An Evening With The Crappy Games Industry

I'm sullenly slouched in the corner of a half-lit club. The music's just been turned down and I've got my voice recorder held out in front of me, like I'm presenting someone with a dead mouse. A male voice booms across the loudspeakers that were playing house trance just a few moments before. "Thank you all for coming this evening! We know you could have gone to other events this evening, and we appreciate you being here." Some scattered laughter from the (almost entirely male) attendees. Across town is the Rock Band concert that (though we don't know it for sure at this point) will end up featuring The Who. Everyone in the room except for me wishes they were there.

"I'm proud to be a part of the world's largest platform for gaming ..." the voice continues, and I tune out. I arrived about 30 minutes ago, along with some bloggers from the Joystiq network, looking to see some PC games; to write about them, to sing the praises of the 'dying' platform that is Windows gaming. Instead of showing off the brand, the event codified, for me, why Microsoft hates the whole 'PC gaming thing.'

It also underlined, in a single evening, absolutely everything wrong, horrible, and debased about the games industry.

Our long and incredibly expensive cab ride from our hotel came to an end at an amazing intersection. I absolutely hate Los Angeles, but I can't really deny that the downtown area has some fantastic architecture. We found ourselves standing in front of one of the bi-level strip malls that seem so common in the city, a Johnny Rocket's topping a line of coffee shops, boutique stores, and fast food joints. On the end, on the lower level, is a club that will be playing host to the evening's event.

We're there about 15 minutes later than the specified arrival time, but they're not letting us in yet. A small crowd of (what I assume to be) game journalists is eying the entrance. Some are chain smoking like crazed men, and I peg them as Europeans. Walking up next to a huge "GFW" sign to find out what' s going on, a trio of men in black suits and (I'm not kidding) ear buds block my path. "Sir, we're going to need to ask you to stay put," one says. "We're dealing with the situation and you'll be allowed in shortly."

What situation? Is Gates in there prepping the team? Was there a PC-gaming related fist-fight amongst the Microsoft brass? I mull these questions as I wait with my fellow bloggers, but we never do find out what 'the situation' was. Instead, we're given wristbands and ushered into the club. It's dimly lit with colored lighting, and the noise level is (as usual) a full decibel range higher than it should be.

Games are so uncool that marketing wags feel the need to throw the coolest, trendiest parties possible

My first impression of the room itself is that there are number of kiosks set up to show off games. I smile, thinking that by braving the long cab ride and this harsh environment, we'll walk away with a bounty in game-impressions content. I walk towards the nearest 'kiosk' only to find it's just a widescreen television showing a trailer. I frown, turn, and regard the room. Most of the 'kiosks' are just televisions. In fact, there are only four actual PCs, and they're clustered around one end of the room - huddled in a corner. I braved LA traffic for this?

Events are very rarely about games

Looking closer, I realize that in reality there are only three games being shown across these four stations. Two are showing off the upcoming RTS Dawn of War II, the sequel to the Warhammer 40k game. One is labeled Crysis:Warhead, but appears to be alternating between bluescreening and the desktop. The final kiosk appears to be showing Call of Duty: World at War. The rest of the stations look pretty dead, so I head over to that (crowded) area. There are game journos swarming around the player's back, an attractive woman. Amazing how that happens. I watch her play as she gives the Nazis what for, then lean forward. "Sorry to bother," I say. "Mind if I check out the next level?"

She looks up at me for the briefest of moments, her eyebrow arched as she no-look frags a German soldier. "Sorry, but this is an eyes-only demo." She smiles a plastic smile, purchased during her years getting a degree in marketing. "Can I answer any questions about the game?" I incline my head to look at the screen. She's just breached the beach of Normandy, France - apparently from behind German lines this time. "No, that's okay," I say with a dip of my head. "Thanks anyway."

