Games Criticism

8 12 2008

Beyond Good and Evil

As I mentioned last week, the relationship of the games press to game developers and gamers is something that has been bothering me a great deal for the past few months. I don’t want to write a lengthy analytical missive pointing out what’s wrong and offering solutions. Opinions on it are two a penny, and mine is that the solution is yet another cultural process that is going to happen automatically.

For decades, games journalism has largely consisted of a small group of dedicated enthusiasts speaking to fellow enthusiasts. This eventually seems to terminate in large scale dedicated news outlets with a high turnover of news; often copy pasted from press releases and refed through truncated RSS feeds designed to drive ad impressions. The sum total of all that effort is to create a news source which is only worth skimming over, much as the writers seem to have skimmed over their own sources.

There are scant examples of people digging beyond press releases. Hit Self Destruct did a little digging here on recent events at NCsoft (as well as saying a whole lot about games journalism), and Wonderland mentioned the launch of Sony’s new credit card, which in itself is an horrific non-story, other than the fact not a single other place mentioned the very high APR. In the case of all those other sites, that’s not news reporting, it’s publicity.

When Leigh Alexander recently wrote about possible salary fixing in Montreal, Steve Gaynor jokingly tweeted at her: “What’s this shit, actual journalism? Come on Alexander write a preview or something”.

That’s the thing. Very few people involved are unaware of the dynamic between publisher, developer, and player, and the resulting flaws in games journalism. The games industry is kind of stuck with the culture it built, and cultural change is glacial. The uncomfortable gulf between good reporters and critics who don’t understand games and people with highly specialised knowledge of games who are stuck in the industry is closing, but slowly and naturally rather than in any revolutionary sense.

I already highlighted Tom Armitage and Offworld in the past week, and I’d like to add Duncan Fyfe and Iroquois Pliskin. Both of those posts are specifically about the industry press and criticism, and both are also excellent bloggers.

All media, no matter how long established, still has some tawdry, shallow attendant journalism and reviewing, as well as elitist circles that chatter about the necessity of audience education (Which is sometimes worthy, and sometimes nothing more than an attempt at memetic reproduction). The presence of such extremes and everything inbetween is simply an indicator of a healthy culture. Exactly the same stratification is going to occur with coverage and discussion of games. Just as with every previous form of media, it’ll take a long time. The good news is that it’s inevitable.

(Image from Beyond Good and Evil)

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Offworld, Left 4 Dead Intro

4 12 2008

Left 4 Dead

Offworld was also recently launched by Boing Boing, and along with Rock Paper Shotgun appears to be a stalwart and interesting games blog that updates a lot yet is above the standard of typical games blogs like Kotaku and Joystiq.

One of the posts that caught my attention the other day was this one about Left 4 Dead’s intro video. I’d picked up on the approach it took to the game, but not that it was a tutorial. I think that’s an excellent bit of insight.

Tutorials don’t necessarily have to be interactive: give people the right information and space to play together and they’ll generally figure things out. Nonetheless, many games take the patronising approach of “This is the button to jump. Press the button to jump! Well done! you just jumped! Now creep. This is the button to creep. No, don’t jump on that. Go back and creep. I’m not letting you do anything else until you do as you’re told.”

The “shopping list” approach to the Left 4 Dead video in terms of introducing the enemies and game mechanics is the kind of thing that make s a TV show or film look lazy and unfocussed, but I think it works exceptionally well for expressing a videogame through passive media.





Infovore: Momentum

3 12 2008

Mirror's Edge

I’m going to be talking a little bit about the games press and criticism here for the rest of this week, as the relationship between the games press and game developers/publishers is something that’s been bothering me a lot over the past month or two.

Good criticism of games is also something that’s been very rare in the past, and I’ll be highlighting standout work on this as and when I find it. This week, Tom Armitage posted an excellent critique of Mirror’s Edge at his blog Infovore, which was a really refreshing change from reading the usual “me too” reviews and previews.





Reduction in Reviews to Hit Indies?

