Professional video game critics have far greater influence on buyers than other consumers’ opinions, according to new research.
The research found that players’ reviews do help predict the success of a game, but it’s the critics who hold the real power and who dictate which games will succeed.
Lead researcher, economist Dr Joe Cox, at the University of Portsmouth, said the findings suggest publishers should make game developers’ pay dependent on how well critics review them.
The study is published in the Journal of Consumer Behaviour.
Dr Cox said: “The findings turn upside down the strongly held belief that customers’ word of mouth is king in a market worth an estimated £60bn worldwide a year.
“The key policy recommendation our findings suggest is that publishers make increased use of metacritic scores when forming contracts with development studios, similar to a ‘performance related pay’ arrangement. This better aligns the incentives of both parties and might help ensure that developers prioritise the quality of the gameplay experience over any other factors. That’s got to be a good thing for video game players.”
Dr Cox and Dr Daniel Kaimann, of the University of Paderborn in Germany, also found reviews from professional critics were taken most seriously by mature players, with a 10 per cent increase in a review score for a mature title leading to an 18 per cent increase in sales.
Dr Cox said: “This suggests mature gamers are more discerning in their choice of which games to buy and that they perhaps pay greater attention to professional critics than younger gamers do. This could be because they have less free time and so want to make sure they don’t waste it by playing a low-quality game.”
The research found that word of mouth does not seem to have any effect on sales once the researchers also accounted for reviews from professional critics, which Dr Cox said was surprising given the importance of online consumer reviews in other contexts.
“Third party endorsement is highly valued by consumers but especially when buying ‘experience’ goods, where the true value can only be determined through consumption,” he said.
Experience goods include wine, cosmetics, health care, books and films.
Dr Cox and colleagues examined the sales figures of 1,304 video games released between 2004 and 2010 on one of five mainstream platforms – Nintendo DS, Nintendo Wii, Sony PlayStation 3, Sony PSP and Xbox 360. The opinions of critics and consumers were sourced from Metacritic, widely regarded as a robust source of information on reviews of film, television, games and music.
They found that consumers tend to contribute more than twice as many reviews as professionals, but while players were generally unanimous when they didn’t like a game, their opinions varied wildly on games that were considered to be of higher quality. Professional critics, on the other hand, tended to be more likely to be consistent in their assessments of games regardless of quality, lending a greater degree of certainty for consumers.
The research found that a good review from all sources, including other gamers, did add up to better sales, but when all the professional critics agreed a game was good, sales increased significantly.
Dr Cox said: “Successful games seem to split public opinion to a greater extent than poor games, which people generally agreed on.
“This split in other gamers’ opinions might be creating unease in a potential buyer who isn’t sure whether to pay £40 for a new game. Buying a game isn’t just about the price, it’s about a player’s anticipation of the length and depth of gameplay offered.
“Gamers rely on professional critics far more than movie goers do. Their independence and reputation is seen a credible signal and helps minimise the chances of buying a dud.”
He argues that professional critics are likely to be trusted because their reputations are based on providing accurate assessments of quality. If they consistently get it wrong, their reputations are at stake; perhaps even their livelihoods. By contrast, consumers have nothing to lose by posting an inaccurate online review, so other players don’t value their opinions as highly.
The results could be used to help game producers strengthen their competitive advantage, by focusing less on the opinions of gamers and more on the opinions of professionals.
Established gaming franchises such as Mario, Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty have become cultural icons appealing to a wide range of consumers.
The profile of players has changed significantly since video gaming became mainstream in the 1970s. Men aged over 30 and female players now account for the bulk of the market, muscling in on territory formerly occupied by the clichéd gamer; teenage boys.