On Goodwill, And Why I Can’t Go Back To Sword Coast Legends Yet.

Oh yay, we get to see more of this guy rather than a DM mode. The joy on my face is comparable to his.

Oh yay, we get to see more of this guy rather than a DM mode. The joy on my face is comparable to his.

So, back when I reviewed Sword Coast Legends, I said that, to give it a fair shake, I would return to it when DM Mode was updated, as was promised 10 days after release. I’ve already said that this was bad communication and planning, but I was willing to give it a chance. Indeed, many people who bought it, bought it because hey, it promised a DM mode. But development is fluid, and fluid, as we all know, has a nasty habit of getting on your nicest shirts if you’re not careful. Such is the case with Sword Coast Legends.

Community Pack 3 was meant to fix DM mode, or rather, add some basic functionality into it that was going to make it less restrictive and boring than it is now (You can put monsters down, and make basic quests, but that’s pretty much it. No dungeon modelling. No script, as such. No AI fuckery, beyond the absolute basics.) But, for whatever reason, a free expansion has instead been planned as the priority. And, again, it took until after the time had passed to state this.

So, let’s talk goodwill. Let’s talk about how it’s a finite resource, and how this is another fine example of companies failing to, or being pushed into (It is not yet clear.) making moves that drain that goodwill.

Firstly, this was not communicated until yesterday. Communication is important, and I can understand why the devs and publishers might sit on this news. After all, it’s happened many a time before. There would be an outcry. Unfortunately… Delaying an important communication like this gives a bad impression of everyone involved. It implies folks aren’t on top of things, or that All Is Not Well. This drains goodwill faster than “Whups, we fucked up, we are fixing it”, but some folks seem to believe that game fans, and indeed purchasers, have a short memory. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. In RPG and Strategy circles especially, folks remember the fuckups for a lot longer than you might think. I still remember how Dark Sun had a game breaking story bug, for example. Or how people reacted to Master of Orion 3. And I can look it up any time. This isn’t the first time I’ve said “Communicate better” either… See above.

Secondly, even with the mollification that it’s a free expansion, precisely because development is fluid… There is no guarantee CP3 will materialise. It relies upon the studio making sales. It relies upon the studio keeping up with the goodwill, and it relies, basically, upon more factors than just “We decided we wanted to focus elsewhere.” I invite the publishers and devs of Sword Coast Legends to remember Arkham Origins, which also decided to focus on DLC over fixing a core feature. That DLC was not free, it’s true. But already, people are reacting in a way that’s all too familiar to me. It’s been played out before, with many a game. It doesn’t help that the Rage of the Demons DLC will involve… Drizzt Do’Fucking’Urden. This is a goodwill draining move in and of itself, because… Drizzt being in anything more than a cameo role usually involves him dominating the plot, to the detriment of pretty much the rest of the story. Of course, I’ve had a few months to potentially bitch about that being a thing, but honestly, if the DM mode actually came first? I wouldn’t care about Drizzt.

I’d like to continue saying “The developers continue to support this game”, because, technically? Sure, an expansion is support, in that the game is being added to. But goodwill, and its companion, trust, are important. Games, as much as some folks like to pretend otherwise, are a popularity game: You can’t get a game sold unless people know about it, and you can’t keep selling or making games when nobody trusts you to deliver. Moves like this erode trust, so, for any other developers or publishers who read this?

Don’t do this. You can look up what happened to other games that did this, and the answer is never “They did well despite these decisions and lack of communication.” The My Alibi Glitch in Arkham Origins is alive and well. Blur never got a sequel. There’s an entire graveyard of games out there, whose epitaph reads “They squandered trust.” And there’s also a few allegorical hospital beds waiting for some bigger publishers who just keep squandering trust like this.

Don’t. Do this. You can be better than this, games industry.

You can read the CP3/Expansion post in question here , and the original announcement of the development plan here.

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2015: “Dark Cloud Risin'”, 2016: “Don’t Give Up”

So, 2015. What a year, eh? Let’s go over the fuckups, the foibles, and some of the nice points, shall we? Because it does highlight some things that need to change.

