Can You Trust Reviews From Bigger Websites?
Now that the whole Gerstmann/GameSpot ordeal is back in the news, I thought I'd take a moment to address an important issue.
I can do this because a higher power isn't dictating what I write, and I can do it because in its 12-year history, PSX Extreme has never accepted advertising money in exchange for a promised good review. But more importantly, I think it's critical to note that, to my knowledge, we've never been asked.
The issue is one of business, of course. All the gaming websites you visit every day are free. You don't pay a subscription fee as you would with print magazines and yet, people must work every day to keep that site relevant; to keep it updated on a daily basis. If they didn't, you wouldn't visit very often, now would you? And yes, that all requires money and because the sites don't charge you, they have to rely almost entirely on advertising revenue. It's just the way of the Internet world.
Now, when that includes revenue from game publishers, things can get a little dicey. The publisher will give you money to advertise their game and ideally, that's where the business relationship should end. But because history has proven that review scores often dictate a title's potential success, that publisher is - unsurprisingly - looking for a good review. In a perfect world, that publisher would respect your professionalism and integrity if you post a mediocre reception. But the world isn't perfect.
Things can happen. I know it can. It obviously did with GameSpot and that means gamers are asking the million-dollar question- Is it still going on and if it is, how can I trust any of these huge sites with all this ad revenue from game makers? In truth, you can't. But I have to say, for the most part, I really don't believe publishers paying off editorial staffs is a common practice right now. Just as a for instance - and maybe we're not big enough to matter; you be the judge - we ran a full-page ad for Aliens vs. Predator back in 2010. It ran for a full month, during which we posted our review.
As you can see, we weren't all that impressed. But Sega didn't send us a nasty letter; in fact, they didn't respond at all. They didn't say they'd never throw any ads our way again. It just came and went. I can absolutely guarantee that this is the case most of the time at even major websites. You just have to keep your eyes open. Be logical. If you see a big site like GameSpot or IGN or Kotaku pushing a game for a while, and then you find that their review is - in comparison to other critics - a statistical outlier, you have reason to be suspicious. So if other sites are giving the game a 6, and the site that advertised that particular title gave it an 8.5...
The good news here is that there are many sources. There are many places to go to read video game reviews. Some are better than others but you can always get a bird's-eye view thanks to the glory of search engines and places like Metacritic and GamesRankings. Who only reads one review, anyway? Most avid gamers will do compare-and-contrasts before making their purchase; it only makes sense. And besides, I have to reiterate-
The idea that there's some massive conspiracy in which major gaming websites accept money on a routine basis in return for high review scores is, for the time being and based on my current knowledge, a fallacy. You always have to be careful and in all honesty, I believe this could become a bigger problem in the future. So long as websites remain free and they rely so heavily on ad revenue. But for the time being, let's not turn this into a big ol' plague, with every reviewer at a significant website always under the microscope. It just isn't fair to the vast majority of critics.
Thank you for your attention.
3/16/2012 Ben Dutka