Getting Over it Already

It's been a year, and you'd think I'd be over it by now, but I'm not, dammit. I keep trying to get the words, and the unspeakable temerity, and the anger out of my head, out of my way, but I can't. It seeks my core, and bides its time, and then bleats its awful, furious reminder just when I start to feel good about the way things are going, and it casts me back down in frustrated incapacity. And the fury is not at the single incident, or the lack of repentance, but at the certainty that it is only an example of a hidden culture of acquiescence, dominance, and manipulation; a game of chess where one side is formed only of pawns.

I speak, of course, of Trip Hawkins.

Well, maybe not of course, but I am not kidding when I say this has been troubling me for a year, and serves as a constant reminder of "the way things work"™. It was Bill Harris, that damnable rabble rouser, of Dubious Quality that first brought the letter to my eyes way back in January 2005, and while I was richly engrossed in its unabashed derision - do not patronize me by telling me the reader is the customer – I might very well have been a happier man having never seen proof of my suspicions.

But, even as I read, literally slack-jawed with shock, the soulless cynic that rides shotgun in my overcrowded Jetta of a psyche, took a final puff of his dying filterless cigarette, rolled his eyes, and said "how dare you be surprised!" Then he flicked the roach of an ember into my face and I nearly wrecked the whole damn car swiping ashes from my eyes. Puzzle together that metaphor.

The letter to which I'm referring is one sent by Hawkins to then Gamepro President John Rousseau way back in 2001 (see, I really should be over it) about their scathing review of Portal Runner; a game I'm pretty sure most gamers have legitimately forgotten about. Here is the link to the full text but I'll just hit the highlights:

...I can understand that some of them would reject [Portal Runner] the same way some adults reject Shrek or Beethoven. But personally, I think that really means there is something wrong with a man like that, not with Portal Runner.

...If you disagree with me, you do so at your own peril.

...I think it is unprofessional of a reviewer to assume he represents all his readers and all market segments and can therefore dismiss a game based purely on his personal experience of a game...

...Most of you have editorial staffs that are dominated by angry young men that are poorly trained and represent a narrow and anarchistic element of the world's population.

...It reminds me of boys at junior high school dance. With their fragile egos, they stay on the sideline and say the band sucks, the girls are ugly, and that those brave enough to dance are lousy dancers. Your reviewers have no idea how to make a great game.

...And do not patronize me by telling me the reader is the customer--your real customer is the one that pays you your revenue. And it is game industry advertisers. If you need to be able to be constantly negative you need to accept that you are like a parasite that is killing its host.

Well, Trip, how's this for angry and anarchistic: You are an iconic example if not the architect of how the game industry has become, save a few bright corners, bereft of originality, artistic value, or maturity. Is that the kind of angry you're speaking of you feculent toadstool? Are ya feelin' me Hawky-baby?

You see that back there? That's the high road atop the high ground, and I'm coming down off it to play in the mud for an article; that is if you're the type of person who thinks calling Trip Hawkins a delusional jackass is playing in the mud.

But, seriously, we're talking about something that happened in 2001, by way of a terse private correspondence from a known blowhard. It's on par with being surprised when you have to ban certain self-obsessed, socially incompetent independent game designers who shall remain nameless, because Lord knows he probably Googles himself on a regular basis. I should hardly be getting my righteous indignation all stirred up for something that happened five years ago. And, as I implied before it's not so much this particular instance, as the nagging certainty I have that Trip is only the blundering clown that got exposed amid an industry that considers the gaming press to be little more than a marketing cog in the PR machine.

And worst of all, it doesn't have to be that way.

For years now publishers have been telling the largest gaming media outlets that they must rely entirely on advertising dollars to sustain their operations, and this is, of course true. What isn't true is the implication that unless magazines toe the line, publishers will suddenly stop advertising, which, I dare suggest, is pretty much the opposite of true. For all the implied sway publishers hold over the gaming media market, the media actually holds all the cards, and by cards I mean potential customers. While Trip may be right that media outlets rely on advertising revenue, that revenue isn't a benign gift from altruistic publishers who are being tragically stabbed in the back by angry, anarchist, graffiti painting editorialists. That money comes, in the end, because they want to get their marketing in front of gamers. And the way to target those gamers is by getting your 2 page preview-spread in whatever magazine or website has the audience.

