There is rising discontent among purveyors of information on video games. Every time a review score is deemed too high or too low there are cries of bribery and click baiting, and opinion pieces are often decried as pushing an agenda (which usually means â€˜pushing an agenda that some readers donâ€™t likeâ€™, but I won’t get into that).
It is difficult to avoid reasons to criticise the establishment that is modern games journalism. Investigative journalism is reduced to features on just a small number of websites and only a few articles therein. The reason, I suspect, may be less sinister than many people claim. The reality is that readers of most gaming sites donâ€™t actually care about these pieces and instead would rather go back to the comment threads where they can find other people complaining about scores that are ‘inflated’ or ‘deflated’.
Alongside this there are gushing features on games that any self-respecting reader can see is clearly website window-dressing. There are certainly incentives to run these. A preview that is not scathing means that people will return for the review; they saw something pretty in the display so they return for a closer look. Having written previews for Arcadian Rhythms and seen comparatively little interest in the subsequent review due to the brutal honesty of my original incursion, I can see why teasing an audience with potentialÂ versus writing what you thinkÂ makes more sense.
Of course the examples I am giving are the most honest scenarios. There are most certainly occasions on which companies reach out and offer financial motivation for some websites to embellish the truth. Perhaps most famously there was the â€˜Gerstmangateâ€™ incident that occurred when the Gamespot review score went up post-publication for Kane & Lynch. Jeff Gerstman gave an honest review and, although it is not clear what happened internally, the end result was that a doctored review appeared a few days later, the score was changed and Gerstman was let go. This appeared to be related to the fact that the publishers, Eidos, had dumped a large amount of money into advertising the game on Gamespotâ€™s front page.
This isnâ€™t the only time something like this has occurred and I donâ€™t imagine it will be the last.
There are also well-documented sponsored trips for reviewers to fly out and experience games in the best possible light. Most notably Call of Duty game review sessions were often arranged after fully-paid junkets which journalists spent in spas and enjoying courtesy helicopter rides, with the play sessions themselves set up on big TVs with impeccable sound systems.
Dismissing the written journalistic establishment might be expected.
Most of these sites started off as Gamespot did: put together by a group of people back in the late 90s with no design other than the desire to write about video games. The internet was the new frontier and at the time printed magazines had no idea what to do against this presence that could create content at an alarming rate without the restrictions of waiting for print. It took games companies a while to adapt to this rash of young and hungry journalists, but they did. As that developed these fresh writers found themselves having to arrange reviews and preview copies of builds. There was certainly a realisation that there has to be some give and take. This was no longer someone in their basement buying a game, trashing it and finding himself getting hundreds, thousands even, of hits because he was the first person out there saying this. Instead this same person was now competing with established groups who were negotiating for early release builds and had an in with the teams themselves.
All sides have to be amenable. There are public relations people who are protecting their clients’ intellectual property, game reviewers who want to write articles and the audiences that blossomed around online games journalism who wanted to see more of it.
You can be angry at the PRs for being so stringent about what is and isnâ€™t allowed to be discussed, but to be angry at them is to be angry at a mother who coddles her child. PRs are hired specifically to get the best results the same way a developer is (hopefully) hired to make sure the game looks, plays and runs the best it can.
One thing is for sure: print media was changed forever. Most of what has survived now is the trashiest shit ever Â – free content funded by games shops and the industry itself – or at the other extreme – like Edge and Kill Screen, publications that are considered a gold standard of the media and a go-to for â€˜legitimateâ€™ content.
With all that said, having grown from the underdog to the bloated establishment the IGNs and the Gamespots are now a joke and we are seeing the next revolution get underway.
Chances are that if you are interested in video games then at some point you have been on Youtube and seen a Letâ€™s Play or Long Play video. Invariably it is some guy in his basement playing something and narrating as he goes. If you are a crusty old man like me you might question the value of such a thing. Then you see the number of hits these people enjoy and realise that millions of other people disagree with you.
Websites are struggling to keep up with these renegades. Written content takes time to compose and edit. These videos can be recorded and uploaded in a fraction of the time and because it is a free-for-all there is an â€˜anything goesâ€™ spirit. Just record and talk.
It is easy to see how a younger crowd are becoming enamoured with this style of delivery. There is no need to imagine what a product is like through the written word or to be conned by a heavily-authored video that highlights the best parts of a game. Instead you can see it for yourself, warts and all.
There is an honesty and purity to this that I think resonates more and more with people who are so used to seeing everything manicured beyond recognition. Instead they get to ‘meet’ people who look and act like them exploring games the way they would.
