Friday, January 4, 2013

. . . Judging Games Journos Harshly?

This morning I received an email from one of my mates who asked me if I planned on covering PAX East this year, and if so would I mind sharing a hotel room with them?  Their idea was that this is a win-win situation because that way it would only cost half as much, and besides they pointed out, we have not really seen each other or hung out since E3 last June, and wouldn't it be cool to be able to hang out and do things after the show each day, or rather after filing copy after the show each evening?

I ended up firing up Skype and giving them a call to discuss that idea because this sort of thing requires lots of argument and posturing, naturally.  Ignoring for the moment that Boston in the winter is really nothing at all like LA in the summer, which is to say there is not really all that much to do after the sun goes down, pointing that out served no true purpose other than for him to vow "That's OK we will find things to do!"

As we discussed what those things might be, the conversation naturally turned to the events at last year's E3 and what stood out in our minds.  One of the things that easily stood out was the huge (strike that, replace it with "Incredibly Huge") percentage of people in attendance who were ostensibly news media or at least media of some sort, with the word "Press" being used creatively...

What were we talking about?

They used to call it "New Media" but these days there is really nothing dirty in the title of Blogger...  I know more than a few writers who blog for a living -- who are paid to write what amounts to gaming blogs, game review and preview blogs, and feature articles that appear as blog posts.  They are legitimate games journos and they earn their wages by doing the same basic work that they might otherwise do for a print or a traditional gaming website.  The point is that clearly that part of the "New Media" crowd not only have earned their chops, but belong at events like E3.  They are not the problem because they are, save for that one minor distinction in their actual job titles, legitimate working press.

The thing is you could really and easily tell the difference between the "bloggers" and the working press.  And yes, I mean that in a disparaging way.  There were plenty of examples for this and I am happy to share a representative sampling with you in order to put this all into a more rational perspective for you.

Perhaps the least offensive tactic that we experienced from this group took the form of what amounts to a sort of bull-in-a-china-shop approach to brute-force breaking the queue for gaining access to the private and semi-private game briefings that exist, for the most part, for working press to obtain the sort of information and often hands-on experience with upcoming titles long before a playable demo is available to the public...

While we were standing at the Square Enix check-in desk for Hitman: Absolution a large sweating and smelly person wearing a green cred holder and a T-Shirt that they clearly obtained at E3 the day before (which meant that they were theoretically press but I should probably explain that and the matter of the T-Shirt so please bear with me for a moment OK? I want to finish explaining this first observed event...

So we are patiently standing in the queue when up charges this bloke who, well, smelled. I mean he had a stink on him that suggested that he had not bathed for days... Dressed in a ratty pair of camouflage cargo pants and wearing a T-Shirt for one of the games that was being demo'd at E3, he broke the queue as if it did not exist and there were not more than a dozen polite, patient, legitimate games journos forming it, all of whom had previously arranged appointments and who were simply in the queue to check in and let the hostess know that they were present for their appointment to be given the semi-private press briefing for what was thought to be a serious contender for GotY -- Hitman: Absolution.

Now granted, E3 last year was not the first E3 that Absolution had been featured at - and it was a pretty safe bet that in addition to having seen the demo at 2011's E3 the bulk of the journos in the queue had very likely experienced briefings at one of the PAX's or another event, or one of the private PR briefings, as based on the conversations that we were having while patiently waiting in the queue we had all more than indulged in the copies of the Hitman: Sniper Challenge for which Square had sent us all codes that past April, well before the general public had the opportunity to obtain them as part of the unique pre-order bonuses that Square had set up.

None of that was the real point here -- the real point was that we had all politely and relatively quietly queued up to check in as we were all games journos, not barbarians or game store clerks -- I say relatively because really with all of the ambient noises, explosions, bleeps, blurps, bangs, and other sound effects from the demo stations for other games nearby, we kinda sorta had to talk loudly in order to hear each other...

Despite that we were all putting in lots of effort to be polite, so this bloke basically pushing his way past all of us to walk directly up to the counter as if, well, though he was clearly oblivious to it, there was a lot of veiled "stink-eye" being sent his way from the people in the queue he had just broken; but as I say he was oblivious.

The hostess on our side of the counter was in the process of verifying information from the  journo who was having their turn at the counter -- when this bloke basically pushes the guy at the counter out of his way and tells the hostess that he needs her to fit him in.

"I tried to make an appointment last week but nobody at your company could be bothered to reply to my email!" he accused.

