Games, Journalism, Other, and Books

Games, Journalism, Other, and Books

That's all of life's bases covered, right?

Journalism

All of the posts under the "Journalism" category.

The job I always dreamed of is all but gone

magazines

 

In my teenage years, the calendar wasn’t the only thing I used to judge how much of the year had gone: monthly releases of N64 Magazine also helped me gauge how much time was passing. The Spaceworld issue was already on shelves? That means it’s nearly Christmas.

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life back then. Write novels, obviously, but given the drivel I was churning out in the middle of French lessons when the teacher’s back was turned, I knew that this was unlikely to sustain me financially when I was an adult. I toyed with the idea of teaching, perhaps teaching English in the hopes of inspiring the same enthusiasm I had for writing in future students.

Then there was a news story in the aforementioned publication: ‘Want to write for N64 Magazine’?

Everything clicked into place. When I wasn’t writing or reading (which was most of the time; I was an undisciplined teenager, after all), I was playing my Nintendo 64. Becoming James Bond in Goldeneye, saving fantasy lands in the Zelda games and mercilessly slaughtering Goombas in Super Mario 64. Why not write about these experiences and get paid to do so? It was perfect.

The article called for aspiring games journalists that were 18 or over – and sadly I was a couple of years short of the mark. But now I had a direction in my life. I chose GSCEs and A-levels that were relevant to a career in journalism. I searched universities for degrees in Journalism, particularly those with a focus on consumer magazines. And slowly but surely, I worked towards that dream job: playing my favourite games and writing about the experience.

Hindsight has naturally taught me that there’s a lot more to games journalism than I naively once thought. Stints of work experience on PC Gamer and Official PlayStation 2 Magazine dispelled the myths of grown men spending full days with a controller in hand, and simply writing with enthusiasm wasn’t enough. You had to write succintly, eloquently and above all, authoritatively. One PC Gamer team member wisely told me: “The readers will always know more than you. If you assume otherwise, you lose any respect they have for you.”

I took these lessons on board, and maintained my determined pursuit of a role on a consumer games journalism. But I took a slightly different path.

Through a fortunate coincidence involving a late library book (true story) that led to a long-term internship, I wound up in trade journalism: writing not for gamers, but for the games industry. It was not what I had intended, but I quickly grew to love it. In particular, my five years on MCV opened my eyes to how the industry really runs – something I wonder if I would have understood as deeply had I been on a consumer-facing title.

The fast pace and challenge of this weekly business magazine was more than satisfying enough to keep me coming into work every day, but I did occasionally glance at (and even apply for) other positions elsewhere. As much as I loved games trade journalism – and still do – there was a part of me that kept remembering the original job ad in N64 Magazine and wondering if I was ready or worthy of such a role. I waited, wanting to hone my skills, and only applying for one, maybe two jobs that particularly appealed to me.

Perhaps I waited too long. I became overqualified for the role I had originally wanted, back in the Nintendo 64 days, but this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I had grown, I had learned things about both magazine production and the games industry that opened new doors, new opportunities. But that direction, the sense that one day I would have my teenage self’s dream job began to fade.

And now with the closing of Official Nintendo Magazine, I question whether that job is even out there anymore. Magazines are declining rapidly, and games websites from large, established firms are fighting to avoid being drowned out by enthusiast sites, amateur blogs and, yes, those inexplicably popular YouTube channels. When I first envisaged becoming a games journalist, it was a market of limited outlets. Now the only thing limited is reader attention, spread thinly across more channels than the traditional games media could ever cope with. The job I defined my academic choices around, that I moulded my life to, has all but gone.

I make it clear now that I have no regrets. I may never intended to enter trade journalism, but had I known of its existence earlier, I certainly would have endeavoured to end up where I am today. I’m only a year into my role as editor of Develop, but I’m already hoping to be holding onto it for years to come. The fascinating look under the hood of games is far more interesting than commenting on whether or not the graphics, handling and content improve on those that have come before. It’s the job I didn’t know I wanted, and looking at the path I almost took, I’m lucky to be here.

 

James October 7, 2014 3 Comments Permalink

Things I learned at GDC the hard way

SanFrancisco

As I’ve said to countless people over the past few weeks, this year was the first time I was able to attend the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.

It went well. It didn’t go perfectly. But I put that down to this being a learning experience (it was my first trade show since 2008, and the first one I’d attended as editor) and I’m already looking forward to putting what I’ve learned into practise next year.

