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Futureproofing games journalism

In which Game Developer magazine editor Patrick Miller opines once again on the future of games journalism -- and what we can do to futureproof our skillset as the traditional model continues to decline.

Patrick Miller, Blogger

April 18, 2013

16 Min Read

Yesterday a few folks started talking again about fixing games journalism, so I figure now is a good time to jump back into the topic with the long-promised third part of this blog series that I've been doing. If you haven't read the first two bits, you can find 'em here and here. I'm going to get into the part where I talk about what journalists/editors and would-be journalists/editors can do to futureproof their skillset a bit, but it'll take a while to get there, so bear with me.

The story thus far

The conversation started with Ben Kuchera's article on ad-blocking and how depending on advertisements (as measured in cost per thousand pageviews) encourages crappy stuff that gets lots of clicks, like slide shows of sexy cosplayers. Materially, I don't think Ben said a whole lot that I didn't say in my first blog post, but what's interesting to me is that he identifies pretty much the same system (the relationship between bad content and financial success) and spins it differently; I say that the need for pageviews exerts downward pressure on quality, while he thinks of clickbait stuff as essentially subsidizing good content, which is why his headline is about "cosplay galleries leading to better reporting."

In response, Rock Paper Shotgun's John Walker wrote a piece about how they don't worry about advertising at all, and just cover what they want to cover. Which sounds nice, especially when he says:

Looking at our most popular stories, they’re the ones that are based on our own original journalism, whether they’re our having sourced interviews or information from developers that other sites haven’t got, self-sourced news stories on topical matters, particularly well written reviews of popular games, or carefully researched editorials. 

That sounds real nice! I have a hard time taking it seriously because when I open up RPS, I see a whole bunch of stuff that doesn't personally interest me. I suspect that RPS has done a great job finding a niche and owning it (more on that later) and I certainly have read a few things over there that I like (mostly Cara Ellison's stuff), but in this respect I don't think Walker is having the same conversation that Kuchera is having, or else RPS's front page would be full of original dev interviews, well-written reviews of popular games, or carefully researched editorials, and not mostly news tidbits about obscure PC games (which is fine, and RPS does it very well, but it doesn't interest me in the slightest).

Another response came from Twisted Metal creator David Jaffe, who suggested that the games community get together and start a $175k Kickstarter to fund a single games journalist that the internet had deemed The Best, which probably came from a well-meaning place but honestly he just kind of came off rather obnoxious, especially when he said that he simply can't stand Leigh Alexander. Frankly, while I had fun making fun of this on Twitter, I think he did correctly acknowledge the problem -- ad-reliance makes games journalism worse -- but his solution sounds rather wacky. (As does his ball-parked salary of $125k as "a nice salary"; that's a FIVE HUNDRED AND NINETY NINE US DOLLARS moment if there ever was one.)

Also worth noting is this post on Why Dan Lyons Left The Media Business, which isn't about games but still very relevant -- and probably easier to read because he lays it out pretty clearly without all the emotional baggage of video game stuff.

Common responses to fixing games journalism

Between Kuchera and Jaffe's respective posts, my Twitter feed blew up for a good two hours or so with people kind of shouting into the ether about what needed fixing in games journalism, which in turn elicited two common threads of responses that I am compelled to deal with before getting to The Fun Stuff.

"Just Work Hard": The first one came from a handful of folks who said something along the lines of "just do good work and it'll work out" or its rather belittlling cousin, "Well, I just do good work and it works out for me." These thoughts were often combined with implications that the people who were talking about how broken games journalism was were doing so instead of doing good work and should really just hush up already because everything is OK.

Frankly, I think this set of responses is pretty dumb. It doesn't actually engage with the conversation itself so much as just dismiss it entirely. First off, "just do good work" sounds patronizing and clueless to me, since it implies that the people who are speaking up about broken games journalism aren't already doing so. Second, the whole problem is that Doing Good Work isn't rewarded in the current system unless you happen to be in one of a handful of anointed positions that apparently don't have to rewrite press releases or post slideshows of cosplay hotties. The problem isn't that there aren't any pubs that don't reward good work, it's that there aren't enough of them to sustain the amount of good writers we're developing. Perhaps you mean well by telling us to "just do good work," but I don't think the people involved in this conversation are looking for advice for How To Claw Your Way To The Top so much as trying to figure out How Everyone Worth A Damn Can Do Good Work Without Having To First Claw Our Way To The Top.

The one exception to this group is Eurogamer's Simon Parkin, who managed to communicate this sentiment in a totally humble way which kind of downplayed his own success, which is really amazing and just makes everyone love him more. I mean, dang, it's hard not to be professionally jealous of a guy who wrote a bomb-ass story on the relationship between the gun industry and the games industry, or who got a profile of Notch in the New Yorker, and yet there you have it.

