Beware, I live

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.”

12 thoughts on “Beware, I live

  1. It’s both exciting and frustrating. I also spent some time at a startup game site. It eventually failed, but it was a full-time job building up that list of contacts. The games we got early were incredibly inconsistent – for some reason Konami sent us everything and Nintendo would toss us a game every once in a while.

    Finding creative ways to stand out and bring in traffic without resorting to top 10 lists was always an awesome challenge.

    But, going to an expo and getting a candid interview or hearing an indie dev gush about their game was always the silver lining.

    Keep up the swell work.

  2. Ultimately, this is a media issue in general, not a games issue. And it’s been that way for a long, long time. Due to issues of length, I realize games make this a far more obnoxious problem (I’ve reviewed movies the day they come out when we’re not in good with a distributor by simply going to a morning screening and then writing it up once I got back to the office), but it comes part and parcel with the work.

    My frustration really remains with internet audiences, who would always prefer an instant response to a well-considered one.

  3. As someone who has only been a part of small., grass root sites (some have made it, some have failed), I feel your pain. It can be infuriating. I typically only do reviews, and most of the games end up coming out of my own pocket just for coverage purposes.

    But, let’s compare for a minute. I also do home media (Blu-ray/DVD) reviews. With the exceptions of Sony and Disney, studios fawn over you in this market, and my site is SMALL. Fed Ex and UPS deliveries are daily, stacks of stuff just hoping to be covered whether I requested it or not. Not indie stuff either! Majors like Fox and Warner welcome you with open arms into the fray. It’s so inviting, it’s a shock to the system after covering games for so long.

    There are some cases where PR studios overlap between mediums. If I try for games from a PR person who I’ve worked with on movies, I’ll often get a no. It’s an interesting comparison which shows to me these decisions go well beyond the PR people. I don’t know why one is so difficult and the other so easy. I’m under the assumption of volume, i.e., way more game sites than Blu-ray/DVD, but even then the approach to handling said materials is still baffling.

  4. This was great to hear. It’s very hard hearing Bob be angry on twitter because of the industry’s struggles when you don’t full understand where he’s coming from. (Sorry to pair you to him, it’s hard not to do sometimes). This article definitely illuminates some struggles you guys go through that I’ve been wondering about.

    I’m not a journalist, or writer, or anything like that, so take my thoughts as just an uniformed bystander’s, but sometimes I feel like most game sites are mostly shallow endeavors. The most valuable pieces I’ve read in memory were your ‘Umihara Kawase’ piece and Ray’s Scroll’s most recent issue 10. The Iwata Asks pieces that nintendo does are also some of my favorite things to read right now.

    It was great to hear in this piece why more of that isn’t done. I always assumed it was hard, but now it’s good to know more about the troubles you all face in trying to get interviews.

    One more thought I’ve been dwelling on recently. The games industry (like many other industries) seems full of corruption and morally shady practices when it comes to employee treatment like pay and hours. Are concepts like ‘hard hitting investigative journalism’ and ‘going inside the belly of the beast to uncover their dark practices’ all things made up in movies and television? Sometimes I wonder where the games “journalists” are, reporting and exposing the ‘evils’ of the industry and trying to use their power and voice to make the industry a better place.

    Again… I’m aware of how naive, silly, childish, or uniformed that might come off as. And I’m not meaning to offend or call anyone out. I’m just a curious guy and wondering how to get the most value out my favorite hobby.

  5. I was sort of hoping (stupidly?) that you guys would just skip the big hoopla of the PS4 launch altogether. Every site is doing it, and there are only so many things you can say about a black box that has very few games of interest to put in it. Every game site also has “let’s talk about the PS4’s future!” roundtable discussions, and again… there are only so many ways you can say, “the launch lineup sucks, let’s wait and see.”