Here are the main areas of improvement I need to work on:

You need to make time for the conference sessions

So eager was I to meet as many companies as possible, I didn’t actually attend any of the conference sessions, talks, summits or other events that GDC is actually built around. It’s a shame because there were a few talks I wouldn’t mind sitting in on – not the least of which was Sony’s VR announcement – and the coverage from others that I hadn’t previously considered shows some interesting discussions happening in the industry.

You’ll never see everyone you want to

Even without going to any of the conference, and having arranged back-to-back meetings from Monday to Friday, I still didn’t get to speak to all of the companies I had hoped to. Whether I need to reign my expectations in or prioritise better, it was still great to talk to so many interesting firms working on some industry-defining tech and more ambitious projects.

Your meeting schedule needs some margin for error

Because my meetings were arranged back-to-back – one every half an hour – I experienced what several GDC veterans referred to as ‘the cascade effect’: if one meeting overruns, it has a knock-on effect for the next one, and the one after that, and so on. Even when booths were next to each other, there were still occasions where I barely got to the start of my next meeting on time. Particularly when there was a greater distance between them…

Nearby hotels aren’t as ‘nearby’ as you would think

Before heading out to San Francisco, I printed off a section of Google Maps with the Moscone Center at the, er, centre and marked which hotels I had arranged meetings in. I was pleased to find they were all within a block of the convention centre but, as I quickly discovered, that’s still at least a five to ten-minute walk (if you don’t get held up by pedestrian crossings). And that really doesn’t help my previous point.

Yes, people do know what Develop is

In all walks of life, I’ve never been one for assuming that people know who I am, who I work for and what I/they do. But in Develop’s case, maybe I need to rethink this approach: almost every single company I met with, and even some random people I bumped into during the week, are not only familiar with Develop, but regular readers too. Getting to know your audience is both rewarding and unnerving – there’s more pressure when you know who’s reading.

The work doesn’t end when the conference closes

Moscone begins turfing people out around 6pm, but meetings can often overrun past this – particularly if they’re held in a hotel rather than the convention centre. And while I got a break for dinner, every night had a ridiculous number of networking events and other parties. Just because you have a drink in your hand, doesn’t mean you’re off duty: you’re still representing the magazine and making contact with new companies that could become close partners in the years to come. That’s not exactly new knowledge to me, but I’d never experienced it on a scale like this before. It meant I felt guilty every time I left a party early, even if it was to spend the next hour or two writing up the day’s news from my hotel room.

Sugary breakfasts are inadvisable

On a family holiday to Florida last year, I learned that big, greasy, fatty breakfasts are not the best way to start your day. While the Moscone Center isn’t exactly abundant in rollercoasters the same was Orlando is, my days were no less active, constantly power-marching between meetings every half an hour. Having avoided the remarkably tempting Breakfast Burrito at Mel’s Diner (almost. I caved on the last day), I opted for what I thought was a healthier option: waffle with berries and cream. O, how mistaken was I! There was so much sugar in the waffle, cream and maple syrup that my head was buzzing throughout the morning. I felt drunk for my first few meetings that day, and I apologise if that came across.

Taxi drivers expect big tips

Since those hotels aren’t as close as I thought, sometimes a taxi was the best way to minimise the knock-on effect of delays on the rest of my meetings each day. However, while the cabbies back home are happy with you paying the fare that’s displayed on the meter (almost certainly already altered from what it should be), US taxi drivers get more than a little arsey if you dare to hand over $6.25 for a $6.25 journey. They also seem to judge you if you’re asking them to only drive ten minutes down the road rather than taking the half an hour it would to walk the same distance.

Virtual reality does not mix well with hangovers

I awoke one morning feeling ever so slightly the worse for wear. Not horrendous, mind you: just slightly off. You know when you have that faint headache and vaguely upset stomach, but it’s not strong enough to be classed as a hangover? Yeah, that. Well, for all the wonders that virtual reality can bring us, curing this particular condition is not one of them. In fact, just three minutes of the sci-fi spaceship dogfighting title I played was enough to exacerbate my condition for several hours afterwards. You have been warned, VR fans.

