The following opinion is solely that of the writer and does not reflect those of KeenGamer as a whole. The below recording contains my responses to various questions from the Keen team as a result of the below.
It is with a heavy heart that I write this piece. It is the last one I write for a gaming publication for a very long time. To be clear, this should be taken as no reflection of KeenGamer itself. The pay, what little we all struggle to siphon from the internet, has come at the fairest views conversion rate I have seen. The staff within have never been anything but supportive, understanding and proactive when times got tough. That my final article will be my most passionately written for a long time speaks volumes to my sliding perception of the games industry as a whole. Anybody with any experience of writing in the long term will know – passion for the subject is your writing fuel.
This means quite simply, that I have been running on fumes for a while. It’s taken a good year to come to terms with this in my mind. It’s hard to express how loving something for most of your life, and then suddenly not loving it, is quite uncomfortable. Tougher still is it to face up to it and admit to yourself that the magic is gone. To give up writing about this long-time love is not a decision I make lightly. I’m writing about it today however, as the “I’m about to leave” position I find myself in offers rare opportunity to speak frankly before leaving the games industry for the foreseeable.
The Sinister Politics of Videogame Journalism
Many out there lend to conspiracies that gaming outlets pander and bend over backwards to get in the good graces of big time devs. It’s not altogether true. All I can say is there’s no escaping the politics at play. When the view count for your website has gone nuclear (a feat KeenGamer has yet to achieve), those political mind-games become more intense and such outlets become more susceptible to bribery and corruption. Eventually, they are at risk of doing anything under the sun to stay off blacklists, gain privileged access or maintain the green up arrow in Google Analytics. There’s hardly a difference in a restaurant reviewer turning up, stating his intent, then implying a good review will be the result of a free glass of their finest red.
A more day-to-day tactic, however, is writing agenda driven driven headlines. If you subscribe to said agenda, you’ll read it. If you don’t, it’ll likely piss you off… and you’ll at least click on it. Regardless of readership feeling on the article, all the publication bosses see is increased clicks. By this point in the game, that’s all that counts. In fact, the people at the top will have been playing this game for so long, they’ll likely have replaced their love of videogames with an obsession for making sure numbers are always going up. It doesn’t matter if two-thirds of those clicks read a quarter of the piece, outraged at either the pointlessness of the author’s gripe, or the content of the article itself.
Looking for such controversies where there are none is a common whoopsie Kotaku likes to make. A recent example being their take on some music in Persona 5. The end result is the corrosion of sincere journalism. It’s something we’ve always been astutely aware of at KeenGamer and I’m proud to say that I leave the site without it having succumbed to this desperation for clicks in the slightest. Great news, considering KeenGamer is on the up and up and I hope the team here continues to buck the trend and set a good example for the sites that really should know better. One PR embarrassment and you achieve fame for all the wrong reasons. Two or more and you become a meme…
Losing Passion And Carrying On Anyway
We see little controversies now and again, of gaming journalists playing a game pre-release. They’re terrible. A perfect example is that embarrassing sequence of attempts a particular journo made with the Cuphead tutorial. It will not soon go forgotten but in case you missed it, check out the video below.
The fact is, the above incident contributed to a narrative among gamers that gaming journalists quite simply don’t know what the hell they’re doing. Such cynicism is all too easy these days, especially when it’s the games industry we’re talking about. Although, with the position I find myself in, I think there is a kernel of truth to be found here. It’s not beyond reason that other gaming writers suddenly experience the death of a lifelong passion from out of nowhere, only to push on regardless. How many jobs have you been unhappy in, yet stuck around for, in fear of what leaving might mean?
The reality of this produces games journalists that likely aren’t even gamers anymore. Instead of calling it a day to search for new ventures in life, as I am today, they force themselves onward, afraid to invite real change into their lives. While not really caring for videogames anymore, over the years, they’ve built a skill in how to talk about them.
Strictly speaking, such a journalist could write a review, convincing to the laymen, after having played said game for about 30 minutes. Be particularly wary of reviews that only have screenshots from, say, the first third of the game. I see it a disturbing amount (though I understand that’s a tough one to gauge). They know all the buzzphrases assigned to what they’ve just played and expand them into a full piece. I began descent down this slippery slope and have chosen not to be disrespectful to my readers – I am leaving as of the posting of this piece.