    The publishers are brilliant – they have everyone talking about essentially nothing, and repeating what the other says ad nauseam. An endless loop of user-generated advertising. Yet we have a particularly weak launch lineup, hardware issues, and a new system where we have to pay to play online. Why is everyone excited again?

    I refer more to games journalism in general, but I was disappointed that USGamer did a lot of the same stuff as everyone else, as far as pre-launch hype goes. Would love to see the flipside to that – a feature on hidden gems for your current gen system, or how Nintendo is releasing a new Mario game that looks better than anything Microsoft or Sony are currently offering.

    And pretty soon, we’ll go through it all again… and then we’ll have a “let’s compare this empty black box to this empty black box, which play the same games” feature…

    Yeah, sorry for the rant. Just a little weary of game sites being hijacked by Sony/MS marketing campaigns. At least you guys had the integrity to call out Killzone – a game which looks like the Perfect Dark Zero of its generation.

    • That’s unfair and unreasonable. There’s a fine line between “doing your own thing” and “skipping out on the things people want to read about and going out of business.” We are, after all, in the business of creating content people want to read. This week, that was PS4. Even if you’re not excited about it, a LOT of people are.

  6. Internet audiences – the general public, with permission to comment on your works…. en masse. Their responses (the contempt, the message board rage) cannot be the metric for job satisfaction.

  7. That sounds really awful. I could never work like that.

    On the other hand, that makes me happier that you,Jeremy Parish do it. Not because I wish you ill, but because you are hands down my favourite games journalists (and one of my favourite internet reads whatsoever).

    Thank you. Keep it up.


  8. I’m with Whitestreak.

    I don’t know for how much it’s worth, but your work brings a bit of joy to my life, and few things do. There’s no other game journalist/historian quite like you, Jeremy.

    It may be sucky work at times, but for some of us, you’re a real mench! (Even when you’re kinda mean and surly about certain things. But, then again, who isn’t?)

  9. “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.”

    Wow. I tend to get bleak about these things too, but when I go to that analogy, I’m only applying it to… OK the majority of major publishers with only like 2 or 3 exceptions springing to mind off hand. Still though, that’s grim.

    On the plus side, there’s a big long stretch between now and the next time we’re due for a big competitive multiple console launch year, so hey, fairly clear sailing after riding out this year’s storm, right?

  10. I think turkish101 has an interesting point buried in there.

    Writing about video games is trapped between consumer advocacy and art criticism and reviews of new consoles exemplify that.

    The Onion AV Club and the Dissolve don’t write reviews when new Blu Ray players are released, and the New York Times Books sections does not review the latest Kindle model. They concern themselves with the media not the way you experience it.

    But games writing still ties up technology with experience. Although, in the past few years that appears to be changing. We are seeing more coverage putting an emphasis on experience over graphics.

    To be clear, there is nothing wrong with providing what readers want and covering the biggest story of the day. It is a market reality and pragmatic not to leave that coverage on the table. I just saw an interesting point to be made in a post that was generally negative.

  11. I can’t remember the last time I read a review. I’m ether not interested in a game enough to read a review, or excited for a game and don’t really want a detailed analysis of it. I understand that most reviews are spoiler free in terms of narrative, but doing this can only lead to teasing of how good it is and having to be vague.

    I’m resenting press privileges more and more lately. I think it’s because more than ever the ‘hard core’ gaming media are trying to be best buddies and peers with their readers, making it that more annoying when they get to play Pokemon 2 weeks early, despite me paying for the game and putting a fortune into the series so far.

    Publishers are getting better at promoting games to the evangelical minority, it could get to the point that pre-release hardware and software for the core press does more harm than good. Gotta wonder if a Nintendo Direct does a better job at promotion than a potentially negative week early review.

    It’s unexpected, even personally. I was the biggest follower of 1UP and cashed up a whole bunch of Money into the Retronauts Kickstarter. I don’t know if I’m just a strange one (very possible), or this will be a trend that’ll affect media in years to come.

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