Archive for the ‘Games Journalism’ Category:

On Games Journalism: The Reviewing Process.

Last time we talked about reviewing, we talked about how much time should be put in to a review. But this is by no means the only facet of what goes into a review. So I’m going to pull the veil on my own process, and show you that yes, it is a bit complicated. This should hopefully be useful to readers (Who sometimes don’t get this) and aspiring writers (Who probably don’t know this before writing.) Keep in mind, this doesn’t cover asking for review copy, or what to do when people don’t answer (And, if you’re a freelancer, or otherwise fall under the radar, that’s perfectly possible), just the process of reviewing a game when you’ve got it.

Question The First: Is It “Day One”?

Review Copies are an interesting business, as it means that, a lot of the time, we get the game earlier than anyone else. We can even see patches coming in before the game releases. Not all “Day One” issues are actually “Day One”, but “Days -14 (and “above”) to 1.” But whether you’re reviewing the game on release or not is nonetheless an important question. Especially if you’ve both got hold of the game on release day, and are writing about it on release day. Try to avoid that wherever possible, please. You’re much more likely to be dismissed as a “Day 1” review if you do so.

However, hopefully people are now aware, thanks to Early Access, that yes, games don’t always stop developing the day before launch, and should already know that yes, sometimes, reviewers get the game earlier than you do, to give them time to review it properly.

Nonetheless, there is a kind of sweet spot, and it varies depending on the next question.

Question The Second: How Big Is It?

The majority of the time, you can tell from the genre and the PR mails you’ve gotten, but, as I mentioned in the previous article, that’s not always the case. Nonetheless, it’s an important consideration. Since we’ve already dealt with “how long”, we’ll simply note that this is an important consideration into how much playtime you put in, and how long it should take.

Question The Third: What Am I Meant To Be Looking At?

This is the meat. As much as you humanly can. For example, you start to get a feel, over time, for a “good” or “bad” UI (My general guide: If it blocks important information/controls, or takes more than three interactions to get to an option, it’s “bad”), and can spot that, and some other things, very quickly. Other things, however, you need to digest, to think about. This is why taking breaks is important. Not only are you doing a thing that’s good for you (Not staring at a monitor for hours on end), unless those breaks are completely ignoring thinking about the game, they still serve an important work function.

You want to think about the writing, how it’s paced, how it treats people, what it’s trying to say. You want to think about the visuals, and the music. You want to think about the numbers, and the gears, how you’re feeling (We’ll get back to that) versus how the game wants you to feel, and how well or badly it all fits together. A developer could have the best combat system in gaming history, but it wouldn’t count for much if you don’t know what the buttons do. Music, taken on its own, can be great, but again, if it doesn’t fit what you’re doing, and makes no sense even after consideration? It’s not so good. Disconnects between elements can vary in importance, and sometimes, they’re deliberate.

Trying to break the game is also sometimes helpful, although risky. For tips and tricks on things that potentially work, you can’t go wrong with speedruns. Speedruns past and present show that there’s often a way to leave the map.

You’ve also got to consider who it’s aimed at. Is it for someone who likes long games? Short ones? Button mashers? Who would like this, and who wouldn’t? This becomes important when you get to the writing stage, and it’s something you’ll want to think about. It’s also helpful to put yourself in the position of the new player, the person who’s never played videogames. It’s difficult, I know, but to review well, you also have to at least try to consider viewpoints that seem alien to you at times. So ignore the tutorials (if you can) the first time you play, and try to work out how easy it is to learn things without it. Because, believe me, there are players who ignore tutorials, even when it’s against their best interests to do so.

Sometimes, there will be things you’ll miss. When you’ve written a review, go back and check things. Because you’ll feel pretty bloody stupid if you missed something obvious, and it affects your review badly.

Problem The First: Oh Shit, It Crashed/Hung/I Fell Through The World!

This is a pretty common problem, especially with early copies. When this happens, you can almost guarantee you aren’t getting it out on day one (Not that you should, but some places really put the pressure on for that.) Check with other reviewers, if you know any. Put your computer through a checkup, especially in the case of a BSOD. This is only the first step, however. The second step is why you have little chance of a Day One Review.

Confirm that other people have had the problem. Confirm whether steps are being taken. If at all possible, confirm that they have been taken. I know it means slogging through pages of vitriol on Steam and official forums (When they exist), and waiting for said notes to crop up, but it can sometimes be rewarding. When I was researching problems I’d encountered playing Blur? I found people had released beta footage. And they showed many of the exact same problems I was encountering. During my re-review (More on that later), I found that, increasingly, the same replies were being posted, and talk was already underway on a sequel (Not always a sign that a game has been “put to bed”, but it can be). Together, those things didn’t exactly paint the most flattering picture, even considering that three months is not a terribly long time to be able to fix, say, connection issues (You’d think it wasn’t, but no, that sort of dev problem can often be a very thorny one.)

Besides, you’ll often get a better idea of what causes it (A thing that could be useful to mention) and what fixes it (Not guaranteed, but nice when it does happen). And you’ll have continued in the fine tradition of checking first.