An example of a time a particular journo should have stopped, but didn’t, could be found in IGN’s original review of Dead Cells. It has since been taken down and the writer fired. Nevertheless, the situation was a perfect example of an online writer trying to cut corners and get away with plagiarism for a quick buck. If, as IGN had suggested, the reviewer had a glowing opinion of the game, writing about it should have been easy. Indeed, when I’ve had to review a game and it’s been really good, it’s almost a relief as writing about something good is so much easier than respectfully covering something awful.
If this journalist was still worth his salt, enjoying the game meant that the first draft could have been written up with ease in as little as half a day. Quite simply, an experienced reviewer that enjoys a game shouldn’t even have the writer’s block that leads to plagiarism. Perhaps IGN would look a little more honest if they said something along the lines of “he told us after receiving the review code that, actually, he hates sidescrollers as a general rule. He received the code after having done zero research on the game itself. This is hardly surprising to us but we have at least fired him”. Such frank talk in this industry? Not on your life!
The Games Industry Has Become A Pit of Snakes
Star Wars: Rebel Assault, Age of Empires, Escape From Monkey Island, Simon The Sorcerer, Drakan. These were among my first ever videogames. These titles would become responsible for sparking something in me that will likely lead to a lifetime of enjoying videogames. Remember, it’s the industry I’m giving up on – not the games themselves. The point is, these games, being the age they are, all share common themes. They’re all single player titles, none of which are monetised or have any form of online integration. Crucially, they were games that had to sell on word of mouth alone.
In modern gaming, Hellblade set tongues wagging for this reason. Here we had an independent studio on a shoestring budget, creating an excellent narrative experience. It was an indie game that put triple-A devs to shame. As such, this independently created, totally unmarketed title did very well for itself. At first it released digital only. It only took a few months post-release for Ninja Theory to find the funding to go physical. All of that success was borne off the back of word of mouth and nothing more. In our age of digital advertising, that Hellblade rose above and achieved this was hailed an incredible achievement in the games industry of today. All those older games I listed back there? Every game of the time had to make the same achievement to come even close to success. As a result, the ones you got to hear about were all fantastic… because they had to be for the studio to survive.
Level and puzzle design was more intricate and rewarding. Script writing and character archetypes were more engaging (just watch a video of Conker’s Bad Fur Day to see how much we’ve changed in that department). The games themselves would generally last a heck of a lot longer. The industry was riper than it is today for writing talent. Players had to grind hard for rewards, not pay for them. The graphics would always play second fiddle to the game as a whole. After all this, they offered considerably more wholesome experiences. Shadow of the Colossus, anybody?
Of course, such consistently honest and sincerely designed products were a reflection of the industry at the time. It was an industry that thrived on artistry, creativity and originality. These were the tenets that would reward studios with profit, success and longevity. Nowadays, those values have been thrown out the window. Major studios no longer assert themselves as individual entities with their own ideas. They fret over whether their upcoming title is similar enough to the last big success, made either by themselves or by another, without a care for accusations of “copy/paste” game design. This has been going on for at least a decade which has resulted in a fear of originality or reinvention of genres. A perfect case study of this fear can be seen in Call of Duty, a franchise that has had no need for innovation as consumers lap up the same game under a different skin year on year, no different to iPhone’s biggest fans chomping at the bit for nothing more than a bigger number on the box.
Ubisoft has infamously made a name for itself in the pursuit of this “profitability from familiarity” approach its games. Evidence of such homogenisation seeped out of Far Cry: New Dawn like a bad smell. Ubisoft attempted to cram their new Assassin’s Creed RPG-lite mechanics into the established Far Cry formula… it didn’t really work. In some cases, certain genres have been squeezed out the door altogether, deemed impossible to monetise or integrate with co-op. The two big examples of this are the point-and-click puzzler and stealth.
You think it’s a coincidence Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot has back-and-forthed on a new Splinter Cell game for so long? Stealth isn’t profitable anymore! It doesn’t matter how you try to slice it. If the industry has decided there won’t be enough stacks of cash around it, it won’t happen! A lesson learned a little too late by the excellent Dishonored 2, while it struggled terribly to shift copies after release. As new generations of gaming consumers arrive, these lost genres will fade evermore into obscurity, exponentially damaging their chances at ever coming back at all.
All of the values that made gaming such a rewarding industry to be a part of have been dissolved and reconstituted into two questions. “Will it be profitable” and “will it be profitable enough”? As a result of this newfound capitalist mantra, we get games industry controversies. We have gone from one or two a year, to one a month to almost daily now. I challenge you to name one gaming controversy that wasn’t the result of a complete lack of understanding of audience perspective. A lack of respect that comes naturally to many games companies these days, as they repeatedly continue to evidence how they just don’t understand us or how to talk to us. Or, since they’re making money hand over fist in China, they just don’t care what we think.