"Hands On" impressions don't always mean you get to play the game

As I'm walking away from the kiosk, scanning for my blogging buddies, a tight-faced woman intercepts my path. "Micro-chicken wrap?" She's offering a plate on which very tiny wraps have been neatly arranged. I pass, and am stopped not four feet later by a man bearing a plate of drinks. "Mocktini? Or a Passion Fruit blender?" I thank him and shake my head no, just barely dodging out of the way of a pair of already-inebriated 'journalists' who want to take him up on the offer. Looking around, it seems like everyone is swilling a crappy drink or scarfing a micro-hors d'oeuvre.

A lot of industry events are just excuses for games journalists to stuff food down their craw, swill free liquor, and ogle the PR chicks

In discussions with the other bloggers, I vow to come away from the event with at least one postable item by talking to the Dawn of War II folks. The other bloggers try to make themselves as small as possible to avoid notice by the prowling waitrons. One of my fellow blogeristas says she was offered something roughly 20 times in a 5 minute span. I believe her.

I stand near the (working) DoWII kiosk watching the conclusion of a demo, and introduce myself to an enthusiastic PR rep who's happy to hear Joystiq is around. The one bright highlight of the evening, she was a professional about the entire experience. She gave me her card, thanked me for being there, and said she'd make sure I saw the game when it became available in a few minutes. Even over the din of the music it was obvious she wanted to get some work done that evening.

The demo ended, and I sat down next to what turned out to be the game's lead designer from Relic. He was just about to get started when the music softened and the loudspeaker flared to life. "Thank you all for coming this evening!" My brain shuts down until the Peanuts-teacher droning comes to a stop.

I stood to listen to the executives speaking, mentally making a note to try to get some facetime with them after my demo. The music was just coming back up, the waitrons began circulating feverishly again, and I was resetting my voice recorder for my demo, when another journalist sat down in my seat. With a definite thump. He was from Europe (a running theme) and didn't care that I'd been there ahead of him.

I stood to the side as the designer began to ramp up his schpiel, when the press rep stepped in to speak in the designer's ear. He thanked me for coming, and offered me his seat - he spent the entire time demoing the game in a crouched position on the floor. It was appreciated. What wasn't appreciated was the input from my almost-interloper. The man had no notepad, no voice recorder - no obvious sign that he was there representing any kind of media outlet except for a stiff drink in his right hand.

There are a lot of games journalists that deserve the reputation we have as a group.

He asked hard-hitting questions like, "When will I get to play it?" "How did you make it cooler?" and, my favorite, "How did you make that so badass?" The only thing more annoying was his cohorts, who towards the end of the demo took up residence right behind me. One pressed the top of my chairback down as he leaned over me to look at the screen, while another bounced his knee off of one of my chair legs. I'm not sure they knew what country they were in, let alone what game they were watching. The demo took half an hour, and I walked away relatively pleased that it had gone well. I'd asked some followup questions that had uncovered some interesting insights - pretty much the only reason I wake up in the morning.

I stood in front of one of the televisions making notes, waving away the buzzing waiters, when I realized that the current trailer wasn’t for a PC game. It was for a 360 game. Journalists at this point were hovering freely near the booze and food stations. The few reputable outfits I had recognized at the beginning of the evening had either already left, or were skulking about the corners looking about as pissed as I felt.

Games writers don't write about PC games because they're not 'sexy'

As one last harrah, I attempted to get an interview with one of the execs. It was not to be - appointments for the gents’ time had filled up before the event had even begun, I was told. “Was this in the invitation?” I asked. I was given polite smiles and ‘thank-you-for-coming’s in response. Tail firmly between my legs, my will to continue for the evening defeated, I hooked up with my fellow bloggers and made for a hotel cab stand across the street.

Make sure you find out the secret password before you go to a party

We were across the street and heading down the block when we spotted a cab and hailed it over. It pulled up ahead of us, and we saw the cabbie turn to face us. We were almost upon it when a guy crosses the traffic-less street and jumps into the back. The cabbie pauses a moment, considering, and then races away with what sounds like verbal commands being laid down inside the cab. We pause, momentarily awed, and one of my fellow bloggers shouts some abuse at the departing vehicle. I nod at her sentiment, then snicker loudly.

