Games Journalism. An Industry In Decline?

   26/07/2009 at 20:50       Richard Horne       26 COMMENTS.
Videogames journalism has been in somewhat of a decline recently. And by that statement I specifically mean that interesting, engaging, well thought-out and passionate videogames journalism has been quickly sliding down that slippery slope to oblivion.

In fact to some commentators, even calling what we do 'journalism' is a contentious issue. We don't chase hard-hitting political stories. We don't report from a dangerous war-torn location. And what we do do - even though games are becoming more mainstream than ever - still doesn't garner the respect it ought to from people outside of the industry.

To say that games journalism is in decline might sound like an odd thing to say given that there are thousands of videogame websites out there - with new ones springing up on a daily basis - all professing to have that one single killer unique hook that makes them better than everyone else. Our hook, in case you're interested, is that we really don't care what you think, we write about games because we want to. But while generally I'm of the opinion that 99% of the games websites out there just aren't worth bothering with, there are a few notable exceptions, mainly: Eurogamer, 1UP, GiantBomb, WhatTheyPlay, Kikizo, Australian Gamer, The Escapist and ourselves of course.

The decline I speak of, in my opinion, can be accredited to a number of things, most of which unfortunately I just don't see going away any time soon.

First of all, as the internet evolves into what seems to be commonly referred to as the Web 2.0 era, it's possible to setup a 'website' in a matter of minutes. Wordpress, Joomla, Blogspot, Blogger et al make it so easy for anyone with a modicum of internet nous to build a fully functioning internet blog, complete with user registrations, comments and a quick and easy-to-use content management system, in no time whatsoever. And while I'm not criticising the fact that a lot of websites go down this route - hell I often wish I'd followed suit when developing the site you're reading - the fact that a teenage fanboy can knock up a quick and dirty blog and call themselves a 'reviews site' means it's that much more difficult for publishers and developers to separate the wheat from the chaff. Don't get me wrong, I heartily approve of such blog services and it's both refreshing and rewarding to see the internet become an all-inclusive media, unlike other forms such as television or newspaper but you do have to wade through a lot of shit to find the good stuff.

Take the recent release of Red Faction: Guerilla for example. Some two weeks before its release I contacted the publisher to request a review copy and was told that at that moment in time they'd already received almost a staggering 500 requests for review code.

Just stop and think about that for a few seconds.

500 requests.

I can barely recall 20 videogame websites, never mind anything approaching 500.

The signal to noise ratio makes this a hugely difficult task to manage. How are publishers supposed to determine the genuine 'websites' from the chancers simply looking for free games? What even constitutes a genuine website these days? And while generally PR types aren't looked on particularly favourably in some quarters for their often cynical attitudes towards coverage, in this situation they have my utmost sympathy and I'm not sure I'd like to have to deal with such an avalanche.

Secondly, news reporting has become such an arms-race that if you're not the first site to break a story then you might as well not even bother reporting it. Time really is of the essence and it often feels like there's no point whatsoever any more in researching a story properly in order to produce an article that's compelling, engaging and offers the user more than they would get from just reading the original press release him or herself. In fact, I've lost count of the number of times I've spent ages crafting a news story, mixing in some of my own personal opinion with a bit of satirical humour only to see it receive less than a hundred reads and disappear off the front page never to be read again in no time whatsoever.

On any given day you can see the same press releases tirelessly, and sometimes shamelessly, regurgitated over and over across the majority of the more popular sites. Very often with little in the way of thought, research or imagination applied to them. It's almost as if everyone is fighting over the same morsels. We report on what the publishers want us to report on, devouring their hand-fed scraps like ravenous vultures. Exclusives are rare and short-lived and whenever a site does publish a story that's a bit of a coup for them, there seems to be an overwhelming tendency for the internet to suspect foul-play and claim that that positive 'exclusive' was actually 'bought'. I'd even go so far as to say that I'm not sure I've seen a community or following as accusing or as suspicious as those I've followed that are supposedly supporting the games industry. It's as if everyone's bullshit-o-meters are permanently set to full.

And to compound things even further, as AllAboutTheGames is run as a hobby site and not as a full-time job, (though not for the want of trying) for those of us that do post news stories on the site, it's very often not until after we've already worked a 9 hour shift at the place that actually pays us a salary, that we get the time to write a news story. At which point it's already usually about 8 hours too late.

I repeat, is there really any point? It doesn't feel like there is sometimes.

And the quality of the reporting across certain sites also leaves a lot to be desired. I've seen on countless occasions a website devote literally only 2 sentences to a story. Now whether it's simply because they want to be the first to break it, or because the 'journalist' in question is simply downright lazy, either way, it stinks. And I'm not buying either as a valid excuse. And for those that do work in the industry and get paid for doing what's no doubt your dream job, there really is no justification for just cynically churning out an obligatory paragraph here or there. Put some thought and effort into it will you? Even if you only add a couple of witty sarcastic concluding sentences to what's an otherwise boring and tepid story, it shows you care and that you at least engaged your brain, even if you neglected to actually use it.

