After their live-streamed video explaining the Giant Bomb acquisition to fans, CBS Interactive VP of Games Programming John Davison and Giant Bomb Editor-in-chief Jeff Gerstmann sat down for an exclusive interview with GamesIndustry International for an in-depth look at their strategy and the changes in game journalism.
Q: I think that live-stream video was a good move to set the stage for what you guys are doing next.
John Davison: We had to deal with it and put it behind us so we can move forward and have people not keep dragging it back to that.
Jeff Gerstmann: I think if we hadn't come out and said something about this, it would have come back ten-fold, it would have been lingering over everyone's head. It was good to finally talk about that stuff. It's been hard to go all these years not talking about it, because I kept getting asked about it all the time. I know it kept coming up on the GameSpot side as well.
Q: When we talked before, John, you mentioned how game journalism is changing, and that it has to change because the audience is changing. Is this move part of that?
John Davison: Yes. When we talked, this was coming down the pike; this was in January, and we'd been talking to the Whiskey Media guys since the tail end of last year. It was by no means certain at that point but we were very mindful of the fact that this was happening. The commodity content thing that we talked about was a really important piece of it. Another piece of it was that you can't expect to be all things to all people any more.
When GameSpot was formed back in the mid-90's, these were the days when people set their favorite web site as their home page in their browser, and it was the first thing that popped up whenever they turned their computer on. People just don't consume their content on the web that way any more. Everything is either through Google search or YouTube search, increasingly the latter. So this idea that you can be all things to all people, it's a real drain on resources, it's really wearing on the guys to feel like they somehow have to be an expert on everything, and be an expert on nothing as a result of it. This allows us to spread the load across two teams, to leverage where we can join together to do things; there are areas where the content is much more appropriate for GameSpot, and other times where Giant Bomb is going to take the ball and run with it and GameSpot is going to point to it.
"I'm throwing down the gauntlet, and I'd like to see someone top this. I don't think it gets any weirder and cooler than this"
Jeff Gerstmann: I started at GameSpot in '96 and went through a lot of years where we were trying to be all things to all people. That worked, but then gaming has just gotten so much bigger and so many more people are interested in it now, that you have more and more people who are trying to specialize. A general site can only do so much for an audience like that. By getting rid of some of the fluff, and getting rid of some of the stuff... there were countless hours I spent writing previews of games I knew no one would ever read.
John Davison: That's demoralizing!
Jeff Gerstmann: It's one of those things that when we started Giant Bomb we said,"'Well, we're just not going to do that." And then partially as a reaction to the way we worked through GameSpot's early history, and also just as a factor of being a small team. It allowed us to chase a lot of that commodity content, a lot of the kind of premium top-level stuff that we ourselves were very interested in, and stuff that we thought the audience really needed to know or already wanted to know. It got a lot more exciting to cover video games that way too.
John Davison: You and I, Steve, we talked a little bit before about the need for the audience to feel they had a personal relationship with the people they were getting the information from. Obviously Giant Bomb is a shining beacon in that regard. It's a really important piece of how we want to move the group moving forward. We need the audience to feel that they can relate to people around certain games, certain topics, looking forward to knowing that when something happens "Oh, I can't wait until the guys on the Bombcast talk about this!" or "I can't wait until Kevin VanOrd on GameSpot talks about this!" It's elevating those individuals to be associated with the brands. GameSpot for a very long time has been about GameSpot. Giant Bomb has been very much the other way.
Jeff Gerstmann: Yeah, exactly. There was a time at GameSpot when people here were very seriously considering removing bylines from reviews because we were very tired of running a review of a game and having someone immediately ask us "Yeah, but what did you really think?" As if the review was somehow not what we really thought. So with Giant Bomb we want to just flip that entire thing on its head and say "We're going to say exactly what we think of a game at all times." It's not going to be "Well, you know, if you like this kind of game, then you'll like this kind of game!" Those are useless reviews these days. By putting ourselves out there, we've created a situation where people can disagree with us and still learn something about a game along the way, because our likes and dislikes have gotten out there into all of our content. It's a lot easier for people to parse that stuff and get something meaningful out of all our reviews.
Q: Knowing your biases lets me understand how to interpret your review.
Jeff Gerstmann: There are extreme cases I think we won't go down that road as far as it goes, because it's not like I'm going to write a review of a Madden game, because that's just not useful. I'm a guy who doesn't like football at all and doesn't really care about the Madden franchise.
Q: Jeff, you developed your own brand and style for Giant Bomb, but said you needed to add business savvy to get to the next level. Why CBS? CBS Interactive, John may be hip, but when you say CBS you think, "Isn't that where they have TV shows for old people?"
Jeff Gerstmann: Ultimately it all comes down to I just want to get on the set of The Price Is Right and play Plinko, and this was the shortest route to making that happen.
Q: Now the truth comes out.
Jeff Gerstmann: Whatever the terms of the deal were, as long as that was in there everything would be fine. What made actual sense with CBS Interactive was that GameSpot's been around for a long time, and they've had some rough times that they are very much coming out of. It's due in large part to the team of guys and girls that have been here for years, and then newer guys like John here who are really trying to move things forward - and more importantly, understand what it takes to run a video game web site.
It isn't about the corporate parent; any corporate parent at some level is gonna be stodgy, but down here on the ground where we are it is very exciting. We've got a really great crew of people on Giant Bomb, there's some of our great friends that we've been friends with all along here at GameSpot, and we're poised to do something really cool out of that. That's why. We wanted to make sure that we were teaming up with someone who understands what running a video game site actually meant. So we didn't have business men who didn't understand what gaming coverage really meant telling us how to implement it.
