Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Some learnings from a year on the periphery of games media

The first thing I ever wrote “professionally” about a videogame was in 1986. It was a review of Winter Games by Epyx for the Atari ST, and my payment for the 500 words or so that I wrote about it was that I could keep the game. I was 14, and that seemed like a pretty sweet deal at the time.

I’ve been associated with games media in one way or another for pretty much the entire time of the…gulp…28 years since. I freelanced pretty consistently between the ages of 14 and 19, and when I got my first full-time job after leaving school, it was reviewing games for a weekly games magazine in the UK called Games-X.

Much has changed in the years since. We’ve seen the transition from print to web writing, the constant evolution of video coverage, and the advent of livestreaming. One thing has stayed fairly consistent throughout though; the audience. Passionate, vocal, enthusiastic, and often quite defensive. These are people prepared to spend a huge amount of their available free time, and a large amount of their disposable income on these wonderful, magical experiences. Games provide gamers’ entertainment, but they also provide so much more; a sense of belonging to a community, being part of a rich culture, and they provide wonderful escapism. 

About a year and a half ago, I stepped away from being at the heart of games coverage for the first time in my professional life. It was a risk, but a calculated one. After spending so much time with, and creating content for people that love games so much, it was clear that some dramatic changes were occurring, and I had the good fortune of knowing some people that were seeing similar trends and were in a position to try and build something to serve these changes. That was how First for Gamers, the social network and live messaging app for gamers that we ultimately ended up building came about.

Me

As Marc Andreessen wrote recently in his blog post about the future of the news business, “On the Internet, there is no limitation to the number of outlets or voices in the news chorus. Therefore, quality can easily coexist with crap.” In gaming, the issue was more than just that of quality, it was quickly becoming one of volume. Millions of YouTube videos, billions of minutes of livestreamed gameplay on Twitch, and millions of Tweets compete with the thousands of blog posts and articles that are produced each month about videogames.

In building First for Gamers, we’ve had the luxury of spending a great deal of time speaking with the gamers that use it every day about their feelings on gaming and the way they consume content in general. It’s been quite an eye-opener, and has made me look, with renewed interest, at the possibilities for the future of games media.

What follows is not another critique bemoaning games journalism, but more a series of observations based on repeated comments from users that are starting to coalesce for me as thoughts about how the business can evolve and continue to grow in future.

  • Gamers are generally an enthusiastic bunch, you just have to look for it - and then understand how to process it. Sure, they can seem defensive, or negative, or overly critical, but by and large they are predisposed to really enjoying videogames. This sounds blindingly fucking obvious, but it’s a general truth that is at the heart of much of the disdain that growing numbers of people seem to have for certain elements of games media. While it’s expressed in numerous different ways, we’re seeing a divergence between critics and readers. Whether it’s actually true or not, the impression lately seems to be that we’re seeing more and more critics behaving as though they feel that finding things to criticize is the only way they’ll be taken seriously as a “big-C” Critic. On the other hand, there’s a sense from gamers that they feel a lot of games coverage comes off as dismissive because it’s so negative.

Consequently…

  • The lack of joy is discernible. Obviously there’s no need to be a drooling idiot dishing out fanboy raves, but when a big title is about to come out, there’s a large portion of the audience that is quite genuinely excited. And there’s usually a sizable audience that has already pre-ordered, and has already made a declaration of being pre-disposed to liking the thing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the lack of joy be so obvious as the 10 day period during which both the PS4 and the Xbox One came out. While the audience was giddy with anticipation after years of waiting for the next big step forward, there was a perception from the media that it was a big fucking chore to have to cover all these games. I understand that the circumstances under which a lot of the coverage was produced was far from ideal, but as a consumer of media, those circumstances needn’t be quite so apparent to me unless it’s with full transparency. I’d happily see “we haven’t had the time to cover this adequately yet,” and it seems clear that many gamers feel similarly, based on their comments.
  • TLDR: And yes, I appreciate the irony of my raising this more than three quarters of the way through a screed that is similarly plagued. Gamers just don’t have the time or (probably more significantly) the inclination to wade through thousands of words of text about anything. It’s symptomatic of a generational shift, a cultural shift, a technological shift, and the associated time constraints they impose. In the past year I’ve seen lots of really great pieces of writing dismissed by their perfect audience purely by virtue of the fact that there’s just too much content. “Seems great, but had to stop reading halfway through.” I’ve seen comments to that effect so many times. While I appreciate the ambition of perpetuating the great tradition of long-form, magazine-style writing - the audience that is pre-disposed to actually reading such a thing just doesn’t have the bandwidth any more.
  • Even though there are now 1.2 billion gamers in the world (so roughly one in six people play games of some kind) all enjoying an industry so prolific and that it generated $93 billion in 2013, many gamers still feel isolated. They just want to find people to talk to about the stuff they’re passionate about. Often they don’t have anyone around them at school or work that they can talk to in the way that they want to chat about games. Sure, they can possibly engage on the big stuff like Titanfall or Call of Duty, but if they want to really nerd-out about, say, how great Atlus RPGs are, or how epic the Assassin’s Creed IV soundtrack was, they’re pretty much shit outta luck. It not just the game-specific chat, either. The culture around games is really important too, and gamers crave discussion with people of a similar mindset. Content is often pitched as being a “conversation starter,” but often that’s not how it actually lands on the page or in the video player.
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