There are some things money can’t buy

Visa-Mastercard-credit-cards

I had planned to comment on this earlier, but a combination of work events and other commitments means I’m throwing my two cents on the table a little too late. But still…

A few weeks back we all saw the controversy surrounding the Brit Awards and Mastercard’s Priceless Surprises campaign. Put simply, journalists were asked to tweet something using the campaign’s hashtag – both from their publication and personal accounts – in return for press accreditation and entry to the event.

I’m not going to delve too deeply into this particular Pandora’s Box. The conflict between journalistic integrity and the ability for journos to, y’know, actually do their job is more than apparent.

However, there are two truths here which I think often get overlooked by the public.

1. Advertising funds a lot of publications

I stress that this point is not “advertising funds a lot of journalists”, but “publications”.

Printing a magazine on a regular basis (monthly or weekly) is expensive. But almost all printed publications are facing declining readerships (particularly in the games market!) so subscriptions are rarely enough to pay for the production costs of your favourite mag.

Hosting and maintaining a website is expensive. And while more and more people are getting their news online – with many sites enjoying readerships in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions – they are more often than not consuming that content for free. The only way to fund the upkeep of the site is to host advertising.

This does not mean that every article is paid for (or even that a majority are), but the result is that it is impossible that advertisers will be financially supporting both magazines and websites and hoping for editorial support in return.

More often than not, any editorial that is specifically linked to an advertiser is agreed by both the publication and the advertiser but the publication still has final say on the message, the content and the integrity of that content. No journalist or magazine I know has ever written or would ever write an article that kowtows to an advertiser’s sales pitch unless it was specifically made clear that this was an advertorial.

2. There is nothing an advertiser won’t target

But you know what? That’s not an inherently evil thing – it’s just their job.

The human mind is now so accustomed to being constantly accosted with advertising messages that it is now quite easy to completely block out any standard forms of promotion: billboards, magazine pages, TV spots, and so on. So it is up to advertisers to come up with new and more subtle ways to grab our attention and get their message across without deterring us.

And you know what? We know this. We all know that those free vouchers at the supermarket are to introduce us to new or promoted brands. Those sponsorships that cover every award are just to get that logo or brand name in front of our eyes, however briefly.

All of us also know that advertisers will follow us wherever we go. While we’re driving to work, they’re on the radio between songs (or, more often than not, there are songs between adverts). While we’re travelling around cities, they’re on buses, phone boxes, in shop windows and on billboards.

So is it any surprise that they will follow us online as well? If there’s something people are interacting with, such as hashtags, advertisers are duty bound to find a way to use that to their advantage. Again, it’s nothing sinister – it’s just their job. We know this, and most of us are able to tell the difference between a user-created hashtag and a paid one.

Complaining that advertisers are trying to advertise is like complaining that rain clouds are raining on us. It’s a fact of life. There’s no need to blame anyone – just run for cover or ignore it.

Video Game Reviews: Objectivity vs Opinion

scoring

Gamers will never be happy with the way new releases are reviewed. That’s one of the many reasons I’m rather glad I don’t write them.

It’s not just that they will disagree with the score. All of us have our own opinions as to what constitutes a good game and that will sometimes clash with those of games journalists, even those that share our views on most other titles. I remember my disappointment in Pokémon Snap (rated 90/100 by my bible, N64 Magazine) and my underlying outrage that Bizarre Creations’ 007: Blood Stone only received Metacritic ratings in the low 60s.

Plenty of outlets have tried to improve the structure of reviews. Videogamer.com cut theirs down to a easier-to-digest size of 300 words, with extra accompanying features if fans wish to read more about the game. Polygon’s very lengthy reviews are updated if circumstances require – the ongoing launch troubles of last year’s SimCity being the prime example. And who can forget Kieron Gillen’s New Games Journalism Manifesto suggesting that game reviews should be more akin to travel journalism, charting the experience rather than the mechanics of a new title.

This week a new site has launched with a very different approach: Objective Game Reviews. These short-form articles are completely devoid of bias or opinion, merely stating the facts of how a game plays without the usual PR guff that accompanies the product description in press releases or on the back of the box.

I completely respect any attempt to shake up games journalism, attempt different formulas and offering a fresh take on each release but, to me, opinion is essential to a good review.

Dictionary.com defines “review” as “a critical article or report, as in a periodical, on a book, play, recital, or the like; critique; evalution”. Remove opinion from the equation and there is nothing critical about your article or report. The purpose of a review is to define what is good and what is bad about a video game, and that’s not something I believe can be conveyed with facts alone.

