SEO perspective especially for a game that sold 10 million copies.
Mario Kart 7
Metacritic Review 85
Sterling Review 50
This is another review that became incredibly popular, still charting on the front page of Google for the “Mario Kart 7 Review” query. This is again also the lowest review score for this game to be counted on Metacritic, and the fifth most clicked out of 73 Critic reviews
You can see similar cases with games like BloodRayne: Betrayal (Metacritic 69% Sterling 20%) the Witcher 2 Assassin of Kings (MetaCritic 88% Sterling 60%) that is rated as the most clicked (or highly clicked) on Metacritic and on the top page for Google search.
Final Fantasy XIII
This review is also punctuated by him saying that the game studio is engaging in masturbatory activities while making this game. I’m sure at least that wording made the review all the more popular, especially being the only negative review of the game out of 83 sources.
It also goes the other direction.
It seems to get a laugh, Jim decided to give the game Deadly Premonition a perfect score, while saying there are many things in the game that are sub-par. This must have been a great boon to the game publisher, and certainly made his review the most popular on the internet.
Why should we care?
Gaming Journalism is already not a very respected outlet. But in this case it seems like Jim Sterling’s reviews are written under the guise of notoriety. Of course reviews are just opinion, but when someone is consistently outside of the norm, and they receive benefits for that discrepancy (making their reviews more popular than their contemporaries) there is little doubt for the the reason behind it.
Jim even stated in a twitter conversation between Erik Kain, a Forbes journalist, that he just gives reviews that his audience wants.
What about his reviews that aren’t extreme?
None of Sterling’s reviews that are in line with other critics even make a mark on the most clicked on Metacritic, or on a top page on Google (like his 9.5 for Modern Warfare 3 or 10 for Skyrim), so it’s not the website’s inherent popularity that makes his reviews popular. Games that get extreme ratings on the other hand, like the above mentioned negative reviews and Sterling’s glowing review of Deadly Premonition, (MetaCritic 69% Sterling 100%) get top billing on Metacritic and Google, making the reviews more popular, and making Mr. Sterling more money through click rate.
What effect does this have on the developer?
These days in gaming, publishers tie bonus money to metacritic numbers. Most famously in the case of Obsidian, the game developer did not receive a 85 metacritic score for their game Fallout New Vegas (they were stuck at 84%) so they missed out on millions in bonuses, and have recently been in financial difficulties. It is not ok for reviewers to be using these reviews solely to get themselves popular, if some reviewer bombed that game in the same way that Mr. Sterling did, it would drop that Metacritic number just enough, to make them lose their bonus.
In any case, this was an interesting exercise at least, believe what you want, but one thing is sure, the more gamer rage there is out there, the more extreme reviews will be profitable for reviewers, which will lead to game journalism that is more sensationalist and extreme. If Mr. Sterling wants to just rail on games he should be doing it more in the vein of Zero Punctuation, who is incredibly popular, but none of his reviews are rated by Metacritic. Because it is obvious satire, but rating games consistently in this way can only be construed as an obvious attempt at making himself more popular, at the detriment to those working in the industry.
Edit* The Fallout New Vegas bonus was for an 85+ Metacritic score, not an 90. Corrected.