Interesting article in the Times today about why the bestselling videogames are also the best-reviewed, which is not the case with movies or books.
The Top 10-selling games of last year including titles like Gears of War and Guitar Hero 2 had an average Metacritic score of 87.5. Only one of the top-selling games scored less than 80. (More about that later.) Meanwhile, the Top 10 box-office films of last year including titles like “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”’ and “X-Men: The Last Stand” collected a poor average score of 62.9.
Of Metacritic’s 10 best-reviewed films of last year including art-house favorites like “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “L’Enfant” not one was among the box-office leaders.
The leading theories are that game critics are more like average gamers than film critics are like average moviegoers, and that gamers rely more on reviews because a $60/100hr game is a bigger investment than a $10/2hr movie.
Both of those make sense, but I think they leave something out. Writer Seth Schiesel, normally an astute obsever of the gaming scene, gets off-track when he notes, "Some executives in the game industry have their bonuses tied to the Metacritic scores their games receive. The problem is that following the critics so slavishly discourages people from taking chances and a dearth of creativity is the biggest problem in the game business." He adds, "I’m not suggesting game producers try to antagonize critics for the mere sake of originality."
But I think that's exactly backward. When game designers take chances and get creative, critics usually respond enthusiastically while game buyers shy away. One of the best-reviewed games for the original Xbox was Psychonauts, a notorious bomb with customers. In other words, it was the equivalent of an "art-house" movie. The reason that disparity doesn't show up more often, the way it does with movies and books, is that the economics of the game industry don't allow companies to put out any small products aimed at niche audiences (though Xbox Live may change this in the future). The studio that release Pan's Labyrinth knew it wasn't going to be one of the year's top-grossing films, but it fit their overall strategy to make it anyway; if the company that made Psychonauts had known critics and a few gamers would love it, but that's all, they would have killed in in the cradle. I strongly suspect that if game companies could produce its equivalents of Oscar and Pulitzer-bait products you'd find the exact same divide between critics and audiences as you do with other media.