Update: Here's a great article on 1UP called "GameSpot's Sad State of Affairs" that covers the history and the repercussions of the firing of Jeff Gerstmann, former Editorial Director of GameSpot.
The gaming community has assumed for a while that big video game publishers pay game journalists for positive coverage, hyped articles, and skewed reviews. Of course, we've had no proof of this kind of activity--up until November 28, which has now been called Gerstmanngate. Since then there's been a huge uproar in the gaming community, a flood of conspiracy theories and gamers have even been organizing GameSpot and Eidos boycotts. It wasn't until today that GameSpot finally released their official explanation about the firing of Jeff Gerstmann after an unfavorable review of a game that GameSpot received large sums of money to advertise.
When I say "advertised," I mean that the entire site was skinned so that it was a giant site-wide ad, paid for by Eidos Interactive, to promote their new game Kane & Lynch (PEGI 18+, ESRB-M). Jeff Gerstmann gave the game a 6/10 and a harsh video review. The next day the video was taken down. About 2 weeks later, while the site still had the Kane & Lynch skin, Gerstmann was fired.
The official statement and FAQ is part of the GameSpot article called Spot On: GameSpot on Gerstmann.
From the statement, "the video was taken down due to concerns of quality. Specifically, its audio was deemed inferior due to a faulty microphone."
After checking a few of the other video reviews on GameSpot, that claim checks out. The audio is pretty bad. So there's a point for GameSpot. Also, apparently the video footage from the game was only from the first level, so that's another reason why it got taken down.
As for why the written review was edited after it was made public on the site, "Jeff's supervisors and select members of the edit team felt the review's negativity did not match its 'fair' 6.0 rating. The copy was adjusted several days after its publication so that it better meshed with its score, which remained unchanged."
A 6/10 is "fair", one step above a 5 which is "mediocre", and the review I read was a bash fest. However, that's what 6/10 games usually get. Modifying his review so that it "better meshed with its score" didn't make a lot of sense. The written review seemed spot on.
GameSpot did confirm that Eidos was unhappy with the review, but followed up by saying publishers are unhappy all the time about game reviews, and there's nothing unusual about that. GameSpot also said that Eidos had absolutely nothing to do with him being fired.
So, what do I think about all this? Is there really a conspiracy? Did Jeff stand up for game reviewing ethics?
Seeing the gaming community put Jeff on the hero pedestal and knowing what I know about his reviews, I think the gaming community is giving Jeff too much credit. I don't know if sites like IGN and GameSpot tell their reviewers to "praise Game X or else," because we certainly would have heard about it; there's just too many game journalists out there. Although, I do believe there is an invisible influence. I have seen plenty of games that have been overrated. I can tell that some of those are overrated because of personal preference, for example IGN's Halo 2 rating of 9.8.
Game reviewers know how much power their reviews have on people's buying decisions, and what the backlash of fans will be if the reviewer rates their favorite game lower that they believe it deserved. I've heard game reviewers say that it's better to overrate a game than underrate it, and they do practice that. They really don't want to give a game, especially a hyped game that's actually good, anything lower than superb rating for that reason.
And then you have people like Jeff Gerstmann who is very open about the faults of a game and holds no reservations for rating it poorly if he feels the need to. So despite the huge amounts of hype and advertising over Kane & Lynch, he went ahead and rated it poorly because it was a poor game. And, according to his coworkers at GameSpot, he says bad things about games all the time. The Kane & Lynch review was no different.
The big problem is that the circumstances of his firing were totally wrong, and it was handled poorly. It was a perfect storm of terrible coincidences: the massive Kane & Lynch advertising, the video review being taken down, the written review being edited, and after Jeff's firing GameSpot had to keep quiet for legal reasons amidst all the conspiracy theories that where being reinforced--and in most people's eyes completely validated--by GameSpot's actions. The whole thing exploded and GameSpot and Eidos were seen as the villainous corporations trying to manipulate video game journalism as part of their mass marketing campaign.
I do still believe that video game publishers have a significant influence over game ratings and gaming news, because they know how the system works and they play the system really well. They work closely with companies like IGN and GameSpot to give them exclusive coverage on their next releases. And with that relationship they can influence the public view of their products.
Being a graphic designer I know that advertising works; that's why there's so much money in it. I also know that positive news coverage is better than any ad campaign. They know how the system works, they use the system, and it has an affect on gaming journalism. How GameSpot handled Jeff's departure created a lot of bad press for themselves as well as Eidos, so it'll be interesting to see how that is going to affect their business relationship, as well as the rest of the publishers in the industry. One thing's for sure, they are going to be a lot more careful about how and when they fire their employees.
Edit: There's a really good commentary on the incident over at Level Up on the Newsweek site about the Fundamental Contempt In Which the Enthusiast Press Is Held By Publishers.
Also, Joystiq has a comparison of the original and the edited article. Certainly an interesting read.