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The Problem with Video Game Reviews
March 17, 2013 7:01 PM   Subscribe

All The Pretty Doritos:How Video Game Journalism Went Off The Rails Article from forbes.com detailing the pressures video game reviewers and publications come under from gaming companies. These range from the relatively subtle (gifts, gratuities, entertainments put on for visiting journos), to overtly pressuring/punishing publications for not playing ball (cancelling interviews and exclusives in response to less-than-flattering editorial, threatening to pull advertising in response to bad reviews). At the extreme end, the article mentions one journalist who was fired two weeks after publishing a 'bad' (6/10) review for Kane & Lynch.
posted by Broseph (72 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
Wow, am I having a strong negative reaction to Forbes writing about this. I hadn't realized they'd ventured into games coverage.

It's neither fair nor untrue -- actually it seems to be a great article -- but there's more than a pinch of that thing where you can talk smack about your sister but god help it if anyone outside the family speaks an ill word of her.

Also, I can't believe the Kane & Lynch fiasco was five years ago already.
posted by Andrhia at 7:06 PM on March 17, 2013


This article is half a year old. There was quite a bit of discussion about it at the time.
posted by graventy at 7:14 PM on March 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


This is not, of course, new or unusual. When I ran AllAbout Games in the mid 90s, publishers were forever offering comps and trips and goodies. It was clear, if unsaid, what the bargain was. Our policy was to refuse, and we wrote honest reviews. And some publishers straight up snubbed us on line and in person.

I am in bed now but will add more in the morning.
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:15 PM on March 17, 2013 [11 favorites]


Wow, am I having a strong negative reaction to Forbes writing about this. I hadn't realized they'd ventured into games coverage.

Erik Kain is one of the best videogame journalists around, and I was going to post his Gearbox expose that went out this week.

I think one of the problems with game journalism, though, is something Erik thinks doesn't exist: the entitlement of gamers. If a game journalist tries to analyze a game on a deeper level than 'graphics good, sound bad' or gives a highly anticipated game a score as low as 8.8 or tries to talk talk about the problems with games than gamers attack them and slander them. They'll angrily rage in the comment sections of articles to defend games that aren't even out yet against the scourge of 'negative' reviews or turn on anyone who gives a positive review to a game the hivemind has decided is 'bad'. In the worst case (like the infamous Nier review), the reviewer will barely play the game without passing judgement on it.

I suspect that gamers WANT and encourage this kind of checkbook 'journalism', given how loyal they prove to big companies and their franchises. That loyalty is stoked by multi-page previews on even the most inconsequential aspects of upcoming games.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 7:16 PM on March 17, 2013 [16 favorites]


Jeff Gerstman is the only sane man in a crazy world.
posted by Gin and Comics at 7:17 PM on March 17, 2013 [6 favorites]


Wow, am I having a strong negative reaction to Forbes writing about this.

Forbes isn't writing about this. The word "Contributor" on their site means someone who doesn't work for Forbes wrote the article, and they're just putting it up.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 7:20 PM on March 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Charlemagne In Sweatpants:

They'll angrily rage in the comment sections of articles

Well there's yer problem.

More seriously, I wonder if this "entitlement" is unique to gamers or if their increased Internet literacy amplifies something you'd find in any community. I know I sure as hell wouldn't want to read Ebert's email.
posted by ODiV at 7:35 PM on March 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


I can't tell which industry is worse: video games or cars. Car companies ban journalists for life from company-sponsored test drives that are completely rigged and not representative of the consumer product oh also they fly all of them out to a private island filled with naked, writhing whatevers-yer-pleasures who feed them cocaine and truffle oil-infused caviar but wink wink tell the readers how you really feel!!

Even after all that, it's still probably video games.
posted by basicchannel at 7:37 PM on March 17, 2013


Erik Kain is one of the best videogame journalists around, and I was going to post his Gearbox expose that went out this week.

Yeah, it's clear he knows his stuff; it really is a great piece.

Forbes isn't writing about this.

This is a bit of a derail, but yeah, I know. Nonetheless the presence of the logo is in itself enough to evoke a set of expectations about where the piece would be coming from.

Charlemagne in Sweatpants, the entitlement angle you bring in is making me think of my evolving opinion about Dragon Age 2 and its ending, which involves feeling betrayed by a character. When I played I was angry that BioWare did this to me without giving me a way to 'win.' But over time I've come to respect that as a very bold and risky writing decision, actually.

To your point... it's hard for a games developer to make those bold, risky creative decisions when they know the fans will howl for delivering something that doesn't tick exactly the boxes they're expecting, and nothing more or less.

