Shifting Preferences in Games Criticism

Kotaku is doing something with its editorial that I’ve wanted to see happen in games journalism for a while, and it got me thinking. What Kotaku is doing seems like it will mostly concern the news and features they do in the future, but it made me realize something about how I regard reviews and previews.

Basically, Kotaku thinks it can unchain itself from the PR-gated preview-review cycle by focusing a lot more of its stories on already-released games and the people playing them.  I agree that it could help them write more human stories by focusing on the communities that spring up around games post-launch, and for years I’ve been concerned at how coverage tends to drop a game almost entirely after the review. Games can remain interesting for years after they come out, and gaming journalism should reflect that. One of the things that tends to garner interest is the conversation surrounding a game.

Kotaku is partly trying to escape the cycle that’s made a lot of people tired and increasingly mistrusting of the big publications (IGN, GameSpot, etc.). Being trapped in that PR-gated cycle has convinced many people that big publications are essentially in the big game publishers’ pockets, whether or not there’s actually any proof to support that notion. As a result, I increasingly see people rely on word of mouth in lieu of reviews, myself included.

Usually this just means conversation about games on forums. People discussing things that happened to them in a game, agreeing on what they like or dislike about it, and cracking jokes. It makes people want to pick up a game just to get “in” on the conversation. Reviews and previews are still somewhat useful to me. If I can’t play a game without outright buying it I’ll read several reviews while thinking about it, and I don’t think anyone can deny previews for upcoming games are still useful if they contain healthy amounts of gameplay details.

Casual conversation however has an air of authenticity to it. Sure most people talking aren’t professional journalists, but many of them have still played and analyzed hundreds of games, and you get many more voices chipping in. An important aspect of this is how journalists are often forced to review games — given relatively little time and forced to chop through an extreme number of games per year. They can’t play games the way normal consumers play them.

I guess this is part of the appeal of the current wave of video-based games journalism from streams and YouTube shows. Most of the time it’s just people shooting the breeze while playing games, sometimes analyzing the games. To be honest I actually don’t watch most of that stuff, livestreams in particular because in a way they’ve brought back the strict scheduling aspect of TV I left behind when DVRs came around.

Thinking about the affects of casual conversation over games and the recent video coverage phenomenon really just keeps reminding me of The 1up Show and what could have been. I will go ahead and say The 1up Show’s coverage of games pre and post-release was actually the most effective coverage in terms of getting me interested in particular games. The way the 1up crew would show pure gameplay footage while discussing said game in a group conveyed a feeling of directness and friendliness that I haven’t seen in video coverage since. On top of that, the guys who ran that show came at things with a level of professionalism and intelligence I just haven’t seen on YouTube. The whole show felt like a group of friends just talking about games, but they were a group of well-educated friends.

The other element of that was, they weren’t talking while trying to play a game. There are definitely merits to today’s YouTube and livestream approach, but I have a feeling playing a game and then talking about it gives people time to collect their thoughts and ultimately have a healthier conversation. The same goes for news about events in the industry. Maybe I’m just comparing on-the-fly reactions to well-baked analyses of games.

The only place I see that caliber of discussion anymore are podcasts, and for a while podcasts have probably been my preferred method of listening to journalists’ opinions on games. Right now that has just meant Idle Thumbs ever since Weekend Confirmed and John & Garnet shut down. This kind of discussion is basically the whole point of the Squadron of Shame… if another podcast actually manages to appear.

What ultimately has me mystified is, outside YouTube and Twitch, no one has really found a way to monetize straight-up conversation about games. I haven’t really seen any publication make it a central point of its editorial content, not since The 1up Show ended and Area 5’s (the remnants of the group that made it) other efforts to replicate the show failed. The real tragedy of The 1up Show is how much it tried and managed to achieve in a pre-YouTube era. The show really was five years ahead of its time, and I’m disappointed it never became a blueprint for video-based games coverage in the future.

So, I really hope Kotaku finds some kind of good formula for what it’s trying to do. If successful enough, I hope that formula becomes some kind of road map for covering not just games, but the culture around them.

BULLETS:

  • Apparently the PC version of The Evil Within has console commands that essentially equate to cheat codes. http://t.co/Z5wEYJeabH
  • Interesting article on the gameplay systems of some recent games. http://t.co/Zny0mQiv3I
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