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Irrational Games, journalism, and airing dirty laundry
February 21, 2014 4:45 AM   Subscribe

No one talks to the games press officially. I wish they did, but I get it. They want to keep their jobs. Let's just say multiple people within a studio were willing to risk their careers to confirm to me that yes, in fact, if their game didn't sell extremely well, like exponentially more than its predecessor or "well" according to a matrix of time and cost investment and desired profit, that their studio would be closed in a year.
posted by Elementary Penguin (77 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
The Age of Dinosaurs is a 2006 Austin Game Conference talk by Raph Koster suggesting that the age of the $200m AAA game is coming to an end, and about the evolution and stagnation of video game genres. It's linked in the comments of the link in the OP, and is interesting in its own right.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 4:49 AM on February 21


Game development is a gulag. It is stocked and enabled by an ever-renewable supply of people who think that game development is glamorous, the high-end of software development, the Thing that all Programmers want to Accomplish. This is why, in the modern era, it's mostly game "designers" that you hear about: the programmers who make it possible are seen as replaceable cogs.
posted by sonic meat machine at 4:52 AM on February 21 [18 favorites]


What good does it do to risk my friends' jobs and their confidence to patch together the plausible but potentially biased story about all the extra unfinished or un-implemented content from the wildly over-budget and over-scope game? The story about the high stress, the high turnover, the difficult-to-work-with creative lead?

You can't call yourself a journalist and think like this. Ms. Alexander might be a games writer, but she is not a games journalist. Get the facts. Write the story. You don't have friends in the industry you cover. You have sources.
posted by dortmunder at 5:08 AM on February 21 [27 favorites]


Yes, all the best journalists have lacked humanity and had no empathy toward their subjects. Wait, that actually isn't right at all and sounds like an idealized simplification of journalism.
posted by gilrain at 5:16 AM on February 21 [13 favorites]


Yes, all the best journalists have lacked humanity and had no empathy toward their subjects. Wait, that actually isn't right at all and sounds like an idealized simplification of journalism.

Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.
— Janet Malcolm, American journalist and author (b. 1934), in The Journalist and the Murderer

I was a journalist. I speak from experience. Empathy doesn't get the job done.
posted by dortmunder at 5:22 AM on February 21 [19 favorites]


Infinite is awful.
posted by Slothrup at 5:23 AM on February 21 [2 favorites]


And yet all of my favorite journalists are warm people, passionate about their subject, who connect with both their readership and the subjects of their reporting in a humane manner. Like, oh, Leigh Alexander, one of my favorite and certainly one of the more celebrated games journalists.

You may have a more limited definition of real journalism than almost everyone else.
posted by gilrain at 5:29 AM on February 21 [8 favorites]


Somehow film critics (at last many of them) manage to have friends in the industry but still feel no qualms about panning a movie that cost at least as much to product as Bioshock Infinite did.
posted by octothorpe at 5:29 AM on February 21 [15 favorites]


In the medium-to-long run the videogame industry could benefit from some good old-fashioned investigative journalism. She's not really doing her friends any favours, I think. It's a dirty industry.
posted by Harald74 at 5:35 AM on February 21


She makes a very good case for video games not being newsworthy. Which is a strange thing for her to argue, considering her job.
posted by 256 at 5:36 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]


From what I can figure by reading Wikipedia, Infinite sold ~4m copies within 4 months of its release, a sales figure that took the original Bioshock 3 years to reach. I can't even imagine how well Take Two was expecting Infinite to do, if that's not good enough.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 5:38 AM on February 21 [4 favorites]


dortmunder said it. Everyone should read The Journalist and the Murderer. It's short, sweet, and just absolutely brutal in every way. It's the (true) story of a journo covering a murder trial. The defendant (a prominent doctor) agrees to give the journo full access to his defense strategy and process. In the course of covering the story, the journo goes from being pretty sure the doc is innocent to absolutely convinced that he's a guilty, lying sociopath. A perfect story to explain Malcolm's premise--that journalism requires you to be a sociopath.

Also IMO the reason that journalistic ethics are so important. You need some kind of code independent of your own cynicism.
posted by radicalawyer at 5:41 AM on February 21 [9 favorites]


Somehow film critics (at last many of them) manage to have friends in the industry but still feel no qualms about panning a movie that cost at least as much to product as Bioshock Infinite did.

Leigh Alexander goes out of her way to tell you multiple times in the linked piece that she intensely dislikes Bioshock Infinite. But it's a moot point because the actual corollary would be film industry writers (not critics, who arguably are different) who have friends in the industry but feel no qualms about writing stories about unsubstantiated troubles at a major film studio.

