The games media: manifestos, agendas and hot air

Web users have changed and the games media needs to catch up. Quickly

In the last few days, GameSpot has published what vice president John Davison calls a "manifesto of sorts", musing on the future direction of GameSpot and consumer games media in general. There are some interesting points in there, reflecting general trends in the way media is changing to handle assets and, more importantly, serve its readers.

As Davison points out, the role of handing assets to readers is beyond tired. It's not just assets either, information that masquerades as news can be found anywhere. Frankly, the games business doesn't need the specialist or trade press for any of that. In fact, I'd go a step further and argue that the games business barely needs the consumer press for reviews any more in some senses. Sales of the big mainstream console releases are not affected by review scores, nor the yearly sports updates. Mobile games continue to spew forth, but does a review by Pocket Gamer matter? And what of social gaming? Games journalists don't understand that one at all, and the players couldn't tell you what an IGN is anyway, so there's a complete disconnect. Reviews for entertainment and insight are still valuable for the website but maybe not for the publisher beyond validation of a good idea well executed.

But I digress. As sites attempt to evolve with the reader, they're experimenting more and more, and this is a very good thing. The joke amongst games journalists is that no one knows that they're doing any more, and I like that as a chaotic jumping off point - rip it up and start again. Don't get me wrong, I'm not the journo police and if I ever turn into that editor on Twitter who rants about other games sites without watching his own staff and content then by all means line me up for a headshot. The media community is doing well to acknowledge and attempt change, but it also needs to be honest about the environment it's competing in. Your website is not the only destination, far from it, and you have competitors that would see you dead for a few ad dollars. It's not all cut-throat and I'm sure there's mutual respect, but baby needs new shoes. And by 'baby' I mean me, and by 'shoes' I mean shoes.

News is dead

Change may be coming. Some sites are already evolving. Venture Beat's games spin-off used to be about money in the games sector and new disruptive technology, but now it's adding reviews and games guides which seems like a side-step to the consumer market where those are already well taken care of. Vox Games is going to do something later this year, but all we know for sure at the minute is there's a lot of money being paid to 'named' writers who are working behind the scenes. I like the fact that US media has big personalities like that, and Europe should take note, but is the Vox project going to be hampered by competing egos?

As a senior editor on one of the big US games sites said to me last week, "News is dead. All our readers care about is video," and that's evidenced by the amount of staff these sites are dedicating to video programming versus more traditional editorial content. Video is popular, sure, but I hope that doesn't come at the cost of journalism. And if all sites decide to focus on a piece to camera, then all sites effectively become the same again, replacing screenshots and trailers with the semi-balding man-rant - although I agree opinion is more important and interesting at this stage than pretty pictures.

News isn't dead, but news doesn't come from press releases. There's plenty of room for journalism, for credible original news stories and in-depth features, interviews, facts, stats and opinions. Some sites are doing this better than others, and there's absolutely no reason to abandon those in favour of something new. If you see a gap, then fill it, but don't cram resources into it at the cost of your regular output.

The message isn't so much confused as undefined at this point, when a site like Kotaku posts 1300 words about its upcoming programming schedule and readers are left wondering, "how the hell is that going to work?" If you can't communicate your own intentions to begin with, you're going to struggle to reach the readers that care. It's a Wii U-like level of miscommunication.

There's always been a focus on SEO keywords and optimising headlines for easy search engine referrals, with some sites doing it better than others. This is where Davison and GameSpot has taken a bit of a pasting from rival IGN. But those that are still clinging to high traffic as their only metric are behind the times. Readers don't stick around for long. You can shout about your high monthly page views as much as you like but if readers are clicking on one story for the sensational headline and pissing off elsewhere you're building nothing for the future.

Sharing is caring

What I'm getting to, once I've eventually stopped taking pot shots at anyone with a games blog, is that social media may be the key to differentiation. That's not a new assessment by any means, the media has been equally trumpeting and troubled by social media in the hands of the everyday user since we all got a camera phone, but still no one has figured out how to use it. Apart from the readers of course. Social media is replacing search as the dominant means of discovery. Blind inquires are pushed to landing pages and indexes, but original content is shared by caring readers who want to pass it on to their peers.

