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Part Seven of a multi-part series on The Death of Games Journalism. Start from the begin­ning of the series , read Part 6 – A History of Corruption or vis­it the parts index

In the 1980s, here in the UK we had a bed­room cod­ing boom.  Platforms like the ZX Spectrum were far from the best or even most ele­gant devices to code for. But they were cheap, came with a thick instruc­tion book­let for how to code, and allowed you to save pro­gram­ming via cas­set­te tape. You could order a game from the back of a mag­a­zine and a 15 year old kid who lived at the top of your street could come down and deliv­er a game they had made in their bed­room. This has always been the dream of democ­ra­tized gam­ing. And since the advent of the inter­net this idea has only become more achiev­able. For gamers, by gamers. That is my vision, my alter­na­tive to the failed mod­el of game devel­op­ment and cov­er­age we’ve seen in the past.

What had been only niche curiosi­ties, or the realm of free flash games, sud­den­ly looks like a viable career. You can be not just ful­ly inde­pen­dent but com­mer­cial­ly and crit­i­cal­ly suc­cess­ful as well. The gam­ing press cheered on this revived spir­it of inven­tion and quick­ly made allies and friends with this new wave of more suc­cess­ful and stri­dent inde­pen­dent game devel­op­er. In those days it was a small, tight-knit, world where every­one knew every­one else. When peo­ple are still wor­ry­ing about rent and just try­ing to eke out a liv­ing from game design, hav­ing friends in the indie world does not seem like an issue. Then inde­pen­dent games start­ed to sell thou­sands, then mil­lions and then bil­lions. Suddenly, the plucky under­dogs were a big part of main­stream gam­ing scene, but the men­tal­i­ty of “just a group of friends” nev­er quite left, and a sense of pro­fes­sion­al­ism between devel­op­ers and jour­nal­ists nev­er took hold.
final side 1We went from “excit­ing indie promise” to “pre­ten­tious closed shop” so very fast — it’s depress­ing. It’s all the more bit­ter because many gamers put their weight behind indie dar­lings. Developers like Jonathan Blow and even Phil Fish got a boost from gamers who real­ly thought we were on the verge of a new age of game devel­op­ment from peo­ple just like us. They invest­ed them­selves in the­se games and advo­cat­ed on their behalf as a grow­ing alter­na­tive to the tra­di­tion­al mod­el of game fund­ing and devel­op­ment. Then the mon­ey start­ed to flood in, we saw our firstmil­lion sell­ing ‘indie’ games from the­se small, some­times one man stu­dios, and things began to shift. We saw crowd­fund­ing in the mil­lions for peo­ple who had built up trust and rap­port with gamers.  The com­mu­ni­ty had this sense of involve­ment after get­ting swept up in Kickstarter cam­paigns, feel­ing that the­se were their games and this was their time. Fast for­ward less than a decade, and now much of that promise for the big names in the “indie scene” has been squan­dered. Where is the pro­gres­sion from the­se ear­ly days? There is a lot more mon­ey in “the indie scene,” more than ever before.

Why are the games that get praise seem­ing­ly stuck in a naval-gazing rut? Those self-styled “rock star Indie devs” have fenced them­selves in and are refus­ing to come down from their art-house bar­ri­cades until we low­ly gamers prostate our­selves to their ide­o­log­i­cal tantrums. Tim “$3.3million” Shafer has gone from gamer favourite to embar­rass­ing laugh­ing stock and uncom­fort­able lesson in abus­ing trust. But through all of this, two ques­tions spring to mind: Who do you think you are? And who do you think bought your games, crowd­fund­ed your projects and made you suc­cess­ful?


This is extreme­ly rel­e­vant to games jour­nal­ism because of how the games press threw their entire weight behind the­se devel­op­ers; they embraced them with open arms and gushed about the­se games as the future of the medi­um. They advo­cat­ed on their behalf and want­ed to feel like they were a part of this new “scene” —  this brave new cadre as they saw it. They want­ed to be friends with the cool kids who would save gam­ing, and they want­ed to cross the aisle in some cas­es and become part of that world. All crit­i­cal dis­tance and pro­fes­sion­al­ism was aban­doned in pur­suit of this goal; the trans­for­ma­tion of the games indus­try by the­se new pro­gres­sive artis­tic pow­ers and the line between sub­ject, friend, lover and busi­ness inter­est stopped exist­ing. They would fawn and “ooh” and “ahhh” at the pix­el art cre­ations put before them, active­ly sell­ing the­se games their friends had made to the pub­lic. After all, the­se peo­ple were just like us weren’t they? These where not the emp­ty suits off in some high cor­po­rate office. These peo­ple were incor­rupt­ible. They were our friends.  How could they become like the AAA indus­try the press devel­oped a dis­dain for?

