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Professional game reviews more important than user ones, research suggests

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Muppet Critics

Thanks to social media and increasingly social elements of platforms, everyone can be a critic. From amateur food critics detailing the pros and cons of restaurants to the ridiculous number of users posting their views on Rotten Tomatoes about the latest movies, to even that ability to put stars next to series on Netflix to warn or advise future viewers – truly, everyone’s a critic. However, when it comes to games, research shows that professional video game critics have a far greater influence on buyers than other consumers’ opinions.

New research being published in the Journal of Consumer Behaviour essentially “turn upside down the strongly held belief that customers’ word of mouth is king in a market worth an estimated £60bn worldwide a year.” Reviews from professional critics are taken most seriously with mature players, showing that a 10% increase in review score leads to an 18% increase in sales:

This suggests mature gamers are more discerning in their choice of which games to buy and that they perhaps pay greater attention to professional critics than younger gamers do. This could be because they have less free time and so want to make sure they don’t waste it by playing a low-quality game.

In contrast, third party endorsements and word of mouth does not seem to have any effect on sales once researchers also accounted for reviews from professional game critics. It seems to come down to consistency – while consumers contribute more than twice as many reviews as professionals, their opinions varied wildly on games that were considered of higher quality while professional critics tended to be more consistence in their assessments of games regardless of quality. As a result, this lends a greater degree of certainty for consumers.

However, I’m a bit concerned about the policy analysis drawn from the research findings. The report recommends that game producers could strengthen their competitive advantage by focusing less on the opinions of gamers in general and more on the opinions of professionals. It even goes so far as saying:

The key policy recommendation our findings suggest is that publishers make increased use of metacritic scores when forming contracts with development studios, similar to a ‘performance related pay’ arrangement. This better aligns the incentives of both parties and might help ensure that developers prioritise the quality of the gameplay experience over any other factors. That’s got to be a good thing for video game players.

As soon as salaries are pegged to Metacritic scores, we can see a host of problems, from developers being afraid to take risks and make new or interesting games, to critics being pressured for high scores or even review events that take place on altered versions of games in the hopes of improving ratings. Sure, pegging bonuses to Metacritic scores could be likened to KPAs in any job, but if it becomes a norm in the industry and publishers put increasing pressure on critics to give high scores for games, it could end up muddying waters that are already perceived to be worse than the Hartbeespoort Dam.

Last Updated: November 16, 2015

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