Archive for the ‘Games Journalism’ Category:

On Games Journalism – Valve’s Future

It’s interesting to note the changes to Steam being talked about by fellow game journalists (Relevant video links w/their names) Jim “Fucking” Sterling “, Son” , John “Total Biscuit” Bain, and, of course, many others, because, for all that TMW is a relatively small critical outpost, yes, these proposed changes, if they go through, if they work, may well be positive changes. So, let’s talk about a few of them, and how they could, potentially, make life a little bit easier for us games writers.

Cleanlight, and Steam Explorers

Greenlight, and the Discovery Queue in general, have not, sadly, been tools this writer has been using a heck of a lot, at least partly because… They’re not exactly terribly helpful to me. As noted in the previous On Games Journalism, my modus operandi, fortnight to fortnight, is to go through the “New Releases” tab (Easy as it is to fi- Ahahaha no, it only just passes my “3 interactions at max” UI test for games, and is not the most visible “feature”), and the Discovery Queue… Mostly tries to get me to try AAA games (Which I can ill afford), or things that, at best, would be good for a Going Back. At worst, I can go an entire Queue without seeing anything that even vaguely interests.

Nier: Automata. Critically acclamed, but sadly, too much for my wallet, and let’s face it, if you’re reading the site, odds are high you already like it. Also, I’d be a *tadge* late on that review, don’t you think?

More transparency in how it arrives at these conclusions would be highly useful. As to Greenlight, sadly, most of the time, I get my word about good things to greenlight via word of mouth, and it has been demonstrably proven that yes, there is an asset-flip problem. The news that Steam is tending toward lower figures on Steam Direct, and the frankly unsurprising revelation that bigger companies appear to have been tending against the lower figures, are respectively okay news, and unsurprising news.

So, as presented by Mr. Sterling, Steam Explorers is for exploring things with low sales that may (or may not) deserve such low sales. It’s not an initiative I personally expect to actually happen (Being, as has been noted in the past, a cynical auld so-and-so), but if it does, it definitely has potential. I’m somewhat more wary of incentivising the system, as that’s a sub-feature that definitely needs a delicate touch (Nothing so simple as “You get store credit for every X thumbs up”, because, let’s face it, that’s going to go tits up rather quickly. Extended refund time, however, would somewhat help.)

More Transparency!

As noted, it has also been proposed that more detailed game data would be publically available. How many buy the game? How many finish the game they buy? And so on would be very useful. I’m all for transparency, because, honestly, I can see quite a few benefits, and the countering of quite a few negatives. It’s useful from an academic standpoint, extra tools in a game historian’s toolbox. It’s useful from a reviewer’s standpoint, perhaps, if you look at the data, giving you fair warning that something does not, in fact, Get Better Later, and…

A prime bit of “Sizzle” from Nintendo’s BotW Review Roundup. GAME IS AWESOME (No Information Why.) Sadly, BotW is not on PC, and I don’t give Pretty Numbers, otherwise it would have gotten a 7/10 (Quite good, but not the Second Coming)

…It helps cut down on some of the shady bullshit that, sadly, happens. SURVEY YOUR COMPETITORS! By, instead of faking surveys to each other (No names named, but you know who you are), actually looking at the data. SOLD UMPTY MILLION COPIES… But returns are also noted, and right where everybody can see them. Along with the “Played for ten minutes, because the game was released in an unplayable state.” I don’t need to name names there, because said names have been shrieked to the rooftops from day one to week twelve, on average. Sizzle, that practice of content free fluff cherry picking the Good Reviews, could potentially be cut down.

All of this, sadly, is potential. We won’t know, until it actually hits, what form this could take. But you can guarantee I’m keeping at least one sleepy eye on that.

Curation Improvements?

I put a question mark here because Curation is one of those features that… Never really took off. I use it myself, but, right now, it’s another social media tool in my toolbox that doesn’t perform nearly as well as other social media tools in my toolbox. But, if what I’m hearing is correct, then it could well prove more useful. While also giving me more work. I’m looking at my current docket when I say that, and sort of sighing. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing.

But in any case, things currently on the table include better organisation and customisation of a Curator page, so, if you’re sad that you want to find a genre of game on TMW, but can’t (I’m still working on a good solution there, not helped by the fact that genre’s a little tough to pin down with a lot of the things I review), then the Curation changes might well help with that. I’m less enthused about “Top Tens” and other such things, due to my noted antipathy toward Pretty Numbers That Don’t Really Mean Anything Two Weeks Later, but hey, I’m sure that’ll prove useful to other writers who do like Pretty Numbers. Go them.

Part of last month’s curation. I mean, they’re good games, Danforth, but wouldn’t it be nice if you could look back and see what *else* I liked in that genre? Yeaaaah…

Also of interest is the idea of review copies directly being sent through Steam via the Curation page. With the possibility of refusal. This is a feature I’m fond of, not because it cuts down on the amount of work I do hunting said folks down and informally, but politely asking for review copies, but because it would potentially cut down at least some of the waiting and ambiguity that comes with said requests (Which is highly stressful.) As an aside, I love all of the folks who’ve replied positively, and especially the ones brave enough to reach out with something they think I’d like, but weren’t sure. Props to all of you.