Problem The Second: The Game Is Soooo Good/Bad!

You might not think this is a problem. But this can just as much be a result of not looking or not seeing as it is of no flaws or too many flaws. It’s sometimes difficult to achieve balance in a review, but it’s an ideal you should strive for. I can’t think of a single game completely without flaw. There’s always a reason someone won’t like it, even if it’s the one of certain people not liking that type of game (Which we’ll come back to in the Writing part). Similarly, I can think of few games that are completely irredeemable (Limbo of the Lost would be one of the few in this regard.) Another part of this is…

Question The Fourth: What Mood Am I In?

You are going to have a personal, subjective opinion on whatever game you’re reviewing. That’s without doubt. But if you’re in the wrong sort of mood, it’s going to affect your writing. An example in my case is that I never review when I’m depressed. I know all too well that slights will get magnified, that it’ll feed back on itself, and that I’m not going to check as well as I’d like. This doesn’t exactly do wonders for my workflow, but it ensures that I’m not going to be harder on a game than I’m meant to be. See also being drunk, being angry, or being tired. Yes, with many places there are deadlines… But your health is important, not only for you, but for your work.

Now, with all of those things considered, we come to writing the review. Take notes as you go, working them into a first draft. Most of the time, this first draft will not be useful as a review… But it’ll order your thoughts. And then, a few more questions to think about while writing. All the while, you’ll want to look for spelling errors. You won’t find them all, but the more you find, the less hassle for either you (If you self publish) or your editor (If you write on commission/contract.)

Question The Fifth: What Am I Focusing On?

It is a safe bet that, even if people didn’t hate spoilers, you’re not going to write a blow by blow analysis of the entire game from start to finish. You have, at most, 3500 words for a review (More when you’re writing later, more thoughtful articles, but reviews are generally between 500 and 2500 words. It varies by publisher.) So what are you going to focus on? Extremes are generally on the list. If something is particularly noteworthy, or particularly cringeworthy, it’s something you want to mention. But that list is, excepting big games with lots of problems or particularly praiseworthy elements, generally fairly short. Even so, you have limits to what you can say. Pick what you’re talking about wisely.

Question The Sixth: Experiences or “Mechanics”?

There’s different schools of thought on the M word, including whether it’s really a useful word at all. Is the writing a mechanical device of the game? Is the UI? Are these, individually, important to mention? Generally, the answer is “Not on their own”, which is why we have reviews that focus on the stories, the experiences. Whether readers or the writer like it or not, how you feel during a game is a factor, as many games try to make you feel a thing. The Last of Us, in terms of actual rules and numbers, is not vastly different from many other modern games. No, it’s the writing, the music, the voices, what’s being said and what you feel versus what the game’s developers want you to feel that’s notable. But purely experiential writing can, done poorly, confuse. Purely “mechanical” writing fails to take into account how things fit together, and ignore the feels and thoughts to their detriment. Ideally, you want a mix. How much of that mix is really down to your own style, and there’s no guarantee you’ll achieve the right mix for a particular game.

I wish there was… But it’s not guaranteed. Do the best you can.

Question The Seventh: Does It Flow?

Flow of writing is important. And it’s not just about rhythm, how stilted or natural it sounds. It’s about point to point to point in a conclusive, thematically linked “argument”. It’s like a debate. It’s also part of the reason I don’t like compartmentalised reviews (Even though I’ve written them many a time.) They don’t acknowledge that you can segue from the audio, to the play, to the writing, and back to the audio. Because you can. And often, you have to, if you want to explain a thing well.

The rhythm, thankfully, is an easy one to edit. Read the review out loud. Notice where you’re actually pausing, and for how long, in what you read. As you’re reading, think about whether you’re actually saying the things you want to say.

Then go back and do it again until you’re at least relatively happy. I’m rarely more than “relatively” happy with a review, but other folks do seem to consistently disagree with my own opinion on that, so “relatively” happy is good. Of course… You’re still not done.

Question The Eighth: Am I Being Fair?

Remember how I said you don’t want to review when angry, or depressed, or drunk? Yeah, the same applies at every step, and you should be questioning yourself at every step as well. Because sometimes, we Get Personal. As I’ve said before, game devs are human, and companies are not people. Nor, in fact, are games themselves. Talking about what a company or a game has done, good or bad, is okay. Framing it in terms like “[Company] are evil” or “[Company] wouldn’t be able to develop their way out of a brown paper bag” is Getting Personal. True, the folks who actually fucked up are being told they fucked up somehow. But you’re also putting folks who did the best job they could, and were not responsible for the fuckup you’re talking about, in the same sentence.

You didn’t mean it that way? Well, boo-hoo, but unfortunately, you wrote it that way. Similarly, consider scale in what you’re saying. A game constantly crashing is definitely bad, and can be described as definitely bad. But some problems really are niggles, small problems, and if you’re going to mention them, make sure you say that.

Hopefully, when you’ve considered these things, you’ll have, at the end, a fair review that tells people what they can expect. It won’t have everything. It can’t. But there’ll be enough there that people can get an idea, and hopefully look at other perspectives on the same thing.

