Low Metacritic Scores Cause Game Publishers To Withhold Developer Royalties

Low-scoring game reviews sometimes cost game makers money. Directly.

This happens because of a common — but not widespread — industry practice I heard about several times while reporting on the topic of game reviews for the past month.

Here’s the way it works: a game publisher agrees to finance the work of a development studio and includes a stipulation that certain bonuses or royalties won’t be delivered unless the game achieves a certain Metacritic score. If you’re that developer and you agree to that deal, you better hope reviewers give you a fair shake, no?

One developer, who asked not to be named told me about an instance in which their company didn’t receive royalties for a game that sold more than a million copies. The reason was because — as had been stipulated in a contract with the publisher — the Metacritic score for the game was too low.

Does a developer with a million-seller deserve royalties? I asked some other game creators and reviewers about this practice.

Image: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Former GameSpot reviewers Jeff Gerstmann (Giant Bomb) and Alex Navarro said they’ve not only heard of this practice but even know developers that were caught up in it. “I’ve gotten e-mails from developers over the years who have said, ’I don’t think you realize what you’re doing to me with this review’ because my review knocked them out of the range of some bonus that they were up for,” Gerstmann told me. That’s something that really troubles me… When I’m sitting down to write a review I’m never setting out to think: ’I am taking food off this guy’s table.'”

Silicon Knights president Denis Dyack and Insomniac Games president Ted Price said they are both familiar with the practice and disapprove of it. “I don’t think that’s the right way to have a relationship with a publisher,” Price said. “The relationship needs to be based on trust that each party is doing the best it can and open communication to ensure that during the process both parties are doing their part.” Both creators said they don’t believe the practice is widespread, though Dyack said it was “kind of avant garde about three or four years ago.”

Game producer Pete Wanat said that the kind of deals the anonymous developer cited earlier in this piece are impractical. But he said that a variation on them is not only common but logical: “I think the stuff is far more active in the sense of: ’We’re going to work with you’ vs. ’We’re not going to work with you’ — as opposed to ’We’re going to work with you and, based on what kind of game it is, you’ll get a bonus.'”

Wanat thinks the more common approach matches what former head of Warner Bros. gaming Jason Hall instituted in 2004. At WB, according to the Wall Street Journal, Hall instituted “quality ratings” as part of contracts for games under development at the publisher. I wanted to know if Hall thought the process worked but he is unable to comment on his former employer. A Warner Bros. rep declined to comment on the publisher’s current policies and whether Hall’s review-score standards proved beneficial or not. [UPDATE: To be clear, the Warner Bros. comparison is a bit apples to oranges, since Warner’s deals are with publishers seeking licenses of Warner product, not with developers being published by Warner Bros.]

What I hadn’t realized before reporting on this series was how directly a bad review score can affect a development studio’s pay. Developers reminded me how tenuous the accuracy of review scores can be.

So next time you see a review that marks a game down lower than you think is deserved, it’s worth wondering what kind of affect that might have on the people behind the game. And it’s also worth wondering: why would a development studio ever tolerate publishers setting up deals like that?

For much more about game reviews, check back all week to follow my reviews series here at MTV Multiplayer. Got a comment you can’t bring yourself to share below this post? Drop me an e-mail.