The Year Of Shoddy Releases

2015 has seen an increase in big budget releases that can best be described as “Rushed”, “Shoddy”, and, in some cases, “Laughable.” Arkham Knight’s release was, let’s face it, a trainwreck, and even after release, it was… Disappointing, to say the least. It says a lot that I had an entire article ready to say why I wasn’t going to review Arkham Knight even if it was properly fixed when WB said it would be, and… Well, that didn’t really prove necessary, because the sexist writing, shitty foreshadowing (I won’t say who the Knight is, but it’s really easy to guess), increased grind for the sake of padding (Hi, Inexplicably Jigsaw-Like Riddler!) and bugs (some of which, by all reports, persist to this day, much like Arkham Origins). Asssassin’s Creed: Unity has become almost memeworthy with how badly it ran on release, HoMM VII had its fair share of problems, Netcode problems abounded in games like Driveclub and CoD: Advanced Whatever The Hell The Word Machine Came Up With Today, and, overall, it’s been more notable when a AAA game has been relatively free of flaws (Alien: Isolation and The Evil Within… Note I said relatively.)

Of course, if it was just the bugs, I’d be okay. But unlike many of us, who have rightfully consigned Battlefield: Hardline to the deepest parts of the Styx, I remember how, on release, the game’s design disincentivised nonlethal play, and made a bunch of castings that could, in any sane universe, be called something like “Ever So Slightly Racist.” The Current Big Three (For they do seem to flux over the years) of EA, Ubisoft, and Warner Brothers… Are not doing so well. I highly suspect, although I cannot confirm, that refund requests have been the highest in recent memory as a result of these many and varied fuckups.

It wouldn’t entirely be fair to say it’s all them, though. I’ve seen the graphical glitches of Sunset, and the inconsistent writing. I’ve seen Hidden Object Puzzle Adventures not only not improve, but actually get worse. 17 flowers and 12 gems over three screens, Mystery of A Lost Planet? Some of which are extremely pixel hunty, or right next to the sodding UI? Or perhaps Contract With The Devil, whose conflict between writing and aesthetic, and lack of colorblindness support, led to a five minute long rant on twitter? Budget does not excuse poor puzzle design. It doesn’t excuse a lack of such a basic accessibility feature as colorblindness support (Although it helps not to pick two extremely similar colours for your “Make all the colours not touch each other” puzzle.) It definitely doesn’t excuse the fact that of the HOPAs I’ve seen this year, I can count on one hand the ones where somebody isn’t damselled, and, much like Princess Peach in Mario 1, disappears for the majority of the game, leaving the player not a single fuck to give. And, of course, there’s the actual shovelware. I’m not going to name names, but there’s been an absolute slew of… Well, tat. It’s by no means limited to AAAs and AAs, although that’s where it’s most visible.

You can stop pretending everything is fine, games industry. It’s really not, it’s just that up till relatively recently, there hasn’t been as much scrutiny. Speaking of scrutiny…

Rise (And Fall… And Rise… And Fall) Of The Internet Shitlords

If games existed in a vacuum, some strange, objective reality where only the games themselves were there, judging each other, this probably wouldn’t have been a topic. But no, human beings, overall, have also somehow managed to become shittier. Except, once again, it wasn’t so much the fact that humans actually have gotten shittier, more that it’s gotten, like the games industry, to the point where it’s obvious. You’d think I was referring to Hashtag Fucking Gooble Grump (Pretty much every person involved with the games industry knows what I’m referring to, although I know most folks outside that circle neither know nor give two shits unless it affects them directly), but no… 2015 seemed to be the year where abusers and assholes, atheismugs and fanatics of various stripes have crawled out of the woodwork. Or rather, once again, people are finally noticing that this shittiness exists.

The DWP Disability Living Allowance Suicide Statistics. A veritable cornucopia of ill-justified police shootings. The continuance of “The War on Terror”, despite the fact it’s pretty much established we’re making more people terrorists by doing so. I could go on, and on, and on, and on about the shittiness, the broken-ness… But let’s talk celebrity for a second. Let’s talk Star Citizen. Let’s talk Early Access.

