Sunday, June 24, 2012

. . . When Writers Attack

The Debt We Owe to the Gaming Community

If I had unlimited time I could easily expand upon the feelings that many of us who cover the games beat have with respect to how truly fortunate we feel to be part of it.  While there are a lot of reasons for us to complain -- some more legitimate than others -- the complaints that you hear from the writers who work this beat most often take the form of the complaints that you hear on any job, being for the most part the manifestation of frustrations and the petty issues that tend to exist in well-structured work environments -- but once you get beyond that none of the people who do what we do will honestly wish that they were doing something else.

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. 

A good example of the weight that is placed by the gaming community on certain elements of the beat is their take on the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo -- an event that is widely viewed by most gamers as a mixture of nirvana, the gamer version of  Disney Land, and the perfect vacation or honeymoon destination all rolled up into one three-day all-inclusive package spelled F-U-N!

When the day comes that you -- as a games journalist -- fail to feel that sympathetic level of excitement, the day when you no longer "get" it, well, that is the day you need to quit.  In fact you are much better off simply walking away, with your reputation intact, than you are in trying to fake that level of interest or in skimming the games and their presentations and then writing lukewarm and inadequate coverage...  If you walk away at least you take with you your self-respect and the possibility of finding work on some other beat. 

The people who are our audience are not stupid, and when you fake it they can tell.  When you try to speak with authority about a game you clearly know nothing about, they can detect that faster than a professional wine critic can taste a fart in a car!  And they will not forgive you if you make that sort of mistake; trying to bullshit them will have very real consequences, starting with their complete loss of trust in you -- and by extension in the publication you write for. 

Having that sort of thing happen is the worse nightmare for most editors, which is why they usually exercise significant caution in who it is that they dispatch to cover events like E3.

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.

Getting it Spectacularly Wrong While Wearing a Disguise

Before I finally get to the point of this post, I want to remind you all that this blog is not an official anything -- it is the place I go to say the things I am thinking about, and it represents my opinion as a person, a writer, and all of the other things I am and some I am not.  The point that I am making here is that you should take this with a grain of salt, and bear in mind that its point is to serve as an outlet where I can say the things I am thinking that largely would not be appropriate in any other venue.

When E3 2012 opened I had already ironed out my schedule of appointments, and I knew where I was going to be and when I was going to be there.  Based upon knowledge obtained from previous E3's I have developed certain practices that are intended to smooth the path of covering that event, starting with avoiding the need to enter either of the main exhibit halls on each morning of the event.  Specifically the point to that policy is to avoid having to be part of the crush of enthusiastic attendees as they turn into an unruly mob trying to squeeze through the inner gates to the West or South Halls.

My solution to avoiding that crush is to schedule my first appointment of the day for a game whose exhibit space is located in one of the private meeting areas located on the upper levels of the Concourse that connects  the two halls together, spanning the entire length of the Los Angeles Convention Center, access to which, while it is still controlled by security, does not include funneling through gates.

So it is that the first game of the day for me was a title from developer and publisher City Interactive called Enemy Front, which is a fusion action-adventure historical shooter that takes place during World War II.  In fact Enemy Front presents a very different take upon that well-covered story and genre in gaming, different enough to cause it to stand out.  You can (and probably should) read the first piece that I wrote about Enemy Front over at GamingUpdate as it presents you with my take on the game, which was generally very positive. 

That piece, entitled "An In-Depth Look at Enemy Front @ E3 2012" includes is a mixture of what it is like to be at E3 on day one, as well as a humorous assessment of the WWII shooter genre, and a tongue-in-cheek look at the inconsistencies that tend to crop up in that sort of game, while celebrating the serious approach that City Interactive has taken, and the fact that much of the credit can be given to well-known game developer Stuart Black, who heads up the dev team for Enemy Front.

Choosing to eschew the stereotypes and take gamers along a path much less traveled, Enemy front takes gamers on a journey to solve a mystery in the role of secret agent and special operative, covering big pieces of real estate in Europe that certainly played key roles in World War II but that, because those roles were not as sexy or as important as, say, the beaches at Normandy or the Dutch countryside during the disaster that was Operation Market Garden, tends to get far less attention from the dev teams that make games in that genre and on that subject.

As you read this you should bear a few points in mind -- the exhibit space contracted by City Interactive to demo Enemy Front and its titles Dogfight 1942 and Sniper: Ghost Warrior II was not part of the main display floor.  It was a private meeting room, and so not accessible to the 95% of the attendees at E3 wearing Yellow-coded cred holders.  You had to either be working press of a member of the games industry with a reason to be there, and you had to have arranged an appointment in advance.  For that reason all of the people who I saw both in the lounge area and in the presentation theater for Enemy Front sported green-stripes on their cred holders -- and were members of the press.