Unique content sounds obvious, but in the bid to be everything to everyone, unique content is swamped by everything else - whether that's news, video or infographics. It's hard work finding the original content across the web, and you'll need to deliver it constantly and consistently if you expect readers to come to you. Because those are the people who will use Twitter and friends to evangelise your content and take it beyond the loyal reader. Neither can you just pledge to do whatever the reader wants from your site, it's a cop out to say you will, because by the time you've figured that out and you think you've refined it, the reader will have moved on. React to the readers, but don't hang on their every word.

I don't have any answers. You know by now we're changing dramatically in the coming months, more than we've ever done before. We're dropping the registration wall, we're merging with our American brothers over on, we're redesigning and then relaunching the whole site. It's a big jump. Some of what we do will work, some of it might not. This is a bit rich, but it's time to shut up about what we hope to do and how we all want to change in the face of a media-saturated audience, we need to get on with it and deliver. I'm partly the audience for games media, whether consumer or trade, and I'm partly a million miles away from it. I love the games media, whether hard facts or comic lulz, but it's at risk of stagnating. Give up on the agendas and the mission statements, seriously, it's time to show and prove. At the moment, I'm not seeing a lot of proving.

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Latest comments (13)

Keith Andrew Freelance Journalist, Keith Andrew Media6 years ago
Online games journalism is always in a state of flux. I'm not sure it'll ever settle down, to be honest.
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Joe Martin Journalism 6 years ago
Spot on, Martin.
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I appreciate genuine critical analysis of the games industry, which is why this is a regular place read, digest and feedback, and certainly decent games journalism is highly valued.

General Game reviews tend to make one be highly cynical, because it is harder to discern what is genuine opinoin, pre packaged press reporting or gameplay/PR fed through closed room interviews at the latest game event/show.

Occasionally, there are some interesting tidbits from folks like superannuation
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Show all comments (13)
Nicholas Lovell Founder, Gamesbrief6 years ago
Good stuff. Excellent move to drop the registration wall. I look forward to seeing more analysis and more insight. If only everyone would stop rehashing press releases or targeting journalists to write 5 stories every day by 4pm.
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Fran Mulhern , Recruit3D6 years ago
"News isn't dead, but news doesn't come from press releases."

Certain other sites would do well to take note of this little nugget of gold.
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Rich Sturgess Business Development Director - EMEA, Marmalade6 years ago
Good piece, Matt. Looking forward to what's coming.
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Mike Wuetherick Lead Designer, Super Mega Awesome Games6 years ago
amusing that the article doesn't mention the truly successful gaming news sites like the escapist or even sites like penny arcade. i would even hazard a guess that more gamers get their news from 'web comic' sites than traditional news media
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Benjamin Kratsch Freelance Journalist, GLP Media6 years ago
Do you actually think that there is a slight chance of establishing paid content? Because the biggest problem our industry is facing is in my opinion that we have to offer more and more and more content (video previews/reviews, podcasts, social media, live broadcasting from events) with out getting money for it. The whole online media is pretty hooked on advertisement, I see this as a big challenge for the future.

People are paying for everything: Apps, DLC, why not journalist content?
Thanks for your input

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Simon Munk Journalist/scriptwriter/copywriter 6 years ago
a) I think reviews are more vital than ever - good reviews, good reviewers act as a vital gateway - and are far more interesting than the crowd-lumped shout of social media or automatic recommendation engines so far. In other words, gamers still rely on good reviews not just to tell them whether a "hot" game is any good or not, but to tell them about games they might not normally buy. I'd also point out I was chatting to an indie smartphone game developer - and they were desperate for reviews!

b) What I do agree with is unique content is vital.
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Thomas Dolby Project Manager / Lead Programmer, Ai Solve6 years ago
@ Benjamin
I would imagine it would have to take something similar to what the the big news sites have done, which is "expert" editorials. You can't charge for ordinary news, everyone else is giving that away for free, so you need some really good, knowledgeable opinions/analysis and on top of that some bonus premium content like special offers or industry event exclusives. Opinions and special offers are a dime a dozen at the moment though, so I would tip my hat to anyone who can make it work.
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James Ingrams Writer 6 years ago
It's about times sites like Gamespot started going BACKWARDS! Rather than the mushy multiformat style, taken up in 2006 with the PS3 and 360, where clicking on "PC review" could take you to the 360 page and review, I think success for games magazine sites is to go back to pre 2006.

Separate the charts, so we have PC, 360 and PS3 charts and NO multiformat chart, for example. Given that the multiformat chart is about how many formats you released on as much as how many units sold! (100,000 units sold on each of 7 formats is NOT a hit like a PC, 360 or PS3 only title, for example, that sells 500,000!!

