Thursday, December 6, 2007

Influence vs. Integrity - Game Publishers vs. Game Reviewers

'Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.' - George Santayana

"I guess U know me well, I don't like winter But I seem 2 get a kick out of doing U cold Oh, what the hell, U always surrender What's this strange relationship that we hold on 2?"

Lyric from Strange Relationship - Prince

Stop me if you have heard this one before. Video game publisher takes prominent game magazine senior editor to task for a thoroughly unfavorable review of a high profile release. If you're thinking, "Duh you have been blogging about that Gertsmann thing all week"'d be sort of right.

Take this example from 2001 recounted in 2005 for a site once known as Gamedrool. (Links courtesy of The Wayback Machine). Gamepro publishes a negative review of a highly touted release from 3DO called Portal Runner, a spin off of the successful Army Men series, for the PS2. Ironically the game was featured on the cover of the same issue. Trip Hawkins, President of 3DO at the time, sent a scathing letter to Gamepro expressing his dissatisfaction with the review, the reviewer and the magazine and promises to pull his company's advertising. Gamepro stood behind the review and the reviewer and made it clear in no uncertain terms that they were not changing the review.

Based on this bit of history, Gertsmann's sacking for his review does not seem so far fetched. While Hawkins' letter was not the most coherent he did make a very good point. The nature of the relationship between game publishers and magazine publishers is symbiotic. It may have been Hawkins' belief that the relationship should provide for favorable reviews of 3DO games. Because of the weight placed on game reviews I would not be surprised if more publishers felt that way. Ultimately, game reviewers are bound to presenting an opinion of a game solely on its strengths or weaknesses not because the publisher's PR people showed them a really good time the other night.

Does this history mean that Gertsmann was fired for his review?
No. And per human resources and privacy laws we will never know why Gertsmann was fired.

Did CNET/Gamespot handle this appropriately? I don't think so. The actions of management leading up to the exit of Gertsmann made it look like he was being let go for the review. To their credit, they are stepping up and trying to shed some light on the activity this past week. In my opinion, had they taken this action at the time of Gertsmann's exit this wouldn't have blown up as it has.

What's the big deal over this guy anyway?
The big deal is this: Jeff Gertsmann was a senior editor for Gamespot and an 11 year employee before being sent packing last week. Internally at Gamespot, there were many comments about how this was not communicated to the staff. Based on how this was handled, there are folks that are very uncomfortable about who they are working for. And I am not talking about CNET. This controversy has made news in the mainstream press as well and could potentially impact the company financially. Here's how. Publishers pony up ad money to get their titles seen by as many eyeballs as possible. More eyeballs = higher premiums. If people decide to move on to other sites because they feel Gamespot reviews are biased in favor of the game publishers, that means fewer eyeballs. This could also impact Eidos and IO Interactive because this controversy combined with the manufactured quotes blunder will keep people from purchasing Kane and Lynch.

So what does this mean for us as gamers? We need to take reviews from sources of so-so reliability with a grain of salt. If you have a favorite place to read reviews that you trust then by all means continue to support that magazine/site. Especially now. We can be fairly confident that sites that do not rely on game publisher ad support are above the influence of game publishers. We can rely on sites like 2old2play for reviews because they are generally written by our peers, but even then one should be wary because PR people have been known to hire shills to generate positive press about titles either in blogs or forums.