[Every weekend, Gamasutra is featuring sharp editorials and feature stories from our correspondents. This special editorial from Game Set Watch columnist and NewType USA editor (and former game journalist) Kevin Gifford deals with the game journalism-related news you probably haven't missed.]
Nerd rage on forums worldwide was immediate and swift, particularly on NeoGAF where all manner of theories -- ranging from the reasonably plausible to the patently absurd -- have been thrown around. My old boss Sam Kennedy of 1UP pointed out that CNET's recent hiring of Stephen Colvin, ex-CEO of Dennis Publishing (publisher of Maxim and the late Stuff), as overseer of GameSpot might have something to do with it, which sounds reasonable enough to me.
Perhaps CNET was looking for someone less uber-nerd Gerstmann-y and more hip and Adam Sessler-like to be GameSpot's most public face, and the K&L controversy was the straw that broke the camel's back. (GameSpot itself has issued a statement attempting to defuse such talk.)
This is all speculation, however, and it misses the real underlying cause of all this. Game publishers, nearly all of whom these days are multi-million-dollar corporations with shareholders and Wall Street analysts breathing down their necks harder than their gamer audience, don't care what Jeff Gerstmann or any reviewer has to say about their games.
They care about the score, the Metacritic average, and it's been that way ever since the Internet became the primary vehicle for game media. In other words, game publishers keep a cozy relationship with game media so their scores can be maximized on an unrelated website whose owner "has largely stopped playing" video games.
It's the same way with a lot of gamers, too -- they endlessly argue about scores, about Jeff's 8.8 for Zelda and about Fran from IGN's 7.9 for Mario Kart: Double Dash. And now that the Internet's largely shattered the notion that a professional game-media writer is somehow more qualified to bring judgement upon a new release than V3GETA80051 down at GameFAQs, the obsession with scores has become game media's undoing. Text, videos, podcasts, whatever -- nobody cares about any of it except that decimal number at the end of the review. And game writers' realization of this has made them lazy.
Scoring games in reviews is hardly new, of course, nor was it always a menace to good game writing. Magazines were doing it as early as 1982, and many early media outlets (including Japan's Famicom Tsushin/Famitsu, the US's Electronic Gaming Monthly, and Britain's CRASH and Zzap!64) built their reputations first and foremost on their review systems.
But on the Internet, everybody's a critic. The time lag, especially in the PC market, between a game's release and the professionally-written reviews means that online users are often one's first resource in making game-buying decisions.
Official forums, megathreads on general game boards -- if a reader checks these places out and sees a lot of other people having fun, he'll be tempted to join in. If he sees lots of bitching and moaning, he'll be dissuaded. (Portal is a classic example of a game driven almost entirely by online buzz. People were drawing pornographic Weighted Companion Cube fanart before the first "professional" reviews were posted.)
This glut of accessible opinion, in addition to magnifying the power of word-of-mouth in game advertising, means that the pro mags and sites don't have a monopoly over gamers' minds any longer. How have they dealt with this? They've taken measures, but none of them have really benefited gamers. Some sites started padding out their reviews in exasperating detail, largely rendering them unreadable.
Others invested heavily in video reviews which often say more about the reviewer than the game they're reviewing. (Many forumites have pointed out that Jeff's video review that started this whole controversy features gameplay from only one scene in all of Kane & Lynch. This is hardly the only video review I've seen like this, and I'm sure most of you would agree.)
Moreover, the presence of review scores and Metacritic's handling of them have irrevocably altered the audience's expectations of game media. Fifteen years ago, a magazine like Dave Halverson's Diehard Game Fan was seen as unique, quirky, and fun because it covered lots of import games, enthusiastically wrote about them in a way that gamers identified with, and -- oh yes -- gave many of them very high scores.
Today, Play Magazine is seen by many as biased, retarded, and utterly hopeless simply because Halverson's high scores for most platform games skew the Metacritic curve oddly. I am not saying that Metacritic is evil -- at its best, it can emphasize some odd scoring anomalies worth discussing, such as PC Gamer US's exclusive review of Hellgate: London ranking 19 points above the average.
But many outlets have failed to stir up any reader interest in the text behind the review, or the overall atmosphere of the mag or website they're exploring -- instead, readers increasingly care exclusively about the score, so they can praise and/or whine about it online. Entire game-media outlets have been, and are defined by, the numerals they publish...instead of, you know, how fun they are to read.
The Internet has largely made the job title "critic" redundant. The problem is that no one at most game mags and websites got the memo. Until they do -- until they realize that it's their content that defines them, and not their scores -- they'll have to be content with being abused by publishers and their readership for the rest of their existences.