Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

What of the Gaming Journalists?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 19, 2010

So once again, I’m gonna talk about something I know little about. That rarely stops me, anyway. Today’s topic: Games Journalism.

Once upon a time, back when it was helmed by Johnny Wilson, I was a big fan of Computer Gaming World. As a poor newlywed college student in a tiny apartment, I had little disposable income. Very few games made their way into my budget, so I had to be selective. Fellow gamers of insufficient means and I would swap games around, often buying them used from each other for cheap-date money.

CGW was my window into the larger gaming world. I read strategy articles and hints on games I did not own. I read reviews of games I wanted, but could never afford (well, at least not until they had been all but forgotten and dropped in the bargain bin). And I had favorite reviewers / journalists, like Tom “KC” Basham and Scorpia. It’s not that I agreed with all their opinions, but over time a lopsided relationship form between journalists and their regular readers. I got to know their style, preferences, and quirks, and respected their opinion (even if I disagreed). Their opinions and commentary held weight because of that long-term reputation and familiarity.

My love of the magazine faded quickly after those two ceased to write for it.

Much more recently, our local newspaper (well, one of the two) just got rid of the movie and television reviewers. Again, it was a situation where we did not always agree with their opinions, but my wife enjoyed their insight and was familiar with their quirks.  She found out the OTHER local newspaper picked up the TV reviewer. Guess what? She’s switched papers as a result. Well, websites. She’s added to their eyeball-count.

Nowadays, we Internet making it really easy for anybody – even know-nothing dorks like me – to sound off with an opinion with almost no barrier to entry. And we have companies trying to emphasize their “brand” over the personalities that create it — because they can own and control their brand, but slavery has been illegal in the civilized world for a long time. Aggregate opinion, such as GameRankings, provides a valuable high-level view of a game’s popularity, but obscures the details that allow understanding.  These forces work to minimize the perceived value of the expert voice, and to commoditize opinion.

I was deeply saddened by Scorpia’s site closure a little over a year ago, and found myself feeling a sense of loss with Kieron Gillen’s (The “Father of New Game Journalism“) recent departure from Rock Paper Shotgun. But there are new voices still rising, some becoming trusted sources of commentary.

But I guess the point of this rambling is this – a note to websites and those remaining print magazines. Yeah, it’s a pain in the butt to manage people, and a dangerous game to promote individual journalists of whom you cannot demand or ensure eternal exclusivity. But people connect with other people much more so than brands. Attempting to hide the identity of your voices is counterproductive to your long-term health. Look at the success of Rock Paper Shotgun, which will no doubt continue to grow even now that Gillen has left to write comics. Putting the authorship front-and-center, and helping readers become familiar with those authors and gaining that familiarity, is where I think the long-term viability of games journalism rests.

But even more than that, I find disturbing the attempt to hide the subjectivity of the journalist – their own personality – behind a facade of impersonal and supposedly impartial generic reviewerness, as if the opinion was of such empirical fact that any other reviewer would render exactly the same judgment should they be exchanged at random with any other qualified critic. It is as if they are asking to be commoditized. Maybe this is a mandate of the site they are writing for, or maybe it is a style created by self-doubt.  But if I was only interested in a generic review by a generic reviewer, I’d check the score at GameRankings and be done.

And it’s not just games journalism, or even just journalism. I mean, that’s a big reason I’ve become such an indie game fan.  I love being able to recognize the hand of the individual creator behind a game.

We need to bring the people back. We need more authorship.

Filed Under: Geek Life - Comments: 15 Comments to Read

  • Morinar said,

    I totally agree with you. One of the reasons I subscribed to PC Gamer for so many years was that I’d gotten to know all the reviewers. I knew how they felt about games and how in line with my own opinions theirs were. I could easily tell by reading any of their reviews whether or not I’d like a game.

    Today, even PC Gamer has started farming out more and more of it’s reviews to PCG-UK and even random free lancers. All it’s made me do is care less about their reviews. A review from somebody I don’t know anything about pretty much means nothing to me.