Star Citizen is, no bones about it, a dangerously ambitious game. It’s a risky investment, but it’s quite clearly making progress. Am I saying it’s going to succeed? Honestly, I have no fucking idea. I am not a game designer. But due to the level of investment people have put into the game’s development, and due to the fact that the transparency in the devblogs and broadcasts and the like show what a fustercluck the development of a big game is (And make no mistake, it’s not uncommon for big teams to get fusterclucky by their very nature), there’s a largely invisible Sonic Vs Mario type PR holy war, between the “Development is so slow, it has to be a scam!” crowd and the “This game is going to be the last word in video games, STFU!” crowd.

Naturally, prominent faces have arisen everywhere for all of these issues. None of them will be named. Few of them deserve to be named, because quite a few of them are the same as the extremists that have made 2015 such a depressing shithole for every other poor sod out there. Funnily enough, a litmus test of whether they’re worth listening to is the proportion and volume of such seemingly normal words and phrases as “Censorship”, “Free Speech”, and “But do you have PROOF?”

Net result: An internet ad world filled with misery and stupidity, with the usual cultural and fiscal inertia making governments and companies slow to react.

There’s A Light… Over At The Frankenstein Place…

Of course, there have been some awesome things happening. Undertale was pretty cool, subverting RPG tropes somewhat (Mainly in the story, and that not attacking is the way to the best ending.) More games are including women and PoC protagonists, diversifying. LGBT games are on the rise, further expanding the area that games can reach (Such as Read Only Memories, one of the few games I can think of this year that bothered to ask for your pronouns), and people are getting that game design is a holistic thing, at least in part because game making is, itself, becoming more accessible. People are starting to make moves on internet harassment, and shitlordery. Sites are beginning to realise what a pain in the arse ‘pretty numbers’ are becoming, and actual discussions of games industry ethics, employment practices, how the recession is affecting things (Make no mistake, we are still in a recession, and many EU countries are handling it… Er… In a similar way to the way they handled it last time (To no effect)), and accessibility issues.

There is light. But it needs to grow. So all the folks who are actually trying to make progress, to make games more accessible and interesting and talk about things that need talking about? Keep it up!

The folks who seem to think “Because it ‘worked’ before, it’s still working now, why won’t everybody realise this, shut up, and live in our perfect world?” Guess what. It didn’t really work before. It’s not actually working now, not even giving the appearance of working properly.

But let’s imagine, for a moment, this glorious future we could build. Games would actually be… GASP… Be more accessible than they are without being “dumbed down”! They could be cheaper, because they’re more tightly focused! And, because they’re reaching more people, and because less people are asking for refunds, and because they’re cheaper, more people would buy games, and talk about games. And in this bright future, they wouldn’t have to fear being dogpiled, or devalued because they’re the “wrong” shape or skin tone, or not following outdated binary gender preconceptions. And because they’re not afraid, the games could talk about more things too! And the people making games wouldn’t have to fear kneejerk reactions from their fans! Edutainment would be a proper thing again, but this time, with games that aren’t afraid to tackle subjects from different viewpoints! Oh, how glorious it would be, to have games that explore sexuality over the centuries, how it’s shifted and changed from culture to culture, from decade to decade. Or games about utopias! It’s a common (mis-)conception that a utopia, by its nature, is boring to write.

But think about this for a second… If it weren’t for the ending of Antichamber, the entire game would have been positivity, and encouraging you to beat its obstacles in a friendly manner, and telling you “Hey, at your own pace, my friend, it’s all good here!” Isn’t that… A utopia, of sorts? It’s certainly not a standard one, but hey, what’s standard in games? One of the first art games was about an alien bee-thing that did different things to flowers depending on where you touched them, and it had a score counter. The first “multi-media experience” was a C64 spinning-“plates”-and-dodging-things game narrated by Jon Pertwee, and with music by Ian Dury. Games could experiment. We could… Talk about them. With more people. And at least some of them, preferably a lot of them, would have interesting things to say that were cohesively designed, so even the “fun” games… We could learn from. And maybe… In discussing things… We’d find new ideas. Ideas like a good form of government, or using games to test the feasibility of colonising a new world… Games that weren’t just games, but humanity reaching out, with their collective minds, and saying:

