Journalists vs Gamers: Why do we sometimes disagree?

This week Bastion came out on Xbox Live. The previews and early game journalist reviews for the game were crazy positive, but among my friends it isn’t quite as popular. Some of them like it (I personally like it a lot) and some of them don’t. There’s nothing all that unusual about that; but the ‘pros’ seem to be pretty universal in their love for the game.

This reminded me of a conversation from many years ago. Back in the olden times, when we had to use a donkey-wheel to power our computers, I was one of the editors at Strategy Plus Magazine. My fellow editors and I were talking about the disconnect between us and the readers when it came to unusual games. What we decided (or at least, what I remember us deciding… this was 15 years or so ago) was this:

Game journalists look at a ton of games. Some they play for a bit, some they preview, some they just see over the shoulder of their co-workers, and a very few they actually review, but every month they get exposed to dozens of games. And let’s face it, a lot of games aren’t all that original. One military FPS is pretty much like another. Not for hard core enthusiasts who’ll drill into details and demonstrate why his or her favorite is better, but from a casual observer (like the journalist who isn’t assigned to the game) they can all start to feel the same.

So when a quirky or unusual game comes along, it really stands out. Since it stands out, a lot of journalists will check it out; they’ll make time to play it even if it isn’t in their beat. And since it’s something different, they’re going to tend to like it, assuming it is at least a decent game. For them, it’s a breath of fresh air. It’s a sweet crunchy apple handed to them in the middle of the annual Doritos Tasting Marathon. Everyone loves Doritos but if you’ve been eating nothing but Doritos for a long time, an apple is going to seem amazing to you.

For those of us shelling out $50-$60 for every game we play, and who play 4-5 games a month, we might not feel like these games are ‘generic’ at all. If you only play Call of Duty you might not realize that most military FPS are brown, y’know? So we might see a lot more games as being unique than the journalist who looked at 25 games this month does.

And this is why I think Bastion is getting so many rave reviews from the journalists. It doesn’t take a lot to make a game stand out. In this case, it takes a gravelly voiced narrator and a colorful art style. I do really like Bastion a lot, but the actual gameplay isn’t really all that unique, is it? The aesthetics feel fresh and unique, and that has been enough to get the journalist’s attention and to stimulate different parts of their gaming taste buds.

There’s nothing nefarious going on; game journalists are people too, y’know. But I do think this is why so many of us wind up basing purchases on word of mouth, or ‘amateur’ bloggers who have gaming habits more along the lines of those of us who only see a few games every month.

And I think you can apply the same theory to movie reviews, too, but in all honesty I almost never read movie reviews so I may be off base.

One more time: I like Bastion a lot. This isn’t an anti-Bastion post. I’m using Bastion as a tool to talk about the occasional disconnect between people who’re given games to look at as their jobs, and those of us who have jobs so we can buy games to look at.

Shouldering the weight of your words

So in the bright sunshine of the morning after the Massively/Rift controversy, I wanted to open the topic up a bit more. Clearly I found it wrong for a pro-blogger to dismiss a soon-to-ship product without giving it a fair shake. Others, like Tipa and Arkenor, thought I was off my rocker. Ark voiced the opinion that anything goes in gaming coverage as long as it’s an honest opinion. Tipa just didn’t care one way or the other.

So I wanted to elaborate on my feelings a bit, setting aside the specifics of this situation.

First and most importantly, we have to ask the question of whether or not (presumably, see below) high-traffic sites like Massively influence buying decisions. If they don’t, then none of what I’m about to say matters. I’m assuming that some percentage of readers come to these sites in order to determine if a product is worth their buying consideration.

Next is the issue of scale. The higher the pulpit, the more carefully you need to weigh your words. Some guy on a street corner preaching about the end of days won’t have much impact, but if a TV network starts saying the same thing it could cause a panic. My assumption here is that Massively has significant traffic. If they don’t, then again, my arguments (and concerns) are invalidated.

So we’re talking then, about a site that has the ability to significantly move the needle when it comes to a game’s sales.

And we’re talking about a game still in beta and still being changed. This is not the game that customers will be paying for. We don’t know what that game will be.

With all these conditions met, I believe it is irresponsible for an author to off-handedly trash a game (and thereby influence sales of the game) in a post on the site. It isn’t irresponsible to say “This type of game isn’t of interest to me.” and it isn’t irresponsible to say “After 1 hour of playing my interest wasn’t captured enough to inspire me to dig deeper into this title” but it is irresponsible to say “This game is just like every other game” when you haven’t played enough to know if this statement is true or not.

As a blogger on a high-traffic site, you need to consider the impact of your words more carefully than, say, I do here on my dinky little blog.