  • skavenhorde said,

    Agree with you 100% and that is why I’m finding that I trust some “Internet Personalities” Like The Spoony One or Angry Joe. I may not agree with Angry Joe all the time, but I know where he is coming from. Also with The Spoony one from http://www.spoonyexperiment.com he adds in a much needed aspect in gaming journalism, humor. These are games he is reviewing they should have some fun with the reviews as well. Even if the game itself sucked big time, the review just doesn’t have to bash it with a hammer. Nooooo, that’s too easy. He takes out the sledge hammer bashes it, then kicks it, then shoots it and finally tosses it out the door 🙂

    Just kidding of course, but I am finding myself veering over to their channels more often to get their opinions on games. As well as other Internet Personalities like “That guy with the glasses” Good journalism and entertainment at the same time. Who would of thought that would be a good mix……Oh wait……Jon Stewart already thought of that 🙂

    ~Your Friendly Neighborhood Rat

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I read two reviews of RPGs I was interested in today.

    One – and I shall leave this one nameless to protect the guilty … and because they wrote it in such a way that the individual sounded like they wanted to be nameless – was a review of Fallout: New Vegas that sounded like it had been written by a machine, borrowing criticisms leveled from a thousand other games and mixing well with the occasionally cute turn of the phrase. But when it was all done, I still wasn’t sure what he liked or disliked about the game other than a general feeling on ennui he held about the whole experience. I guess his point was to give it a lackluster recommendation, but I didn’t feel very educated as to why.

    The other review I will cite – Quinton Smith’s review of Winter Voices Episode 0, an indie RPG I was also interested in. Now, maybe this is simply the difference between a veteran hand and a newb, but this was a wonderful little review. It told me what I wanted to know, but brought me into the perspective of the reviewer. He stated his bias up front. He made the experience personal. Yet he still endeavored to educate about a purchase decision.

    I also remember how I was moved to try Persona 3 based on Leigh Alexander’s wonderful commentary on just certain aspects of the game, the psychology that moved her. Yes, I enjoyed her general review of the game as well, which was (as I recall) also full of personal interpretation and concrete details. The objectivity came about organically – this wasn’t a computerized review with clinical detachment, but rather something you could pull out by understanding the bias.

    This is what I want.

  • McTeddy said,

    I think another part of the problem is that when you are online… communication is two way. Nobody likes to be yelled at. Nobody likes to be called wrong or stupid. Nobody want’s to risk the wraith of the web gods because they didn’t enjoy Mass Effect 2 or HALO Reach.

    Yet, on the web, Reviewing a popular game less than 10 because you don’t like it is rewarded with thousands of hate comments or threats to stop using a site. I’ve seen both more times than I care to admit.

    I watch Yatzhee, Spoony and Angry Joe because they are stating their opinions. I know that I’ll disagree with Joe because he is a new school shooter (with little taste in games), and I’ll probably disagree with Yatzhee because he’s even harder on things than I am.

    But I know who they are. I know what they stand for, I know what they want in games. Whether I agree or not, these people let me see their own experience with a game and that matters more to me than anything. Joe’s opinion mean’s more to me than Gamespot Reviewer #17.

    I want people to be part of the equation again. I like people… most of the time at least.

  • Brian 'Psychochild' Green said,

    While not a big-time reviewer, I tried my hand at game reviews on a friend’s site GamersInfo.net. So, I have a bit of perspective in what it takes to be a “reviewer”.

    Two things drive reviews: volume and being first. Volume matters because the more reviews you can do, the more content you have (and the more a reviewer can get paid). This means that reviewers usually only play a small slice of a game. For an RPG, either they putter around the intro area to get a taste for the game, or they get dropped into the middle of the game with a powerful character/party to stomp around a bit. Things like story are provided via synopsis in press kits or whatever they get from website/intro movie. This is why, for the most part, RPG reviews tend to feel really light. When I did a review of Divine Divinity for my friend’s website, I played the whole 40-hour game; there’s no way a site is going to pay a reviewer a week’s wages to review a single game.

    Being first is vital because most people buy games right after they are launched, at least for the big-budget triple-A titles. Coming out with a review even a week let alone months later, is useless for many hard-core gamers. So, it’s vital for the game sites to get their reviews up ASAP. In fact, some game sites will want exclusives so they can get even a few hours advantage over a competitor. Smaller sites are usually “embargoed” from posting about a game until a specific time, enough to allow the big sites their exclusive period. Another common tactic is to review “development versions” of games that aren’t quite finished; the reviewer has to assume tha glaring bugs were fixed/patched, and playing a dev version of a console game requires an expensive development console, which is simply out of the price range of a smaller site. Again, we can see how this focus on being first damages RPGs, as there’s no way a reviewer could play the game to post a good review.

