In an interview with Gamasutra, Tim Heaton, the studio director of Total War developer Creative Assembly, described their development process as Metacritic-focused and "brutal".
As Creative Assembly works on a game, they'll do what Heaton refers to as "Metacritic analysis", breaking every feature down and looking at it from both the player's and reviewer's points of view before scoring each one on a 100 point scale. Features that aren't measuring up are cut.
It's easy to see this as just one more step towards the "Metacriticisation" of game development — which, in a literal sense, it is. But then again, when I read the interview, it didn't strike me as some bloody-minded, creativity-killing approach but rather a healthy, if focused, cut-cut-cut mentality.
He adds, "And so if we see one flat line and it's not where we want it to be, we then will cut it. Well, we'll cut it really late in the day. I think teams are really scared about doing 90 per cent of the work and then cutting it. It's kind of like, 'Well, it's nearly finished; I... I've done all the work! Please don't cut it! I'm sure I can make it better.' And we're fairly brutal on that."
Heaton says he would much rather reject a feature that the studio invested resources in, than have it left in the game and affecting its quality. "You know, every step of the way — from the beginning to the end — we're talking about a 90 per cent Metacritic," the Creative Assembly director emphasises. "That's our goal. That's what we tell Sega. And we communicate that through graphs, basically, of where we think we are."
That approach — be stringent in your assessment, and cut everything that doesn't meet your standards — actually sounds like a smart way to run and complete a project. And it seems to work — Empire: Total War and Total War: Shogun 2 both have a 90 on Metacritic, and Napoleon: Total War is in at 86.
More to the point, all of those games are really good. They're also humongous, loaded with systems and features, the exact sort of project that could really go off the rails without some judicious pruning.
The "brutal cutting" mentality is a healthy one to have when working on a project. Whether you're writing a novel or recording an album or putting on a stage production, often the solution to a given problem is to cut out the entire problematic bit, particularly when you're working with a deadline.
The issue then, may just be just that Heaton is using using Metacritic as a measuring stick. After all, this is a site that equally weighs reviews from some pretty funky outlets (and, ahem, doesn't include Kotaku at all).
Plenty of game developers have shared horror stories about withheld bonuses, insane crunch-hours, and generally hellish working conditions, many of which are undertaken in the pursuit of high Metacritic scores. Whether Metacritic is the cause of that or (more likely) simply a convenient measuring stick for profit-minded publishers, the site certainly does play its role in a fair amount of games industry dysfunction.
But I'm not sure that this specific approach — cutting lacklustre features in pursuit of a 90 — qualifies as dysfunctional. It would seem that when Heaton says "90 on Metacritic," he's saying, "Has functional, fun gameplay and systems that are polished to a high standard."
Cutting features in pursuit of that goal doesn't seem particularly brutal. It just seems like maintaining high standards.
How Creative Assembly's Process Breeds Quality [Gamasutra]