Why did I play this?Why did I play this?

Posted on May 26th 2018 at 08:00:00 AM by (SirPsycho)
Posted under old hat, media, controversy

This snapshot was taken on 24/05/2018

For years I have found myself moving away from the mainstream gaming press, and even reaching the point of outright ignoring it. I could not mention the last time I went to any of the mainstream gaming press sites just to browse and see what news is coming out. The only time I end up there is seemingly by accident, browsing a forum, board, or group dedicated to an individual game or series that then links to a news release pertaining to the topic. Upon reflection of my own browsing habits and years of history I found that this relative ignorance of what the mainstream gaming press is actually saying pre-dates plenty of the recent major controversies. I was already years deep into this willful ignorance when Gamer Gate started to blow up. The exact reasons I started these habits are long forgotten, but with some time passing and new developments of the day, as well as the effect it had on everybody's browsing habits, then there might be more reasons than ever to justify the abandonment of the mainstream critic.

First, let's discuss the bottleneck of economics. Think about the structure of the mainstream gaming press. Reviewers are assigned to games of which genre and style they may not even be remotely interested in, or skilled in playing. A good manager should try to get a person or two for each major commercial genre but a limited staff budget limits options. These options are further limited by cutting pay of new hires, which many modern companies seem eager to do, regardless of industry. These practices lead to horrible retention and force the companies to constantly look for replacements. A couple leading sites have quite a large staff, with a couple dozen actual reviewers not counting the behind the scenes administration, management, communication, IT, and other staff required to keep the operation running. These are all the hallmarks of a professional organization, yet taking a look at many of the actual reviewers shows an incredible amount of behavior that really stretches, or breaks, the definition of "professional".

You would think a professional would be able to look past their own tastes and skill to give as objective of an opinion as they can, and this works for other forms of entertainment such as movies and books because of the passive nature of consumption. On the other hand, games may or may not require some actual skill to get through, as the whole Dean Takahashi Cuphead debacle showed in late 2017. The official story from GamesBeat editor Jeff Grubb is that Dean Takahashi does not play side scrollers or platformers, but was the only member of staff available for Gamescom, feeding the point of limited resources from earlier. This story was not initially released with the gameplay video, so the internet took it as a statement of how bad game reviewers are at playing games. If Jeff Grubb's story is true, however, then it simply becomes a tale of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and being the complete wrong person for the job.

Its been a bit more obvious recently that either individual reviewers, or entire sites, are trying to use their platforms as a method of now unsubtle propaganda spreading, as the release window embargo of Kingdom Come: Deliverance showed. This is hardly limited to the gaming press as well, there's a massive controversy surrounding a comic book provocateur YouTuber who is creating and publishing his own graphic novel, which is being blacklisted across the industry. This tells us that the mainstream gaming press is not really a professional position, but seems to dominated by "Yes Man" culture, brown nosing, and now political grandstanding. This shows either collusion between sites and organizations to spread these messages, or a tendency to crumble to potentially organized social media outrage which may or may not include part of the actual customer base.

Most of this speaks of an odd culture in the industry of gaming journalism, but part of the problems are exacerbated by modern communication infrastructure. Perhaps the industry always attracted the types of personalities that are prone to droning in their writings to fill some word count requirement for written articles, delusions of importance, and a zealot's belief in extreme political biases. Its possible that this culture is more easily aired out and open to prying eyes with public social media posts. Today, anybody can share their opinion with millions of people, how well the subject was researched is inconsequential. The fact of the matter is that many people today attempt to have a hybrid personal/professional social media account, attaching real names not only to the personality spouting out their personal thoughts, but the current events around their actual career.

None of this outlined so far shows that the industry of game reviewing is going to die soon, or even that its obsolete. The industry has actually done a rather good job shifting with the times. After the explosion of YouTube's popularity it made sense for these companies to start creating video reviews, previews, interviews, and reflections on the past of the overall industry, among other types of content. The odd behavior of a few of its players is not enough to entirely write off a segment of an economic pie, so there must be some reasons for many gamers to distrust the media dedicated to their own hobby. Slowly, over time, the types of behavior above can lead to a bleed out of consumers naturally, but there are new people out there to take the place of those who leave. The real reasons for the gaming press being obsolete are like the reasons for why I left active browsing of the press, they are many and varied.

Going back to the rise of YouTube saw the rise of the amateur critic, all types of media were impacted by this rise. Some of these critics got to be so much more popular than the professionals that they have the capacity to be an even greater mover of sales than the old methods. Live streaming comes along later, which allows people to directly interact with the player. Both of these environments have been adopted by the marketers representing game developers and publishers. Even though the mainstream game review companies adopted video content and live streaming, they've been largely outcompeted by what are technically amateur critics and creators. Some of these amateurs on one channel; which may only employ one or a small handful of people, have just as much, if not more power than long running, entrenched companies.

Not only are the professionals and amateurs competing on video and streaming content, they also compete with the average video game consumer. Virtually every major game distributing platform, physical or digital, includes 'User Reviews'. Steam even has a level above just a user, the power of the curators, picking and choosing games that appeal to them that others can then use to find out about new or old games which may fit their tastes. Some of these curators have follower numbers similar to mid-tier video creators. Even if these curators have a rather small audience overall, they still provide an alternative to the mainstream critic, adding to the competition.

