Press Pass: August Roundup
August is usually a slow month in the gaming press, with journalists easing down from E3 and gearing up for the impending holiday season. That hasn't seemed true this year, with Leipzig's Games Convention, a slew of high-profile Xbox Live Arcade titles and the upcoming Penny Arcade Expo keeping gaming newsrooms humming. The introspective month of August has also been a busy time for game journalists talking about game journalism itself. Some highlights and commentary from around the Web:
Why game critics aren't elitist snobs (and why this is a bad thing)
Kieron Gillen (whom you may remember as the controversial coiner of the term New Games Journalism) has once again focused his critical eye on game journalism with a recent Rock Paper Shotgun piece on the march towards more "elitist critics" in the games press. Gillen argues that game criticism, where critics tend to heap praise on the most commercially successful products, differs from music and movie criticism, where critics are more likely to call attention to obscure but well-made works that are well outside the mainstream. While other media critics seem to revel in their eclectic tastes, game critics tend to mimic their audience's thirst for predictable, popular pablum.
Gillen sees this as a problem, but one that's beginning to change thanks to the increased accessibility of indie games (through direct downloads) and an increasing focus on a game's emotional impact among game critics. I agree that this problem exists, but I'm not as optimistic as Gillen regarding it getting solved any time soon. A lot of game critics, I feel, are perfectly fine with games that maintain the status quo. These critics got into the business because they had played a lot of very similar games and manage to avoid getting tired of them. This is good in a way -- you don't want someone who plays 100 games a year to get bored with of the medium -- but it's bad because it can lead to critics who are too set in their tastes and too satisfied with games that are just like what has come before. These are the critics who are ecstatic every time a new first-person shooter comes out with a few new weapons and a nice graphical sheen. Something that goes outside their nostalgic comfort zones is going to confuse and trouble these critics.
It's not solely the critics' fault, though. The audience for this kind of criticism has been trained by years of hype to reward outlets that give glowing praise to these more-of-the-same franchises, while heaping scorn on those who don't play along. Just witness the outrage that falls upon any outlet that deigns to give a big-name game a score less than 9.0. The result is a circular feedback loop between audience and critic that means the scores for most new games can be predicted even before the first preview is written. This may slowly be changing with a new generation of critics that aren't as easily satisfied, but I think it's going to take a good long while before the set of critically acclaimed games diverges wildly from the set of popular games.
Behind the Scenes at EGM and 1UP
I was pretty shocked back in April when Dan "Shoe" Hsu quickly and unceremoniously ended his 11-year career at EGM/1UP publisher Ziff Davis. Hsu has been reluctant to talk about the specific reasons for his abrupt departure, saying initially that "it's just time for me to move on." That changed with a recent frustration-venting post on his Hsu's new blog, Sore Thumbs. In the post, Hsu details the frustrating experience of watching UbiSoft allow a trio of positive Assassin's Creed reviews leak out early, all while 1UP's 7/10 review was forced to wait patiently for an embargo to expire. What's more, Hsu reports Ziff wouldn't let him write a story explaining the situation and the reason for the late review to his audience, for fear of pissing off a major advertiser. According the Hsu, the incident "was one of the reasons (but not the only one) why I resigned."
The entire Sore Thumbs blog (which Hsu cowrites with fellow escapee Crispin Boyer) has been an excellent look at the behind-the-scenes goings-on at a major videogame journalism publisher. Check out the sample argument over what game goes on a magazine cover, some candid talk about how journalists handle bribe attempts, and a discussion of the sometimes delicate relationship between journalists and publishers.
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New guitar gaming mag shows signs of life in the print industry
Just when I think the world of print gaming journalism is D-E-D dead, along comes a completely unique title that gets me to rethink the whole market. Guitars and Games is a one-issue special edition that takes an in-depth look at the wide variety of guitar-based gaming on the market these days. Official Xbox Magazine's Dan Amrich handled the gaming content while the team behind Guitar World magazine added interviews with real rockers and information on transitioning from virtual guitar player to real guitar player.
I have no idea how successful this experimental rag will be, but I'm excited by the prospect of game-centric magazine content reaching past the traditional hardcore gaming crowd and towards broader audiences. I could definitely see this type of concept working for other industries. Why not publish a racing magazine about how the real world of cars relates to the virtual. Or how about a fitness magazine offshoot that looks at using interactive entertainment to bulk up? The possibilities are endless, and could do a lot to bring new people into the audience for games and game journalism.
Movers and Shakers: Geoff Keighley promoted
Congratulations to the Geoff Keighley, host of Spike TV's GameTrailersTV (formerly Game Head), for his recent promotion to the new position of "executive of game publisher relations." That title might sounds little too cozy for a guy who will still be working as host of a show focused on analyzing games (rather than just promoting them) but Keighley explained that there's no reason to think he's been co-opted. "It's an editorial role," he wrote in an e-mail. "Much like an editor-in-chief decides on which games to put on the cover of a magazine I will be focusing on which games to cover ... There's lots of analysis still going on inside of GTTV, the Bonus Round show I do on GameTrailers.com, etc. ... The publishers have no control over what we say about the games, but of course we're selecting them BECAUSE they look great. (Much like a magazine wouldn't put a crappy game on the cover)."
In an interview with GameDaily, Keighley also promised to use his new role to transform the Spike TV Video Game Awards into something more "gamer oriented and less Hollywood." All I can say to that is: Amen.
Bits and pieces
I stumbled upon the existence of "The Legend of Zelda and Philosophy" through a recent RipTen mini-interview, and I have to say, it seems like one of the more interesting game-related books to come down the pike in a while. I've read "The Simpsons and Philosophy," from the same publisher, and if this new title is anywhere near as accessible and interesting, it should provide a valuable new angle to the world of games writing.
Quote of the Moment
"This is, without doubt, the cheapest cop-out in journalistic history. If the reader doesn't like the game that you're so blinkered about you can't comprehend that other people might not like it, then it means you've f***ed up the review."
-- Game journalism critic the RAM Raider (some NSFW language), venting against journalists who blithely write "If you don't like [insert game title or facet here], then you have no soul."