Saturday, September 1, 2012

. . . Constructive Criticism

Flying through Battleship Row at Pearl Harbor in an Army Air Corps P-40N Warhawk
All newspapers are not created equal.  
What I mean by that is that some are better than others, and not just because they have better writers (though that really does help a lot) but because they have a strong editorial staff with a clear vision of the community that they serve, and as a result of that vision have established a sound editorial policy, employing a firm but fair hand, offer their writers the support of oversight while demanding at least a minimum level of both quality and competency from them (whether that be Staff Writers or Freelance Writers), and they have embraced a philosophy of ethical journalism that precludes the use of tactics like hacking voicemail boxes and, well, you get the idea.

The paper that I write for is a good paper in my opinion.  It fulfills all of the above requirements and more, the editorial staff are seasoned veterans and while it may not really like the idea, it is cheerfully heading into this second decade of the new century having embraced the idea that newspapers have to have an online digital element to them, and as a result the paper is adding more and more features to its award-winning website.  How cool is that?

The reason that I began this post with that subject is that I want to now segue into expressing my opinion that The Guardian is also a very fine newspaper -- in fact if we reduce the pool for purposes of comparison to just newspapers in the United Kingdom, well then The Guardian is an amazingly fine newspaper with sterling character, very high quality editing, and an editorial policy that is spot-on amazing.  It is not that I don't think much of newspapers in the UK, more that I don't think much of newspapers in the UK, but when I do think about newspapers in the UK, I think about The Guardian. 

I read newspapers online -- I have been doing so for about as long as newspapers have been publishing online versions of their print version, and I do this to supplement my offline newspaper reading -- which consists of The Cape Cod Times every day (naturally) and The Boston Globe every few days.  Add to that diet online newspaper reading that includes The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia), The Guardian (UK), and Noordhollands Dagblad (Netherlands).  

The story behind those choices is actually pretty simple: I read the Cape Cod Times because in addition to writing for it I also happen to live on Cape Cod, and it is the best source for news in my region, well, period.  I read the Boston Globe mostly to keep tabs on what bands are appearing where, what the upcoming events are, and because I have friends who write for it and I like to keep an eye on what they are writing about because that's how I roll.  Literally.  Roll I mean..  If you knew me you would be laughing right now.

I read the SMH because I like to keep track of happenings in Oz, and although I did not grow up in or anywhere near Sydney, I was at Uni there, and besides it is better than the papers from Byron Bay, which is where I grew up (I should probably admit that I sometimes read the Byron Shire News online as well since we are shooting for complete transparency here).  

Team Alkmaar (j/k)
I read Noordhollands Dagblad because we have family there (in addition to serving as the regional newspaper for North Holland it is also the local paper for Alkmaar, which is the OTHER cheese city of Holland) and in addition to being happy to read about important events in Alkmaar the paper also gives me the scores for football -- I am not a fan of Manchester United which is what most expat Aussies will say they are when the subject is European football, in fact I freely admit that when I cheer on a team it is usually AZ (Alkmaar Zaanstreek) and Ajax (Amsterdamsche Football Club Ajax) specifically in that order.  I don't have a favorite Aussie football team.

I read The Guardian to keep track of what is happening in the UK as it has pretty decent coverage of the two areas of news that I am interested in: Technology and Culture.  The Tech Section there has really good coverage for one thing, and it is also a pretty accurate measuring stick as to what tech (and video games) people in the UK are interested in.  The Culture section also have great coverage and offers insight into important social movements like Dr. Who, and what books and movies are rising in popularity.  Really.

The Guardian is one of the older newspapers in the UK -- it was originally founded in 1821 as the Manchester Guardian -- and it is generally considered to be a British National Newspaper of the same caliber as the modern day London Times (while The Times was founded in 1785 its sister paper, The London Sunday Times, was also founded in 1821).  I could probably get the same level of coverage information-wise from The Times but as I know a few people who write for The Guardian, like The Globe I am slaying two dragons with one newspaper in multi-tasking; getting the news and keeping tabs on what my mates are writing...
Howitt found the graphics to be substandard - I thought they were just fine...
And Now We Get to the Point...
All of that stuff above, though intended to be pleasant, brings us to the reason I was reading The Guardian and happened upon a review of the freshman video game title from Mad Catz Interactive (yes, the PC peripheral and gaming controller company) -- Damage Inc. Pacific Squadron WWII -- which was released on the 28th of August for Xbox 360, PS3, and Windows PC. 