Well a dis­dain for every­thing except the mon­ey, adver­tis­ing, swag and access the big dogs pro­vid­ed. Idealism and eco­nom­ic real­i­ty do not co-exist ter­ri­bly well. Cosy rela­tion­ships between the gam­ing press and the indus­try is noth­ing new. As we’ve seen, they have a long his­to­ry of it. It was always treat­ed with slight­ly embar­rassed silence. They saw the indie devel­op­ers as “their peo­ple” and “their allies” in mak­ing gam­ing a place that aligned more close­ly with their ide­olo­gies of social jus­tice. This is what made it dif­fer­ent: cor­rup­tion cou­pled with the unshak­able belief they were right, feel­ing above even the most basic eth­i­cal and pro­fes­sion­al prac­tices.

When the integri­ty and decen­cy of their indie friends was called into ques­tion, it became plain they had also devel­oped a dis­dain for their audi­ence — the gamers. They couldn’t approach the sit­u­a­tion with any lev­el of rea­son and so a series of blind, emo­tion­al out­bursts came out,  cul­mi­nat­ing in the mass dec­la­ra­tion from the press and much of the in-crowd in the indie scene that “gamers” were this relic of the past hold­ing back their art. These gamers sim­ply had no place in this new gam­ing land­scape of abstract con­cepts and pro­gres­sive writ­ing, they thought.  Gamers were sim­ply unwor­thy of the glo­ri­ous gam­ing future; they had proved that by lash­ing out at the indie scene and press sent to save them from them­selves. But the gamers don’t agree them. And nei­ther do I.

final-side-2The games indus­try can­not func­tion with­out gamers. All you need is some­one to make a game and some­one to buy it. That’s it. No mid­dle men. In the age of instant word of mouth, social media, YouTube and espe­cial­ly self-publishing on dig­i­tal dis­tri­b­u­tion plat­forms the gam­ing press, pub­lish­ers and var­i­ous gate-keeping orga­ni­za­tions serve lit­tle to no func­tion. The func­tion they should serve is this: to pro­tect the con­sumers and devel­op­ers from preda­to­ry prac­tices and act as a bul­wark on their behalf. That’s it. The cart should not lead the horse. The gam­ing press servesgamers. The IGDA, and any oth­er indus­try bod­ies serve devel­op­ers, nev­er the oth­er way around. All of the­se mid­dle men are super­flu­ous, they are com­plete­ly unnec­es­sary.  They are used car sales­men in Che Guevara T-shirts with a waxed  mus­tache. They were sup­posed to be here to facil­i­tate the game design process and to get those games to hun­gry con­sumers. They serve no indis­pens­able pur­pose, they mere­ly make things more con­ve­nient.

We have stum­bled into a world where the­se institution’s main goals have become self-perpetuation. Having a gam­ing press is not an end unto its self, and nei­ther is hav­ing indus­try bod­ies. They have a pur­pose beyond mere exis­tence that is not only fail­ing to be ful­filled, but is active­ly being worked again­st. The gam­ing press is work­ing again­st the gamer. The bod­ies with­in the games indus­try are work­ing again­st devel­op­ers. That is the crux of what has cre­at­ed so much fric­tion in the last few months.

