Creating Content

Creating Content

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 ‘pushing an agenda that some readers don’t like’, 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 don’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 potential versus writing what you think 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 ‘Gerstmangate’ 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 Gamespot’s front page.

This isn’t the only time something like this has occurred and I don’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 isn’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  – 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 ‘legitimate’ 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 Let’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 ‘anything goes’ 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 Let’s Play scene to lash out at the companies responsible. The audience don’t care about protecting IPs and they sure as shit don’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 ‘possible copyright infringement’. 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 didn’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 moment’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. I won’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 ‘create a base’ 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 can’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.]





14 responses to “Creating Content”

  1. @sw0llengoat Avatar

    Here's an interesting related talk on YouTube, Twitch, chat apps and the like and how they're driving the games market (for kids and teens predominantly):

    1. badgercommander Avatar

      That was actually really good.

      I like a lot of the brand loyalty stuff that Sony and Nintendo have understood for years alos being apparent. I mean this in terms of kids being both early adaptors and long term consumers.

  2. @RuthlessCult Avatar

    Thoroughly excellent article AJ.

    My Twitter TL has recently been full of people bemoaning the collapse of paying work in video games writing and it really surprises me. I remember writing some stuff for the Escapist a little while back and being paid like $300 for a 1500 word article.

    What happened?

    I think you're right to say that people are moving away from the written word and towards easily-produced friend-surrogate videos but I also think that the lack of money in video games writing is a product of a real shift in the economy post-crash. Nowadays, it seems as though there's no money in anything unless you're maybe 5-10 years into a career path. The West has returned to growth by scrapping a lot of paying jobs and having them done by volunteers. The collapse of the paying market for games writing is similar to the collapse of paying entry-level positions in arts charities; the recession normalised working for free and companies have now adapted to that business model.

    Medium term, I suspect that youtube videos will follow the podcast model and someone will find a way of setting up a website with better advertising rates than Youtube prompting the rise of small empire/studios/clans made up of vidders with big followings who work together to negotiate ad revenue and sell adverts on their streams.

    Long term, I suspect that videos will follow the path of print as rising levels of corruption, greed and careerism prompt rising levels of people doing this type of stuff for free resulting in a debasement of the medium and a hunger for something new.

    It wouldn't surprise me if someone, in the next couple of years, set up a Patreon/Kickstarter company that explicitly targets this particular subculture. One website that not only allows you to gain direct financial support from your followers but also negotiate more favourable advertising revenue.

    1. badgercommander Avatar

      Thanks, I actually sat around wondering whether any of this was any good (I wrote it in a manic phase while in the pub, after 5-6 pints). Thanks should also go out to Shaun who tightened it up a bit.

      I very much agree about the 5-10 year career comment, the number of people 15 years younger than me who are completely fucked because they are competing with people my age for the same job is daunting. QA is especially bad for it (but that is an article for another time).

      People are definitely already moving towards their own sites – the only problem is that Youtube is a bit of a juggernaut so even when you have shows like Hey Ash Watcha Playin on Machinima they still feel the need to setup an official Youtube page because they need the casual traffic. I am wondering how many people, when they change over to their own hosted content, will feel the sting.

      I also agree with the long term, it is inevitable that this experience will be devalued but I am not sure where people will go next (or whether, like fashion, it will go full circle).

      It does make it a bit weird to think that because we do not charge or pay for the content we produce, we are part of the problem.

      Like I said on Twitter, thanks for reading – I had no idea about how this article would be received.

      1. ShaunCG Avatar

        I think the boom in video commentary, criticism, content etc. took me by surprise because I've an inherent bias towards written content. I'm not sure if it's purely down to what I'm most used to or something else, but I'm sure that information density has something to do with it. Although video (and audio) content can impart ideas in a variety of unique ways, and leverage their medium to make points much more successfully than a few sentences could, I also don't think the written word can be beaten for imparting a lot of contextualised information very quickly.

        That's assuming your readers are intelligent and literate, of course (I tend to take that as a given… I regard writing that is above my head as something to aim for, not something to feel belittled by).

        I am not entirely sure that we are part of the problem. This is one point where I think my opinions diverge from yours, as I've understood them. Although criticism is by definition reliant on the content it critiques, for that content to progress and move forward criticism is important. Nothing happens in a vacuum, and commentary on games is just as valuable as games themselves. Finance can of course compromise, though no one is making money from AR except our web hosts and domain registrar! It's not as if this is a business operation that refuses to pay writers, or something compromised by corporate influence.

    2. ShaunCG Avatar

      It is quite astonishing how many games writers are setting up, or have set up, Patreon accounts at the moment. I'm not sure how I feel about it. On the one hand it feels distasteful in some way, both on the jar-rattling level and around how much fucking money are Patreon raking in for themselves with this. On the other hand, well, those established writers (such as Rowan Kaiser) who've candidly stated how much they earned in a year of freelance writing give me reason to believe that things really are this desperate.

      I agree with a lot of the points you've made, to which I've also add that the boom in the number of people creating content and attempting to pursue creative careers has really exploded over the last decade. There's inevitably going to be an over-saturation effect with that, and I guess stuff like Patreon is just one way of adapting to that situation and drawing directly upon your code audience.

      I think there is some overlap between AJ's piece here and the short film that Harbour Master released yesterday, over on Electron Dance. It's all about the future of games; criticism and medium are inextricably intertwined.

    1. ShaunCG Avatar

      Wow, yeah, that is a really good overview of the current state of play with YouTube advertorial. Complements your article really nicely.

  3. badgercommander Avatar

    Another moment where you can go 'Yeah, freedom isn't free'

    1. Shaun Avatar

      A thirty-minute block mute sounds pretty heavy-handed.

      What are the odds of ‘unlicensed music’ (obligatory disparaging remark about the PRS and Feargal Sharkey goes here) being played in the background when someone is streaming to Twitch? How sensitive is this technology? How many false positives do Twitch’s trials suggest are likely to be reported as a proportion of automated mutes?

      These are all questions I would be asking were I a Twitch streamer.

  4. […] “Creating Content” – AJ […]

    1. ShaunCG Avatar

      Good to have some actual data on this. Thanks for the link.

  5. badgercommander Avatar

    Another weird thing I just found – these independent Youtubers are not quite as independent:

    A huge chunk of them are already signed to Disney