The review in question is simply called "Damage Inc Pacific Squadron WWII -- review" and it was written on Friday, 31 August 2012, for The Guardian by freelance writer Grant Howitt and published in the online edition of The Guardian in the News > Technology > Games section -- and for all I know it was also published in the meatspace version of the paper as well.  Howitt defines himself in his official writer's profile on the site as being passionate for writing about games, declares that he is "on a quest to discover the perfect sandwich" and confesses that he drinks too much coffee.  I am not being snarky when I add that I am unsure why that information would be helpful for the reader in the process of assessing the potential value of the words that any writer creates, but there you have it.

There are several reasons that Howitt's review of the game caught my attention: (1) it was one of the games that I previewed and attended the press briefing on at this year's E3; (2) it is one of the games I am presently playing -- the other is Risen 2: Dark Waters; (3) it is my current game review candidate; and (4) the blurb for the game review starts out with "An otherwise disappointing aerial shooter..."

It was number four that caused me to click on the review, and as I read through it I confess to being first irritated, then disappointed, and finally irritated again.  The reasons? 

I could easily say "too numerous to list" but that would be a lie and the only reason to tell that lie would be to save the feelings of the freelance writer who wrote that review.  If they were someone I know (he is not) I might actually have simply chalked it off to the vagaries of opinion and let it go.  In fact I might have done that anyway, except that as I finished reading that game review I realized that the person who wrote it had not actually played the game.  That really irritated me.

Grant Howitt
The Guardian is not a bush-league community weekly; being hired to write a game review for it is actually something that any freelance writer should feel proud of, because it is not simply recognition of their talent as a writer, but it is an opportunity to speak directly to the readers of that newspaper; an opportunity to begin building your own following.  

All that a writer would need to do -- once they managed to get past that first massive brick wall of access (being asked to write the review in other words) -- is a good job.  A proper and sincere job.  The job that they were commissioned to do, and to do the best they could do and then polish that.

Even if the reviewer is sticking to minimal efforts, well then at a minimum they would need to play the game from the start to the finish; they would need to explore its nooks and crannies, look for the ways that it shines, and look for the elements that need improving.  They would accurately identify any bugs that existed and write about them, because that is information that is not only useful to the reader, but a major reason why they read game reviews in the first place!  Even if the writer was only making the minimal effort they would still want to find a hook to hang the review upon; and after they put that entire package together, they would want to treat the readers with the respect that they deserve.

It may help you in understanding my reaction if you understand the sense of the duty and obligation that I believe the reviewer owes to their audience before we continue...  

A game review is not just an article in which you tell the readers whether or not you liked a game, it is an examination of the game in which the writer explores what the game has to offer the players -- both as entertainment and from the point of view of value -- because the vast majority of that audience routinely uses game reviews as part of the process of deciding what games they will buy and play.  It is a formal expression of the experiences that the writer had in playing the game as preparation for the review process, and when it is done correctly can be an amazing demonstration of the abilities and the gift that the writer has for the craft.

I mention above the debt that we, as writers, owe to our readers.  I was not kidding, I genuinely believe that such a debt exists.  And not simply because without the demand that the readers create for this sort of content, editors would not hire us to write it, but also because they are the audience!  

The readers are the true source and the force responsible for a large part of the job that we do -- and being paid to play video games really is work -- because it is the need to serve that audience that is the source of the demand that causes editors to assign game reviews in the first place, and because of that natural relationship we owe them, at the bare minimum, an honest and ethical truthful review. 

Just after I returned home from E3 I wrote another blog entry that touches upon the subject of game reviews and games journalism (Speaking of . . . When Writers Attack), and in that blog entry I observed:

"The games beat is a great beat, full of interesting stories and dedicated people, but more important than that, it is a beat that serves an audience who wants to read what we have to say -- something that is not true about every beat in journalism -- and that relies upon us to tell them the truth; to keep them informed about subjects that are important to them. 

"They trust us to refrain from allowing our personal feelings (or lack of them) for a title to shade or influence what we say about it, and to speak to them (not at them) every time.  The trust that they place in us is an earned thing, not to be taken lightly, and never sacrificed for petty reasons.  It is a trust that extends beyond the by-line, and often invests itself in the publication that we write for -- and vice-versa.