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The most insult­ing part is that all the­se “indie” devel­op­ers and press who want to pre­tend to be rag­ing again­st the machine of “patri­archy,” or “the gam­ing estab­lish­ment,” or what­ev­er foe they dream up, are not real­iz­ing they are the indus­try now. They are the parts that make up the “machine” of mod­ern gam­ing that squeezes out new tal­ent and repress­es alter­nate mod­es of thought:

  • When you get VIP access and awards at GDC, you are part of the machine
  • When you fuck up a thou­sand times and your indus­try friends bail you out, you are part of the machine.
  • When the gam­ing press comes togeth­er to crush a scan­dal cen­tered on you, you are part of the machine
  • When you are have your ide­ol­o­gy and self-serving nar­ra­tive on the front page of the New York Times, you are part of the machine
  • When you can use con­nec­tions to meet with a US Representative, you are part of the machine
  • When you are on a mail­ing list that includes indus­try PR peo­ple mix­ing with sup­pos­ed­ly inde­pen­dent press, you are part of the machine.
  • When you can call in favors at Twitter and Reddit to have crit­i­cism removed, you are part of the machine.
  • When you have friends in large gam­ing pub­li­ca­tions that provide you with pref­er­en­tial cov­er­age, you are part of the machine.
  • When dozens of fel­low games jour­nal­ists and devel­op­ers sup­port you on Patreon, you are part of the machine.
  • When you can threat­en to black­list peo­ple from the games indus­try, you are part of the machine
  • When you feel pow­er­ful enough to act again­st the best inter­ests of your con­sumers and audi­ence, guess what? You are part of the machine.

final-side-3Wake up and face the facts: if you exist in this bub­ble — this clique — of main­ly coastal-centered, afflu­ent, US based devel­op­ers and press corps then you wield a great amount of pow­er in this indus­try. Influence that is far greater than any kid devel­op­ing some­thing in Unity from their bed­room could ever dream of. “Indie” has become a brand. You are now the estab­lish­ment the gamers are rail­ing again­st, you have become what you claim to fight and despise and every­one who is not kiss­ing their ring, or in the inner cir­cle, knows this. Even the cogs in the AAA block­buster mill are look­ing at you and going “what the fuck is this?!” At least EA and Activision don’t pre­tend to be “Punk Rock Gamers” or put on a veneer of anti-establishment. At least they admit they are the movers and shak­ers in this indus­try and right­ly get a high­er lev­el of scruti­ny and skep­ti­cism for it.

Let’s final­ly dis­cuss the ele­phant in the room when talk­ing about the decline of the “gam­ing press.” I’ve danced around it for the six pre­vi­ous parts of this series, but no longer. YouTube, Twitch, forums and blogs are already orders of mag­ni­tude big­ger than the com­bined forced of the entire tra­di­tion­al games media. No one is quite sure how big in total, but one thing is clear: the switch has already hap­pened. The war between YouTubers, stream­ers, enthu­si­ast blog­gers and the gam­ing press has already been decid­ed with­out a shot being fired. This is that “army” of peo­ple will­ing to make con­tent vir­tu­al­ly for free that Alexander Macris talked about in Part Two. This is the enthu­si­ast press and it’s being done by gamers, for gamers. To revis­it a quote from Senior V.P at Defy Media and Escapist co-founder and GM Mr. Macris:

Supplying con­tent is no longer, strict­ly speak­ing, being done for prof­it. Many peo­ple cre­ate con­tent with­out expect­ing to make mon­ey from it. They may do so to con­tribute to a gift econ­o­my, or to pro­mote them­selves, or to share with friends, or as a means of self-expression, or out of bore­dom, nar­cis­sism, or oth­er motives”.

