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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?

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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.

Global Developers, Global Gamers: A Different Kind of Diversity
The Death of Games Journalism — Part 6: The Degeneration of Games Writing
The fol­low­ing two tabs change con­tent be­low.
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.