It was a cheap and empty claim, and it was clear to everybody present that he probably had never sent a single email to the contacts at Square about a demo appointment; to her credit the young lady at the counter who was our hostess for that shift bent over backwards to be polite, to be helpful, and to accommodate his unreasonable demands.  In short she managed to find him a seat in one of the upcoming demo's (though not a seat for the semi-private briefing to which we, having actually taken the time and effort to make appointments weeks ago and in advance of the show opening were thereto able to partake of.

The attitude and the sense of entitlement that this bloke projected combined with the comments that he made and the way that he held out the Media badge almost as if it were by itself his license to be an asshat, clearly suggested that he really believed his possession of that badge granted him privileges and justified his total asshatness.

The amusing bit - at least from my PoV - was the smug look on his face when he walked away from the counter with the little sticker on his badge holder that they put on to admit you to the theater that was constructed on the far side of the exhibit space.  Clearly he believed that he had put one over, that he had scored...  The irony is that the lines for that public presentation moved pretty fast and he probably would have gotten in after a minimal wait anyway if he had simply gone and stood in the line.  But that was all that the sticker he "scored" allowed him to do - he seemed completely unaware that there was another layer of access being granted right in front of him.  Well, you know what they say about karma... 

E3 Credentials

When you obtain your credentials at E3 they are not considered complete or acceptable to security unless they are inserted into the properly color-coded credentials holder-- and in this case that translated to a plastic sleeve along the bottom of which was a green stripe that, when your ID was inserted into it, caused the word "MEDIA" to be highlighted in green.

In addition to the all-important word "MEDIA" in the center of the bottom of the ID and the even more critical Green Stripe on the badge holder (which was meant to be hung around your neck via the advertising focused strap that supported the aforementioned pair of objects plus the cardboard insert of a cartoonish game character which was itself an advertising bit -- the ID also contained your name, the outlet you were on assignment for, a special watermark that was revealed by the special lights that security had plus a hologram and barcode, and an ID number. There might have been other security features built into these ID's -- the point to all that was to prevent them from being copied -- which to be frank I would not be all that surprised to see attempted.

In an informal survey -- basically we decided to look at and read the ID's we saw that had green stripes like ours mostly due to curiosity and as a result of speculative conversations that took place in the media lounge on day 1 as we were eating lunch -- we noticed that only roughly one out of every ten ID's we looked at was from a traditional games publication (and when we say that we mean a recognized game-focused website or a print publication).

Only roughly one out of every one-hundred ID's (if that) we noted were from newspapers or magazines, and even fewer were from over-the-air or satellite broadcast outlets (though there were TONS of ID's around the necks of people either carrying camcorders or carrying the wireless mic for a camcorder), and closer examination (we jotted down the names on the creds to Google them later) via Google revealed that the vast majority of these broadcast journalists were in fact shooting video either for their VLog or their Blog.

Interestingly only one of the Blogs actually hosted their own video as far as we could tell. We actually checked 34 different sites and all but one were posting their video to YouTube and then embedding it on their Blog/Vlog/Site.

Before you point your finger accusingly and declare that I am slamming Bloggers or being an elitist fraternity scumbag, the thing is not only did the "New Media" types outnumber us something like 100-to-1 the worse behavior that we witnessed at E3 was perpetrated by these New Media types...

This webcomic created by Whiteheart (@ChristopherPac) and superskullz (@superskullz1) was intended to illustrate the reaction of the stereotypical "fanboy" at E3 2012 and, taken by itself, is a rather amusing perspective along those lines...  Unfortunately the image above could easily and accurately be used to represent the bulk of the members of what is still being called "New Media" who were present at the event armed with legitimate press credentials.

Some of the examples of bad behavior that we witnessed -- witnessed mind you, actually saw and heard with our own eyes and ears -- include  the following few brief examples (but we saw many variations of the same):

While we were standing at the Media check-in desk for Ubisoft to check in for our appointment for Far Cry 3 a pair of Bloggers ignored the line of about a dozen people who also sported Media ID and were there to check in for their appointments, stepped up to the desk, interrupted the nice young lady who was checking us in, and loudly demanded swag.

"What do ya got?  Ya got T-Shirts?  Ya got anything good?  What Swag ya got?" they demanded.

They Call it Swag

While the chances of you not knowing what they meant by the word "Swag" are slim-to-none, on the off-chance that you really do not know what that means, here is a detailed definition along with a list of the different items of Swag that were literally handed out to every person who attended a demo for the related game at E3.  Note though that while there was all this free stuff -- or Swag -- there were also formal rules about who could actually obtain it and why.

