Review scores don’t sell games on Steam
Steam's best-selling games of 2017 prove that critical praise has little bearing on commercial success.
Now that we're finally free of the maelstrom that was 2017, we can take a step back and assess one of the few joys that the past 12 months did not destroy: video games. Along with the many best-of lists (such as our own round-ups of 2017's best PC games, best Xbox One games and best Nintendo Switch games), the big digital storefronts are rolling out their own analyses of how games fared over the last year.
Steam is leading the pack with a fascinating peek behind its typically impenetrable curtain, offering up lists of 2017's best-selling games, top new releases and games that boasted the highest number of simultaneous players. On their own, these lists paint a telling picture of the gaming landscape in 2017, with the rise of PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds and the continued popularity of Grand Theft Auto V contextualising the actions of studios like EA in their shift from single-player, story-based games to multiplayer-focused games-as-a-service.
What's more interesting, though, is the story Steam's sales rankings tell when paired up with critical reception data. Taking all the games from Steam's 2017 best-sellers list that qualify for MetaCritic scores, we set out to determine whether there was any significant link between review scores and sales performance on Steam.
In what is bound to confuse many a numbers-focused executive, we discovered no clear correlation between sales on Steam and critical reception. While many of Steam's top sellers are indeed among MetaCritic's higher scoring games, there are plenty of well-reviewed titles that failed to find success on Steam in 2017. Conversely, many games that failed to impress reviewers managed to climb to the top of Steam's sales charts, even when Steam's own user review system revolted against them.
Note: Steam's top sellers list is based on gross revenue, which levels the playing field somewhat for comparing full-priced AAA games with cheaper indie games. However, gross revenue does not factor in costs like marketing and licensing, both of which can contribute significantly to sales numbers. Bear that in mind as you read on.
The first, and simplest, comparison to make is between the various sales ranks in Steam's best-sellers list. While Steam does not reveal specific sales figures, the four ranks – Platinum, Gold, Silver and Bronze – provide a suitable categorisation for identifying any trends.
Looking at the median MetaCritic scores for each rank, it's clear that any correlation between score and sales is minimal at best. Not only are there a measly four points between the median score for Platinum rank games and the median score for Bronze rank games, the Platinum rank contains two games scored at a mere 69: Warframe and Ghost Recon Wildlands. Meanwhile, every single game in the Gold rank scored 74 or more, and yet each one was outsold by titles that MetaCritic categorises as "mixed or average".
Looking beyond the ranking tiers, it becomes even more apparent how unpredictable success on Steam is. As you can see in the graph above, a game's position on Steam's best-seller list has little to do with its MetaCritic score: ARK: Survival Evolved sits atop the sales chart with a MetaCritic score of 70, while poor Dishonored 2 hangs onto the bottom spot despite its significantly higher MetaCritic score of 86.
MetaCritic score isn't the only metric that varies greatly between Steam's best-sellers. Despite the game industry's insatiable hunger for new experiences, most of the top sellers on Steam in 2017 released in 2016 or earlier. Games like Grand Theft Auto V, Rainbow Six Siege and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt continued to sell gang-busters years after their launches, outperforming newer fare like Resident Evil 7: Biohazard and Nier: Automata. Some of this comes down to the latter games lacking the full 12 months' worth of 2017 sales, but it also speaks to the continued support studios like Rockstar Games and Ubisoft have shown for their games well past their release.
To further illustrate the disconnect between MetaCritic scores and Steam sales performance, we compared some of 2017's highest-rated PC games that didn't make the best-seller list with their more-popular brethren.
Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice
theHunter: Call of the Wild
Tales of Berseria
What Remains of Edith Finch
Torment: Tides of Numenera
The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky the 3rd
As you can see, a high MetaCritic score doesn't guarantee a game will soar up the sales charts, just as a lower MetaCritic score doesn't doom a title to commercial failure. When the critically praised Night in the Woods can't make the cut despite an 88 MetaCritic score while the decidedly humdrum Ghost Recon Wildlands can ride its 69 MetaCritic score all the way to the top of Steam's charts, it's readily apparent just how loose the connection between review scores and sales performance is.