Q: It really feels like the plot of a movie, where the ousted employee returns years later, Steve Jobs-like, to take control of the company and bring it to greatness... no wait, that's not quite right...
Jeff Gerstmann: No, no, you got it right, take over the company, you got it. (Laughter) It is, quite literally, the craziest... Back in '07, when I got fired, I've always described it as the craziest thing that ever happened to me; this is a very close second. It's something we kind of joked about back in early 2008: "You know, you realize we're just going to build the site and sell it back to those guys?" "Ah, that'll never happen!" And here we are.
I think deep down we saw some of the other moves that were being made, with all the Joystiq guys leaving to form that crew at Vox, and everyone went "Ooh, that's crazy!" Then Ben Kuchera went and started the Penny Arcade thing and I went "Oh, man, that's insane!" But all along we were sitting there going "We have something way crazier than that!" Just biting our tongues, going "Oh, man, they don't even know, this is going to be the most insane story of the year." So I'm throwing down the gauntlet, and I'd like to see someone top this. I don't think it gets any weirder and cooler than this.
John Davison: We were joking today that we were shocked that it hadn't leaked and there weren't any rumors, and we think primarily there weren't any rumors because no one would believe it.
Jeff Gerstmann: There was a very small handful of people, mostly ex-GameSpot employees, that I gave the lowdown to last night, saying "Hey, we're going back." And they're like"'No, c'mon, you're messin' with me!" It took me 5 minutes of saying "No, this is really happening" for them to say "OK, this is real, wow." When some of the GameSpot staff found out, they were pretty shocked .
Q: Do you feel like you've won your battle with the old management team even though they're long departed?
Jeff Gerstmann: It was never really a battle with those guys. I never really held a grudge against any of them. I don't agree with the decisions they made, obviously, but at the end of the day those guys just made some bad calls. That's not the end of the world, and it's worked out pretty well in the end. It's fun to be back. It's crazy, I'm sitting next door to my old office, it's really weird. It's been great to be back so far, and I hope that this is a good sign of things to come.
Q: The initial problem that led to all of this, of advertisers trying to control the content of reviews, does that still happen to the same extent?
John Davison: Not really. From time to time, people will express their displeasure, and there will be people that will talk about how you're an outlier, but ultimately the way to deal with it, and the way to always deal with it, is you make sure there are no factual inaccuracies and you stand by your man and say "We didn't like it." And it always blows over. Sometimes it takes a while, but it's just a fact of life. We've always had, except for that brief period of time, a substantial wall between advertising and editorial, and I think it's an important part of reviewing product; you need to have that barrier. Part of my job is to be that barrier; anyone who's in a lead editorial role has to shelter their guys from that stuff so they aren't exposed to it.
"The way that we brought Giant Bomb and GameSpot together was always so that we could keep the two as separate entities, each serving a specific audience purpose. That's the way that we want to protect against the future"
Jeff Gerstmann: I knew coming into this that if this was a situation we ran into again, that with the people who are in place now, guys like John, that they would go to bat for us and prevent that sort of thing from happening again.
Q: It's important to know that your boss has your back.
Jeff Gerstmann: Definitely. It's really crazy when you realize that they don't.
Q: John, is this just the start of moves that we're going to see for GameSpot?
John Davison: We'll have other things that we'll be talking about. There are things that we've been doing with GameSpot, anybody who's been paying attention to the GameSpot content mix over the last six months is going to have noticed a dramatic change. There are some things that we can do to highlight that more, and I think that there are some things that we can do working with Jeff and his team to be able to leverage the work that each other is doing.
There are topics and themes that emerge on a weekly basis right now, and we have a lot of talented people here. It's better to have one person owning that thing and the brands around them, supporting and promoting that. So if Patrick on Giant Bomb writes a fantastic story about whatever the big story is this week, we can point the GameSpot audience at that story, and we don't republish it, we just say "Hey, you need to know about this topic, Giant Bomb has written about it." Likewise, if there are things coming the other way. I think the one area where we are going to continue to double up is reviews.
Jeff Gerstmann: Right. We're taking somewhat different approaches to reviews right now, and I think that's something that will probably diverge a little bit further as time goes on. At the end of the day, there is no one opinion that's the right one. We used to write reviews on GameSpot from this position of them being "objective," which made sense when there was a smaller audience for gaming. These days, that just doesn't fly. In the interests of having more information for people to consume before they go out and make a purchase, we'll be running reviews across sites and continuing to review games on both sites.
Q: Any comment on the layoffs at IGN and 1UP today?
John Davison: For me personally that was very sad, because I was there when that thing launched. It's always sad when something like that happens. We had no idea that the timing was going to coincide.
Jeff Gerstmann: You never like to hear about layoffs with anyone in this business, but it hits even harder when it's people you know. Some of those guys are guys we've both known for years. I hope that they land on their feet.
Q: It's just more evidence of the turmoil in game journalism.
John Davison: The way that we brought Giant Bomb and GameSpot together was always so that we could keep the two as separate entities, each serving a specific audience purpose. That's the way that we want to protect against the future, is understanding that audiences have very different needs and we don't want to homogenize anything. There's room for two different types of voices under this roof, and potentially more.
Jeff Gerstmann: The turmoil is larger than just journalism, it's the Internet. We're at a time of great change, what advertising means on the Internet is changing in a very big way, sort of like you're seeing on television with DVRs making standard ads obsolete. Business is going to have to change, and we're all going to have to adapt to move forward and keep going for the years to come. People that stand by as existing ad formats get less and less useful are going to feel the brunt of stuff like this.