Now, it’s important to note that this article is just about actually writing a review. It’s not about any ethical problems that might come up. It’s not about interviews, or op-eds (Although it can be useful for those, situationally). All of these words, all of these considerations, are what goes into a single review. And in the case of many of these questions, there are nuances I could go over, edge cases and specific practices for specific types of games.

Still think reviewing is easy? I sure hope not, I’ve tried pretty hard to show you otherwise. For other perspectives on this, there’s Cara Ellison’s “How To Write About A Game“, Erik Peterson’s “You Got Game, But Can You Write?” (Although I’m not sure the words “Lucky Bastards” can be applied to reviewers…), and the book “Critical Path: How To Review Games For A Living“, by Dan Amrich, among many others.

On Games Journalism: Why Objective, Performance Based Reviews Are A Bad Idea (Reprint.)

This article was originally published on my personal blog, when I was planning to get back to games journalism.

So, one thing that I have seen people calling for is “More objective” reviewing. Sometimes, they mean “Less biased overall” (Which is good to ask for), sometimes they mean “I don’t want political viewpoint X to be represented so god-damn much” (Tough titty, writers have political viewpoints, readers have political viewpoints, and if you don’t want to deal with gender and politics, good fucking luck in life. No, really, good fucking luck.)

Sometimes, however, they really do mean “objective”, in the sense of purely representing the technical aspects, how well it runs, etc. Let’s illustrate how misleading this can easily get with two hypothetical reviewers. Let’s call them Jim and Graham, after Jim Rossignol and Graham Smith.

Jim has a computer which often meets minimum specs for AAA games, but rarely optimal specs for the newer ones. So he can play the game, but he can’t afford to get the whole experience (Because, spoilers, even guys who write full time for a mag don’t get paid a whole lot!). He experiences some slowdown at certain points in the game, but, unbeknownst to him, this isn’t because his setup isn’t top notch. It’s because he’s using an AMD graphics card, and the game was primarily coded around NVIDIA cards. Yes, that’s a thing that still happens, even to this day. So he, naturally, mentions this as part of his review. NVIDIA fans slam him.

Graham, meanwhile, has a swanky computer with all mod cons, an NVIDIA card, and… A top range anti-virus program. This causes some problems, and, because he has a top of the range setup, he makes a bigger deal out of it. A week later, it’s discovered that his particular anti-virus program fucks with the game, and he looks like a twat.

Meanwhile, both of them use different routers, and have exactly the same problems in multiplayer, problems which are widely reported. Their editor, Steve, doesn’t have these problems, and writes an apology about both pieces when the folks who didn’t experience these problems, and didn’t notice all the complaints, decided to write in to say that they shouldn’t lower the score based on this “nonexistent problem.”

…Three months later, the readers look like twats when it turns out that, yes, the netcode was shit all along, and they start experiencing problems and complaining. And nobody’s happy.

All three of these things have happened at least once. Because there are so many different components for PCs, software and hardware, and that means Your Mileage May Vary. I’ve seen windows updates, graphics driver updates, lack of graphics driver updates, all sorts of things fucking with performance in games that sometimes, it’s hard to tell what’s actually causing a problem.

“Ahhh, but consoles are different!”, I hear you say. Perhaps. But sometimes, consoles look like they’re working when they’re actually about to break, and this, too, can occasionally affect reviews. Less than PC reviewing, it’s sure, but you still have to use a router to connect, an ISP, so keep in mind that no system is free of this.

Then, we come to another issue: With only certain exceptions, older games re-released will, on a performance based scale, consistently score higher than newer ones. For example, I can play Jet Set Willy with so much less hassle than I used to have. Before, it was “pop a tape in. Is the tape clean? Is the cassette drive jammed? Do I have the cable connected?”

Now? “Put thing on hard drive, run program/emulator, fiddle with performance settings a little.” 100000/10, much god-damn better than it used to be. Sonic 1 runs far better, on my current system, than Lichdom: Battlemage, and so it scores higher.

“That’s not what we said, though! We meant as they come out!”

Ah, you’re right. But re-releases are often reviewed as new products, because some of them (Not all, but some) come with slightly swankier graphics, and a slightly improved engine, and nothing else. Oh look, that re-release, on a performance base, still runs better than brand new AAA game, because it didn’t have extra fancy gubbins.

Indie games would consistently score higher on a performance basis, because they’re less resource intensive and smaller. The simpler the game, the higher it could score on a performance basis. And then comes the real killer: You then have to consider how much performance the game needs compared to its compatriots. Is it “objectively” better because it needs less resources, or “objectively” worse because it doesn’t need to be as effective in using your computer’s resource allocation?

“But you don’t need to know these things, all you need to know is whether it’s ‘objectively’ good or bad on your system, let readers…” No. Stop right there.

“Good” and “Bad” are rarely objective statements, because they’re value judgements. You’re stepping into “Worth” territory, and if you think that’s something that can be objectively judged, I’m going to laugh. Hard. An object’s worth changes, fluidly, based on subjective factors.