“What’s so funny?” someone asks. “Didn’t you recognize that guy?” I say in response. “He was the dude that droned into the microphone earlier. Guess he had somewhere more ... rocking to be.”

They've since announced the only news from the event - Games For Windows is going to be a free service. Some outlets got the chance to learn that, in full, at the party. Others didn't. Regardless, I hope this will stop the slow hemorrhage I witnessed last week. Just don't expect them to call you a cab.

Comments

Heh. Reminds me of some of the events put on by gaming companies when I worked for GameStop. I'd usually wait for the majority that was there just for the drinks and food and swag to clear out and then find someone who was a real professional to talk to. Sadly, I've since discovered that this is not a phenomenon limited to the gaming industry.

Man, does that bring back memories. I think one of the better "mixers" we went to was the Xbox community thing a couple years ago. It was just a light party in the Microsoft area of the convention floor after-hours with free and clear access to all the games. Nice way to spend less harried, quality time with what was there.

I'll take an extended Skype conversation for the podcast over trying to talk over loud music and disinterested "journalists" any day.

Games writers don't write about PC games because they're not 'sexy'
Yep. Except for them muhmorpagahs.
There is an almost movement of hardcore PC shooter fans that is centered at dallas, extending to Houston and Oklahoma. These are the people who started 5 man CS. These are the people that wire up a college floor to play source. These are the forgotten of gaming that I know. They are my people. We are all over 14 and under 23. We are almost all guys. We all played competitive sports. We keep our mouths shut when people brag about their halo 'mad skillz' and talk about how COD4 is the most revolutionary FPS evah when we played the first one.
So I testify.

Even with all this negativity there are still thousands of gamers who would give their thumbs to be invited to these events.

Vrikk wrote:
Even with all this negativity there are still thousands of gamers who would give their thumbs to be invited to these events.

I know I would.

But while I'm sure the first Activision mixer would yield me a belly full of snacks and a healthy BAC, I wouldn't really stomach too much of the same. Companies shouldn't try to come off as classy versions of Greek house parties. There should be more of a focus on the actual product and less handwaving around to impress you with Margarita Sunbursts and DJ TechNO's mad spinnin skillz.

But, as Sarkus mentioned, such thinking is usually sneered at in other businesses, so it's not surprising that we see more of the same here.

Yeah... I went to one of those that Sony threw back when their bike racing game came out (sheesh I even forgot its name)

It was all about booze and burgers and a lot of the people invited looked like the same people you'd find hanging at your local gamestore.

The game itself was only playable on 3 or 4 screens and most of the people hired to show the game were PR who had as much skill with a controller as I do with a chainsaw.

The evening you describe here is not surprising but really sad because it is starting to look as if nobody gives a damn about PC anymore.

There's always a lot of negative feelings from the American press to the EU press. I always feel ashamed when this comes out and i hope to God that they're not British journos. Having worked in a news environment for the better part of a year i saw mostly good people - what with the current pressures on print establishments etc. - the only excuse i can think of is that these guys are working for no-name websites that manage to only employ the lowest of the low. There's a reason all the big gaming websites are american-based and it's because that's where all the money comes from. I feel that there's a bigger cultural acceptance of games over there than here. Maybe it's all in my head.

Man, if I were you I would of much rather been at the Rock Band event.

Duoae wrote:
I always feel ashamed when this comes out and i hope to God that they're not British journos.

I actually went to a UK games event with a games 'journalist' that bad (during my very brief and very awful stint as a student newspaper games journalist). He was from some terrible, now-defunct website. No social skills at all, even the fixed-smile PR women looked like they were in physical pain talking to him. I later discovered that he literally did live in his mother's basement despite being about 30.

Well, this sure fits nicely with Elysium's previous post. The pratical experience supporting the bearded man's theory.

It's not about quality as it is about doing business. I don't know if this is coming as a necessary evil, but trying to build interest in your products by means that in no way are related to the product themselves is a common practice, marketing wise.

