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.

{ 16 comments }

Simon Ferrari April 2, 2009 at 12:17 am

Best summary of the rant by far, and probably the most incisive demand on game journalists who hate Metacritic that I’ve ever heard.

That said, the only thing I dislike about Metacritic is that some companies base salaries off of them. For a poor grad student who doesn’t get his games sent to him for academic reviews, the weighted numbers are pretty helpful when it comes down to deciding which games to buy or pass on.

You say it best when you mention that “games journalist” is too broad a job title. I think the demands that game critics “grow up” is a bit misplaced, because it misunderstands how criticism works for other media. Most of the paid games journos right now are basically the equivalent of Premiere, Entertainment Weekly, and Variety. Those magazines are for widely-addressed opinions on whether something is worth buying (with the final one being an industry mag).

Cineaste, Sound and Vision, and even the New York Times and Village Voice film reviews are for sub-academic reflections on the cultural studies and artistic issues in film. We don’t have equivalents of those magazines for videogames. But it’s not the job of some schmuck at OXM to meditate on racism in RE5. His job is to hype products for his platform and decide what’s worth buying or not.

The only person I take huge issue with is Seth Schiesel. He’s at the Times, he should be doing the pseudo-academic work we want out of “new games journalism,” and he isn’t. His writing simply isn’t on par with criticism of other media in the same paper.

Simon Ferrari April 2, 2009 at 4:32 am

Pardon, bonuses; not salaries.

nihohit April 2, 2009 at 1:35 pm

Excellent summary, also excellently opinionated. In my opinion, the problem with the publishers/writer/consumer conundrum is that the mags need/want the pubs’ money than the big pubs need the writers’ honest opinion. The power balance is skewed – and they’re in the bottom pile.

nihohit April 2, 2009 at 1:36 pm

heh. pardon: not they’re, we’re. I’d like to hope for a decent gaming mag to return to israel so can truly count myself among the ranks of gaming writers.

Mitch Cumsteen April 3, 2009 at 3:08 am

2/5 doesn’t equal 40? What a shit-for-brains this Sessler is. I like how he didn’t even suggest what he thinks that 2-star score should equate to. 50? 80? 90? Game-ism has it right. If you don’t want to give a 10 or 100 point score that clear equates, then leave off the freakin’ score.

Andrew April 6, 2009 at 5:47 am

Here here, down with review scores – a travesty of comparing things which are in no way related. I like reading reviews which miss scores – it inspires the writer to make the writing worth reading too.

But for some reason “consumers like scores” is repeated by the game reviewers. Sigh :(

Chris April 6, 2009 at 4:23 pm

Near the beginning of the post you mentioned that you want a pay check, and that the market’s hungry for sequels, implying that you need to meet the market’s demand; critics should give developers time to sort of coax consumer demand for less adolescent game. I totally agree.

But then you say video game sites and magazines should switch to non-endemic ads.
Non-endemic ads are great, but right now the ad system’s collapsed. Just ask newspapers. How are game sites supposed to stay afloat when they have to fight over publisher ads, that’s ignoring their scrambling against much larger sites for similar demographic stuff like cars and sports drinks?

I’m not saying the ad systems great. If anything, it’s utterly busted. However, I think it’s a little unfair to say you want a pay check, but expect a majority of game journalists to give up theirs.

We’re experiencing growing pains, but sometimes I worry the whole industry is like Tom Hanks in Big. We want to grow up right now.

But that’s just a petty argument with the post. This was a great summary. RSSed the site.

raigan April 6, 2009 at 7:38 pm

“Making games like Braid doesn’t pay.”

_Really_?

So far Braid has grossed over $4M, which is 20x its budget.. so I’m having a hard time understanding what you mean.

http://news.vgchartz.com/news.php?id=3061
http://kotaku.com/5037392/jonathan-blow-says-he-spent-180000-on-braid

spitfire April 6, 2009 at 7:48 pm

First: VGChartz is supposedly the most unreliable source to get money numbers from.

Second: Assuming just for the sake of argument that those numbers are 100% honest, if any large developer (the target of the rant in question) tried making Braid, it would have cost considerably more than $180k, and would probably not have turned a profit after advertising, shipping, and development costs.

Third: Show me four other games like Braid making Braid money. I didn’t say “Making Braid doesn’t pay.” I said (as you quoted) “Making games like Braid doesn’t pay.” Even if he is making money, it’s not exactly the model to profitability. One or two guys working for 3 years spending $180,000 of their personal money? Do you have $180k just lying around? I don’t. Maybe you should start making indie games? ;)

raigan April 7, 2009 at 7:55 am

Actually I helped make N+, another good example of a profitable indie — although our ROI is only maybe 5x, so not a huge hit like Braid. World of Goo, Castle Crashers, Alien Hominid, Everyday Shooter, Flow, would be some examples of other highly profitable hits.