So, it should be noted this is pretty brief. I’ve linked Mr. Sterling and Mr. Bain’s videos (and again!), which themselves provide their own personal opinions (And ones much closer to the ground floor, since they were invited to talks on these subjects), but… If these things happen, they definitely have potential, and I’m certainly willing to give all this a chance.

Just like Mr. Sterling, I’m not exactly hot on companies providing compensation for review as a feature, as I’d rather keep that to my already stated maximums, with a minimum of, of course, nothing. I’d much rather ensure that readers who like my work and my approach do that. Speaking of, there are ways to support TMW, and if you liked this article, maybe you should check some of them out?

On Games Journalism – The Grindy Bit(s)

As you may have gathered from previous articles in the “On Games Journalism” series, reviewing is, despite what it appears to be, hard and largely thankless work. Today, we’re going to be talking about one of the core aspects of the job, and one that, for many of us, has actively become more painful as the field has grown: Looking for things to review. It’s a many-headed beastie, but I’m going to be focusing on those “heads” in roughly the order they appear.

First, Catch Your Hare

It’s no exaggeration to say that there are more games, and games creators, than there ever have been before. It is also, unfortunately, a statement that rivals in usefulness with a reviewer’s tools for sorting through the results of that variety… Or, more accurately, seeming variety.

*Half* of one of four pages for the 10th March. On one platform. Skim, and you’ll miss things. Explore everything, and you’ll be very sad.

The picture above represents a relatively DLC free example of what we, on the reviewing and writing end, have to look through at least once a week. A week can, on Steam alone, be anything up to 10 or 15 pages. And this is one release platform. One of several. It is, for PC reviewers, often the most used, because it’s pretty common, but when Desura was alive, there were things released on that that never made it to Steam, but were quite good. There are things on Itch.IO that are good, but never get to Steam. And then there’s games from the creator’s page, and… That’s about it.

Looking through this list can be a painful experience, because, in one form or another, Sturgeon’s Law applies even to this relatively curated release list. These five are shmups/tower defense/Insert Extremely Common Genre Here that look and sound very similar, and also look and sound very similar to the last seventeen you looked at. This one may or may not be good, but their marketing blurb is offputting, self-indulgent, self-mocking to the point of seeming not to want sales… Or just plain trash. This one is an asset flip, and a painfully obvious one. This one has a painful UI. This one’s a HOPA, which, in my book, is a “Nope, right out” 90% of the time (That’s a very small number of HOPAs that get through my personal filters, you may have realised.) That one’s a AAA game that has been around long enough to pretty much ensure people will buy it based on the name alone (And has another issue we’ll get to.)

This particular screenshot, this particular time, I found something that was definitely in my bailiwick, and definitely interesting. Most days, I am not nearly so lucky, and have to gamble, or go back to an Early Access game, to meet my self imposed quota.

But let us assume, for the sake of argument, you find things that firstly, you want to review, and secondly, people might want to read about (It’s a gamble whether they will regardless. A gamble you try and weight as best you can, but luck is a part of pretty much any enterprise involving visibility.)

The Wages Of Sin…

Now comes the hard part. The heartbreaking part. Because, if you’re like me, and want games to thrive, you also want to support the developers of games that interest you. Critique helps, sure. But cold, hard cash pays their bills. And that cold, hard cash is going from your pocket. This isn’t even going into the time budget that this is going to involve.

I’d like to pretend things are going well at TMW. But they’re not. I am, at the present time, making a loss. Some of that loss is gladly given. Some of it… Not so much, as a “bad” game, while good at honing criticism, is time you’re not going to get back, including the time spent ensuring that your mood is conducive to properly reviewing something, rather than taking out your frustrations with Shit Exploitathon or Shoddy Disappointment #253 on something that, if you’d taken that time, would have been “Okay”, rather than the “ARGH, IT’S AWFUL” you’re going to give it when reviewing in a bad mood.

Although messy, it gets across the point that… *sings* One of these things… Is not like the others!

Working with a larger publication sometimes helps offset that cost. Being offered a review code sometimes offsets that loss. Asking for a review code sometimes offsets that loss, and I add that sometimes because not everybody replies… And sometimes, if you’re waiting for them to reply, with nothing in your docket (Thankfully rare here at TMW), you’re falling behind.

But yes, games cost money, and, as we’ve established in previous On Games Journalism articles, games writers don’t get a whole lot of respect, often for reasons of “It’s not work” (The very reason I write “On Games Journalism” … Because it really, really is) or for the more petty reason of “You didn’t like this thing I like.” It doesn’t help that times are tough all over, and hey, why pay for things you read for free, huh?

Answer: So you get more of that thing, and the person doing the thing doesn’t have to worry about whether he can afford to do the thing.

So you’re going to miss things. Sometimes, it’s going to be a thing that, as it turns out, you’re glad you missed. Other times, it’s going to be whatever Next Big Thing segments of the gaming community are feverishly yelling about. But you are going to miss things, from the time constraints alone.

