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Report: Obsidian missed  Fallout: New Vegas  bonus by one Metacritic point
Report: Obsidian missed Fallout: New Vegas bonus by one Metacritic point
March 15, 2012 | By Mike Rose

March 15, 2012 | By Mike Rose
Comments
    51 comments
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing



Chris Avellone, lead creative designer at Fallout: New Vegas developer Obsidian Entertainment, has claimed that the company did not receive a bonus payment for its work on New Vegas because it did not garner a high enough Metacritic score.

The game was released in 2010 for Windows PC, PS3 and Xbox 360, and within a month of launch had shipped 5 million units and made $300 million in sales.

However, Obsidian was told that it would only receive a bonus payment from publisher Bethesda if the game received an 85 or more score from aggregate reviews website Metacritic, says Avellone. The game actually scored 84 on PC and Xbox 360, and 82 on PS3.

Avellone tweeted, "Fallout: New Vegas was a straight payment, no royalties, only a bonus if we got an 85+ on Metacritic, which we didn't."

This isn't the first time this sort of practice has been heard of, with reports in the past from numerous publishers who have based royalties for video game releases on how well a game does on Metacritic.

Gamasutra has contacted Avellone to clarify, and to ask whether he believes receiving this bonus would have allowed the company to dodge the latest round of layoffs this week.


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Comments


Jim Perry
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Is it just me or is it asinine that a bonus is based on a Metacritic score?!? :(

John McMahon
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Really? Using Metacritic for job performance? What a load of crap.

I don't even use Metacritic for advice or to vote. How does this make sense? The industry needs to get their act together so they can reward good solid work.

Bruno Patatas
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Using Metacritic to measure royalties and/or bonus is a load of crap!

I for once applaud what Double Fine and now Wasteland are doing with Kickstarter. It's about time publishers stop with this type of behavior that only damages the industry.

Andrew Dovichi
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I've worked at studios where the bonus is directly tied to a tiered metacritic score; so we get full bonus at 85 and higher, half at 75-84, etc.While I think that practice is stupid, I have to also question the decision to agree to a bonus structure as rigid as what Avellone is claiming. To completely miss out on a bonus from a game as successful as New Vegas by a single point is painful.

John McMahon
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This is one reason I gave up on my dreams of working in the industry. It's a mess. At least I can still do technically challenging projects outside of gaming.

But the industry is not viewed (by me at least) to be a very stable and appealing place to work.

I don't want to worry about my job because an untold number of strangers didn't score it at a specific point on a website that only a fraction of the audience uses.

Christian Nutt
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The publisher holds all the cards, though. Independent studios have to sign deals or perish. It may be questionable business to sign a bad deal, but independent studios do it all the time because they have to get projects to keep the lights on.

Andrew Dovichi
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You're right Christian, except in my case the studio was owned by the publisher.

Jack Nilssen
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Funny that this is just coming out. There are AAA design teams that base the entire GAME DESIGN around achieving a certain Metacritic value.

Robert Hallwood
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It's true that we, and other Game studios, set goals and strive to reach an impressive Metacritic value. However no team of designers base anything of value on a Metacritic score when it comes to designing the game. We all try to do our best work to make the game play great, look great, sound great etc.

The Metacritic average is based on a multitude of varying opinions from diverse reviews with diverse interests. It's like a focus group, you can't give everyone everything they want in a game. Otherwise you'd get a mashed up mess of elements that don't make sense when put together as a single entity.

Harlan Sumgui
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Yes, metacritic distorts game design, or at least big budget game design.

But it also distorts the game review sites as well, because companies go to great lengths to massage the scores any way they can. This leads to cynicism in the fanbase. How can a review be legit if thousands of dollars are spent on gifts and trips for reviewers, and if companies threaten blackballing (no review code or access to devs for interviews or advertising). Did anyone actually think there would be anything less than an 85 for ME3 or SWTOR regardless of game quality?

But at the end of the day, Metacritic affects profitability, both for game sites and Pubs and distorts both.