As for the newsworthiness of airing dirty laundry, I don't think I necessarily agree with her final stance, but she does seem to grapple with it in the piece—at one point she writes about shining a light on studio turmoil so that the rest of the industry, whose own turmoils are often hidden, knows these things are going on and at least don't have to feel that their egomaniac boss isn't an anomaly, they're present all over and no one likes them.
posted by chrominance at 5:43 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]


Elementary, the game took over 6 years to make and was a <10 hour corridor shooter, regardless of the decent sales it's not impossible to see Take Two's logic here.

In general I hope that the explosion of direct download and alternative funding sources will mean a return to the viability of mid-budget games that made the PS2 era so interesting. Right now the biggest companies are all clearly working on assembly-line systems to crank out AAA content that makes a profit (witness EA using Frostbite on all of their games) and unfortunately that content isn't likely to be that interesting.
posted by selfnoise at 5:44 AM on February 21 [7 favorites]


Now that I've finished reading the article, and sweeping statements about journalism aside, I feel like this article could have been titled "I am a very bad journalist, and that is probably why I only get to cover video games."
posted by 256 at 5:44 AM on February 21 [6 favorites]


Somehow film critics (at last many of them) manage to have friends in the industry but still feel no qualms about panning a movie that cost at least as much to product as Bioshock Infinite did.

Ms. Alexander admits she hated Infinite, and that she panned it. Criticism isn't the same as journalism.

And since I criticized her use of the term journalist before I finished the article, I also feel obligated to point out that the author reached the same conclusion I did, admitting that she is not "not much of a capital-J Journalist." The game industry is huge, and I think it could use some more capital-J Journalists, though. I think it would force them to do public relations instead of marketing, and the end result would be better business practices. Everyone sits up a little straighter and tries a little harder when they know they're being watched.
posted by dortmunder at 5:46 AM on February 21 [4 favorites]


256, really? Seriously?

1. Writing about the games industry and making a living from doing so is, AFAIK, her professional ambition rather than a fallback.

2. It's a multibillion dollar, international industry on the forefront of where economies in general are going. Almost 200 people lost their jobs in the layoffs, and the industry is well known for chewing up 20-somethings and spitting out emotional and physical wrecks. Who the fuck are you to sneer at covering it?
posted by kavasa at 6:01 AM on February 21 [5 favorites]


Journalism requires you to be a sociopath just as anything else done to the limit.
I was a journalist too, but I guess not good enough to shed my humanity.
posted by hat_eater at 6:07 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]


Alexander's critique of Bioshock Infinite is quite lovely, I think.
posted by kjh at 6:08 AM on February 21 [5 favorites]


Yes, really. This is a very bad article that doesn't seem to have a thesis other than "I am bad at my job."

And she is the one who argues that games journalism is a ghetto. Frankly, I think covering the gaming industry rototiller that destroys dreams is a very important task, one that she expressly states she is too milquetoast to perform.
posted by 256 at 6:08 AM on February 21 [4 favorites]


This is why, in the modern era, it's mostly game "designers" that you hear about: the programmers who make it possible are seen as replaceable cogs.

The funny thing is, "designer" is not a job description most studios have. every "designer" I have known is also a producer, programmer, artist, entrepreneur, or more than one of the above. Nobody gets to design a game and then sit back while the minions build it over the course of the next 3 years or more. "1% inspiration, 99% perspiration" definitely applies to the game industry.
posted by Foosnark at 6:09 AM on February 21


Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.
— Janet Malcolm, American journalist and author (b. 1934), in The Journalist and the Murdere
r

Journalist Marina Hyde advises: Don't. Talk. To. A. Newspaper.
Still, as the saying goes, it would be great to hear your side of the story. And God, it really would. Countless great stories come out of people saying those words, and other words like them – great stories we've all devoured, and great stories we've yet to devour. But for you, O Person-Considering-Talking-to-the-Newspapers? Not so much.
posted by shothotbot at 6:09 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]


The funny thing is, "designer" is not a job description most studios have. every "designer" I have known is also a producer, programmer, artist, entrepreneur, or more than one of the above.

She mentions Naughty Dog, which is interesting because they just released a free documentary on Amazon. They go into great pains to explain how flat their company's hierarchy is, and where designer can fit into the same catch-all description that you mention. Now, you have to take into account that this is largely a fluff piece, but considering that (IMO) Naughty Dog consistently turns out high-quality products from multiple IPs, they may be onto something. Same goes for Valve, who apparently has a much similar way of doing things, and also releases really good stuff.
posted by zombieflanders at 6:15 AM on February 21


There are other kinds of journalism besides hard nosed investigative reporting. If she doesn't want to air dirty laundry, she doesn't have to. I enjoy her writing.
posted by empath at 6:20 AM on February 21 [13 favorites]


I should add that I also think Ms. Alexander is more comfortable with a critic/writer hat than a journalism one.