Blizzard’s treatment of Blitzchung and the infamous “do you guys not have phones” line. Activision’s flirtation with in-match algorithms to sell microstransactions between respawns in Call of Duty (thankfully it never happened but it goes to show where their heads are at). Ubisoft’s consistently doctored footage, first with Watch Dogs, then with The Division and probably with Beyond Good & Evil 2. Using a god tier computer for a console announcement is just too tempting, it seems. Sean Murray’s barefaced lies to the media and public about No Man’s Sky prior to release.
EA’s splitting of dev teams that have worked together for years, resulting in the cancellation of Star Wars: Project Ragtag and the effective end of Uncharted and Legacy of Kain writer, Amy Hennig’s career. Not to mention, tearing Bioware apart in Anthem development, forcing the team to go on with the Frostbite Engine, despite the issues it caused Mass Effect: Andromeda. Both EA and Activision transparently attempting to brainwash us that microstransactions are “simply a fact of game development these days”. Bethesda’s inexcusable laziness and complacency in Fallout 76’s development, leading to a law firm investigating. Epic Games’ merciless attempt at annexation of the PC platform while simultaneously eroding its audience’s consumer rights, removing any ability to leave user reviews. They have the might of Fortnite’s revenue stream behind them. The least they could have done was add a damn shopping basket to the app when it launched!
Go ahead, name a few controversies I’ve left out in the comments below. To my readership I must stress – don’t be sat there jovially stating “Oh well, y’know, that’s just the games industry for you”. Such barefaced, repeated slights against the consumer should not not unrecognised as what they are – disgusting. Had any other industry behaved in this way for as little as a year, it would be on the way out. I can’t think of another industry on the planet that deals in this much controversy; this much cynical dishonesty with its consumer base. An industry (that now profits more than Hollywood) which is getting rich off the back of mostly broken products that don’t deliver on release. Not to mention – off the back of predatory practices specifically designed to target the vulnerable and the easily addicted (see for yourself). This is not the games industry I fell in love with.
I am leaving the games industry because it has transformed into an ugly beast, it’s gaping maw never closing to swallow the endless cash poured into it. A beast that is hungry for profit until profit kills it, no matter the sacrifice, no matter the moral grey area. The penny dropped as I watched in awe as an EA exec sat before a UK tribunal, insisting lootboxes were what they called “surprise mechanics” and were indeed very ethical… The hubris these companies have to be so transparently false to different world governments is astounding. It’s fair to say that this constant flow of corporate rhetoric and apathy to the consumer has left me utterly exhausted. With the industry behaving in this way, I suppose there was always a risk that it would push gamers away. But of all the people it could have happened to, I didn’t think it would be me. Just how entrenched all of this has become leaves me seeing no end in sight; no return to the triumphant days of across-the-board artistry.
All of my favourite studios have been either bought up by shady publishers or suffered a mass exodus of talent in the wake of such heartless greed (except of course, the Robin Hood of our times, CD Projekt Red). The brand of the studio remains the same, but the people within make it a very different company. On top of that, I see increasing evidence of gamers far younger than me just swallowing all this up like it’s normal, acceptable business practice. Unfortunately to them, it is and they have no reason to think otherwise. When in actual fact, they, as consumers, deserve far better for their hard earned money and at the very least a degree of respect from the people selling to them. When I join forums online to suggest how things could be better, I am met with armies of fans unwittingly advertising for a game that insults them with its very existence. Ghost Recon: Breakpoint makes a fine example.
Time To Move On From The Games Industry
The last year has been a time of reflection for me. Like I said, coming to terms with falling out of love with something that has been a part of your life since childhood is tough. It’s surreal. It’s like waving goodbye to a loved one. Out of respect for my readers, I won’t be like the journalists I mentioned earlier. I won’t needlessly push on for the views and the money because at the end of the day, this chapter is over. It’s time for me to turn the page and see what happens next. For everyone else, if you’re reading this and you still believe in the industry; that it is doing the right thing, I envy you. I’d rather turn back the clock and return to the fiery passion I once had. To you, I say “happy gaming” and may many glorious adventures await you. For me, the fire may be found once more in a novel that’s been rattling around in my skull for years.