"When you are writing on this beat is important not to get it wrong; it is critical that when we write about a game we write from a position of informed knowledge and personal experience because we were there, and we put into it the proper effort.  It is critical that we employ an ethical approach to the stories we write, and that we meet the standards set for us not just by our publications, but by the community we serve -- and that we never forget, not even for a moment, that the privilege that we enjoy as members of the games journalism community is drawn from the gaming community.  Our readers.

"There are different levels of betrayal that we can commit -- and at the very top of the list there is one form of betrayal that the readers will not tolerate, and that is the act of faking it."

When I wrote those words above they were all true.  They still are.  Writing on this beat -- being paid to write on this beat -- for many writers is the mountaintop.  It not only provides an opportunity -- and if you are very lucky a regular opportunity -- to share your opinions with your audience, it allows you to get paid to do the two activities that we love the most in this world: writing, and playing video games.  In that order.

When you write on this beat the obligation to tell the truth is not simply one you owe to the publication that has trusted you with speaking for it -- and it is not simply an obligation that you owe to your readers and yourself -- it is a moral imperative, because like a butterfly that moves from flower to flower, and tree to tree, the words that you write often have consequences far distant and often devastating.  

Your words and ideas will have an impact beyond the review that you write, because once that review is published and your audience reads it, they will share the opinion they have formed -- the opinion that you assisted them in forming --  with others.  And like the proverbial stone dropped into a glassy-smooth pond, the ripples will spread and spread the further away from your review they go.  Further down in the blog post I quoted above I cautioned the reader:

Understand something -- offering an opinion about a game is not the same thing as judging it and finding it wanting -- and when as a games journalist you do harshly judge a game, you had damn well better be right.  And able to explain the reasons and reasoning behind that opinion.  Because when you pass judgement on a title and that judgement is negative, there is an assumption that you know what you are talking about.  Especially if you are the only one saying the bad things you are saying.
The wide selection of historically accurate planes were a blast to fly, and the game earned high marks for delivering just what it promised to deliver -- an addictive romp through history in a combat flight sim.
When It Isn't What It Is
I knew that this was going to be bad from the first paragraph of the review, because Howitt starts out comparing the real-world event of the Japanese attack on the US Naval Base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, with the imaginary character in the game, upon whom Howitt lays the blame for all of America's failures in the war.   While we should not take that sort of thing too seriously -- literary license and all -- it is Howitt's willingness to offend by marginalizing the deaths of  2008 sailors, 218 soldiers, 109 Marines, and 68 civilians in order to score a zinger in contrasting the images that will easily offend. 

After making that baseless comparison Howitt goes on to state that the protagonist of the game, a Naval Aviator named Bobby, cannot fly, and "crashed explosively into nearby buildings at every opportunity."  Howitt explains that Bobby has a "propensity for crashing into the ground whenever he tries to shoot at anything below his level and his inability to take off without wobbling the plane around like a trolley with a broken wheel."  

Howitt then proceeds to criticize the games controls, singling out the Reflex Mode (which has the effect of slowing time down and zooming the player's POV in) implying that the bulk of the game will likely be played using the Reflex Mode since it made combat easier for him, summing it up by allowing that "dogfights are often nothing more than a race to the enemy planes before hitting the magical slow-motion button and calmly blowing them away."

Howitt then takes a cheap shot at actor Ben Affleck,  complains that the amount of planes that the player can shoot down completely violates "Damage Inc's (SIC) promises of realism" and then complains that the game looks to him "of being made on a shoestring in an attempt to flog joysticks" and takes it to task for cheesy dialogue that he complains is both under-acted and over-acted. 

After several more paragraphs of words that had nothing of substance to offer the reader about the game other than how much Howitt was disappointed with it or did not like it, how he couldn't get the Flight Stick to work properly, and how he was bothered by the decals that came with the game that depicted "either sharks or flames or busty pin-up ladies" -- and that following his use of an allusion to a penis as the section header for his reflections on the flight stick, which save for the dedicated throttle control was evidently a major disappointment for him.

After whinging about the flight stick Howitt sums up his review with his conclusions, which are that its name -- Damage Inc. -- in his opinion promises more than it can possibly deliver, he finally concludes that gamers should go out and purchase a much better combat flight simulator for their PC -- but Howitt cannot be bothered to actually suggest a title.  Gah.