If we've all learned anything as gamers, it's that bad press is better than no press.

Personal vendettas and petulant outbursts that sacrifice market exposure may be at least part of the reason that poor ill-tempered Trip got his prediction completely backwards as 3DO went quietly into that good night and Gamepro survives into 2006. Then again, maybe not, but I do likes me the schadenfreude. It's also why Peter Moore, who isn't a feckless thug like certain other people named after stumbling, is not likely to pull his support or advertising budget from EGM even after being vaguely challenged by editor Dan Hsu in a recent Xbox 360 interview . Now, mind you, this interview over which everyone is up in arms, some even calling Hsu "rude" or "anti-Xbox" would be considered positively tame in other outlets. I've listened to local politicians take tougher questions on NPR, yet somehow Hsu has stepped into uncharted territory by asking the questions that virtually everyone in, near, or even vaguely interested in the industry is asking. I mean, is it really so audacious to ask the man in charge about the general reliability of a system which many people have reported as broken straight out of the box? Shouldn't these steely eyed men be aching to tackle these questions if only so they make sure they hit all their talking points?

But, it's a start in the right direction. Hsu and EGM are making a bold and long needed experiment by dipping their toes into the water and seeing if the piranhas come to rend flesh from bone.

And, considering Hsu's editorial last month, he had forced himself into the position of backing up big words with big action. You see, Hsu did much like Hawkins and confirmed the looming fear that coverage in major media outlets is purchased, and that in essence these outlets were not unlike the infomercials I see late at night where the nutjob selling seaweed as a panacea is pretending to be interviewed by a hard-hitting journalist. Hsu says in his editorial:

I was a little suspicious of the cover choices one of our competitors was making, so I checked in with a contact of mine from a major game publisher. "Yes," he confirmed. "We can pretty much get whatever cover we want from that magazine. All it takes is for us to meet with the publisher, promise that we'll buy some ads, and discuss the details from there."

While Hsu doesn't name names, I don't find myself troubled at imagining a hefty lineup of reasonable suspects. But, what Hsu goes on to say, and this is the crux of the matter, is that the trend has led advertisers to take it for granted this is how the deal is done, even going so far as to reveal that the practice has a name, "editorial marketing". The industry assumption, even when it's not as overt as the examples Hsu lists, seems to be that purchasing ad space implies a guarantee of positive coverage, if not in the final review, at least in positive previews, cover space, page prominence, and other "˜subtle' respects.

Hawkins aside, I tend to doubt that reviews themselves are quite so bought and paid for – though, there are a few that make me scratch my skull – if only for the uniformity throughout the media. But as our own Sanjuro once pointed out, by the time the review hits the shelves the damage has already been done, the credibility corrupted. With boatloads of previews, editorial hype, flamboyant covers, and such, the real "editorial marketing" for a product is done long before you can take it from the greasy hands of your local EB proprietor. Trip Hawkins, of whom I shall again cry fool, was two steps behind in his lambasting if he was waiting for a review to market his Portal Runner.

So, what has been the advertising backlash to Hsu's apparent desire to change the direction of EGM? Well, I open the February 2006 issue of EGM to find five advertising spreads for major games before I even get to the table of contents. And what of Microsoft? Does Peter Moore lash out at EGM by pulling advertising dollars? Nope, plenty of 360 ads.

So maybe, just maybe, one of the biggest gaming media outlets has suddenly realized that they are in the driver's seat, they can challenge their advertisers and their peers, and they can dare to be so naïve, nay patronizing, as to imagine that their real customers are the people who buy the magazine. I dare to imagine that the big boys might follow suit, and that I won't have to spend articles like this doggedly avoiding using the word journalism.

