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Spoiler: Steam games with high Metacritic scores tend to sell well
Spoiler: Steam games with high Metacritic scores tend to sell well
April 23, 2014 | By Alex Wawro

April 23, 2014 | By Alex Wawro
More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Business/Marketing

A recent report published by Kyle Orland as part of Ars Technica's Steam Gauge project employs a sample of publicly-available Steam data to tell us what we already know: the higher a game's Metacritic average, the better it tends to sell on Steam.

Orland also claims that, based on the data culled by Ars, the median game with a Metacritic score between 90-100 will sell 50 times as well on Steam as the median game with a Metacritic score below 30.

The relationship between Steam sales numbers and review scores isn't nearly as clear-cut once you start digging into Ars' data on games with Metacritic scores between 30 and 80. Orland estimates that games assigned a Metacritic score of less than 60 are unlikely to surpass a million sales, but beyond that the correlation between aggregate review scores and Steam sales numbers seems too haphazard to allow for any meaningful takeaways other than "if your game gets good review scores, it will probably sell well."

Of course, even that broad generalization sets the game industry apart from, say, the film industry, where -- according to Metacritic's own report -- films with extremely high Metacritic scores often fail to perform well at the box office.

While Ars' data is culled from a random sample of publicly-available Steam data and comes with numerous caveats, Orland has done an admirable job of publicly addressing reader concerns and his ongoing series of Steam Gauge stories is worth following -- it's chock full of great graphs.

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Jon Shiring
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Tracking units sold but not dollars sold is a really misleading metric that everyone seems content to focus on.

James Yee
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We can track units sold, we don't have public access to the dollar amounts especially since they change so readily on Steam. Early Access, flash sales, bundles, etc. all skew the dollar amounts and only Steam and the devs have that info and most won't share publicly.

Jon Shiring
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That may be true but when people only use units they can't actually tell if a game was successful.

So while it may be true that they don't have the data to know, people should be careful to point that out, rather than implying that two units sold of two different games are equivalent.

Nathan Mates
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Read their series of articles -- they can do sampling of accounts to predict installed base from a set of players. This is information that can be collected from publicly available info.

The price paid per game is not available to anyone but Valve/Steam and maybe each individual game's publishers. It would be great if this information was more accessible, but it seems a little too personal to give out to anyone with an Amazon Web Service (or botnet) scraper. Basically, would you like any/every black hat, private eye or other person to know that you bought XYZ at on 2014/02/18 at 2:05AM for $39.99? Because that's what you're asking for.

Andrew Shaftling
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No one's asking for that. They are just correctly pointing out that it's a (possibly misleading) half truth.

Ron Dippold
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"game[s] with a Metacritic score below 30"

The horror... the horror... Even Warhammer 40,000: Storm of Vengeance managed a 33.

John Flush
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from my own experience it is hard to find anything in store fronts these days. It is either featured or ranks high in a preset genre. After picking a genre the person is left with hundreds or thousands of games to sort though so I have to sort on a column in attempt to not see the games that start in "A" or were released recently. The only column that 'appears' useful is the meta-critic score.

So that is my reasoning on why the data confirms my habits. But this does kind of hit the "you don't say?" kind of news. Ever since reviews started things that are reviewed more favorably tend to do better right? I know it is not a guarantee for success, but a general rule sure.

Robert Green
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"Ever since reviews started things that are reviewed more favorably tend to do better right?"

You'd like to think so, but I suspect these results are fairly anomalous. Let me take a quick look at the top 10 grossing movies of last year and their metacritic scores:
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire - 75
Iron Man 3 - 62
Frozen - 74
Despicable Me 2 - 62
Man of Steel - 55
Gravity - 96
Monsters University - 65
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug - 66
Fast & Furious 6 - 61
Oz The Great and Powerful - 44

Perhaps if you looked at a larger sample a pattern would be more noticeable, but just from those 10, it's hard to see a strong correlation. It'd be unusually for a really highly rated movie to bomb, but just having universal acclaim (see 12 Years a Slave, Inside Llewyn Davis, Her or American Hustle) doesn't seem to guarantee you more sales than the above films. I'm confident that if you looked at music and books you'd probably see a similar lack of correlation. Probably in mobile games, too.

Alex Covic
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Just the other day I found a game which has a total of one user score of 10 and no 'critics' (journo mag) score.

The game was deemed a 8.1 ... that's Metacritic for you.