Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Jeff Gerstmann debacle

I recently read about a bummer of a situation that went down over at videogame internet hub, Gamespot dot com. One of the major videogame websites out there, Gamespot is like Wolf Man in the monster world. Not up there like Dracula (, but pretty well known. A staple. The site sees thousands of visitors, has a billion annoying pop up ads, and every page takes about a minute to load on your average high speed connection because they throw so much bullshit in your face at every possible moment that it turns your computer into an 80 year old man in a sack race. I usually go there rather than IGN for game information, because IGN always felt very corporate, like trying to find an article that says "Stop it with the disco drums!" in Rolling Stone, pandering to the big players and high profiles. Sadly, that has changed.

Jeff Gerstmann was the Senior Editor at Gamespot, playing games and writing reviews, and considered a top player in the world of game media. As I said earlier, I would go to Gamespot for their game feedback because it was immediately apparent any time reading their material that these guys played the games, cared about them, wanted a good experience, and weren't shy about letting the consumer know which games were not worth their money. Jeff was no exception, and while I don't recall any of his reviews from previous visits, mainly because I don't really give a shit about the name of the dude putting the words down on the webpage, his review of Kane and Lynch: Dead Men by Eidos shows exactly how scrutinizing these guys can be in the face of flashy graphics, lots of violence, and an almost Reservoir Dogs style videogame that should make most gamers shudder in anticipation. So why do I suddenly care about the reviewers name? Because he gave it a 6 out of 10 and was fired the day after his review went live. Not only fired, locked out of his office and asked to leave the premises. That's some bullshit I expect to see in the President's cabinet on a fierce episode of 24, not to hear about from an internet game company. Working in games is supposed to be like being Tom Hanks in Big, and many of us try very hard to keep it that way.

(Kane and Lynch, respectively, I think.)

Apparently Eidos had spent more than a few hundred thousand dollars in advertisements for Kane and Lynch on Gamespot. When the review went live, they supposedly read it, and then pulled more hundreds of thousands of dollars reserved for future titles from the site. As Gamespot's revenue lies entirely in the sale of web ads, I can see how this could cause the bosses to run to the men's room and check their boxers. There's no official word from the Gamespot business crew on the issue, in the typical "no comment" backhanded deflection tactic popular amongst the corporate hounds when they shit on some guy, prompting one of us with morals to say, "Hey, you just shit on that guy." The only reasons given for the termination all seem to revolve around Jeff's "tone" rather than what he specifically wrote, and that he had been "talked to" about his "tone" on previous occasions. This, of course, is as vague as black matter. There's no such thing as "tone" in the written word. The "tone" is created in the reader's head, and regardless, it's not even worth an argument because it anyone can look at the situation and see with the utmost clarity that blaming "tone" is simply a lie. Yeah, a lie. His bad review lost Gamespot a lot of ad money, so they freaked out and fired him. When you read it like that it almost makes sense.

In addition to the finger pointing and vagueries from the corporate side of Gamespot, there has also been no official word on the situation from Jeff's peers at Gamespot, the other editors, who are the ones I really want to hear from and probably have a very biased yet true accounting of what went down. Their silence absolutley makes sense, because if they're now facing life on the chopping block then there's no reason to start coming to work in short shorts and cat-in-the-hat hats. I did track down an unofficial commentary from a supposed Gamespot editor, in which the mysterious blogster pretty much confirms the obvious. Notable quotes from the above link are as follows:

"Our last executive editor, Greg Kasavin, left to go to EA, and he was replaced by a suit, Josh Larson, who had no editorial experience and was only involved on the business side of things. Over the last year
there has been an increasing amount of pressure to allow the advertising teams to have more of a say in the editorial process; we've started having to give our sales team heads-ups when a game is getting a low score, for instance, so that they can let the advertisers know that before a review goes up."

"I was in the meeting where Josh Larson was trying to explain this firing and the guy had absolutely no response to any of the criticisms we were sending his way. He kept dodging the question, saying that there were "multiple instances of tone" in the reviews that he hadn't been happy about, but that wasn't Jeff's problem since we all vet every review. He also implied that "AAA" titles deserved more attention when they were being reviewed, which sounded to all of us that he was implying that they should get higher scores, especially since those titles are usually more highly advertised on our site."

Okay. No need to keep going on this trajectory, other than to point out Josh Larson is a douche, but here's what I'm getting at: Where does this leave us, the confused and addled consumer when seeking advice on hot shit xtreme game titles? We are being assaulted constantly via TV, internet, magazines, billboards, soda pop cans, and whatever the fuck else with crazy ads for games. If the marketing department can differenciate from one's ass and one's elbow, they make the game look good. Real good, regardless of the actual experience therein. I'm in a commited relationship and have been for a long time, but at my core I am a bachelor in many ways. One of the manifestationsof said bachelorism is in my quest for desired information. I don't scroll down the list of citysearch reviews on a restaurant if I'm curious about the fare they offer, I go there and fucking eat it. If I want to see a movie, I go straight to the theatre listing of the closest cinema and find the next screening and then I go and watch it. When I want to find out if some crazy looking game I just saw an ad for is worth half a shit, I go to Gamespot and check the review. I can't do that anymore! I now know full well that whether or not the editors like it, their content is now in league with the media machine chomping at our wallets and their integrity as journalists is about as sound as particle board.

