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.
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.