My opinions about the "enthusiast press," the relationship between game journalist and game developers, and a muddled blog post based on a faulty premise.
Yesterday in Penny Arcade’s news post, Tycho delivered a pretty outstanding smack down to a misguided op-ed piece on Kotaku. That article was “Gaming’s Biggest Problem Is That Nobody Wants to Talk” by Jason Schreier.
There’s plenty wrong with that op-ed, and it’d be pointless to try and go over every objectionable aspect of it.
But I’ll try anyway. First is that the justification Schreier uses vacillates between camaraderie and antagonism like a join me or die! villain at the end of an action movie. Here, it’s Information wants to be free! The people have a right to know! Publishers, tear down this wall of secrecy! There, it’s Hey, it’s all good! We just all want to get excited about your game! The truth is neither: he just wants to get the Hot Scoops.
Schreier starts right off the bat mentioning Kotaku’s exclusive leak of info for Modern Warfare 3. Was this a shocking expose of information that The People needed to know? Hardly. So then it must’ve been simply a case of drumming up excitement for a much-anticipated title. But if that’s the case, then why make such a big deal about making it exclusive, releasing it before the publisher was ready, and making sure that Kotaku was first on the scene? The answer, obviously, is ad revenue. It’s frankly offensive to see someone trying to pass this off as some kind of public service.
Then there’s the recurring theme of the op-ed: I want PR divisions to do my job for me, even more than they already do. Here’s a choice quote that was already pulled out for us to ponder:
Square Enix wouldn’t even say how many people worked on one of their games. Even though I can just go in and count the credits.
So is the size of the team working on a game relevant, or even interesting to anyone other than the HR and accounting departments of Square Enix? Again, I’m skeptical. But assuming that it was: why didn’t Schreier just go in and count the credits?
Professional Trust or Corporate Lapdog?
Of course, “someone wrote something kind of dumb on Kotaku” is hardly news. The only reason it’s worth mentioning at all is because the op-ed, while dismissible, does reflect this image of games journalism that’s pervasive among writers, readers, and developers.
Tycho’s response nails the most salient point: getting information from game developers and publishers requires having a relationship of trust that comes from mutual benefit. Games journalists rely on publishers to get review copies and information about upcoming releases. Publishers rely on games journalists to get word out about their game. There needn’t be anything antagonistic about that as long as both sides are professional.
But Schreier starts his own op-ed with examples of how his site’s violated that trust. He dismisses the severity of the Modern Warfare leak by saying that the game sold well regardless, as if that not only makes it okay, it’s something that the publishers should be happy about. That just shows a tremendous lack of respect for the team that spent months (if not longer) developing a PR campaign for the game. With rare exceptions, the people running PR departments aren’t stupid. And even when they are, they know the value of controlling what information is released and when. Kotaku obviously knows the value of it, too, or else they wouldn’t be slapping EXCLUSIVE on their articles and going to great lengths to be the first to release it.
Publishers and developers know what happens when screenshots get released. A single pre-release image from a game can spawn huge message board or comment threads full of people making wild assumptions based on the smallest detail of a UI element. Once that starts, it becomes gospel, and anything that the publisher says in response will be summarily dismissed. Word of mouth can kill interest in a game even before it’s released, or on the flip side, have people extrapolating wild ideas and then being disappointed when the reality doesn’t live up to that. (Take the XCOM first person shooter as just one example).
He goes on to mention the leak of Valve’s proprietary source code with another dismissal of “no harm, no foul!” I don’t know what’s worse: if he’s actually that ignorant of the economics of game development and how much money went into developing that code, or if he’s disingenuous enough to try and convince readers that it doesn’t matter.
All of it leads to the same conclusion: he’s got no respect for the time, effort, and money that publishers put into developing and promoting their games. If his site is showing the publishers and developers so little respect, why should they show any more than the barest amount of respect to him as a representative of the site?