And while I can appreciate the logic behind shorter snappier articles being necessary in order to break a story first, I also can't help but worry about the state of the general public and their increasing levels of ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) if this is what we have to do in order to engage and sustain their attention. Sites like Kotaku, Joystiq and VG247 have made names for themselves by often writing as little as possible - yet somehow still managing to succeed and become hugely popular. And while I don't begrudge anyone their success, it frustrates me when I see lazy journalism from people that really should know better.

The term signal to noise ratio also applies here but in a slightly different context. It's understandable that a lot of sites don't give certain news articles perhaps the attention they deserve simply because there so many other news stories that have to be posted each day in order to be competitive. But do we really need to know that game X by company Y has been pushed back two days or that two new screenshots have been release for Need for Extreme Haste Twelvety Seven. Write about the stuff we're genuinely interested in. Give us some actual news instead of just meeting your daily quota of shit.

Of course the counter argument to this, and taking things to the other extreme are sites like IGN who feel the need to write thousands of words of inane detail that real dig down into the mundane, monotonous, minutiae of a game. Back in the N64 days when Matt Casamassina and Fran Mirabella ruled the roost, I used to read IGN on a daily basis. But now, their lengthy previews that read like garrulously bloated fact-sheets turn me off quicker than the latest 200 hour JRPG snore-a-thon.

And while aggregator sites like N4G and DIGG provide much welcome boosts in traffic for smaller less popular sites (and yes this is something we're guilty of utilising, but more on that later) they're also an extremely large part of the problem. Looking at N4G in more detail, this particular news accumulator rates articles according to their temperatures. The hotter, more popular articles will rise to the top of the front page due to their mind boggling 1000+ degree temperatures. While the not-quite-so-interesting luke-warm articles that only raise the thermometer to 10 degrees soon drop off the front page un-noticed. But this system is inherently flawed because a hot temperature isn't in the slightest bit indicative of the actually quality of an article. Instead, it's all down to how much of a vociferous reception it receives from the people that visit the site.

To highlight this point perfectly, the hottest articles on the site at the point at which I'm writing this are titled: "Girl in Evony Ad Slowly Shedding Clothing", "Zune Video on Xbox Live Could Finish Blu-Ray", "MW2 Boycott on the Horizon?", the snappily titled "Chrono Trigger announcement revealed a bit early, but don't get too excited" and "Microsoft is now Sony and Sony is now Nintendo". None of those headlines seems particularly well thought out. There're no witty puns or play on words. They're all simply speculative, sensationalist, salacious and fanboy baiting and all geared towards simply getting as many page hits as possible. And again, I can completely see the logic behind that. But where's the passion, the enthusiasm, the verve? It's all just a cynical marketing ploy that for those us that are genuinely devoted to the cause makes us frustrated by our inability to keep up. I also really dislike the way sites are increasingly taking things out of context, blowing them all out of proportion and writing deliberately misleading headlines just for page-hits.

At this point in time, some of the regular visitors to the site will no be doubt tutting, shaking their collective heads and be on the verge of calling me out for being a massive hypocrite. But before you do, let me explain myself. As some of you may have noticed over recent months, myself and a couple of other AATG writers have been conducting something of an experiment. In order to test exactly what it takes to succeed on a site like N4G we've been crafting articles outside of our normal comfort zone. We've allowed ourselves to become corrupted and compromised in order to lower ourselves to the level it takes to earn a high temperature on N4G and thereby benefit from the sudden spurt of page hits. Unfortunately, the results speak for themselves. If you use the handy filter on the front page of the site it's possible to view the most popular articles of all time. You'll see it's rife with filler.

"Xbox Murder: Man Kills Acquantance While Playing Videogame"
"Top Ten Most Violent Videogames of All Time"
"German Gamer Murders Fellow Advance Wars Enthusiast"
"Are the Left4Dead Boycotters Retarded?"
"The Ultimate Guide to Call of Duty Griefing"
"Babe of the Month - Sniper Wolf"
"Babe of the Month - Sheva"

And finally, my favourite "Babe of the Month - Cooking Mama" (Thanks New York)

And as you can surely ascertain from the aforementioned, none of these 'popular' articles are what you'd ever consider to be serious introspective hypotheses. They're all bawdy, contentious and antagonistic and specifically written in order to push the proverbial buttons of the people that can make or break a games website.