In my country, the rivalry between mobile phone operators is so fierce, we have all kinds of events to promote their stuff. And I don't mean things like sponsoring a football match (soccer for you), although that happens. I'm talking about creating a music festival, from nothing. It's all about associating a brand with a certain feeling.

If Michael was the kind that loves clubbin', I'm sure he would come out of that party, like oh so many journalists, saying "Games For Windows, f*ck yeah!"

It's a deplorable strategy, too common for comfort, but I don't think it means that PC gaming is dying. Only that AAA PC gaming is becoming scarce. The PC will always be at the forefront of innovation. Small, but innovation nevertheless.

Nice article, BTW.

As an economic journalist with over 8 years of experience, I can tell you one thing: most of the problems you pointed out are valid for any type of journalism, not just gaming one. And it's definitely not endemic - in any part of Europe, USA or even (probably) Cochin-China you will encounter the same behavior, just the food differs. Events as an excuse to drink and eat for free? Check. Lots of journalists making bad name for journalists as such? Check. Overreporting of news-unworthy events to get a chance to participate again? Check. The monstrous events are built with those guys in mind - offering them swag and delusion of grandeur and hoping that their feeling of reciprocity, if not guilt, will lead to coverage of the event, however unimportant it may be. The PR people then report the coverage to the client, everyone's happy and the travesty continues. The only problem is that getting actual information in such circumstances becomes more and more complicated.

Despite all that I love my job.

What Wanderingtaoist said. I've been in the newz biz for about 15 years as a reporter and editor. Availabilities and pressers suck ass. My best journalism has been done on the fringes, or at least in areas where there aren't 30 other reporters working.

At least my mid-sized Southern town doesn't have brutal traffic. Sorry your night wasn't more fun, MZ.

Yeah I'd agree that most journalism regarding the imponderable habits of large companies seems to suffer from similar troubles. I'd hate to be one of the autoblog guys who has to cover the car companies. GM makes Microsoft seem svelt, nimble and on the ball.

Not to get off topic, but I see the logo for "Games for Windows" has the slogan: "Compatible, Safe, Easy to Play."

I can understand "compatible," and can only quibble mildly with "easy to play" (does this mean we can safely assume that Ninja Gaiden will not be coming to GFW?) But safe?

I suppose they could mean virus free, but isn't that the case with most shrink-wrapped software?

Does this mean GFW approved games will ship with ergonomics guidelines that users have to adhere to as part of the EULA?

Or has there been a rash of games causing PCs to ignore the Three Laws? You'd think something like that would be reported.

Yes, I am being facetious. Just seems like a goofy slogan, that's all.

Wow. My sympathies. At least you can have some satisfaction in exposing the inanity to the public, and you got a super engaging article out of it.

As I'm walking away from the kiosk, scanning for my blogging buddies, a tight-faced woman intercepts my path. "Micro-chicken wrap?" She's offering a plate on which very tiny wraps have been neatly arranged. I pass, and am stopped not four feet later by a man bearing a plate of drinks. "Mocktini? Or a Passion Fruit blender?"

What makes it a "micro-chicken?" Is the wrap just small? Since when are hors-d'oeuvres not small?

I suddenly understand why Rabbit's so popular with big shots: He drinks respectable sauces.

Duoae wrote:
the only excuse i can think of is that these guys are working for no-name websites that manage to only employ the lowest of the low.

Lots of journos drink like fish, and there's certainly a number that do other things as well. To be honest, if I knew I was walking into that mess, I would have at least brought a flask myself, if not participating in heavy pregame "warm-ups."

Scarybug wrote:
Wow. My sympathies. At least you can have some satisfaction in exposing the inanity to the public, and you got a super engaging article out of it.

That was exactly what I was thinking as we left the place, man.

When the suit stole the cab, that clinched it. "Okay, I have to write this up for GWJ."

Ugh, I think I'd hate to have to do thoe events all the time. I would like to do one someday for sh*ts and giggles, but it sounds really boring.

Get an interview with a PR person about those events where they can go off the cuff It would make for an interesting read.