Consider the situation from the other side of the fence. Imagine you’re working for a game developer. You’ve been helping the team make a game for the past several years and finally it’s coming to fruition and then some pundit posts untrue things about your game. Not out of malice but out of ignorance because said pundit never really looked closely at your product. Now you’re taking a hit (however small) on sales because of an off-hand comment.

Consider the situation from the point of view of your audience. They (presumably) trust you. They come to you to learn about a game. Don’t you owe it to them to know what you’re talking about? By stating what you perceive as (but what in fact isn’t) a fact based on incomplete data does an injustice to your audience.

Finally, consider the impact on your own career. By flippantly dismissing a title for reasons that aren’t accurate, you’re blowing your credibility with readers who have played the game and know that you’re stating things that aren’t true. Credibility that is very, very difficult to regain.

I’ve seen potentially good games canceled due to mishandled press coverage. Granted that was back when print magazines existed and the lag time for ‘corrections’ was very long. But damage can still be done, and if you’re a gaming enthusiast, that should matter to you. New games should be given a fair chance to prove themselves, and not be slagged prior to launch because a particular journalist wasn’t interested enough to really look at the game, and instead just made assumptions that ultimately aren’t accurate.

I firmly believe the writers at high-traffic sites need to be held to higher standards than they currently are. They should write about what they’ve experienced, and not what they assume to be true. If they’re writing about things they’ve only heard about, they should cite sources. I’m not saying they should sugar-coat issues, just that they should report accurately, even if what they’re reporting is just their opinion. Opinions based on assumptions need to be described as such.

Rift – the hook is in the name

First, I’m sure you’ve heard it a dozen times by now, but we now have a Rift release date of March 1, 2011 for North America and March 4th for EU. Pre-order and get into the beta as well as the headstart which begins February 24th.

Anyway, on to the business at hand. After reading a post about the Massively staff’s Rift beta impressions I tweeted:

Reading this post @Massively and LOLing at how much Jef Reahard doesn’t get it. Yeah, an hour into Rift it is familiar

I wanted to go into a bit more detail here. Now we’re supposed to accept Reahard as a knowledgeable MMO player, right? He gets paid to share his informed opinion with us. We pay his salary by reading his posts. Here’s what his beta impressions were:

I rolled a Pyromancer in the Defiant beta and spent about an hour running around the initial zone (and fiddling with the UI). That probably doesn’t seem like a lot of time to form an accurate impression, but it was more than enough for me to realize I’ve played this game about a hundred times over the last few years.

That’s not to say Trion doesn’t have a serviceable title on its hands. It’s very pretty and runs well compared to most betas, but I’m already slogging through a couple of on-rails quest grinders and don’t really have the patience for another one. Wake me up when (or actually, if) someone dares to spend this kind of money on a sandbox.

Now I’m not saying Reahard has to like Rift and I’m not saying he isn’t entitled to his opinion. But y’know what? After an hour of playing an MMO you generally aren’t entitled to an informed opinion yet. How could you be? And in the case where a game is named after a significant gameplay feature, and you don’t play enough to even experience that feature, you’re really on thin ice. (In Rift, you can pretty much ignore quests and level up by fighting rifts if you want to. In fact fighting rifts levels you faster if you’re in the midst of an invasion.)

The fact is… fact, not opinion, Reahard hasn’t played this game about a hundred times because there haven’t been that many games that feature large scale open world PvE events. Warhammer has it’s public quests but they don’t even approach the scale of Rift’s rifts. A few games have offered very rare GM run events where an epic mob storms into town and all the players have to cooperate to take it down, but few games have that sort of gameplay as a central system.

If Reahard played only Beta 1 of the game for an hour (he apparently didn’t even get to where he could choose a 2nd soul, which used to be level 5 iirc, though that’s changed now), he should have been professional enough to opt out of the article or, if that wasn’t an option, just admitted that he wasn’t interested enough to play into the main parts of the game. Dismissing Rift after an hour of tutorial quests and a few of the newbie proto-rifts is like dismissing WoW after only experiencing the crafting system. You just haven’t seen the main point of the game.

In general I think this was an ill-advised article overall. These experts are complaining about systems that are being tweaked and improved with every beta. When Krystalle Voecks says “Certain things I experienced on the Rogue drove me nuts (only 30 seconds’ worth of stealth, mobs’ seeming ability to see through stealth anyway, the odd ability to shoot fireballs with my daggers, poor-to-meh gear-availability) and utterly killed the fun for me.” how many of her readers are savvy enough to stop and think “Well, it is beta, maybe those issues will be addressed.”

