[In this editorial, originally printed in Gamasutra's sister print publication Game Developer magazine and extended with further material here, magazine EIC Brandon Sheffield comments on the precarious nature of the developer/journalist relationship, and argues that game journalism shouldn't be a one-size-fits all endeavor.]
Developers and game journalists have a love-hate relationship. On the one hand, writers for the enthusiast press can drum up interest in a game among the hardcore. BioShock
is a notable example, wherein the dev team used an exclusive GameSpot preview to drum up interest in the game, which was as-yet unfunded.
This was a response to publishers thinking they didn't need to spend money on a successor to System Shock 2
, which was not the greatest financial success. In this case, the developer/journalist relationship worked quite well for the developers.
But then there are review scores. Developers often feel that journalists harp too much on one point or another, or that the score doesn't represent how they really feel, and myriad other misunderstandings. At the same time, developers seem to respect the journalists, insomuch as they often will feel that Metacritic ratings are an actual arbiter of quality, or in fact read reviews to influence a purchase.
Journalists, for their parts, often aspire to be developers, and possess a certain idolatry for anyone in a respected company, though they rarely understand exactly what it takes to do the job.
Who Are These People?
Here's what most game developers don't realize about game journalists. First, the grand majority have no training in criticism or journalism. You may not think this matters, but when you feel that a reviewer has unfairly focused too much on one element, such as lack of difficulty in a kid's game that wasn't designed for them, the problems start to come to the fore.
Most game journalists simply like games, and this is their "qualification" for working in the industry. They are fans, first and foremost, and they understand what they like and don't -- but they may not understand why, or how it's done, or how to express it with concrete examples.
Journalists generally don't understand the development process, what's simple to execute and what is not, and what can and can't be done. And realistically, they often don't have the time or interest to find out.
A related problem is subjectivity versus objectivity. I've seen many people, developers, and fans alike, call for more objectivity in game reviews. This is completely ridiculous. You don't expect the JRPG fan to like the new Madden
Games are subjective experiences, and that's part of what makes them special. That's what lends them the pretense toward art. All art is subjective! You can't ask for objectivity in game reviewing or criticism, it's simply not realistic. When you have a Madden
fan reviewing a Naruto
game, you're in serious trouble.
The current system that reviewers exist in is partially at fault. In fact, it's completely broken. These poor people have to review almost every game that comes out, and most of these persons are male, ages 22-35. As normal members of the human race, they like certain kinds of things, and don't like others. This means they necessarily have to review games within genres they have no interest in, or which aren't targeted toward them in any way.
This inevitability, plus the pressure of deadlines, plus the lack of formal training, can lead to exasperated reviewers, and less thorough and so-called "inaccurate" review scores.
The Fall Of Babel
On top of all this, you have the blogs. Much has been said about blogs and both the advancement and decline of journalism in general, so I won't address it too heavily. I will say that game blogs have the largest disregard for the English language, almost no fact-checking, and even less of an employee vetting process than do traditional game mags or websites.
It is common to see posts on popular game blogs which contain very few complete sentences, or which are poorly written to the point of the meaning being indecipherable.
On top of that, you have the "rumor as fact" posts, which once made, affect the tide of public opinion -- online opinion at least -- forever. When you have a "Sony announces PlayStation 4" post, it's tough for people to internalize the followup "actually it didn't" post.
On the other hand, blogs are great for getting information out about smaller titles, and are really the only place you can find something close to reporting -- that is to say investigation and rooting out of stories, which generally doesn't happen in traditional game journalism. This is partially because bloggers have more time, as they are often non-professionals, and they also don't sign as many NDAs as the rest of us.
The biggest revelation with the blogs is that the readers just don't care about quality in game journalism, by and large. There is simply not much incentive to do it right, when you can get a lot more hits by going the tabloid controversy route, and by parroting something another blogger said, or simply lifting whole paragraphs from other sources.
A New Hope
Now that you've got the extremely brief infodump of what's wrong with game journalism (I'm implicated in this as well, of course, but I can claim a cinema/television critical studies degree at least), here are my proposed solutions.
First, reviewers should not be striving for objectivity for objectivity's sake. If you can get certain reviewers to be known entities, and you understand their opinions, then you have something valuable.
As an example, Jeremy Parish from 1up/EGM has publicly stated often that he enjoyed every main-series Mega Men
game except 5
, which he can back up with personal experiences. So if he winds up liking or not liking Mega Man 9
, that will mean something. It will be for a reason.
Subjectivity is incredibly important to this equation. Even a better example would be Jerry "Tycho" Holkins of Penny Arcade fame. Millions of people read Penny Arcade and understand Holkins' opinions, likes, and dislikes.
When he has an opinion on something, you understand where he's coming from. Same goes for Ebert on movies. If you understand the journalists, you can measure their opinions against yours. But they need to be given the structure and vehicle through which to express this.
Legitimate, understandable criticism is an incredibly important step toward video games entering the mainstream entertainment sphere in full force. It's not that average people need to read reviews, but like with film reviews, criticism and analysis helps bring to light the terms, concepts, and methodology, not to mention the important creators. This is how awareness of auteur directors, and words like cinematography, or concepts like film editing trickled down into the minds of the average moviegoer.
If you're a film director, you don't have to tell your family what you do, they understand it. They may not know what a grip is, but it's a start. If you're a game designer, well, that's a different story, isn't it?
A scant few journalists do work in this direction, highlighting important advancements in development, getting developers' names known, writing subjectively, attempting criticism, and advancing the state of the art.
Pay attention to who these people are. If you give these people your acknowledgment, support, and information, we'll all be a whole lot better off. Request them in interviews. Give them studio tours. Help educate those who are actually interested about what you really do.
Decline all of the above with those of poorer quality. Learn to tell the difference between a good journalist and a brown-noser, too. Just because someone likes your game, that doesn't mean they're any good. Eventually, with both sides working toward a common goal, we can really make something happen here.