Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Changing the game.

I want to say that I am a huge fan of Indie games, but that would not quite tell the whole story. Because, what I actually am a huge fan of is good videogames. Sometimes, these games are produced by small teams outside of the publisher-led mainstream, indepndently. Often, they are a labour of love; the realisation of one man's vision.

This is not to say that all Indie games are automatically great. In fact, there are a great many cases where there is a good reason why no major publisher will touch the product. Self-indulgent, undisciplined, or just plain bad games are created all the time by bedroom coders, and thrown out onto the unsuspecting world. To browse through the XBox Live Indie Games channel, for example, would expose one to all manner of horrific abominations. We should not be kind to them just because they are independent.

Nor should we dismiss games for the same reason. Other entertainment industries don't segregate in this way. Your average movie critic rates the footage that is in front of them, and are just as likely to watch a small art-house production as they are the inevitable Avatar 2. Of course, movies are a much more mature and accepted artform than videogames, and as such are more likely to be taken at face value. If anything, independence garners more respect, as award ceremonies tend to eschew the big-budget blockbusters in favour of smaller and more personal creations.

This is clearly not going to happen with games anytime soon. Game of the Year lists will be littered with the usual suspects, just like they were last year and the year before. It seems that marketing matters above all else, and a game needs to practically force its way into good reviews, and thus good sales. This is usually the part where Indie games fall flat, mostly due to lack of budget. Some of the best games of the last 10 years have been kept secret from the general public, simply because they can't shout loud enough to grab the attention they need.

It also doesn't help that videogame writing is in a shocking state at the moment. For the most part, videogame websites are nothing more than PR for the big publishers. EA press-releases that contain nothing of actual interest get drip-fed to a slavering audience, with the sites having the sheer audacity to classify it as "News". It is not news, it is ADVERTISING. At any given time, there will be stories about 5-10% of upcoming games, from 2 or 3 publishers. Hundreds of titles are literally ignored. As an outsider looking in, I can only offer my opinion as to why this is the case, and it does very much seem to me as if websites are being "Good doggies" for fear of getting their ball taken away from them. If they can't get the stories up on day 1, someone else gets the hit and the resultant advertising revenue.

Thank heavens, then, for the sites that exist outside this endless circle-jerk. The sites that don't just acknowledge the Indie game scene, they celebrate it. It's a pretty dicey business strategy, focusing on a niche, but theoretically they can forge a much better relationship with their audience as well as the developers themselves.

One such site is The Indie Game Magazine. A smaller site, dedicated to Indie games, it started out as a print and digital mag before becoming what it is today. It is the culmination of one man's dream. IGM is about as far removed from IGN as it is possible to get.

It doesn't quite live up to the dream, though. Because, the cold reality of the internet is that it costs money, and the only way to pay is by advertising. Which means that as soon as a site gets popular, ideals fall by the wayside as once again the money dictates the content. Or, to be more accurate, the lack of money. When faced with having to fund the dream, most webmasters sell their soul.

It starts off innocently enough, with an affiliate scheme. Here, there are links to buy the game reviewed/discussed, which generates a small comission for the site. Suspicions that the site will start to focus only on games that allow them to generate a link are only natural. Or perhaps the site will feature some kind of banner, that generates money per hit. Of course, sites doing this would NEVER pander to the masses, would they? Integrity would automatically override any desire for a site to feature a game that is massively popular just to increase advertising revenue, surely...

But the worst aspect of this insatiable need to feed advertising is in the treatment of the written word. On the internet, text is still the prevalent form of communication. Even in these Flash, Silverlight, and HTML 5 soaked days, video and the spoken word lag behind a good old-fashioned wall of words. Of course, Mr. Webmaster wants articles, reviews, stories, and features. No-one can satisfy demand single-handedly. So, how does he get his words? He hires staff.

"Hires" is probably a misnomer, as it implies payment. For, the sad truth is that the vast majority of website writing about videogames is done by unpaid volunteers. Some sites do claim that review copies are in fact fair payment, but let us examine this claim for one second. If I were to ask you to clean my windows for me, and told you that I would give you the water to do it, would you think that was adequate recompense or would you tell me to go fuck myself with my ladder? I suspect I would be removing rungs from my intestine for the next several months if I offered the very tools that are required to do the job instead of actual payment.

