Game scoring site wields industry clout

SAN FRANCISCO Thu Feb 21, 2008 8:59am EST

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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - John Riccitiello, head of Electronic Arts, is showing a chart to Wall Street analysts and he is not happy.

This chart, Riccitiello grouses, shows the one metric that has most frustrated him since he took over the world's largest video game publisher nearly a year ago.

It doesn't show the company's falling operating profit or sliding market share. Instead, it shows the average score for EA's video games on Metacritic.org, a Web site that distills a pool of reviews for a given game down to a single number.

What has Riccitiello worked up is that EA's average score fell last year to 72 from 77.

"There is nothing acceptable about that," Riccitiello says. "Our core game titles are accurately measured and summarized by these assessments, and that is a very big deal."

"So this is perhaps, to me, the most important chart in this presentation, we need to recover here."

Throughout EA's investor day last week, Riccitiello and other executives referred frequently to Metacritic, underscoring just how influential the site has become in the $18 billion U.S. video game industry.

Launched in 2001 by Marc Doyle, his sister Julie Doyle Roberts and Jason Dietz, a former classmate at University of Southern California's law school, Metacritic is now a part of online technology media company CNET Networks.

"We never created Metacritic as an industry kind of thing. It was always for educating the user," Doyle said.

Started originally to compile movie reviews, Metacritic quickly branched out into other forms of entertainment, with games now accounting for the most traffic to the site.

"For a movie it's going to cost you $10 to $12 bucks and it's a two-hour investment of your time. Whether critics like it is not a huge deal. But a game costs $60 and 20 to 30 hours of your life, so you want to know ahead of time whether a game is good," Doyle said.

As the man in charge of the game scoring system, Doyle feels a lot of heat from some game companies and reviewers who feel they aren't getting a fair shake.

Doyle's system is weighted, meaning that ratings from Web sites or publications he feels have more credibility count for more towards the final score. That means Finnish game magazine Pelit is included whereas Hollywood trade magazine Variety is not, despite its 100-plus years of covering entertainment.

"I used to get stuff from companies reviewed by what they considered inappropriate critics, like a UK publication reviewing a 'Madden' game. How are they qualified to review football?" Doyle said.

Another area of controversy is how Doyle assigns a number rating to reviews that provide a letter grade or no score at all. To Doyle, an F is equal to 0 and a C is 50. That chafes some folks in an industry long used to grade inflation where means 70 is average and few games ever fall below 50.

Individual reviewers can also be subject to pressure from game companies unhappy with a Metacritic score.

"The only annoying thing about aggregate sites ... is when the game companies use that against us. Sometimes we'll hear from a game company that says 'Hey, you're the lowest score on Metacritic, can you change it?'," said Dan Hsu, editor-in-chief of EGM, a monthly publication.

EA's Riccitiello wants to avoid the trap of just pursuing a good Metacritic score, a mindset he said frequently leads to too much executive meddling.

"The process often gets in the way more than it helps," he said. "That sort of circus has unfortunately sort of defined our company for too long. And it's not a good process."

Some critics also point out that there is increasingly a mismatch between scores for so-called casual games and the popularity of those products.

Games like Nintendo's "Mario Party 8" and Take-Two's "Carnival Games" scored badly but sold well.

"That sounds a lot like these horrible movies that make millions their first week but critics hate them," Doyle said. "Some things are critics-proof but I don't think critics are any less qualified to judge them."

That's one view, but Riccitiello has another: "You don't cash Metacritic, you cash checks."

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