Now, I did mention we’d talk about AAA games here, and how they factor in. I cannot review more than one AAA game a month. And, most months, I’m faced with the choice of at least one Big Name… Or from a couple to several smaller, but potentially more creative, more nuanced, and, most of all, cheaper Smaller Names. To me, at least, this is a no-brainer, but it does provide a little bit of potential insight into the inertia of said Big Name games: Smaller outlets, for the most part, cannot afford to critique these, especially as AAA companies are, as a general rule of thumb, more picky about review copies, more likely to withhold review copies, and more likely to Greylist (The practice of blacklisting someone from review copies… But not telling them.)

There Are, Of Course, More Grindy Bits

This, unfortunately, goes without saying. If you’re freelancing, rather than trying to go fully independent as I have been, you’re going to be mailing sites which hopefully pay (A relatively small list) with review pitches, article pitches, all sorts of pitches which will, like Casey At The Bat, often be ignored. Reviewing, especially, is somewhere where you are more likely to succeed the more obscure a game is, and even then, you’re going to have to be aware of lots of factors, such as whether the site you want to write a review for (In the hope of getting paid for work, time, and the like) even accepts outside reviewers.

Regardless of whether you’re freelancing or independent, you often have a social media presence you have to keep up. There’s the book-keeping associated. Networking. Editing.

There’s a lot going on under the hood of reviewing. And at least some of it is, in many respects, just plain depressing.

On Games Journalism – What A Presskit Actually *Is*

So, quite recently, thanks to the “Games journos are all bribed” crowd and some games journos who drew attention to the arguments (Which are by no means new), I was reminded there was a hole in my “On Games Journalism” series (I mean, there’s a few holes, but I plug them as I go along.) Specifically, talking about Press Kits, what forms they take, and how a respectable games writer deals with them.


Speaks for itself, really.

So, let’s begin with the absolute basic form: The PR mail. Almost invariably, any mail trying to get you interested in a PR key is going to have basic info on what’s going on, sometimes with florid language, sometimes not. This one, for Endless Space 2 (already on my docket) is an about average example. Hey, this thing is going on, here’s a youtube link, interested in a key to review it?

If the answer is yes, and you are on the list of “Folks who’re approved for keys”, then you get a steam key. Y’know, a thing you’d need to review the game. So far, so very not bribe, because you are now pretty much committed to reviewing that product, regardless of its quality (or lack thereof), and not doing so will result in an unseen black mark against you. Enough of those, and you are, at best, greylisted (Your emails are not answered, leaving the question open as to whether you’re blacklisted, which is outright told “Nope, if you want to review our products, do it out of your own pocket.”) Yeah, sure, the game could be good, but if you knew it was good beforehand, then you’re a psychic. Many’s the time I thought something looked interesting and cool, and then… NOPE.

But anyway, that’s your most basic level. Then, you have the most common form of Press Kit: The information pack. Sometimes, these physically get mailed to you, with a page of A4, maybe a steelbox, or one of those many ubiquitous “USB keys shaped to look like a thing.” More often, they’re a ZIP file with some screenshots, an info PDF, and it’s usually filled with advertising blurb.

This is what an actual press kit looks like, 60% of the time. Another 20-25% of the time, it'll be the screenshots folder and logo.

This is what an actual press kit looks like, 60% of the time. Another 20-25% of the time, it’ll be the screenshots folder and logo.

If you think a USB Dongle shaped like a car key is a bribe, I really can’t help you. For an idea of what a PR fact sheet looks like, here’s the fact sheet for Colt Express, a game that isn’t on my docket, but I got a PR mail for.

Yes, I can see myself being bribed by this. No, re- Of course not really, it's info for convenience of access. :P

Yes, I can see myself being bribed by this. No, re- Of course not really, it’s info for convenience of access. 😛

This is the unromantic, very un-bribe like reality of 95% of press kits. This, ladies, gentlefolk, and folk of nonbinary genders, is all that most reviewers will ever see. So how do reviewers deal with them? Well, it depends how informative they are. A presskit like this will most often be ignored in favour of actually playing the game. Y’know, how a good reviewer will ignore the trailers, except as a point of reference, and instead write their review based on playing the game.

At this level, which is the level most people will encounter when games writing, there’s really not a lot of reaction or thought needed. So let’s talk about bigger press packages. Let’s try the Bloodborne press kit (Youtube link), shall w-

Oh. It’s basically a shinier factsheet with a silly CD case, a notebook, and a small artbook. Yay. These are decidedly uncommon, with only the bigger companies even bothering to send them out. And I’ll let you in on a little secret…

Most games writers who’ve been in the biz for more than six months are slightly embarassed by these things. I mean, that satchel thing’s vaguely useful, the artbook’s kinda nice, but that book CD case? Worse than useless. That notebook? Yeah, I [eyes A4 notepad and, y’know, his computer, which he is writing this from] don’t really see it seeing much use. Of course, there’s bigger tat out there, but, as much as I hate to piss on the poor sods who worked very hard to put on a show? It’s tat. Most of this gets thrown out, and you can tell a reputable games outlet by the fact that they don’t let you sell this stuff either.