It seems more often than not, the new thing is to write about the writing of a piece of writing, instead of actually writing it. This piece, in particular, seems to have placed the actual points in BOLD to make sure we don't miss them. If you don't like the industry, or hate attending these events, no one is twisting your arm to do it; the freedom to find a more interesting line of work is always available.

The whole European-hate-vibe seeping out of the cracks is a little bit much, too. What's next? A trip to Japan where 'those disgusting Japanese' eat food raw, and spend every night in a capsule hotel?

isobelle wrote:
This piece, in particular, seems to have placed the actual points in BOLD to make sure we don't miss them.

That's actually a bit of web-specific editing, to prevent the degenerate skimmer from looking at a block of text and going "BUHHHHHH". Web writing presents some interesting challenges when it comes to reading retention. Making parts look distinct is one of the easier ways to make sure a person's engaged, instead of blanking out after 4 sentences.

isobelle wrote:
If you don't like the industry, or hate attending these events, no one is twisting your arm to do it; the freedom to find a more interesting line of work is always available.

But then, why bother holding an event? Why not just rent a club, hire some go-go dancers and a DJ, serve Appletini's and just have a TV in the corner spewing a pre-recorded playthrough? Honestly, events like these really aren't about the game, they're about selling the product. They're overblown PR events and should be labeled as such. But no, instead they're listed as "Games for Windows Preview Event: The Future of the GFW Initiative", or something along those lines.

The funny thing about "twisting your arm"... what if your employer's set you up to do the rounds and go to 4-5 of these suckers? What if you really want to learn about the product or have legitimate questions about the GFW future? You're just supposed to sit back and suck it down?

By the by, arguments like yours there are really disingenuous. It's a valid critique of the practices of the marketing arms of these publishers/producers, and an implied critique of the games media that attends this. What's the Joystiq dude going to write about this? Probably some dolled-up version of the talking points and hypespeak that was shoved down his drunken throat. Is he going to have the integrity to say "We didn't play the game, but here were impressions", or is he more likely to leave this fact out?

There are TONS of readers out there who don't give these reviews a second thought. They take it on faith alone that bloggers and writers actually have something of note to say, something resembling some one-on-one time with the game or the press agents when formulating their Sneak/Advance/First Looks. If THIS was the event that was informing an article, it's a damned sham.

Everyone complains about Games themselves "growing up", but it's time that the policies surrounding those games should experience some maturation as well. This means giving journalists some time with the game itself, not just being handed a cupcake and watching Production Assistant #347 play out a pre-scripted sequence.

Spaz wrote:
That's actually a bit of web-specific editing, to prevent the degenerate skimmer from looking at a block of text and going "BUHHHHHH". Web writing presents some interesting challenges when it comes to reading retention. Making parts look distinct is one of the easier ways to make sure a person's engaged, instead of blanking out after 4 sentences.

I thought one of the redeeming qualities of GWJ is that we come here to read the words. This isn't YouTube, and I don't blank out after 4 sentences. I kinda thought that was the point of GWJ... intelligent articles for intelligent readers.

I won't turn this into a tit for tat thing... I agree the PR system is pretty silly in its ham-handed implementation of press events, and the piece itself was more a covering of 'that aspect' of the presentation than the products of the show. I get it. I guess the biggest turn off for me was the lumping of Europeans into one unlikable mass, and the general tone of it all. Just me, I suppose; to each his own.

Yeah I have to agree with those sentiments, really. I joked about the 'pretty girl with kitten = more people' in another topic, but I too don't think these kind of tricks should really be needed, unless you're really that desperate for a public.....
... are you?

Also, I'm not saying it's not true that the european 'journalists' there may have been incompetent jerks (I'm easily convinced they were), but apart from that 'Europe' is rather diverse and a lot of people here still don't appreciate the generalisation, it also shifts the focus from the original subject, which was the terribleness of the event, to the nationality of the journalists, which is, quite frankly, not very interesting in this context as there's no depth in that beyond the 'running theme' comment. After all, there's no focus on the other people being American either, so why do this, when there's just negativity to tell? It doesn't help the article, I think, as this seems to be an issue with the industry itself. Although, as wanderingtaoist said, it does't seem limited to either the gaming industry or nationalities..

isobelle wrote:
The whole European-hate-vibe seeping out of the cracks is a little bit much, too. What's next? A trip to Japan where 'those disgusting Japanese' eat food raw, and spend every night in a capsule hotel?

