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How Possibly To Do Good Games Journalism, Maybe – Part 4: On publicising our relations

Well, that was a big old delay there.  I think I was busy, or something. Goodness knows – but more than a week has passed, and my daily ramblings about games journalism haven’t been updated once. I fail. Big lesson of journalism: be able to churn out excellent copy in three seconds, half asleep.

Let’s put this shit right.

Today I read a piece at Negative Gamer called ‘Videogame Journalism Doesn’t And Can’t Exist.’

I found it rather mundane in its insistance on arguing semantics. Wardrox’s main point is that his own definition of journalism – which is investigative by nature – cannot be applied to writing about videogames, assuming the current relationship between press and PR remains the same.  As a central argument, I don’t like it because it doesn’t seem to serve a purpose.  Who cares how you define journalism? Surely the big question is how we get better at doing whatever you want to call thing thing.

But if we follow his argument through… well, he’s kinda right.

It probably makes sense to affix a big, sidetracking preface here, on the off chance that someone reads this who has no idea of the actual inner workings of the videogame press and – quite reasonably – believes the constant rumours of corruption and suchlike.  So here, in as much detail as I can be bothered, is the general goings-on of reviewing a computer game.

Your publication might be on a regular review code mailing list, or you might have to get in touch with the publisher’s PR firm to request a copy of a given title.  Either way, assuming the PR company is happy to provide you with evaluation code, you’ll usually receive the game, in a box marked ‘Promotional copy. Not for resale’ and without any accompanying literature except maybe a press release and an NDA if you’ve had to sign one, between a week and a month before the game’s release date.

(Or, in the case of some PC games, a download code and user/password.  It doesn’t matter.  The specifics aren’t important.)

You’ll have agreed to an embargo.  That is to say, you’ve made a non-contractual agreement with the publisher that, if they’re going to provide you with the game, you promise not to talk about that game in your publication until a given date.  Often, this is just before, or sometimes on, the release date.  If you’re a lucky publication that’s been selected for the exclusive review, your embargo will be a while earlier than everyone else’s.

And then you review the game.

And that’s all there is to it.

The exclusive might have arrived via a few different routes.  Maybe the game got lower-rate advertising for a given period.  Maybe the publication agreed to running the review as a cover story.  The idea is that both parties benefit – the game and magazine both get additional publicity.  But most publications will have a policy in place that ensures such a deal won’t compromise their own editorial integrity.  In Eurogamer’s case, for example, I know the editorial staff do not have any access to information about advertising deals, payments, whatever.  They just write the review and post it when they’ve been told they’re allowed to.  On the three occasions we’ve run an exclusive review at Resolution, all that’s happened is we’ve asked for it, and have been told ‘yes’ – usually off the back of a positive hands-on preview.  One time, we were asked by a PR rep if they could have early access to the text.  We said no.  They said fair enough.

Sometimes, something a bit dodgy might be proposed.  Maybe sometimes, the mags go for it.  I wouldn’t know.  I’ve not been in this game long enough to have that experience.  It’s certainly never happened to me or anyone I know.  Unless people are lying, in which case I hate them all.

Cleared up?

Awesome.

So.

We were talking about being PR’s bitch.

Which we kind of are, in a less overtly horrible way.  News writers’ leads are usually press releases, which are either re-written as a news report, followed up with a phonecall for an additional quote, or whatever.  Maybe someone’s tipped the writer off, and they’ll make a few calls and try to turn it into a story.  But that’s about as far as it goes.  We post our news when we’ve been told it’s okay to do so.  If we post something they don’t like, they’ve every right to take us off their mailing lists for press releases and preview/review code, making our jobs harder.  It’s sensible not to really upset PR reps, y’know?  No one’s going to blacklist someone for a negative review (except… no, I’m not going to name them, that’d be ludicrous. No one reasonable is going to do that), but what about breaking a story they’d been asked not to?  What about posting a review before embargo?  These are all things that have happened, and have resulted in PR companies cutting ties with publications.

Our hands are, to some extent, tied.

Which is kind of nice.  It’s nice that we have to work ethically.  It’s nice, because it means I have a couple of acquaintainces in PR, and it doesn’t feel like we’re always working against each other.  Because we’re not.  Our jobs, boiled down to the bones of it, are the same: get good information about games, and good games themselves, into the hands of eager players.  If we both succeed at that, we both win the work game.

In another sense, though, it means people like John “Wardrox” from Negative Gamer get mad.

And you wouldn’t want to see a games journalist mad.

Wardrox argues, then, that we need to bypass this PR machine if we want to start producing what he thinks of as actual journalism, or we’re going to be stuck in a rut.  Which seems like a reasonable assertion.  If we hack deeper, scratch beneath this surface and stop always bowing to the wishes of those we’re reporting on, we can Do Good Games Journalism, Maybe.