Your second point seems to be arguing that the huge overhead incurred by large teams doesn’t pay for itself — that increased production and marketing power won’t increase sales sufficiently to offset the additional cost.

If a team can’t be profitable **when you start out assuming that they’ve made a smash hit** (like World of Goo or Braid), then I’d suggest that the model in which they’re operating is broken or at least severely flawed!

>”Even if he is making money, it’s not exactly the model to profitability”
I don’t really understand what you mean.. two people working for three years to make $4M (and counting) seems like a terrifically prosperous model. Is it all that different from 100 people working for three years to generate.. $10M? $100M? (I have no idea what the typical AAA game nets). And I can guarantee you that in the latter case, the revenue won’t be evenly divided between all 100 people.

>”Do you have $180k just lying around? I don’t.” Neither did Jon Blow at first — but he _did_ have marketable skills (i.e the ability to make games) which could be applied to contract work in order to accrue sufficient funds. In the case of The Behemoth, they raised starting capital through second mortgages. We managed to get a loan for N+.

Most developers, even larger ones, don’t start with sufficient funds to cover development — they raise them, usually by getting an advance from the publisher. The only difference is that we’ve found alternate funding sources with terms which are less evil, which allows us to be much more profitable.

Also, The VGChartz numbers are pretty accurate, error is within 10% according to the dozen or so other XBLA devs we’ve heard from.

James April 7, 2009 at 8:16 am

I was directed here from Leigh’s blog, actually, and I think you make some great points, particularly concerning Metracritic and games scores being the ammunition for the problem. I’d given thought to the ratings problem before, particularly because one of my friends IS the typical mass-market, only-buys-magehyped-games target audience, and he insists that he will only buy a game with a score of 8/10 or higher. Period. This drives me insane, as I think games can be subjectively enjoyable and meaningful on many different levels. However, I’d never really considered a purely subjective format such as “thumbs up – thumbs down” with an explanation as to why.

It got me thinking about music and books reviews, that operate on the 1-5 stars system. Everyone knows what it means, but I really doubt that people put a percentage value to it. I don’t think of a 3 star album as a 60% (or a D-minus in academic grading scales). Although it can easily be translated into a percentage value to it, the system evokes a subjective value to an album/movie/book.

I think moving away from assigning number values to games is a fantastic first step, and maybe subjective rating systems will eventually stop being translated that way.

Stephen Totilo April 7, 2009 at 4:45 pm

Don’t underestimate the potential impact of the clear expression of facts and ideas. The quality of reporting about games exceeds the quality of writing about games.

Why are you reading gaming news outlets that have reporters who don’t seek comment from the companies they’re reporting on? Ditch them.

spitfire April 7, 2009 at 9:05 pm

Raigan: I hear where you’re coming from, but I think we’re losing sight of the issue, which is: N+, Castle Crashers, et all, are not the kinds of games that Chaplin was looking for. They lack emotional growth, they’re not about comittment, responsibility, etc. Honestly, neither is Braid, but I needed an “arty” example and that leapt to mind first and foremost.

However, on the subject to profitability and financial models, trotting out 5 of the smashiest hits for indie gaming and saying “this is the model of success” when we’re talking about 2nd mortgages is a lot like saying “if GTAIV and Gears of War/Halo can do it, anyone can do it,” just on a much smaller scale ;). For every incredibly profitable indie game out there, I can find at least ten more that are worthy of profit but are faltering.

If we wanted a good example of indie gaming profitability (which is really not the point of this rant), I think the iPhone ap/game model is probably the easiest to buy into and make money off of.

raigan April 8, 2009 at 9:29 am

I’m sorry for going OT previously, you’re right that this is moot in terms of Chaplin’s rant.

I just took issue with the way Braid was totally dismissed in the original post, as (a) unsuccessful , (b) not what the market wants, (c) something that would need to be evangelized in order to become popular. It seemed really ignorant wrt indies to dismiss one of the biggest success stories offhand!

I would also argue that Braid is at least _closer_ to the sort of topic/treatment Chaplin would prefer than any other game on XBLA, or the 360 for that matter.

But then again I think the whole idea of emotions/etc in games to be a huge stupid dead-end — I hate the adolescent crap as much as anyone, but going to the opposite end of the spectrum is going to be just as embarrassing.

It would be better to argue that games should be more thematically diverse; I think games would probably be more effective at exploring form and structural stuff rather than plot-based or narrative ideas (which is where “emotion” is typically presented). Like, Primer has very little to say about emotion, but it does great in terms of working with typical movie structure to present something new and stimulating.

I don’t even think that “adolescent” blockbuster action games have to be as embarrassing as they currently are — they just need to move from “80s blockbuster action movie” to “contemporary blockbuster action movie” in terms of level of self-awareness.

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Mordy December 21, 2009 at 8:31 pm

You can remove the score, but Metacritic will still find a way to quantify your review in numerical value. I’ve written a number of music reviews that they’ve magically transmuted into x/100 scores. Kinda lame, but what can you do?

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