    Beyond this, there’s a lot of ugly co-dependency between game publishers/developers and news sites. Big news sites are dependent on free games and advertising from publishers, so they tread carefully. Forget the hate mail you’ll get from not giving a high score to a popular game, if you rate a game poorly you risk not getting free products, advertising, or those all-important exclusives from the publisher on some other project. In addition, developers are often rewarded royalties depending on Metacritic scores, so a bad review directly cuts into their bottom line. Obviously the publishers need the big game sites to get the word out about their newest games, so they can’t treat the chattel too poorly or risk not getting some of their second-tier games covered. This doesn’t even go into the press junkets that publishers send journalists on to essentially bribe them.

    With all these problems, why does games “journalism” remain in such a poor state? Mostly because the alternatives simply aren’t profitable. The GamersInfo.net site I linked above has great reviews. You can see the profiles of each person reviewing the game so you know their biases. They review games that aren’t the latest releases (the latest review on the site at this moment is a review of Final Fantasy VI!). They even focus on indie and kid’s games, something you often just can’t find on the bigger sites. But, GamersInfo.net just doesn’t get the traffic to keep them going through ads. They don’t get the big bonuses that the big name sites do. I really appreciate the site and what they do, but I never got paid for my reviews because I know they owner could just barely afford to keep the site alive.

    Ultimately, the audience is what’s driving these problems. They want news about the big games and they want that news NOW! That demand doesn’t allow for thoughtful reviews and therefore some genres of games, such as RPGs or MMOs, simply get ignored.

    And, since this is already super-long, I have to comment on one more thing. The Google ad right below the comment box says, “Have you Written a Book?” Screw you, Google Ads, screw you. 😛

  • Brian 'Psychochild' Green said,

    If you want to see how the game “journalism” industry treats indie developers, you can see my view of how the treated the closing of Near Death Studios. Again, they’re dependent on advertising dollars to keep the lights on, so they certainly defer to big publishers more than indie developers with no ad budget.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Yeah. Ugly point – I was let in on a conversation at once where the marketing guy asked one of the senior editors exactly how much a company would have to spend in advertising for a game in order to get a “preview” on this website.

    The candid answer was: about five thousand dollars.

    Of course, there’s no hard-and-fast policy about this, officially. It’s merely a case of what games were significant enough to warrant a preview. But unofficially, if a publisher was willing to spend five thousand dollars, minimum, advertising their game on their site, it was a good indicator that it was “significant” enough.

  • Silemess said,

    I have to sound off and agree that it was worthwhile investing in a reviewer’s columns even if they didn’t always agree with your own. So long as you were able to agree on a few key things and they were able to express themselves well, you could translate their review into your own perspective and see if the subject matter met with your own approval.

    I recall reading CGW myself, and knowing that a few of the authors would give a game a fair shake. They might walk away saying it wasn’t for them, but be able to accurately portray the game well enough for me to decide on the basis of their review if it was worth it or not for ME.

    These days, it’s a matter of finding people who can offer that kind of judgement on their blogs (or on the few websites that offer it). Publications had a basic standard for the writing skills of the people they employed. They also usually had a sufficient pool of authors that it made finding a reviewer among them a easy prospect.

    Blogs don’t have a standard they must meet. Anyone can write. Good, bad or inane third category. This is something for which I am grateful, there are people who just need the practice… though it’s hard to keep that in mind when you’ve read some who have gone as far as they can and it is still lacking. The problem lies in shorting through the chaff to find the blogs that are right for you.

    Personally, I have my list of blogs I visit. (Of which, this is of course one!!) If I notice a particular regular commenter has an enjoyable writing style and maintains a blog, I’ll follow the track back and see if their site maintains anything of interest. And of course, the reviews/opinions/sites listed on the blogs that I do frequent, often turn up rewarding links in their own posts.

    It’s not quite the world it was, but it isn’t a desolate wasteland either. The watering holes of yore are gone, but in their place are small springs amid a vast and growing landscape.

