Sound and Fury
Coverage of GDC is the latest example of the general malaise in the games media.
GDC has an image problem. This year's conference was, by all accounts, very good - interesting sessions were held, new technologies were demonstrated, good networking was accomplished and San Francisco's bar trade has reason to be grateful - but to look at the coverage which the conference has attracted from the media, you wouldn't know it.
Viewed through the lens of the specialist media, this year's GDC was a barren wasteland of broken promises. Almost all of the announcements and reveals which had been expected or hoped for by the press didn't come to pass.
Having whipped their readership up into a lather over expected revelations about things like new Wii games, the next Metal Gear Solid and ICO creator Fumito Ueda's new title, specialist publications could barely conceal their disappointment when almost none of those things were unveiled. Their readers didn't even bother trying to conceal their disappointment, railing against both the companies involved and the conference itself in comment threads.
Of course, this isn't actually GDC's fault. What actually happened here was that the companies and their speakers had the temerity to come to a development conference and speak about development - rather than giving the media what it wanted, which was E3 Lite.
This is a storm which GDC has been weathering ever since the old, giant-scaled E3 was torn down and replaced with the slightly anaemic new format for the show. The organisers of the conference have been fighting against it turning into a media jamboree all along, mindful, perhaps, that more stage time given to massive consumer software or hardware reveals equals less actual value for the developers who are, after all, the show's target audience.
Yet despite the show's best efforts, every year the media circus which precedes it grows in scale. The froth of rumour and expectation was bigger this year than ever before; the absolutely inevitable letdown harder than in any previous year.
It's not just GDC that is so afflicted, either. Just as media outlets are astonished and angered each year by the lack of non-development announcements at a development conference, they also build the same pointless expectation over shows like Game Convention (realistically, too close to Christmas for any major slew of announcements) and the Tokyo Games Show (largely focused on the domestic market, and dominated by titles which will never be exported).
The reason for this constant cycle of rumour, expectation and disappointment - whose ultimate result is to create a large population of embittered, annoyed consumers, something which isn't good for anyone in the business - lies in the continuing debasement of the games media itself. Blogs, podcasts and news sites can huff and puff as much as they want about GDC (or any other show) being "disappointing" - the reality is that it's the writers themselves, through their credulity and unprofessionalism, who have created the false expectations which lead to such disappointment.
The advent of the Internet has done some wonderful things for the games media, but news journalism - both in games and in every other sector in the world - has suffered terribly. No longer are news stories researched, backed up and given a context before being published. Instead, a culture where being first is vastly more important than being accurate has flourished, with writers desperate for "exclusives" converting wild rumours and speculations from forums like NeoGAF or GameFAQs into news stories in a matter of minutes.
With pitched battles being fought between rival blog sites to be first with the "news", what that news actually contains becomes far less important than being the first site to have the headline. Worst of all, the relentless drive for more exclusives means that stories are thrown out to the public and rarely returned to - instead, they flourish on networks of smaller blogs and websites, fermenting in the public consciousness until they become "fact", utterly divorced from their worthless beginnings as rumours anonymously posted on an ill-moderated comments board.
Even the bigger and supposedly better games websites are pulled into this cycle, at great detriment to the quality of their own reporting. Previously, professional writers on these sites would have taken the same rumours and spent a few hours researching them, calling the parties involved for comment, and getting in touch with sources who might have been able to confirm their veracity. Now, after years of doing the proper legwork only to publish a few hours after the blogs' unresearched headlines went live - thus losing much of the traffic for the story - this practice is dying out, as journalists who ought to know better join in the race to the bottom instead, egged on by publishers and managers who also ought to know better.
This cycle reaches fever pitch as an event like GDC or TGS approaches. Every man and his dog has an opinion on what he thinks will be revealed at these conferences - and posted to the right forum with the right "wink wink, nudge nudge" tone, those opinions quickly become rumours, rumours become news stories, and news stories become unrealistic expectations in the minds of millions of gamers. With no fact checking and, apparently, no common sense whatsoever being applied by the "journalists" who should be acting as arbiters of this process, the cycle gets worse every time - and companies who never gave any inkling that they'd unveil anything find themselves being lambasted for breaking their "promises".
Is it a problem, though? Isn't all of this just background noise, annoying but not ultimately harmful? I beg to differ, on several grounds. Firstly, it's extremely important for the future development of the industry that it be able to come together and speak openly and frankly about questions related to development and publishing. If companies feel like they're beholden to announce something new every time they open their mouths in public - or they will be crucified by public opinion afterwards - they'll start to take the view that perhaps they shouldn't speak so often in public at all, hurting events like GDC and every other conference in the calendar.
Secondly, embittered, angry gamers who feel like they've been lied to by the companies whose products they buy aren't a healthy demographic to have around. It's not just conferences and shows which are hit by the "churnalism" culture; every publisher and platform holder on earth has been lambasted at some point for failing to keep a promise which it never made, but which ballooned instead from unchecked, unresearched rumours and speculation.
Finally, however, there's the impact on journalism itself. In the sea of rumours, speculation and nonsense which has become our news cycle, the sad reality is that any real investigative, well-researched work is lost. When baseless rumours are presented as fact day after day, readers find it impossible to separate them from genuinely good, well-researched work - thus, ironically, making the games media into a powerless beast. The power to break real exclusives or investigate matters of genuine import to consumers is rendered meaningless if it will be lost in the flood of half-truths and inaccuracies. Instead of journalism, games news, even on some of the most reputable sites, has become filled with sound and fury - signifying, ultimately, nothing.