- Elysium

Comments

Elysium wrote:

So, what has been the advertising backlash to Hsu's apparent desire to change the direction of EGM? Well, I open the February 2006 issue of EGM to find five advertising spreads for major games before I even get to the table of contents. And what of Microsoft? Does Peter Moore lash out at EGM by pulling advertising dollars? Nope, plenty of 360 ads.

But even if they did pull their advertising support from the magazine, wouldn't it be a little early to tell? Usually, ads are placed in a magazine months before the magazine goes to print. The deadline for the February ads was probably back in October.

However, your point still stands. Publishers need media just as much as media needs them, so you'd think that the balance of power shouldn't be so unequal.

Interesting article. Crazy Trip Hawkins.

Well, my reasoning was that if Microsoft were angry enough they could pull their advertising from the magazine, effective immediately (not that I can really imagine a universe where that would happen). I agree it may be early to tell on the page, but I've also not heard much of an uproar from potential advertisers about EGM's aggressive new stand, because in the end EGM gets in front of a lot of eyes.

where the nutjob selling seaweed as a panacea

Seaweed is God's own erectile dysfunction cure and you mock it at your own peril. Well, at your dong's own peril.

Good article though I tend to personally discount the motivations and effectiveness of the referenced, supposedly "hard hitting" interview. Let's see how this cookie crumbles in the future. If EGM or Hsu is later found suck-starting the Harley of, say, Nintendo or Sony, perhaps it wasn't as focused on some sort of journalistic integrity as everyone is touting. Of course, if they take the opposite tack and simply regurgitate questions you can find on any number of intarweb message boards (e.g. "your controller seems like a cheap, useless gimmick... comments?") they'll simply come across as whiny for whiny's sake.

I SHALL BEGIN THE SUMMONING!!!!

... Ok, no I won't.

But really, there are crazy people here, there, and everywhere, and a lot of them are pretty smart. From CEOs to coffee-percolation engineers. Trip is just one of those guys. I don't think he necessarily represents an industry trend, excepting, of course, the fact that EA is something of an industry unto itself.

Hsu's interview was not "hard hitting," it was "being a jackass." I'm all for what he SAYS he's about, but if that's an example of his philosophy in action, I'd rather see someone else leading the charge. You can ask the hard questions without being so openly hostile.

People like to compare gaming journalism to news journalism, but why? In reality, it's ENTERTAINMENT. Gamers all seem to want the industry to emulate Hollywood, right? Well, look at Hollywood. Find me Hollywood interview where the interviewer is as blatantly focused on tripping up his subject. Sure, you can find political interviews with that sort of bent, but that's an interview with a politician. One hand: Politician. Other hand: Guy who makes video games. We need not apply the same standards to reporting about these people.

As I said, I think Hsu's general thesis is great. Game journalism DOES need to be a bit less focused on pleasuring its subjects. Absolutely. But, again, that is quite different from the "f*ck you" interview style demonstrated in his (much publicized and hit-generating,) interview.

God, I miss Trip.

Oh, and great article! Sounds like our industry just took another step forward.

Morro wrote:

Hsu's interview was not "hard hitting," it was "being a jackass." I'm all for what he SAYS he's about, but if that's an example of his philosophy in action, I'd rather see someone else leading the charge. You can ask the hard questions without being so openly hostile.

I agree. The questions that he finally got around to were tough, relavent and appropriate. But the manner in which he asked them we juvenile and almost defeated the purpose. There is a certain amount of maturity that needs to go along with the new message of serious journalism.

You don't see Dan Rather sitting down with Senator Kerry asking him: "So! That election pwned you! Why did your campaign suck so much @ss?"

I don't think that their "new" style will effect ad revenue that much, but it may effect the quality of subjects that are willing to submit to interview. Tough questions are one thing, getting made fun of is another.

As I said, it's a first step and not a great one, but with some fine tuning and the recognition by the media in general that they don't have to shy away from honesty, it could be a turning point.

You don't see Dan Rather sitting down with Senator Kerry asking him: "So! That election pwned you! Why did your campaign suck so much @ss?"