And yet, this is the norm all over the internet. Big sites give news with no real meaning, small sites have low quality writing, and the readers suffer either way.

It's time we redrew the battle lines, gamers. Time we rethought what we want from the internet. Do we want sanitised and corporate-approved news through identikit channels? Do we want the real important and enlightening reviews to be spread over several hundred websites that might not even open the next time we click on them? Do we want ... what we have at the moment?

I don't.

So, I propose a solution. From now on, whenever you see a site that is "hiring", simply don't apply for the job unless there is promise of payment. Don't sell yourself short. Why should these sites be getting quality content for free? Why should your hard work reward somebody else? IS MAN NOT ENTITLED TO THE SWEAT OF HIS OWN BROW?

I write this blog because this hobby is my passion. I want to tell the world about the games that bring me such joy, and so I do so off my own back, for no reward other than the knowledge that people are reading and enjoying. (Full disclosure: I have an Amazon Affiliate account, and use AdSense, but the combined income from these to date would not pay the electricity required to write and upload one post. Plus, I refused to post a link for Bodycount!) Were I to start charging a subscription, I know I wouldn't get too many takers. But, the question should not be "Would people pay?" It should instead be "Why shouldn't people pay?"

People, this won't be a popular suggestion, but it is one that I want to put out there. Maybe the solution to the mountain of crap that is festering all over the internet is to start paying for the websites we use. Turn the web itself into a free-market economy, instead of the free mess it currently is. That way, if a site serves up rubbish, we just cancel our subscription and stop visiting. The sites will need to chase the best writers in order to justify their charges, and most importantly the quality will slowly start to rise to the surface. Sites will be free to pick and choose what stories they cover, no longer beholden to the advertisers that previously paid their bills. Actual variety will flood your screen, as each site will tailor to its own audience instead of chasing the masses that desert and go to a different site the second it has a new CoD screenshot anyway.

The inspiration for this idea came from a conversation I had with Chris Newton, the editor for IGM. What happened was that I took exception to what I believe to be a poor review of Braid. I wasn't upset by the lower than expected score, nor would I have been bothered if the reviewer had stated how the game wasn't to his tastes. I was instead annoyed by what I am convinced was a review of the first world of the game, perhaps even just the demo, that dismissed it as a Mario clone. Anybody who has played Braid knows how untrue this is. So, I took the reviewer to task, and was promptly challenged to provide better. I feel like I have done, and the world will soon be able to see for themselves.

Why did I write my review for free when I have just spent far too long telling people that they shouldn't do that? Because, I want to illustrate a point. And that point is that, currently, there is an awful lot of rubbish polluting the screens of gamers everywhere. Rubbish that could easily be thinned out if we just stopped being so bloody entitled and insisting that everything be free all the time. Rubbish that, if sites weren't afraid to ask for subscriptions, wouldn't even exist. Amazingly, Mr. Newton claims that the review is successful because it has done the job, which is to get eyes on the site. Advertisers like this, and it frustrates me to my very core that he is RIGHT! "Quality be damned, we're after quantity!"

Gamers deserve better. Writers deserve better. Indiegamemag.com deserves better. Kyle McColl deserves better. Unfortunately, an old chestnut comes to mind; "There's no such thing as a free lunch."


  1. Sorry about the double post, I forgot about another point until I re-read your blog. There is a misconception about the "unpaid writer" or "volunteer writer". The fact of the matter is that most of the guys who knock on my inbox who want to write... can't write. They know how to use the English language to an extent, but I spend a good, solid month beating them into article creation shape. That training is not free. The fact that they are a published author and now have some 'street cred' is not free. The fact that they get free games that would normally cost you $9.99 - $49.99 a piece is not free.

    When I started my website, the absolute influx of games hitting my front door astounded me. Developers WANT to be reviewed. They provide free material all of the time. Just think about the number of reviews that you get at IGM a month and multiply that by $9.99 and see what a writer WOULD be paying for those same games had he not been a member of the media. I recall getting a shipment in from White Wolf that exceeded $300 in comp material.

    That is still not to say that they should not get money. That is to say that for a person who plays games, getting free games is a nice compensation.