"The problem isn't low pay, the problem is that games journalists suck": I also think this set of responses is pretty dumb. If you don't pay good money, you won't attract talented people, and you won't hang on to them long enough to make them good at what they do. If your business doesn't benefit from having people who can do good writing and reporting, then you have no incentive to pay good money. Yes, there are a lot of awful, awful games journalists out there; if there were loads of full-time jobs in games journalism out there that paid salaries comparable with, say, sales/marketing/PR/project management/administration/etc., you'd see more competition for those jobs and attract a higher caliber of employee. But you don't, so you end up with people getting into the biz and then leaving once they realize they'd actually like to make some decent fucking money. If you think you're awesome and do awesome work and just think everyone else should just step up their game and do the same, guess what: You're probably getting paid just as much as everyone else is, and that's not something you should be proud of.

Building the future games journalist

Now on to the fun part, where I talk about what I think games journalists will have to do to futureproof their skillsets a bit. (Seeing as how I found out last week that my magazine is folding, you can imagine that this is something that has been on my mind a lot.)

The fact is that games journalism is changing radically, just as video games are changing radically. Most of us probably grew up reading magazines like Electronic Gaming Monthly, GamePro, and Nintendo Power. Then the Internet came out, and we read ShackNews, GameSpot, and Blue's News, and then Kotaku and Joystiq and all the other games blogs. Now we're seeing a drastic reduction in mainstream games publications, as 1UP, GamePro, Nintendo Power etc. have fallen by the wayside, because we simply don't need this kind of games publication any more -- certainly not in this quantity, anyway. 

When it comes to the standard trinity for games reporting (news, reviews, previews), you can get the first two through content aggregators, communities, or social feeds like Reddit, Twitter, and NeoGAF, and the latter straight from the developers and publishers themselves. Which means that while people might end up visiting GameSpot or IGN to read a review, it won't be a destination site, and they probably won't retain a visitor's attention past the review itself, which simply isn't enough to sustain the traffic needs of a modern megalithic games site.

Basically, the games journalist of yesteryear is a middleman between the consumer and the industry, and with the Internet, that middleman is growing less and less necessary. So: If you got into this game to do the kind of work that you saw other people doing in GamePro or for 1UP, bad news: The world doesn't need that any more. (Well, except in mobile games, which is still relatively unexplored terrain save for sites like PocketGamer, and will probably see some growth yet in this area due to the sheer volume of mobile games.) That doesn't mean that we don't need people to write about games, but it does mean that the manner in which you write about games may be different than what you initially expected. I'm going to list a few people who kick ass in a few unique ways that might help you draw inspiration for developing your own career.

Leigh Alexander: Leigh is easily one of the most talented people I've had the pleasure of working with. If careers were built with an Final Fantasy Tactics-esque Job Class system, Leigh would be one of those classes that is basically like an endgame version of a well-rounded combat class -- if "standard games journalist" would be an FFT Knight, Leigh would be the "Sword Saint" like T.G. Cid. She manages to be rigorous, thoughtful, and fast with her news coverage, razor-sharp with her interviews, and very evocative with her game criticism. She has also done an excellent job owning several topics that mainstream games pubs were slow to touch upon, from issues of gender and sexuality in games to everything artsy to Twine games and the interactive fiction revolution, essentially setting her apart from the pack as an arbiter of cool.

Perhaps most impressive is the way she has hustled with her work to build her personal brand. When you click on a Leigh Alexander article, you click on it for Leigh Alexander -- the publication she's writing this specific piece for is an afterthought. It's what she writes about and how she writes it, not who she writes it for. Basically, she has her own portable personal audience that follows her, and that is a huge asset for any writer. Seriously, this lady can sell you on an exchange of emails for 25c/word, and that's crazy.

Rod "Slasher" Breslau: Slasher has carved out a reputation for himself as The eSports Guy, thanks mostly to years and years of relentless hustle (and a lot of self-promotion). He's always on yet another livestreamed show or podcast, or doing another interview, or engaging prominent eSports folks on Twitter or Reddit. Compared to some of the other folks on this list, he isn't known for being a particularly evocative or thoughtful writer, but he's a goddamned bloodhound when it comes to news, breaking stories based largely off of his encyclopedic knowledge of the eSports word and his insatiable desire for scoops.

Perhaps more than anyone else on this list, Slasher understands that when it comes to sports, news is made, not found, and considering eSports is a rather hard niche to break into, he's done a fantastic job establishing himself as the scene-journalist-cum-pundit. He appears to be downright unafraid to put himself out there again and again, which has made his work better and improved his exposure. My take is that eSports coverage is going to continue to grow bigger and bigger, and he'll be in a prime position to lead it. 

Sean "Day[9]" Plott: There are the folks who read GamePro as preparation for their future career, and then there are a few special folks who read Tips & Tricks. Day[9] is practically a Starcraft 2 professor, and he and the rest of his crew have begun to assemble a god-damn media empire built around his daily live streaming Starcraft 2 strategy show, the Day[9] Daily. 