We're not proud of what we've done. I really had no interest in seeking out the most violent games of all time in order to vicariously get my snuff kicks. And the fact that there are people who will flock in their droves to read an article focussing on a polygonal videogame character and her relative merits as a sex object means that perhaps I've got it all wrong. Maybe I've been doing my fellow associates a dis-service. Games journalism isn't in decline. The human-race is.
User Comments:

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HairyArse - on 26/07/2009 at 23:32 wrote:
To be honest, I can get all the hate in the world and it really won't bother me. Things needed to be said.


NewYork - on 27/07/2009 at 00:41 wrote:

Internet's given me ADD.

HairyArse - on 27/07/2009 at 00:44 wrote:
I suggest you read that wall of text NY. You are mentioned in it.


NewYork - on 27/07/2009 at 01:46 wrote:
Depressive reading, HA (by which I mean I'm depressed imagining you writing this, world-weary and sick of it all) - a dude could start slicing to this kind of shizzle. :)

This made me chuckle, though:

"None of those headlines seems particularly well thought out. There're no witty puns or play on words."

God forbid! :O

dirigiblebill - on 27/07/2009 at 01:47 wrote:
I conducted my own little experiment on N4G last year. Having uploaded an interview with a reasonably prominent Wii developer, I posted an N4G link under the vanilla headline "X Dev Game Name interview". It flatlined. I then cooked up a bullshit news piece by putting a bit of spin on a quote about the strength of the hardware, N4G-linked it, and watched it soar to the top of the front page.

We need to know how their temperature system works, in detail. From the member FAQ:

"The temperature of an article does not directly reflect the number hits it gets. The temperature is decided by an algorithm which looks at the combined attention a story gets and the nature of this attention over different time periods. This way the system can predict if a story is hot or not just a few minutes after it has been posted on the site. A system that only relies on how many hits a story gets which is used by most news sites is not as effective as it can go many hours before a story show up as hot."

A system which "automates" the popularity of a story is, it must be said, rather convenient for lesser -known site editors if they can manipulate it. Speaking as a reader, though, the lack of transparency is very disturbing.

NewYork - on 27/07/2009 at 01:51 wrote:
@Right: That article seems to be about over-hyping of games.

And interestingly fanboys apparently don't have any schlongs.

Carlo - on 27/07/2009 at 11:18 wrote:
Anyone else said TLDNR?

Just fucking with you. Herculean effort Subby. :)

DDevil - on 27/07/2009 at 12:04 wrote:
The signal vs noise in journalism as a whole is shockingly bad. Games journalism is the same, and once you add the fact that a lot of "serious" journos treat this medium with barely hidden contempt you've got close to the answer.

HairyArse - on 27/07/2009 at 13:01 wrote:
Bloody pedant! I've removed one of the AS IFs just for you.


TarantulaBoy52 - on 27/07/2009 at 13:07 wrote:
Bravo Richard. Somebody had to say something eventually. with the volume of insipid content spiralling out of control what are we supposed to do. The big sites are supposed to be the "best" but half of them can't even post without spelling and grammar errors riddling the rancid tripe that counts for their content. I can't believe the shit that people get paid to write whilst the rest of us can't get paid work to save our lives. Has anyone seen Mike Judge's Idiocracy? That's our future boys.

El_MUERkO - on 27/07/2009 at 19:05 wrote:
We need to cull the stoopid from the human race, I'll get the hedge trimmers, you get the biotoxins!

dirigiblebill - on 27/07/2009 at 19:25 wrote:
It's not stupid people, it's children that are to blame. Kill all the children, and our problems here would be over very quickly.

/sits in rocking chair on patio
/strokes shotgun

kentmonkey - on 27/07/2009 at 21:41 wrote:
What doesn't help either are reviewers who are technically gifted writers, but know virtually jack-shit about what they're writing about or what constitutes a good game.

I've read quite a few reviews which I think have been well written, but contain very little detail about the game or give the reader any indication as to whether they'd enjoy it or not. Reporting factually incorrect statements as 'fact', just because a journalist can't be arsed to check their 'facts' before publishing them (and being repeatedly pulled up on them).

I want a review. If you can entertain me along the way then great. But I'm reading it because I want a review, not some piece of flowery literature that bloats the writer's ego and leaves me wondering what the fuck the game is actually about.

And yes, too many sites, too many arseholes starting their scoring at 6 ('it's shit, one of the worst games of the year and a tragedy that the industry allows games like this to be released in the first place, let alone at full price'...6/10) and idiotic owners/editors of sites that want blood for no/next-to-no money for a 1500 word review which likely took close to 20 hours to write, if you play a game through to completion and then spend a decent amount of time writing the review up.


peej - on 27/07/2009 at 22:33 wrote:
All I'll add to this (excellent) article is that too many reviewers launch off into some fuckarsedly boring personal journey down memory lane with everything they write. New Games Journalism riddles the industry to the point where even the brightest and best sites have to have two goes at reviewing something, simply because the first time round they completely missed most of the points a potential reader would be interested in. And no, we're not talking about what speccy game someone cut their teeth on.