Good example: The white jacket I wanted for ComicCon. It’s worth less to me now that I don’t need it for a costume, because when I tried to get it, it was for a specific purpose. That purpose has been and gone, so it’s “worth” less. If other people don’t like how I look in it, it’s worth less based on their subjective views, because it’s going to get dickheads yelling stupid shit at me, which reduces its worth because of the hassle it cost me. If I lose or gain weight, it’s going to hang differently, look differently, and so have a different worth to my self-esteem.

Then there’s all the factors you’re now leaving out, whether due to space or time constraints. Most reviews are 500-2500 words long. That’s it. Are you going to read an article that’s 2,500 words about how it performs on System X with Hardware Y,Z,A, and B, when you yourself have System X with Hardware C,D,E, and F (Not to mention that the reviewer probably won’t have even noticed that Software G, which you have, and they don’t, causes bugs in the game)?

Would you read it if it didn’t comment at all on the writing, or great moments in the game, or how a mechanic feels like it fits with the theme you think they’re trying to portray? All of these are subjective things you’ll be missing out on: The cornering on Burnout Paradise isn’t, by any means “Realistic”… Hell, describing it objectively, it would be “The lower statistic X is, the more likely it is to rotate the vehicle you are driving in a manner more consistent to ‘sliding’ than ‘turning’ , especially at higher speeds.” … But it’s fun, not to mention collisions. We like collisions in racing games, right? “The collisions are rendered using a physics engine that -” GOD STOP, PLEASE, THIS DESCRIPTION CAN GO ON FOR HALF A PAGE, AND IS NOWHERE NEAR AS EFFICIENT, FOR A READER, AS…

“The collisions, meanwhile, are sufficiently meaty, with lots of crumpling, slow motion replays, and a delicious feeling of ‘Yup, that car is fucked, and there is no consequence for this. God bless Fun’.”

Which is, you’ll note, largely subjective. Long live subjectivity, I say!

On Games Journalism: How Much Do You Play Before Review?

Reviewing games, as much as it’s seen as “Just playing a game, then writing about it”, is actually a fairly nuanced subject… And, because one thing I often see is reviews that reveal how a reviewer has missed something that colours their whole review (It happens to a lot of us, but it is something to watch out for), it’s something I’ve chosen to move up the “On Games Journalism” timetable.

How Long Should A Reviewer Play?

A comment I got, a fair while back (As much due to not properly editing an article I wrote while writing the game as differing ideas of “How long should a game’s examination take?”), when I wrote about Skyrim, was that it was not possible to review Skyrim in 33 hours. Balderdash. 4 hours (What I’d written at the start of the review, adding unnecessary confusion) was enough to note a fair bit about how it differed from previous games in the franchise (Especially since I had played the rest of the series), and 33 hours? That was enough to finish several guild questlines, get most of the way through the main storyline, and enough time to get bored. In fact, with a few exceptions, I started to feel bored about 9 hours in, and remained somewhat bored for the majority of the time. I cared about the woes in Morrowind. I cared about the woes in Oblivion. I didn’t, particularly, care about the Dovahkin and the politics of Skyrim.

There are three indicators of when you should stop, gather your thoughts, and write things down. When the game is too buggy to continue (4 BSODs was 3 too many for Sword of the Stars 2.) When you are bored of what you are doing for a long period (The game is not engaging you. Be honest about that.) When you’re pretty sure you’ve got a good picture of the game. We’ll come back to that last one, because it’s the hardest to judge.

Should A Reviewer Finish A Game?

Where possible, yes. But if you are not invested in finishing the game, either somebody on your end fucked up by asking you to review it, or the game just isn’t that interesting in the first place. I was not, and still am not invested in finishing Skyrim, despite loving me some RPG action. However, something complicates this: Often, it is considered bad form to talk about later parts of a game in anything but generalities, and there’s this strange disconnect between readers who want to know if it’s actually worth slogging through a game to the end, and readers who GODDAMMIT SPOILERS SPOILERS SHUT UP WITH THE SPOILERS ALREADY. One of these groups tends to be a tadge more vocal and angry about it than the other, you may have noticed. And even putting a spoiler warning on the title and having a headline view won’t necessarily stop folks getting angry.

This does lead to some less than useful disincentive. Another one we’ll deal with a moment.

However, this varies from game to game. Some games can never be “finished”, so finishing a review is a case of seeing enough of how it plays to know what you’re talking about. Some games have a difficulty curve, or other design features that mean finishing it is going to take you forever (Older RPGs and Strategy games are particularly prone to this), so it’s unlikely you’re going to be able to talk about the endgame. And sometimes, the game makes it not worth the time it’s going to take… The phenomenon known as Grindfest. For example, I’d be surprised if many folks who looked at the .//HACK games actually finished them before review. Not all, because some folk are that dedicated and good, props to them, but many. Because god-damn, that series has some serious grind. Does that mean they’re not good? Matter of taste. But it does mean they’re more difficult to completely review.

How Quickly Does The Review Need To Be Finished?

