The story so far:
On Dec 31 of 2009, developer Brian Green announced the closing of Near Death Studios. NDS is the company behind the venerable Meridian 59, the first graphical MMO. (Although M59 will continue to run for the foreseeable future.) The story was picked up by Joystiq, although some of the reported facts were wrong. This led Green to post a sharp critique of gaming journalism. It’s an interesting read, and one of the guys from Joystiq jumps in to the comments at the end of that post. You don’t need to read it all to follow what I’m about to talk about, but it’s still interesting and worth a look.
Part of the problem with the lack of journalism in gaming journalism is that a lot of gaming sites – mine included – mix commentary and humor with news. People seem to have this impression that it’s okay to joke around on your blog, but once you’re a “real” site you need to straighten up and start behaving like a J-school professional.
It’s not clear where the line should be drawn, and ignores the fact that many sites grow gradually into larger ones, and that they often get big because of their lack of professionalism. There’s often this disconnect with blogs: The writer sees it as a conversation with friends, and the readers think of it as a hobby news site. The writer is wanting to comment and gossip, but once a site gets so big the readers start expecting journalism. I think this is a cultural problem, mostly. We haven’t had something like blogs before, and so in many cases people are still working out what to expect from them.
(This is even more true in the political arena. Web surfers will think nothing of stumbling onto some random small-fry political wonk and demanding that the author familiarize themselves with Dr. Humphrey J. Poncebottom’s 700 page tome, “A Treatise on Regionalism and Steel Tariffs in 16th Century France” before they have the audacity to complain about the cost of canned soda.)
But this serves as a good launching point for something I’ve wanted to say for a while now…
I divide the gaming press into three broad groups. Starting from the bottom:
The bottom-feeders are blogs like this one. No real journalism, and no pretense of being such. It’s all reviews, commentary, op-ed, and webcomics down here at this end of the food chain. I’ve said before that people like me are information parasites. We ingest gaming news and excrete a waste product known as opinion editorials. Blogs are, essentially, entertainment. Once in a while a blogger gets a scoop, scores some insider info, or gets an interview, but for the most part we’re just making observations and repeating stuff we read elsewhere.
Anway, I sometimes get proud of the community we have here. Hey, this site scores over a million pageviews a month. I must be doing pretty well, right?
But if I ever want a dose of humility, I need only look up at…
2. News Sites
The next tier are the mid-range sites. There’s at least an order of magnitude difference in reach between a large blog like mine and one of these news sites. Places like Kotaku, Rock Paper Shotgun, Destructoid, and the above-mentioned Joystiq, as well as my fellow crimefighters at The Escapist.
(It confuses things somewhat that many of them use a blog format, and so defining them becomes a bit tautological: They’re second-tier news sites because they’re in the second tier!)
These sites do a mixture of news and entertainment. This is where I get my gaming news and this is where all of the interesting discussions happen. These sites tower over blogs, although they are nothing compared to…
3. The Whores
Sites like IGN and Gamespot are the 800 pound gorillas of gaming journalism. The gap between the News Sites and the Whores is another order of magnitude. It really is interesting how neatly the sites break into discernible bands like this when you graph them. IGN and Gamespot are neck-and-neck, and they tower above the news sites who are all basically clustered together.
|Alexa only lets you graph five sites at a time, but if I added Rock Paper Shotgun, The Escapist, Destructoid, and Blue’s News, they would all end up more or less overlapping the lines at the bottom.|
I realize it probably sounds like sour grapes to refer to these big sites as “Whores”. But then, I’m a bottom feeder and I can get away with that sort of obvious unprofessionalism. But I really do think these sites are worse than useless. I’m thinking back to The Gerstmann Thing. That was a bad thing that happened, and nothing has changed since then.
The way it looks to me: A publisher can use their advertising money to leverage a better review for a game. That game will sell more copies as a result. While the system isn’t completely zero-sum, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that this will cost other titles some sales. Bad games are lifted up at the expense of good ones. Money flows not to the best developers, but to developers working under publishers with the most advertising muscle. You know. Money.
If this is at all accurate, then the Whores are actually poisoning the well of videogaming in order to cash a paycheck.
If you had described this state of affairs to me in 2001, I probably would have predicted that the system would self-correct through traffic. Gamers would lose confidence in the Whores and would seek their gaming news elsewhere. But this hasn’t happened. IGN and Gamespot are bigger than ever. They have remained big even though they feature the very worst sort of annoying full-page advertisements, the signal-to-noise on their front page was usually abominable, and their reviews are suspect. (Both have fixed their front pages this year though. They’re pretty much par for the course now.) They are doing everything “wrong” from a traffic standpoint, but they’re still winning. As it stands, the two of them have more traffic than all other gaming news sites combined.
My guess is that these bigger sites are being propped up by the network effect. I think you can look at anything they have on one of the Big Two and find the same thing elsewhere, only better. But people go to Gamespot because other people go to Gamespot.
What’s the solution? I actually don’t think there is one. I think the damage done by the review score mills is a lot worse than the damage done by lack of fact-checking. But the point is arguable, and of course there’s never any reason not to strive to do better.
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