At the 2008 Game Developers Conference, the numerous panels and sessions usually feature journalists as audience members. But this year, Newsweek's N'Gai Croal decided to turn the tables, soliciting questions from the game industry to challenge some of the leading members of its press: Kotaku editor Brian Crecente, 1UP's Garnett Lee, MTV's Stephen Totilo, Game Informer's Andy McNamara, and Geoff Keighley of GameTrailers.tv.
Croal began the panel with a question from Lionhead's Peter Molyneux: Given that games are rapidly becoming a much more inclusive medium, how is reporting of games evolving -- not only to reflect this, but to encourage this broader audience to consider gaming as a viable form of entertainment?
"For a long time, I always wanted there to be more casual games," replied McNamara. "But when the Wii came out, it kind of slapped me in the face, like 'I have to go and cover all these casual games now.' It's hard, he said, to get reviewers to look at games from a new perspective, but he called it a "challenge that will change the way we do things going forward." He added, "These games are not going away."
Keighley feels the issue of individual reviewer taste and expertise is often discussed, not just as regards casual titles, but more broadly. "There is always a bit of a disconnect in that certainly there are some hardcore reviewers reviewing casual games... so Metacritic is not always an accurate reflection of [a game's] quality."
Entering the Mainstream
Though reviewers historically have mostly focused on the hardcore, they all agree that games reporting needs to evolve to address a broader audience. "Before I started at MTV, MTV didn't have anyone covering video games," noted Totilo. "So there you have at least one example there of a media outlet deciding, 'hey, we need someone covering games full time.'"
Crecente pointed out that newspapers have seen mass layoffs lately, so it's difficult to expect them to hire a dedicated games reporter. McNamara added that there is plenty of discussion of casual games on the 1UP podcast. "As that market expands into our world, we'll be able to find more ways to talk about it."
A questioner from SOE asked why there isn't more coverage of the industry side of the games business. Replied Totilo, "Because I'm not that interested in business stories. MTV News has typically served an audience very interested in culture and personality... that is pretty much the direction I take with my coverage, and that's why I applied to work there instead of, say, the Wall Street Journal."
Crecente noted that not only might there be a lack of interest on the part of the individual game journalists, but added that business journalism requires a specific background that many writers don't necessarily possess.
Lee said that certain business stories might be of interest to gamers interested in the companies they cover, but Crecente opined that in those cases, they're more "people stories."
A Question Of Responsibility
Do game journalists have an obligation to slam bad games and praise good ones, or to actually move the industry forward?
Totilo said people often jump to the conclusion that he reviews games, when he doesn't, and that even the games business has a hard time understanding that. "I hope that people look at games journalism differently than they look at games criticism... I think the role of a critic is often to basically tell you their opinion on why something is interesting and why something is not, whereas a reporter's obligation is to present facts, discover facts, or the opinions they've found of other people. Those are clearly distinct categories." For example, Roger Ebert is clearly a film critic and not a film journalist, and Totilo thinks it's important to distinguish.
Croal pointed out that Roger Ebert does, in fact, do interviews and reporting, similar to how some of the panelists write both features and news. "Are they never journalists? Are they journalists some of the time?" Croal wondered.
"Everybody, to some extent, has some spillover," acknowledged Totilo. "I just hope that people are able to identify a distinction. Criticism -- people tell me what they think is interesting about the game. Reporting should be reporters telling you what matters."
Keighley agreed with Totilo, but returned to the question on the role of games journalism. "I look at journalism as being, in some ways, even more important in terms of the access that we get to influences and sources to piece together what's really going on in the business."
Keighley noted that certain writers are mainly interested in seeing new code and assigning technical scores -- "I think that's valid, but to me the game journalist of the future is someone who uses that access to inform... there's a real role for the journalist to ask deeper questions and do more than just play."
"What we're trying to do is we're trying to lead [the consumer] to things that make them happy," said McNamara. Keighley challenged: "How important is that now that they can download demos?" MacNamara retorted that not all consumers have the time and leisure to play all the demos, and may choose only a few games a year to enjoy.
Incentives And The 'Cult Of The Amateur'
A developer who wished to remain anonymous had submitted the rather pointed question, "The cult of the amateur has taken over the internet and in many ways your profession. Message board kids become professionals." The question highlighted "incendiary" Kotaku headlines that are incentive-based
, and asked how things like this encourage thoughtful reporting.
"I think whoever asked the question is confusing several things," said Crecente. "We write headlines to try to tell in four or five words what's in the story and what's important to readers. The pay system, I can talk about briefly." Though he couldn't elaborate on details, he explained that the writers earn more money for doing "better work." There is, he says, a three-page list of rules governing what they can and cannot do, and that he may withhold pay for writers who either violate the rules or don't do good work.
"So far, I don't think I've seen any abuse of that system," Crecente says. "I haven't seen anybody writing fake stories or trying to turn something into an issue when it isn't an issue." He is at times concerned that writers disfavor stories that aren't as popular or exciting to write about, but says he reminds them of their role to report the news.
On the cult of the amateur, N'Gai asked, "Is incendiary a problem if it's accurate?"
Said Keighley, "It can be good reporting, and the industry isn't used to that kind of reporting. Lee clarified that being incendiary for its own sake should be avoided, but if something is important, it shouldn't be soft-pedaled, either.
"I think in general talking about journalism on the net, there is this big question about, 'do you need to have a journalism degree to be a journalist,'" Replied Crecente, whose prior background in police reporting is well known. "You don't, but you may run into issues about ethics. You might make the wrong decisions -- not because you're unethical, but because you don't know." He clarified that writers in supervisory roles require those backgrounds, to help guide those they overlook.
The Almighty Score
Can casual titles be fairly scored on the same scale as Halo 3
"I hate game scores," Crecente said. He cited a film reviewer's quote that if you put a letter or score on a review, no one will actually read it. Keighley agreed that the score-driven culture bothers him because the industry views the score as "objective." "You never hear someone say [that] about a music album," he noted.
"People don't score albums numerically, but people disagree about [music reviews]," argued Totilo, stating that there is often conflict over reviews in other media as well.
Speaking to the numerical issue, Lee noted that the industry has become increasingly beholden to score aggregators -- that's why 1UP has gone to letter grades, as Lee explained. "I don't know what Metacritic's going to do with our C. But that's really up to them; at the end of the day we want to be more clear in communicating to the reader."