Historically there hasn't been a ton of games journalism that engages with any individual game on a real critical level -- N'Gai Kroal being one of the few shining exceptions here off the top of my head, and I don't think he's even writing that stuff anymore -- though I do see that improving over the last couple of years. It'll be interesting to see if it has much of an effect on studios' risk tolerance.
posted by Andrhia at 7:43 PM on March 17, 2013


I don't recall "video game journalism" ever NOT being an oxymoron.
posted by oneswellfoop at 7:45 PM on March 17, 2013 [8 favorites]


Indeed. The implication that it was ever on the rails is rather humorous.
posted by koeselitz at 7:50 PM on March 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


(This is a good article, though. Not sure he wrote the headline anyway.)
posted by koeselitz at 7:51 PM on March 17, 2013


Well, the point made in the article about access is absolutely true. The valuable articles, from a gaming site's perspective - the ones that get eyeballs and therefore ad dollars - are the previews, sneak peaks, and Day 1 reviews. There is no way to get those without the active cooperation of the game company. Just... literally no way. That part is not "journalism," any more than the New York Times Book Review is "journalism." It's media criticism at best. (And hi, just had a long conversation in AskMe about how book reviews are subject to the same weird shitty pressures!)

But it's definitely a disservice to the customer that the game news sites are in the pockets of the game designers, and it's a disservice to the art as a whole, too, which is less true (but probably not entirely untrue) of books. Half a MetaCritic percentage point translates in a very predictable way to sales gained or lost, and so the whole industry is stuck in this circle jerk.

What really gets my shorts in a knot is when this pressure gets applied to actual journalism, or criticism for that matter. Reports on terrible working conditions, critiques of shitty stereotype perpetuation or rank misogyny... all those get read by the same PR people that choose who to invite to their press events, and of course it's an influence. The actual reviews are unavoidably compromised, but everything else - that pisses me off.
posted by restless_nomad at 7:56 PM on March 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


Previously (as Andrhia says, 5 years ago)

Jeff Gerstman is the only sane man in a crazy world.

Then why is he back working at GameSpot, lol?
posted by mrgrimm at 7:59 PM on March 17, 2013


Oh, there was this videogame review site I remember enjoying years back, but I've totally forgotten what it's called. The site itself was very 8-bit, very messy and grungy, and if I remember correctly it was mainly in black-and-white (white text on a professional black background) with like greyscale screenshots, and it was pretty harsh as it was reviewing games whenever the reviewers got around to it, rather than at behest of publishers. Anyway, it was good. Perhaps somebody knows the name?
posted by turgid dahlia 2 at 8:01 PM on March 17, 2013


Oh, there was this videogame review site I remember enjoying years back, but I've totally forgotten what it's called. The site itself was very 8-bit, very messy and grungy, and if I remember correctly it was mainly in black-and-white (white text on a professional black background) with like greyscale screenshots, and it was pretty harsh as it was reviewing games whenever the reviewers got around to it, rather than at behest of publishers. Anyway, it was good. Perhaps somebody knows the name?

It's Action Button, and I love it, but I'm fully aware posting it will lead to a debate about it's main writer Tim Rogers' (not the one you're thinking of) and his clothing choices, writing style, and one essay he once wrote about Japan.

Some other good sites are Learn To Counter, Nightmare Mode and the aggregator Good Games Writing.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 8:13 PM on March 17, 2013 [9 favorites]


Pretty sure you're referring to actionbutton dot net, turgid dahlia.
posted by mightygodking at 8:13 PM on March 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Game reviews are going away, if trends are to be believed. The twitch.tvification of players as proxy and more AAA titles foregoing critical windows for review. Gerstmann's GiantBomb is indeed back in with Gamespot, but their expanded team, and video focus have given personality driven content the spotlight, resulting in informative and flat-out hilarious quicklooks, podcast discussion, and deeply individualized takes on vidja games. Vinny confirmed.
posted by chainlinkspiral at 8:24 PM on March 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


It feels like many gamers want to numerically quantify opinions, like they quantify things in games, so that an review can be proven 'objectively' incorrect if it doesn't match up with a Metacritic score. And they have the time to watch long Let's Plays and video reviews. But I like a critical essay that lets me get something more out of a work than I could find out myself, even if it challenges aspects of a game I liked or defends aspects I didn't like.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 8:28 PM on March 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


One interesting recent occurrence in game reviewing was mentioned during the recent SimCity thread. After the release of the game, the average game review dropped from low-nineties (excellent) to mid-sixties (cancer you install from a disk). Server problems at launch was part of the reason, but I doubt it was all of it (the later reviews would always list fundamental problems the early ones didn't). There are many possibilities for why the scores dropped; perhaps EA convinced review sites to hold low reviews until after release, the early reviews were hasty and missed essential details, the late reviews were trying to agree with the hostile public response, etc. None of the possibilities really reflect well on the game reviewers as a whole.
posted by Mitrovarr at 8:29 PM on March 17, 2013 [6 favorites]


At least some of the SimCity reviews were explicitly lowered because the gameplay experience post-launch did not match the pre-launch review environment, which is fair. Reviewing online games has some pitfalls, and a shitty launch is one of them.
posted by restless_nomad at 8:33 PM on March 17, 2013


restless_nomad: At least some of the SimCity reviews were explicitly lowered because the gameplay experience post-launch did not match the pre-launch review environment, which is fair. Reviewing online games has some pitfalls, and a shitty launch is one of them.