It makes per­fect sense. There is no bar­ri­er to entry on YouTube and Twitch, besides the abil­i­ty to cap­ture or stream games/voice, and there is lit­tle to no bar­ri­er to entry for blog­ging soft­ware like WordPress. If you can play high-end games then chances are you can make gam­ing videos or even video-based edi­to­ri­al con­tent. Even if you can’t do those things,  you can write about games based pure­ly on your love of them. Hell, even I make some video and writ­ten con­tent, and I’m pret­ty inept at it. Who cares if you have 50 fol­low­ers or five mil­lion. You can still be someone’s source for game­play, advice and com­men­tary. We can rec­om­mend games to each oth­er, and more than that, we can watch each oth­er play for hours at a stretch and eval­u­ate in detail if we want to buy a game. We can find some­one who has sim­i­lar tastes or just a per­son­al­i­ty we like; there are so many peo­ple to choose from. Many of them just do it for the love of it. We have an army of gamers essen­tial­ly doing it for fee. For gamers by gamers. The super­flu­ous mid­dle men are already being cut out.
final side 4Look at Minecraft.  It’s become almost an annoy­ing cliché on YouTube, but that game was sold straight from devel­op­er to gamers and was pro­pelled large­ly by con­tent from gamers who were sim­ply enthu­si­as­tic about the title. Oh, and it also cre­at­ed a multi-billionaire and enter­tain­ment jug­ger­naut in the process. You want to know how fucked the gam­ing press and pub­lish­ers are if we ever fig­ure out how to ful­ly cut them out? Go look on the cov­er of Forbes and the front page of YouTube. Minecraft is an extreme case, but on a small­er scale the prin­ci­ple holds true. Games like The Binding of Isaac and FTL got huge boosts from YouTube cov­er­age, forum buzz and peer to peer rec­om­men­da­tions — most­ly from peo­ple who just want­ed to cov­er what they enjoyed play­ing at the time. These were self-released games com­ing through Steam and indie ser­vices. The mid­dle men are play­ing catch-up. People like Super Meat Boy and Binding of Isaac devel­op­er Edmund McMillen have expressed his com­plete apa­thy and dis­gust for what the indie gam­ing “scene” has become. Many devel­op­ers like him can tru­ly exist out­side of the sys­tem because they do not need it to stay viable.

All they need to do is make games and con­nect with gamers who want to play them. That’s all any­one needs to do any­more. You can kick and scream, you can bitch and you can moan all you want. As long as plat­forms like Steam, GoG, and Desura remain neu­tral, and as long as there is an audi­ence for the con­tent, then games will con­tin­ue to make mon­ey regard­less of what games jour­nal­ists say about them.  Even games that the gam­ing press active­ly cam­paigned to have banned, like “Hatred,” have gained a huge amount of inter­est from gamers. The free and fair mar­ket will work around any attempt to rig it by shal­low moral out­rage. Did they not learn from the main­stream press try­ing to scape­goat games like Grand Theft Auto and Mortal Kombat? All it does is increase pub­lic­i­ty and if peo­ple like what they see, they will buy it. Even if they don’t like what they see, some­times it will gen­er­ate a “fuck you” effect, where­by peo­ple who feel a mean spirit­ed and puri­tan­i­cal force try­ing to remove a game must be fought by buy­ing the game is being ral­ly­ing again­st.

final side 5In a world of the true enthu­si­ast press, every­one has a bet­ter shot at a lev­el play­ing field. Privileged access means less; trust and respect is para­mount.  The old style games press has a real sense of enti­tle­ment to its posi­tion and is furi­ous about the new wave of con­tent being pro­duced by low­ly gamers, whom had been declared dead. It all comes back to that phrase: democ­ra­ti­za­tion of con­tent. Someone like Jim Sterling is a good exam­ple of this. Going out on his own, unmoored from a pub­li­ca­tion, and then being sur­prised that a com­pa­ny decides to not give him a review copy. Now I dis­agree with the review copy sys­tem in gen­er­al, but no one is enti­tled to one. Especially when you no longer rep­re­sent any­one but your­self. Jim is essen­tial­ly just a YouTuber who makes rants now, be it one with an inor­di­nate lev­el of finan­cial back­ing on Patreon.

Like I’ve said before, in terms of raw num­bers, there’s a huge queue of peo­ple ahead of him. Yet he feels enti­tled to still be treat­ed like a seri­ous mem­ber of the press, affront­ed that the — self-appointed — god’s gift to the con­sumer would ever be so slight­ed as to be refused a review copy. His view is it was some kind of con­spir­a­cy to pre­vent his bril­liant mind from shar­ing the truth with the pub­lic. But in fact, he is just not much of a big fish when a kid in his bed­room can get five mil­lion views. He is just like the rest of us and he hates it. I don’t get review code, you don’t get review code and I dis­agree with how ear­ly review code gives the entrenched pow­ers an in-built advan­tage in ear­lier cov­er­age.  “Exclusive review” deals are one of the most anti-competitive and shady areas of the tra­di­tion­al games press and one of the few things stop­ping them being washed away by the enthu­si­ast press.