Without opinion, Objective Game Reviews’ articles become lifeless descriptions of a product and just as uninformative as they are informative.

The story also has jokes

reads the objective review of indie hit Gunpoint. So do all sitcoms, but whether or not they make me laugh is a matter of opinion. I have no idea if this reviewer found the jokes funny, thus making them a selling point for the game, or dreadful, thereby weakening what I’ve heard is a great title.

The site’s review of Brutal Legend concludes:

The story follows an arc with various twists and turns. If the player beats the final level, they win.

How does this differentiate it from any other game with the same structure? Is it better or worse than Schafer’s previous projects?

Removing opinion can also be misleading about a game’s very structure. The objective review for The Stanley Parable begins:

The Stanley Parable is a game where the player moves through an environment that largely consists of an office building while a narrator speaks to the player about what the player and the player’s character are doing.

Put that simply, The Stanley Parable sounds really boring and nothing like the critically acclaimed indie hit that I’ve heard so much about. Just today, MCV’s resident curmudgeon Ben Parfitt sang the game’s praises, describing it as “genuinely unlike anything I have ever played”.

This brief snippet of opinion has done far more to sway me on whether or not I want to play The Stanley Parable than the entire objective review. Opinions matter; they convey the pleasures or pains a new game will evoke from players, hint at the aspects that will resonate well with us and warn us of the ones that will deter us.

I’m sure there is an audience for objective game reviews, but I’m not part of it (again, that’s opinion at work). While we all hold our own counsel on whether or not a game is worthy of our time and money, it’s by gauging other people’s opinions – not factual descriptions – that aid our decisions the most when choosing our next purchase.

Image Credit

James January 3, 2014 Leave A Comment Permalink

The glory of hindsight

monkey island1
I used to wish I had been a games journalist back in the early days. It’s bad enough that I’m too young to truly appreciate the impact of the Amigas, Ataris and Commodores, but I imagine it would have been brilliant to write for the likes of Zzap64, PC Zone and even the first few years of MCV.

But sometimes a feature comes along that reminds me that being a journalist today can be just a fascinating. Not only are we seeing how far the medium can go when it pushes technical limitations to rival Hollywood production, we can look back on those early days and truly understand how the foundations for our industry were laid.

Yesterday I interviewed Noah Falstein, Google’s chief games designer and (more importantly) a former LucasArts employee. In fact, Falstein was one of the first ten employees at the Monkey Island maker and is chairing a panel at next year’s GDC that will look back on the impact the studio had on the games and developers that followed it.

You can read Part One of the interview here, and I’m already looking forward to publishing the second part. Falstein gave me a genuinely interesting insight into how LucasArts became the studio that everyone remembers and loves, how it steered away from 3D fractal sci-fi games into the comical graphic adventures it is best known for.

I confess my knowledge of the games industry’s history has some holes in it, but while I knew LucasArts worked alongside the computer graphics team that eventually became the box office conquering Pixar, I had no idea that the first game that truly led to the likes of Monkey Island and Maniac Mansion was a tie-in with classic ’80s movie Labyrinth. Yes, that David Bowie one.

It’s also interesting to think about where video games would be now if it weren’t for pioneers like LucasArts. While it’s entirely possible that someone else would have attempted the narrative-driven projects Falstein and his team were known for, can we guarantee that Telltale Games would have created The Walking Dead without the lessons it learned from making its own Sam & Max and Monkey Island series?

It’s both interesting and disappointing that some of the gameplay mechanics Falstein mentioned to me have yet to be fully explored. He discussed the risky decision to have branching storylines in Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, and while some modern games may have different endings and cutscenes depending on decisions you make, it’s hard to argue any of them advance the formula that Indy’s graphic adventure laid out. That title was three different games depending on a single decision made in the first hour – what say you to that, Mass Effect 3?

This hindsight is one of the reason makes video games journalism an interesting discipline to be in right now. The industry is finally reaching the stage where its history is long enough to be worthy of exploring, where a closer look at where we have been provides a better understanding of where we are today.

It’s the same reason I enjoyed the first hour of Charlie Brooker’s How Videogames Changed The World – available to watch on YouTube now. Where would Call of Duty be without Doom? Where would any sandbox game be without Elite? And where would any narrative game be without the team at LucasArts?

James December 10, 2013 Leave A Comment Permalink

get_footer() ?>