That explains some of it, but you don't go from 90 to 60 because of server problems that everyone knows will probably be temporary. Later reviews weren't just saying "it would be a great game if I could just play the bloody thing", they were also complaining about the bugs, the terrible pathfinding, the tiny city sizes, etc. All of that was true in the pre-launch copies, and should have stopped it from being reviewed so highly, but it wasn't usually mentioned (the small city size was, sometimes, but it was hand-waived as not a major flaw).
posted by Mitrovarr at 8:41 PM on March 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


In a former life, I was editor in chief of GameSpy, and then became a game developer.

The problem with video game journalism is the writers, the business model and how the effectiveness of PR staffs are measured.

Let's be honest. The writers/editors are mostly terrible young people from San Francisco. Seriously terrible. Uneducated and lacking in mainstream perspective, and with poor basic writing and critical thinking skills. The average movie reviewer at the average newspaper is miles and miles ahead of the greatest games writer. Period. Any attempt to argue otherwise is -- like Jenny McCarthy discussing science -- coming from someone that just doesn't know what they're talking about.

I mean, these guys argue about how in a 10-point review scale, the full scale doesn't get used correctly -- a 5 should be average, but review scores jam up around 7-8-9. As if people care about math in a game review. Idiots, please.

Oh, and by the way -- in Europe, the writers/editors are completely corrupt by American standards. You can literally buy a good review in Europe. You can only sorta-kinda buy one in the U.S.

The business model is a walking conflict of interest. What gets advertised in game media? Games. Sure, movies get advertised on TV and in papers, or magazines like Entertainment Weekly. But it's a drop in the bucket. A slice of the pie. It's not THE bucket. It's not THE pie.

There is no objective metric to determine the efficacy of a PR campaign. All you can do is show how the money was spent, not what the spend actually got you. Maybe you can count magazine covers, but you can't quantify how they translate to sales. So, PR holds back access to score "exclusives" that allow them to show their bosses that they deserve another paycheck. I've sat through too many PR presentations that proclaimed the number of covers they got, and never mentioned, you know, the money they made.

It's these three things working together that create the conditions that leave us where we are. Fix any of them and you'll get the elusive "Roger Ebert of games" that everyone's been waiting for.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:46 PM on March 17, 2013 [21 favorites]


Wow, am I having a strong negative reaction to Forbes writing about this. I hadn't realized they'd ventured into games coverage.

This is a not a Forbes magazine article or a Forbes web article written by professional Forbes staff writers or paid writers. It's written by a volunteer blogger, part of their Huffington Post-style network of unpaid bloggers. I think Forbes likes to confuse people about this. But whenever you see "Contributor" in the byline, it means that they are a volunteer blogger.
posted by Bwithh at 9:13 PM on March 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


The average movie reviewer at the average newspaper is miles and miles ahead of the greatest games writer.

No. This is not even acceptable as hyperbole. Kieron Gillen? Tom Francis? Tom Chick? Shamus Young? Erik Wolpaw? Chris Remo? Quintin Smith? John Walker? Ian Shanahan? Ben Croshaw? John Teti? I'm forgetting a lot of good writers, but any of these people is miles ahead of the average newspaper movie reviewer.
posted by straight at 9:15 PM on March 17, 2013 [18 favorites]


That explains some of it, but you don't go from 90 to 60 because of server problems that everyone knows will probably be temporary. Later reviews weren't just saying "it would be a great game if I could just play the bloody thing", they were also complaining about the bugs, the terrible pathfinding, the tiny city sizes, etc. All of that was true in the pre-launch copies, and should have stopped it from being reviewed so highly, but it wasn't usually mentioned (the small city size was, sometimes, but it was hand-waived as not a major flaw).

Once you get past the first few hours of "oh cool curved roads" and your city is already full you start to see the simulation for the sham it is. Game reviewers would know this if they did more than build a small town and take some tilt shift screenshots.
posted by Talez at 9:21 PM on March 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Well, maybe that's all it was. That the early reviews were hasty is probably the most forgivable of the potential causes I listed above, although it's still not acceptable.

However, did you note the comment above on the corruption of European reviewers? One of the surprising things about the early reviews is how many of them were non-US - of the 8 reviews I noted early on, six were non-US. Most or all of the rest were European. At the time, I thought it was very strange that a mainstream, popular series was getting so much overseas press and so little in the US, but perhaps that's an explanation?
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:33 PM on March 17, 2013


I don't see this happening at Game Informer, as mentioned. They hyped Colonial Marines to the tilt, then gave it a 4/10. So if this is a problem at your publication, you need to do whatever it is that Game Informer does. Cuz otherwise you will just lose your reputation, and all the clout in the world with publishers won't save you from sinking.
posted by Brocktoon at 9:35 PM on March 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think Forbes likes to confuse people about this. But whenever you see "Contributor" in the byline, it means that they are a volunteer blogger.

