Are game developers just trying to please the critics?
You might be surprised to learn how much game developers care what reviewers say about their games.
I was surprised.
I visited the developers at Nerve Software in Richardson, Texas, recently to talk about their new game: Enemy Territory: Quake Wars for the Xbox 360. Near the end of our conversation, I asked what it's like to finally see the product of two years of labor on store shelves.
Brandon James, Nerve's founder and owner, and Brian Matt, a programmer at the studio, said sites such as Metacritic.com and GameRankings.com are popular among developers.
"Everybody keeps track of GameRankings and all those pages," James said.
Kevin Cloud - executive producer at id Software, which created the Quake franchise and oversaw development of Quake Wars - said developers benefit from the constructive criticism in reviews. But there's clearly some anxiety at play, as well.
"When the game releases, you're going out there and seeing, out of those first five reviews, how is it ranking?" Cloud said. "You just can't help it."
James said his curiosity extends even deeper.
"I like to go on GameRankings and add up the averages of all the games I've worked just so that I know what my lifetime average is," he said with a laugh.
For some game makers, though, earning a high review score means more than just bragging rights. Stephen Totilo of MTV's Multiplayer gaming blog reported recently that some publishers pay their developers bonuses if their games hit a certain average review score.
So a game that's hugely popular and sells extremely well, but nevertheless gets mediocre or bad review scores, doesn't earn any bonus money for the developers. The outcome of a goofy financial arrangement like that is predictable: game makers start designing their games to please reviewers.
An independent game developer named Matthew wrote recently on his blog, Magical Wasteland, about the "quality" initiative at his former employer, an unnamed major publisher. Once the publisher announced that bonuses would be tied to ratings, the developers began cramming in all the things they thought reviewers would reward, he said.
"Like a food company performing a taste test to find out that people basically like the saltiest, greasiest variation of anything and adjusting its product lineup accordingly, the big publishers struggled to stuff as much of those key elements as possible into every game they funded," Matthew wrote.
When the McDonald's approach failed, the company went right back to churning out low-quality but top-selling licensed titles.
That sort of lose-lose scenario is why companies like Nerve and id try to maintain a balance between artistic vision and the need for commercial success.
"You can't take everything to heart, because you can read some comments that really strike to the heart of what you've done," Cloud said. "But you have to learn from your success and your failures. So you can't insulate yourself from game reviews and feedback from the public."