So… Let’s kick it up a notch. Let’s talk about the kind of swag you will see handed out if you get a press pass to an expo or con. No, really, this shit’s handed out like god-damn candy. The reality of it is… Somewhat disappointing.

Actual "swag" I have received. T-Shirts. Postcards. Candy (Not pictured because candy, it's eaten already!) ...Guess how many of these things I even covered, let alone was nice about? (Answer: Not a fucking one)

Actual “swag” I have received. T-Shirts. Postcards. Candy (Not pictured because candy, it’s eaten already!)
…Guess how many of these things I even covered, let alone was nice about? (Answer: Not a fucking one)

This is the reality of it. You will get handed postcards. Small to medium, easily ripped bags. If they’re really splashing out, you will get T-Shirts. And nearly everything except the T-Shirts… Just look pretty. The T-Shirts are the most expensive part of this “Con swag”, and a T-Shirt… Comes to around £15. Which, you’ll notice, is below the absolute low end of what I consider “significant enough to declare.” It should also be worth noting that I got an Id T-shirt at the same expo, and you can already see how that came out (The bit about Rage.)

Y’know what I consider more important? These…

...THESE actually have a POINT.

…THESE actually have a POINT.

These are contact cards. Some of these people aren’t in the biz anymore. Some I’d have to rehunt the address for. But these are the real swag. Because the more of these you have, these small contact cards, the more your options open up for who to talk to. Not just developers, but lawyers who work with games stuff, reps for engine developers like Unity. Heck, somewhere in here is the card of the director of BAFTA Wales (Although I highly doubt they’d appreciate me mailing them out of the blue without a good reason.) That’s what’s important at these cons and expos.

But still, sometimes, once in a blue moon, you get big stuff. Being but a humble independent, I’ve never even seen one of these up close. Little statues. Sometimes not so little things. And the weird thing is, most of us are embarassed by this stuff too. Any reputable outlet doesn’t allow resale of such things… They are, again, of no practical use, and a lot of the time? They’re not as hot as people like to think they are. And again, they have no real effect on whether the game’s any good. A good writer is laser focused on the product, and honestly, most of us really wish big developers would save their money and spend it on, Oh, I don’t know, maybe paying the coders better and better coding conditions so we don’t have any of the frankly disastrous Day Ones we’ve had this past two years alone? Because I can say, from experience, that the smaller studios tend not to have those.

In the vast majority of cases, how to deal with Press Kits is, er… To focus on the game rather than the shinies. The vast majority of press kits aren’t useful for anything except quick reference and a lazy source of screenshots (Most games writers prefer to take their own), and the minority with swag are, quite honestly, embarassing, impractical, and our ethical options for them are 1) Throw them in the bin or 2) have them clutter up the bloody place. I can’t show you any of those “USB keys shaped like other things” because they’ve either gotten lost, or been thrown in the bin, or both. I definitely can’t show you any statues, or serious swag beyond T-Shirts (and damn few of them at that), because most folks don’t actually get that shit.

I leave you with a simple comment that spells out my opinion on “swag” , from my twitter feed.


EDIT: Another, calmer perspective comes from fellow games journalist Nick Cappozzoli, who points out that another, better way of looking at the situation would be to consider the “Tchotckes” (another nickname for this kind of thing) as inherently tainted… Since he’s worded it better than I, I’ll just let this speak for itself also.


On Games Journalism: Why Even Review A Bad Game?

So you might get the feeling, sometimes, that games reviewing is all about hyping up games. I certainly do, whenever I see some poor developer selected for the Hype Train (Making all stops to Consumerist Oblivion! Thanks to Katherine Cross for that one. ;D )

However, there are several reasons to review a game you either don’t know about, or have a distinct feeling, beforehand, is going to be bad. By the title, we are, obviously, concentrating on games that make you sigh gustily once you’ve realised what you’re in for.

Improving Your Craft

Yes, you can tell what’s good about a game. But all of a sudden, you’re having difficulty, because… You’re not enjoying whatever’s on your review docket, but you don’t know why. Sometimes, this is because you’re writing while depressed, or angry, or otherwise in less than tiptop critical shape (I’ve written about this before, when talking about the process of reviewing.) Other times, it’s because a game has something off about it, and you haven’t trained yourself to see it.

Sometimes, a game is bad because of something obvious, like conflicting art styles, bad UI, or a difficulty cliff that somehow manages to wing Icarus as it shoots on by. Sometimes, however, it’s more subtle. The pacing is off on the story (Something I now keep a hawk’s eye on.) A core mechanic is conflicting with another core mechanic (Example: If your game emphasises speed and agility, why’s all this armour here?) The sound design is dull (Not outright awful, just ho-hum or boring.) There’s a lot going on in a game, and even if you’re not necessarily going to write about it, it’s good practice to spot it. Repeated vehicles. Plodding game progression in an otherwise quickly paced game. Because, all too often, those little things can pile up to turn something okay… Into something thoroughly unenjoyable.

