Online pwnage: Do negative user reviews matter to the video game juggernauts?

The videogame industry has undergone tremendous growth over the past decade.  Big name releases consistently financially outperform those in other entertainment media, such as film and music, even though they attract a tech savvy, illegal-download capable audience.

Over the past 5 years, the most visible and commercially successful videogame franchise has been the annually released, rapid fire military shoot ‘em up Call of Duty.  Recent estimates suggest that the most recent entry in the COD cannon, Black Ops 2, is on track to becoming bestselling video game of all time, earning over $500 million in revenue within the first 24 hours of release for publisher Activision.

This is not surprising, as each previous entry in the franchise has posted obscene sales figures. The company claims this is the fourth consecutive year, that the Call of Duty franchise has delivered the biggest entertainment launch of the year.

Objectively speaking each COD release is an impressive entertainment package boasting huge production values, addictive fast twitch game play and an active, dedicate community which guarantees an essentially never-ending multiplayer experience.

However, online user reviews seem to paint a different picture.

Despite receiving favourably among recognised critics, 2011’s COD Modern Warfare, was bombarded by negative user reviews.  Currently, its Metacritic score is 88 denoting “universal acclaim”; whereas the average user score has fluctuated between around 3.3  and 1.7 (out of a possible 10), denoting an average user sentiment somewhere between “generally unfavourable” and “universal dislike”.  This discrepancy was arguably fueled by angry fans bombarding the site with negative reviews.  Were these reviews justified or were they unfounded attacks?   One could probably either either side convicingly, but it doesn’t change the fact that the brand has seemingly taken a battering on Metacritic.

Call of Duty - Metacritic Warfare

Call of Duty – Metacritic Warfare

A better question is do Activision care about these negative reviews?  Many people think not as the franchise largely adheres to the same formula and engages in little in the way of dialogue with users about changes or improvements to the franchise.

What’s more, it would appear as though they actively discourage people invovled with the company to engage with the community.  In response to the Metacritic bombardment, one the developers posted tweets asking fans of the franchise to help out by posting positive reviews.  Unsurprisingly, this tweet was later deleted.  Most likely because it didn’t toe the corporate line.

Online word of mouth is the lifeblood of games by smaller publishers, with limited promotional budgets.  It can mean the difference between bankruptcy and becoming millionaires.  Some have also argued of a relationship between a game’s Metacritic score and its company’s shareprice and remuneration of employees.

However, do negative user reviews have any effect on larger games with seemingly limitless budgets?  No matter how loudly sections of the online community complain about and deride the Call of Duty franchise, it seems as though their impact on sales and market penetration is essentially meaningless.  Even though online user reviews of the franchise have steadily decreased (with many users proclaiming outright hate for the franchise), sales have steadily increased.  The most recent release, Black Ops 2 is similar in that it has a metacritic score of 83 and user review of 4.4.

One possible explanation is that hatred of the game from one group, encourages an oppositional loyalty and sense of solidarity amongst those who support the franchise.  This may be a plausible argument given the oppositional nature of some videogame communities, e.g. Xbox owners vs. Playstation owners, or that Game A is better than Game B.

This may explain some of the commercial success of COD, however it is more likely that the millions of people who purchase the game simply don’t care about or don’t listen to the online rants of a vocal group of a few thousand.

Marketers often talk about the danger of negative online word-of-mouth; however, the success of franchises like Call of Duty suggest that negative online user reviews may not have an easy to deduce impact sales and market penetration.  (Many other critically and commercially successful games have attracted low user scores on Metacritic – such as Mass Effect 3, FIFA Soccer 13 and Diablo 3).  Perhaps if a brand is big enough and appealing to the masses, it can withstand and even thrive despite a vocal minority  – at least in the short term anyway.

// Alec Schumann

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2 Responses to Online pwnage: Do negative user reviews matter to the video game juggernauts?

  1. Pingback: Online pwnage: Do negative user reviews matter to the video game … | Game Review Guide

  2. Realistically, the only thing that the producers care about is the financials – leaving the actual passion/storytelling to the developers, within scope and budget. They do want to make a good game, and would try to get the people excited and passionate, but they want to use currently existing systems so that they can pump titles out quickly and frequently. There is an old adage “if it aint broke, don’t fix it” which seems to apply. However, that is indeed to the detriment of innovation. I’m not saying it’s wrong, it’s just the way it works.

    On the other hand, I will be blunt and accuse the user reviewers on Metacritic of being unreasonably hysterical. I have no problem with someone genuinely hating a game; my own opinion is that the Call of Duty series was great, but is a bit meh now. It’s when you get the legion of Battlefield 3 fanboi’s posting 0 star reviews with “This is da shittest game eva!”, something is obviously broken with the system.

    Personally, I don’t even read user reviews anymore because of this factor – unless it looks like a reasonable, thought out statement.

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