Of course, when you describe the relationship between developers and journalists in those terms, the response is invariably the same: You’re saying that games journalists should become corporate lapdogs for the games industry, reporting only what the publishers tell them to and when, abandoning any pretense of journalism and just becoming extensions of publishers’ marketing departments!
And that sucks, because even if you don’t take it to that extreme, the idea is still so prevalent that it makes the relationship between developers, journalists, and readers needlessly antagonistic.
Enthusiast Press or Investigative Journalists?
The problem is not recognizing the difference between the “enthusiast press” — games journalists and tech/gadget journalists are the two areas I’m most familiar with — and the traditional press. There is a difference.
And right there, I bet I’ve already alienated several of my acquaintances who work as games journalists. Because there’s this pervasive idea that if there’s a difference, that necessarily means that one’s better than the other. I must be saying that games writers aren’t “real” journalists.
That’s absurd. If anything, professional games writing (and general tech writing) is a superset of traditional journalism, at least in breadth if not depth. Obviously, you’ve got to be familiar with the subject, no matter what you’re writing about. But especially with games, you’ve got to be entertaining in addition to just being informative. You’ve got to be insightful and not simply objective.
Unless you work somewhere that has rigidly divided departments, you’ve got to be able to handle previews of upcoming releases as well as reviews of existing ones, and you’ve got to understand how they’re different in tone. You might be writing something based on nothing more than a press release and your knowledge of the industry. You might be writing an op-ed or a feature, and even that is further divided into writing about the social/economic side of games, or writing about the creative and technical side.
And, of course, at some point you’re going to be doing investigative journalism. Writing about working conditions in the industry, discrimination in hiring, discrimination in subject matter, the financial health of companies, studio closures, hirings, firings, and the state of games journalism itself.
That investigative journalism is part of the job. And it is, quite simply, different from the other types of writing that the enthusiast press is going to be doing. I think a lot of readers and writers believe that making such a distinction harms objectivity. It doesn’t. It simply requires developers and writers to be professional enough to recognize the differences.
And it requires readers to maintain enough of a tie to reality so as not to be crying foul at every imagined lapse of journalistic integrity, the moment a writer doesn’t demonstrate exactly enough skepticism over a press release or isn’t quite critical enough of a quote.
Keeping Them Honest
The traditional press has a responsibility to keep the public informed on the issues that affect them. Obviously, it’d be a shitty journalist who just repeated without question anything and everything a politician or corporate representative said to them. A traditional reporter has to be always on the lookout for a hidden agenda.
Here’s a super-secret exclusive bombshell, reported first-hand by a 16-year games industry insider: game companies want you to give them money. There’s no hidden agenda. With few exceptions (reports of Bobby Kotick’s secret kitten-blood-powered doomsday device funded by profits from the Call of Duty series are strictly hearsay) they are blatantly obvious in their motivations: they would like it very much if you would get excited about this game and then pay them for it, and in the case of MMOs, keep paying them for it every month indefinitely.
Mis-representing financial reports? Layoffs? Manipulating review aggregators or online comments? Unfair hiring practices? That’s news; that’s the kind of thing that the public “needs” to know. The plot of an upcoming first-person shooter? No.
And one of the many things that Schreier’s op-ed fails to appreciate: that’s the kind of thing that you’re not going to get from a company’s PR department anyway. See the above bit about wanting people to give them money. Trying to take a Woodward & Bernstein “the people have a right to know” approach to them is just lazy. If you’re doing investigative journalism, the first step is to try investigating. Ask the PR department for a response, obviously. But don’t just leave it there and complain that you’re blocked by a wall of impenetrable silence.
You’re never going to get everything you need for an investigative piece simply by talking to PR. So for everything else: why insist on such a suspicious, antagonistic relationship? You’re working towards a common end. You want information about a game, they want people to have enough information about the game to want to buy it. You don’t have to be skeptical that they’re trying to sell you something, because everyone is fully aware that they’re trying to sell you something.