Read the comments on the article and you’ll see people who’ve opted not to play based on the problems the Massively staff encountered during beta.

Here’s the thing. I’ve been in all three betas. These are not “stress tests” and they aren’t just marketing events (and I know, this is what we expect betas to be these days). Trion has adjusted things in response to player reaction between beta 1 & 2 and radically between beta 2 & 3.

Aside from Reahard, I can’t really fault the rest of the staff. This is the problem with game journalism in general. Players are stupid. They’re not savvy enough to differentiate between a preview and a review. Film critiques don’t go watch a movie before the special effects are done and then post previews talking about how shoddy the special effects are, but game players have this need for game journalists to report what they see, but then don’t take personal responsibility for understanding what the journalists are reporting about.

Put another way, if the journalists don’t report on bugs they see, then the players accuse them of being on the payroll of the game developers. But if the journalists DO report on bugs they see, then the players seize on these reports as a reason to slag on the game, swear off buying it and tell their friends how much the game sucks, never mind that those bugs might be fixed already.

The only solution, IMO, is to avoid this kind of article when a game is in flux.

I guess gaming has “arrived”

[Update: I realized this morning that I didn’t make clear that I’m talking about coverage in places other than gaming news sites. Clearly this *is* major news within the gaming industry, but I was referring to sites that don’t cover games as a primary focus, yet they were still covering this story.]

I was astounded at the number of words that were generated today after the news broke that Electronic Arts was purchasing iOS game publisher Chillingo.

I mean, here’s a company that publishes (they aren’t developers) $2 iPhone games and it seemed like every tech blog covered the story. It wasn’t even that big a purchase ($19 million).

I guess part of the coverage stemmed from so many blogs getting the story wrong initially, referring to Chillingo as the developer of Angry Birds. Roxio, Rovio [Ha! Even I can’t get it right, thanks to Scopique for pointing out my error.] the outfit who actually developed Angry Birds, which was self-published on Android, was understandably annoyed and spent the day doing damage control and trying to get things set to right.

Granted Chillingo does seem to have an eye for promising properties (they also published ZeptoLab’s Cut the Rope on iOS) but still, just a few years ago this purchase would’ve barely warranted a mention in tech news. And it isn’t like it was just a slow news day today, what with Apple’s “Back to Mac” yawnfest event.

So a few years ago, tiny coverage. Today, big but inaccurate coverage. Maybe a few years in the future gaming will warrant big, accurate coverage.

Game reviews and power plays

So I was reading a gaming site this morning and a game journalist mentioned that he hadn’t gotten an advance copy of a game so he had been playing the game basically non-stop so that he could get a review ready for the readers.

What does everyone think of this?

While I admire the person’s work ethic, I’m not sure how fair it is to the game. Imagine someone forcing you to play a game for 18 hours straight whether you wanted to or not. How likely is it that you’d come away with a warm and fuzzy feeling about that game?

I’m not faulting the reviewer; don’t get me wrong. S/he doing the best job s/he can in this “Publish first or don’t bother” environment we operate in.

And this is me picking at problems without offering any solutions.

Here’s another example. Deathspank. Now I love Deathspank! Jeff Gerstmann doesn’t. But here’s the thing… I play Deathspank for an hour here, an hour there, sometimes I get on a real roll and I’ll play for a few hours straight but after I do, I’ll leave it alone for weeks after. Gerstmann, according to what he said on the Giant Bomb podcast, sat down one morning and played it straight through, finishing sometime later in the evening.

If I’d played Deathspank like that, I’d probably give it a 3/5 star review too. The jokes would run together and lose their humor, the game play would start to feel really repetitive and I just don’t think the game would be as fun.

Again, not faulting Gerstmann; he had a review to finish and he was getting it done. And for people who tend to marathon-play every game, his review was absolutely valid. If your plan is to wring every achievement point out of Deathspank over the course of a day, you’re going to come away feeling pretty sick of the game.

For that matter, I like cotton candy. About 2 bites of it. If I ate 2 bites of cotton candy I’d give it a big thumbs up. If someone brought me 10 wads/spindles/whatever-you-call-them of cotton candy and I had to eat them all at once, I’d probably tell you cotton candy was the most awful, wretched food ever invented.

I just wonder if we need reviewers to offer more disclosure over *how* they played the game. Something like “Play time 10 hours, played over a weekend”. I just think the experience of spending 10 hours in 1 day with a game might be much different than the experience of spending 10 hours with a game over the course of the week. Some titles are just not meant to be gorged on.

Or maybe the easiest solution is just to ignore professional reviews and go by what friends think of games. Actually, that’s probably the best plan.