What is Wrong?
Familiarization with the controls in Damage Inc. takes an average of around 20 minutes for the traditional console Gamepad, and about the same amount of time for the AV8R Flight Stick that comes with the CE version of the game.  Far from making the game harder to control, the Flight Stick actually adds a much higher level of finesse to the flying experience, but it seems that Howitt never discovered that -- and I suspect that the reason for his failing to discover it stems from his not actually playing the game beyond the first few minutes before he reviewed it.  I have reasons for believing that...

Before we get to those though, I want to address Howitt's slam against the game and the controls.  He opens his review with the observation that the protagonist lacks basic flying and combat skills.  What he fails to mention is that it was not the character or the game at fault, it was Howitt himself.  The game does not fly the plane for you, it does not shoot the guns for you, and it does not take off (or land) for you.  The player does all of that.  So when Howitt complains about all of that what he is actually doing is illustrating for us that (A) he does not know how to play combat flight simulator games, (B) he did not continue to play the game long enough to acclimate to the controls and LEARN how to play, and (C) he is demonstrably unaware of the genre and sub-genre that this game was created for and what that naturally implies it will contain.

Howitt accuses the folks at Mad Catz of simply making a game in order to promote the sale of their AV8R Flight Stick controller.  The problem with that accusation is that Mad Catz admitted that from the start and never pretended -- or said -- that it was doing anything other than that.  

"Damage Inc. is part of our strategy of publishing key software titles which complement our hardware business," said Darren Richardson, President and CEO of Mad Catz. "We believe that when partnered with the AV8R FlightStick, Damage Inc., presents a unique gaming experience that will resonate with passionate gamers."

The quote above is from the press release the company issued to announce the release of the game on August 28th, but it is not new information -- variations of that information were presented in many of the releases that were issued about the game.

With respect to Howitt's contention that the game promised to be realistic and the fact that you can shoot down many more planes than is realistic set aside, what the company promised -- and delivered -- was a historically realistic game.   The selection of airplanes (both US and Japanese) that the players are treated to and are able to fly represent spot-on historically correct representations of the planes, which was what Mad Catz promised to deliver -- and as far the name "Damage Inc." containing unspoken, unwritten, and apparently save for Howitt, undecipherable promises?

What irritated me was that Howitt's review was not a game review, it was an article on why Howitt was disappointed with a game he did not actually play.   He got assigned to review a game for a newspaper that deserved to get a proper review, which intended to present a proper review to its readers, and what they got was advice to buy a combat flight sim for their PC.

Frankly I was shocked that the editor at The Guardian published that "review" -- but I am not blaming them. 

Howitt examined the game and found it wholly wanting.  I have played it now for a little over 30 hours and found it to be a fun romp through history with some hidden gems that make up the optional side-quests that are not part of the briefings -- like my protecting JFK's PT Boat during one of the missions.   In another undocumented gem, during an airfield attack mission in which the P-38 Lightning was the plane being used, a transport tried to escape by flying over the hills after the field was attacked and the game took only slight notice of it, announcing that it was trying to escape and must be carrying someone important...  After shooting down the plane the circumstances clicked and I realized in a small epiphany that I had just shot down the transport carrying Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto!  Damage Inc. not a historic play?  Pshaw!

Violating my own rule about not replying to things I see online that I don't like for a full 24-hours delay -- a policy that for the most part keeps me from replying at all because a day later the disgust, disappointment, or whatever emotional reaction that I had experienced the day before had mostly worn off, allowing me to conclude that there was nothing to be accomplished in writing a post on the subject -- I wrote a comment below the review on The Guardian's site.

Based upon Howitt's reply in his comment to my comment you cannot tell what his actual reaction was (other than sarcasm), but read his reaction via his Twitter account and it becomes much clearer.   

When you offer unsolicited and free advice to people -- especially writers -- you have to be prepared for the idea that they either do not want your advice, do not value your advice, or will react badly to being provided constructive criticism.  Howitt thoughtfully explained to me that based upon his impressions of my website I have nothing to teach him -- which is fine with me as I did not have the heart to tell him that he misunderstood the whole point of my comment to his review, which was not intended to teach him anything at all, it was intended to function as a voice in which I could express my disappointment and disgust -- if he learned something from that, well hey, that is a bonus for him as I got what I wanted from the experience; and all things being equal I feel like Howitt got more than what he paid for my pearls of wisdom, but I am not going to let it go at that :)

I was stuck for the theme for the chapter of the book I am writing on how to break into the games beat, and now I have found it.  Silver linings, they pop up everywhere.

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