Then have specific sections that go into much more depth and wider coverage than the flash inspired "three headlines a week"! I am sure PS3, 360 and PC gamers want to feel they are entering a site that just deals with their preferred format, even if behind the scenes it's one site.

With the new consoles supposedly more like a mix between an I-Pad and DVD recorder than for hardcore games, I would also suggest that all the major web gaming magazines give more than lip service to the PC and console games of 1995-2005! I am surprised they haven't already done the latter, given the success of and the sales of pre 2005 titles on Steam, etc!
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 6 years ago
@ Simon

I agree that there's a need for good, critical reviews. However, I think there's a problem with reviews in the gaming media, and it's mostly one that affects the larger advertising heavy sites. It's also a problem that gaming media needs to sidestep, if it's going to grow:

The majority of advertisers for gaming magazines are themselves publishers of video games. There's very little non-gaming advertising - even in the mature games media.

Now, whilst I'm not being silly and suggesting that (as an example) EA threaten to with-hold advertising revenue unless X game gets Y score, it is an issue that the media need to acknowledge. Maybe it affects the reviewers judgement, maybe not. But reviewers/the reviewing media need to give every appearance of being above the industry, and bias does happen (I don't think I need remind anyone of the Gamespot Kane and Lynch fiasco, do I?).

I don't see how magazines/sites can be counted on to give accurate, critical reviews, constantly, when the majority of their ad revenue comes from the same place as the product they're reviewing. I question how impartial any site can be when it's earning money from the industry it's attempting to critique.

It's not like gaming media can't take advantage of other ad revenue - I'm sure Brandon Sanderson would be chuffed-to-bits to have his Mistborn books advertised in the same issue of PC Gamer that reviewed Skyrim. Given the mature audience that Edge has, I'm certain that they could get away with carrying adverts for JD or Captain Morgan rum. Debenhams, The Gap, Lush - all these places can give advertising to the media. So why are the only ones currently paying for ad space part of the industry?

As a final illustration: PC Gamer gave Dragon Age 2 94%. The background of the homepage of PC Gamer at the time was a huge Dragon Age 2 advert. Do you think that creates an image of bias?

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 18th February 2012 7:57pm

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Michael Murdoch Financial Blogger/Tech segment 6 years ago
Ditto Morville. I'm probably the only person who can openly trash games in widely read articles and no one cares. Of course, I write for financial sites, so "exclusive" previews mean nothing to me. SEC filings and Financial statements are the major concern.

But you know what? In general, I can write a very negative or positive piece and no one cares either, so long as it's well-reasoned and I disclose my positions either way. Financial journalism has a strong conflict of interest ethics. It has too though, for various reasons.

Gaming journalism is closer to the wine and cigar genre of hobbyist magazine at present than anything else and they should look at what has happened there. It faced and faces most of the same problems.

As a group, and there are many exceptions - including IMO, the trades, which are more honest and professional than most (e.g. real estate, education and HR trades are loaded with buzzwords and garbage), but gaming "journalism" has ways to go before it grows up. Journalists also need to grow a set. That blog standing up to Activision was a step in the right direction. Too many hobbyists, not enough reporters.

Developers (and editors, who are mostly spineless, whereas in wider journalism they're made of sterner stuff) also need to take a step back and stop trying to influence reviews. If you made a bad game, suck it up, you don't deserve a good review because you spent X dollars. Fwiw, if you can't find one good quote about your game, you need better PR (most game companies do - they have marketing, but not PR).

Ultimately, it's counterproductive even to the advertiser to strongarm these sites. Who wants to go to a "reviews" site where the "critic" reviews are wildly inaccurate? I mean, Fable 3, which was an absolutely wretched game (awful play control, combat, camera, story, repetitive, poor quests, no loot, massive endgame design flaw) with voice acting as its only redeeming feature, got a host of extremely positive reviews. You'd think the game was Skyrim, looking at some of these reviews.

I don't even bother anymore. Aside from Chris's Survival and one or two others, if I can't play it myself, I mostly just look at the crowd sentiment and a gameplay video (that's because gaming "journalism" killed reviews by making them BIGGAMING press releases). And that's sad, because there's probably some good stuff out there.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Michael Murdoch on 21st February 2012 5:50pm

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