The twisted relationship between game reviewers and game publishers is still going strong

It’s an open secret in the videogame world that game reviewers and game publishers have a twisted relationship. It’s very much “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine”. The majority of game review publications’ revenue comes from advertising bought by game publishers, and the publishers get publicity (and good reviews) in exchange. Videogame reviewers are so desperate for those engines of increasing readership numbers, exclusive previews of AAA titles, that they will trade away all journalistic integrity for them and allow their previews to be ghost-written by the publishers (e.g. in the case of Metal Gear Solid 4). The same happens with game reviews — witness how the head editor of Gamespot, Jeff Gerstmann, was fired for giving the AAA title Kane & Lynch its deservedly low score after Kane & Lynch’s publisher, Eidos Interactive, purchased hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of advertising on the site.

There is this persistent notion in the videogame business that AAA titles (the ones that are anticipated years in advance and have budgets in the tens of millions of dollars; the closest analogues are Hollywood blockbusters) are simply too big to fail. They are the standard-bearers of the videogame world, the theory goes, and so they must be good. Even if they aren’t, the game review media will unconsciously and consciously conspire to give them uniformly good scores. And the odd reviewer out, the one who dislikes the game so much he actually considers saying so in a review, dares not go against the consensus, as that will cause all of the rabid irrational fanboys to focus their attacks on him. And that’s even without the influence of big advertising dollars.

The most recent occurrence of this phenomenon is with the game Spore. Spore, as you no doubt know by now, is the largest of the AAA titles since the release of Halo 3 last year. Hyped up for years, with a truly astronomical budget, it was finally released in the past week. And yet it simply doesn’t live up to its potential (and that’s ignoring the huge Digital Restrictions Management fiasco). It’s just not very good, and the gaming public at large recognizes it as such. Personally, I would give it a 5 to 6 out of 10. Yet what does the game review
ing community give it? An average of score 86%!, as measured by Metacritic. Go on, read the individual reviews. Many of them discuss the shortcomings of the game at length, going into great detail about how each stage of the game is repetitive, boring, simple, and more toy-like than game-like, but then the review concludes with an incongruously high review score tacked onto the end, as if to jab you in the eye with their thought process: “It’s a AAA title; we can’t give it a lower score than this.”

Aye, the game review media, who are almost all in on it, can’t give AAA titles low scores (with the very occasional outlier, of course). They value their advertising dollars, and their jobs, over integrity. But the average gamer faces no such moral hazard. That’s why Metacritic’s average user review score is 55% — that’s a 31% discrepancy between how good the big reviewers say the game is and how good it actually is. And you only see this discrepancy with AAA titles. Reviewers don’t have any qualms about reaming a smaller title that deserves it, especially if it’s published by an independent publisher. User reviews and “professional” reviews match up rather uncannily in these situations. It’s just in the case of AAA titles that these scores can wildly diverge, and when they do, it’s always in the same direction: the pros rate a title much higher than its merits dictate.

And it’s a shame, because videogames can’t possibly match the respect and maturity of other entertainment forms, such as movies and music, until they have a reviewing and criticism industry with integrity.

5 Responses to “The twisted relationship between game reviewers and game publishers is still going strong”

  1. drinian Says:

    I guess that’s why I get my video game opinions from Penny Arcade. Besides, I like Tycho’s writing style.

    Isn’t this the case in many industries? There’s a reason that Consumer Reports doesn’t take advertising or free samples. Hollywood is infamous for keeping a small cohort of no-name reviewers fed and happy in order to get positive review quotes. The only difference is that video game reviews are mostly done on the Internet, and folks haven’t found who to trust and not trust yet, apparently.

  2. William (green) Says:

    Have you looked at GiantBomb? From what I can tell, it’s a website set up by Mr. Gerstmann and some cohorts in the wake of his axing.

  3. Ed Says:

    It’s not only video games but many other things too. I realised this problem the last time I went out looking to buy a laptop. I got myself into a newsagent and looked at a number of different magazines, all promising the best advice; they all had comparisons of pretty much the same laptops but their recommendations varied wildly, as far as I could see for no reason at all. Obviously, the magazines were full of adverts and I had one of those enlightenment moments. In the end, disenchanted with the industry, I decided to buy just a bigger hard drive. I’ll give them my money in a few years time when my current laptop packs up for good…

  4. Cyde Weys Says:

    William: Incidentally, GiantBomb gave Spore 4 stars (out of 5), so it looks like, even if they aren’t beholden to advertising dollars, they’re still definitely going along with the pack on this one.

    And I don’t know if it’s my PC overheating, insufficient bypassing of the DRM, or what, but Spore crashes my entire computer to a reboot within five minutes of starting up the game. I really can’t even play it anymore. I don’t think it’s an overheating issue because I can play any other game I can think of just fine for hours on end without crashing.

  5. Cyde Weys Says:

    All right, so this one I can’t blame on Spore. It really is my PC overheating. My graphics card’s temperature is running way above spec and I have no idea why. Rather than try to fiddle with it, I just ended up ordering an ATI Radeon HD 4850, since this graphics card is over a year and a half old. I’ve also ordered a much better heatsink/fan combo for my Intel Core 2 Duo E6400, because the stock heatsink isn’t keeping the temperatures down on it too well anymore either.