You want to see the death of games jour­nal­ism in action? The offi­cial lob­by­ing body for the games indus­try in Washington — the Electronic Software Association (ESA) — pub­lished a report into how gamers make their pur­chas­ing deci­sions called the “Essential Facts Report”. They found that 97% of Gamers pri­mar­i­ly use sources oth­er than pro­fes­sion­al reviews as the basis of their pur­chas­ing deci­sions. (Editor note: It’s of sig­nif­i­cance that this report and graph is only reflect­ing thepri­ma­ry influ­ences of deci­sions, not sec­ondary or ter­tiary lev­el influ­ences.)

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Now the­se num­bers come from what gamers think effects their pur­chas­ing deci­sion the most (only 1% said it was adver­tis­ing) but as a win­dow into what con­sumers take into con­sid­er­a­tion, it’s enlight­en­ing. “Story and premise” of a game came out top with 22%, fol­lowed by price at 15% and word of mouth at 11%. So gamers look for inter­est­ing con­cepts at a decent price and ask their friends/fellow gamers about it. With social media, YouTube, forums and blogs at hand, this is eas­ier now than it has ever been in gam­ing his­to­ry. This is the pow­er of the raw mass­es in action; opin­ion is crowd­sourced through trust­ed means. People can fil­ter out PR and slant bet­ter by lis­ten­ing to sources of advice that more tight­ly align with their own per­son­al pref­er­ences. If you’ve ever rec­om­mend­ed a game that was well done to some­one, to that per­son you are more influ­en­tial than the gam­ing press. Multiply that by the bil­lions of inter­ac­tions online and you begin to see how gamers now inter­act and advise each oth­er far more than they engage with some pro­fes­sion­al review out­lets that have proven time and time again to be dri­ven by agen­da.

So in this series we’ve seen how the gam­ing press com­plete­ly aban­doned their jour­nal­is­tic integri­ty, how they failed to adapt and sur­vive to a new land­scape and gam­ing mar­ket, how they let their agen­das cloud their judge­ment and how they grew arro­gant and lashed out at their audi­ence. We’ve seen their dirty laun­dry list stretch­ing back decades and how they make the same fail­ings over and over. But most of all we’ve seen them sound  their own death knell and make appar­ent how utter­ly unnec­es­sary they have become to devel­op­ers and gamers.

Let’s return to that kid in their bed­room mak­ing games or YouTube videos for fun after school. Whose per­mis­sion do they need to make games or talk about them? What use are indus­try bod­ies, PR com­pa­nies, and a press to them? They just want to play videogames and make neat things. They just want to craft their first world or let’s play their newest pur­chase. They are doing this for the sheer joy of cre­ation, or may­be even just to enter­tain their friends. As long as there is one kid mak­ing games and anoth­er kid want­i­ng to buy those games, the indus­try still exists. The love of game devel­op­ment and of gam­ing still exists. As long as you can get a cheap micro­phone, turn on Fraps and show off how much you enjoy or hate a game, there will always be gam­ing cov­er­age. Even just tak­ing to Twitter or a per­son­al blog pro­vides peo­ple with use­ful con­sumer advice. Everything else is win­dow dress­ing. The inter­net is the great lev­el­er and the great hum­bler.

For gamers, by gamers. It’s the best thing we can real­ly hope for. SweeneyEditorialDeath of Games Journalism,Editorial,Gamers,Games MediaPart Seven of a multi-part series on The Death of Games Journalism. Start from the begin­ning of the series , read Part 6 – A History of Corruption or vis­it the parts index In the 1980s, here in the UK we had a bed­room cod­ing boom.  Platforms like the ZX Spectrum were far from the best or…
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John Sweeney
John Sweeney is a ter­ri­bly British man with a back­ground in engi­neer­ing. He writes long-form edi­to­ri­al con­tent with analy­sis of gam­ing, games media and inter­net cul­ture. He also does the occa­sion­al video game ret­ro­spec­tive with a week­ly column about Magic the Gathering thrown in for good mea­sure. He also does most of our inter­views for some rea­son, we have no idea why. A staunch sup­port­er of free speech and con­sumer rights; skep­ti­cal of agen­da dri­ven media and sus­pi­cious of unac­cou­table author­i­ty but always hope­ful for change.