Well, maybe not Dan, but certainly the shock interviewers on Fox, CNN, or MSNBC.

I want to stress again that I very intentionally avoided using the word journalism.

I want to stress again that I very intentionally avoided using the word journalism.

Duly noted. It has been entered into the court record.

Good points, Elysium. I suspect that review scores don't affect game sales as much advertising dollars do. If anything, I'd bet that six months' worth of flashy two-page ad spreads for 25 to Life would probably encourage more sales than a single negative review in the same magazine would discourage them.

I personaly think the interview was a joke. When I read an interview I want answers to questions that interest me and affect me, I dont care if the reporter has to teabag his interviewee as long as I get my answers. Not only did Hsu not get a single answer and ask the wrong questions in the wrong way but he came off like such a self righteous little sh*t.

Sorry, but the Hsu interview of Peter Moore was more petty bullsh*t than anything. The little "ambush" setup into the backwards compatability question was nothing more than Hsu not knowing a damn thing about emulation and bashing Moore for Hsu's own ignorance. I saw on 1up's video podcast that Moore explained it to these guys already. Hsu should pay attention.

It looked like a snarky little kid pissed off because Moore joked about wanting Kameo re-reviewed.

That wasn't hard-hitting game journalism, asking the tough questions. That was someone hosing down his diaper.

Never being one to pass up an opportunity to whore my own work, I have to mention my article here (with more followup here), where I address some of the reasons (beyond "they're bought and paid for") that game reviews are of such uniformly low quality. Everyone's favorite Muppet journalist Matthew Gallant stops by in the comments thread to inform me that if I'm playing a game, and it's crashy, I'm lying about it, but if it did crash it's my fault, but if it isn't my fault I should just shut up and not write about it because it is part of the exciting PC games experience for games to be crashy.

I summarize, of course, but I think it's a fair summary.

Interesting articles there, Peter!

Hsu did what he should have been doing all along, and he didn't do it especially well, so I don't know that he's deserving of any accolades. His willingness to confront Moore on common 360 concerns and complaints is pretty much completely unheard of from the mainstream gaming press, though. I'd certainly be pleased if his peers followed his lead in that regard.

Peter, I see you're still busy stiring up controversy. Good articles. I remember when Gallant pulled that dumbass CGM hatchet job on the Carnival of Gamers over the article you wrote on the same subject. Good times. I suppose as long as you're pissing him off, you're on the right track.

The meta-question I have, that no one seems to be able to answer, is: what is it in the psyche of the game reviewer (and, based on the "You must be gay and have no sk1llz!" comments I get whenever I give anything a negative review, in the psyche of the game player) that makes them (us?) refuse to treat games the same way that we treat any other consumer product.

I mean, if you bought a toaster, brought it home, plugged it in, and it didn't work, you would bring it back to the store and demand your money back. If someone asked you how that toaster worked, you'd say "It sucked. I plugged it in, and it didn't work." But somehow, when the same thing happens with games, a million fanboys come crawling out of the woodwork saying "Duuurrrrrrr, programming is hard. It works for me. You must be doing something wrong."

Bitter? Me? Maybe.

It is, I suggest, partly the culture of the Game God. Developers and publishers seem to feel that because the medium is as complex as it is, they don't need to be kept at a higher standard. Because it takes such technical expertise and such a significant team that is ultimately building an artistic endeavor, then those of us who don't like the results shouldn't be entitled to an opinion unless we are, ourselves, master coders. Though, I don't think it's limited to gamers: see flame debates raging between those who love Metallica, hate Metallica, and loved Metallica before they sold out - or those who love X sci-fi TV show and those who think it is derivative crap - or the classic Star Wars debates. It isn't so much an exclusive domain of gaming as it is pop-culture.

I agree with Elysium. I'd also add that unlike console gaming, PC gaming is sort of a craft. Upgrading components, getting games to operate, and optimizing performance is for many PC gamers very much an accepted and even worthwhile part of the hobby. A PC gamer complaining about updating drivers, etc. is akin to a drag racer complaining about having to check the engine before a race.