I mention this to illustrate that I was not the only person who would be writing about this game -- or the other two games that we saw after the Enemy Front demo and briefing concluded.  I was also not the only person who was favorably impressed by the game, and its take on the subject, or the fact that it displayed elements in play and style that were very easily considered trademarks of developer Stuart Black, who has an impressive track record for making immersive games.

Go Ahead and Google "Enemy Front E3"

Despite what may seem like an adversarial community, the world of the games journalist is almost always anything but; a lot of us know each other because we are constantly running into each other at industry events, enjoy gossiping and exchanging notes and tips, and uniformly did not like the free lunches that were laid on in the Press Lounge at E3.  We still showed up and ate them mind you -- a free lunch is a free lunch!  But while we did our best to enjoy them, partaking in the ritual of tea, we talked about the games that we saw and which ones impressed us most.

When asked if I saw anything good that they should cover by the group of fellow writers who I consider to be friends (we see each other at gaming events all the time and chat via email regularly) I mentioned the favorable opinion I had formed of the three games at the City Interactive exhibit (they are all very good games) -- and I was not surprised to hear that opinion mirrored by the roughly half of the group who had, like myself, already taken in the briefing.  The other half decided that they would.

If you Google "Enemy Front E3" you will find a wealth of favorable pieces on the game, with some of them like Just Push Start's Josh Garibay providing an enthusiastic but  measured preview of the demo, and GameZone's Mike Meredith offering a decidedly pleased take on the game.  The glowing piece by Game Rant's Andrew Dyce nicely represents the more enthusiastic end of the spectrum, but the important thing that you need to grasp is that everyone who saw the game, its briefing, and its demo, came away favorably impressed.  Well...  Almost everyone.

Over at the website GamerLive.TV the direction that they decided to take for part of their E3 coverage was decidedly negative -- the piece that I am talking about is their Top Five Disappointments of E3 by self-styled games journalist Alex Martinet -- who the site actually ID's as one of its editors...  In his short bio on the site it reveals that he has only a year's experience writing in the beat...  I am not going to point out his obvious lack of experience or the piss-poor job that he did in that feature piece, though I could. 

It would be very easy to dismiss him as an amateur and point out that if all that he took away from the Enemy Front briefing and demo (assuming he actually attended it) was that "the graphics and gameplay aren’t up to par" that piece serves as a perfect illustration for why he does not belong on the games beat...  I am shaking my head right now in disgust -- I know that you cannot see it, that is why I told you.

The problem with pieces like that written by Martinet is that they are textbook examples of how not to do games journalism.  At the very least if you are going to crap all over a game you had better be able and willing to explain why -- something he does not do -- and at the same time, the voice that he wrote with alone concerns us.  Martinet declares his conclusions with the confidence that we should care what he thinks, but fails to explain why his opinion means anything, or what facts he is relying upon as the basis for it.

Who is Alex Martinet?
That was the subject of the email I received from a colleague who pointed out that this guy Martinet just gloriously shot himself in the head and did I want to see the mess he made?  The general consensus was another chapter in a very old story: the story of a writer getting a subject very wrong and, lacking the experience to recognize this, compounds that error by making it public.

That email directed me to the feature piece on GamerLive.TV that crapped all over Enemy Front, Silent Hill: Book of Memories, Dead Space 3, the Harry Potter Wonderbook, and Nintendo's Wii U -- a piece written by Martinet that could just as easily have been titled "How Not to Do Games Journalism" or "Watch Me Demonstrate How Ignorant I am!"

The piece was structured to maximize page views with a tiny set of paragraphs for each of the subjects, spread over five pages -- the point to that being to increase the traffic clicks x5 for a piece that should have been contained in a single page.  That is actually a common tactic used on the site though, so we cannot lay the blame for it at the feet of Martinet...

He concludes the piece with his assessment of the situation with the best tabloid journalism approach, offering Nintendo's Wii U up as the sacrifice in the Number One slot -- but in so doing only illustrates his broad ignorance of the industry and the strategy that Nintendo was using -- and then he asks what he considers to be "the serious and impossible question that no one ever imagined to ask." 

 What was the question?  "Is Nintendo out of touch with what the market wants?"

Well Alex, the answer to your question is that what that elongated run-up that began at last year's E3 (and will culminate in the release of the Wii U this Fall) is all about is a complicated issue involving Nintendo's need to persuade mainstream game publishers and studios to support their 8th gen console.