The point to giving the Swag away was not to hand out game-related (and invariably game-branded) objects, toys, clothing, and even the games themselves, rather it was, specifically, intended to be a sort of reward for the people who were there to do business, whether that meant learning about the games because you were in the business of selling them (like the hundreds of GameStop, EB, and Walmart Managers who were at E3) or because you worked for a media outlet whose function it is to share with the readers as much information as you can manage about these new and upcoming games, like Jack said to Hurley, there is a method to this madness.

The unwritten rules are very simple: at each booth there was Swag, whether that was T-Shirts or a cool metal lunchbox, a CD/DVD, or whatever, the rule was simple in that you only received the item(s) after you sat through the demo and Q&A because the whole point here was to offer a not-so-subtle form of encouragement to at least ensure that you remembered their title if not wrote about it.  

So having these people simply walk up and demand that they be given Swag -- and worse, demand that the hosts read off the different Swag item(s) as if it were a menu that it was their right to do so...  Well, you should be able to easily see how that is not only rude and a faux pas but it is also contrary to the whole point of the stuff!

Now factor in the idea that most legitimate (that is to say traditional outlets) have rules about Swag at events like E3 that limit your ability to accept it from the hosts, usually based on a small number of hard and fast rules that relate to the value of the items being offered and whether or not there is an implied exchange of value-for-value (in other words, a sense that the writer is now obligated to not only write about the game but be kind to it).  There is also the matter of appropriateness -- does the Swag you are being offered help your ability to cover the game?  Does it offer you resources or information you will find useful -- or is it a straight-up bribe?

At CES a few years ago there was a PR that organized a private after-party for one of the Chinese game peripheral manufacturers who -- I kid you not -- handed out boxed bottles of 25-year-old Scotch with their business card taped to the box as their "gift" to us.  We cannot accept that sort of thing, and yet I saw a lot of writers walking out of that suite with a box under their arm...

In the bad old days before the games journalism community began to develop and embrace the voluntary system of ethics that now pretty much dominates it, the PR's and some games studios were seen -- upon occasion -- to go way overboard when it came to their attempts at influencing the games journo communities.  I am not just talking about the all-expenses paid junkets to Hawaii, Southern California, and Baja in the middle of the winter, though those happened...  There was even a junket to France (but it was spring-almost-summer and not mid-winter for that one)...

Examples of this overboard approach go beyond trips -- the funny thing is that a lot of the old-timers thought of those junkets (and the "gifts") as one of the perks of the job!  You never see that sort of thing happening openly today -- most editors will not just sack a writer for accepting that sort of thing but will spread the word among their peers about it. 

You might think that this being the case it would pretty much put an end to efforts on the part of certain types of PR and studio to try that sort of thing, but if you thought that you would be mistaken.  While the overt stuff like the junkets rarely ever happen anymore, one thing that is still pretty common is the staged and calculated "gifts" that you see being handed out in what are called "Goody Bags" today -- handed out mostly at private invitation-only demo events and by specific studios,  each bag has been filled with identical contents but those contents are often still quite a stretch when it comes to "legitimate" PR materials.

There are some legendary stories though...

The Infamous Gulfstream IV Junket
There is a story - many journos consider it to be a legend and doubt that it ever happened at all - but a journo who swears that they were one of the lucky dozen to make the trip claims it is absolutely true --  anyway there is a story about a particular press trip that was laid on by a major game studio that involved flying a dozen games journos from the east coast out to the California home of the studio for a luxurious weekend game demo and briefing that started with a meal on board a luxury business jet and concluded two days later with Goody Bags that included brand new top-of-the-line notebook computers pre-loaded with the press kit and a review copy of the game on them.

The Gulfstream IV in addition to comfortably seating over a dozen passengers in considerable comfort also maintains sufficient space and facilities for cabin service for dinner and drinks, which that flight included.  The word is it beats the pants off of flying commercial even if you are flying commercial in First Class...
We will not name the studio or the game, but this event was pretty notorious and it will not take you much digging via Google to learn the identity -- but back at the turn of the century a studio had their PR's set up a special, invitation-only demo event for which the games journos were invited to visit the studio in California -- the journos who were east of the Mississippi River were invited to appear at the General Aviation Terminal at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, where eleven games journos were invited to board a Gulfstream IV business jet for a quick trip to Los Angeles International Airport on a Friday afternoon.

