Tobold's Blog
Friday, March 16, 2012
Game journalism and experience

In most professions it is better to get served by somebody experienced. A car mechanic with years of experience will find out what's wrong with your car faster than the guy who just started. But I was wondering whether game journalism, blogging included, is the exception to this rule. Somebody who has been reviewing games for years will probably fail to be enchanted by a new game, and fail to convey it's magic to a new player. Instead he'll endlessly compare features to previous games, or even fall into the trap of claiming that all games were better before.

I did read a review of Battlefield 3 which even for me was completely unreadable. Minor changes of weapons compared to previous versions were discussed in great length, while rather fundamental questions like "is this game fun for a new player" remained unanswered. And what game journalists and bloggers said about Star Wars: The Old Republic wasn't all that much better: Endless comparisons to World of Warcraft, lots of consideration of how long it would entertain the hardcore veterans, and very little about whether it is a fun game for new players.

I think many professional game review magazines would produce better reviews if they kicked out all their veterans and hired people who have experience in writing, but not in gaming. Somebody who can make a meaningful statement about the quality of the art of Dear Esther instead of ranting how this "isn't a game". Somebody who can be still convey the magic of playing a new game, even if it is a sequel, without just offering comparisons to games the reader might not have played.

If you traverse the MMORPG blogosphere you might be excused to believe that the market is in a terrible state right now, with only bad games available. But in fact the only problem is that the veterans got jaded faster than the developers could innovate. For a new player it would be wonderful time right now to start playing MMORPGs, because there are a lot of great games out there, and more of them on the horizon. It is just that the "oh, new, shiny!" excitement has left the people writing about these games which makes them appear less great today in print than they really are.
Most journalists have their target reader in mind when they write an article. (As do good bloggers, incidentally ;)

The jaded PC game writer writes about similarities to other games in the genre because they share this frame of reference with their audience.
There will be some fresh faces that have never played a FPS or RPG before, but isn't it more likely that these people will get their information from other sources (newspapers, TV, lifestyle websites) than specialist gaming review sites?
Since most people who read MMO blogs have played MMOs (and generally games) a lot in the past, I think we would serve the wrong people if we did reviews for new players. New players don't read our blogs.
I still enjoy mmorpg's and the jaded bloggers as well.

We're a community...and in any community diversity drives positive change.
The problem is more fundamental. The car repairman is employed for an objective task: fix a machine.

The game journalist is expected to do something non-objective: "is it fun to play".

I can give you a perfect list of things that a game journalist shall do to be perfect, if you define me the goal: "what is fun".
For once, Gevlon is right. Blogging isn't a technical skill. Of course you want a skilled, trained, experienced technician or craftsman to re-wire your house or lay perfect parquet flooring. On the other hand, if you want a great night in a sweaty club you could get it from a band that's been on the road for a decade or from a bunch of teenagers who only bought their amps the week before last.

Blogging is a creative art not a technical skill. You're not necessarily going to get worse at it the longer you do it, nor better. You won't necessarily be terrible at it on your first attempt but you might be. You might get jaded, stale and less entertaining over time or become wiser, better-informed and more interesting.

So, it depends on the blogger, not necessarily on his experience, although that can be a factor.
Wouldn't your critique apply to all forms of arts reviews? Books, movies, TV shows? Would you want your film reviewer not to have seen the original Planet of the Apes before reviewing the newest one?

A learned reviewer can give far deeper insights and relate the game to a larger gestalt. They can get stuck in the details and underbrush too, but I think the pro reviews of, say Mass Effect 3 that are on MSNBC or the New York Times are better written than those without the perspective.
I'm going to start a new website with reviews of expensive cigars written by people who have never smoked before. I'm going to call the website "Cough".
You ought to read PC Gamer for your reviews. The reviews usually focus on what's fun in the game, with callouts of the major problems, so that sounds like what you want.

I have observed a similar phenomenon and have commented about it on my own blog. This post approaches it from a somewhat different perspective, but I think we are both talking about the same fundamental issue... target audience. Who are gaming journalists and bloggers in general? Who are we trying to reach? And is that the same audience that the game developers/publishers are trying to reach? Cheap plug if you want to check out my thoughts:

Yeah, I was thinking the exact same thing. I would find it risible if Tobold wrote the same post bemoaning how film critics were too "jaded" and couldn't recognize how fun Transformers 3 is, when clearly less sophisticated consumers loved Transformers 3 because they were easily impressed by all the flash, and I believe many would agree with me. Yet when it comes to game criticism, we're supposed to expect criticism to talk down to us because much of the audience has no sense of the history of the medium?

If anything, I think games criticism is too far in the other direction. Tobold uses TOR as an example, but that was a game that got near-universal praise in the mainstream gaming press. I can't think of a single mainstream gaming review of TOR that was willing to take the truly "critical" position, and if any does it'd be savaged by fanboys. I guess I just wish that games criticism was more like film criticism, where the critics are unafraid to tear into films that they know will be hugely commercially successful, and where no one thinks there's anything wrong with criticism primarily being written for an audience with more cultivated tastes.
I couldn't disagree with you more Tobold. The problem with games journalism isn't an overabundance of veterans, it's a dearth of talented writers.

The problem you cite would be solved with more skilled writers who can view a new game and critique it based on it merits in context of the field. If a new game comes out and it is inferior in design or execution to an older game, that should be discussed. If many people will enjoy playing it none the less, that should also be acknowledged..

The problem is that games journalism is one of those industries where there are far more people who want to do it than there are positions going. As a result, editors can skimp on salaries and fill positions easily. And that means experienced writers with keen critical and analytical skills move on to better paying pastures before long - Kieron Gillen and Charlie Brooker spring to mind.

Blogs are a wonderful platform for 'fresh faces' to express their thoughts, and many of them are well worth reading. But asking for less experienced journalists writing for mainstream outlets is only going to diminish the profession even further.
Late, as usual, but still wanted to chime in. I have absolutely no doubt that this is true. Though I'm in no way a "professional" game journalist, I certainly feel the weight of my years with every game I play. I don't think I've played a game in the last 10 years that I couldn't say "This is like a cross between X game and Y game." That's not good for new games, for reviewing, or for enjoyment. I also have no doubt that the same weight is what's been bogging me down recently in a game slump, where nothing's really doing much for me. It's human nature, I suppose; innovation wouldn't be needed if we could every be fully satisfied with the same thing forever.
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