How Diablo 3 gave Metacritic a giant middle finger

Monday, 21 May 2012 13:53 GMT By Patrick Garratt

Diablo III sold millions of copies with no pre-release reviews, and still has a low MC score. Does this prove Metacritic’s irrelevance? It does for some games, says Patrick Garratt, and the time has come to break the mould.

This episode clearly shows that the notion of giving journalists pre-release code for certain games is irrelevant, and in many cases can be actively damaging.

You’ve undoubtedly noticed that Diablo III, released last week atop 2 million pre-orders and 8,000 midnight launches, has few reviews on Metacritic. The usual pre-release review embargo didn’t materialise and planet game was dragged straight into release frenzy (and all the inevitable server disasters) without knowing whether or not Diablo III was “good”.

As is now obvious – from a sales perspective, at least – it didn’t make a blind bit of difference. Diablo III has been a great success.

We’ve just been party to a rarity in the core space: a release that actively seeks to keep itself away from Metacritic. Diablo III’s MC average currently stands at 88%. Sub-90% is normally the kiss of death for any triple-A title – as far as the money people are concerned, anyway – so how did Diablo III manage to sell multiple millions of copies and defy one of the most awkward rules in games?

The reason is straightforward: Diablo is a huge legacy PC brand and Diablo III was always going to sell very well out of the gate. Blizzard would actively not want early reviews as there’s a potential of low scores damaging launch sales, and there was no need to generate high, pre-release reviews to drive hype.

The result was that Diablo III went on sale without any scores. The people that were going to buy it bought it – so many, in fact, that Blizzard underwent a partial core-melt – and the unsure waited. We’ve still to see ratings from sites like IGN, Eurogamer and Gamespot.

It’s easy to claim Diablo is a unique instance, in that its legacy is so strong that millions of people were going to buy it whatever the scores, but that’s incorrect. If you look at the games releasing in the next 12 months, many of then carry enough weight to eschew the traditional pre-release review pantomime. We have Halo, Call of Duty, BioShock, Assassin’s Creed and plenty more. They’ll all be great. They’ll all sell. And they all have the opportunity to back up Blizzard’s mould-breaking move with Diablo III and leave the reviews until post-ship.

Reviews written after launch, especially those for games which feature a heavy online component, are more accurate and less susceptible to being tainted by publisher control. For the most savvy consumers in the games space – yes, that’s you – that means you’re going to get better reviews from unhurried experts. For those less engaged with specialist online media, the timing of reviews makes no difference whatsoever: they were always going to buy it based on marketing spend.

That kid? That’s you. And us. And them.

Which begs some questions: shouldn’t launch reviews be dropped for major games? Does Metacritic really matter? And can we envisage an age when we won’t be hanging off out-of-ten scores like some deranged giganto-toddler vampiring milk on a Time cover?

Diablo III may not be an indicator that publishers are about to make the move en bloc just yet. It’s impossible to deny that Blizzard has a rabid fanbase and is capable of selling in tens of millions of units no matter the scores. But this episode clearly shows that the notion of giving journalists pre-release code for certain games is irrelevant, and in many cases can be actively damaging. In this instance, then, Metacritic really doesn’t matter. It hasn’t affected sales, and no one was predicting some kind of creative disaster because Blizzard hadn’t set up some kind of pre-release review system.

I’d like to hope that companies like Microsoft, Sony, EA, Activision and the rest will be looking closely at how Blizzard released Diablo III, and genuinely, seriously starting to push back on Metacritic as a measure of success. The truth is that huge games don’t need launch reviews. The idea that someone can review a giant game with online play at a weekend event, or in a few days at home with offline public servers, is idiotic. By standing up to the perceived notion that there “has” to be a launch review, large publishers will do a service to consumers looking to make informed choices about games and remove opportunities for cynics to claim scores were bought.

In this article written in the wake of the “h8 out of 10″ fiasco last year, I said: “Publishers do want reviews up for launch because it’s a norm in the games world and looks suspect otherwise, and they want scores live for consumers looking to make their minds up on launch day, but they need high scores.”

It’s clear the “norm” needs to be challenged for the good of objectivity. Make great games and market the ass off them: you’ll get good day one sales and high scores based on properly considered opinion. Obviously, this doesn’t work as well for “double-A” games, but if those wincingly elevated day one review scores are based on artificial, forced circumstances, aren’t we all just making ourselves look stupid for being party to the entire process?

Diablo III’s success, and its giant middle finger to Metacritic, is a clear indication of the answer.