  2. For some reason, Blogger seems to have fed itself on the entire contents of Chris' first post, which he alludes to above. Thankfully, I have the full comment in the email that was sent to me, so I am reproducing it here :

    "I am so glad that you made this post CheekyLee. This is Chris Newton from IGM. While I truly understand why it is that you believe this, let me take a moment to tell you why there is a huge gap between the IGNs and the IGMs of the world.

    I coach my writers by telling them the following:

    Your article is only a success IF a reader completely reads the article and then clicks a link from that page which lands on another page on our site. If the reader clicks back, follows a link off-site, closes the browser, etc. your article was not a success.

    The problem with online media is that it gives the reader SO MUCH decision making power that they have become lazy. They truly never read the article; they read the first two paragraphs and then skim the rest. They never leave comments unless they are upset (you are evidence). They rarely participate in any events which involve a step beyond breathing.

    So let me see if I can clear this up for you:

    How can I justify the cost of the ads on the site if I can't prove that the reader is going to read the articles, let alone look at the ads?

    Here is the balancing point of creating something new and good in this industry:

    Readers need to read and get involved.
    Writers need to write and get involved.
    Advertisers need to invest and get involved.

    None of that is happening right now; not on any level.

    Readers expect to click a link, read and flea. As a matter of fact, readers expect to read the RSS feed and never even visit the site. How does that help the site??

    Writers expect to supply an article on Thursday for a Friday deadline and then disappear for a week. They don't care if the article is quality and they don't care about interacting with the reader or promoting the site or advertiser, LET ALONE promote their own damn articles. Hell, they don’t even correct their own errors anymore, the editor just fixes the articles and makes them not suck.

    Advertisers expect to get cut throat rates for the ads, have exclusive placements (meaning that they are the only ad on the site, and never interact with the reader or the media in which the advertisement is placed.

    Because of all of this, the PUBLISHER is left holding the bag and looking bad.

    How am I supposed to pay the writer when the advertiser isn't paying?
    Why would the advertiser pay if the reader is invisible?
    Why would the reader want to be visible if the writer is a fictitious screen name who is not approachable?

    So my response to you Lee is that you need to step back and analyze yourself before you get passionate and throw rocks. You (the reader) are just as much to blame for this cycle as the writer, publisher, and advertiser. When these parties decide to invest 100% in the system, then we will have a harmony of greatness.

    I agree with you Lee. Writers should be paid. Editors should be paid. Hell, the reader should be rewarded for his time investment. But if the reader is not going to invest, neither is the advertiser. If the advertiser won't invest, then the publisher can't invest in the writer. If the publisher can't invest in the writer, then we are stuck with writers who are trying their asses off to get into the industry and are willing to work for pea nuts to get a chance to write on their resume that they are a frequently published author on [website name].

    **PS. My example above is a general industry remark. IGM writers are actually pretty good. This is the third site that I have managed, and this is the first one that did not have a revolving door of writing talent. Guys like Kyle McColl and Chris Priestman are definitely diamonds in the rough, and you should actually be thankful that IGM has them. You could be subjected to far far worse writing; I can assure you of that. :\ "

  3. And now, I shall respond :

    Chris, this is all well and good telling us how things are. My suggestion was to how they should be. If Indiegamemag actually had a subscribing userbase, then the reliance on adverts would be lessened. They would still be handy for paying the bills, but you would actually be able to charge more if the advertisers knew going in that every single reader of your site has paid for the privilege, and is therefore much more likely to be an active participant, as well as a highly relevant target. Ideally, you would want to be in a situation where the subscribers paid the overheads, and the ads made profit. That way, your loyalty would only ever be to your readership.

    I know, it may well be a pipe dream. The nature of the internet is, as you rightly point out, that people want it all for free and yesterday and with no effort on their part. But, the upside of the internet is the potential to reach huge numbers who ARE willing to pay if they think it is worth it. I play an online soccer manager game that has nearly half a million players, most of whom go for the free model. I am one of those free players, but then I did only join last month. The thing is, though, there is a subscription model as well, and there are plenty who are happy to go along with the tiny payment. (£2/month!) My work colleague, who introduced me to the site, is one such paying player. At the end of this custom league I am in, I may well become one too.

    And, please, don't get me mistaken. I am not attempting to single out Indegamemag.com in this piece. If anything, the site has been singled out for praise. It is just that Kyle's review was the catalyst for something that has been brewing inside me for some time. I do actually hope he takes all the criticism on board and proves me wrong with future articles!