256, that's fine, but your comment was "only allowed to cover games," as if there's no work worth doing there. If that's not what you meant to say, then say so. And maybe consider backing off on the sneer.

I think that the lack of good journalism of the industry is a real problem, and one that extends from coverage/magazines being almost all reviews-oriented. Magazines and websites are beholden to publishers for lucrative previews and interviews and exposes of shady business practices jeopardize those. I think good journalism is probably going to have to come from more traditional publications.
posted by kavasa at 6:22 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]


Yes, sorry, I was not saying that journalism about the games industry is inherently worthless. I was paraphrasing Ms. Alexander.

"This is a volatile entertainment business, not fucking Watergate."
posted by 256 at 6:28 AM on February 21


Yeah, if the thing is worth covering at all, then being a good journalist means you must cover the bad news, too. Especially the bad news. Your job is to let people know what's going on on your beat; if the truth of the situation is that a major player is in trouble, then that 's what you report. Your responsibility to report the truth must always take precedence over your personal loyalties and sympathies, otherwise you're not a journalist. Just a hack -- or worse, a flack in hack's clothing.

Which is not to say I don't sympathize. In order to be a journalist at all, you must get people to trust you, must try and protect them. The weighing she does here -- it happens sometimes. There's borderline stuff, grey areas, stuff that makes you feel shitty. But according to her own account she was hearing repeated rumors for months that one of the most widely known and respected players in the industry was at risk of being shut down --- if that's not news to people who care about games and the people who make them then nothing is.
posted by Diablevert at 6:53 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]


Jumping all over this honest portrayal of one games writer's struggle with "what to cover" instead of the fact that almost every other games writer's complete output lacks any such honesty is depressing.
posted by helicomatic at 6:59 AM on February 21 [16 favorites]


When Nate Wells left Irrational, after years of working on Bioshock Infinite and a few months before release, his credit was reduced from "Art Director", to "Additional Art".

Supposedly, the issue had been that for six months they worked on a rather involved alternate level look for the "downtrodden" part of the city, and Levine spontaneously threw it out. Whatever - flipping the tea table is a known iteration in creative works, I can see both sides.

But to dismiss years of work like that and give someone the lowest form of credit, well, that was it for me ever caring about hearing from Mr. Levine again.

I tell that story to some people, and they go "So? That's how it should work." - saves me a ton of time thinking about ever collaborating with them on anything.

--

In a tangentially related story, I was in the games industry for two years. I'd mention how I got away from it because of the brutality, and I'd meet 20-somethings who would say (online of course), "that's because you were a loser and couldn't handle the heat".

Aaaand that's when I realized the destroy-yourself-to-make-the-shoot-in-the-face-guy game supply was going to be infinite.
posted by jscott at 7:01 AM on February 21 [32 favorites]


This is definitely journalism. And good journalism at that, it asks some questions about the sausage machine and the reporters of sausages that are generally absent from the universe of discourse.

Bioshock Infinite is not only a very bad game, it is a very bad game.
posted by fallingbadgers at 7:10 AM on February 21 [2 favorites]


This is why, in the modern era, it's mostly game "designers" that you hear about: the programmers who make it possible are seen as replaceable cogs.

This is not true. Experienced programmers are the life-blood of the games industry. At studios, programmers usually command the highest salaries of anyone with their relative experience level, the notable exception being any developer with a marketable name. The high cost of marketable names is the reason why large studios try to keep the bulk of their developers anonymous. However, just about every indie developer you could name does some amount of programming. Including me.

She makes a very good case for video games not being newsworthy. Which is a strange thing for her to argue, considering her job.

Leigh's been covering general pop cultural- and media-criticism for a variety of publications for several years now. Games is where she established her reputation, though, and it remains important to her.
posted by GameDesignerBen at 7:20 AM on February 21 [2 favorites]


To me, it's the grunt work that makes the game. Arkham City and Uncharted 2 are my favourite games because of the detail in the play areas -- the sense of place. Or at least that's a big part of it. And further, going all the way back to Doom, I think you can tell your story with your levels, and with your gameplay itself.

Like how in Arkham, as the game went on you would see thugs in Penguin parkas wearing Joker clown masks after Penguin was defeated. It's a way of telling stories that seems to fit the medium better than trying to be cinematic all the time and putting cut scenes and badly written dialogue everywhere.
posted by Trochanter at 7:31 AM on February 21 [3 favorites]


This is not true. Experienced programmers are the life-blood of the games industry.

I don't disagree that programmers are vital, but programming is not what makes people rock stars in the industry.

John Carmack, John Romero, Gabe Newell, Richard Garriott, Sid Meier, Will Wright, Al Lowe, Jeff Minter.