Except, I think we can do it without having to annoy anyone, break any ties, or suchlike.  I think we can do it via better co-operation between all parties.

Watch Leigh talking about the three-way ecosystem of negativity, which is a brilliant way of putting it.  Leigh says, quite rightly, that to move forwards we need to establish a sense of trust between those making and selling the games, those writing about them, and those consuming them.  She demands better access so she can report more fairly, something she also covered at length in a Gamasutra article I can’t find the link for off-hand.  It’s something I absolutely, totally agree with, but I think we could take it one step further.  I think we could take it into actual, proper repotage mixed with a healthy dose of subjectivity, editorialising and criticism.

I think, basically, we can all get involved in reviews.

Imagine this situation.  I get sent a game for review.  I play it.  It’s brilliant.  It does things I didn’t think possible in the confines of what videogames are capable of.  Currently, I might have – say – 1500 words to articulate this opinion, and shove a number on the end.  The more I think about this idea I’m having, the more that seems totally archaic.  Maybe the game was awful, and so I spend that word count slamming it and giving it a 2/10, with no real insight other than to put everyone the hell off.  Maybe – god forbid – the game was hopelessly ordinary, and I settled on that forsaken 6/10, that damned-by-faint-praise mark, and struggled to hit my 1500 words due to being terribly bored by the whole experience.

What are we really communicating with our audience here?  What are we really saying, beyond what the fans can just as easily tell each other on release date?  If we give the game a glowing review, people are going to dissent.  If we don’t, people are going to dissent.  And because all we’re doing is presenting a qualitative judgement as a quantitative finding, and making a seemingly objective statement about a game’s quality, we’re doing a disservice to everyone.

How about this?

I get a game for review.  I play it, and it’s brilliant.  I’m fascinated by a particular feature that works unbelievably well and is completely unprecedented in gaming.  I make a phonecall to the PR rep, who puts me in touch with the lead designer, who in turn puts me in touch with the guy who implemented that feature.  We speak about it, and I get a few quotes.  I go back to a blank word processing document, and begin to write.

I don’t write a review, as such.  I write a feature on the game, giving insight into the development and, hopefully, not just whether I liked the game, but why I liked the game, and what developmental processes went into making me like that game.  Maybe I’ll do a couple more interviews.  Get a few more quotes.  Fill the article with the sort of insight that goes far beyond what the current system is doing.

Say I play the game and I hate it.

I phone the PR and blah blah blah, same process. But this time, I’m furious with the developer.  When I saw their game in pre-production, they promised the bugs would be ironed out and the story would be deeply clever.  But now, with the review code, the bugs are still there and the story’s flimsy as a… actually, I didn’t think that simile through.  Anyway.  Devs, publishers and PRs hate it when they get bad reviews, and feel their game has been mistreated.  I imagine every games journo has had multiple emails from PRs, publishers and developers who feel they’ve misunderstood a certain aspect of the game, or come down too harshly on another.  But we still report the bad qualities of a product because it’s only fair to our readership to do so.

But how about we give these developers a chance to stand up for themselves?  Hell, why don’t we demand it?  I remember Kumar telling me about a conversation with… Simon Byron’s niece, I think… in which the wee girl had said something along the lines of “The game was really disappointing. They lied about it.  From what they wrote on the box, it sounded brilliant, but it wasn’t.”

And that, folks, is about as insightful a thing as I’ve ever heard spoken about games.

Yeah, mister developer.  Why was your game rubbish after all that hype?  Mister PR?  You sent me a feature list with all these things on it, but half of them weren’t in the game.  What gives?

And by reporting on that, by offering that chance to shout back, we’re doing everyone a service.

Those making the game get a platform to respond to criticism, where previously doing so just seemed petulant.  Journalists get the chance to actually be Wardrox-journalists.  And the readership gets not just an arbitrary recommendation, but an actual insight into why the game has turned out like it has.

I imagine people are going to say it wouldn’t work, because PR are still controlling the access we have to developers for interview time, and no PR in their right mind is going to allow that access if the result is going to be a negative article.  But hey – that’s only the case while it’s the norm to behave like that.  And all it needs to take is one big magazine, working directly with one big company that handles PR itself (hi there, Valve), to make that first move.

It could be really special, y’know?

It really could be.

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9 responses »

  1. It’s a superb idea in principle, and often does work in retrospect – a lot of the best recent examples of games journalism have been retro/replay/catchup features, picking apart one aspect of a game. Problem is, that relies on the game having captured the imagination of a writer in the first place.

