Ranting Back at the GDC09 Game Critics Rant.

by Steve Bowler on April 1, 2009 · 20 comments

in general,nitpicking

I’m back from GDC and slowly climbing back onto the writing horse.  I’d apologize for taking forever between posts again but hey let’s be honest, I’ve been doing a ton of that lately so let’s just move on.

I saw some great talks, but one that kinda bothered me in a way and yet at the same time invigorated some of my old opinions was the Rant Panel.  This year’s was five (actually more) of some of the most esteemed game critics in the industry.  While I get that this was a podium for opinions to be thrown out there, I couldn’t help but wonder about a few of the positions, and rant back a little bit of my own on the matter.

One of the biggest talking points was how Game Journos (for lack of a better word) could do their jobs better.  N’Gai (who incidentally I’ve found myself disagreeing with more and more lately) had some of the most salient points of the whole talk, asking writers to eschew the terms “hardcore” and “casual.”  I’m paraphrasing, but his example of “Who’s more hardcore:  the person who plays Peggle five hours a night 7 days a week or the guy who plays Gears two hours a night Monday through Thursday?”  Who’s the casual player there?  Who’s hardcore?  N’Gai asked for better descriptors to be used, like “competitor” or “completionist” or “tourist.”  These terms don’t just benefit writers, they benefit developers and publishers alike, because we’ve been working on a binary system that doesn’t really identify anyone properly.  N’Gai’s proposed terms helps us figure out who we’re making the product for, and who to write about.

But some of the rants I just found…lacking.  Stephen Totilo (of MTV’s Multiplayer), while being critical in general said “Our reporting is fine. There’s no lack of good journalism, though there may be a lack of effort in finding it…There is a lack of good writing.”

Stephen, I expected more from a guy who started his speech with “I’m going to lose some friends over this.”  Look, fuck the writing.  I don’t care if you use the word “compelling” or adverbs or adjectives or two hundred words that end in LY.  I seriously don’t.  Besides the fact that most of America’s readers only read at a 4th grade level, Game Journalism isn’t at the point where the only thing left to hone is your craft.  My god man, I’ve seen stories, especially lately in this economy with bankruptcies and studio closings which concern corporate law, and there’s no mention of a corporate lawyer weighting in on the piece.  Are you a lawyer?  Did you pass a bar in corporate law?  Why then are you or your contemporaries writing about it?  Why are there one-sided opinion pieces where the writers don’t even attempt to contact the company they’re writing about for comment?  Do you guys realize that when you get the facts wrong in one piece, it brings into question everything you’ve ever written?  I get that you can’t get everything right 100% of the time, and that sometimes you just have to go to print with what you’ve got, but could we please actually try to make sure that you’re getting the facts straight before you go to print?  If you think this isn’t a big deal, then you’re not taking your job seriously enough.

Chris Hecker spoke about this sort of thing in his guest rant (which was amazingly hilarious and appropriate), when he asked you all to (paraphrased slightly) “Do your jobs well.”  He emphasizes the lack of fact-finding by pointing out this article which was based entirely from an opinion at a forum post.  This isn’t someone’s game blog he’s talking about.  It’s 1up News.

The problem with this kind of reporting I think lies mainly within the monetizing of Games Journalism, which is funded primarily through ads.  Online, ad revenue can be increased by doing one of two things:  increase your page views through sensationalism or exclusives, or increase your pageviews by forcing people to view your pages more often by posting more articles.

You can’t fact-check when you have two writers making sixty four blog posts per day (to Stephen’s credit, I believe he mentioned the volume as a negative in his rant).  And when the majority of those articles are about game cakes, meme bullshit, or worse, just copy/pasting text from Press Releases and throwing some hyperbole opinion afterwards, it makes it downright pathetic that you can’t get the fact-checking right on the pieces that truly matter.

More to the point, Games Journalism is just way too broad of a brush to paint a job description with.  I’ve seen a few journos who can do a great job of detatching their opinions when they need to just write a news piece, but far too often there’s just way too much bleeding crossover of opinion into the news, or an attempt to be funny while writing a review.  I apologize for using Siskel and Ebert as poster children in this piece (I’ll use them for an example again later), but c’mon.  I don’t read my news from the same guys who do my movie reviews.  Is it too much to expect this in games journalism too?  Are we too young to take this industry that seriously?