All programmers -- none particularly famous for programming (with the partial exception of Carmack), but all famous for their designs (whether horrible or great), companies they have founded, what they've done with their wealth, things they've said at trade shows or interviews (related to design or the business, not programming).

I can't name a single programmer at Nintendo. Shigeru Miyamoto is the first name who comes to mind, and he's a designer and artist with few technical skills. Koji Kondo is the other name who comes to mind, and he's a composer.

Offhand I can't name any game programmers, aside from those I've personally worked with, who are not designers or business types.
posted by Foosnark at 7:38 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]


If you can put aside your sympathies completely as a journalist, you'll have more tools in your box that you can use to be a more effective journalist in many situations. But Diablevert is right, the weighing does happen. And there is a cost to having that "sympathy off" switch.

Still, even being aware of that internal struggle and talking about it puts her ahead of many, many journalists out there. Playing the "access" game by writing sympathetic stories (even if you personally have zero sympathy towards the subject) gets drilled into too many journalists in their first jobs out of college and in many cases you have to want out of that game so bad you're willing to risk your job for it.
posted by jason_steakums at 7:41 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]


Experienced programmers are the life-blood of the games industry.

I can't name a single programmer at Nintendo.


These two sentences are not contradictory.

This sentence is obvious, or should be.
posted by hat_eater at 7:42 AM on February 21


It's an interesting article, but I feel Alexander is taking her reporter's notebook full of mild bits of information and confusing it for reporting. "People working on AAA game grumble about their jobs" is not news, neither is "AAA game budget is big" nor "AAA game development is running late" nor "some content got cut from the game and made DLC". It's great that she's trusted enough by people in the industry to get the backstory, the color of a development process. She's smart to hold those confidences tight, to only report them when she has a story. She didn't have a story. She still doesn't have a story, there's nothing insightful or useful here about why Irrational is shutting down nor why Levine is staying at 2K, nor what he's doing next. It's frustrating.

In the tech industry there's a whole world of people who write news from leaks and inside sources, from the insightful reporting at Re/Code to the bottom feeders at TechCrunch. What readers seldom understand is those leaks are never friendly, chummy sharing, never scoops the reporter worked their ass off to uncover. They are strategic, deliberate leaks from someone in the story, someone with something to gain. When you see in the press "Microsoft considering to buy FooCorp for $100M" you can be certain that someone either at Microsoft or FooCorp wants that article to run because it helps their negotiating position.

The kind of insider info Alexander is talking about is more like gossip, something that could lead to a true scoop. But then that doesn't come with a prepackaged narrative, you have to work to turn it into a real story. It's not free.
posted by Nelson at 7:45 AM on February 21 [5 favorites]


Jason Schwartz has a much better article for Boston Magazine on the downfall of a videogame company.

We seem to be asking more from games these days. Is it too much to ask for better journalism from games journalists as well?
posted by Asimo at 7:46 AM on February 21 [2 favorites]


Offhand I can't name any game programmers

Just to be clear, I'm not arguing that there are lots of famous programmers. I'm arguing that within the close-knit game dev community, established programmers are highly valued.
posted by GameDesignerBen at 7:47 AM on February 21


From what I can figure by reading Wikipedia, Infinite sold ~4m copies within 4 months of its release, a sales figure that took the original Bioshock 3 years to reach. I can't even imagine how well Take Two was expecting Infinite to do, if that's not good enough.


As I understand Alexander, the point is that Infinite probably cost way more to make than Bioshock -- probably in part because of the I'm-such-an-artist management style of Ken Levine. So it needed to make way more, or the investors wouldn't be getting their money's worth.

That's part of what makes this an interesting piece of writing, right? Alexander is contrasting the way the leaders' management philosophy plays so well in interviews, makes us so sympathetic, to how it makes the lives of the other employees miserable. So she's putting her own sympathy with the artistic leadership on the table, and criticizing the way she and others are like taken in by it.

-----
Feels weird to write "Alexander," cuz everyone in games press seems to call her "Leigh," but I don't know her so it didn't seem right.
posted by grobstein at 8:05 AM on February 21 [2 favorites]


I was a journalist. I speak from experience. Empathy doesn't get the job done.

Poor Glenn Greenwald, I guess he'll just never break that big story he's been dreaming about. He cares too much.
posted by jamjam at 8:15 AM on February 21


Poor Glenn Greenwald, I guess he'll just never break that big story he's been dreaming about. He cares too much.

Yeah, Glenn Greenwald has a lot of friends at the NSA he's worried about protecting.
posted by dortmunder at 8:20 AM on February 21 [4 favorites]


Years ago, video games was one of my beats. I left the outlet I was working at because I couldn't stand the unacceptably thin veneer between advertising and editorial. Nobody there really wanted to probe inside the industry or raise hell because they were too busy sanitizing their articles so they could keep their jobs. From what I understand, the situation is much worse. I won't even get into junkets and other payola. I'm old enough to remember when native advertising was an unthinkable prospect.

