Garwulf’s Corner #15. Indies Will Be Saviours of the Game Review
Originally published September 30, 2015
Funny thing about talking about ethics in video game journalism — there is no trick or secret to doing it, other than just, well, DOING it. I would know. After all, in this installment, that’s exactly what I did.
THE VIDEO GAME media has come a long way since the first installment of Garwulf’s Corner appeared on Diabloii.net back on Halloween, 2000. Back then, it really was a wasteland, usually treating games as toys and industry news as somebody else’s problem. And if you actually wanted to read somebody talking about the games — as opposed to reviews, previews, and strategy guides — good luck finding it (for at least the first six months of the original column, I felt like a voice in the wilderness).
But, today, there’s no shortage of content. You can read about any facet of a game you want. But as far as we’ve come, there’s still a long way to go. Game reviews are often strangely positive about games where they shouldn’t be, and stories keep surfacing of publishers trying to stage manage coverage in ways they shouldn’t, such as the recent debacle about Shadows of Mordor.
I know how it should work. My little publishing company has run a number of pre-release publicity campaigns for books. This involves first querying dozens of media contacts with a press release, asking whether they want a review copy, interview, or excerpt. Then, I send out copies to everybody who says “yes,” and arrange what they want. With luck, at least half of these copies will end up being reviewed or resulting in some coverage. But, besides occasionally querying people to see if they need anything, I don’t have any control over what that coverage may be, nor should I. There are paid reviews out there, but with one or two rare exceptions, they aren’t trusted by the people who need to see them, and are really just a waste of money. The reviews will be whatever they end up being, and I do not ever get to argue with a reviewer.
That the video game media doesn’t always reflect this is a bit of an odd situation, really, but one that has been building for a while. But, to understand why, you have to go back around 25 years.
It is the 1990s, and computer games are now well established in the home. Video game coverage consists of two or three major magazines, published every month. These are well-paying publications (for example, when I wrote the Myth II review for Computer Gaming World, I was paid around $550, which is well into the professional writing rate). These magazines make their money through three revenue streams: advertising (mainly by game publishers), subscriptions, and newsstand sales.
The problem they have is that the actual computer game market is relatively small. PC gaming at this time is not an easy thing to do, often requiring a level of technical expertise that most readers don’t have. So, if a magazine can beat its competitors to print with coverage — particularly reviews — of major titles, that magazine will have the edge in getting new subscribers and newsstand sales, and that can be the key to success.
This forced the magazines to twist themselves into proverbial pretzels to balance quality coverage and competitiveness. For example, Computer Gaming World’s editor, Johnny Wilson, tried to put quality first, limiting the reviews to already published games. This still left CGW with the problem of competing, which Wilson addressed with “Sneak Previews.” While this allowed the magazine to remain competitive, it also started an inadvertent arms race to see who could get the earliest preview, resulting in situations to this day where sometimes all that is needed for a cover story is a screenshot and a rumour.
Combined with the advertising revenues, this left game publishers in a position of considerable power over the magazines. If a magazine failed to give a major release the attention the publisher felt was due, all they had to do to retaliate was to withhold advertising or (less often) delay giving that magazine a review copy of the next game. Instead of an independent games media, from the beginning it was one where the media needed the game publishers far more than the game publishers needed the media. A strong willed editor could tell the game publishers to get stuffed after they made a demand (Wilson recalled doing this a couple of times), and the revenue from subscription fees and the newsstands did provide a safety net that would allow the magazine to survive retaliation.
When this moved online, the situation escalated. The new gaming websites found themselves scrambling for page views, and once again, those who could get the early exclusives and earlier reviews would have the edge on those who couldn’t. They also lacked the safety net provided by subscription fees and newsstand sales. This allowed the PR departments of the game publishers to stage manage coverage in a number of ways they really shouldn’t have, either by providing game reviewers with freebies to curry favour, or by threatening to pull advertising and deny review copies if they didn’t toe the line.
This is a complicated problem, without a simple solution. While new ethics policies are useful to try to minimize — or at least expose — publisher interference, this still leaves the problem that the video games media needs the game publishers a lot more than said publishers need them. What’s necessary is for an independent games media to emerge, one where it is the publishers who need the media, as opposed to the other way around.
And, there is a place where this may be emerging, albeit one that does not receive very much attention from reformers: indie games.
When you think about it, the next breakout hit is not likely to come from a AAA studio. The reason is simple — lightning in a bottle is so hard to catch because it is so rare and unpredictable (such as Minecraft, which came out of nowhere and took the gaming world by storm). And, the developers and publishers who create these games tend to have no pre-existing relationship with the media — indeed, they need media coverage just to get the word out.
These indie developers may very well be the saviours of the game review. As they come into their own, they will need the media, rather than vice versa. As they grow in prominence and the older game publishers decline, a truly independent games media might just be born.
Author’s Note: Special thanks to Johnny Wilson, who provided fact checking and filled in some gaps for this installment (and, incidentally, also started my professional writing career back in 1998 by assigning me a Myth II review in Computer Gaming World). Any errors are my own.