Most games journalists kind of grow out of valuing the skill of video games; for Day[9], it's practically the only thing that matters. Like Slasher, he specializes in competitive games, but from a different angle; where Slasher is a pundit/journalist, Day[9] is part tutor, part live commentator. Like Slasher, Day[9] has an infallible willingness to put himself out there day after day, and he's downright excellent on camera -- the guy is hilarious. Day[9]'s outgoing, bombastic personality is a tremendous part of his appeal.

Interestingly enough, Day[9] isn't a journalist. He doesn't do reporting, he doesn't really write, and he doesn't break stories -- and due to the nature of his content, that doesn't change his audience's perception of his content's quality in the least, because there's nothing about sponsorship opportunities or payment that would change, say, the efficacy of a 2-Barracks gasless fast expand build in Terran vs. Zerg matchups. When Kingdoms of Amalur came out, he took a day off from doing Starcraft stuff to work with 38 Studios on live-streaming a full day of preview stuff, including an interview with R.A. Salvatore. Since he doesn't produce journalism, he can open himself up to sponsorship opportunities traditional publications simply can't.

John "TotalBiscuit" Bain: TotalBiscuit is another streaming video guy who came up podcasting on World of Warcraft and then later commentating Starcraft 2, but he has since leveraged that into more mainstream success through his YouTube channel. Instrumental to his success is, again, his personality; he is a self-described "grumpy British man" whose videos often alternate between taking the piss out of triple-A monotony and owning coverage of cheap indie titles that often get passed up by major games outlets. 

Like Day[9], TotalBiscuit isn't a journalist so much as a "personality," which means he's not obliged to pass up on sponsorship opportunities (he had a fairly close promotional relationship with Sony Online Entertainment for Planetside 2, if I'm not mistaken). Seeing as how his main export is his opinion, you would think that taking sponsorships would cause people to see his content as biased and paid for (since, well, it is) -- which seems especially antithetical to his cynical, tell-it-like-it-is reputation. However, this doesn't seem to be the case; I suspect that since he's just one guy, and not a Faceless Media Brand, people are more inclined to trust that he would only take sponsorships in products that he himself believes in, and since his content ultimately falls under "entertainment" instead of "hard information," his audience doesn't really care. It's like grassroots marketing, really.

Patrick Klepek: I list Patrick Klepek here because I am not a regular reader of Giant Bomb and his seems to be the one whose work I read the most, but I think this could mostly apply to the rest of them, too. Certainly, Klepek is an excellent reporter; thorough, thoughtful, and very capable of finding the additional details and followthrough that make his stories own a topic even if he isn't the first one to file. His profile on child fighting game phenom Noah "The Prodigy" Solis, for example, is an excellent example; plenty of people saw Noah's story play out on the EVO livestream or in person, but only Klepek followed through with a full-on profile including an interview with his family. He is unafraid to be personal with his work, too, which does a lot to help his audience connect with him.

But clearly, being an excellent writer/reporter isn't enough to make it on this list. What Klepek and the rest of Giant Bomb have done is offer a largely personality-driven take on video games that has attracted a devoutly loyal audience and made them indispensable. CBSi can't get rid of anyone on the GB team without highly damaging the brand and pissing off the audience, which I imagine is pretty darn good for job security. But the audience is particularly important for Giant Bomb because, unlike many web publications, GB doesn't rely exclusively ads to fund the site. For $5/month or $50/year, you can become a GB subscriber, which nixes all ads, gives you access to exclusive content, and unlocks their HD video library on mobile and media streaming devices.

I suspect that few people actually subscribe because they simply must have these things. Rather, GB has given their audience a way to support them directly, and it appears to be pretty darn successful, because each time I write something about games journalism, Klepek tweets it and I end up on a Twitter message chain with a million Giant Bomb subscribers being like "WE LOVE YOU PATRICK (KLEPEK, NOT MILLER) AND THIS ARTICLE THAT YOU TWEETED IS THE REASON WHY I SUBSCRIBE TO GB". Clearly, they must be doing something right, and I really think that the best hope for games writing to pay for itself is to find ways to connect with the reader directly, instead of selling their eyeballs to advertisers. After all, if you don't value your own work enough to sell it for a price, advertisers aren't going to value it either.

The new, new, new games journalism

There is still a place in this world for people to write words, take pictures, and record videos about video games. For some of those people, it will make sense to call yourself a journalist, and for some of those people, it won't. Rather than cling to a dying model of games journalism -- one which, really, we outgrew a long time ago -- it's worth taking a look at the people who are doing great work out there, and finding out how you, too, can join in.

Our world is changing. Simply being well-informed about the world of video games isn't enough. We do not need so many reviewers or news writers, and if that is all you do, you will probably not be doing that for much longer unless you're the goddamn best at it. You will find that you want to buy a house and support a family; you will find that your intelligence is insulted by the work you're doing; you will find that there are no jobs left for you to do. So sulk for a moment and lick your wounds -- that's sure as hell what I've been doing -- and then find out what really drives you to connect with people and video games. You may find that "journalist" is a word that has more to do with how you see yourself and less to do with what you actually enjoy doing.

--patrick miller

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