Hey… Those stars aren’t actually that far away. And now that we’ve had a proper look at things? This world ain’t so bad after all, now that we’ve looked after ourselves properly. Let’s have a nice… Relaxing… Stretch… And enjoy everything

In a truly ideal world, I would be out of a job, because we’d all be talking, comfortable and self aware and unafraid to explore other spaces. But I’m 100% okay with that, because my golden handshake would be… Participating in that world. And, okay, this is the 80s child in me, but it also has to have personal jetpacks of some description. If only to throw a jaunty two finger salute at Tomorrow’s World. See! We got them! Eventually!

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On Games Journalism – Problems With Investigation.

This is a tough one for me to write, because it’s not only an admittance that not all is well with Games Journalism (The easy part), but I have to make sure this doesn’t sound like making excuses (The tough bit.) But let’s begin with why this article exists. It begins with a common accusation levelled against Game Journalism… Even by fellow Game Journalists.

“Why do folks repeat stories, and not do the digging on their own? Why aren’t there more articles probing the industry?”

It’s worded in many different ways, but that’s the general gist of it. And I’m going to break down for you why this is so. Keep in mind, this is going to be acknowledging multiple problems, in many different places, not all of which are in the province of Games Journalism specifically. Let’s begin.

Access, Access, Access

It is no secret that developers and publishers do not like bad things printed about them, especially if they are true. In fact, it’s true about everybody. It’s a thorny problem, and it’s compounded by the fact that, when it comes to examining things going on within the industry, they are the primary source. In fact, if it weren’t for employees wishing to anonymously come forward, and the occasional hint of a lawsuit, they would be the only source. They are certainly the only source that has final say on whether an outlet gets the review copies without having to put it on the expenses part of their budget, and interviews that would be on the record.

In fact, this is one of the major problems facing a game journalist who knows damn well something is rotten in the state of Devmark… The Eerie Silence. At least one outlet (Rock, Paper, Shotgun) has, in the past, directly noted that this is a tactic commonly used with awkward questions (The Silence: An Update, by John Walker), and many others have (for various reasons) had to write the words “We have reached out to the [developer/publisher] for comment. [End of sentence, no mention of a reply]”, or some variation thereof.

As much as I want developers and publishers to feel unafraid to talk to me, this will never really be the case, especially with the ones who know (As a collective) that they have practices or attitudes that are less than stellar. Making this worse is the fact that, when a developer or publisher blacklists you, you are most likely the last person to know, although you will suspect quite early on. Sometimes, you will never get confirmation unless someone reaches out. And that is generally unlikely.

Another fun thing with access is that, for the best investigation, you need to be on the ground floor. You need to be there. That’s not something that magically happens. You don’t wave a Make-Nice-Wand and an invitation magically appears. There’s a lot of diplomacy involved, sometimes a little luck, and a lot of struggling. The article on attitudes at the DigiPen Institute (Sex at a Four-Year Video Game College, by Jagger Gravning for Vice), for example, was not a case of “And Lo, The Writer Was Invited To See Stuff.” Considering the subject matter, it takes little imagination to see ways this article could have disappeared between “plan” (Not all of these investigations are planned, per se) and execution.

And, of course, they had to go there, where the story was… Which leads us nicely to another problem… One I’ve talked about (At length) before…

That ABBA Song… That Fucking ABBA Song.

I hope you know the one I mean… Many of you will, because for a while, it was quite fashionable to bawl out “MONEY MONEY MONEY… IT’S SO FUNNY… IN A RICH MAN’S WORLD!” when properly lubricated on a Saturday night. But now that I’ve made it clear, let’s explain, for the privileged and stubborn thinkers, why this is a problem.

I would love to write things examining nice workplaces. I would love to hold up examples of companies that succeed, and do so because of their progressive practices. It would help convince people that yes, you can make money, and not have to crunch, and not have to be an Old Boy’s Club. But there is a problem. A big one, completely unrelated to the problem of whether a company or institution wishes to talk to you in the first place.