One does not need to be a sociopath to be a journalist. One only needs to be fair. You get every side of the story, even when the source you're speaking to is reprehensible. To protect yourself from your worst instincts, you give a source the option to go off the record or speak anonymously (and, if you are diligent and devoted enough, you can often confirm off the record remarks through other parties). I know that Lawrence Weschler sometimes has his sources confirm the quotes before a story runs, which I don't do and I think is obsessive. But you can always call a source again to corroborate a fact or to make sure that a quote is right. (And some of my peers think even that is obsessive. But I'd rather err on the side of caution.) You're always aware of Janet Malcolm's oft-quoted line from THE JOURNALIST AND THE MURDERER (which anybody interested in journalism should read), even though that's not the only wisdom she imparts in that magnificent book.

Journalism is not for the timid or the passive individual who easily gives up. If you're doing your job, you're making enemies somewhere: ideally with the people in power, not the little guys. And if you're not willing to examine power dynamics or get into the nitty-gritty of how systems work, as Leigh Alexander apparently isn't, then you really shouldn't be a journalist.
posted by ed at 8:28 AM on February 21 [3 favorites]


The programmers I have known who moved from games development universally describe lower salaries than line-of-business development, long periods of unpaid overtime, draconian management, and capricious layoffs. (One friend was hired at a prominent company and laid off along with his whole team the next week.)

Programmers are the life blood of games development in the way virgins are the life blood of black magic.
posted by sonic meat machine at 8:30 AM on February 21 [6 favorites]


everyone in games press seems to call her "Leigh,"

It's hard to overstate how small the games world really is on the inside, and Twitter has made it all the smaller in the last five years. I've never been asked to supply references for a job application, because inevitably somebody at the place I'm going will know somebody from a project I worked on in the past, and will contact them directly to find out if I ever came to work without pants on.

It's mostly great, but it does make it difficult to speak out. I was once at a studio that was able to trace an anonymous comment on a somewhat-negative article about the studio to a former employee based on the distinctive grammar and punctuation in the comment. (No particular action was taken, but plenty of my co-workers definitely took on an attitude of "fuck that guy," and again, it's a small world in here, and black-balling is a thing that happens.)
posted by GameDesignerBen at 8:31 AM on February 21


The programmers I have known who moved from games development universally describe lower salaries than line-of-business development, long periods of unpaid overtime, draconian management, and capricious layoffs.

That's absolutely the case. If you're a good programmer, you can make more money writing just about any software other than games.

The only industry I've heard game programmers say is more of a life-suck is Wall Street algorithmic trading, just because you eventually end up being on call 24-7.
posted by GameDesignerBen at 8:36 AM on February 21


To protect yourself from your worst instincts, you give a source the option to go off the record or speak anonymously

The problem with this is that the source has no way of knowing if this is just a ploy. In our media training we are explicitly told (again and again) that "off the record" is just a reporter's trick to get you to open up more. This may or may not be true, but it's how big organizations who want to control messages behave.
posted by bonehead at 8:39 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]


The problem with this is that the source has no way of knowing if this is just a ploy. In our media training we are explicitly told (again and again) that "off the record" is just a reporter's trick to get you to open up more.

Off the record and speaking anonymously for publication are not the same thing. The former means that you won't use the information in a story (and is usually a lie, yeah. There's no such thing as off the record.), and the latter means you won't attach the information to the source's name or other identifying information.
posted by dortmunder at 8:43 AM on February 21


We are told that "anonymous sources" are a ploy too, just to be clear.
posted by bonehead at 9:00 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]


To me, it's the grunt work that makes the game. Arkham City and Uncharted 2 are my favourite games because of the detail in the play areas -- the sense of place. Or at least that's a big part of it. And further, going all the way back to Doom, I think you can tell your story with your levels, and with your gameplay itself.

Yes, I completely agree. The Bioshock games had some cool, high-concept premises, and Ken Levine probably deserves a lot of credit for that. But otherwise, most of what I like about those games is mostly the work of artists who designed an implemented (in painstaking detail) those fantastic environments and the various designers and programmers who tuned the combat and the level design until it was fun. The stories--the writing, the dialog, the ("!") twists--I don't think are particularly good.

AAA video games are really more like cathedrals than movies.
posted by straight at 9:04 AM on February 21 [6 favorites]


I, huh.

It seems like a lot of people are reading this as an article about the problems at Irrational Games? Which is odd to me, as it seems to be explicitly an article about the failure of games journalism, using her personal experiences with Infinite as a lens. Like when she says the Watergate thing, I read that as her saying "isn't this a shitty excuse?