13 10 2008

From the Introversion forums comes disturbing news that online game review sites may be cutting back on reviews. Money quote:

We’ve heard disturbing rumours from more than one source that major games websites are now cutting back on the number of games they review – and it’s games like Multiwinia that are getting dropped because there will always be hundreds of bigger games. If this is true and is widespread (as we are starting to believe), it has grave repercussions for all indie developers who rely on press reviews as their primary form of publicity.

Rock Paper Shotgun has a good overview of it all, including why games like Multiwinia struggle for exposure in print too, including flat out refusal from one magazine to review Multiwinia now or ever.

Both trends are extremely troubling, because while the long tail and digital tools may have ended certain forms of scarcity, much of the long tail is still pinned down to it. Development costs, even on small games, necessitate that sales migrate up the long tail to cover them. To do this requires a decent sized and intelligently applied marketing budget, and even the best marketers can’t successfully sell a game on the back of nothing. Business, even in virtual goods, is still pegged to a great many kinds of scarcity, and cutbacks at review sites threaten to recentralise a lot of trends and cultural mindshare.

For my part, as well as Rock Paper Shotgun I’d like to link to both Multiwinia and TIGsource. On the basis of things I’ve witnessed firsthand in comics, I strongly suspect that review sites are missing a trick by not highlighting the best indie games. The typical fodder of games over the past 25 years only became mainstream by the neglect of other markets. As shown at the links above, there’s a culture of people looking outside of that, and it could well become the real mainstream rather than a niche.





One system of age ratings or more bad press?

7 02 2008

tanya.gif

 

 

 

 

 

 

Industry fears grow that Gordon Brown could use report to introduce an aggressive ‘crackdown’ on games

A Whitehall leak to Scotland On Sunday last week suggested that Brown was ready to introduce an aggressive ‘crackdown’ on violent video games in the wake of the Byron Review, which will recommend the introduction of BBFC ratings for all software titles when it is published next month.

Brown’s choice of rhetoric has got top publisher, retailer and development bosses concerned – not least because Byron has won industry-wide praise for her open-minded approach to her task.

Byron met industry representatives behind closed doors in London last week. A source told MCV:

“It was pretty much agreed by all parties – publishing, retailers and parents and Government – that there needs to be one rating system for transparency’s sake, whether that be the BBFC or something more voluntary.”

“But there’s a definite fear that Brown will aggresively present this to the media and public as ‘we are fighting the industry for your kids’ safety’. Nothing could be further from the truth, and Tanya Byron knows that.”

“The meeting ended with a lengthy discussion, headed up by her, on how we can present this to the Government.”

A spokesperson for the Department For Children, Schools and Families said: “We cannot comment on anything that has not yet been published.”





Games Moving into MSM

2 05 2007

The Independent Game Journalists Association features a couple of interesting and related posts, dealing with the entry of non-specialist, mainstream media journalists into video game coverage.

The Other Game Journalists

Too often, we think of the exclusive club of game nerds who write about game as the game journalists. In fact, as a cultural phenomenon, almost any journalist these days may find themselves writing or reporting about games.

Leeroy Leeds the Way is over a month old, but worth flagging up for a more anecdotal angle on the same phenomenon:

A recent piece in the Denver alt weekly Westword provides a good signpost on the road in the right direction.

I know the writer, Joel Warner. He’s not a gamer. Just a reporter. I would guess the last game he played a videogame was Wii Bowling at my house, and that was probably just because he wanted to try out my small collection of whiskey. Still, he got into the story of World of Warcraft celebrity Leeroy Jenkins and came back with an insightful and entertaining read.

The piece he links to is very much in the style of new games journalism.





Games Journalists Style Guide

28 02 2007

Games Journalists Association has announced the forthcoming release of a new guide for writers in the games industry.

Titled Wired Style: The Videogame Style Guide and Reference Manual, the book has been written by David Thomas, Kyle Orland and Scott Steinberg. It will offer guidance on spelling conventions and game criticism, plus company information and historical timelines.

The Videogame Style Guide will be released on June 1, priced at US $6 (eBook), US $14.95 (paperback) and US $24.95 (hardback). Review copies will be available next month. It will be available free for a limited time to members of the press. To pre-order, visit GameStyleGuide.com.