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 naÃ¯ve, 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.