Even more than that, they’re selling you something that you’re already interested in. If they weren’t, then you wouldn’t be putting up with the unfairly low income that games journalists are stuck with.
There are lots of things that games publishers and developers don’t want you to know about. Some of it is because it affects their bottom line or their shareholders. Some of it is because they’re simply not ready to show it yet. A professional is going to be able to tell the difference between the two. An unprofessional or unethical writer is going to treat it all the same.
And really, games writers should just know this from experience. They’ve played review copies of games, so they’ve seen first hand how often games can be an absolutely unplayable mess right up until the last couple weeks of polishing. They’ve seen how many hits a site can get for having exclusive info about a game, so they know how and why embargoes work to keep things fair among review sites. (And how much it sucks when a publisher gives one site an exclusive at the expense of others). These sites know the importance of timing and exclusives, so why act like it’s simply arbitrary when publishers put so much value on their own timing and their own withholding of information?
There’s this insistence that if a journalist has a mutually respectful, non-antagonistic relationship with a publisher, then that compromises the journalist’s objectivity or integrity. That unless you’re always playing hardball with publishers, then that means you’re in their pocket. Nonsense.
As I mentioned, I’ve got a friendly relationship with several games writers (or at least, I did before I wrote this). Most of them have written stuff that’s been critical of my work, or of the companies that I’ve worked for. It’s not just that that’s okay; I wouldn’t expect anything less. It’s professionalism. My job was to make games, their job was to report on the games. The thing that we all have in common is the thing that makes this “enthusiast” press: we all love games.
Of course you’re always going to find some developer getting butt-hurt when a critical review bruises his ego, or a publisher threatening to pull review copies from sites that don’t meet the meteoritic average for a game, or a journalist writing an amateurish attack piece on a game or a developer, or thousands and thousands of readers crying “bias!” whenever they read a review that isn’t 100% glowing of a game they love. But those should be considered the exception. We shouldn’t just assume that that’s how things are supposed to work.
(For the record, I have done a pretty good job over the years of alienating certain gaming sites. But in my mind, at least, it was never the result of negative coverage. It was the result of lazy or unprofessional coverage: going to a press event and talking about nothing but the booze; accusing the studio of cutting corners or being lazy; accusing the writing of being racist or xenophobic; and comments to the effect of “the writers/animators/whoever should be fired,” which is irresponsible for a message board, much less a paid review).
If you’ve got a political writer who seems unnaturally chummy with a politician, you have a right to be suspicious. But when you’re talking about game development — not the industry side of things, but the games themselves — it’s just plain counter-productive to insist on suspicion instead of professionalism and mutual respect. It’s a shame a piece like Schreier’s insists that we’re all on the same side, but then goes on to make it clear that we’re only on the same side as long as it ensures link-baiting exclusives and scandal pieces for the site.
Because I think we are all on the same side. If it’s not clear by now, I love hearing myself talk, and I especially love hearing myself talk about games. I like being able to pick them apart and see what works and doesn’t work. I like writing about the thought process that went into certain decisions. I like being able to write about stuff I’ve worked on and speculate on how it could be better. I like being opinionated about them, and calling out what sucks and what’s awesome. I like being able to go on message boards and get into it with equally opinionated, long-winded players.
So far, obscurity and long-windedness have kept me relatively safe. It’d be even better to rely on simple trust. To know that even if you’re not one of the “unfirable” people that Tycho talks about, you can still be open and transparent without the fear that you’re going to get quoted out of context in a post somewhere, or that someone’s going to take something that you’ve said and try to turn it into news — or worse, a scandal — instead of just asking you directly to clarify. I’ll stick with obscurity, thanks.
So basically what I’m saying is that everybody needs to chill the fuck out. Unless you’re working for a company that cares more about profits than about games, or you’re working for a site that cares more about page views and ad revenue from exclusives than about games, then we’re all united in our love of something that’s ultimately inconsequential.