Brian Taylor
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This may or may not just be my opinion, but that's kind of ignorant. An 84 is basically just as good and can be even better than an 85. Silent Hill: Downpour has a 60ish on metacritic on PS3 and I think a 70ish on Xbox. I love that game way more than New Vegas. You shouldn't base this off metacritic scores. I know they gather all the reviews into one place, but that's stupid.

Eric Geer
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Sounds like one reason not to attempt entering the gaming industry. With a bonus schedule based on Metacritic, it sounds like publishers are more terrible than I thought.

This is a terrible way to do business.

Addison Siemko
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What the....?

Fredrik Liliegren
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That is just some very bad business negotiating, why would you agree to that! Any bonus payment should be based on a metric the publisher cares the most about, which is SALES! aka money in the bank. No publishers gives a crap if a game scores 85 or 75 if it sells like hot cakes.

Christian Nutt
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Perhaps they have an ulterior motive in basing bonuses off of Metacritic scores, then? Nah.

Kevin Reilly
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I have to disagree with you Frederik. Publishers care a lot about the perceived quality of their big IPs because franchises are more profitable then one-off games in terms of ROI. They also like to have contract provisions that limit the amount of money they share with third parties if the game is a success. There are numerous risks to developing large AAA games and publishers expect to keep a large percentage of the upside. Developers take the deal because they have mouths to feed and need the milestone payments to cash flow their company. It is not "bad business" to take these types of deals if it keeps the doors open. Its straight forward economics.

David Wilcox
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I'd love to see reviewers score the "South Park" RPG a 100 to balance things out.

That, and it'd just underscore the absurdity of this practice.

Joshua Darlington
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It seems like a Metacritic based bonus is something that would be negotiated. Royalties are based on sales but why not base a bonus on Metacritic score? Seems like a positive mechanism to incentivize quality games.

Dan Rogers
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While I am not sure whether the information here is true or not, it isn't surprising that a publisher has created this type of benchmark. I've seen this in many deals, and questioned each time both the reason for it and the criteria used. From the publisher's standpoint, they're looking for a means of measuring quality, so that this can be used as an incentive to create a better game. That's understandable. Unfortunately, it just doesn't work. It's plagued with problems. Which reviewers? Over what length of time? Deer Hunter (a game I negotiated years ago) would have hit dead-bottom in quality, yet it performed outstandingly in the market. What does that say? Their are plenty of ways to avoid these benchmarks altogether. Unfortunately, once set in stone, the rock doesn't move.

Kim Pittman
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Using Metacritic as a measure for bonuses is absurd. Yes, there is some value in giving bonuses based on review scores. But the problem with Metacritic is that it is not an accurate site. These bonuses should ONLY be based on reviews from credible, known sources. Really though, a better way to do it is based on sales. People "review" with their money.

To explain Metacritic's lack of accuracy:
Skylanders Spryo's Adventure. 80+ metacritic. Except, some of the scores are really for the 3DS version, done by a different studio, and mis-labeled as 360. Whoops. Good thing our bonuses weren't tied to that. Also, the lead sku was the Wii. The 360 and PS3 versions were ports. Do we get dinged for bugs in those versions, when we didn't even work on them?

Also, consider all the reviewers who do stupid things like having someone who hates RPGs review an RPG. If FNV had even ONE low review from a person like this, then you could point to where they lost their bonus based on a reviewer's editor not assigning tasks correctly. Really?

Or people who write hateful reviews not based on the game, but based on the publisher or based on the earlier games in the series.

It's a bad way to do things, and publishers need to realize that.

Kenneth Blaney
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@Anthony Yahtzee's joke is not the same as Stephen Colbert's joke. The stuff he criticizes in games are things that actually annoy him in game (and then he blows it out of proportion, which is where his humor is).

Harlan Sumgui
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Yes there are people who actually listen to Yahtzee. Why, because he is funny, DCUniverseONline review for example. And who else gets the freedom to tear apart games without fear of retribution from editors, advertisers, fans, or publishers?

