Whenever we hear about the travails of a video game company, snark abounds, and ultimately, the chorus cries, "Why don't you just make some games that don't suck?"
Easy to say from the outside looking in, but independent game developer Matthew of the Magical Wasteland blog shared his insider experience with an unidentified major publisher to explain that it's not always so simple, even when executives "talk the talk" about quality control.
Matthew cited the institution of bonuses for developers based on Metacritic scores, similar to the practice of hinging developer royalties on good scores that MTV Multiplayer's Stephen Totilo recently investigated.
Armed with the knowledge that higher review scores meant more money for them, game producers were thus encouraged to identify the elements that reviewers seemed to most notice and most like – detailed graphics, scripted set piece battles, "robust" online multiplayer, "player choice," and more, more of everything. Like a food company performing a taste test to find out that people basically like the saltiest, greasiest variation of anything and adjusting its product lineup accordingly, the big publishers struggled to stuff as much of those key elements as possible into every game they funded.
The result, said Matthew, was that development became rushed and disjointed, all in the pursuit of the mighty Metacritic review score.
Multiplayer modes were suddenly tacked on late in development. More missions and weapons were added to bulk up their offering – to be created by outsource partners. Level-based games suddenly turned into open-world games.
Before you cry in despair, keep in mind that all these people wanted in the end was the best game possible – or, more precisely, the best-reviewed game possible.
Matthew's entire story is well worth a read, even with the (logical) absence of his career specifics. I find it ironic that the games press, many of whom are indirectly responsible for those scores, so rarely gets opportunities like these to look inside the developers' experience.
You Can't Fake Quality, But That Never Stops Them from Trying [Magical Wasteland]