  • Corwin said,

    I like to know my reviewers for not only games, but films and books as well. That way, if person A said they hated it, from past experience I would know whether it was for me or not. Unfortunately, many reviews are ‘paid’ for, or given to people with no background in the genre. How often have you read:-” While I really don’t like RPG’s, I decided to give this a few hours ….” I uusually stop reading right then and there. At least at RPGWatch, we know our games. 🙂 (Shameless self-promotion)

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Well, here’s the non-self promotion – RPGWatch is awesome. I only wish you had more reviews / essays. I don’t mind that they aren’t necessarily super-timely… I understand you folks, unlike many other sites, actually like to PLAY the games you review rather than cheating to the end. 🙂

    But yeah – if you guys decided to tackle, say, a jRPG, I’d know your bias and be adjust accordingly.

  • MalcolmM said,

    I was also a big fan of CGW in the 80’s, and Scorpia was my favourite columnist. Even when I disagreed with Scorpia, I could always trust that she played the game she was reviewing through until the end.

    I mostly ignore on-line game reviews, there is far too much consensus journalism. If a game is hyped, and isn’t horrible, it will get great reviews. Only months later, after the hype has died down, will more accurate reviews emerge.

    RPGWatch is awesome, they aren’t afraid to tell it like it is. Their recent Arcania review is a great, it doesn’t completely thrash the game, but it tells me that it wouldn’t appeal to a hardcore RPG fan like myself.

  • UDM said,

    I remember Computer Gaming World. It was sad when Desslock and Scorpia ceased to regularly write for their own columns. Subsequently, it also seemed that Jeff Green started to take a backstage role – I could be wrong on this as the last copy of CGW I owned was in 2002 or so, but I recall reading his reviews less over time. They of course made the same mistake that so many other magazines did – thinning down on content, replacing substance with filler, sub-standard reviews, getting involved with the hype machine. I believe the boiling point was reached when they changed their name – as a long time fan (or at least until 2002), I felt a kind of alienation, as the recognition of CGW operating as an individual entity was lost.

    Thus, for me, the saddest part of its life wasn’t so much the closure of Games for Windows, but the changing of its name. Given the already sorry state of gaming journalism at the time of its closure, as well as homogeneously written reviews from a similarly alike line up of free-to-view journalism sites, Computer Gaming World’s shutting down was an almost inevitable outcome.

  • skavenhorde said,

    LMAO, sorry Jay, but that last comment had me in stitches. You could say we’re just a wee bit biased towards JRPGs ;). However, Cute Knight is awesome. Had to say that because even I was surprised by it’s power of awesomeness 😀

    Back to topic. I’m glad I’m not the only one that goes to Angry Joe, but does not necessarily agree with him on everything. I know exactly where he is coming from and that means a lot. BTW Mc Teddy, thanks for the tip about Yatzhee (strange name). I’m adding him to my list of IP I check regularly.

    Jay, I think I know exactly what review you read about Fallout: New Vegas that brought up this topic. I went through dozens of those suckers and only one of them had me go, “What in the world is he talking about?” I’ve stopped checking that site for new for the time being. Not that they actually care. The way I look at it is there are plenty of other sites (RPS Being one of the best) that offer more in-depth analysis than some lazy scribblings by some mad man.

  • UDM said,

    By the way, here’s a good example of a reviewer who’s not afraid to state his opinions:


    I don’t always agree with his opinions, and at times I feel his reviews can be wont to less (positive and negative) bias if he spends more time with the games – but considering he’s not receiving any revenue from these reviews, that’s a concession one can easily grant. What’s remarkable is that his upfront attitude is becoming a rarity in its field today, and is therefore a very appreciable quality, that, even if you take with a pinch of salt, makes his site a far more reliable source than other paid “professional” (lol) journalists.

  • sascha/hdrs said,

    Hey, the old, good era of game magazines! It will never be the same! Back in the eigthies/early nineties there were several magazines that reached cult status. They were innovative, fun and quirky. Then later in the 90s when PCs and consoles like the Playstation became the norm almost all the magazines became bland and superficial. Today I think there isn’t really anything like a paper game mag anymore but if there is it must have become even more worse. I still own a few of the very first mags I’ve bought back in the 80s and it’s fun to get them out of the shelve once in a while and skimp through them just for the nostalgic feel (or to pick up long forgotten game ideas).