No, nerds tend to fetishize Japan instead of demonizing it.

I still think it was more a problem of them being drunk than being foreign.

Not every topic is going to resonate, but I value a perspective on the events that describes them for what they are rather than handing out the PR line. Offering criticism of these events, which are after all designed to market content to you, doesn't seem disingenuous to me.

But, what I really find troubling, and I've seen it a lot lately in _many_ places, is the annoying mentality that criticism of the business of games journalism shouldn't be taking place. It reminds me of the jingoism here in the US a few years ago that if you didn't fall into lock-step with the party line, then you should just go move to Russia. The motto of this kind of reaction seems to be "Games journalism, love it or leave it."

It occurs to me that these kinds of responses miss the point, which is that Michael is trying to expose the ridiculousness and vapidity of the event, partly to let you know the source material from which others are writing and partly in the hope that it will encourage change. Certainly we've seen good events and positive reactions, but this article offers, for me, evidence of a number of disturbing trends including the questionable support of PC games by Microsoft, the way these events replace content with alcohol, and on top of all that offers an entertaining account.

Frankly, the mentality of "hey, a lot of people would kill to get in these events, so you should stop complaining" rubs me far the wrong way. We already have a cadre of games journalists who are just happy to be included and are thus willing to write whatever they're told. If that's what people are looking for, journalists who are aching to be friends with the games industry at all costs, then these are probably not the pages you're looking for.

Well said, Elysium.

It actually took me a minute to even process that comment until I realized the hatred for bold was about subheadings, which have been a useful tool since Gutenberg. As for the meta-dialog, I think it's fairly unusual around here, but since a lot of us do in fact write about games elsewhere in more traditional structures, it shows up from time to time. I'm both fine with that and a progenitor occasionally.

I like to think we are neither a traditional GiantBomb-like review site nor a feature-heavy journalism site like rockpapershotgun. Both sites I dig. Our front page is the result quite literally of a writers group that happens to, but not always, write about games. Most of us spend more time writing about other things, and this is our happy place.

Sorry for the ramble.

Elysium wrote:
replace content with alcohol

That's another of my favorite pastimes.

wordsmythe wrote:
Elysium wrote:
replace content with alcohol

That's another of my favorite pastimes.


Ever considered a job in games journalism?

@Elysium:
I suppose that's true - you can't check up front how these things will be and if Microsoft (or any publisher/developer) is promising something, they should deliver.
With more established commercial areas, that's become a standard - if you don't deliver what's promised, written on the box, you get sued out of existence.
With this however, it's near lawlessness and they can do whatever they want; I think the last time people complained about something like that, it was something more tangible: pre-rendered trailers of games, that made them look prettier than they were. That's false marketing - like showing a well-prepared salmon and giving you a quickly prepared cod.
(sorry, getting into the food analogies again)

Something similar should be done about presentations and such, but that's like the crazy game pricings in europe and Australia - what CAN be done about it if people keep going?
We keep buying games because... we want to buy games. we HOPE it's worth the price. You keep going because.. you hope it's worth the effort.
Writing about it is a good thing - not writing about it never gets it any attention. I just wonder whether this gets out far enough. I doubt gamespy would pick this kind of thing up. After all, it's not exactly a 'stolen HL2 code' story. :\

True, but I'm not going to worry about that. We can't change what other people at that event do, but we can offer an alternative. Ultimately, it's you who decides which is worthwhile both in the journalism and the game itself.

FeddEx wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:
Elysium wrote:
replace content with alcohol

That's another of my favorite pastimes.


Ever considered a job in games journalism? ;)

Yeah, but I guess I chickened out.