For the last year or so companies have been at a loss as to what to do. The dumb ones have attempted to censor Youtubers and all that has caused is fans of the Letâ€™s Play scene to lash out at the companies responsible. The audience donâ€™t care about protecting IPs and they sure as shit donâ€™t care about a bottom line.
Clearly under pressure from somewhere, Youtube actually made the most ridiculous move of all: they banned accounts of a ton of big-name video game streamers alongside some legitimately underhand examples because of â€˜possible copyright infringementâ€™. This was done in a blanket fashion. Anything that had been flagged as a possible copyright infringement was banned; even if no claim had been made these people were blocked.
I think this showed a twofold change in the environment around this phenomena. First was seeing a lot of Youtubers panic. No longer being able to post their content and no longer being able to connect to their audience they found themselves out of pocket by hundreds, possibly thousands of dollars. A lot of these video bloggers were relying on the ad revenue generated by the millions of clicks on each video as a way to make a living. The second was publishers like Ubisoft and Capcom reaching out to resolve these issues. The big companies recognised the value of the free publicity they were receiving and didnâ€™t want the potential audiences for their games to be diminished.
It is telling that some of the major celebrity video game players are looking into alternative avenues to exhibit their content. Allowing Youtube to take a cut when they could just ban you without a momentâ€™s notice is not appealing. And big publishers acting the heroes in this story ignores the underlying problem, if you can call it that. They understand it now: trying to ban these people or dismiss them is detrimental to the success of both parties.
Recently a friend who is involved in one of these video content sites sent me an email to see if I was interested in an adventure.Â I wonâ€™t name names but basically the site he worked for had been asked if they were interested in creating content for a new game that the company was publishing. Travel and drinks were to be paid for and it was to take place in a pretty exciting European city (so not Milton Keynes). There was nothing explicit in the email that said that we would be expected to be positive about it, nor was there anything that suggested we owed them for this trip. I imagine that when Activision took reviewers on helicopter trips and gave them a nice set-up to play on there was no explicit message that the content they created had to be positive either. Nonetheless I baulked at the idea.
The PR departments of these companies are developing relationships and establishing connections with the new generation. It is not their fault that this is what they do. In an earlier life I would have been honoured to think I was worth approaching and offering a trip and booze just so I could express my opinions. A broke, half-dead 23 year-old who could only have fantasised about getting exclusives. I am sure that I would not have got up on my high horse about a company offering me money to be slightly more positive about something than I really felt for the sake of a few extra dollars. I mean, what’s a few dollars between friends?
To suggest that all the untouchables are becoming corrupt is unfair. There are definitely those who will stick to their guns. Some will be crushed by the content they create not matching that of those who get it out quicker and more efficiently; these will be people who have fewer qualms about staying on good terms with the big boys for the sake of positive publicity. The pure of heart who are still making good stuff will always survive but they will be jostling for attention and compromises will need to be made.
We are only in the early stages of engagement between video game companies and the video makers but this change is moving fast.
One video I watched in relation to the game my friend was invited to create content for involved a guy hyperbolising over another of these â€˜create a baseâ€™ games which are rampant on mobile and all look exactly the same. His video already had over 150,000 hits. His was the only video available and people were relying on this source of insight to figure out what the game was about. This leads me to believe that we will have our clearly defined IGNs and Kill Screens in the next two or three years; maybe less.
The reason for that is the real content creators are the developers. The rest of us just feed off them. Sure, as critics we can turn people on to good stuff and we can also dissuade people from buying rubbish (or in my case encourage people to watch piece of shit films like DOA: Dead or Alive). At the end of the day we rely on the real producers to exist.
It is for the same reason that you will see actors with pedigree star in god-awful shit all so that they can fund their next good film, with only the greatest allowed to pick and choose.
I think what I am most curious about is what happens to the current written media as the audience grows older and more disinterested in the delivery mechanism. Does written criticism become the cassette tape or CD of tomorrow, an oddity that only a select few buffoons really bother with? Or does it become vinyl (a position surely already occupied by printed media)?
I also wonder what comes next. Youtube satisfies in the short term, but what is to be the next delivery system? Are we getting to a point that there is no such thing as purity? Google Glass is already compromised (looking at Google’s history when it comes to data sharing) before it is properly on the market; the next fad could be something really surreal.
My guess is that Twitch will be it for now. It is a messy, unruly domain that does not seem to have had its leash pulled back yet. I wonder how it will become compromised as the major industry players become interested in it as a way to negotiate with an audience. Surely it canâ€™t be long*.
Food for thought.
[ * Please note that when this article was originally written, Twitch was still a free agent. It looks like both Google and Microsoft agreed with my assertions.]