    The big torpedo to all of this though, is time. There simply isn’t the time, on either end of the spectrum, devs and writers, with PRs in between, to handle these kind of questions. For print, my average deadline is about five days. I spend most of that playing the game to get to an acceptable point to form an opinion. Were I to identify a key point, then expend more precious time trying to pin down a developer who’s already on his next project/company, I’d be shooting way over deadline.

    It can certainly work for lengthier think-pieces that consider the wider factors at work in game production, but the majority of reviews still act as buyer’s guides. A buyer’s guide loses its value exponentially as you move away from the release date.

    Reply
  2. Oh, absolutely. And… well, I guess that would only change through even better co-operation to be allowed even earlier access. I’d say deadlines online are often even shorter than that – because with mags, you have pre-defined street dates, but with the internet there’s the pressure to have something online RIGHT NOW before everyone else beats you to it.

    But that doesn’t have to be the case. Not necessarily. And besides, I’m being the idealist here! Idealists care not for being the first to cover a game, says I! I’m not really talking about “reviews” per se, anyway.

    (Although, actually… you could totally do it. As long as your responsibility for those few days, or whatever, was completely dedicated to writing this report. Mainstream broadcast journalists manage to pick up on a possible story in the morning, go to the relevant location, do some research, write and film their piece, and have it on the news at 6 o’clock. It’s slightly different to try to apply it to games writing, and it would unquestionably be difficult… but it’s not a completely impossible dream to do something at least /resembling/ that…)

    Reply
  3. Great piece! I definitely think that you should continue being an idealist, because this is what I would like to both read and write about games. I guess one problem could be finding publications to support these kinds of articles, since they already have a defined reader group that might not be interested in the development process. Instead their reader group might only want to know if there are epic boss battles and lots of guns in the game. Regardless, I hope that you follow up and realize your own idea. I am looking forward to reading the article.

    Reply
  4. You call your site NegativeGamer, you deserve to be ignored on principle.

    KG

    Reply
  5. Pingback: Good Games Journalism? « Delayed Responsibility

  6. Entertaining read, sure, and an undoubtedly interesting idea as well. Can’t say that I’d agree on the prospect of these kinds of articles replacing reviews, though. I’ve always thought that one could write a review of a game, which would evaluate its worth as a product, and then a critique of a game, which would evaluate its worth as an experience.

    But blah, enough about how I’d like to see it. My chief issue with the whole idea is that most people don’t read reviews, let alone in-depth looks at games. Or at least that’s the case where I live. For the most part, the only people I’ve known to buy games mags have looked at the pictures and the scores, and closed the book and said they read it. So I can’t imagine that the general readership would flock to your proposed new take on reviewing games.

    That isn’t to say it’s not a good idea, just that it might appeal more to games journalists than the average gamer. I don’t know; am I being clear at all? What I mean to say is it’s great that you’re an idealist, but as a realist I can’t foresee this ever happening, or at least not in this manner. Anyway, it was a cool read.

    Reply
  7. I see the appeal of such a thing as being fairly niche, considering the extent to which Metacritic scores have replaced the content of reviews in many consumers minds. Nonetheless I can see this maybe having a place alongside publications such as Gamasutra and Game Dev Mag as being for the ‘inside baseball’ crowd. I know I’d certainly read it.

    Sadly I don’t really see games journalism breaking out of the model prestablished for us in Film and Tech, although I guess we can remain ever hopeful that being a young field, there is still a chance to adapt the model.

    Reply
  8. Yeah, time is definitely what most will cite as a factor. I guess that’s the only inherent problem with this kind of thing really taking off. I think you also kind of pointed out that there is a certain factor of appeasement and adulation when it comes to the interaction between writers and ‘those on the other side of the fence’. They still stay on each other’s good side to cooperate, which is something that’s simply all-too-common in general.

    I’d also be willing to bet money that most people don’t want anything to do with something that even remotely resembles obsession, which is what in-depth & personal articles tend to use as a primary muscle. The writer would almost always be putting themselves out there to be lambasted , and the common gamer doesn’t even read to begin with. They’ll skim a headline and/or focus on something to use in order to launch some misguided and righteous tirade.

    What you do have working in your defense here is the growing level of insulation the industry has; its infinitesimal mind you, but video-games actually have it more so than other mediums. For example, if you write something I particularly hate, I can provide a comment that won’t be taken as simple trolling by you. When there’s an ‘actual face’ behind a name, it alleviates ‘anonymous offense’, which is what most trollers still wield like a kid with their father’s gun.

    ~sLs~

    Reply
  9. Pingback: Game Retail Store » The Week In Game Criticism: Cursed, Pets, Less Than Charted

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