Well, back to game reviewers again. At least this time I do so with a wry smile…
When Polygon put out footage of one of their staff playing Doom – and playing it badly – there was an immediate backlash.
Not that it takes much to get us to hate Polygon these days – a rag one step above the likes of Kotaku – but for me the response has been crucially divided on expecting reviewers to be “Pro Gamers”, the sort that would have a shot at a professional level. I don’t think it is realistic to expect that level of competency from a games journalist; much less those being hired on the cheap by websites desperate to pad their columns with fluff pieces about the best bosses in gaming, or five game series that need a female protagonist. As I’ve said before about PC Ports being farmed out on the cheap: when you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.
That said, there IS a serious point to be made in the wake of this “scandal”. You see, for all the talk a few years ago, Gamers are far from over; they’re still there and still driving spending. That’s an unavoidable, irrefutable fact. We’re still here, and we’re still gaming, and we’re still buying games.
With the rise of YouTube and Twitch gaming feeds being played by those familiar with their games – or at least an above-average ability to attempt genres of games outside their usual remit and personal preference – one has to come to the conclusion that those who often go onto the Internet looking for information about a particular video game are those usually more invested in their gaming hobby, and usually have the skill to go alongside that. They want to find the opinions of like-minded people who are similarly invested and similarly talented in that particular genre of video game. So when they load up a video feed of someone playing Doom and being barely able to aim straight, let alone grasp the basic idea of the WSAD control scheme for some reason, they’re going to switch off and be rather disappointed that they wasted their time with a website that isn’t taking their job seriously enough.
Exposé time; Gamers tend to gravitate towards genres and themes that they feel more comfortable and attached to. I’m a big Horror Gaming fan, I like a good RPG and I’m partial to a good Fighting Game. I’m actually relatively open minded, but I have my barriers and my limits, and that usually takes the form of Sports Games. FIFA, Madden and their ilk. I have nothing inherently against said games. I just don’t get them. I’m not very good at them. I don’t understand the point of them. And as a result, I tend to ignore them – it’s nothing personal (okay, maybe it is when EA are involved. Yes, I’m STILL bitter over Dead Space 2 and 3!), it’s just not my thing.
Therefore, you’re not going to see me talk at length about the latest football/soccer game. I’m not into tennis, and I only watch rugby for the physical contact (I’m a simple man who enjoys simple pleasures. KICK HIM IN THE BALLS!). It’s not my strong suit – and so, I avoid extensive discussion on such games because I know that my view on such things is utterly worthless to those who actually do enjoy these games. If you’re buying each annual iteration, you’ll want to hear from someone just as invested as you are.
And also, from someone who understands the ins and outs of a game series. You want to know what has changed – and if those changes are for the better or for the worse. Opinion is always going to be subjective; we can’t always agree, personally I’m of the viewpoint that Dark Souls 3 is overrated tat (and I say that as someone who platinumed the game in a little over two weeks), but I want to hear and indeed, debate what does and doesn’t work with someone who knows about the series as much as I do. I want to argue over whether the linearity was good or bad, when prior entries at least had an air of Metroidvania about them. I want to talk about whether removing Power Stance was a good idea (personally, I’d say not). I want to discuss the ins and outs of players finding ridiculously overpowered builds that are making the game a cakewalk, because so much in the game is still poorly tuned and unbalanced. These are important points of discussion to an audience for a game like Dark Souls, because we spend a good 100+ hours in the company of games like this. We’re deeply invested into it. Do we need to hear the whinging of those who cannot beat even the first boss? (Someone recently moaned at me about this, and said I was stupid and moronic to like a game as bad as this. I said I didn’t like it, and I’d platinumed it, and they should just admit it’s not their bag and move on. Then this person escalated on the insults by painting me as a fanboy – for things I professed to dislike – and I cut contact. Seriously. I have no need for childish nonsense. You’re an adult. Grow up.)
When your audience knows more about how to play a game than you do, or are more invested and knowledgeable about a game than you, then you as a games reviewer and/or journalist have a problem. What value do you have to this audience? What Insight can you offer them? What can you say that they’re not already familiar with?
I don’t think reviewers should be pro-gamers who could win tournaments or such nonsense. But I do think that reviewers are often spreading themselves far too thin; specialise, people. Find a genre, learn it, live it. And stick with it. This is true of most skilled jobs; doctors usually have to specialise in a particular field, as do builders and engineers and even mainstream journalists. Your value as a professional lies in not just reporting on something, but understanding it and offering your take on it. If you don’t understand U.S. Politics, what worth is your opinion on Trump Vs. Clinton? You might as well be talking about Dixon vs. Cowell at that point.
Your readers expect something of you, and that expectation will be that you got your job because you know your V-Skill from your V-Trigger, your Down Smash from your Final Smash, or your Strength Build from your Dexterity Build.
And perhaps the reason games journalism is in such a sorry freakin’ state is simply because there isn’t this kind of specialisation, or attention on offering a more nuanced opinion on something. An industry build on cheap labour and political ideology, doing far too much with far too little, trying to cover everything but never really scratching the surface. Superficial Journalism – one that looks good and talks a good game but has no real clout or experience to back up the words writing checks that will bounce higher than the breasts in the new Dead or Alive game. As the market has grown, so too has the need not just for ethical journalism, but speciality journalism – being able to commune with audiences about their likes and dislikes of a particular new instalment of a series, and do so from a place of knowledge and understanding. It’s impossible to be a Jack of All Trades in the current gaming landscape. There’s far too much breadth of content.
It’s time websites faced up to the reality of modern gaming. Many take their chosen genres and preferences very seriously indeed – they’re the ones spending real actual money on them (and increasingly large sums of money factoring in season passes and in-game transactions), they’re the ones who invest all the hours into it because they bought it, and they’re the ones who’ll live with the game for months after the initial purchase. The audience you’ll attract wanting information about a new sequel or instalment of a game will know what they’re looking for – and they’ll spot someone trying to fake or feign interest or experience in something.
Some might argue what is the point of journalism at that point, and I’d say – we still need critics and reporters. It’s why YouTube and Twitch is still attracting a wave of new gamers showcasing their skill but also their opinion. Gamers are connecting with these people because they are like them; well-versed in the ins and outs of a game series, wanting to hear a reasoned take from someone putting their name and indeed, face to their channel. That’s why viewers for these channels and sites is growing, whilst traditional gaming news sites – like the late GameTrailers – are going the way of the Dodo. It’s connecting with an audience, and building up that interest, that is key for growth. That takes time, practice and learning. There are no short-cuts. There is no Konami Code. You have to immerse into these crowds and worlds, or you’ll always stand out like a sore thumb.
Basically – Journos, Reviewers, you need to take games more seriously. Like Gamers tend to do.
Because yes… they are your audience. And always will be.