The story is that there was a dinner service on that infamous flight that included an assortment of appetizers and the choice of Coquilles St.-Jacques or a whole lobster as the “Surf” component, and for the “Turf” component the journos were served Sirloin Strip Steaks. Desert was something called Berry Pandowdy, and the hand-printed menus that were provided to each diner on the flight listed in beautiful calligraphy on parchment an offering of “incidentals” that included Kona Coffee, brandy, cognac, and cigars(?!). 

Back at E3

While we were inside the booth area for an MMO later in the day, being given the basic introduction by our host who had provided us with refreshments from their open bar and snack counter (they, like most of the booths offering food, had trays full of sandwich wraps which I am pretty sure were bought from the company that does all the catering for the LACC - we did not actually eat any of the food mind you, but if we had been covering the event on a strict budget...  And we did not have a mixed drink from their bartender, though they assured us that he could make us any cocktail we desired -- they had top shelf booze on that bar -- what we had was bottled water because we were there to work, not drink or eat.

While we were being given the intro our host handed us each a leather-bound book of blank pages -- it was basically a diary-like book but the leather binding was hand-tooled with the logo of the game on the front and an iconic image on the back of a scene from the game and some of the characters.  It was a classy piece of swag, and while it was not something I would necessarily use I did end up giving it to my daughter, and she really likes it a lot.  But that is not the point I am making...

The point I am making is that while we were getting the intro and sipping our water, several different New Media types showed up -- without appointments -- waved their Media creds and demanded that they be given the demo.  Once inside they helped themselves to sandwiches (and when I say "helped themselves" I mean took three or four of them off of the tray, wrapped them in napkins then put them into cups and then put the cups in their bags.  THEN they took a sandwich to actually eat, and had the bartender make them cocktails.

I distinctly recall one of them ordering a Courvoisier-and-Coke while I think the other two asked for a Jack-and-Coke and a Vodka Tonic. OK, call me a snob, but judging by the look on the bartender's face, he too thought that the idea of adding Coke to Courvoisier was a travesty, and at a minimum, a faux pas.

Courvoisier was officially established by French distiller Felix Courvoisier in 1835, and the unverifiable rumor is that the cognac he created was a favorite of Napoleon (there is no hard proof of that), but the underlying issues here are not that it may have been one of Napoleon's fav's but rather that it is generally accepted to be a prestige class of cognac and therefore is not – by any stretch of the imagination – a cheap or low-quality cognac; mixing it with anything else let alone Coca Cola is about on par with having a bartender fix you a Mimosa using a bottle of the 1997 Salon Blanc de Blancs Le Mesnil; you simply would not do that!

The bottle that was on the bar was a Courvoisier XO ImpĂ©rial Cognac – which if you don't know it, is aged for 30 years before it is sold so it was probably between 30 and 40 years old on that day when the bottle's seal was broken to mix that yahoo a cocktail... That bottle probably cost around $175 and while cost alone is really not an accurate or reliable indicator of quality or taste, in this case the cognac being used was way too fine in both characteristics to be used as a mixer with Coca-Cola!

Normally cognac is served either in a tulip-shaped glass or the more recognizable balloon-shaped snifter that is also used for serving brandies – but either way the reason that it is served in those special stemware is because they are engineered and designed to provide the maximum surface area for the liquid within to be distributed in order to direct the full force of the bouquet upwards towards the nose, and thus to provide maximum bouquet and flavour to the person experiencing them. That is really the point here – that these types of libations are meant to be an experience rather than simply consumed.

They actually had the proper stemware on the bar to serve it and generally speaking there is a ritual that is invariably observed in the process, which is slow, considered, and meant to present as an aspect of the joie de vivre with which one approaches that sort of event. It is meant to be sipped and savored in other words, but as we stood there observing, the cretin slammed it back in one long gulp and then banged the glass on the counter and said “Do that again!” I mean Jesus Christ that cognac is distilled from fine vintage Champagne!

Two of the sweetest and most friendly booth hosts at E3 - the uniform they wore was tied to the theme of the game and not their choice - so having strange half-wasted men touch them in ways and in places that they did not want seemed to be a perfect example of a need for a visitor orientation class or at least a video instructing visitors why you don't abuse these wonderful people...

