A Question of Trust
If there's one topic that games journalists love to discuss, it's games journalism; indeed, if the profession had an official sport, it would be unquestionably be professional navel gazing. It's hardly an allegation that is unique to the games media, of course - most professions love to engage in a bit of old-fashioned "he said, she said..." fairly regularly, after all.
Occasionally, though, an issue emerges in the games media which breaks the surface, and makes its way past the industry sewing circle and out into the public. Such is the case this week with the dismissal of long-standing GameSpot editor Jeff Gerstmann - an event which is turning the harsh light of scrutiny on the cosy relationships between game publishers and the publications which review their products.
The facts as we know them are this; Gerstmann, one of GameSpot's longest-serving writers, was dismissed from the company at exactly the same time that his video review of Eidos' Kane and Lynch: Dead Men was taken down from the site. The text of his review of the game was also altered - all while a huge Eidos advertising campaign ran on the site, only to be pulled shortly afterwards.
There are two interpretations of what happened. GameSpot's official line, issued in a somewhat belated statement, is that all of these things are coincidental. Gerstmann's employment was terminated after an internal review process, unrelated to any publisher complaints. The video review was pulled due to quality concerns over a faulty microphone (it has now been reinstated). The text was altered because the company felt the negative tone of the review didn't match its rating (6.0, for reference). The ad campaign timing was "unfortunate" but "purely coincidental".
The other interpretation, obviously enough, is that Gerstmann was fired, and his reviews of the game pulled or edited, because of pressure from Eidos, threats of withdrawal of a large marketing budget, and all the rest of it. In this version of events, of course, it's unlikely that this was the first such conflict between Gerstmann and his superiors over an issue like this - it's just that this one was the straw which broke the camel's back.
This, needless to say, is the interpretation which is favoured by, well, just about everyone who isn't working in public relations for GameSpot. Whether it's true or not, we'll probably never know. GameSpot's own version of events may be entirely accurate - but asked to choose between an explanation of unlikely coincidence, or one of corporate misdeeds, it's pretty obvious which one will be believed. GameSpot could be telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth - it doesn't matter. For readers and industry alike, its reputation (not to mention the reputation of Eidos) has been significantly tarnished.
I don't think I need a declaration of interest at this point. It's fairly self-evident that I work rivals of GameSpot and its publisher, CNET. You might expect that I, along with other employees and contractors of rival firms like IGN, Eurogamer, Future and Ziff Davis, would be gleeful at the difficulties GameSpot finds itself in.
Nobody is gleeful. At least, nobody who actually understands the gravity of what has happened here - and the damage it does not just to GameSpot, but to the games media as a whole, to the careers of everyone who works in it, be they journalists and sales people on this side of the table, or PR staff and marketers on the other side.
Whether or not any of the allegations of foul play in regard to Gerstmann's departure are true, they have harmed consumer confidence in the specialist press. Certainly, GameSpot will take the brunt of this harm - but does anyone really expect that, faced with allegations of publishers interfering in the editorial process, consumers will assume that this practice is confined to one website? Of course not. The assumption, voiced loudly in forums and quietly in private conversations in recent days, is that the whole industry works this way. We are all tarred thickly with the same brush.
Of course, there will be those - even, sadly, among the game journalists themselves - who question whether this actually matters. After all, we went through a similar (albeit slightly lower profile) "scandal" with the exclusive reviews of Driv3r in certain magazines a couple of years ago, and the sky didn't fall in that time around - why should it be any different now?
The answer is that the sky tends not to fall in all at once - but the erosion in consumer confidence in wake of the amusingly dubbed "Driv3rgate" is still evident today, and Gerstmann's clouded departure will be a further blow to that confidence. For the specialist press, reader confidence is the equivalent of their business' goodwill; it's their core asset, and describes their ability both to attract readers and to influence the buying decisions of those readers.
For the games publishers, a strong press with the confidence of the public behind it is also important. As that confidence is eroded, more and more readers will turn to blog sites or social networking sites for their information, and such a diaspora will make building hype or profile for key products expensive, difficult, and massively risky. Professional games publications are not, and should not be, tame - if they were, they would be useless to consumers - but their professional nature certainly means that they're a lot easier to work with than a myriad of blogs, journals and social networking sites.
Events like this week's leave the specialist press reading public - that key audience of opinion-formers, of forum posters and blog writers, of hardcore gamers who build the hype for a product both before and after launch - questioning the honesty of every professional publication covering the industry. Every journalist will feel the pinch from that to some degree; every publication must now look to its own reputation and make sure it is doing its utmost to cement it.
Publishers, of course, aren't going to stop threatening the press over bad coverage. It's the standard weapon in their arsenal; bad reviews are answered with threats that marketing will be withdrawn, access to preview code suspended, the ability to talk to developers cut off. The childish tantrum, followed by picking up their ball and going home with it, is the default response of many publishers when press coverage doesn't go their way. Some are worse than others - resorting to screaming and threatening at the drop of a hat, and even, in certain extraordinary cases, demanding that publications fire the staff responsible for reviews or news stories that have upset them.
That's just a fact of life in the media, and even though consumers are gradually becoming more aware of it, I don't expect that it will change. For the most part, games publications are thick skinned about this kind of behaviour; marketing money rarely goes away forever, and Publisher Y is often happy to fill a gap in the schedule left by the hissy fit of Publisher X. Eventually, a publisher realises that it needs to work with every major site and magazine to fill its coverage targets, and comes back into the fold.
Sometimes, though, publications don't have the backbone to sit out the sulking. I can't say whether this is what happened to Jeff Gerstmann - but I can say this. It happens. It happens too often - and it needs to stop happening. In a world where trailers can be found readily on YouTube, demos can be downloaded from Xbox Live and friend recommendations come readily through Facebook, the one asset which journalists and publications alike must guard preciously is the trust and confidence of their readers, or they risk losing not just the occasional advertising campaign - but their entire reason for existing.