The gaming press was all abuzz today over the firing of long time Gamespot reviewer, and most recently big time editor type person Jeff Gerstmann was fired. The big deal over such a termination is that it would appear that Gerstmann was let go because of a game review. Depending on what you read, or what you believe, Gerstmann was fired because he either wrote a review of Kane & Lynch, the latest two person crime caper shooter from Eidos, or he starred in a video review of the same game. Neither the written review nor the video review painted the game in a particularly good light, however nothing all that off the mark from the current aggregate scores for the game. GameRankings has Kane & Lynch rated somewhere in the 6.5/10 scale and Gerstmann gave it a 6. As Gamespot consistently gives games slightly lower reviews than most other review outlets, this isn't all that strange. The current theory is that Eidos, which had paid in the thousands of dollars to advertise Kane & Lynch on Gamespot, going so far as to make the whole site look like either Kane or Lynch, or both, was none too pleased with either of the reviews, the video review in particular, and demanded he be fired.
Obviously, this doesn't paint Gamespot or Eidos in a particularly good light, nor does it speak very well about the state of game reviews in the first place, however all of those saying that the review system in general needs to be broken down and started from scratch are missing out on a number of very important points. How lucky for them that I'm here.
The first point is that the unfortunate relationship between game companies and the gaming press isn't going to change any time soon. Game companies pay to advertise, mostly, on gaming sites and in gaming magazines, both of which review games. As a result, readers don't have a lot of confidence that the reviewer is being honest about the game, what with all of the very visible ad dollars pumped into promoting said game. Reviewers probably don't feel like they can be honest, especially in the light of this most recent firing, as they don't want to lose their job. Game publishers feel like they're owed a favorable review due to all the money they've paid to advertise their game. However, the reason that this relationship isn't going to change any time soon is because despite all of the money people spend on games and gaming hardware, gaming is still considered a hobby and as such, the advertising in hobby magazines is directed towards things you can buy for that hobby.
Take fishing for example. Open a copy of Field and Stream and the majority of the products advertised in that magazine are products you can buy to help you fish and/or hunt. Ditto for gaming. Open a copy of Game Informer, and 90% of the ads are going to be for either games or gaming hardware. The difference between Field and Stream and Game Informer though is that Field and Stream doesn't review the products advertised in its pages, so there's no risk that they're going to piss off the makers of the Super Trout Lure-o-matic and lose some advertising dollars. Not so with gaming. Now, take something like Entertainment Weekly which is about as mass market a publication as you can get. Here's a sample of the products advertised in EW: cell phones, digital cameras, cars, tv shows and ham. Yes, ham. Most of those items aren't reviewed by EW, so they don't have to worry about losing advertising dollars. The items that are reviewed by EW, namely the tv shows, have a small statistical chance of being reviewed by the issue the ad appears in, and even if EW does review it, and doesn't like it, it's unlikely that the network will pitch a fit and demand someone be fired. If they do, EW can probably tell them to shove it, because they can fall back on that lucrative ham advertising campaign.
So, where does that leave gaming? A few options as I see it. One is to get more exposure in mass market publications. This is already happening as EW, for examples, reviews games, as does the Saturday Buyer's Choice section of my paper, the lovely Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Even Variety is starting to review games, even if they don't appear to be very good at it. The other would be for the enthusiast press such as Game Informer and the various game sites, to take advertising dollars from companies that they don't review things for. As much as I can't stand IGN, the whole idea of them getting McDonalds to sponsor something like free game guides is genius, because no one there is asked to write a review of the McRib so they can slam games all they want and not have to worry about losing ad revenue.
Part of the problem is also the fact that the gaming public needs to rely on reviews from professional game sites so much, namely because a) games are expensive and b) games can't be returned. Games are one of the few products that you can't return if it sucks or it's defective. Yes, other forms of media such as movies and music can't be returned if they suck, however if you buy a movie and it doesn't run in your player, you can exchange it for another copy in the hopes that it does. If you buy a 360 game and it has shitty ass AI, exchanging it for another copy of the same game won't fix your problem. Also, games are easily five to six times the price of a cd and more than double the price of a DVD, so the cost of buying a shitty game is much worse than buying a shitty cd.
As a result the gaming consumer needs to know that there are reviews out there they can read so that they don't waste their money on something. Sure, you can read a review on some random blog, but how do you know that the person writing it knows what they're doing. I agree with Tycho's recent Penny Arcade post about game reviewers not having super powers, however that doesn't mean that anyone can do a good job reviewing games, and I'm sorry, but spending any appreciable amount of time on the internet shows that being able to communicate effectively is probably as close to a super power as you're going to find. Again, I'm not trying to toot my own horn and make it sound like writing game reviews is rocket science, but it's not just writing 1000 words of your opinion. There has to be some objectivity in the review, as there will be plenty of times where the reviewer is reviewing a game in a genre they're not particularly fond of and they have to be sure that they're not mixing their opinions of the genre with their opinions of the game. Readers that visit professional sites do so because they assume that the people reviewing games there know how to do their jobs and as such, the reviews are as objective as they can be, given that they weren't written by robots. Going to a personal site gives no such assurances. That doesn't mean that you can't get bad reviews at pro sites, or good reviews at personal sites, but as human beings, we gravitate to authority, and the majority of the time, we'll trust something from a pro site over a personal site, simply because the pro site is professional.
Luckily, gaming blogs such as Kotaku, and Joystiq and professional sites like Evil Avatar and Destructoid that are run by real people and not corporate conglomerations are becoming more and more popular and provide people with the ability to get reviews from people they trust while still scratching that authoritative itch. It may be harder to wade through all of the other opinion and news pieces, but there's good work being done in such places and if need be, you can probably get a pretty good picture of most games out there without ever feeling like someone's review has been bought.
There's another discussion entirely to be had about whether or not game reviews should have scores, but I don't feel like getting into it right now, and in Gerstmann's case, I don't think it's relevant. Yes, his written review gave Kane & Lynch a 6, but the prevailing opinion is that he was fired over his video review, more specifically the tone therein. In that case, there was no grade to get all bent out of shape over. Plus, with GameRankings and Metacritic being so important, publishers don't give a shit about sites that don't get aggregated in those sites, so any discussion about how grading games sucks is useless because nothing on that front is changing any time soon.
For the record, I've never had any reviews changed, or received any pressure from anyone at GameShark. Incidentally, one of the current big banner advertisements over there is for Dancing With the Stars, which you may recall, I gave a whopping C-. That's not to say that I don't have to conduct myself in a professional manner, but thankfully, no one has ever given me grief over a bad review. Honestly though, why would they? I mean, who the fuck am I? Exactly.
In the end, I'm sure Gerstmann will be snatched up soon as he's been in the business for a very long time, and the dude could write a good review. It's a shame he lost a job over being honest, if that ends up being the case, and it's a shame that Gamespot, which used to be, for me anyways, the go to place for reviews, loses a fair amount of credibility but it happened, and there's not much we can do at the moment to change it. Hopefully, what we can do, gamers and the industry as a whole, is start to make changes that will still allow the game companies to make money, the reviewers to be honest, and the gamers to get quality buying advice. In that situation, everyone wins.