The Death of Games Journalism — Part 7 [FINALE] : For Games by Gamers
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.
We 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.
The 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.
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.
Wake 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.
Look 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.
In 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.)
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.
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