It's an article about the fact that there are no good articles about Irrational.
posted by kavasa at 9:14 AM on February 21 [6 favorites]


AAA video games are really more like cathedrals than movies.

This is a really fantastic metaphor. The first time you see a cathedral is amazing, you can't stop talking about it. The size and grandeur! How difficult it must have been to build such a thing, you tell your friends. By about the 5th cathedral you better tell me before we go why I need to see this one.
posted by 2bucksplus at 9:28 AM on February 21 [13 favorites]


Off the record and speaking anonymously for publication are not the same thing. The former means that you won't use the information in a story (and is usually a lie, yeah. There's no such thing as off the record.), and the latter means you won't attach the information to the source's name or other identifying information.

If Person X tells me off the record that Steve Ballmer ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch on Thursday, I can then ask the three people who were sitting with Ballmer at lunch on Thursday what he was eating. And if they tell me on the record that Ballmer had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I can then make attempts to go to Ballmer's people to get further corroboration. This is often why reporters speak to people off the record.
posted by ed at 9:31 AM on February 21 [3 favorites]


We are told that "anonymous sources" are a ploy too, just to be clear.

Not necessarily a ploy (and I've never seen it used as a ploy personally, but this may vary by industry and certainly some people must abuse it), but it's really hard to keep actually anonymous in practice sometimes. Because sometimes the list of people who could have been the anonymous source for the information given is just laughably small.
posted by jason_steakums at 9:32 AM on February 21 [2 favorites]


Huh. I loved Bioshock Infinite. Is it flawed? Yeah. Sure, it could just be a short, linear shooter if you only focused on looting coins and killing everything. But I liked having to search out and piece together the story via finding voxophones and listening to passing conversations.

In her review, she spends a few paragraphs talks about trying to help some looters in Shantytown, and then getting upset when they attack and she has to shoot them (or, yanno, reload and look five feet over for a handy solution that requires no killing...)?

(Also, Fink doesn't call Booker a 'bee', he's using the bee as a metaphor in a recorded 'inspirational' speech piped into the factory to try and get more work out of his factory workers.)

It read like she was tired of gaming itself and wanted Infinite to be something totally unique. But if you go back and replay the original Bioshock, guess what? It's also a fairly linear shooter with a rich story that can be found via audiologs and listening to what splicers are saying, etc. The gameplay itself was a comment on gaming tropes -- do you use the little sisters for MOAR power, or do you sacrifice potential power for a 'good' ending.

Infinite says it doesn't matter. You'll just keep playing again and again, looking for the variables in a sea of constants.
posted by lovecrafty at 10:15 AM on February 21 [5 favorites]


Can we just move the whole industry to the Jeff Minter model? That is, lone devs, living on sustainable farms, endlessly iterating on 80s arcade classics. That's the video game world I want to live in.
posted by Gin and Comics at 11:08 AM on February 21 [4 favorites]


Empathy doesn't get the job done.

I don't know if it's about having empathy at all, so much as a question of with whom the reporter ought to be empathizing. Really, more empathy for labor and a lot less for management seems like it'd be exactly the fix that Alexander is confusedly seeking. She seems deeply confused about how to write about an industry in a way that doesn't just reduce to covering "Ken," as if the game's problems all were derived from his mercurial creative psychology, or hand-wringing about layoffs as if they were natural disasters — but this is not the unsolved problem she seems to think it is. The answer is, yes, she needs to do real journalism, but not just "real journalism" in the sense of hard-nosed quote-chasing: rather in the sense of substituting a systemic, contextualizing analysis for cozy inside baseball. It's not just a journalistic problem, though: the mystification of labor politics is endemic to tech in general, and perhaps at its extreme in gaming.
posted by RogerB at 11:08 AM on February 21 [5 favorites]


No one should shy away from airing laundry, of whatever kind.
posted by airing nerdy laundry at 11:40 AM on February 21 [3 favorites]


Just, you know, maybe not always based on ungulates. Let him have those.
You? You can do like... flapping avians.
Over there, you... You can have cetaceans.
posted by symbioid at 11:59 AM on February 21


Leigh Alexander generally writes well-considered, thoughtful pieces. I haven't had the chance to read this one yet though.
posted by JHarris at 12:17 PM on February 21


Can we just move the whole industry to the Jeff Minter model?

There's only so much MDMA to go around. (But I do love the Extreme variants of classic Japanese arcade games, like Space Invaders and Galaga. It's not just Minter!)
posted by Nelson at 1:12 PM on February 21


But I do love the Extreme variants of classic Japanese arcade games, like Space Invaders and Galaga. It's not just Minter!

