Fallout

Apparently, controversy still rages about my article The Best Review Money Can Buy, which was included in the recent Carnival of Gamers.

In particular, Matt at cgonline.com was quite upset. He feels that I’m painting mainstream game reviewers with too broad a brush, and that my description of them as lacking credibility was not fair. I stand by my article, hyperbole and all. Clearly, though, I’m going to have to start adding little smiley faces whenever I talk about how ultra-credible I am: some folks didn’t get the joke. We all know that there are reviewers whose opinions we disagree with. And we can find examples of credibility problems in other fields, as well – for example, in Pittsburgh about 15 years ago, there was a restaurant critic who was revealed to have been taking payola in return for positive reviews.

But be honest with yourself. When was the last time you read a review at Gamespy, or Gamespot, or IGN, and simply said to yourself “Wow! I’m not at all worried that this review might be complete fluff.” To use an old but perfect example – we are talking about a group of people who universally lauded the bug-laden, unplayable, and execrable Black and White as the apotheosis of a superb gaming experience.

And isn’t this the crux of the problem? Even a movie reviewer with whom I always disagree with has some value. I regularly read Salon and say to myself “Oh look, Stephanie Zacharek liked that movie. I’d better avoid it, because it will be terrible.” Stephanie Zacharek, therefore, has more credibility (in a sense) than a reviewer who simply pimps the games with the pretty graphics and the big budgets. Because I can’t use that reviewer’s work to distinguish between Jade Empire and Gran Turismo 4. He’s just going to blather on about how great both of them are. Thanks, but no thanks.

Forget the conspiracy theories about collusion between the game reviewers and publishers. These game reviewers’ lack credibility because of what they write.

The other issue I directly raised in my critique that none of the apologists have touched with a 10 foot pole is that of independently produced games (be they commercial, shareware, or freeware). The issue of industry freebies determining what games you review is important, no matter how much you protest, because it means that you are letting the marketing departments of the games industry guide your editorial process.

Spiderweb Software’s Geneforge 3 was just released. Did Gamespot review it? Did Gamespy? Did you review it, Matthew? No. Did you review any of the games in last year’s Interactive Fiction Competition? No. Any of Everett Kaser’s superb logic games? No. Let’s make it even easier. There were 78 entries in this year’s Independent Games Festival. What percentage of them did the major sites review? Half? 25%? Even that many? CGM did interviews with the makers of Gish, and N, and Lux, and a couple of the other more well-organized entrants. Hey, that’s a good start. But why aren’t you doing more?

Let me back away from the criticism, and put this in completely practical terms that you might care about. Choosing a game that I enjoyed (and, to be fair, that I reviewed also) I don’t need you to tell me about Jade Empire. Everyone and his goddamn uncle is telling me about Jade Empire. Microsoft’s marketing department is doing an excellent job of ensuring that I can’t even go to the bathroom without hearing about Jade Empire. What this means to you, as a game magazine publisher, is that as long as your agenda is being set by the marketing departments of game developers, there is absolutely no difference between you, and Gamespy, and Gamespot, or IGN, that is worth mentioning. You have no brand identity. Which one of your reviews I read is probably more dependent on which site I happen to have bookmarked than on any desire to read your special, unique take on the game.

Now imagine that Gamespy, Gamespot, and IGN have only cursory coverage of independent, shareware, and freeware games. And imagine that you have deep coverage. Imagine that people know that you have deep coverage. Sure, you’re still reviewing Jade Empire, but it’s not the marquee item. Your readers know that every time they visit your home page, they’ll also read about the games other major media sites aren’t covering. Every time I visit your homepage, I learn something new. Every time I visit your homepage, I learn about a game I hadn’t heard of before.

Now that’s a site that has brand identity. And that’s what weblogs – even the lousy ones like mine – are bringing to the table.

Absolutely nothing is stopping you from doing the same thing.

Let me make an analogy that relates to another subject I care about, which is food. Imagine that you write restaurant reviews. If what I paint, admittedly with a very broad brush, as the “major game review magazines” were instead reviewing restaurants, we would have web sites and magazines filled with glowing (or critical) reviews of P.F. Chang’s, Bravo Italian Kitchen, McDonald’s, Panera Bread, and Starbuck’s. If I chose where to eat based solely on Gamespy Restaurant Reviews, I wouldn’t know that little hole-in-the-wall Chinese places or quirky independent coffee shops even existed.

Look, I don’t determine your editorial policy, Matthew. You do. If you feel the most important contribution you can make is to focus on reviewing the big chain eateries, I can’t stop you.

But don’t get mad at me for pointing out that in so doing, you aren’t as useful or as important as Zagat’s.

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