Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Conversation, Curation, and the Problems Faced by Games Media

When I left GameSpot back in September to start working at Red Robot, I alluded to my thoughts on the way that both the audience was changing, and the way that we (collectively) interact with content has shifted in recent years. I'd touched on this previously in interviews, and initially had discussed it with Steve Peterson from Industry Gamers back in early 2012 in a lengthy two-part interview that we did at CES in Vegas. At the time it seemed to me that things were really starting to come into focus, and that a lot of what I'd spent a huge amount of my career doing was now becoming quite redundant. The changes in audience behavior were already quite evident; there was a shift to video, people were communicating constantly about their tastes on Twitter and then in a "larger" way on Twitch, and their tolerances for being talked "at" rather than "to" was way past breaking point. Because there hadn't been a "new" games media launch for a while, a big part of the catalyst for these discussions was the launch of Polygon, and the fact that the site was based on new tech, and it had a well-known and presumably expense staff roster. 

A lot of my thoughts on the larger problem for games media didn't really start to coalesce until I got some distance from it. While I was in the thick of it every day there was a lot that had become clear, but it wasn't until a month or so after I left that I had any kind of epiphany as to the causes. It's difficult to diagnose a problem when you're in the thick of it all. I took a stab at articulating it further in an interview earlier this year with Games Industry (again with Steve Peterson, actually) as part of a series with the po-faced title of "The State of Games Journalism." The conversation, which also included my good friend Peer Schneider from IGN, touched on some of the issues, but (in hindsight) didn't necessarily get to the heart of the matter.

The problem is much more than just content-related. Fundamentally it's as much of a product problem, and it's not just isolated to games media.

The greatest threat to "traditional" games media for the past few years hasn't been the prospect of a new outlet like Polygon coming along, or mainstream media finally getting its act together and acknowledging games as legitimate entertainment, but rather the media tools that are now available to absolutely everyone. These days anyone can be their own outlet, and with services like YouTube, Twitch, Tumblr and an assortment of community tools like forums and wikis, there are plenty of ways for information to be shared. As tastes have become more specific and needs more profound, communities have been able to service themselves with both information and entertainment in ways that comparatively small media teams are unable to.

It's not a situation that is unique to videogames; the same problems have been faced by sports media for years. Fans' voracious appetites for information about their favorite teams and players go way beyond the capabilities of the journalists tasked with covering that particular sport. The response in that space was the creation of products like SB Nation and Bleacher Report which empowered fans with the tools to share information far more specific and provide commentary at a micro level.

Today, the audience for videogames is very similar. 10 years ago, if you liked videogames chances are you self-identified as a "gamer," gleaned a lot of your information from magazines, and wanted to absorb as much stuff as possible about any and all games (or at the very least those for your chosen platform.) These days it's not quite so simple. Sure, there are still "gamers" with broad tastes, but increasingly the majority have much more specific tastes; Minecraft players, League of Legends players, and Call of Duty Black Ops 2 players are seeking as much information as possible about those individual games, and they want like-minded people to share with.

Much of today's games media is built on the legacy of the powerful print brands of the 90s and early 2000s. Though still evolving, the majority of online games media has its roots in magazines, and a lot of what is produced is, in essence, print media for the web. Sure, it moves much more quickly, but it's still serving needs in essentially the same way. It's a mile wide and an inch deep. Editors have great access and are, by and large, superb generalists, but rarely have the truly specialized knowledge increasingly craved by an ever-growing number of insatiable players.

At the same time, the tolerance for lengthy explorations of topics, either written or in video form, is dwindling. Many of the methods for communicating information that editors traditionally have at their disposal are becoming unpopular. Reviews no longer have the kind of influence that many critics would like to believe. It's been a long time since any single review has really swayed the tastes or purchasing behaviors of gamers. They are well-considered expressions of taste that serve very ably as conversation-starters, but increasingly it's the qualitative snapshot that's more important than a well-constructed piece of written criticism. People increasingly seek out the opinions of their peers over all else. These peers can include friends, acquaintances, critics, pundits, and even creators of other games - but it's the form that these opinions take which is increasingly so important. This stuff is far better received as part of a conversation, than as a lengthy proclamation. This is why a lot of gamers are increasingly drawn to different types of media such as livestreams on Twitch, podcasts and YouTube videos where multiple tastes are expressed, or forums where the conversation is both candid and fast-paced.

Magazines preached from the mountain-top out of necessity, and we all hung on every word because of our passion for the subject matter, and because of the dearth of content in general. We identified with those in the media because we didn't necessarily have friends that understood our tastes or were as passionate as ourselves. Now that need is served quite differently.

Because there is so much media about games now, what we need more than anything is curation; not just of the content itself, but of the conversations too. Our ability as a community to blast through huge amounts of information is truly incredible, and our media needs to adjust to accommodate this. This is where that generalist knowledge can be a real benefit. Good generalists can be good curators - but it's also going to require getting out of the way somewhat, too. I would imagine that there are some that may find that difficult to adjust to.

At the core of it all, this is why I decided it was time to try something new, and it's this need that is the driving principal behind what I'm working on. We won't solve for everything with the initial release of F!RST (when it's ready…soon, I hope!) but our goal is to approach the project like a Valve product; ensure that the initial release tackles the core challenges in a way that people find both entertaining and useful, and then build from there. We'll iterate quickly and frequently, and hopefully produce something that people really respond to.