Ah, this, this is a problem! And I have good news… And bad news. The bad news, first, is that, the later you write a review, the less people will care. Many will think that they’ve gotten a good picture from a day one review, but… This isn’t necessarily the case (In fact, “Day One Review” is often used as an insult, claiming that the review is biased. We’ll talk about that another time.) Skyrim, once again, returns (Yes, there’s a reason I reprinted that one today.) You see, the review was written during a very infamous patch… You know the one. The one where dragons flew backwards, and armour that was meant to be weak to something was strong to it, and vice versa (A misplaced negative number symbol was the cause of the latter, by the way, and it was fixed.) Did that affect the review? Not particularly. In fact, re-reading it, I’m not as sure why it got the hate it did (Even after the correction). I was much nicer to it than I could have been. But it could have.

To take another (and seemingly better) example: You can get an idea of how Half Minute Hero plays from the first hour. But that’s not as useful as you’d think, because the game changes. If you just went by Hero 30, you’d miss the other game modes, how they differ, and extra story that you can think about. You would miss, in short, a large portion of the game you’re meant to be reviewing. Whoops. Big whoops.

The good news is that, in the case of games that take more time to review, people are more patient. PR folks will understand if you take two weeks, or even a month to review a large game. Editors on a publishing schedule less so, sadly.

The point I’m trying to make here is that, the bigger the game, the longer you should take over it. And that although day one issues should be acknowledged and discussed (Especially in the case of trainwreck day ones), they shouldn’t dominate your review.

Am I Missing Something Important?

This is an important issue. Make sure. Half Minute Hero was a good example, and another? SWYDS2015. That arrow is obvious. It leads to more options. But some folks apparently missed it (Not naming names, but it happened.) And so they missed the game getting progressively weirder as it goes on. This, as much as anything else, is a factor in how long you play the game before review. And I could cite many more examples where the game changes in some important fashion later in the game. Hell, one of the first would be the first Ultima, which had a space battle segment late in the game because… Well, I don’t actually know for sure. It was pretty jarring. Might and Magic pulled a similar trick with their first game worlds, CRON and VARN (Stale Spoiler: They’re not, strictly speaking, planets.)

These factors sound simple… But unfortunately, the variety of games, and the tricks developers like to play (Even today), means that you will always find edge cases. It’s part of the reason reviewing is not as simple as it looks. It’s part of the reason why a good review takes time and effort. Mistakes will, undoubtedly, be made. We’ll go into that, other facets of reviewing, and how we all make mistakes another time.

On Games Journalism: We Are *All* Only Human. (Reprint)

This was originally posted on my personal blog in February of this year. There are only light re-edits.

For anyone keeping up with gaming news, Peter Molyneux recently got it in the pants over Godus. Bigtime. While some things needed to be said to the British GameDev Wunderkind, others didn’t, and it made me think of something we tend to forget: Everyone in the Games Biz, from the devs to the journos, to the players, are only human. And we tend to forget this. All of us.

The Devs

Warren Spector, from Martian Dreams.

Richard Garriott. Warren Spector. Graeme Devine. John Romero. These, and many more, are names to conjure with in the games industry. But we, both players and games press, tend to overlook the oddities and failings of these folk. Go look at Martian Dreams and Savage Worlds. You’ll find a literal self insert of Warren Spector in both. In fact, Wikipedia has a selection of his self-inserts on the page about him.

They’re good folks, but they’re not rockstars. They have their failings. Tabula Rasa was a flop. Thief: Deadly Shadows definitely had flaws. Even the series I’m currently Let’s Playing, Wipeout, Made Mistakes.

But we have a tendency to ignore this, and when we do discover folks have their human qualities, not necessarily good ones? We tend not to react too well. An extreme case in point: Phil Fish. Phil Fish is another dev who’s been raked over the coals, for the crime of… Being abrasive and temperamental. And because he is a public figure, a celebrity… The reaction is disproportionate.

But let’s look at the other two sides here.

The Journos

As someone who used to review, I’m just as guilty as every other game journo out there for being attracted by something that just… Doesn’t… Work. In my particular case, a prime example would be Nuclear Dawn.

If you can instinctively make sense of this, congratulations, you could be a Nuclear Dawn Commander!

What, you haven’t heard of it? But it rewards good team-based play, actually talking to other players, and… Oh, yeah, it didn’t do very well because it wasn’t accessible to the average player. See, the average player, for various reasons, just wants to god-damn play. They want to shoot mans, not stand in a corridor waiting for an enemy push they’re not sure will come. They definitely don’t want some asshole telling them what to do (Especially if said asshole turns out to be incompetent), and they don’t want to spend time guarding said asshole from the enemy, even if that’s a vital element of the game.

So what ended up happening was that whoever co-ordinated and/or had a decent team leader would steamroll the pubbies. Again. And Again. And Again. And lo, it Wasn’t Fun. So the servers were nigh ghost towns, and the game didn’t do nearly as well as its interesting gameplay could have gotten.