The percentage of the pie owned by mainstream gaming press and review companies may have shrunk as a result of this increased competition, but this loss of dominance is also not a big enough reason by itself for this entire industry of polluted critique. Where the mainstream companies really fall behind on, is the sheer number of video games releasing today. This industry seems to have caught on to this, and latched itself onto the financial success of the more spread out AAA game development and publishing. They could reasonably keep up with major, and even more minor releases, in the days before the Seventh Console Generation, than they can now. Why is this? Fewer games were releasing, and they also could not easily be patched outside of the PC market of course, making day one criticism of bugs and glitches largely permanent. In this area the mainstream companies just cannot keep up. There's a massive graphic showing every release that came out to Steam in one week in the middle of March 2018. In this one week 229 full games were released as well as 112 items of downloadable content. Other markets are not as bad, but this clogging of the most dominant distributor has made it incredibly hard for smaller developers and publishers to even be noticed in that kind of flood.

Just a link since the actual picture is way too big for an article.

This flood is so massive and uncontrolled that not even the delegated public can keep up with reviews for some of these games. The loss of market penetration by smaller developers as a result of a polluted cistern is not just mere speculation either, there are hard numbers backing up this phenomenon. A significant contributor to this is the fact that these modern digital distributors are not ever reset with new generations of hardware like the console market. A decade ago this modern indie market was just getting started, anybody could work part time and release a passion project in a year or two. The youth of the market, passionate feeling put into the games, and lack of comparative choice, lead to many success stories. With a successful game or two under their belt these developers could quit their day jobs and work on their dream games full time, if they had not already done so. Today, however, there is real risk to entering this market. Business acumen is required. A marketing outline, strategy, and execution is not even remotely optional anymore. Its not just the new indie studios that are feeling this crunch either, many established studios on the smaller side that have been around for 15, 20 years or more are struggling in this choked out environment. The only way to dig out of this rut is content curation, which Valve has attempted and failed multiple times, mainly by mistakenly delegating this role to potential players instead of using their own internal resources.

There is currently no hope for the mainstream gaming press to reasonably assist in this current market situation. As long as coverage of upcoming and new AAA games keeps the eyes of the masses on their sites and videos, as long as they can cover the indie darling of the month, and as long as shareholders still receive their steadily increasing dividends then the gaming press has neither the will, heart, nor resources to make any reasonable calls for change. Even with the sporadic article or video bringing these problems to light and perhaps chastising the likes of Valve for allowing the market to reach this state, there is just little to no incentive for Valve to improve the conditions of their platform. As long as Valve gets their cut, and overall sales on Steam keep increasing, the company is content to sit in a marble palace strumming its lyre while Rome burns to ash around them.

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Very good write-up, SirPsycho. This makes me wonder if this shift will begin to cycle, now that the Internet is well into a certain level of maturity. The mainstream press continues to dwindle in importance, while semi-pro YT creators are usurping their audiences, until that audience grows up and the mainstream gaming press snaps those creators up with good offers and more stability than they've had on their own, and a segment of the audience follows those creators to their new homes, splitting the pie a bit more equitably for a time, then slowly inching back toward the individual content creators again, as those creators begin to succumb to the same kinds of pitfalls that their predecessors did. It's an interesting idea, but I'm not sure if, or how, it will play out.
@MetalFRO: I think with Patreon most mid tier creators can easily make more money being independent than signing a contract.
@SirPsycho: I suspect you're right. My line of thinking is that this whole thing may end up being cyclical, in the sense that, once small creators become mid-tier creators, and begin to get an inflated sense of importance. Then those mid-tier creators become top-tier creators by either being courted by a major player, OR by starting up something themselves, and suddenly, they're the very thing they may have previously railed against, causing a new generation of small creators to strike out and do their own thing, thus completing the circle.
Interesting article. I agree that the role of the games press has drastically changed, but I don't see it as doom and gloom for them. I only see this as a good thing. Frankly, I think gaming sites tried to focus on strict structure and objective news and reviews for far too long. That worked in a pre-digital age, but is completely inadequate now. The sites that didn't change were the ones who've either faded into obsolescence or shut down completely over the last 5-10 years or so. Reviews are not objective things, and even if they were, are still outdated within a couple weeks after a game's release. I think there is still value in a site reporting on gaming news, but the age of the traditional review is over. These days, I have one or two sites I check every few days just to keep up on the industry, and aside from that all the gaming coverage I seek out now is highly personality driven. You're absolutely right, there are too many games released these days, with too many of them being crappy cash-grabs. These days, what I want out of games coverage is actual gameplay and interesting/thoughtful commentary. Whether that comes from a traditional game site, a former game journalist who branched off to make a new thing on Patreon, or some kid streaming on YouTube from his bedroom, doesn't matter to me.
I'm of the same mind as Zophar on this. I think the role of games press has certainly changed. I have no real need to read 'objective' facts about games as there's really very little that is objective. But I still read gaming sites like Waypoint, Kotaku and Polygon almost every day. I'm much more interested in the thoughts of individuals I've come to respect (whether they are official gaming press or YouTubers/bloggers) and more editorial content or critical analysis than basic takes on the graphics, sounds and controls of a game.

I think this is a separate issue from the problem with Steam and how many games are coming out, as it's too many for anyone, professional or amateur to cover.

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