You have to get there. Now, if you are working for a larger group, there is a higher chance that you will have the scratch to do such a thing… But for the majority of folks, including commissioned writers (As opposed to regular staff writers)… That isn’t the case. So you have two options. Only one of them is practical for many, only one of them is preferable. They are mutually exclusive.

The first is to be invited, all expenses paid. This, you may think, is the preferable one. But this is the practical one. Why would that be? Well, let’s remember the most common put-down for a review or preview that a reader disagrees with:


Or some variation.

It’s blackly funny, actually. I’m pretty sure there are developers and publishers out there who’d love to show such things off, to as many people as possible, because it gets the word out. But what good is a message, however positive, that people don’t trust? That people don’t feel was earned by blood, sweat, and tears that, to be quite honest, isn’t really necessary? The preferable one would be to have the scratch or support beforehand to be able to do this… Oh. Wait. I know I don’t have that kind of bloody dough. And nor, in fact, do the vast majority of games writers. Funny, that.

And yes, there will be folks out there who shit on such sentiments regardless. I think we’ve covered that already (and will again). Unfortunately, that doesn’t really help when many of us, due to the inconsistent demands of our reader base, don’t feel confident accepting the promise of “Transport paid, food and drinks offered” type press events. Regardless of whether we are actually swayed by such things… I won’t, and can’t speak for everybody, but I know at least a few of us laugh, sarcastically and evilly, whenever someone says being paid by someone else to do our jobs biases us.

I’ll let you in on something that I will admit is not particularly nice of me. When Tim Willets was making his “Lineage of Awesome” speech at Eurogamer 2011, about Rage? I couldn’t help but snicker behind my hand. The speech was hype, pure and simple, and, in its way, hilarious considering I had been shooting largely identical masked blokes who were all voiced by perhaps two cockneys in a ruined building of the type we’ve all seen before not half an hour previously. Hype. I have a long held distrust of hype (Since before I became a games writer, in fact), while accepting that yes, it’s a thing all media have to do to get heard in this modern day of information overload and the fatigue and distrust of advertising, and it’s a thing that I am just as complicit in as the rest of the games industry.

Is that undiplomatic? Hell yes. Is it something that may not endear me to the folks at Id Software? Ohhhh yes. Equally, I’m not going to endear myself to fans of Rage. And I’m not going to endear myself to people who didn’t like Rage, but pre-ordered it, by pointing out that you fell for the hype. In a sense, that’s okay. It was, in its way, well crafted hype. It talked about what Id knew best, and them showing that they did certain things very well… Specifically, they are very good at making the experience of shooting mans a technically impressive one. Note I said technically impressive. All the MegaTextures in the world aren’t going to help you if the person buying your game gives not a single fuck about that, and instead gets pissed off that you didn’t actually put a real ending in.

PS – There are good things about Rage. There are good things about Tim Willets, who was a funny guy who said funny things that were intentionally funny in said speech. There were reasons why Rage didn’t have a proper ending. I am using this as an extreme example of how little other people paying for me to see supposedly shiny things matters compared to what you actually produce.

But this talk of inconsistency allows me to mention the Human Factor here.

You, The Reader. Yes, You. No, Not You.

Hoo boy. This part’s tough, for a lot of reasons. In a sense, my privilege (Being a white dude who is currently the same gender wot he was born as) “protects” me from this. Not making it so easy as typing some angry, ill considered words and hitting “THIS COMMENT FUCKING OWNS YOU (Regardless of whether it actually does)” also helps. But it never works forever, and sooner or later, someone pays the piper for saying things that aren’t popular (Or, more accurately, do not appear popular), but need to be said. And there’s not always a rhyme or a reason behind it either.

So, let’s mention a simple thing. Let’s see how far people get along this chain of thought before they start forming a “But, but, but…” in their minds. Sexism is bad. In fact, thinking someone’s opinion is worth less because they’re different than you is, in general, bad. They can be wrong, sure. But there are good reactions to someone being wrong, and there are bad reactions to someone being wrong. There are also incredibly bad, illegal, and/or highly fucking stupid ways to react.