On the other end of things, for me, was Blur, by Bizarre Creations. Blur had problems. The track design meant that a reasonably skilled player could DNF (Did Not Finish) all the other racers on many tracks, people were having connection issues out the wazoo, and a third to half the vehicles were basically reskins. But the first part and the third in our equation, Players and Devs, came into play here…

Blur: The Big Boys Mario Kart. Oh ho. Ho ho ho ho ho.

…You see, Bizarre Creations also made Project Gotham Racing, which was, in many folks’ minds, a Good Series. So when a review score was lower than expected, they came out to complain. I didn’t get a whole lot of complaints (A whole ten, I think… I’m not a celebrity writer, never was), but, on the strength of those, my editor at the time claimed that I had been “experiencing day-one issues”.

Three months later, I issued a re-review (Something many game journos will tell you is a bad idea… And they would generally be right), and nobody appeared to care one way or another (A pattern that has held for all of the rare occasions a re-review has been issued by me). Bizarre, you see, had started copy-pasting responses to bug reports, claiming it was being looked at, while already talking about a sequel, and working on another game (Bloodstone, which also Had Problems).

They folded a few months after my re-review (A sad occasion, regardless.) Now, here comes the weird part. The players came out again, but they didn’t yell at me (Who scored the game relatively poorly). No, I opened up the letters page of PC Gamer, to find someone blaming them for the demise of Blur. This was pretty irrational, as PC Gamer had been a lot nicer than I had, and didn’t even mention many of the issues seen with the game.

It was a head-shaking experience. But it leads us nicely to the third part of our little equation.

The Players

The Bush-Wookie in his natural habitat.

In a very real sense, the players are a more diverse group than either the developers or gaming press. But what you see isn’t that diverse at all, because what most folks see of a playerbase are comments, forum posts, and meeting them in actual play… And the bad tends to stick out like a sore thumb.

The Mass Effect 3 Ending. Starbound’s “Caveman Tier” play. Fucking Bush-Wookies. The list of things players complain about, not always making sense, is immense. Let’s take the Bush-Wookies as an example.

Bush-Wookie is a nickname for the Recon class’s sniper builds in the Battlefield series, especially Bad Company 2, because their camouflage… Well, it makes them look like Wookies from Star Wars. Also because it helps them hide in bushes. Duh.

The problem is, a good sniper, in pretty much any multiplayer game, can lock down entire areas of the map. And it’s a massive pain in the arse to dig them out. Never is this more prevalent than in the Heavy Metal map of Bad Company 2.

The map doesn’t show it very well, but the middle capture point here is flanked by two hills, and there’s an AA gun in the village, just off to one side of the point itself. Snipers/engineers in those hills can fire as far away as either of the other capture points, and getting them out often requires air support, which… Oh. Oh. Again, we find that the fun of the game is instantly ruined for the average player if they’re up against a co-ordinated team. And, in the case of BC2, it doesn’t even have to be voice co-ordinated, because the classes make it fairly obvious where you should go. The snipers will graduate to the hills, because there’s a lot of cover and disguise up there. The engineers will graduate to the hills, because it’s relatively safe from the AA guns, and allows them to kill the vehicles they’re meant to. Meanwhile, the medics will assist the assaults, who will die in droves as they either try to take the next point along (Which will have everything coming their way), try to take B (Which will be protected by a force that can efficiently deny you entry if they’re even halfway competent), or try to get rid of those bloody snipers and engineers (Who will come back to said hills again and again, because it’s the best position for them)
In this map, among others, snipers are a massive force multiplier. It doesn’t help that playing a sniper as realistically as possible (Moving after shots, not revealing themselves as best they can, staying outside the range of the other classes) means that the sniper has a reputation as a player out to ruin other people’s fun.
It’s not an entirely unfair point either, because some of them genuinely are. Which is annoying, because there’s no easy solution. Battlefield 3 went with making Recon easier to spot at range, and more likely to get into short range firefights, but this makes playing a sniper a different experience, and, to some, not as fun.
Part of this problem though, is that players go in with expectations, and when those expectations aren’t met, they’re unhappy, whether because it wasn’t properly explained what sort of game it is, or because the mechanic was genuinely badly designed… Often, it’s because they just don’t get it. Good example of that: The Portal Gun. The Portal Gun doesn’t make portals on anything but white walls (Covered in moon-dust, apparently), and both games try to show you this. But, because they don’t explicitly tell you, and remind you, you get folks who completely fail to understand how it works.
Those people aren’t necessarily stupid. The game isn’t necessarily bad. But the players’ expectations coming into the game may be unrealistic, or the game might not communicating to the level of the average player.
Even this commentary on expectations is going to be subject to problems. I’ve seen these points examined before, and you know what I hear when they’re discussed?
Entitled. No Moron Left Behind Policy. I Shouldn’t Need A Tutorial, Or To Read The Manual.
Yeah, okay, players can be entitled (Oh, dear lord, they can be entitled!) It only takes a quick look at comments on negative reviews to see that (“How DARE you give X a 6/10! It’s CLEARLY PERFECT!”). But many of these are knee-jerk reactions, whether on the part of devs, or players, or journos, and there’s no easy fix for any of it.
No, really. We could say “Devs, please try to be more human”, but that won’t work without players shifting their worldview, and journos not instantly squeeing the moment Big Name is mentioned, and a lot of other things, too. We could say “Journos, please think more critically”, but that would require devs and players alike agreeing what that means… And many have seen how well that’s been going so far… We could say “Players, please try to read tutorials more/shift expectations”, but that’s massive generalisations about a very diverse group, and it can’t help but offend at least some of them.
We could say a lot of things, but a lot of it has to do with one basic principle, which I fully understand is hard for people (myself included). Be More Aware. For example, be aware that once a game has a flaw baked into it, it’s often going to be very hard, even if you genuinely are a rockstar group of super-developers, to change it and/or get it out. Be aware that sometimes, you’re not going to like the writing in a game, but that’s no reason to scream bloody murder (Sometimes quite literally). Be aware that not all games are for you, specifically, unless you truly want to learn how to play them. There’s a lot of “Be Aware”, and while all those examples were for players, there’s a lot of others for the journos and the devs too.
Funnily enough, this blog post isn’t about fixing the problem. It’s about Being Aware That It’s There.