Kevin Reilly
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This has been common practice in the industry for the past decade and each publisher has their own formula mandated by someone in finance to include in any third party work for hire development agreement. Each publisher spends a lot of money on these games and want to ensure that the product is high quality even though they strictly control the creative process from start to finish. The real problem is that Metacritic assigns arbitrary scores to reviews that don't use scores and also includes scores from a lot of random review sites which tends to drag average scores downwards. I empathize with Obsidian, but they are a mature AAA developer and know the deck is stacked against them in receiving backend contingent compensation. The only "bonus" for independent AAA console developers is getting hired by a publisher to do the sequel for a similar sized budget. There is a reason work for hire development is described as the hamster wheel.

Christopher Enderle
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I wonder if it would be cheaper to bribe game reviewers to score a game 84 instead of 85 than it would be to pay out that bonus...

I guess the amount of sales lost due to the score difference wouldn't make it worth it, though.

Timothy Barton
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It looks like I am in the extreme minority here, but I think people are arguing about the wrong thing. First off, I want to point out that it is a BONUS. They aren't starving anyone based off of review scores. Personally I don't think bonuses should be metric based in general, because it is nearly impossible to isolate anyone in a box. Everyone's job is related to everybody else's. I personally feel they should be subjectively awarded to whoever is deemed deserving for any reason. However, the business world hates things that can't be defined by rules and metrics. If a company is going to give metric-based bonus, what should it be based on instead? Sales? This one at least seems to aim at promoting quality of game over pure cash-grabbing. I am not trying to defend Bethesda, and I think these bonuses are misguided, but given the reality that they happen I don't think this one is all THAT BAD.

Michael Rooney
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I thought the same thing. It's not like it was negotiated as part of their expected pay. It's called a bonus for a reason. As far as I'm concerned, bonuses could be based off absolutely absurd things as long as the base pay negotiation is sane and fair.

Base it off the estimated percentage to the nearest 5% of sky covered by clouds on the 17th of July 2012 for all I care as long as you're paying the salary.

I tend to prefer sales based bonuses because they seem more logical though. More money for publisher -> more money for developers. Critic reviews don't always translate into game sales, so it seems odd that they'd be based solely off that.

I guess it makes more sense taking into account what someone said above about maintaining brand integrity though.

Tomas Majernik
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I think that if you want to base bonuses on something, you should first make sure it is in some way objective. Let me point to the fact, that Mass Efect 3 has an average score of 93/100, while user score at the same site gives it 3.6 out of 10! (see http://www.metacritic.com/game/pc/mass-effect-3) Now the question is, do you base your bonuses on critics rating, or on the rating of fans? Or better, which rating does have more value here? Or the best, does any of these ratings have any value at all?

Let me tell that sometimes I am literally stunned how stupid some people can be. And this is not that their are less intelligent or something, it is that they have a brain they refuse to use only because of money they want to make (or here, want to keep). People like these can reduce a whole game to a single number and judge it by this number. What is more, they will judge the team of people who created the game based on number(s) which as you can see in the case of Mass Efect 3 could be very, very misleading.

Adam Bishop
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As problematic as basing bonuses on Metacritic scores is, basing them on user rankings, is much, much worse. This is particularly true for places like Metacritic (or Amazon, etc.) where campaigns to get mass numbers of people to essentially sabotage a game's score are well known. If you're the developer, what sense does it make for your ability to earn a bonus to be tied to whether or not the publisher does something down the line that angers a forum of raging teenagers with too much time on their hands?

Tomas Majernik
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I agree that basing bonuses on users rating is bad - it is as bad as it is basing them on average critics score. You should keep in my, that player can be dissapointed and intentionaly give good game a bad rating. At the same time you should consider if critics themselves have any motivation to move the rank (especialy higher). Let`s say you want to review the game, but the publisher says that in order for you to have the game before it`s release (so you have your review earlier than competition) you have to give it at least 80 out of 100. And if you are not willing to give it over 80, you simply have to wait until release. Or imagine a situation the particular publisher is paying you a lot of money to promote the game (banners, competition prizes and so on) - would you rate the game as average game and risk it all?

What is more I belive critics opinion is equal to opinion of thousands of customers, because in the end it is them who is paying for the game (and for the quality of the game).

