Why you shouldn’t trust early Metascores

I need to begin this week’s column with a little inside baseball. Sometimes public relations or marketing firms for video-game publishers impose embargoes on the video-game press, before which no information about a game can be published. Screenshots, movies, press releases, or reviews can all be embargoed, and it’s in the best interests of an outlet to respect the embargo and protect their relationship with the publisher.

However, sometimes outlets are given permission to ignore embargoes when it comes to publishing their reviews.

The usual narrative goes like this: A PR or marketing person representing a publisher will call up a journalism outlet and say something along the lines of “Hey, we were just checking in on how your review of ‘Super AAA Title X’ was going…are you liking the game?” The outlet then has two choices: They can either play ball or politely decline. If they play ball and note that they’re thinking about giving the game a good score, the publisher may allow them to break embargo and publish the review early.

Why would marketing want that? Simple: They’re hoping for a skewed Metacritic score before a game’s release.

I spoke to Justin McElroy, the reviews editor at Joystiq, about this phenomenon:

While I’ve never been directly offered early publication for a high-scoring review, I’ve been asked about my score by publishers or PR that then let a high scoring review (or several high-scoring reviews) run ahead of the agreed-upon embargo time.

We don’t reveal our scores to PR ahead of time for a couple of reasons. First is that we’d be complicit in creating an artifice of quality, which is exactly the sort of thing that editorial and news outlets should, in my opinion, be endeavoring to dismantle.

Second, and I think more harmfully, the practice of allowing high scoring reviews to break embargo puts enormous pressure on smaller sites to inflate scores to net some of the increased traffic an early or exclusive review provides.

Even if the publishing of pre-embargo reviews is not something deliberately orchestrated by PR and marketing departments, failing to be aware of embargo dates or choosing to publish early can have negative consequences on gamers’ ability to use Metascores to wisely guide their purchasing decisions.

To illustrate this point, I would like to look at the Metascore for Homefront pre- and post-embargo.

Here’s a screenshot of the Metacritic Xbox 360 Homefront score on Saturday, March 12, or three days before the official review embargo of March 15:

Metascores influence game sales, and that warrants some watchdog analysis of how and when Metacritic lists reviews. To wit, what did Homefront’s score look like on March 15?

A 16-point drop is nothing to sneeze at. Once the embargo was lifted, the Metascore more accurately reflected critics’ appraisal of the title. This information is much more useful to consumers deciding whether or not to purchase the game.

I contacted the outlets who published pre-embargo Homefront reviews. Two got back to me. One was unwilling to go on the record about the circumstances under which their review was published, and the other was unwilling to discuss the nature of their relationship with publisher THQ at all.

I’m more inclined to believe that pre-embargo reviews are published early with the permission of a publisher, rather than as an act of defiance. I’m also inclined to believe that publishers simply take advantage of reviews which are going to be positive regardless of when they would be published, and then allow them to publish early once the publisher is aware that the review is positive.

The moral of this story is that if Metascores matter to you, wait after a game is released to view the score for the first time. Be an educated consumer: Understand that there are forces at work trying to manipulate these Metascores, and that they’re are not accurate until the majority of all the reviewers’ scores have been reported and factored in.

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