So the next logical step is finding a new source for authentic and honest reports on the regurgitated refuse disguised as cream soda coming from the game publishers. And that's truth, so so many games look like they're going to be fan-fucking-tastic and end up coming out like spoiled turds. Penny Arcade has always been the best source for game reviews, mainly because they don't actually review games for a living. As fans of videogames, they laud the games they are playing and enjoying, and they complain about the ones that are worth the time and effort of complaining about in a public forum such as teh interwebzzor. It's much more genuine than a guy who's job is to play shitty games all day and then try and politely convey that they'd rather eat a plate of hot garbage than spend another minute in the grips of whatever digital nightmare they've had to grapple with. Every time I've acted on a favorable PA recommendation it's been worth it. But, what makes their reviews so good is precisely what makes them unreliable at this particular service I need. You can't go to their site and get a quick run down of the new Conan game, because they didn't bother writing about it. This leaves us in the grip of blogs and less professional sites and publications for authentic game reviews. Will they be honest? Yes. Will they be untouched by the pressures of marketing and corporate hand shakes? Yes. Will they most likely be written by fan boys who are "above message boards" and just want to gorge on a feast of their own jaded views on whether or not cell shaded Link is cool? Fucking yes godammit. So while Gamespot was not the be all end all of game reviews, it served a very important service in my life and I'm sad that I have to put it on the Bullshit Shelf next to Jaws Unleashed and new Star Wars.

And really, this post is also about how horribly Jeff Gerstmann was treated for not giving to marketing pressure and being true to the fans that built gaming into the disc golem it is today. This shit happens all the time, and it's tragic. I put it in the same unjust category of unnecessary rent increases in cheap apartment buildings occupied by low income tenants, and charging $9.75 for an afternoon showing of Norbit. Highway robbery! I hope that he goes on to find employment at a place that values honesty and us old schoolers that are still scrounging and spending to be able to keep up with our favorite form of entertainment, or better yet that he starts his own site or magazine.

I do feel the need to interject on the subject of Kane and Lynch before I wrap up here. I was lucky enough to meet an employee of Eidos Germany while on tour in Europe, and he invited us to the office to hang out, see the digs, shoot the shit, and psyche him the fuck out bragging on my Halo skillz. While there he demo'd the first level of Kane and Lynch for us on the office PS3 and I have to say it looked pretty good. From an observers point of view, I could tell there was a bit of trickery with the aiming (an element that gets a lot of shrapnel in Gerstmann's review) and one thing that would bother me if I had control was the slow speed at which the characters move. I hate that in a game. But it looked fun, and isn't that what we're looking for in a game? The theatrical way in which the encounters unfolded were intriguing and downright progressive. I can't say too much because I didn't have any actual hands on experience with the game which is the only way to properly scrutinize, but I left the building with the game on my "to rent" list. One thing he does say that I sympathize with involved the inconsistency of attaching to cover: " seems like you're always snapping into cover behind something at the most inopportune times, making the game quite frustrating." This was a problem I had with Gears of War during frantic close quarters battles, and it is lost on me if anyone ever went on record saying this in a review for that game. If the proverbial 'they' didn't, the proverbial 'they' should have.

But, in reading Gerstmann's review one can see the wear and tear of a decade of game reviews under the belt, as he seems to slightly nit pick, favoring his editorial space for the crucifixion of the game's flaws and largely ignoring some of the more theatrical feats I witnessed at Eidos. I'm hardly standing up for the decision to fire him based on his review, I'm not even playing devil's advocate. It's just the inverse sharp edge of having honest, experienced reviewers that aren't fan boys or message board spammers. Their job is to play games and judge them on the behalf of the consumer. It's all they do, cast judgement. If you do any job (no matter how sweet it is) for a long time you get burnt out in little ways, it's unavoidable. The burn these men feel is the mediocrity of the sub par game that gets hyped beyond hype and fails to deliver on fundamental mechanics. They lash out and do their best to level the bar, and I respect that with all the floating skittles that comprise my soul, but sometimes I just want to pass by the angst.

All said and done, I think the "User Score" at the header of the review speaks the loudest on the issue. A score of 2.6 out of 10, averaged from 3,410 votes at the time of this writing. Utterly abysmal. Internet backlash from the Gerstmann debacle? Possibly. It also suggests that Gerstmann did indeed comply with his corporate superiors and score the game much higher than he had desired in the face of Eidos's deep pockets. Regardless, I salute Jeff and hope he comes out of this whole mess better off, both financially and spiritually.


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