I’ve finally gotten round to sitting down, determined to write another thought-dump on the subject of the games industry. My desk is littered with Pimm’s cans, my floor with components and an incredibly heavy old CRT monitor, but I remain resolute that cleaning can come after this. The focus this time is whether the constant coverage of video games from their very beginnings to their release is actually affecting the games in a negative way, and whether the way games journalists write about games is limiting the success of some games.
First off, I’m not going to try to prove that games journalism is useless, or even that it is doing anything specific wrong as it is right now. Instead, I’m just looking at how what is currently being done in games journalism might adversely affect some games, in what could be seen as an unavoidable manner. With that mini-disclaimer out of the way, let’s disregard everything I just said and start digging a pit that I’ll not be able to climb out of.
Video Games have a significantly different public life cycle to any other form of popular entertainment. Books, films and music don’t regularly get announced with the same kind of fanfare that video games do, even before anything significant is ready to be shown. Nor do we constantly get screen captures of a film as it goes through its development process, getting polish added month by month, in the pages of Empire or a similar magazine. In some ways, the most profitable time of a games life is before its even been released, as it shows off all these cool features that will never make it intact into the final game, but nonetheless will encourage people to buy it.
This constant coverage is, of course, performed by games journalists. Every month a new hugely exciting game is announced, and every month a horde of journalists from all over the globe descend on the developer’s studio to get a glimpse of a barely-playable build of a game which will likely be unrecognisable by release. This does give the developers a very useful byproduct of getting coverage on their next project – feedback. After the first screenshots/gameplay videos/previews have been posted on the internet, all the developers have to do is sit back and wait for the criticisms to come rolling in. After they’ve collected a good sample, they can get round to changing the game to make the maximum profit.
Unfortunately, these criticisms are not representative of what the gaming community as a whole – especially for those kinds of games that Nintendo have been releasing recently, only a tiny percentage of their target audience will be vocal about what they see on the internet/video gaming magazine of their choice, and indeed not many will know much about the game until the day it is released. As a result, many of the changes a developer might make to a game will be catering to those all-too-vocal internet types who probably wouldn’t get the game even if it did conform to all their ideas.
Can this (possibly non-existent, I haven’t researched this) problem really be placed at the feet of games journalists, though? After all, these fellows are simply covering what the audience of their magazines expect, and what they expect is constant and complete coverage of a game from conception to birth, and even the eventual death of obscurity and retrospectives. Apparently playing the games upon release isn’t enough for most people. Instead, they have to have a say throughout the entire process, even if their voice is never going to be heard by the creators.
Another problem which I think afflicts games which are under this constant scrutiny by the world is the way that because the majority of the larger sites/magazines cater to gamers of all types, a criticism of a game function that might really irk the reviewer could actually be irrelevant to some gamers. However, because the reviewer has marked down the game for that, and seemingly everyone just goes on the end score, quite a few people might be put off a game which otherwise they could have enjoyed. Again, this really isn’t the reviewer’s fault, he/she is simply marking what they feel the game deserves, but it does mean that certain games can fall into obscurity well before they deserve to.
I realise I’ve not offered any solutions to any of this, and that’s because I don’t have any. As someone who enjoys video games and reading about them in almost equal measure, I actually think we’ve got pretty good thing going at the moment. I’m just pointing out that it’s not perfect.