Is the quality of games going down?
Photo: Cameron Yartz
“Things aren’t like they used to be”, a common refrain of anyone over the age of about 25, is a sentiment especially prevalent amongst gamers today. Is this blind nostalgia, or have games really gotten worse?
To investigate this, I looked into user rating data from TrueAchievements.com on games released into the Xbox ecosystem in the first full year of this console generation and the last (2021 and 2014).
Note: this analysis is based on self-reported user rating data from TrueAchievements’ 1 million members. As TrueAchievements members are likely to be more active than the average gamer, this analysis should not be read as an absolute measurement of gamer behaviour. Nonetheless, this snapshot serves as a useful illustration of the change in perceived quality of games over time. TrueAchievements members may not represent the average gamer, and are likely to be more active. Only games with a listed rating are included – around 50 votes minimum. Users must have earned an achievement in a game to rate it.
The first observation is that there are more games being released this generation (Xbox Series X) compared to last generation (Xbox One). There has been a 63% increase, from 295 releases in 2014 to 480 in 2021. This is partly due to reduced barriers to entry for smaller and indie developers, as well as the increasingly platform-agnostic thinking in the industry and the growth in financial investment within games as a whole.
TrueAchievements collects users’ game ratings out of 5 for games they have played, which helps measure gamers’ sentiment towards each year’s releases. In 2014 the median rating was 3.5/5, but this has dropped to 2.9/5 as of 2021. This indicates that gamers believe the quality of games in general has dropped. Interestingly, looking at just the best 295 games of 2021 (i.e., the same number as released in 2014), the median score is 3.5 (same as 2014). This suggests that the drop in quality is partly a dilution due to greater numbers of games being released.
There are slightly less ‘high-quality’ games rated 4/5 or more, and these represent just 14% of all releases, down from 24% in 2014. Conversely, the ‘bad’ games are rising, with the number of games rated under 2.5/5 up a massive 753% from 19 to 162. In 2014 they were just 6% of all games, but in 2021 made up 34%. This likely links to a lack of barrier to entry, resulting in a reduced level of quality control – and is in part an unintended consequence of the positive move towards easier publishing for independent developers, as many of these titles come from smaller studios.
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Choosing a game at random is less likely to give you a quality title than ever. This will present a challenge for games subscription services as they battle for market share – coming up with best in-class recommendation algorithms to make sure each player is shown the right kind of title mix to find value in their subscription. This is an increasingly difficult task in an environment in which the number of ‘bad’ games is growing faster than the number of ‘good games’. This new games discovery challenge mirrors that which music and video streaming face. There is one saving grace for the new generation: ‘ultra-high-quality’ games rated 4.5/5 or more have doubled in number, from 8 to 16 (but still represent the same proportion, 3%).
So, games aren’t getting worse in the sense that there are fewer great games to play, but the number of bad games is growing faster. Given the increase in the number of releases over time, it brings the question: are games companies (on average) compromising quality for the sake of quantity, given the current production and release pace of the industry?
MIDiA has extensively covered the fragmenting of fandom and the rise of niche consumption – both trends borne out by the change in the number of players per game on TrueAchievements: down 74% from a median of 15,000 in 2014 to just 4,000 in 2021. This same trend is even stronger for games rated over 4/5 – down 82% from a median of 86,000 players to 16,000, which suggests less shared “cultural moments” centred around larger new games releases. The notable exception to this was Halo Infinite, played by 545,000 gamers, roughly half the TrueAchievements population (rated 4.2/5). Again, this environment will favour companies that can surface the most desirable moments, content and titles to each player. This varies for each player, and mass appeal is rare.
A new dawn
There are a few signs of a tailwind for games quality. In the past year, a number of perceived 'high-quality' games have been released, to significant commercial success. Last year’s Elden Ring, which was recently confirmed to have sold 20 million copies, and this year’s Hogwarts Legacy (which reportedly has already sold 12 million), both reject the live ops* model as full retail releases without microtransactions, and both have been exceptionally well received and reviewed (4.8/5 each on TrueAchievements). This represents a realignment in the industry, and a divergence between pure live ops and pure retail. The failure of a number of recent free-to-play games may suggest that the live ops pond can only support so many big fish (the likes of Roblox and Fortnite). Meanwhile, the vocal subset of gamers who dislike microtransactions represent a key target market for pureplay retail, and a separate market from the young gen-Zers who prioritise metaverse-style online worlds and in-game self-expression (both of which combine nicely with free-to-play models). All signs point to continued high revenue growth for live ops titles going forward, but those games will continue to coexist with ‘old fashioned’ retail releases, at least for now.
A split in focus between the two game types makes sense for developers. It will be impossible to please everyone.
*Live ops refers to monetisation within games beyond the initial purchase, generally including microtransactions, season passes, and other in-game purchases.