The end result is a set of consumers who are willing to overlook or work around sloppy code, and developers who know that this is the case.

Great article, and great conversation about Hsu to the rest of you, especially Morro and JimmDogg. I have nothing against Hsu asking those questions of PM (we could certainly use more real interviews in this industry) but it was the way he asked them.

What he did was guarantee that nobody from EGM will ever get a one-on-one again with Peter Moore, and it didn't have to be that way. Hsu failed to rise to the occasion and sounded as if he was reading verbatim from the IGN Boards. For shame.

As for Trip's comments, I smile everytime I see them. As much as a fool as he was, I love it when people stop being polite and start being real. Welcome to the Real World baby!

The Fly wrote:

I agree with Elysium. I'd also add that unlike console gaming, PC gaming is sort of a craft. Upgrading components, getting games to operate, and optimizing performance is for many PC gamers very much an accepted and even worthwhile part of the hobby. A PC gamer complaining about updating drivers, etc. is akin to a drag racer complaining about having to check the engine before a race.

The end result is a set of consumers who are willing to overlook or work around sloppy code, and developers who know that this is the case.

PC gaming is still much better than it was in "the good old days":

Way back when, at least as I recall, you often needed to have a different basic DOS setup to be able to run this game v. this other game. In other words, it wasn't just a matter of needing to move up to the latest video driver or the like. You pretty much took it as normal for the tweaking needed to run your most recent game would make some other games no longer run. And you are looking back with rose-colored glasses if you do not recall the many BSOD which occurred.

These days I can get the typical PC game to work without much hassle at all. In fact, I pretty much expect that it'll work straight out of the box. But sure there are crashes, and of course they *shouldn't* happen. The question is typically more along the lines of "do I still have enough horsepower in my aging PC to be able to run the latest crop of games, at least to my level of satisfaction?"

And I admit that since I don't do console gaming, I'm likely biased so that I'm willing to put up with crappy software since "I don't know any better". I *do* know that I often dislike the typical direct-from-console ported games, but that's a different rant for another thread.

I also agree that more QA work should be done on games before they are released. I know that I've got the patience to wait for a delayed release and prefer not to have to look for a patch just after I've installed the game. (In fact, for the most popular PC games I find that I'm waiting many months as I'm a cheapass gamer and wait for the price to drop or to get a used one from someone.) It's hard in the software business not to have the final push, mostly ignoring testing, to meet the ultimate, frozen, we're-out-of-business-otherwise schedule.

Maybe someday we'll really figure out how to do software like the rest of engineering is done, so that it's got safety and redundancy and the like without completely sacrificing efficiency. We haven't as of yet. Software is still too much an art and not a science.

croaker wrote:

Way back when, at least as I recall, you often needed to have a different basic DOS setup to be able to run this game v. this other game.

I knew where every kilobyte of my conventional memory (first 640kb) was.

peterb wrote:

Never being one to pass up an opportunity to whore my own work

Finally, someone gets it.

Video game reviews as a product review. Ding ding f*cking ding. We have a winner.

Reviews, IMO, need to answer two (and only two) questions:
1) What's it like?
2) Should I buy it?

They shouldn't be multi-page essays on every tiny aspect of the game, which turn into fanboy love-letters when the game being reviewed is good (see IGN, Gamespot).

Interestingly, I didn't have any crash issues with Civ4, but if a reviewer did, I want it mentioned. Not glossed over, nor harped on either, but addressed and then move on to the next thing. (I haven't pulled up Peter's Civ4 review yet - just read the other stuff that mentions it)

*Legion* wrote:
peterb wrote:

Never being one to pass up an opportunity to whore my own work

Finally, someone gets it.

Video game reviews as a product review. Ding ding f*cking ding. We have a winner.

Reviews, IMO, need to answer two (and only two) questions:
1) What's it like?
2) Should I buy it?

