Friday, November 30, 2007

Eidos, Gamespot, Kane & Lynch, and Internet Meltdown

Fridays are usually pretty quiet, but not this week.

Most of you have probably already heard about this, but let's do a quick review.

Last night, Penny Arcade put up their usual Friday comic one day early, which you can see here. The subject of the comic is Gamespot's firing of Jeff Gerstmann, allegedly for a video review on November 13 that Gerstmann did of Kane & Lynch: Dead Men, which was both very negative and gave the game an overall score of 6.0.

Here's your chance to see Gerstmann's review for yourself.

Why did this story go thermonuclear so quickly? Penny Arcade's comic, although rumors had apparently been circulating for most of Thursday, and this story would have bubbled up eventually, whether PA did a comic or not.

Here's the claimed sequence of events. Eidos had a huge advertising campaign lined up with Gamespot for Kane & Lynch. This campaign skinned the front page of Gamespot as well as allowing users to create their own Kane & Lynch Trailers.

Lots and lots of money spent.

Here's an excerpt from Tycho's news post today:
After Gerstmann's savage flogging of Kane & Lynch, a game whose marketing investment on Gamespot alone reached into the hundreds of thousands, Eidos (we are told) pulled hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of future advertising from the site.

In the aftermath, Gerstmann was fired.

Again, this is the claimed sequence of events.

Besides Penny Arcade, Rock, Paper, Shotgun posted this today:
We have a reliable source who tells us that while Gerstmann wasn’t the most popular man with the CNET owners, it was his Kane & Lynch review alone that allegedly saw him lose his job. We’d like to stress for reasons of balance, clarity, and fear, that this may be completely wrong.

Then there's this. Stephen Totilo asked this question to CNET's director of public relations Leslie Dotson Van Every:
Separate from Gerstmann, there is the question of whether Eidos’ advertising deal with Gamespot/CNET would have involved any stipulations or expectations regarding the nature of Gamespot’s review of the Kane and Lynch game. Can you comment on whether there was Gamespot/CNET agreed to any restrictions on how Kane and Lynch would be reviewed on Gamespot?

Her response:
“GameSpot takes its editorial integrity extremely seriously. For over a decade, GameSpot and the many members of its editorial team have produced thousands of unbiased reviews that have been a valuable resource for the gaming community. At CNET Networks, we stand behind the editorial content that our teams produce on a daily basis.”

Ouch. There's your textbook non-denial denial. She spent an entire paragraph specifically not mentioning Kane & Lynch or Eidos, or any details of the question Totilo asked her. It's just not that hard to say "Advertising has never had an effect on our editorial content, and it never will."

This leads me to believe, very strongly, that Penny Arcade is correct.

What's most ironic is that Gerstmann, in my mind, has done far more inflammatory and controversial reviews than this one. He pretty clearly explains what he thinks is wrong with the game, and his objections are in line with what most other reviewers wrote. I don't think the review is objectionable at all. I will say, though, that video reviews are much more likely to come off as extremely negative than print reviews, because in addition to words, tone and expression can make an additional impact, and people will say things that they would never write.

But what exactly is the point of having a reviewer if they can't give their opinion, even if those opinions are negative?

I think all of us outside the industry (and plenty of people inside it) have always had an uneasy view of the possible relationship between advertising and review content in the gaming press.

Look at it this way. There was an absolutely gigantic scandal on Wall Street just a few years ago when analysts were pressured to give companies "buy" ratings on their stock because the investment banking side of the house had a lucrative business relationship with those same companies.

Does anyone seriously think that if this could happen on Wall Street, it couldn't happen on Joystick Avenue?

Do I think it happens all the time? No. Do I think it happens? Yes.

Now if Gerstmann was fired because he didn't actually play the game, or he completely misrepresented how long he played the game, that's a different issue entirely. His review, though, seemed much more detailed than that.

I think the way this is usually done is far more subtle. Say Company X wants to do a huge advertising campaign to support Run Shoot Kill 5, and they choose Gaming Website Z. It's awkward for them to say "we're going to spend $250,000 with your site, so the review better not be shitty," but they don't have to--the review will be assigned to someone who has been identified as clearly sympathetic and responsive to the game. Do you think it's an accident that "world exclusive first reviews" are almost always higher than subsequent reviews?

I'll update this post if more information comes in today or over the weekend.

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