Well, the print magazine is largely written and photographed by 'contributors' as well (meaning freelancers). Most content produced for magazines is commissioned.
posted by bradbane at 9:36 PM on March 17, 2013


I miss Old Man Murray. But at least it sort of somehow led to Portal.
posted by umberto at 9:44 PM on March 17, 2013


More on the Forbes derail: Here, Contributor Susannah Breslin speaks of being hired and having a contract. While those terms could potentially apply to a volunteer blogger, they wouldn't usually.

The whole point, though, is that they are a network of blogs. It isn't the same thing as starting a gaming column in the print magazine. But how this provides an objection to the article is beyond me.
posted by dhartung at 9:47 PM on March 17, 2013


No. This is not even acceptable as hyperbole.

Like I said, you don't know what you're talking about. I mean, come on. Many of the figures on your list haven't made a living as a rank-and-file first look/preview/review journalist for 10+ years.

Look, Erik Wolpaw is a fantastic writer, don't get me wrong. But calling him a journalist is the weird bizarro world version of calling Roger Ebert a screenwriter.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:48 PM on March 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


Yeah, mainstream gaming journalism has been screwy for a while now but there's a pretty healthy community of budding critics a la 70s music journalism that's taking form on the internet, away from the mainstream and founded on academic interests as opposed to sensational ones. Mainstream gaming journalism which you can pretty much regard as USA Today and your morning news shows; you can trust them only about as far as you can throw their advertising revenues.

The starting point for this other games journalism is Kieron Gillen's manifesto for The New Games Journalism. It's... well, it's aged in the way that sentimental manifestos age but it did the job of sparking a huge growth of writing, some of which can be found on Rock Paper Shotgun (Gillen's home for the longest time).

There's a big blank in my knowledge of criticism from then until very recently (somehow being English major and writing New Games Journalism never clicked in my mind, not sure why) but from what I can tell, there's a really very healthy crop of non-corporation associated critics who've had the luck of being paired up with ludology, which has expanded from its anthropological origins into one of mechanics. Critical Distance does a weekly roll call of the video game world's best journalism (which is as good if not better than RPS's weekly compilation). Awesome Out of 10 and Bit Creature also do really interesting coverage, the AV Club has the Gameological Society, and there's a whole bunch of other lovely websites done up by hard working people who have a lot to say about games.

It's worth a look because I imagine that when the average gamer gets to that age where they're tenured professors, this is the kind of writing that's going to be analyzed and prodded over and the other stuff (the CNN and Today Show stuff) will just get shoved into blanket sociological remarks about post-Millenium society.
posted by dubusadus at 9:51 PM on March 17, 2013 [7 favorites]


I don't see this happening at Game Informer, as mentioned. They hyped Colonial Marines to the tilt, then gave it a 4/10. So if this is a problem at your publication, you need to do whatever it is that Game Informer does. Cuz otherwise you will just lose your reputation, and all the clout in the world with publishers won't save you from sinking.

GameInformer is owned by GameStop. That's why they hype things to the gills, why they score exclusives and why they don't suffer any repercussions.

You know, all the problems with Colonial Marines were present at the preview stage, right? In fact, the game was worse, by definition, because the game wasn't even done. Think that stopped the hype machine?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:54 PM on March 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


Cool Papa Bell: "Like I said, you don't know what you're talking about."

What a great way to encourage discussion. Sheesh.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 9:56 PM on March 17, 2013 [7 favorites]


I'd say if anything we've got BETTER sources of information on games than ever before. Yay RPS! Yay Zero Punctuation! Yay blogs and podcasts! Sure, games magazines are garbage like they've been since the 80s but they've never been less needed or relevant.
posted by Artw at 10:20 PM on March 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


Artw: "I'd say if anything we've got BETTER sources of information on games than ever before. Yay RPS! Yay Zero Punctuation! Yay blogs and podcasts! Sure, games magazines are garbage like they've been since the 80s but they've never been less needed or relevant."

QFT, Artw. This has been pretty clear to me in the last few weeks while I read up (and nourish myself with schadenfreude ...) on the SimCity5 debacle. When I'm browsing around for links, I don't even bother to go see what an established gaming magazine has to say about it, because their opinions and information are worse than useless. Why give a shit about Eurogamer or PC Gamer when I can go to RockPaperShotgun, see what the people on /r/SimCity say, or check into Mefight Club? I am more than happy to discount games "journalists" and ignore them, because we're absolutely spoiled for choice these days with gaming information.

