Backlash at GameSpot's Shenmue review

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In this article, former video game journalist Frank Provo recounts his writing career going into high gear. In just a few short weeks from February to March 2000, he went from speaking about video games on the #vidgames IRC channel (and random posts on some fan sites) to having his work published by GameSpot and printed in magazines like EGM and Pocket Games. He describes his foray into gaming journalism as uneventful. It was sometimes tedious, other times fun, occasionally lucrative, but uneventful. Except for an incident that occurred late in the year...

For those who are unaware, Provo is referring to the backlash over a review he wrote for GameSpot about a game known as Shenmue. Developed by Sega AM2 and published by Sega for the Dreamcast, Shenmue was, in Provo's own words, "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 Provo, Shenmue was not enjoyable, nor did it have anything truly captivating.

"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."

Provo liked to believe that the eight years he spent writing about games thereafter showed he did show he was capable of writing detailed and comprehensive reviews for video games. Needless to say, he still gets asked about the controversy surrounding the review. In a way, it was a defining moment in his career. So, to commemorate the tenth year since the game and the review he wrote for it were released, he shared his own perspective of, as he put it, "what the hell happened."

September 2000

It all began in September 2000, when Provo was asked by Ziff-Davis Media to work on a strategy guide for Shenmue, which would then be published in the Winter issue of the company's Dreamcast Magazine, as well as the January 2001 issue of Expert Gamer. Provo was sent a nearly complete build of the English version of the title, and he spent large portions of both September and October playing and replaying it. This was the uneventful part. The strategy guide was completed and turned in on time, looking forward to the $1,500 paycheck he'd receive 60 to 90 days later.

Late October 2000

Near the end of October, with the game's release date set for November 7, Provo was approached by Greg Kasavin and Jeff Gerstmann at GameSpot to see if he was available to write the site's review for the game. Several editors at GameSpot had just started playing the review copies sent by Sega, but they realized that no one in-house would be able to play through the entire game and write a detailed review of it to go alongside the game's release. They knew that Provo had played it quite a bit for Ziff-Davis, so the request made sense. They'd get the article and Provo would earn another $150.

While Provo had already the key points of what he wanted to say in mind, he decided to play the game one more time using final code to re-examine the title with a critical eye and to make sure any changes from the build he was sent weeks before weren't major.

"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 should be noted that, at the time, the concept of a game which combined elements of adventure, role-playing, fighting, and mini-games all into an open-world was revolutionary. You could play classic Sega arcade games while in the story, and buy trinkets from vending machines. These were new elements of video games the year 2000. Yu Suzuki referred to Shenmue 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

On Monday, November 6, 2000, the review was posted on GameSpot. By the late afternoon, Provo was informed that both Kasavin and Gerstmann were receving emails that Provo glossed over the game's innovative features (quick-time events, jobs you could take, the fighting system, collectibles, 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."

To be safe, Provo revised the review text by adding to some of the points he made. He figured that it'd be the end of it.

November 7, 2000

It wasn't. Provo began to receive hateful emails in his personal inbox. On AIM, Kasavin and Gerstmann told him that Sega's PR people were infuriated at the tone of the review and score. Half of the in-house editors said he was too harsh on the game, while the other half told him he 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 review and score went live.

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."


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