It’s Harder Than Ever for Big-Budget AAA Games to Pull Down 9s

Sure, the little indie games can score big but for some reason, the big games are scoring smaller.

Sure, the little indie games can score big but for some reason, the big games are scoring smaller.

If your name is Uncharted, you’ll almost invariably nail some seriously high scores and you have a legitimate shot at holding a Metacritic and GameRankings average of 9+. Grand Theft Auto could do the same, as could a big new Mario release. But these days…that’s about it.

Thus far in 2016, only three big-budget AAA productions have managed to average a 9+ according to the two sources above: One is unsurprisingly Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (about 93%), and the others are Overwatch (about 91%) and Dark Souls III (about 90%). That’s it. Any other titles that have cracked the elite 9+ average barrier are small; either they’re indie games or they’re simply made with a low budget and simply aren’t in the same production category as the heavy hitters. Various mobile and PC games like SeveredSuper Stickman Golf 3, and Stephen’s Sausage Roll have managed to bring down 9s, for instance.

Severed is a fantastic game. Hardly any AAA games can compete score-wise.

Severed is a fantastic game. Hardly any AAA games can compete score-wise.

And this has been an ongoing trend for the past few years: Small/indie video games seem to have a much better chance of scoring those elusive 9s, while it seems almost impossible for a big-budget production to do it. Last year, even if you count GTAV (which we really shouldn’t, as it technically launched 2014), we’re still only looking at a small handful of big-budget games that averaged a 9+. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain averaged about 92%, as did The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and Bloodborne and Fallout 4 flirted with the 90% mark. Nothing else.

But there were many small games that pushed the 9 barrier quite easily and in fact, if you look at the top lists each year, the smaller games actually dominate in terms of review scores. The question is, why?

Obviously, there’s no point comparing the games in question because they all offer wildly different experiences, and it’s not fair to compare a great game like Bastion to a great game like MGSV. They’re developed with completely different goals in mind and of course, the gap in terms of resources and budget is absurd. Nobody is saying that fantastic games can’t exist on a small scale – as critics keep telling us, that isn’t the case – but I’m more interested in why the AAA games have such difficulty scoring high now. There are possible reasons for this phenomenon, I suppose.

Big-budget games scoring 9s has almost become a thing of the past.

Big-budget games scoring 9s has almost become a thing of the past.

For instance, maybe critics are starting to be more realistic with the 10-point scale. For years, gamers have complained that the traditional 10-point scale for reviews was seriously flawed, as it was more like a 5-point scale. Virtually nothing scored below a 5 and if anything got below a 7, it was automatically junk (which, mathematically speaking, doesn’t make any sense). So, publications and critics might have started a conscious or perhaps even subconscious shift. Another possible answer is that small-budget titles can be exceedingly creative and unique, and big-budget games have to cater to the masses and as such are more formulaic.

We see the latter in the movie industry, for example. The blockbusters often suck at RottenTomatoes but many of the lesser-known titles are widely acclaimed. Well, it stands to reason; anything for “the masses” is almost guaranteed to be trite and stupid; more flash than substance, more seizure-inducing flashes to keep a populace with the attention span of a gnat from leaving the room. And publishers invest a gigantic amount of money in certain massive gaming endeavors, and they want to be sure they’re going to get that money back (and earn a lot more in the process). The surest way to do that is to stick to the obvious formula.

Shooters everywhere, first-person and third-person. Formulaic as hell?

Shooters everywhere, first-person and third-person. Formulaic as hell?

I suppose one could also claim that the quality of bigger games has fallen as a result of the formulaic necessity. But let’s not forget that this doesn’t apply to all AAA productions; Uncharted is a great example of that, as is The Witcher 3, MGSV and GTAV. And there is one other possibility:

The multiplayer explosion has resulted in a series of games designed specifically for online multiplayer and frankly, a lot of them are awfully similar to one another. Just in the past ten months or so, we’ve seen OverwatchThe Division, Battleborn and Rainbow Six: Siege, among others. We’re not even in the fall yet, when we’ll see the new Call of Duty and Battlefield 1. Perhaps because so many of these experiences seem at least familiar – if not exactly similar – the scores can’t deviate much.

One last idea: Multiplayer-based games often face a slew of technical issues upon launching; critics reviewing these games when they first come out have to acknowledge these “growing pains” (which almost every single internet-based title has these days).

Whatever the reasons, it’s definitely real. At this point, you can only count on four or five big releases each year that can average a 9+ score from the critics, and that’s counting all platforms. Given the sheer number of titles released on an annual basis these days, that just seems…  Well, perhaps it’s correct. Maybe that 9+ range should indeed be reserved for the cream of the crop. Maybe we’re finally getting it right…?

156 thoughts on “It’s Harder Than Ever for Big-Budget AAA Games to Pull Down 9s”

I’ve noticed this too. 9s used to be a lot more common a while ago and I really do think it’s because critics are just getting stricter. Or, like the article says, most of them are starting to treat the 10-point scale more realistically.

Even so, it says a lot that some indie games score well. A ton of indie games SUCK but they don’t get any press; the few that do really well get lots of attention, though.

I’m glad we’re not seeing so many 9s. Now it actually means something when a game scores that high. 🙂

I think we need separate review scales for indie games and big-budget games. They’re just so ridiculously different that you can’t possibly compare them. A 9 for a little indie iOS game doesn’t mean what the 9 means for MGSV, for example, and I don’t think that’s right.

I’m not sure how to fix it, I’m just saying. 😛

I think critics SHOULD be more strict. They were handing out 9s like they were candy at one point and the 10-point scale really was a joke. It’s still skewed, of course, but at least now gamers aren’t looking at 7s as if the game is a total piece of crap.

Not sure about that. I still think most gamers view a 7 as a “total flop.”

I don’t think critics are being that much more strict. We’re just not seeing the same level of quality games at the same frequency. The scores are just reflecting the declining quality, that’s all.

That’s not even close to accurate, dude.

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