on Dec 4, 2007
Most common question here in the comments and in email last weekend: What do you think of the thing with Jeff Gerstmann?
Some people have been waiting for my take on this. Others will have no idea what I’m talking about. I haven’t commented on this yet because it’s one of those things that needs a thousand words or none, and I wasn’t sure anyone would be interested to hear my efforts to join the predictable pile-on now that the story is over and everyone else is dusting themselves off and walking away.
Here is a quick recap of the story. Note that that I’m just passing along details as I read them – the story goes something like this.
- Jeff Gerstmann, reviewer for Gamespot, gave a bad review to the newly-released Kayne & Lynch. You can see a subset of his complaints about the game here:
The game sounds dull and tedious in a number of very predictable ways. We’ve played this game before, as it were, but with more varied gameplay and more likeable characters. Those few minutes of gameplay footage tell a story that hardly needs the narration of Jeff Gerstmann to help make its point.
- After the negative review, Eidos (the publisher) pulled their advertising from Gamespot. (Gamespot was drenched in Kayne & Lynch promotions at the time of the review.)
- Gamespot fired Jeff Gerstmann.
- Eidos advertisements reappeared.
- Excuses were made in an attempt to airbrush over what looks to be the abandonment of the pretense of journalistic integrity.
- Life goes on.
For an even quicker summary of what people see when they look at this story, check out this Penny Arcade. To those of us pressing our noses up against the frosted glass of videogame journalisim and trying to look inside, it looks a lot like Eidos pressured Gamespot to fire Gerstmann. Of course, Gamespot denies this. Gerstmann has no comment. Eidos isn’t likely to subscribe to this view of events either. Some people doubt. “Anonymous sources” confirm, and hint that the story is everything it seems to be and more.
Gamespot’s stated reason for canning this ten-year employee – that they had a “problem” with the “tone” of his articles – is nebulous enough to mean nothing, and sounds pretty weak when used as justification for getting rid of a high-profile guy like this. This guy has been with you since the original Quake hit the shelves. A decade. And now his tone is suddenly a problem? Did his tone aburptly change? If not, what did?
Gerstmann claims he can’t comment on his firing, which is only true if what he has to say is negative towards his former employer. A few words from him could take the wind out of this story: “I was fired for repeatedly emptying the office coffee pot and not making more.” He hasn’t done this, which means he probably has something nasty to say and is avoiding doing so in hopes that he’ll be able to find work elsewhere in this industry. Humiliating your former employer is not the way to make a good impression on prospective employers.
Deprived of a reasonable alternative explanation for the firing, this story has gained traction and is quickly becoming the accepted version of events. I guess I’m buying it, since it reinforces my preconceived notions about gaming journalism.
For cynics like me, this just makes clear what I’ve always suspected, which is that mediocre big-budget games tend to garner better reviews than they deserve because the publishers make life difficult for reviewers if they don’t play along. I’ve always thought they did this with the more nebulous threat of cutting off “access”. As in: If you pan this Tomb Raider game, then maybe we won’t bother sending you screenshots, granting interviews, or giving you a review copy for the next one, thus giving the “inside scoop” to other, more malleable game sites and magazines. Review sites went along with this because of their OCD-like obsession with being “first” to review / preview something.
(And this is why I’ve come to loathe game previews. What possible use could I have for a four-page article filled with publisher-approved prose and screenshots about a game? Such a thing is essentially indistinguishable from advertising from the consumer’s point of view. It’s worse, really, since it’s presented as journalism. It’s gotten to the point where more page space is dedicated to previews than reviews, which shows just how screwed up things have gotten.)
But until this happened I would never have guessed that money was used this way, that the use of it as a weapon would be this explicit, or that they would have been so brazen about it. If this was some sort of aberration they might have tried to disguise what they were doing. They certainly could have waited a few weeks before taking action, thus spanking Gamespot back into line in a way which would have been undetectable to those of us on the outside. They way they’ve done things indicates to me that they think there’s nothing wrong with doing business this way and they don’t care if we know.
Many times I’ve played a game which had glaringly obvious flaws, and wondered how, during a two-page article filled with squealing about graphics and the mechanic du jour, the reviewer never found space to mention them. Eventually I (and a lot of other gamers) decided that either gaming magazines and websites employed abject masochists, or the review process was broken. I don’t expect a reviewer to predict if I like a game or not (How could they?) but I do expect them to accurately describe the contents and experience of a game. The moment I realized they stopped doing that they became useless to me.
Will gamers care about this in the long run? Is this going to be a blow to Gamespot, now that they have revealed that publishers can essentially buy positive reviews, simply by buying advertising space?
I gave up on review sites years ago. A lot of us did. What about readers who still turn to those magazines and sites? Next year, when reviews tell them that the next Tomb Raider game feeds the hungry and heals the sick, will they think back to the whole Jeff Gerstmann story of ’07 and hesitate? I don’t claim to be a psychic or anything, but I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that they won’t give Jeff Gerstmann a nanosecond worth of thought. If their memories reached back that far, they would remember the last review of [overhyped game from a big publisher] and how that compared to the actual experience of playing the game. There will always be a contingent of people who buy first, and use reviews to rationalize their foolishness later. That group is large enough to constitute a market, and Gamespot has decided to go after it.
I do hope Gerstmann is able to find work elsewhere. If I was running a gaming site I’d grab this guy in a second, if only to establish a reputation as a fearless rogue and a tell-it-like-it-is publication. Interesting that nobody has done this yet.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.