Posted on April 18th, 2013 6 comments
I thought I’d talk about a bit about “Ad-blockers, the games press, and why sexy cosplay galleries lead to better reporting,” an article posted on the Penny Arcade Report site a day ago. If you haven’t read it yet, I recommend you do, because it neatly encapsulates the existential crisis facing “game media”, which now more than ever probably deserves to be put into scare quotes. (Tl;dr: The only way good writing about games will be supported in the future is if all sites turn into Bleacher Report, and also pleeeeease stop adblocking us.)
When I got out of college, I joined GamePro. I was hired to work on their website, but that’s not why I applied; I wanted to work on a print magazine, because in my mind that was prestigious. I was a 12-year-old subscriber to Nintendo Power and I grew up envious of the people who produced these mags. They seemed like the ultimate in “cool big brothers”; just sitting around an office, playing Super Famicom games, and typing their reviews into fancy Wang word processors like what I saw on L.A. Law. (I later learned that this image in my mind was essentially true, and the only reason I wasn’t one of them was that I was born too late and didn’t know the right people.)
Even in 2002 when I got my GamePro job, game media consumers didn’t really idolize game media producers the way I did growing up. GamePro still acted like they did, with the personas and the “one united voice” editorial approach they took, but it was flying in the face of reality. Gamers were getting older, and really quickly too, and they where intelligent enough to realize that the guy on the other end of that review of Whiplash or Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles or whatever may not have known what the hell he was talking about half the time. If I wrote a preview about something like Age of Empires for GamePro off of PR material, a game in a genre I knew nothing of and cared even less about, it was guaranteed that the potential audience for this preview would know more about the game than I did. They had every right to regard paying for that sort of content as silly.
That sort of traditional “previews/reviews/features” approach to both running a magazine and keeping a game-media website going is outdated. Gamers no longer go to IGN or whomever first to find out more about a new video game; they go on Google and from there they move on to forums or YouTube. Publishers are aware of this, and they aren’t afraid to remind media outlets about it whenever something comes up they disagree with or it’s time to discuss ad rates. And we’re now at the point where, as the PAR article points out, the sort of readers you think would appreciate good game media the most — intelligent, technically capable adults — are the exact audience most likely to use ad blockers. Every time the topic comes up, whether on PAR or Destructoid or elsewhere, commenters bring up their pet peeves about popups and interstitials and IGN’s still-fondly-remembered 2003 McGriddles re-skin by the dozen. It’d be a lot easier if we all ran just ran coupon affiliate sites or something.
The parallels to the music/TV/game publishing industries are obvious. We have a commodity that used to be seen as worth paying $3.95 a month or $20 a year for, and we thought the people behind them were geniuses. Now, in the era of Big Data, we expect everything at once and we balk at paying any more than our ISP bill for it. Like with music, lots of people want to write about games, but nobody wants to pay more than a pittance for it, and even then only on very rare occasions and with a lot of prodding and whining on the part of the producer. (Part of the reason iOS gaming still doesn’t get a lot of respect, after all, is that charging more than $2 upfront unless you’re Square Enix all but guarantees instant obscurity.)
Except for the news articles I write sometimes for Polygon, all my work these days is for professional translation companies and agencies. I’m glad for that, even if working freelance presents its own stresses now and then. After years of hard work, tight deadlines, and a general sense of “why am I doing this”, I’m in no hurry to get back to game media. And even if I were, the jobs I’d be qualified for seem to be more PR-y, pageview-driven, and originality-draining than they ever were when I worked at Ziff Davis et al. One thing I’ll say about all of the bosses in game media I ever had is that they never pressured me to write brainless articles to drum up pageviews. I’d feel horrible doing that today. (Fair disclosure: For GamePro I did put together one or two booth-babe galleries for E3 2002 and ’03. Apologies to Ms. Alexander.)
Ben Kuchera is optimistic that a happy balance will be found sooner or later. I’m not. I don’t think there’s an answer to the question of “How do we fix game media”. You might as well ask “How can I make the Internet do what I want it to do,” and no government’s been entirely successful at that, much less any media publisher. I think you’ll see fewer game media sites overall and more Cracked.com-style “top 20 pairs of tits” articles going many years into the future. Of course, you’ll find more “boutique” sites that do neat things with games writing and find creative ways to stay in business doing it…and you’ll also find the editors of said sites taking side jobs in order to make ends meet. Ain’t being a creative type in the digital generation grand?