Also, it makes you appreciate the good more. I appreciate MoO2016 that little bit more because, hot damn, I’ve played some garbage 4X games in the past. And space games. It helps keep you critical, and honest. Similarly, you can never have enough learning. The more you understand of a particular genre, its history, its limitations, its follies and greatnesses, the better you can criticise it. This includes seeing what good there is in a bad game, because this is just as helpful as being able to understand why you’re wanting to play something, anything else.

Improving Their Craft

Two things can safely be assumed with developers, with a third being “Until proven otherwise.” That they are fellow human beings, and should be treated as such (A given.) That they want to make money from their craft (A given.) And finally, that they wish to improve their craft (Until proven otherwise.)

Written well, your critique is helpful. And your critique will get better if you understand why a game isn’t all it could be. Just as importantly, it’s important to know when something is definitely beyond a developer’s reach. Let’s take first person horror games, a genre that seems, at first glance, saturated with cash-in merchants, and treat it as if it were a genuine genre that deserves critique. Because, despite this perception, there are very few genres out there that don’t deserve critique.

Many first person horror games follow one of a few formulae. The two most common ones you see are your “You are alone in a creepy, seemingly endless place, collecting things”, and “You are alone, something strange begins happening, and SUDDENLY HORROR AND INVENTORY PUZZLES.”

Both of those formulae, done well, can be entertaining. No, really, they can! The main problem, though, is that making them entertaining, or even unsettling, requires an understanding of horror, as a genre, and how much it relies on two things: Pacing, and engaging the senses. While engaging the senses can be expensive in terms of sound design, visual design, modelling, and the like, it brings good returns to indie horror devs because nobody is laughing at whatever gribbley or Dark Force they’ve picked. This is a stumbling block surprisingly many folks don’t get… If you’re going to have a monster, take your time with it. It’s the real star of the show.

Pacing, in terms of equipment, is the least expensive of all. And, in terms of time? Research, and taking time to edit your own work. Does it add more assets? Not necessarily. Paranormal, by Matt Cohen, is at least okay despite its flaws and slow dev time, starting relatively normal (A lonely house that people claim is haunted), then building up over time, from things moving when you’re not looking, to being shoved back from some stairs, to fire and death. It’s by no means a great game, but it understands that you don’t need to show anything immediately. Similarly, Oxenfree, while not a first person horror, starts with utter normality, wrenches you suddenly into weirdness, and then sustains the pace. Of course, it’s very difficult to describe good pacing, because it’s very much an art, not a science. I didn’t think Oxenfree could keep creeping me out… But it does, and at least part of that is the moments of relative normality. That’s right, sometimes dialling it back, even for a short while, can benefit your horror game. Who’d have thought it, huh? If I wanted to use a first person example, look no further than The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. The pacing is pretty damn good most of the way through on that one, and it engages the senses wonderfully.

Meanwhile, I took a break from playing Joana’s Life about five or ten minutes in, firstly because the monster gets revealed, just a few minutes after oh noes creepy small child laugh from nowhere and oh noes the lights have gone out… So, pretty damn predictable, and I was pretty much waiting for something truly scary at that point (Needless to say, I wasn’t terribly impressed at that point) , but secondly, because the game had items that I knew I would need (Front door keys that inexplicably won’t work the first time round. A flashlight because yes, the power’s going to go out, of course it will. Little things) , and then kept too tight a rein on its story by not letting me deal with these things until I’d touched the broken mirror that kickstarts all the horror and please, can I play a protagonist that’s not a bloody fool who’s going to do the obviously bad thing? While lack of control over the situation is a common theme in horror, lack of control in a game is something to be handled carefully, lest you irritate the player unduly.

Understanding what makes something badly designed can help a developer who hasn’t learned these things that yes, this is where they might do better. Everything mentioned here is potentially helpful to someone who wants to make an indie horror game.

There Are, Obviously, Limits

This does need to be said. Sometimes, a developer really is a shovelware merchant, cynically trying to cash in on some internet meme, or monetisation method. And many of them use exactly the same methods, much like the fifty or so spam emails I have about Search Engine Optimisation and Brand Marketing in my inboxes today. Thankfully, much like those spam emails, many of these are obvious, and you don’t need a whole lot of critical training to spot one from its video footage. Do yourself a favour, and limit your exposure to these. Examine them a few times, by all means. But once you’ve spotted the tricks of the trade (Asset Flipping, largely empty worlds, obvious signs of bad world modelling, and the like), stop. You’re only going to make yourself angry and depressed.

Similarly, if you find yourself getting angry and depressed about a game with a good idea, but some godawful or tedious execution, stop. Take a break. This is the point at which you have understood that the game is bad, and it’s time to think about why. Don’t go back until you’re calm again, don’t go back once you’ve understood, don’t go back unless you want to examine things further. Yes, you’re learning, but pace yourself. Learn what you can, then move on. Yes, if you’re reading this, you’re interested in games writing, which involves a lot more reviewing bad things than you’d at first think. But you’re not going to be writing well from a place of ennui and frustration.

Improving your critique is no different from improving any other art form. Knowing where the mistakes lie is useful. So please don’t disregard them. But also, please don’t disregard your health. Hope this helps prospective writers some.


On Games Journalism – Problems With Investigation.