Oooor Pac-Man CE????? A game that I'm more than a little enthusiastic about?
posted by JHarris at 3:05 PM on February 21 [1 favorite]


It seems there is a lack of a middle ground in gaming journalism. Airing dirty laundry might not be the right choice, but why not investigate the things that has gone public? So you didn't want to write an article about how there might have been trouble brewing at Irrational, but now that the cat is out of the bag, why not dig down and find it out? From the article:

Yesterday when Ken announced that Irrational would close, and he himself would work on narrative-driven games while preserving only 15 of his colleagues, there was a lot of speculation. How could Ken "do such a thing," people wondered. Why didn't he just leave and start his own studio? Surely his team would staff up again to triple-A size? None of it really makes a lot of sense, so we have to assume the decision wasn't entirely his. There are probably contracts and legal issues involved.

It was probably the best bargain he could have struck with the publicly-traded company that has ownership over the work he's done for it thus far, and whose investors probably, rationally or otherwise, expected better numbers from Infinite after all the delays and the presumably-high budget. I mean, narrative-led games aren't being made in triple-A anymore, really. They're being made by small teams with nontraditional hierarchies. I think it's fair to speculate a smaller team would suit Ken's style the best.


How about, if you think of yourself as a journalist, you go and ask those people that used to be at Irrational why these things happened? Don't come with "probably" and speculations. Do a little bit of investigation for once.
posted by ymgve at 4:18 PM on February 21 [2 favorites]


It's mostly great, but it does make it difficult to speak out. I was once at a studio that was able to trace an anonymous comment on a somewhat-negative article about the studio to a former employee based on the distinctive grammar and punctuation in the comment. (No particular action was taken, but plenty of my co-workers definitely took on an attitude of "fuck that guy," and again, it's a small world in here, and black-balling is a thing that happens.)

What you're describing doesn't sound mostly great, it sounds mostly fucked and deeply wink-wink nudge-nudge encouraging of a blue wall of silence type of circlejerk in which no one dares say the emperor has no clothes.

Any time a community gets that close knit there's large negative sides no one wants to acknowledge until they end up on the wrong side of it, at which point they're just roundly dismissed by their peers for whatever they did and by internets journalists and others for being some bitter hack who couldn't make it.

I see nothing positive here, only silencing stuff. It might feel nice when it's a bit of a nepotism circlejerk and you feel like you're part of some big family or something, but there's got be a lot of people getting fucked over who dare not say anything for fear they'll just fuck themselves over more.

While i'm not a fan of this article and agree mostly with stuff like what 256 has said(mainly the "i'm going to crap on everyone else for having no balls, but i don't either lel!"), i think the assessment that the industry itself is pretty boned is spot on.
posted by emptythought at 4:46 PM on February 21 [2 favorites]


The gameplay itself was a comment on gaming tropes -- do you use the little sisters for MOAR power, or do you sacrifice potential power for a 'good' ending.

I have a serious problem with this reading of the first Bioshock for one simple reason: If you look at the actual math of that mechanic... The choice is meaningless. The difference in power is so marginal as to make the whole thing pointless. I love that game for many reasons but that part of it is not one of them. That the choice you make doesn't matter aside from which AVI file gets played after the final boss robs it of any meaning for me, and I'm pretty sure I'm not alone there.
posted by sparkletone at 5:26 PM on February 21 [6 favorites]


From what I can figure by reading Wikipedia, Infinite sold ~4m copies within 4 months of its release, a sales figure that took the original Bioshock 3 years to reach. I can't even imagine how well Take Two was expecting Infinite to do, if that's not good enough.

Most AAA titles make most of their money in the first few weeks, because sales fall off rapidly. If Infinite took 4 months to catch up to Bioshock's 3-year mark, that means Infinite is more successful - but potentially not all that much more successful - than Bioshock.

OTOH, if the shareholder's business plan is "Be wildly more successful than a known classic... or bust!", then that "or bust" part is a very real possibility. :-/
posted by anonymisc at 6:27 PM on February 21


Thing is, these guys have been basing their business plans, and making promises to shareholders about how their game was going to sell seven million units. So the four is a disappointment from that standpoint.

The same thing happened, to almost the same extent (or at least they were throwing around the same numbers --projected 7mil. sold 4) with the new Tomb Raider game.
posted by Trochanter at 7:19 PM on February 21 [1 favorite]


Yeah, the problem with Infinite was not its sales figures which are quite good by any reasonable metric. The problem was an incredibly shoddy development process which resulted in a massively inflated budget. There was never any possibility that Infinite would ship 10 million units or whatever in the first 3 months and anyone who thought that it might was getting high off their own supply of bullshit.

OTOH, if the shareholder's business plan is "Be wildly more successful than a known classic... or bust!", then that "or bust" part is a very real possibility. :-/

Yes, exactly.
posted by Justinian at 8:51 PM on February 21 [1 favorite]


I almost brought up Tomb Raider myself, Trochanter. You're right the cases are very similar. In both cases the games sold more than enough copies to be profitable with any sort of reasonable expectations and budget.

