Ten years ago, my "professional" writing career kicked into high gear. In the span of a few short weeks in February and March of 2000, I went from babbling about video games on the #vidgames
IRC channel (and random posts on various fan sites) to having my work published on GameSpot and printed in magazines such as EGM and Pocket Games. I'd say the majority of my foray into the world of writing about games was uneventful. Sometimes tedious, sometimes fun, occasionally lucrative, but otherwise uneventful. Except for an incident that happened late in that fledgling year...
Those that know me, know that I'm referring to the fervor that erupted over the review that I wrote for GameSpot
for a game called Shenmue
. Published by Sega for the Dreamcast, Shenmue was an audio-visual feast that haphazardly combined a number of genres into what I found to be a plodding, tedious mess that failed to satisfy the #1 rule of video games: they have to be fun, or captivate.
To me, Shenmue wasn't fun, and it sure as heck didn't captivate.
I said as much (and more) in the written review. That made people angry. VERY angry. I received hate mail in my inbox. GameSpot received a flurry of messages calling into question my ability to write about video games. I later learned that Sega's own public relations people, that were then housed in the same building as GameSpot, were haranguing every editor they could in order to get the site to re-consider the score or have a different writer take another crack at the review.
I'd like to believe that the subsequent eight years spent writing about video games shows that I indeed did have some aptitude for producing written evaluations of electronic entertainment software. Nevertheless, I still get asked about the Shenmue debacle. In a way, it's my albatross. So, to commemorate the ten year anniversary of the game and that blasted review, I thought I'd post my own retrospective of "what the hell happened."September 2000
It all began sometime in September of 2000, when I was asked by Ziff-Davis Media to work on a strategy guide for Shenmue, to be published in the Winter issue of the company's Dreamcast Magazine (and the January 2001 issue of Expert Gamer
). They sent me a near-complete English build of the game and I spent solid portions of September and October playing and replaying it. Work on the strategy guide was uneventful. I turned the project in on-time and looked forward to the $1,500 paycheck I would receive in 60 to 90 days.Late October 2000
Toward the end of October, with the game's North American release slated for November 7th, I was approached by Greg Kasavin and Jeff Gerstmann at GameSpot to see if I'd be available to write the site's review for the game. A few folks there had dabbled in the review copies Sega sent over and realized there was no way anyone in-house would be able to play through the full game and produce a well-rounded write-up to coincide with the game's release date. They knew I had already been playing it to death for Ziff-Davis, so the request made sense. They'd get the text they needed and I'd get another $150.
Even though I already had the key points of what I wanted to say in mind, I did go back and play through the game one more time on final code, just to re-examine everything with a critical eye, and to make sure they didn't radically change anything from the build I was sent weeks before.
My take on Shenmue was that it emphasized style over substance, which is fine for a "pick up and play" type of game, but not for a game that takes hours to complete and forces players to wait around for time-triggered events to happen. Granted, the game was
jaw-droppingly gorgeous, to the extent that sometimes I'd pass the time just staring at some of the garden and temple areas on the outskirts of the city.
It's important to note that, back then, a mash-up of the adventure, role-playing, fighting, and mini-game genres was an innovative idea. You could play classic arcade games within the story, and buy trinkets from vending machines! This was new stuff in 2000. Yu Suzuki referred to the game as his "gift to the children of the 21st century."
On a weighted ten-point scale, I gave Shenmue a 6.8 (Graphics: 10 / Sound: 8 / Gameplay: 5 / Value: 6 / Tilt: 7). It would've been 6.5, but I had a last minute urge to kick the tilt up a notch for some reason I can't remember anymore. Rather naively, I assumed people would read my summary and agree that, while innovative, Shenmue didn't live up to the hype.
Boy, was I mistaken.November 6, 2000
The review was posted on GameSpot in the wee hours of Monday, November 6, 2000. By late afternoon, I was informed that Greg and Jeff were receiving e-mails that complained that I all-but glossed over the game's innovative features (context sensitive button press events, odd jobs, the fight training and combat stuff, the collect-a-thons, etc.). Some people were accusing me of hardly playing the game. Ironically, very few of these same people had actually played Shenmue themselves. How could they? The North American release was Tuesday or Wednesday depending on what area of the country the person lived in.
Just to be safe, I revised the review text to flesh out some of the points I made. I figured that'd be the end of it.November 7, 2000
It wasn't the end. Nasty e-mails started appearing in my own personal mailbox. On AIM, Jeff and Ryan were telling me that Sega's PR people were absolutely livid at the tone of the review and the score. Half of the in-house editors felt I came down overly harsh. The other half told me I wasn't harsh enough.
Greg Kasavin called me on the phone. We had a lengthy speakerphone conversation where he and Joe Fielder basically made point after point about features that some of the editors liked and felt I may have under-rated. To be fair to Greg, Joe pretty much took over the conversation about half way through. In a nutshell, they wondered if some of the scores could be increased. In a fit of weakness I regret, I didn't stand my ground. I felt like my future career was at risk and I felt bad for putting them in this spot, realizing how much pressure they were under from Sega no doubt threatening to take away ad dollars (and exclusive access).
I should have let them pull the review and get someone else to re-write it. Instead, I accepted their suggestion that we ought to raise the score from a 6.8 to a 7.8, on the grounds that the game's unique-ness made it difficult to evaluate compared to the status-quo.November 8, 2000
The revised text and score went up.The rest of November, 2000... and beyond
It took a while for the hate mail to stop hitting my inbox. GameSpot received emails for months asking them to fire me, or, more accurately, to never give me another bit of work again. Thankfully, once people finally had a chance to play the game themselves, a fair number of emails and forum posts voiced and supported the same points I had made from the get-go.
The whole Shenmue debacle also started a discussion regarding peoples' concern that public outcry and advertiser pressure had led a trusted news source to alter its content. I know for a fact that the whole incident caused GameSpot to revise its quality-assurance process and to more firmly stand behind its writers' in the future. Of course, it didn't hurt that Joe and some of the other "iffy" senior folk left shortly thereafter, and that CNet moved them out of the building that they shared with Sega.
Ultimately, Shenmue was a defining moment in my "video game writing" career, but it didn't hurt me much. I went on to write 800-some-odd more reviews for GameSpot over the next seven years and did plenty of piece work for Ziff-Davis' print publications.
Some years later, I did ask for the opportunity to re-write the review, just because my writing style in the early days wasn't that great. Understandably, Jeff didn't want to dredge up the old wounds again. In 2007, when GameSpot stopped using score subgrades, he joked with me that they were considering changing Shenmue's score back to 6.8 before the new code was implemented... but that never came to pass.
People occasionally ask me how much pay-for-play went on behind the scenes at GameSpot. Obviously, I couldn't say for sure, but my own interactions with Jeff, Alex, Brad, and Ryan in those subsequent years gave me the impression that they were trying very hard to maintain a level of integrity not typical to the entertainment industry. As far as I know, it wasn't until the whole Kane & Lynch thing in 2007 when GameSpot actually stumbled in that regard.
Well, if you can call it a "stumble" when one senior, suit-wearing muckety-muck fired Jeff after he wrote an unfavorable review of Eidos' Kane & Lynch, while Eidos was running a multi-million-dollar campaign that basically skinned the site as one giant Kane & Lynch advertisement.