This is a tough one for me to write, because it’s not only an admittance that not all is well with Games Journalism (The easy part), but I have to make sure this doesn’t sound like making excuses (The tough bit.) But let’s begin with why this article exists. It begins with a common accusation levelled against Game Journalism… Even by fellow Game Journalists.

“Why do folks repeat stories, and not do the digging on their own? Why aren’t there more articles probing the industry?”

It’s worded in many different ways, but that’s the general gist of it. And I’m going to break down for you why this is so. Keep in mind, this is going to be acknowledging multiple problems, in many different places, not all of which are in the province of Games Journalism specifically. Let’s begin.

Access, Access, Access

It is no secret that developers and publishers do not like bad things printed about them, especially if they are true. In fact, it’s true about everybody. It’s a thorny problem, and it’s compounded by the fact that, when it comes to examining things going on within the industry, they are the primary source. In fact, if it weren’t for employees wishing to anonymously come forward, and the occasional hint of a lawsuit, they would be the only source. They are certainly the only source that has final say on whether an outlet gets the review copies without having to put it on the expenses part of their budget, and interviews that would be on the record.

In fact, this is one of the major problems facing a game journalist who knows damn well something is rotten in the state of Devmark… The Eerie Silence. At least one outlet (Rock, Paper, Shotgun) has, in the past, directly noted that this is a tactic commonly used with awkward questions (The Silence: An Update, by John Walker), and many others have (for various reasons) had to write the words “We have reached out to the [developer/publisher] for comment. [End of sentence, no mention of a reply]”, or some variation thereof.

As much as I want developers and publishers to feel unafraid to talk to me, this will never really be the case, especially with the ones who know (As a collective) that they have practices or attitudes that are less than stellar. Making this worse is the fact that, when a developer or publisher blacklists you, you are most likely the last person to know, although you will suspect quite early on. Sometimes, you will never get confirmation unless someone reaches out. And that is generally unlikely.

Another fun thing with access is that, for the best investigation, you need to be on the ground floor. You need to be there. That’s not something that magically happens. You don’t wave a Make-Nice-Wand and an invitation magically appears. There’s a lot of diplomacy involved, sometimes a little luck, and a lot of struggling. The article on attitudes at the DigiPen Institute (Sex at a Four-Year Video Game College, by Jagger Gravning for Vice), for example, was not a case of “And Lo, The Writer Was Invited To See Stuff.” Considering the subject matter, it takes little imagination to see ways this article could have disappeared between “plan” (Not all of these investigations are planned, per se) and execution.

And, of course, they had to go there, where the story was… Which leads us nicely to another problem… One I’ve talked about (At length) before…

That ABBA Song… That Fucking ABBA Song.

I hope you know the one I mean… Many of you will, because for a while, it was quite fashionable to bawl out “MONEY MONEY MONEY… IT’S SO FUNNY… IN A RICH MAN’S WORLD!” when properly lubricated on a Saturday night. But now that I’ve made it clear, let’s explain, for the privileged and stubborn thinkers, why this is a problem.

I would love to write things examining nice workplaces. I would love to hold up examples of companies that succeed, and do so because of their progressive practices. It would help convince people that yes, you can make money, and not have to crunch, and not have to be an Old Boy’s Club. But there is a problem. A big one, completely unrelated to the problem of whether a company or institution wishes to talk to you in the first place.

You have to get there. Now, if you are working for a larger group, there is a higher chance that you will have the scratch to do such a thing… But for the majority of folks, including commissioned writers (As opposed to regular staff writers)… That isn’t the case. So you have two options. Only one of them is practical for many, only one of them is preferable. They are mutually exclusive.

The first is to be invited, all expenses paid. This, you may think, is the preferable one. But this is the practical one. Why would that be? Well, let’s remember the most common put-down for a review or preview that a reader disagrees with:


Or some variation.

It’s blackly funny, actually. I’m pretty sure there are developers and publishers out there who’d love to show such things off, to as many people as possible, because it gets the word out. But what good is a message, however positive, that people don’t trust? That people don’t feel was earned by blood, sweat, and tears that, to be quite honest, isn’t really necessary? The preferable one would be to have the scratch or support beforehand to be able to do this… Oh. Wait. I know I don’t have that kind of bloody dough. And nor, in fact, do the vast majority of games writers. Funny, that.

And yes, there will be folks out there who shit on such sentiments regardless. I think we’ve covered that already (and will again). Unfortunately, that doesn’t really help when many of us, due to the inconsistent demands of our reader base, don’t feel confident accepting the promise of “Transport paid, food and drinks offered” type press events. Regardless of whether we are actually swayed by such things… I won’t, and can’t speak for everybody, but I know at least a few of us laugh, sarcastically and evilly, whenever someone says being paid by someone else to do our jobs biases us.

I’ll let you in on something that I will admit is not particularly nice of me. When Tim Willets was making his “Lineage of Awesome” speech at Eurogamer 2011, about Rage? I couldn’t help but snicker behind my hand. The speech was hype, pure and simple, and, in its way, hilarious considering I had been shooting largely identical masked blokes who were all voiced by perhaps two cockneys in a ruined building of the type we’ve all seen before not half an hour previously. Hype. I have a long held distrust of hype (Since before I became a games writer, in fact), while accepting that yes, it’s a thing all media have to do to get heard in this modern day of information overload and the fatigue and distrust of advertising, and it’s a thing that I am just as complicit in as the rest of the games industry.