(yep, well aware I do this but I'm not paid, and if I'm going to write in my spare time I'm going to write something that's entertaining to write - if it's vaguely entertaining to read, that's merely a bonus).

TarantulaBoy52 - on 28/07/2009 at 00:19 wrote:
A recurring theme here seems to be about reviews. It is true that there are a significant number of reviewers who subscribe to the music journalist's approach to reviewing - waffle on for ten paragraphs and then condense the review into the final paragraph. This is a ridiculous way to approach a review especially with something as content-rich as a video game.

Rich does point out that it's not just reviews though.There are so many bad articles written: top tens of random nonsense, sexiest game characters and tabloidy news articles focusing on negative unsubstantiated accusations levelled at video games.

We need to ditch the filler and concentrate high-quality, well-researched articles.One site i interviewed for was looking for me to contribute at least 3000 words per day plus reviews, previews and features. That is just too much content for one writer to shoulder and expect all of those articles to be of any quality.

Let's just cut out the crap, eh.

peej - on 28/07/2009 at 13:04 wrote:
Tis also worth mentioning that publishers seem to put a lot of credence in their company's presence on any website. They encourage you to regurgitate those press releases and spill out their bilge in order to see whether you're worthy to get a preview copy of their next 3/10 game. Hits and signups are all companies seem to care about, not the quality of writing - so in some ways you can't blame most big commercial sites for just rehashing news, and reviewing the big stuff rather than trying truly groundbreaking approaches like - Covering games for kids, taking a more mature approach to age ratings and violence, tackling retro properly not just half-arsedly, and covering emerging platforms as they emerge not just because everyone else is jumping on board.

There's tons wrong with the industry from top to bottom as the recent Arkham Asylum / Paid exclusive shit shows. Perhaps with the influx of more indie developers showing what can be done on a low budget to truly take gaming forward, we might see a similar approach with games reporting and journalism because the big corporate suck-ass shit has been getting old for years.

terminalterror - on 28/07/2009 at 18:33 wrote:
Nicely done article there Richard! One of those cunning ones that put into words some half thought floating around in my head.

Sillothian - on 29/07/2009 at 14:30 wrote:
Nice article Hairy which should bring a few extra hits for AATG!

I'm not sure I agree with your comments about Joystiq and VG247. These sites are purely there to provide the latest gaming news asap. I don't need pointless waffle and lame attempts to be funny, I just want the news!

NewYork - on 29/07/2009 at 14:49 wrote:
That said, Joystiq are very funny, in a cute way. Their writing is excellent :)

peej - on 29/07/2009 at 17:50 wrote:
Blog gaming sites suck (unless they truly offer up something different to the norm). And amazingly blog gaming sites still get metacritic listed and rated. The US are taking steps to try and ensure that review / preview copy for games goes out to proper sources (so that probably means we'll see less than we do, which is practically bugger all anyway).


Richie - on 03/08/2009 at 01:46 wrote:
Hey!! You (accidentally) missed out Strategy Informer and from your list! Ahem...

HairyArse - on 03/08/2009 at 18:49 wrote:
Which list? My list of awesome or rubbish?


Richie - on 19/08/2009 at 14:31 wrote:
Well, as I write it, I guess it would have to feature in the list of rubbish.

HairyArse - on 30/10/2012 at 12:07 wrote:
Just re-read this. It's amazing how things come full-circle.

peej - on 30/10/2012 at 12:34 wrote:
It's also funny how New Games Journalism is now the norm and is 'accepted'.

Bremenacht - on 01/11/2012 at 02:22 wrote:
"They're all bawdy, contentious and antagonistic and specifically written in order to push the proverbial buttons of the people that can make or break a games website. "
Why not? Especially if they're fun.

"And the fact that there are people who will flock in their droves to read an article focussing on a polygonal videogame character and her relative merits as a sex object means that perhaps I've got it all wrong. Maybe I've been doing my fellow associates a dis-service. Games journalism isn't in decline. The human-race is."
When I was 12, finding a sodden porn-mag hidden in a hedge was better than finding gold. I must have spent 50% of my total thinking time (which -ok- might not have been expansive) thinking about what famous(ish) women with their clothes off would look like. Phwwwooar.

The human race isn't in decline - it's largely the same as it's always been. 12 year boys wanking themselves silly.

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Better late than never, eh Ror?
Khanivor - In response to: Battle Chasers: Nightwar Review - 215day(s) ago.
Enjoyed this, cheers!
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Looks who's back. Shady's back.
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Micro Machines was my favourite!
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i agree chris, the Aliens table makes the others look bad.. because its so goood!! but they arent that bad.. haha! ...
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