Another pattern of behavior that we witnessed was the unapologetic pawing and groping of the girls who host at the booths (AKA Booth Babes) and in particular a pair of really sweet and friendly girls at one booth who were dressed in blue bikinis and a cloth wrap, and whose job it is to greet the booth visitors and tell them a little about the game.  Another part of their job is to pose for photos with the visitors -- but that is as far as that is supposed to go.  Having strange and inebriated sweaty men paw them and put their hands in places that require a measure of familiarity that clearly did not equate to that place, time, and people?

I am not saying that it was only bloggers who were doing this - but it was bloggers we saw taking those liberties.  The point really has more to do with the attitudes we saw being broadcast by these people -- they were not there to work, that was obvious, as they took no notes, asked no pointed questions, and seemed more concerned with adding whatever swag was being given out to their already bulging bags than they were in learning about the games being demonstrated.  There was a sense of entitlement being displayed, and a sense that this was excusable because it seems that they believed that at least part of the point to E3 was to party...

The distinctive main entrance to the Los Angeles Convention Center (designed by architect Charles Luckman 1971) is transformed, each June, into the official gateway to Gamer Nirvana --  as for one week each summer in place of the usual boring trade shows and official events for almost every type of media and industry from the Los Angeles Art Show to the official North American K-Pop Awards Ceremony (K-Pop stands for Korean Pop and if that does not ring any bells click on this LINK) the LACC becomes the official home for the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo, at which the newest crop of video games for every major console and platform is introduced to a mixture of industry, traditional news media, and an increasingly larger and larger number of writers from what is still being called "New Media" whose sworn and sacred duty it is to inform the gaming public about what is coming, and why it is a good (or bad) thing...   

T-Shirts and other Swag

Each year as E3 is launched we are treated to a massive celebration of the games that are soon to land on store shelves or arrive in the digital distribution channels with an interesting variety of of stories and approaches that is matched in many ways by the variety of Swag that appears in the booths at the show.

There are certain items that you can pretty much count upon turning up - starting with USB thumb-drives of various shapes, sizes, and capacities -- sometimes the thumb-drive itself is the Swag -- at E3 2012 one of the special items was a  a set of Oswald Ears from Epic Mickey (think Mickey Mouse Ears but longer and not so goofy looking)...  And a bright orange Champion Cape to celebrate the NYKO Freedom Fighter game controller.

Among the odds and ends that were on offer was a variety of lanyards that could be used to replace the stock lanyard from which your creds hang -- branded water bottles, collapsible cardboard computer speakers from Square Enix --  patches, posters, watch caps, a selection of cloth bags that double as containers to hold your Swag -- several different pin sets made up of collectible pins that can be attached to your hat, bag, or perhaps to your limited-edition collectible Aliens: Colonial Marines do-rag?

Clothing Swag is a particularly popular and well-collected area  -- with hoodies, hats, and T-Shirts being an popular subset.  The variety of shirts handed out range from Borderlands 2Family Guy: Online, Gears of War: Judgment, Gree, Halo 4, a black Hawken shirt, Neverwinter, Parappa, Spec Ops: The Line, a bright yellow Persona 4: Arena shirt, Wreck-It Ralph, a nifty World of Tanks model and and a distinctive blue shirt marking the Unreal 4 engine.  To wrap it all up there were bright orange shirts from Injustice: God's Among us that easily could double as hunting safety gear during the New England deer season!

The thing about E3 Swag though is that there are unwritten protocol that are to be followed at all costs, among the top and most important of which is, while you are free to wear anything you score at the event when you are back at your hotel or out-and-about in LA, as long as you do not wear said Swag AT E3 that is!  While wearing Swag obtained from previous years is perfectly acceptable, wearing anything acquired during the current "Swag Season" is considered bad form and costs massive cool points -- with the exception of the NYKO Cape but only if it was put on immediately so as to be able to dance with the NYKO girls in the halls of E3.

Socialization of Writers at E3 in the 21st Century

The phrase "On Assignment" used to mean something completely different only century ago compared to what it means today...  OK that will be the final 20th/21st Century smack...  Returning to the original point to all of this, the question of whether or not PAX East was to be covered, and thusly whether or not a reunion of E3 Veterans was to be held in a hotel not too far from the event site is still the question of the day.  

The question causes such emotional conflict that in the end there was really no choice but to consult a higher authority, so I pointed my trusty Firefox at The Magic 8-Ball Page and what do you know, it very rapidly returned the answer "Absolutely!"
When an expert opinion is called for, you call for an expert opinion...  Just saying.