Heather Chaplin’s rant I found mildly insulting and at the same time a bit elitist, but hey, it’s her opinion, and as an elitist equal opportunity insulter I’ll respect it on those grounds.  I do take issue with the idea that games haven’t produced their own Citizen Kane or Beatles.  If you don’t think that there are some incredible games or game studios out there you’re not looking hard enough.  Hell, maybe you aren’t looking at all.  As for calling developers “fucking adolescents,” well, you can’t blame us for chasing the market.  Making games like Braid doesn’t pay.  Get out there and evangelize that shit, woman.  If you think that the gaming industry only makes adolescent games, and more importantly that we only want to make adolescent games then you’re not paying attention.  I agree, I’d love to see games with more meaning, intimacy, and responsibility.  I also enjoy getting a paycheck.  Growing these values in your consumer base takes time, and right now the market wants sequels, not new artsy IP.

Leigh Alexander‘s rant was on the relationship between Publishers, Journos, and Consumers, calling it a “three-way ego-system of negativity.”  I feel her pain, especially since she’s a writer, and not on the business side of things; I really hate the model that games writing has created.  However, if you find yourself in bed in a three way, and the other two people are getting jealous of each other or worse, you, it’s time to jettison one.  There is no fixing this relationship.

The easiest thing to do is to jettison the Publisher from the relationship.  At least the intimacy part of it.  Stop taking their ads.  I know, it’s easy for me to say this because I don’t depend on them, but hey, this is why I didn’t go into business.  It’s not my job to sweat how games writing has to make money.  If taking money from a company makes writing about them difficult, stop taking the money, or stop writing about them.  Obviously, it’s not games writing if it’s the latter, so game journalism needs to find an alternate source of revenue.  Be it non gaming ads, be it selling t-shirts, I don’t know.  But getting out of bed with the Pubs is probably best, if at all possible.

But I don’t want to paint Leigh’s rant as bad, it was actually quite good.  It at least identified the problem that exists in this menage a fail, and even talked about how the media would like to talk with game teams rather than producers.  I’m here to say that we’d like to talk to the media, as well.  I’m tired of hearing about Producers throwing out rehearsed silk threads of PR nonsense.  I want to hear from the the guys who put their blood sweat and tears into it.

Finally, though, the rants wrapped up with Adam Sessler’s spittle laden hate fest on Metacritic.  At first I got excited about it, because hey, I hate Metacritic, too!  But the more he bashed on Metacritic the more I was kind of appalled that he didn’t realize just how much of the problem he is.  If you don’t like Metacritic making your 2/5 you gave a game and scoring that as a 40%, stop using a point system that easily equates to X/100.  Honestly, even that won’t work, because the 1UP “grade” experiment is causing more harm than good, what with a C being scored as a 50% or something like that.  The bottom line here, is STOP USING POINTS TO SCORE GAMES.  Stop scoring games, period.  Why do you need to score them?  Why do I need to know if MGS4 is better or worse than Mario 64?  How do you even compare those two games on the same fucking scale, man?  Can’t I just play them both and enjoy them for what they are?  Siskel and Ebert had it down.  Either it’s a game worth playing, or it isn’t.  As a consumer, that’s the only thing we need to know in the end.  Yes, give us two pages of opinion and facts.  Give us screen shots.  Inform us.  Educate and help us to formulate our own opinion.  But don’t rank it.  You asked “Who made you the boss, Metacritic?”  YOU DID ADAM.  You and everyone else who ever gave a game a score.  You provided the ammo.  You ranked the games by your own scale.  Would your rather companies use your scale and not Metacritic?  What would the difference be?  You have a scale, how can you point your finger at theirs?

I know you’re angry about a larger issue, the one where game companies use Metacritic scores to weight bonuses or even employment contracts, and yeah, I hate this too.  It’s fucking evil.  But come on, you pretend that journalists don’t hold sway over the market or publishers?  Are you even serious here?  You just rated a game, dude.  You’re G-fucking-4.  You have millions of people tuning into your multimedia empire every day, and you’re going to actually have the naivete to say “You’re relying on us?  Really?”  As pointed out above, you created this situation.  You’ve fostered it.  You ask us to come on your programs and do your shiny dog and pony shows.  You decided you were going to be the arbiters of cool.  You’re the tastemakers here.  People come to you for their information and opinions on the games we make, man.  They don’t come to the developers or the publishers.  So please, own up to it.  It’s your problem to fix.

You want to do something about Metacritic?  Take the ammunition away from the gunman.

Have the balls to stop giving games scores.

And please, to echo Hecker’s words, do your job well.  You’ve got a ton of power.  Please use it responsibly.