They shouldn't be multi-page essays on every tiny aspect of the game, which turn into fanboy love-letters when the game being reviewed is good (see IGN, Gamespot).

Kyle Orland over at video game media watch wrote some great stuff on this subject a while back, when the Roger Ebert/Games as Art subject was a hot topic. I'll quote from his article:

This gets into what I consider a fundamental split of all game evaluation into two distinct types: game reviews and game critiques (Never mind that almost all outlets call every game evaluation a review, just bear with me here). In my mind, game reviews are mainly commercial tools, meant to help consumers decide whether or not a game is worth their money and time. Game critiques, on the other hand, are more concerned with the totality of a game's design and what a game does to advance the state of the medium or even society as a whole. The former considers mainly whether a game is fun, the latter whether it is worthwhile.

Most of what are generally called "reviews" fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, and most writers probably consider both the artistic and the commerical aspects when giving their impression of a game. Often, the practical or idealistic bent of of the publisher can influence which side a writer leans towards.

Provocative, intelligent writing in the "critique" category is hard to come by, especially in any sort of commercial or mainstream media. I think there's a great deal of value in writing that doesn't measure a game's value against its price tag. I also think there is value in basic buyers-guide reviews, but they're much more common than the critique that Kyle describes. Here's more from the article, I'll let you be the judge as to whether or not he's on to something.

Game critics should feel deeply, deeply involved with the industry they cover, and this should come through in their writing. They should write as if everything they said had a direct and immediate impact on the state of the industry "” as if their words might might change the industry for the better (if a writer feels that everything is perfectly all right with the games industry, they should stick to reviews).

A critic's writing should betray deep feelings of ownership for the industry they love and study and write about. Sadly, many reviewers (and reviews) are merely interested in whether a game is bigger, faster, or stronger than what has come before. They have no business calling themselves part of the industry.

(If you are worried I am talking about you, rest assured I am not. I'm talking about those other bad reviewers. Let's laugh at them together. HAHAHA!)

If we as game journalists are going to find our Roger Ebert, or even (dare we dream) our Pauline Kael, we're not going to do it writing reviews that simply describe a game's component parts and slap a "buy" or "don't buy" bottom line at the end. And we're not going to do it by saying that games are just toys, not worthy or serious consideration. We're going to do it by writing about games as the engaging, emotional, some might say artistic experiences that they are, and by conveying that message to readers in an interesting and concise way.

*Legion* wrote:

Sorry, but the Hsu interview of Peter Moore was more petty bullsh*t than anything. The little "ambush" setup into the backwards compatability question was nothing more than Hsu not knowing a damn thing about emulation and bashing Moore for Hsu's own ignorance. I saw on 1up's video podcast that Moore explained it to these guys already. Hsu should pay attention.

It looked like a snarky little kid pissed off because Moore joked about wanting Kameo re-reviewed.

That wasn't hard-hitting game journalism, asking the tough questions. That was someone hosing down his diaper.

You and I are 100% in agreement.. its fairly pointless and silly to ask tough questions on the quality of a product that by all reports is well within the industry accepted failure rate. Not to mention the "hard hitting" question on the fan noise.

...

There are MANY ways to conduct a tough interview that is both informative and hard hitting but at the same time fair.

This was sadly not even close.

Absolutely. It's not that there's something wrong with asking the tough questions - it's just that these weren't them.

I watched more of 1up's video podcast, and there was a sequence of events that clearly led to this interview. One part of the podcast sees Hsu and someone else kinda bitching out one of the main podcast guys for not "defending" them from Peter Moore in the previous episode of the 'cast. Whether any such defense was needed is highly questionable, as Moore was kicking back with a brewski and didn't seem to be serious at all - just spouting off in that dry British way. Hsu, apparently, doesn't get the British.

I haven't finished watching all of the December episodes of the 1up podcast yet, so I don't know if there's more to see than what I have on this subject, but after watching that, it became very clear to me that this was Hsu "striking back" at what he thought was a slight against him. Watching him on there, he came across as a guy trying to not show that he's really mad about the whole thing.