Female Technology Journalists Report Abuse Is Still The Name Of The Game
Racist Groups Use Computer Gaming To Promote Hate

Those are just two pieces of writing, among a large pool, of prejudice in “our” industry. There are others, and they are pretty easy to find with only a tiny amount of Google-Fu. Especially in the past year, where these issues have come to the forefront of public attention because… Of the defensive reactions of the very same people who see nothing wrong with this, or ignore that this is happening, after they have done these things, and continue to do these things.

Part of this, sadly, is precisely because people care so much about video games. I’m writing this, fully expecting a huge fucking tidal wave of hate from haters who don’t want it generally known that they are haters (Who, bee tee dubs, generally reveal what haters they are by doing that. Something that doesn’t appear to have gotten through to at least some of them), with another wave coming from another direction of people who are afraid they could be lumped under this category, and think I’m talking about them, when, in fact, I’m not.

And it can apply to things that seem inconsequential to people who don’t play video games as well. Give a “pretty number” that’s seen as “too” low, or “too” high (Make no mistake, part of the reason I dislike “Pretty Numbers” is because reviewing is subjective), and people who seem to think it’s their god-given duty to defend their viewpoint that it’s the best thing since sliced bread (Until, you know… It isn’t anymore) will swarm from the woodwork with such well crafted satire as “BEST TITY 0/10 [negative review]” or insight like “You, [sir/madam/git] have completely misunderstood what [collective group of people who the writer of the comment has largely never met] were intending with what was obviously a masterpiece because [sometimes useful disagreements go here, but don’t lay money on it over, say, missing what was being said versus what they heard].”

Remember that thing about a common refutation of a review people disagree with being “Oh, you were paid to say that by someone”? Yup, that one’ll come out too, especially if it’s positive. If it’s negative, it’s usually something silly like “Doing it for the clicks.”

Misunderstanding criticism, and the goal of criticism, is a pretty common damn thing. When people say “You can like a thing, but not all of a thing”, they roll their eyes. Let’s give you an example.

I like Jonathan Coulton’s “Skullcrusher Mountain.” You may think that this song is the best thing since sliced bread. Or you may go the other way, and say that it is saying some things about relationships that are p. fucking terrible (IE – The song contains forced consent, which is a Bad Thing, leading to Bad Relationships and potentially Bad Times In Court if you copy the bloody song.) I agree with both these points. And I am, funnily enough, not being a hypocrite for doing so. Because both viewpoints are right. I appreciate the artistry behind the song, because it was intended to be a song about a Bond Villain pursuing a dysfunctional romantic relationship in the way they would (Because many characters in a Bond story, including James Bond himself, are misogynist fuckhead assholes). But that doesn’t change the fact that it is not a good song for people who have experienced any form of forced consent to hear, and that assuming this is a healthy attitude to emulate is capital-B Bad.

Explained like that, most of you will nod, and be perfectly fine with me continuing to enjoy the song, because I am aware of the shitty side of it. Some of you, however, will take an extreme position on this for or against. This is human nature. We’re all different. And we have different reasons for doing things.

You may be wondering what this has to do with investigative gaming journalism, the type meant to drag into the light the less than stellar aspects of the Industry that, if we want to do better, we should generally try and stop and/or make folks aware of.

Tell you what, go look at those investigative articles again. For or against a thing, and including the ones you found with your Google-Fu. Look at the comments section. Then think about how easy it is for people to yell at you about something on Twitter. Directly. Or bitch about you behind your back. Or make death threats.

Then realise that this is not a new story. Go look at other socially charged things, past and present. Look at how people reacted.

…The people who dare to write about these things are generally either really fucking brave, or think “Hey, I’m fucked anyway, why not go the whole hog and get it out before some fucker tries to knife me over it.” Sometimes both.

