The Death of Games Journalism — Part 7 [FINALE] : For Games by Gamers

Scrumpmonkey is here today with the final part of his series, The Death of Games Journalism. Today he talks about an industry for gamers, by gamers

finale header

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?

insert-1-final

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.

final insert 2

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.)

final insert 3

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.

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.
Scroll to top