And, apropos of very little, Croshaw's Yahtzee schtick is getting kinda old...
posted by barnacles at 10:41 PM on March 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


I dated a game journalist for two-ish years. I went to E3, PAX, etc. I've been to industry parties, chatted with pr, and seen the swag. What I want to iterate (which they touch on in this article and Cool Papa Bell talked about) is that most game writers are very poorly compensated young people that happen to have a hobby popular among young people that lacks a clearly established journalistic interpretation. Many people get established after working for free, and when you start working for free being paid 50$ to review a 30 hour game in three days seems legit. Since it's a fantasy job many people are willing go through a lot of shit to do it. When you are on foodstamps being flown out for a preview is a pretty huge honkin deal, as is the open bar at the Bethesda party (even though most seriously writers don't have time to attend any industry parties) only to return to the fleabag hotel you're sharing with four other journalists (E3/PAX networking is where most career advancements seem to happen). The way I saw it was the swag/parties/etc kicked down to the writers seemed more like a way of giving them the feelings of legitimacy and importance that most journalists get in their paychecks. Some claw their way up and weather the hours/low pay long enough to snag a salaried position, but they are the lucky few. Honestly I'm not sure how I feel about the perks vs integrity thing as they mostly seemed like crumbs to me and most writers had a very practiced blasé vibe about it.
posted by Betty_effn_White at 10:42 PM on March 17, 2013 [5 favorites]


> > Jeff Gerstman is the only sane man in a crazy world.
> Then why is he back working at GameSpot, lol?


That's an outright falsehood. Giant Bomb, GameSpot and GameFAQs are all very different websites that happen to be owned by CBS. Giant Bomb doesn't report to GameSpot and isn't constrained by them in any way as far as I can tell. There's reason to be wary (especially with CNET's mistaken attempts to consolidate GameFAQs and GameSpot), but it seems like it would defeat the purpose of the investment for CBS to cannibalize Giant Bomb.
posted by floomp at 10:45 PM on March 17, 2013


Oh, and by the way -- in Europe, the writers/editors are completely corrupt by American standards. You can literally buy a good review in Europe. You can only sorta-kinda buy one in the U.S.

Than why is Eurogamer the only mainstream site I trust?
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 11:38 PM on March 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Andhria: Charlemagne in Sweatpants, the entitlement angle you bring in is making me think of my evolving opinion about Dragon Age 2 and its ending, which involves feeling betrayed by a character. When I played I was angry that BioWare did this to me without giving me a way to 'win.' But over time I've come to respect that as a very bold and risky writing decision, actually.

You know, if you were to chart relative levels of EA hate, I'm sure I'd be way up there. But I thought DA2 was a much better game than it had any right to be. EA really shorted the Bioware team on money and time, and being able to put together something that complex in just a year was pretty incredible.

But it felt cheap. It really did. I liked the lower-powered plot, that you weren't out Saving The World yet again, you were just trying to feed your family and maybe get ahead a little in city society. But that plot was a consequence of being starved for development cash, and that's purely on EA's doorstep. They did yeoman work within the limitations imposed by EA management, and I can see and appreciate that -- like, as you say, that particular plot development. A real high point of that story, IMO. Yet, yeoman work or no, those imposed limitations are crippling.

ME3 was, I think the last EA game I will ever buy, and I wish I hadn't bought that one. The founders of Bioware did very well for themselves when they sold to EA, but it has resulted in the slow-motion death of their baby. This was absolutely obvious and predictable at the time of the buyout; this always happens with studios bought by EA.

ME2 was finished without much of EA's evil influence, but ME3 was slimed in it, and then their reaction to the fan hatred of the totally fouled-up ending, basically closing ranks and blaming the customers, is remarkably similar to how they're handling SimCity now.

EA should be called Sidam; anything they touch turns to shit. And they will never give you your money back, no matter how broken their software is. They have to deploy astroturf teams and buy reviewers, because that's the only way to maintain any semblance of a reputation with software of the quality they're shipping.
posted by Malor at 11:45 PM on March 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


My main interactions with game journalism now aren't reviewers and hype, it's pro-gamer leagues and things. Which has almost the exact same set of problems - entitled dickwolves with serious conflicts of interest who argue (sincerely) that their documented bias is okay, because other people do it. So, it doesn't surprise me.
posted by geek anachronism at 11:52 PM on March 17, 2013


I'm glad we're all agreed that Kieron Gillen is awesome.
posted by Artw at 12:15 AM on March 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Rockpapershotgun's fear and loathing of the Assassin's Creed 4 press only embargo event was fantastic. The site is currently kerplunk, else I'd linku.
posted by chainlinkspiral at 12:39 AM on March 18, 2013


ODiV: "More seriously, I wonder if this "entitlement" is unique to gamers or if their increased Internet literacy amplifies something you'd find in any community. I know I sure as hell wouldn't want to read Ebert's email"

I doubt Ebert's e-mail comes even close to the level of vitriol spilled about video games. (Possible exception: comic book movies.)

Part of the problem with video games is that they are an expensive investment. Parents only bought kids a Sega or a Nintendo, hardly anyone had both. Few people have a PS3, 360, *and* a Wii. That level of investment creates a connection to the company, a desperate need for your console to succeed and other consoles to fail.
posted by graventy at 1:39 AM on March 18, 2013


Video game journalism is to journalism as video games are to art.