On Games Journalism: The Complications (Edited Reprint)

This piece was originally printed on my personal blog, while planning the move back to freelance Game Journalism. Certain sections have been extended.

So, Joe Martin, a short while back, wrote a deservedly scathing piece on Games Journalism and Money , specifically the phenomenon (Which I myself have fallen victim to at least once in the past, for reasons I’m going to go into) of unpaid reviewing, often badly justified. I’d recommend you read that piece first, because it’s an actual concern, and it’s pretty widespread. Furthermore, I’m going to go into a bit of detail as to why this hurts the industry in general.

So, the problem of pay is one that has struck journalism all over, but has affected Games Journalism on pretty much an endemic basis, pretty much since the internet hit. There are also several factors that complicate things, and it’s those I want to go into a little.

There Is No “Ideal” Pay Scale

I thought I understood this game at about five hours. Then I hit the biiiig difficulty spike for completionists at around fifteen. I still play an hour or two every now and again, but it will be a long time before I finish it.

That you should be paid for your writing, and that the review copies are tools for your job, not the pay itself, is indisputable. It is a product you are meant to review, for your job. But there are only two types of payscale out there: Flat rate, and per [X Period]. Neither of them are ideal for games reviewing. Let’s start with per hour, to illustrate the point.

Let us say I am paid £6.75 an hour (Pretty close to the minimum wage for my country) for reviewing one of two games. One of them takes four hours to complete (Allowing a complete picture of the game), another can be completed in thirty hours, but a complete picture of how the game works may take up to fifty. Bam, instant lack of incentive to choose the smaller (But possibly better) game. It doesn’t help that, unless it’s on Steam, your editor can’t actually check how many hours you’ve played unless all work is done in the office. As any freelancer can tell you, this mostly isn’t where you’re doing things from.

The same applies to a flat rate, but the other way around… I am encouraged to pick the smaller game to review, because it will give me a better return on my writing. It must also be noted that how buggy a game is can further skew this, one way or the other. Sword of the Stars 2, for example, brought my computer to a BSOD four times when I reviewed it, and if that had screwed my computer? Well, then either the editor has to fork out for replacements (Providing the company has such policies, and really, since they’re also tools of work, they technically should), or you’re out of pocket for not only the review (Which won’t be able to be technically finished), but also the replacement parts.

“What about a sliding scale?” Ah, well that disincentivises the editors and owners from larger games. They have to pay you more, for a larger product.

Personally, I’m okay with a good flat rate, and so are most folks I know. But it’s not ideal, and I doubt it ever will be. But so long as I feel compensated for the hours of work, I’m good. Of course, this segment applies mainly to places with multiple writers, and for freelancers wishing to work for said places. For writers who wish to go it alone… It’s somewhat different.

Many Editors Won’t Take Ex-Unpaid Writers

You may like my writing, you may not. I hope you do, because I enjoy writing, and I enjoy talking about games. But the very fact that I have, in the past, gambled on a startup which has pulled this unpaid (Oh, but we’ll pay you if the site starts paying out!) bullshit has, and will bar me from writing for many paid sites.

In my defence, I will say that unemployment makes you do desperate things at times, reaching for any olive branch that will even have a chance of getting you out of the dole queue. But it also needs to be said that punishing the potential writer for taking such a gamble, out of desire for entering a field that, quite frankly, isn’t amazingly friendly to newbies (Due to limited paid positions, and a relatively low turnover in writers) is Not Cricket.

Judge a writer by their writing, by their passion, their style, and their eye. Please don’t judge a writer for falling for promises, because as it stands, it’s not easy to get in to the treehouse.

Why It’s Hard To Get Into The Paid End

A selection from … Most of these adverts can and will use the language in Joe’s article. Oh, it’s always so fun to scroll through the- [shoots self]

Go google game writing jobs. I’m a member of a LinkedIn group for video game writers. I search every now and again. And 90% of what you find will effectively be these unpaid internships. Even many of the “paid” positions will either have some restrictive conditions, or will have catches. I’m looking at one right now that isn’t paid in the work sense, but offers $30 for the “best contributor of the month”. Of the month. I’m looking at another, and I don’t actually see a mention of pay beyond its existence. I may ask them what, exactly, they’re paying… But I don’t expect a very useful answer.