Is that undiplomatic? Hell yes. Is it something that may not endear me to the folks at Id Software? Ohhhh yes. Equally, I’m not going to endear myself to fans of Rage. And I’m not going to endear myself to people who didn’t like Rage, but pre-ordered it, by pointing out that you fell for the hype. In a sense, that’s okay. It was, in its way, well crafted hype. It talked about what Id knew best, and them showing that they did certain things very well… Specifically, they are very good at making the experience of shooting mans a technically impressive one. Note I said technically impressive. All the MegaTextures in the world aren’t going to help you if the person buying your game gives not a single fuck about that, and instead gets pissed off that you didn’t actually put a real ending in.

PS – There are good things about Rage. There are good things about Tim Willets, who was a funny guy who said funny things that were intentionally funny in said speech. There were reasons why Rage didn’t have a proper ending. I am using this as an extreme example of how little other people paying for me to see supposedly shiny things matters compared to what you actually produce.

But this talk of inconsistency allows me to mention the Human Factor here.

You, The Reader. Yes, You. No, Not You.

Hoo boy. This part’s tough, for a lot of reasons. In a sense, my privilege (Being a white dude who is currently the same gender wot he was born as) “protects” me from this. Not making it so easy as typing some angry, ill considered words and hitting “THIS COMMENT FUCKING OWNS YOU (Regardless of whether it actually does)” also helps. But it never works forever, and sooner or later, someone pays the piper for saying things that aren’t popular (Or, more accurately, do not appear popular), but need to be said. And there’s not always a rhyme or a reason behind it either.

So, let’s mention a simple thing. Let’s see how far people get along this chain of thought before they start forming a “But, but, but…” in their minds. Sexism is bad. In fact, thinking someone’s opinion is worth less because they’re different than you is, in general, bad. They can be wrong, sure. But there are good reactions to someone being wrong, and there are bad reactions to someone being wrong. There are also incredibly bad, illegal, and/or highly fucking stupid ways to react.

Female Technology Journalists Report Abuse Is Still The Name Of The Game
Racist Groups Use Computer Gaming To Promote Hate

Those are just two pieces of writing, among a large pool, of prejudice in “our” industry. There are others, and they are pretty easy to find with only a tiny amount of Google-Fu. Especially in the past year, where these issues have come to the forefront of public attention because… Of the defensive reactions of the very same people who see nothing wrong with this, or ignore that this is happening, after they have done these things, and continue to do these things.

Part of this, sadly, is precisely because people care so much about video games. I’m writing this, fully expecting a huge fucking tidal wave of hate from haters who don’t want it generally known that they are haters (Who, bee tee dubs, generally reveal what haters they are by doing that. Something that doesn’t appear to have gotten through to at least some of them), with another wave coming from another direction of people who are afraid they could be lumped under this category, and think I’m talking about them, when, in fact, I’m not.

And it can apply to things that seem inconsequential to people who don’t play video games as well. Give a “pretty number” that’s seen as “too” low, or “too” high (Make no mistake, part of the reason I dislike “Pretty Numbers” is because reviewing is subjective), and people who seem to think it’s their god-given duty to defend their viewpoint that it’s the best thing since sliced bread (Until, you know… It isn’t anymore) will swarm from the woodwork with such well crafted satire as “BEST TITY 0/10 [negative review]” or insight like “You, [sir/madam/git] have completely misunderstood what [collective group of people who the writer of the comment has largely never met] were intending with what was obviously a masterpiece because [sometimes useful disagreements go here, but don’t lay money on it over, say, missing what was being said versus what they heard].”

Remember that thing about a common refutation of a review people disagree with being “Oh, you were paid to say that by someone”? Yup, that one’ll come out too, especially if it’s positive. If it’s negative, it’s usually something silly like “Doing it for the clicks.”

Misunderstanding criticism, and the goal of criticism, is a pretty common damn thing. When people say “You can like a thing, but not all of a thing”, they roll their eyes. Let’s give you an example.

I like Jonathan Coulton’s “Skullcrusher Mountain.” You may think that this song is the best thing since sliced bread. Or you may go the other way, and say that it is saying some things about relationships that are p. fucking terrible (IE – The song contains forced consent, which is a Bad Thing, leading to Bad Relationships and potentially Bad Times In Court if you copy the bloody song.) I agree with both these points. And I am, funnily enough, not being a hypocrite for doing so. Because both viewpoints are right. I appreciate the artistry behind the song, because it was intended to be a song about a Bond Villain pursuing a dysfunctional romantic relationship in the way they would (Because many characters in a Bond story, including James Bond himself, are misogynist fuckhead assholes). But that doesn’t change the fact that it is not a good song for people who have experienced any form of forced consent to hear, and that assuming this is a healthy attitude to emulate is capital-B Bad.