One more thing about critics. After I saw this review at IGN I stopped reading/watching them once and for all. Here: http://s18.postimage.org/jnuubixgn/ignvietnam.jpg

Based on this, they took 0.5 points (from 10 to 9.5) because the game has this song in a game menu. First, it is a great song to illustrate the atmosphere, second even if it wasn`t, what the f...? Imagine sites and people like these tell you, if your game deserves 85/100, or it is only 84/100 - so basicaly if you get a bonus.

Josh Maida
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Not all projects are driven solely by profit. Some are driven by IP building, publisher brand positioning, love for the arts, etc. I've seen many games suffer from what seem to be 'profit at all costs' incentives. What would be a good alternative to Metacritic if you want to incentivize artistic quality? AIAS awards, playtime data, a tip jar? Maybe a blended solution?

This is an interesting conversation. I would like to know everyone thinks would be the ideal.

Thanks,
Josh

Evan Combs
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The only logical way to base bonuses off of is sales. There are countless games that are technically not sound or good games, but are still somehow extremely fun and sell well. Just like there are many games that are technically great games, but no one enjoys causing no one to buy it. I don't know any other industry that bases bonuses on critic scores, everyone else bases it off of sales no matter how technically good/bad the product is.

Harry Fields
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And this is why there is a mass exodus of talent from formerly fantastic studios to startups. Board of directors for these publishers need to get their thumbs out of their collective asses and put CEOs who understand the creative side of the business as well as the Sales and Distribution & PR side.

Harlan Sumgui
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Or they get out of the industry entirely. I sometimes look at a fresh new face and think how old they will look in ten years. I mean, if your child was thinking of getting into the industry, how enthusiastic would you be?

Joshua Darlington
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In a capitalist economy, it would make sense that the ultimate measure of a product would be it's position in the marketplace. I see it as a good thing that they negotiated a bonus based on alternate measure. It shows some idealism and artistic romance that one would not expect from business heads. It also seperates evaluation based on marketing vs evaluation based on product.

The fact that both parties have motivation to influence the review numbers (and that reviewers can be easily influenced) is another issue. There is a Napoleonic general who has a famous maxim to the effect that "any numerical system used to allocate resources will be immediately gamed."

Adam Bishop
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In a capitalist economy it would make sense that whoever controls the means of production (publishers, in this case) would make a concerted effort to protect as large a share of the profits for themselves as they can. Which is what Bethesda has done here.

Harlan Sumgui
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We actually live in a capitalist/mercantile/socialist hybrid that concentrates to an unhealthy degree on protecting established power structures and private property, assuming you live in one of the 40 or so actual Democracies in the world. The other approx 160 countries in the world are even worse.

Iain Miller
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Hmm protecting private property is an important part of civilization, as for your other points, nicely done.

Oh yea, i'd like to borrow your house and your car for a little while without your permission. I'm guessing you wouldn't mind too much.

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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@Iain

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_dilemma

"concentrates to an unhealthy degree" is gray scale rhetoric, not an absolute disdain for property law. There can be room for lowering the priority of property protection without resorting to "everyone owns everything". No I don't deserve your car because I want it but if my friend is on fire and your hose is the closest source of water I'm using it guilt free; world's not black and white. I find myself agreeing with Harlan, as I have become disenchanted with capitalism. It seems like a good idea corrupted to become a game that justifies and glorifies greed (for my purposes 'greed' is defined as taking from a limited pool what someone needs more than you and deserves at least as much as you; 'deserves' is harder to define but I find it safe to say that the talent that actually makes the game deserves more than they generally get). Capitalism, Mercantilism, Socialism, whatever you want to call it -- we have a society where gatekeepers and suits get to divvy out the earnings of the working class as they see fit, as bonuses, as carrots on sticks of their own construction. The working class must obey as there are biological survival needs that need to be met month-to-month, so there is no solid ground to stand up against deals even if you recognize them as unfair. The working class must do this until they are rich, but this prevents them from becoming rich. The working class has no way to get rich when they must go through these gatekeepers (ignoring anomalies such as Notch, which occur rarely enough to not be worth considering), so the cycle continues as they are hungry at each project and will accept whatever bone the elites throw their way. It is either that or go at it alone and compete with whatever scab takes the bone and works with the publisher to out-advertise you in your market.

