Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Thoughts on Gerstmanngate, or Heightened Consumer Product Expectations

N'Gai Croal at Newsweek's Level Up has written an excellent article on what the Jeff Gertsmann firing from Gamespot (a CNet company) means for game publishers and the video game press. He covers the controversy from a larger publication perspective that he writes from and the shielding editorial receives because of it. He also talks about enthusiast sites like Gamespot where they earn their living primarily from game publisher advertising deals. GameSpot has posted their most definitive commentary to date on Gertsmann's firing earlier today, where they clearly deny that game publisher pressure (Eidos) had anything to do with it. The whole situation stinks. I was a frequent GameSpot reader before this episode, and Gertsmann was my favorite reviewer, the only game reviewer I knew by name and trusted. I have stopped going to the site since the story broke weeks ago now.
While GameSpot continues to deny Eidos was the direct cause of Gertsmann's firing, his review of their game, as N'Gai and numerous commenters on today's GameSpot explanation speculate, Gertsmann's Kane and Lynch review (since publishing heavily edited) may just have been the last straw for GameSpot parent CNet. MTV's Stephen Totilo has a pretty good interview with Gertsmann which to me seems to hint that Jeff nor any previous review bowed to pressure from advertising, but makes clear Gertsmann's strong opinion of how to keep the integrity of a game reviewing operation intact. 
From my perspective, the pressure on game publishers, and in fact producers of all content, has gone up dramatically with the Internet as consumers have become more choosey about what content they will even think about. Rotten Tomatoes (an IGN company), Game Rankings (a CNet company), and MetaCritic (another CNet property) are the tools that consumers user to decide if content in question is worth their precise time. All these rating aggregators are a shorthand for the quality of content. In my experience over the last few years, the bar keeps going higher for consumers to even notice your content. This may be most prevalent for video games because of the time and money involved.
Games are the most expensive up front consumer entertainment you can buy. $60 for a new Xbox 360 or PS3 game, $50 for a Wii game, with PC games sold at a large variety of price points. With the amount of ways to entertain yourself, this is a pretty big cost to first justify and then absorb for a consumer if a video game isn't good. Then there is the time commitment. You waste 2 hours on a movie if its bad, an hour on a music album, 5 minutes on a song, but anywhere from 10-50 hours on a game, and you may not know whether that game is good all the way through into the final hours of gameplay, whether it was worth your time, is a satisfying ride. That is a tremendous amount of time to invest in a piece of entertainment. The risk is too high that you aren't going to be entertained according to the initial investment in the game. This is my theory on why a lot of games don't sell and aren't talked about unless their MetaCritic/GameRankings score is over 90%. Particularly for core gamers, the Xbox 360 owners (primarily now driving the software market) that rush out to buy the hot new title every week. If developers aren't bringing their "A" game, don't even talk to me. We have all played enough mediocre games, why should I bother with them anymore? Sounds snobby as I write it, but I see it happening, and I know I am doing it. Assassin's Creed for 360 has a Game Ranking score of 84%, you couldn't pay me to play it.
With this trend, it's plausible, even probable, that GameSpot is trying to insure continued strong advertising buys for promising softball, powder puff reviews of advertised product. Does this serve consumers, of course not, but it will keep the checks coming at GameSpot as long as their readers don't catch on. And maybe Jeff wasn't fired for these reasons, but these issues aren't going away, unless that is review sites break free of known advertiser revenue and make it all anonymous. Google AdSense?