This leads us, quite nicely, onto the final point

Baby Steps, Folks… Baby Steps

Cultural and social change is not a sudden thing. Make no mistake, many problems in the games industry have their roots in larger social and cultural problems or attitudes of varying shittiness and usefulness. Something can be shitty and good at the same time. It’s a difficult concept to swallow for many, I know, but bear with me here…

…And humanity doesn’t like, as a collective group, being told that something is wrong until they feel good and ready to admit it’s not working. We even have a name for it: Cultural Inertia. We even have a name for what happens when this doesn’t happen when maybe it should: Cultural Stasis, also known as Stagnation. We even have examples of when this happened in the past. For all that someone will inevitably make the “What Have The Romans Ever Done For Us?” joke from Life of Brian, Ancient Rome, as a culture, died, at least in part, because it couldn’t accept, as a culture, that it should move on from things it was doing that weren’t working. It’s not the whole story, as, much like everything we humans do (As a group), there’s messy bits, complicated bits, and both good and bad in there at the same time. But it’s nonetheless commonly accepted that this was something that definitely, without doubt, helped fuck over the Romans. One example of many, at least some of which we are either doing again, in the modern day (Oh, hello, Austerity!), or are doing over something that has never come up before.

We are, funnily enough, at a point where games can do good. But, equally funnily enough, there are shitty attitudes that hold it back. And they feed back on themselves unless folks try very hard to break the cycle. Here’s a seemingly innocuous example: Edutainment. Kid’s Games. Done well, that’s a thing that makes learning fun, that improves skills, and can change attitudes at a time where we human beings are most likely to change our attitudes (When we don’t have any, as such.)

Even games not designed with this specific attitude in mind can do this… Something I argued, quite persuasively, at an education expo when I was in Primary School, about King’s Quest IV and Mixed Up Mother Goose. Even if that was because I wanted to justify playing them… Y’know, right thing, wrong reasons (Another thing we humans do.) But it’s a segment of gaming, and games reviews, that is often ignored, and often shat on more heavily than “Games As Art.” It’s why I was pleasantly surprised to find them represented at Games Wales, because I sure as shit didn’t find any at Eurogamer when I last went, and I never hear about them at E3, or any of the other gaming events of the year.

There are things people can do about that. But it’s not something that you, the individual reading this, can do alone. Doesn’t matter who you are, social and cultural change is a group activity. I’m not going to pretend that talking about these things, or shouting at them, is going to do everything magically, be a band-aid that makes it all better. Because it isn’t. It’s my contribution to a group effort. It’s what I can do, and, considering I am a Games Journalist (Underpaid, good at writing words, talks to lots of people at once), it’s the most logical thing for me to do. If you’re a politician, you could be reading this and thinking “Huh! maybe I could talk to some folks I know and see if we can’t try and deal with X problem.” If you’re a developer or publisher, you could be thinking “How can I do a thing with development or publishing or PR that is better than I’ve been doing before?” If you are an educator, you could be thinking “How do I work this into my lesson plan?”

And you, the reader who, like me, probably can’t pay any of these people to help, or pay me so I can carry on doing my bit? All you need to do is listen, and think, and, as civilly as possible, discuss the things I’ve said with folks you know are also interested in such things, think about them, digest them. Spread the word, help raise awareness, as safely and constructively as you feel you’re able.

It would be nice if you spent a bit of your disposable scratch on helping me continue to write these things, because it helps me do my bit.

It would be nice if you helped campaign against harassment, and bad industry practices, because it helps those lawyers, and teachers, and politicians do their bit. It would also be nice if folks did more to keep ’em honest.

But I do not expect it of you because I cannot , reasonably, expect it of you. We all have our limits, and it would be dishonest to say that those limits are all equal, all high. In fact, part of the problem is that they aren’t, and those of us who are repeatedly told things need to be done feel that we aren’t doing enough.

My job is to say things about games and the games industry, and to not break laws or the social contracts of the culture to which I belong (Within limits) while doing so. Nothing more, nothing less. It is also my job to spread the word about such things, and sometimes that involves saying much the same things someone else is saying.

Your jobs are many, and varied, but the only one everyone is expected to do is learn, and grow as people, while acknowledging any limits you may have, and their sources.


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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.

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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!

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