It is a _magnificently_ designed game, full of rhetoric to quell the potential rebellion ("The rich worked hard for their money! You'll get there someday if you work hard! You're not... a COMMUNIST are you?"). On rare occasion, when my stomach grows tired of being nauseated by the selfishness that pumps through the blood of our society, I find a sick admiration for the mastery one must endeavor to perform to keep such a puppet society running.

tl;dr: our society concentrates to an unhealthy degree on protecting established power structures and private property

Iain Miller
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We don't really have capitalism. I never said the world was black and white. What I am saying is that if someone wants their property protected for whatever reason, then that needs to be upheld. Even in your situation with the car on fire etc., there are multiple solutions to that problem other than using someone's hose, but obviously most people would not object to it. Also, Americans give the most to charities and other causes.

There are many things getting in the way of the poor getting rich, or getting well off, most of which involve the State.

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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"There are many things getting in the way of the poor getting rich, or getting well off, most of which involve the State."

This makes sense, but it is hard for me to really differentiate the state and the rich with modern politics. It seems more like there are a certain class of people who are selfish to an unhealthy extent, and they either end up rich through shady business practices or go to politics to use their power to get rich from lobbying and bribery. Take patents for example; businesses create patent portfolios, which are state-authored monopolies that prevent new companies from competing in certain sectors - a good example of the state keeping the rich up and the poor down. But without patents, the rich would simply use their money to steal ideas from poor inventors and beat them to market with their money (fast production, better marketing). It seems to me that the government is merely a tool for the ruling class, and not a prime cause. But it is a complicated beast.

To stay on topic with the article, I feel that the 85 metacritic deal was made neither out of ignorance nor justice. It is simply the middle ground that both sides were able to negotiate toward. If it ends up that the developers that actually made the game get no more than a flat rate, that is merely a natural consequence of the economic and social norms of our times. If I may put a value judgment on it, this trend of talent and labor getting the short end of the stick sickens me, but it's going to have to sicken a lot more people than just me to change.

Glenn Sturgeon
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You'd think selling 5million copies after bethesda drug FO3 out for 5 DLCs would be enough of a reason to shell out a bonus.
I loved FO3 but they beat that hourse to death before leaving it alone, so i passed on Vegas.
Bethesda/ zenimax has been realy red about the FO franchies since they've gotten a hold on it.

Best of Luck to those ex Obsidian workers.

Iain Miller
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Lol, more content for a game you love=bad...?I wouldn't mind Obsidian continually putting out DLC's for New Vegas for years.

james sadler
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This just sounds like complaining to me. I wont deny that it sucks because missing a bonus because of a single point sucks, but it is what they agreed to. They should have provisioned a lesser bonus for not hitting 85 but still above some other number. I see the reasoning to put it in a contract since it would really push the team to make their game that much better, but why not complain to the reviewers of the game, not the publisher. 85 was the low side of what they were to hit and they hit 84, so they didn't hit the minimum standard they set. Either they didn't read the contract well enough or they were too confidant in what the game would do review wise.

Michael DeFazio
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I'm going to be in the minority here, but Bethesda did take a fairly big risk in entrusting one of their most successful franchises to a third party. Don't get me wrong, I absolutely loved the design direction they went with FONV, I thought "faction-based karma" was a large improvement from the bland "good/evil" karma in FO3, and I also think some of the ideas/quests/characters were some of the best in gaming.

However IMHO Obsidian failed in the execution department, after spending 20+ hours each on two different characters and encountering game breaking bugs...I just gave up and walked away frustrated at the whole experience. (Not that F03 or Oblivion were perfect, but the bugs there were more silly than game breaking).

One can argue that using metacritic as a system to determine bonuses is unfair, but considering sales as a metric seems equally unfair, as many people (like me) would not trust/buy a generic Obsidian Open World RPG sight unseen, but making a game in the Fallout Universe using the same engine with the blessing of the original developers elevated it to a day 1 purchase.

