I don’t remember the last time I went a whole week without posting to this site. It probably wasn’t very long ago, to be honest, since I have a terrible memory for mundane details these days, but whatever.
The past week has been a blur of PlayStation 4 for me. Well, I took a few hours to finish and review The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds on Monday before the launch event began, but other than that it’s been all PS4, all the time. I’ve dealt with console launches before, of course, and 1UP handled the Wii U launch with a team as small as USgamer’s. What I have not dealt with before, however, has been a console launch while working at a site as “unproven” as USgamer.
When the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 debuted almost a decade ago, 1UP had been around for a couple of years already. And perhaps more importantly, it was part of a huge network with a ton of built-in clout in the industry. Even from the start, we were able to get publishers to play ball with us. USgamer, on the other hand, is part of a much smaller network that doesn’t have as much pull here in the U.S. Eurogamer is a big deal in the UK, especially with EGX exploding in popularity, but over here not too many people care. And the situation is different in another important respect: Our company is made entirely of online publications, whereas 1UP enjoyed the backing of several magazines back in the days when magazines still mattered. Back when new ones could exist on ad revenue alone, without the need for a Kickstarter to get going.
So, the result is that I’m getting a taste of life on the other side. I bumbled into a job at the up-and-coming online outlet in the biggest games media company a decade ago through sheer dumb luck, and so I’ve never really had to deal with the realities of covering the industry from a position of obscurity. I knew that walking away from 1UP and IGN would make my job a lot harder, and that began pretty much immediately as we started planning for E3 before we’d even launched (“Hi, can we have an interview with your top game directors for our site that will probably be launching the first day of E3, we hope?”), but even so it’s been quite a revelation. Even though I knew we had it good at 1UP, I didn’t quite realize how good. Even IGN has to deal with publisher shenanigans, but their travails generally amount to PR guys trying to pressure them into making compromises in return for exclusives (trying in vain, it should be said). Down at the bottom, the challenge is more about getting PR guys to recognize you exist. And even then, I have an advantage over a genuine startup in a bit of Eurogamer clout and a healthy rolodex of contacts from my past decade of work.
Going from the single biggest media outlet in the industry to a startup has been a useful exercise in discovering which publishers (and really, their gatekeepers, the PR people) respect folks in the press for their work and perspectives, and which see us as traffic stats. There are definitely companies I’ve dealt with in the past half year where I can tell they’re looking at me and seeing a vision like in those old cartoons where a hungry character hallucinates his friend as a steak, except here my body metamorphoses into a Comscore number (and is deemed unworthy). On the other hand, there are some publishers who don’t really care about the traffic stats and are simply happy to work with writers they trust to be fair, even when that fairness means calling them out on bad ideas. This hasn’t really come as any surprise, nor have the breakdowns of which companies fell where on that scale, but it does add a new layer of complexity to the job.
For the PS4 launch, things fell somewhere in between. USgamer had enough traction to get early access to PS4… but only a few days early, as opposed to larger outlets who have had their machines for quite a while. Hence several of us on the USgamer team basically drowning in PS4 since Monday. It could have been better, but it could have been a lot worse. I mean, I could still be working on Killzone and Knack instead of just Knack.
I’m not sure what this really contributes to the ongoing message board rage-debate about how games journalism is broken and terrible. I guess it proves the point on one level, because this meritocracy-by-traffic as determined by corporate public relations gatekeepers isn’t exactly a level playing field. Then again, can you really blame them? They have a few thousand assholes clamoring for games and systems every day, and somehow they have to sort out who legitimately wants to cover them and who just wants a free handout.
The reality is that publishers really do have all the power over their industry of interactive toys, which means that if you want early access for reviews, or even to talk to the people who make said toys, you have to go through the company. Worse, as the traditional AAA packaged retail game industry shrinks in around itself, those gatekeepers guard that shriveling power with ever more jealousy. These days, the gaming press doesn’t hold nearly as much interest for a lot of them as overnight YouTube stars who set up a video feed from a basement somewhere and blew the doors off IGN and Machinima’s video traffic combined on a budget of about $300… and who are likely to be a lot more easily swayed by gifts and attention from the people who make their favorite games than us jaded jerks in the press. Overall, the games industry is a panicked dinosaur crossing its tiny little T-Rex fingers and hoping that this huge looming meteorite of irrelevance streaks right on overhead. Trying to write about it is therefore probably the most boneheaded career decision anyone could make.
Of course, you don’t have to deal with the publisher system. You can wait and review games and systems after their retail release. Hardly anyone will read what you write, of course, so it’s tough to build a viable business like this. But it’s an option. The other is the bypass the system altogether and write great articles about independent developers and game creators who don’t have PR doing overwatch on their every utterance. This is also a difficult road to creating a sustainable business, but it’s an option as well. I know there’s no convincing some people that the games press isn’t uniformly paid off and deeply corrupt, but my time at USgamer has been a reminder that it’s a struggle enough just to get publishers to work with you enough to get your job done — they sure as heck aren’t lavishing us with riches.
This isn’t a complaint, or sour grapes, or anything like that. I’m just musing on things I already knew, albeit from a different perspective than in the past. Believe me, I’m well past the point of complaining about my job, because I could have walked away from the gaming press years ago. But for some reason I actually enjoy writing about games, despite the obstacles thrown up by companies who view me and my peers as beneath contempt, for an audience that sees us as worthy of nothing but contempt. I think that’s called “masochism.”