I can remember the last time PC Gamer made a call for new freelancers. because I sent a piece in. I can’t recall getting a reply back, though. And you can guarantee a lot of writers applied. We’ve already mentioned low turnover on paid sites, but another problem is knowing which sites pay. Because you can guarantee jobsites like Indeed or LinkedIn aren’t too helpful. You can definitely guarantee many places and groups specifically for game journalism are going to be a fucking slog, because all of them, to some extent or another (With an average of “Two hours before potentially finding an actual paid job on a given day) suffer from the problem I’ve already mentioned.

As to going it alone, it’s decidedly difficult. No matter what people will tell you, you have to advertise. You have to push yourself out there to get noticed, and, if you’re going the crowdfunded route, to get paid. In a very real sense, people will resist this, not only because there’s this (false) perception it’s not a real job (More on that below), but because even the majority of folks who have a stable income will, on some level, resent the idea of paying for what manifestly appears free. They resent adverts, but, paradoxically, won’t support a writer to ensure said adverts don’t happen, and that the articles keep coming. And there is this perception that any nonstandard job that requires a Patreon or the like to stay alive is “Not real work, just begging.” Let’s discuss that for a moment.

It’s Not A “Real” Job (AKA “Fuck You, Got Mine”)

I’m writing this one from a mainly UK perspective, but it’s true nearly everywhere that, to many folks (Including our “lovely” Department of Work and Pensions), writing reviews, much less games journalism, isn’t a “real” job. Never mind that breach of contract is a real thing. Never mind that reviewing and games journalism has a code of ethics. Never mind that, if you’re doing the job, you should get paid for it. Getting advocacy for rights to the pay that you deserve is an uphill struggle, because the majority of folks who could advocate for you, who could punish potential employers for an unlawful (and unethical) internship contract, aren’t going to, because people still think of games as this limited, almost whimsical field.

“Oh, you play games for money? How quaint.”

Yeah, tell that to the QA Team who are tearing their hair out (sometimes literally), right this very minute, when they’re told “Oh, we’ll wait for the Console QA team to report this bug before we take it seriously” (An actual thing I have heard from at least one QA lead, although I will protect the sources). Tell that to the copywriters, panicking because there’s no way anyone’s going to buy this thing the company rushed, no matter how they dress it up, all over a fucking release date. And tell that to me, who lost at least one computer in the line of reviewing, who has had companies stop talking to him because he wasn’t afraid to say that their product was deeply flawed , and who has been told at times that 33 hours is nowhere near enough to have an idea of how to review Skyrim… Despite the fact that the game can be completed in less than 20 if you don’t faff about, and a number of other factors that conspire to say “Why yes, actually, you can get enough of a picture in 30 hours to review quite a lot of games.”

It All Ties Together

Image Source: An article by The Drum on “The Ad Tech Minefield”. Only somewhat fitting, but still…

Of course, this leads to a gigantic interrelated clusterfuck. We’re saturated in potential viewpoints, and that’s good, variety in viewpoints is useful for reviews! Problem is, for the newcomer to the field (Or even someone like me, who did 3 years of reviewing and games writing), it’s not easy to get paid. You’re going to get a lot of heartbreak, a lot of applications with no reply, and you’re going to be told that it isn’t a real job. It’s tempting to write somewhere for free, but the very act of doing so, no matter how much it builds your skills from practice (And hopefully mentoring) is going to close doors on you.

It’s small wonder so many folks are trying to pay their bills through crowdfunding, and though I don’t hide things behind a paywall, make no mistake… I have bills to pay too, and if I can’t pay them, I can’t keep writing. Because we’re not a friendly field… In fact, right now, we’re a minefield. And it’s going to take a lot of work to dig out those mines. I want to work toward that, and so do many others. David Wolinsky, who has tirelessly been interviewing games industry figures to combat misinformation about the field. Lana Polansky, who covers Alt-Games and the oft-forgotten artistic side of the industry. Tanya DePass, who shows us that diverse viewpoints allow games to grow, to reach more people, and to speak to more people. Rock Paper Shotgun, one of the relative success stories, who, just like me, aren’t afraid to talk about The Publisher Silence, celebrate games for what they are, not just how much they cost. And many more. There are people out there who want the games industry to improve, for it to gain respect. There are people out there who, like you, are groaning in metaphorical agony when a game is released in a state best described as “A buggy, poorly written, corner-cutting mess” for £40.

But for the games industry itself to support them is unethical. For governments to support them takes away from education, healthcare, and other things that, were they to degrade, we’d notice. You want change? Support good games. Don’t pre-order. Look for diverse views on a product before buying, to see whether it’s really for you… And help keep those view diverse, by supporting a writer. Doesn’t have to be much, individually. Because, even in my own bailiwick of PC Gaming, there’s 14 odd million folks who play. And the more who help, the less an individual “needs” to pay to support better games writing.