Explained like that, most of you will nod, and be perfectly fine with me continuing to enjoy the song, because I am aware of the shitty side of it. Some of you, however, will take an extreme position on this for or against. This is human nature. We’re all different. And we have different reasons for doing things.

You may be wondering what this has to do with investigative gaming journalism, the type meant to drag into the light the less than stellar aspects of the Industry that, if we want to do better, we should generally try and stop and/or make folks aware of.

Tell you what, go look at those investigative articles again. For or against a thing, and including the ones you found with your Google-Fu. Look at the comments section. Then think about how easy it is for people to yell at you about something on Twitter. Directly. Or bitch about you behind your back. Or make death threats.

Then realise that this is not a new story. Go look at other socially charged things, past and present. Look at how people reacted.

…The people who dare to write about these things are generally either really fucking brave, or think “Hey, I’m fucked anyway, why not go the whole hog and get it out before some fucker tries to knife me over it.” Sometimes both.

This leads us, quite nicely, onto the final point

Baby Steps, Folks… Baby Steps

Cultural and social change is not a sudden thing. Make no mistake, many problems in the games industry have their roots in larger social and cultural problems or attitudes of varying shittiness and usefulness. Something can be shitty and good at the same time. It’s a difficult concept to swallow for many, I know, but bear with me here…

…And humanity doesn’t like, as a collective group, being told that something is wrong until they feel good and ready to admit it’s not working. We even have a name for it: Cultural Inertia. We even have a name for what happens when this doesn’t happen when maybe it should: Cultural Stasis, also known as Stagnation. We even have examples of when this happened in the past. For all that someone will inevitably make the “What Have The Romans Ever Done For Us?” joke from Life of Brian, Ancient Rome, as a culture, died, at least in part, because it couldn’t accept, as a culture, that it should move on from things it was doing that weren’t working. It’s not the whole story, as, much like everything we humans do (As a group), there’s messy bits, complicated bits, and both good and bad in there at the same time. But it’s nonetheless commonly accepted that this was something that definitely, without doubt, helped fuck over the Romans. One example of many, at least some of which we are either doing again, in the modern day (Oh, hello, Austerity!), or are doing over something that has never come up before.

We are, funnily enough, at a point where games can do good. But, equally funnily enough, there are shitty attitudes that hold it back. And they feed back on themselves unless folks try very hard to break the cycle. Here’s a seemingly innocuous example: Edutainment. Kid’s Games. Done well, that’s a thing that makes learning fun, that improves skills, and can change attitudes at a time where we human beings are most likely to change our attitudes (When we don’t have any, as such.)

Even games not designed with this specific attitude in mind can do this… Something I argued, quite persuasively, at an education expo when I was in Primary School, about King’s Quest IV and Mixed Up Mother Goose. Even if that was because I wanted to justify playing them… Y’know, right thing, wrong reasons (Another thing we humans do.) But it’s a segment of gaming, and games reviews, that is often ignored, and often shat on more heavily than “Games As Art.” It’s why I was pleasantly surprised to find them represented at Games Wales, because I sure as shit didn’t find any at Eurogamer when I last went, and I never hear about them at E3, or any of the other gaming events of the year.

There are things people can do about that. But it’s not something that you, the individual reading this, can do alone. Doesn’t matter who you are, social and cultural change is a group activity. I’m not going to pretend that talking about these things, or shouting at them, is going to do everything magically, be a band-aid that makes it all better. Because it isn’t. It’s my contribution to a group effort. It’s what I can do, and, considering I am a Games Journalist (Underpaid, good at writing words, talks to lots of people at once), it’s the most logical thing for me to do. If you’re a politician, you could be reading this and thinking “Huh! maybe I could talk to some folks I know and see if we can’t try and deal with X problem.” If you’re a developer or publisher, you could be thinking “How can I do a thing with development or publishing or PR that is better than I’ve been doing before?” If you are an educator, you could be thinking “How do I work this into my lesson plan?”

And you, the reader who, like me, probably can’t pay any of these people to help, or pay me so I can carry on doing my bit? All you need to do is listen, and think, and, as civilly as possible, discuss the things I’ve said with folks you know are also interested in such things, think about them, digest them. Spread the word, help raise awareness, as safely and constructively as you feel you’re able.

It would be nice if you spent a bit of your disposable scratch on helping me continue to write these things, because it helps me do my bit.

It would be nice if you helped campaign against harassment, and bad industry practices, because it helps those lawyers, and teachers, and politicians do their bit. It would also be nice if folks did more to keep ’em honest.

But I do not expect it of you because I cannot , reasonably, expect it of you. We all have our limits, and it would be dishonest to say that those limits are all equal, all high. In fact, part of the problem is that they aren’t, and those of us who are repeatedly told things need to be done feel that we aren’t doing enough.

My job is to say things about games and the games industry, and to not break laws or the social contracts of the culture to which I belong (Within limits) while doing so. Nothing more, nothing less. It is also my job to spread the word about such things, and sometimes that involves saying much the same things someone else is saying.

Your jobs are many, and varied, but the only one everyone is expected to do is learn, and grow as people, while acknowledging any limits you may have, and their sources.