If you want to sell CoD numbers than go make CoD. That's the only way its going to happen.
posted by Justinian at 8:52 PM on February 21


I'm not sure CoD even sells CoD numbers anymore. The last game certainly didn't review well.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:43 PM on February 21 [2 favorites]


In case some people haven't seen it, Tom Francis's ideas for how the original Bioshock should have ended are ridiculously better than the original. Just reading this and imagining this ending makes me like the whole game more in retrospect.
posted by straight at 9:55 PM on February 21 [3 favorites]


Tomb Raider's had a spruced-up rerelease on the new generation of consoles. I wonder if they could squeeze a bit more cash out of Binfinite the same way? 60fps 1080p with the high-resolution textures from the PC version, throw a few more polygons at Elizabeth's model and package it as the Ultimate HD Edition or something. It's a good time to sell rereleases to owners of the new consoles because there aren't very many new games for them yet.

I mean, I really disliked Binfinite, thought its handling of race and class was simplistic and insulting, and thought everything about Elizabeth was really creepy, but a whole lot of craft went into it, so.
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 10:00 PM on February 21


I'm not sure CoD even sells CoD numbers anymore. The last game certainly didn't review well.

Reviews? Hah hah. Hah.

Black Ops 2 had the largest first day sales of any game ever.
posted by Justinian at 10:57 PM on February 21


Yeah, but we're up to CoD Ghosts, now, and it didn't do as well as Blops2.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 1:48 AM on February 22


Just reading this and imagining this ending makes me like the whole game more in retrospect.

That is chilling. Wow.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 1:53 AM on February 22


I tell that story to some people, and they go "So? That's how it should work." - saves me a ton of time thinking about ever collaborating with them on anything.

Argh! Jason, if you'd told it to me, I would have said "That right there? My least favorite part of the game industry." I've watched some of my most beloved coworkers pull 6 months of 80+ hour crunches, pour their heart and soul into projects, only to get the "Additional" credit, which is a shitty euphemism for "no longer works here". It's definitely how it DOES work, but not how it ought to, and not how it will if I ever run my own studio.

But I also want to add that while the endless churn of the industry can lead to ruin or destruction, it doesn't always, there are crazies among us who actually feel satisfied. I'm now in my 30s and have been working on games for fully half of my life; I can count my real, actual, don't-bring-your-laptop-and-work vacations on one hand. I've spent the past 2 months working 100+ hour weeks, 7 days a week, on 3 separate, totally unreasonable deadlines. I've dealt with bully bosses, broken management, prima-donna auteur directors, and the most arbitrary and idiotic publisher demands imaginable. I could probably compete in an Olympic eye-rolling or exasperated sighing event. And although I am quite sure I will die before my time, I'll go out with a smile.

Because amidst all the insanity, there are moments where, e.g., I'm at PAX demoing Shovel Knight at a booth and a 10-year-old kid plays it with her dad and turns to him with wide eyes and squeaks, "DAD THIS IS SOOOO AWESOME, CAN WE GET IT?" Or when a high-school kid sends me a 10-paragraph email asking for advice, saying he grew up playing my games and looks up to me. It's not for the fluff pieces, it's not to drive a fancy car or to win awards, it's to bring a tiny bit of delight and joy into people's lives, and to inspire young people to be creative and brilliant. To me (and the people I increasingly surround myself with) that makes it all worthwhile.

The catch is: You have to stick it out long enough to find collaborators who feel the same way, and studios making the kind of games you want to make. They're out there, and not every studio is busted and abusive. The Big Slaughterhouse Devs aren't the only way to make a living anymore; smaller devs and indie studios are actually becoming a viable career option. I hope everyone reading this thread and stuck in endless soul-crushing churn eventually ends up in a better situation.

And yeah, game programming may not be a glamorous sensationalized job, but GOD DAMN are good studio coders admired by the rest of us.
posted by jake at 8:23 AM on February 22 [4 favorites]


Yeah, but we're up to CoD Ghosts, now, and it didn't do as well as Blops2.

Ah! Thanks. Though I don't think you can interpret one data point as a trend. The second-to-last game was the best selling game ever up to that point and the last game is down modestly from that high. You need to see the sales for the next two games to decide there is a downward trajectory.
posted by Justinian at 11:53 AM on February 22


The problem with "game journalism" (and probably many other areas of online journalism) is the freelance model and lack of full-time positions. When you're paid per article, it's often not financially possible to take the proper time to research, fact check, or shake your contacts down for confirmations. You create more articles by being friends with studios and waking up to an inbox of potential topics.

It's a tough situation, but I don't blame freelancers for that. They need to eat too!
posted by jess at 7:24 PM on February 23 [1 favorite]


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