When a B+ isn’t good enough: stories of variable embargoes, Metacritic, and past insanity
Earlier today we ran a story about game review embargoes, and why they’re a good thing for the press, at least in general. Still, the idea of a variable embargo, one that is dependent on the score you give a game, can lead to some odd situations. I learned about one such issue when I was a guest on the podcast Jumping the Shark years ago, and we got to talking about early reviews and an interesting embargo from THQ. Ex-GameShark Editor in Chief Will Abner shared a story about a writer reviewing a UFC title. “He gets his review copy a couple of weeks ago, he’s playing it, he enjoys it, and he gets an e-mail from THQ saying ‘Hey, you can post the review (a week prior to release) if the Metacritic score is 85 or higher,” Abner said on the podcast. “This is not just THQ, this is very common,” Abner said about embargoes determined by review score. This is the fun part: Abner said their reviewer had given the game a B +, which is a good score by any metric. The problem is that Metacritic has their own system that defines what each scoring system means, and an outlets B+ turns into an 83 on Metacritic. That's two points lower than the threshold needed to run the review early to get those beautiful, beautiful readers. Metacritic publishes its system for what each score means in terms of their own score, and it’s not necessarily intuitive. This is one of those weird stories that shows just how messed up the business - and it is a business - of game reviews can be. A publisher told outlets that they could run early reviews as long as they’re positive, an outlet runs a positive review, but because of Metacritic’s own scale the good score wasn’t good enough to run early. Isn't this fun?
This isn’t the first time bullshit has been pulled
There were reports in 2009 that Eidos attempted to drum up publicity for Arkham Asylum by allowing outlets to run coverage if they both gave the game the cover to the magazine and a score higher than 90. “With regards to an article posted on RamRaider alleging that Eidos has fixed review scores for Batman: Arkham Asylum, we want to state that no discussions have been held about review scores with any magazines,” Jon Brooke, Head of UK Marketing at Eidos said in a statement. “In short there is simply not one shred of truth in this article, except for the title of the game.” GameSpot UK writer Guy Cocker claims he was told via phone call in 2008 that Tomb Raider: Underworld reviews that were scored at less than an 8.0 had to be held longer than reviews with lower scores. “That’s right. We’re trying to manage the review scores at the request of Eidos,” a PR rep told video game site VG247. The reason? “Just that we’re trying to get the Metacritic rating to be high, and the brand manager in the US that’s handling all of Tomb Raider has asked that we just manage the scores before the game is out, really, just to ensure that we don’t put people off buying the game, basically.” Once that story broke the PR firm issued a statement denying the claims. “Barrington Harvey is not in the position of telling reviewers what they can and cannot say. We love Tomb Raider and believe it merits a score of at least 8/10, but if someone disagrees that’s entirely their prerogative. No problem at all. Seriously: no problem,” the statement claimed. “Our original NDA stated that in order to receive an advance copy of the game, reviewers agreed not to post reviews ahead of 5:00pm, Wednesday 19th November 2008. Nothing else. No further obligations whatsoever.” Notice that the writers claimed that the scoring demand, and the quotes explaining why PR was pushing for higher scores, happened over the phone. The printed NDA or embargo and the statements are done on paper or e-mail, where there is a record, but phone conversations disappear if they're not recorded. It's very possible a PR representative was trying to do some last minute score manipulation in a way that would be hard to prove. Eidos has a history of aggression when it comes to review scores; it's unsurprising to see so much evidence of score manipulation in the company's past.
The good news
The good news is that variable embargoes seem to be a thing of the past, at least in my experience. There is simply too much to gain by reporting on attempts at score manipulation and moving embargoes to make these strategies worthwhile to PR. They may think they can put pressure on outlets to change the score, but the story about that pressure is often better than the review would have been, and that can lead to negative publicity for both the PR company and the publisher. Still, the world of scored reviews is a weird beast. Just ask the writer who learned that a B+ just isn't good enough.