Discuss.
posted by davemee at 3:09 AM on March 18, 2013


If no one ever makes a comparative statement and then follows it with "Discuss" again in my life, it will still be too soon.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:30 AM on March 18, 2013 [13 favorites]


Unless it says something like "Discuss with David Bowie and get back to us."
posted by ersatz at 5:04 AM on March 18, 2013


So AllAbout Games (dot com) was an outlet I ran in the mid 90s. I think the Wayback machine has some of it scraped. Anyway, at its high point there were four other guys writing for it. Now right up front I will say that it wasn't really a "professional" operation. Ad income (through a syndicate, anyone remember Flycast?) was okay, but it wasn't supporting my family completely so I was holding down a full time IT job also. In fact for a year or so there was this tipping point where it seemed like if I would just quit the job and threw myself at the site, it would take off. But we didn't have enough savings such that I felt that wasn't too much of a risk.

By and large contributors to the site were writers who liked to play games, rather than gamers who theoretically knew how to write. So there was an advantage there, in that these were people who could actually string words together in order to express an opinion. And the way we wrote reviews was always very strongly weighted towards being descriptive and objective. I asked for reviews that had enough context and detail about the games such that readers would be able to formulate their own opinions about the game, rather than having our opinions shoved down their throats.

Sort of like the way Tom's Hardware writes, I guess would be the closest approach: Here's the story, here's the gameplay, here's the controls, here's the technical quality. And then at the end the reviewer would sum up their own impressions of the game, and there was a numerical scoring system, and I believe it was ultimately broken down into technical merit, and then gameplay. But I forget the specifics.

Naturally we relied on publishers sending us stuff. Every day FedEx and UPS and the USPS priority guy, and sometimes DHL would pull up to my house and drop off boxes. Boxes full of games and swag. It piled up, my god, the piles of crap. I'd open up the boxes, suss out the relevant discs and manuals, and put just the actual game stuff in labeled ziplocks, and turf the rest. Garbage day was hell. Anyway. So every week or so I'd circulate a list of what games were available, first to the most responsive reviewers, and they would pick which one or two games they'd like to do. They basically got all the good games and I was left, by and large, with the crap.

I'd get phone calls or emails or whatever from PR people offering junkets -- I think the most egregious was being flown to Hawaii for three days to preview a golf game -- or early access to games if we'd provide them a preview of the writeup. I always turned these down. So clearly a conflict of interest. So AAG typically did not get early access to most titles; aside from the occasional beta/preview that was given with no conditions. Mostly we had to wait for shipping product, or write up what we saw at trade shows.

So that put us behind the curve of most of the other sites of the era who were all to happy to nuzzle up to the PR people. Our reviews would inevitably be a couple weeks behind, and we could not offer many previews. So it was hard for us to build traffic other than from the more casual gamers. If you were sitting on the edge of your seat for, I dunno, Stratosphere or Driver or Star Trek Generation, then you'd have already bought it by the time our review came out. So that kind of sucked. But on the other hand, at least we could be honest.

Some of the PR people rather respected us for being honest, I like to believe. I mean, everyone in a studio knows if a game is a turkey, that will out. And some PR folks are actually human, able to understand the difference between trying to do the best you can and build buzz based on reasonable effort and merit, and then being a willing to say or do anything for a column inch.

So there would sometimes be awkward conversations about how this or that review wasn't positive though we had high hopes for the next title. And in some cases we wouldn't hear from them again. ISTR LucasArts being one of those, though I forget which review set them off.

Sometimes there is talk of "getting the band back together" but most of what I remember of that era was setting my alarm clock for 3am and then doing four hours of site work before I had to take a shower and get dressed and go to work-work, and then come home and deal with boxes and parcels and email and then maybe spend some time playing shitty games no one else wanted so that I could write reviews, and also having two young children and a marriage and a house to take care of. (But that's no different than any other garage start-up.)

Anyway I'd rather write games than write ABOUT them, and I'm starting to do a bit of that again after my previous sad forays into shareware in the early 90s. Life was a lot harder for garage developers back then; few people were online and getting the word out was essentially impossible; you had to totally suck up to the magazines, and if you had no ad budget to buy their time of day you were pretty screwed. So I think that's why there's a huge renaissance of indie developers putting together small games these days. Because you don't have to have a six person PR department and a twenty person channel sales department and a 5-6 figure fulfilment contract in order to make bank. You just need some good word of mouth.

Okay that was kind of rambling.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:25 AM on March 18, 2013 [20 favorites]


One interesting thing about this episode was that the Human Flesh Search Engine was directed with incredible intensity at a young female journalist, while the game being promoted, the PR agency promoting it and the publisher of that game received barely any attention at all.

