Who are you and what’s your experience in the industry?
Hi, I’m Jim and I’ve been active in one way or another in the gaming press since 1996. I wrote for a variety of magazines and websites from 1997 until 2002 when I took a hiatus from doing paid work – mainly because my friends were writing to support their families and I felt that every assignment I took was depriving them of work as I was doing it as a hobby. I’ve been very active starting on Usenet in the 90s, blogs and forums, and finally arrived in podcasting. I did badmoviepodcast.com with a friend from 2009-2013, and I’ve been cohosting Brian Rubin’s SpaceGameJunkie.com podcast for two years now. There’s 18 years of timeline there, but those are the highlights for brevity’s sake.
How do you feel the gaming press has changed over the last 18 years?
Tons, but it’s entirely traceable and due to market pressures. Very interesting if you’ve made a 2-decade long study of it. Essentially, enthusiasts are early adopters of any new medium and create enthusiast-centric things in it, but are limited by talent, time, resources, and most importantly distribution channel. You can create a thing, but how do you distribute it to an audience? Mainstream media has to come in, embrace the enthusiast, monetize and distribute them.
Print, radio and television all have a very tight distribution channel that you can’t circumvent. The Internet made distribution free and creation a function of free time alone. Suddenly you don’t need to have mass appeal, so you can get back to amateur enthusiast content targeted to their own specific niche. Seth Godin’s book “We Are All Weird” covers this nicely from a marketing perspective, and I urge you to look it up. The printing press, radio then television; each went digital as well in that order: Blogs, podcasts, and now Youtube/Twitch. Mainstream has done what they do, embracing and monetizing once the pioneers establish their first successes. The huge difference this time around is that distribution is no longer under mainstream media’s access control.
Distribution is free to all now, and this breaks the oscillating cycle that existed before. Game magazines couldn’t compete with online print, because a magazine took 30 days to hit the shelf and a website has the “scoop” up in minutes. Magazines have very limited space. Websites can show you 100 screenshots, and now can show you video of the game being played. It used to require a certain artistry to engage the print reader, lead them on a journey of imagination backed by a single screenshot, and give them an understanding of the experience. With video, that skill is completely irrelevant. A lot of top end talent left the business in the last decade, and now we’re in a strange quasi-amateur media that has expectations of being treated as if they had earned the AAA clout of their formers.
Print had a majesty about it. We knew that behind the magic curtain were just people like us, but from out in the audience the illusion is that they are the wizard, and you could have faith that the wizard took it seriously and felt that their authority was balanced by the weight of accountability. Accountability is straight out the window today. Authoritative journalism has been replaced with snarky “angsty gamer” opinion pieces, clickbait gossip, and platforming for one ridiculous social agenda or another. The message in the industry is clearly that there is inadequate return on investment on an honest, fair, and adequately researched article anymore. Not when minimal effort can garner more pageviews and create 10x the volume, written by people who will work for a comparatively negligible fee. And that’s the sad state we’re in today.
Do you think it has all moved for the better for the consumer with access to instant information, or has the thirst for clicks been problematic?
Multifaceted with no easy answer. Access to direct developer-to-customer information is something new. Social media amplifies this go-direct connection. The press is in a panic to stay relevant and add value. How can they do that? Be an expert curator on relationships, design philosophy, and history. Stun me with depth on “who, why, and how.” The “what, where and when” will come direct from the developer now. You used to need me to fly to E3 and sit in an hour long press demo, then relate it to you. Now, you just watch the dev present it to you on Youtube on a weekly basis. Don’t even try to compete with that.
Have you noticed that formerly “Developer X is doing Y” coverage has transformed into “The community response to X is Y” type coverage? That’s because awareness of the broader community goings-on surrounding games is what people have trouble discovering on their own. It’s time consuming, requires engagement and contextual knowledge to put a momentary community response into perspective.
In an age where everyone picks their narrow niche interests and is ignorant of anything external to it, breadth of knowledge and awareness by the writer is very valuable too. It’s discovery and interpretation in a centralized aggregation space for people to look instead of discovering and tracking 100 products themselves. That’s where the value is in a games blog. Service the reader by providing: aggregation, discovery, perspective, and analysis.
There is a cheaper, darker path for the lazy, however. Hire a drama-magnet writer that is using the gaming space as a soapbox for their controversial antics and have them generate a stream of low-effort click-bait that will draw eyes and dazzle them with a facade of shallow knowledge that reinforces their pre-disposed opinions. Plus you draw in non-gamers who want to see what the stink is about, and that’s great for revenue. Terrible for the readers who want substance, however.
Do you believe that the way the media has changed and adapted is less consumer friendly than it was in the past? With the rise of pre-orders media coverage is more crucial than ever.
I think pre-order and early access is a side-stepping of the press process. Press can’t do any type of consumer advocacy work when the consumer is financially committed before an opinion can be rendered. Unwritten rule – previews are positive only, and all negative aspects are subject to change. Ok, so this puts the press in a position of needing to “review” the early access alpha state. My, how awkward. So if you’re going to steer your readers away from a dud, you have to yell “Don’t pre-order THAT one!” which breaks the traditional media cycle and is very rarely done. Consider the press fully circumvented now.
The review role is now supplied by that thumbs up/down mechanism on Steam. However, crowd-sourced average review scores are fickle and subject to whim and mob mentality, so you still need to read for context. Ponder early access to games in an alpha state, combined with a reviewing system that starts counting average up/down review scores while the game is just a framework and by definition broken as hell. If you release an alpha that is really an alpha you’re going to get buried in red by the over-entitled – and Steam doesn’t wipe that when you release v1.0. That whole early access system is tragic.
What function do mainstream review sites actually service when they put a score on a game? I think they’re just feeding Marc Doyle, who founded and operates Metacritic’s game score aggregation. Yes, it’s a one-man show. I keep hearing about various game studios that base their bonus pay-out on Metacritic average review scores. Techraptor should take a run at that, I think. Interesting to think that all it takes is a couple of writers who want to “make a statement” and clobber a review score over some personal objection to stop a whole company from getting their bonus checks, eh? Metacritic doesn’t poll enough sites to make those outliers fall out in the averages, so it gives too much power there. Who decides which sites are “mainstream enough”? Marc, I suppose. Better be nice to him.
Make sure to check out page 2!