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The Real Problem with Review Scores

Michael Cunningham

People are quick to point the finger and Metacritic and GameRankings. Heck, I do. Those sites are just the monitor on which our problem is displayed. The real problem with review scores is that gaming sites are not unified in any way, and likely never will be. GameRankings offers a quick reference of all gaming sites in an easy to view database. Of those sites listed, 109 have posted at least one review in 2011. The current review score range is 82.98% (Game Boomers) to 60.74% (NGamer UK) with an overall average of 72.82%. Note that this doesn't take into consideration how GameRankings translates scores from site's like 1UP who use a letter-based grading system. It does mean that when someone looks at a game that received a 7/10 and says, "Hey, that's average," they are right. The gaming media has inflated the scoring system to where our average score is around a 70%, not Metacritic or GameRankings.

There is a big different between a game that is average and a game receiving an average score. An average game is one that is typical, common, or ordinary. A game like this would generally receive a score in the middle of the review scale. The problem with meta review sites lies in the fact that some sites DO actually consider a 70% to be average. Our long-time, friendly rival RPGFan considers anything between 70% and 79% to be average. They clearly define this on their site, so even if I don't agree with it, I can't blame RPGFan; they make it clear what they are doing. However, all of these sites are lumped together in the aggregate review sites and our lack of cohesion causes problems. An average game with a 75% score from RPGFan gets placed together with an average game review from RPGamer where we score 3/5 and get listed at 60%. Both sites thought the game was "average," but suddenly RPGamer looks like we hated the game when we thought the exact same thing as RPGFan. In instances like this, I cannot fault RPGFan. This is the problem with Metacritic, GameRankings, and the lack of a unified scoring system. I don't expect every site to agree with each other over whether a game is good or not, but when we do agree, our scores don't match. That's not to say there are not sites and reviewers out there that score high or low for attention, as there are. Without naming names, these sites and individuals are also part of the problem, but it goes much deeper.

Out of the 109 sites listed, seven have a review score average of 80% or higher spread across more than 8400 reviews. I'm happy to say that RPGamer is 97th out of 109 (average: 67.05%, between a 3 and 3.5 on our scale) on the list of highest scoring sites. We don't strive to be low or to undercut the rest of the community just for the sake of being lower or getting attention. All we seek to do is simply use the whole scale. Our scoring system ranges from 1 (abominable) to 5 (exceptional) in 0.5 increments. This squarely places a 3/5 as a game we deem "average." While our label names might need some fine-tuning as every review system needs to be constantly watched, I'm quite happy with our scoring for the most part. Our review average of 67% should be lower, in all honestly. That stems from the fact that 99% of the time we require a reviewer to complete a game before reviewing, and we've had some real stinkers that no one's been able to stomach long enough to finish. It's not a perfect system, but it's served us well.

The real problem with review scores does not lie with Metacritic or with individual sites. It lies with the gaming press as a whole. We need to unify in our scoring system. Right now the average review score is in the 70% range and that's what consumers, and some industry folks, have been conditioned to accept. There is no bell curve, there is no statistical balance, it's just a free-for-all. I would hate to have to adjust to the inflated 6 to 10 point scale that is the mindset right now, but if we don't all get on the same page we're hurting our readers and the industry. Look at games that publishers have considered failures because they didn't meet a high enough Metacritic score. This is especially true for niche games being reviewed by only a few niche sites where one of those sites uses the whole scale. When we're not all using the same system, how fair is that? It's a screwed up system, and we need to unify before we do any more damage. Sites like us that use the whole scale might be the real problem here, but what's the point of having a full scale if you don't plan to use it? How is this unification going to happen? I wish I knew, but Metacritic and GameRankings are lumping us all together. Something needs to be done, because we're not all the same.

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