That support is critical to the commercial success of the Wii U, and their strategy is based at least in part upon it being the first next gen console to market, and in part on the very interesting second-screen controller tech that is going to heavily influence the next generation of games consoles and games. 

What it was about was Nintendo needing to get those publishers and studios on board to release titles from the mainstream gaming segment on their console -- something that they have refrained from doing in the past because the numbers were not there and they did not believe that it made financial sense to offer that level of support for a console whose core audience is over 50 and under 14 and largely interested in sports games, and as many Mario Brothers games as Nintendo is willing to make, which they eat up like popcorn!

The fact that Nintendo largely succeeded in that effort, securing commitments for versions of Batman: Arkham City Armored Edition, Darksiders II, Mass Effect 3, Tank! Tank! Tank!, TEKKEN Tag Tournament 2, Trine 2: Directors Cut, Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge and Aliens Colonial Marines as well as others means that they will actually have a solid shot at obtaining a piece of the core gaming segment that has eluded them for over a decade...  Well, perhaps not as large a piece as they might have had thanks in part to the surprise announcement of SmartGlass at the Microsoft Pre-E3 Press Briefing -- but still some share is better than no share at all.

To give you the benefit of the doubt Alex, I took a look at the last dozen of your other pieces on the site and they do not speak very well of you...  In fact they illustrate the half-assed insincere job you do as a writer.  I am not going to pick each piece apart (I could) but I am going to offer a general assessment of your writing and its underlying lack of quality.   In your defense I note that you do not do this for a living -- according to you, you are a journalism student at university -- and even though you claim to be a paid member of the games journalism community I can only assume that you made a mistake in phrasing when you wrote that you have "been working in the industry for a year" as it is painfully obvious why that is not so...

Speaking from a Position of Strength and Knowledge

A good journalist makes the effort to acquire the facts before they start writing about them -- the reason that they do so is so that they do not get it wrong.  Getting it wrong is easy to do when you have no clue what you are talking about, and aside from making yourself look bad, it also calls in to question the point to your efforts.  The reason that the readers bother to read your pieces is that they expect you to tell them things that they did not know, entertain them, and inform them.  They tend not to like it when you tell them things that they did not know and those things turn out to be untrue.

Take for instance the piece you wrote on Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Blacklist...  The title is E3 2012: Sam Fisher Returns in 2013 for Splinter Cell: Black List and you start the piece off by declaring it "One of the biggest first day E3 surprises" which is rather odd, considering that the primary announcement, trailer, and demo was made at Microsoft's Pre-E3 Xbox 360 Press Briefing in the Galen Center at USC on Monday, the day before E3.

You said:  "This was a short demo, but we did hear Sam Fisher speak and he dose (SIC) sound a little bit different. Now I have nothing to prove this, but Sam Fisher looks noticeable (SIC) younger than when he last appeared in Splinter Cell Conviction and Sam Fisher seems to be more darker. Could this be a lead up to when we first see Sam Fisher?"

No Alex, this is not a prequel, and this does not present a scenario in which we get to meet Sam Fisher before the events of Third Echelon. . .  The reason that the Sam Fisher in Splinter Cell: Blacklist sounds different than the Sam from the previous games is that the actor who used to play him (Michael Ironside) has been replaced by a new and younger actor (Eric Johnson).

The decision to replace Ironside with Johnson was based upon Ubisoft Toronto's decision to focus upon advancements in performance capture technology that are being used to make the game -- tech that requires the actors to physically act out their scenes as they're delivering their lines.   The reason that they are using this new tech is because it offers a more realistic animation process, making the actions more believable by conveying the physical elements of the events such as real-world exhaustion or pain.

Ironside was replaced because he is now over sixty-years-old, and the demands that are made upon the actors in the game are simply beyond his physical capabilities -- so no, this is not a prequel, no, we are not seeing a Sam Fisher who existed before Third Echelon.

The thing is, here was a perfect opportunity for you to tell your readers about something they probably did not know about -- all that you would have needed to do was actually attend the briefing for this game at E3 and you would have known all of this...  This is what I am talking about when I refer to the duty that we owe the readers.  This was a test, and you failed it.

The writing style that you use (the quoted bit above is a good example) is raw and unedited, full of errors in punctuation, tense, and often the words you are using do not mean what you think they do.  Your finished copy has the appearance of being rough draft copy, lacks polish and professionalism, and makes both the site you are writing for and you look bad.  Considering that you hold yourself out as both Writer and Editor, that is not good.

If you are feeling picked on, well, sorry about that mate...  The reason I am writing about this is that it -- and you -- irritated me.