I would imagine Bethesda would have been overjoyed in FONV success, and they required some "metric" to define success. Metacritic (although far from being perfect) does an adequate job in defining critical reception, and it does incentivize Obsidian to attempt to release a quality game that appeals to people rather than phoning it in.

In short, I don't think we should make Bethesda the bad guys, they wanted to try trusting a third party (and some previous-owners of the franchise they purchased and popularized) and using a metacritic bonus to incentivize them to expand their franchise... Remember Obsidian agreed to the terms of the contract, and "them's the ropes".

Gord Cooper
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Unfortunately, this is pretty common practice. At a studio I've worked with in the past, there are people hired specifically to tailor aspects of the game towards achieving a certain Metascore, and the team is expected to produce a game with "X" score on Metacritic within Y time after launch.

Why? Because there are still a lot of business practices that are built off old perceptions, and perception is reality to a lot of businesses. Whether or not the community believes in the Metascore of a product, shareholders and executives do, and are far enough removed from the low-level infrastructure of both the companies they are responsible for and the community they are selling to that this number actually has power.

It's a difficult cycle to break because, unfortunately from a business standpoint, it works because the belief in it MAKES it work.

Mikhail Mukin
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If there is a better way to estimate quality of a game with "one number" (something you can put into contract) - please suggest it! I see nothing wrong with using metacritic. Most of the time, 70 and 90 game feels different enough.

Sales alone are IMHO not enough... Bad COD or Halo wold probably still sell a lot, but might kill the franchise... so IMHO it is normal to have both sales and quality as factors in a contract.

I'm surprised if they used a sharp cut... I would put some gradual (linear)? condition in a contract, so that 83 versus 85 would not strip studio of millions in royalties...

James Cooley
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Part of the problem would seem to be that putting a number on a game as a piece of entertainment is darn difficult. Think of movies or books and rying to put a numeric score on The Wizard of Oz or Casablanca as films, or the LOTR trilogy or Gone with the Wind as novels. Some reviewers also bring their bias for or against a genre of games into the score. Yet, if you don't add a numeric score to the game, your review can't hit the review compilation sites.

I look at the scores, but make a point to read a sampling of game reviews from the extremes of the scores and a few in the middle.

As for this game, I loved Fallout: New Vegas, though it was still a bug-fest a year after release. I have to wonder if the decision to release the game so buggy might have driven a point or two off the review scores overall. Waiting just a little longer to squash some bugs and polish the game might have been enough to get that last point in the Metascore.

Tiago Costa
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I'm probably the worst person in the world for saying this... But Obsidian, you deserved it. You agreed to some stupid way to rate your game by strangers with their own agenda, without looking just at the market. I'm really not sorry for you, because the fault is on your side. Next time (if there is a next time) protect your people/company/game better if possible.

Having said this, its not like they didnt get paid, it was a bonus only albeit being a stupid way to get bonus.

Also, it shows what the industry cares for more, instead of looking at the 300M obtained, and what the GAMERS said about the game, it looked only for the metacritic score. Is it just me or it should be the other way around?

PS. Loved Alpha Protocol, cant seem to understand why people didnt...

David Holmin
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The obsession with Metacritic scores and the bought pre-release reviews that follow is a really bad development, for game developers, and games in general. Bethesda probably could've made New Vegas an 85% if they had tried harder.

Anyway, New Vegas is a better game than Fallout 3. Just wanted to get it out there.

Harlan Sumgui
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Oh, and the trouble at Obsidian right now, to the point threatening their existence is the cancellation of a next gen project. In a just world, FONV would have given them a warchest to be able to withstand such an event, but because of the contract they signed, it didn't. The losers will be gameplayers if Ob dies though, as they had aggregated a talented and lean team as well as some of the best managers, who incidentally actually cared about the well being of their employees. I suppose FONV would have been less buggy if they had boarderline sociopath managing the company, willing to burnout coders a la Bondi McNamara.

Iain Miller
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I agree with your last point for the most part. However, there is a place for a leader to push their team and a place for laying off and giving people a break. It's really about balance. You do have to push people to get them to work hard and reach their potential, but if you push too hard they will resent you and be unhappy.


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