This also adds an interesting extra bullet point to the crisis management plan for PR agencies in the Internet age - "pray a woman breaks cover".
posted by running order squabble fest at 5:42 AM on March 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Oh right, and I totally forgot these awesome gaming blogs:

The Border House, which is grounded in feminism and is a sorely needed voice in the video gaming world.

Indie Games Blog, which is eponymous.

Ian Bogost's blog, who is a very inflammatory but very intelligent writer. The things I would do to take a class at GT with him about ludology.

Culture Ramp's L. Rhodes's coverage of video games is some of the smartest writing about video games and really sets the bar for critical theory.

Oh, and there's MiniMax's story that they posted on the Steam forums that is a nice inside look at the dev cycle. Not really journalism but definitely a worthwhile peek at how indie games come into being.

The other thing about video games is that not only is there is a thriving critical community with some amazing writing coming out, there's also a thriving indie community with a bundle pack out each week. Games like Waking Mars, Machinarium, The Cat and the Coup, Bastion, Yume Nikki, Papo y Yo, Dys4ia, and Dear Esther are the games you aren't playing that you really should.

It's easy to dismiss corporatized, revenue driven 'art' because it's all made to appease focus groups and 18-25 year old guys. But we don't all judge movies or books by only focusing on Michael Bay or Dan Brown, and video gaming is a relatively young medium without a strong, institutionalized critical establishment. It's easy to dismiss CoD and Battlefield but it's always been easy to dismiss entertainment that's written for the lowest common denominator and unless you're coming from the perspective of a budding neoliberal/conservative free market neophyte, they are far from being representative of the field.
posted by dubusadus at 5:53 AM on March 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


RPS is actually kind of corrupt too, it's just their corruption is more "indie games made by guys I share e-circles with and stuff that we've all agreed is good" than straight up "I was paid to give this a positive review"
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 6:47 AM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


That doesn't sound like corruption to me.

It sounds they are writing about games that they have played.
posted by helicomatic at 9:56 AM on March 18, 2013


RPS is a bit heart-on-sleeve about (a) when they actually specifically know folks involved and (b) how much, regardless, they're gushing from a personal perspective on a game or about the ideas in a game vs. the notion that everyone will agree it's brilliant or like the packaging. Calling it corruption feels incredibly rhetorically lazy.
posted by cortex at 10:01 AM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


@helicomatic

"Cronyism" is what I was originally going to go with. It's probably inevitable in a smaller, less known operation like RPS where the people making it are often the same people who are reading it, though, so it's not like it merits too harsh of judgment.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 10:11 AM on March 18, 2013


You know, if you were to chart relative levels of EA hate, I'm sure I'd be way up there.

What about the way EA fucked up Dead Space 3? Because that would rate very high on my personal chart of EA suckiness.
posted by Rangeboy at 10:27 AM on March 18, 2013


Like I said, you don't know what you're talking about.

You know better than I do whether the games writers I read regularly are any good? I don't think so. More like your time at GameSpy gave you have tunnel vision about what actually constitutes games journalism. There's plenty of crap games journalism, but the idea that good games journalism doesn't exist is utterly ridiculous. There's so much good writing about games that I don't have time to read it all.
posted by straight at 10:27 AM on March 18, 2013


RPS is actually kind of corrupt too, it's just their corruption is more "indie games made by guys I share e-circles with and stuff that we've all agreed is good"

The claim that reviewers don't actually like what they claim to like, that they're merely saying they like it because of peer pressure, is almost always ridiculous. Particularly when you have writers like RPS who aren't even trying to make objective claims like "This game deserves a score of 89," but are just describing their experiences with and reactions to a game.
posted by straight at 10:46 AM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


The claim that reviewers don't actually like what they claim to like
"Being friends with people will cause you to share their tastes and appreciate things they do" doesn't really seem like an assertion that deserves to be ridiculed, to me.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 10:59 AM on March 18, 2013


But the only way that could deserve to be called "corrupt" is if it led a writer to write something dishonest because they like the game developer or because they feel peer pressure to like something they don't actually like.

I defy you to point to an RPS article "corrupted" by that sort of dishonesty.
posted by straight at 11:08 AM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think it's possible to be "honest" and still corrupt, and that you don't have to lie in order to have interests that conflict or interfere with each other.

Also, "liking" and "not liking" something are inextricably tied to context and your peers, so it's not as straightforward as "choosing to lie".

And of course it's hard to do exactly what you've demanded, because no RPS writer is going to risk the integrity of the site by lying about the game's mechanics, and no RPS writer is going to sabotage their own credibility by revealing their lack of confidence in their own opinion.

In legitimate cultural criticism, isn't there an ethical obligation of some kind to disclose your background so people know where you're coming from? I don't know if that would help here, though.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 11:29 AM on March 18, 2013


I guess I'd just see that as the sort of bias you get from any reviewer. You always have to have some idea where a reviewer is coming from to really have a useful review. Chris Remo likes RTS games, which I don't enjoy, so I'm probably not going to like King's Bounty no matter how refreshingly wacky the writing is. John Walker likes the writing in Bioware games, which I think sucks, so when he says a game is well-written, I know I might not agree. Tom Chick watches lots of horror movies and seems less bothered than I am by what I think of as misogyny in games, so I'll keep that in mind when he writes about the new Tomb Raider.

