Great writeup, Julian. You gave a great explanation of how it worked, what industry insiders think of it, and the various issues surrounding it. Good stuff.
Personally, I never go to metacritic, unless I see an score on Steam and wonder why a particular game got a particular score. But I never check it before I purchase. I read reviews from reviewers so I can gauge the quality of the game and if it suits my tastes. When you're shelling out $50, a little research is required.
I don't know of any other industry that ties bonuses to review rankings. Look at the film industry. There are lots of panned movies that still do great at the box office. Directors aren't paid extra if they score a fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. For games, I wonder why it isn't all about copies sold?
And I wonder why publishers put so much weight on Metacritic (or Gamerankings)? The analysis suggests that it's not important. This article on gamasutra last year:
But game reviews and scores are far from a major factor in consumer purchases of games, finds a new fall-season survey by Cowen Group analyst Doug Creutz. In fact, among eight different factors that influence a consumer's decision whether or not to buy a particular title, aggregator scores were judged the least important out of eight.
In this study, genre and owning an earlier game in the same franchise were the top two most influential factors in a gamer's purchase.
And in this article, Jesse Divnich of EEDAR argues:
"Marketing influences game revenue three times more than quality scores. There's a giant myth out there that reviews scores are the most crucial to a videogame. The reason why that is is the information is readily available - we can go to Metacritic - and we see games like Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty succeed and we see they have a high quality score and we make that correlation," he continued. "But the truth is, marketing actually has much more of an influence to game sales than high scores."
EEDAR came to this conclusion after studying all the games released between 2007-2008. Their advice?
"If you're making a DS game don't even bother on quality, just ask for a bunch of marketing dollars," he said. "This actually suggests to developers that if you can, sacrifice quality to get a higher marketing budget."
Personally, I think that attitude can come back and bite you if you go to the well too often. I prefer quality games. However, we see this with movies when they realize they've made a stinker. They blitz with advertising up until the release trying to get a good opening weekend before bad word of mouth sinks it.