But the thing is, writers like this aren't just giving a straight "3 stars" or "8.8" leaving me to wonder if there's some unknown factor weighing the scale in one direction or another. They're writing (or speaking) vividly about their experiences with a game, so it's much easier for me to get a sense of whether I'm likely to enjoy or be interested in similar experiences.

When the Idle Thumbs guys talk about their experiences with Miasmata, the things they say are sufficiently specific and descriptive (with comparisons to things they like in other games), that I feel pretty confident in saying that the game is going to be worth my time and money even if their affinity for small developers has led them to downplay or overlook mechanical flaws that they would have criticized in a AAA game.
posted by straight at 12:46 PM on March 18, 2013


Who really needs journalists to give opinions about pre-release products anymore? There are very few professional reviewers of any product that I trust but my go-to source are non-vested joe customer reviews. It means that I don't buy things the first day they come out, but there are plenty of people willing to take those arrows to the back and write about them.

In this modern age when anyone with motive and wit can write a review I don't see what purpose official reviews serve.
posted by dgran at 12:53 PM on March 18, 2013


I'd certainly say RPS have a lot of shared values with indie game developers, and that affects the aspects of gaming they tend to discuss. If framerates and high poly models are what interests you in games then you are probably better served elsewhere. I don't think they've ever been less than forthright about that.
posted by Artw at 12:54 PM on March 18, 2013


straight: Chris Remo likes RTS games, which I don't enjoy, so I'm probably not going to like King's Bounty no matter how refreshingly wacky the writing is.

Completely at a tangent to your argument, King's Bounty is turn-based, not RTS. It's actually quite a good series, and if you like turn-based strategy, and were rejecting it because you thought it was RTS, you should check it out.

I think of it as being pretty strongly in the Heroes of Might and Magic genre; I'm probably naming it incorrectly, as I believe both those series drew inspiration from a long-ago source, but I don't remember what that source was. Regardless, the relation between the two is very clear. King's Bounty, being newer, has much better graphics, and, arguably, better battle mechanics.
posted by Malor at 5:31 PM on March 18, 2013


as I believe both those series drew inspiration from a long-ago source, but I don't remember what that source was

It was actually the original King's Bounty, from which the newer King's Bounty: The Legend takes its name.
posted by Justinian at 6:00 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Editorial: Let’s Not Pre-Order Games Any More, Eh?

Times are a-changing. Clearly. But not always in the most logical way. Throughout the 90s it was the case that games reviews appeared on the thinly sliced lifeless corpses of fallen trees, usually about two weeks before the game came out. Now, with the lightning-fast reflexes of the internet, a major AAA blockbuster game will likely, er, not have any reviews accessible to anyone until either the moment of release, or moments before. We’ve gone backward. There are still exceptions, like the console version of Tomb Raider this month, but more and more frequently review embargoes match release dates, while pre-order periods can begin at the very moment a game is announced.
posted by Artw at 6:16 PM on March 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


RPS is a bit heart-on-sleeve about (a) when they actually specifically know folks involved and (b) how much, regardless, they're gushing from a personal perspective on a game or about the ideas in a game vs. the notion that everyone will agree it's brilliant or like the packaging. Calling it corruption feels incredibly rhetorically lazy.

Exactly! There's no requirement for a reviewer to be 'objective'. They can have biases and advocate for art they like - film journalists and music writers do this all the time. If RPS' worse sin is trying to get exposure for good niche titles is that so wrong?
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 6:51 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Doh. I knew that, Malor. I even played the original King's Bounty on a Mac in the computer lab. It was at least more fun than writing a masters thesis. I just mean to say strategy games.
posted by straight at 6:51 PM on March 18, 2013


I will take honestly declared subjectivity over pretended objectivity any day of the week.
posted by Artw at 7:00 PM on March 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


Charlemagne and mightygodking, Action Button is the one I was thinking of. Thanks! Bookmarked!
posted by turgid dahlia 2 at 7:37 PM on March 19, 2013


basicchannel: "I can't tell which industry is worse: video games or cars. Car companies ban journalists for life from company-sponsored test drives that are completely rigged and not representative of the consumer product oh also they fly all of them out to a private island filled with naked, writhing whatevers-yer-pleasures who feed them cocaine and truffle oil-infused caviar but wink wink tell the readers how you really feel!!"

Hmmm ... yes, that's a shame. Sounds awful. Taking test drives on a private island with coke and naked people. I say, whatever happened to integrity in car journalism. I bet this is the kind of writing gig you don't even need a J degree or even a BA to qualify for. Pff ... untrustworthy, is what they are.

Now, where did I put my resume ... ?
posted by krinklyfig at 3:52 AM on March 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


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