Insomnia | Commentary

The Videogame News Racket

By Alex Kierkegaard / March 29, 2008


The first thing that needs to be understood in any discussion regarding the business of videogame news reporting is that the sources of these news are always the game companies themselves. This is the main difference between general news reporting and videogame news reporting: in the first case the sources of news are innumerable, whereas in the second case one could conceivably compile a list of all currently-active game companies, and, in theory at least, as long as one kept an eye on their press releases, one's coverage of the game news world would be complete and comprehensive. -- In theory.

Because in practice things are quite a bit different, as we all very well know. In practice, a great deal of game news does not in fact originate from the game companies themselves -- a great deal of it originates from specialist magazines and websites, and from the major professional blogs across the world.

But why is that?

The answer to this question, were it to become understood by every single gamer out there, would, within a short time, put out of business every single professional game news outlet on the internet (at least in their current forms). And since the sooner this happens the better for the health of our little hobby, I think it's time someone presented the world with the answer to this question.

The honest search for information morphs into manipulation
Let's take a trip back to the early '80s. There's no internet as we know it, so in order for the necessary communication between game companies and their customers to be established, a number of specialist gaming publications are founded across the world. Without them, gamers would have no way of finding out about new games until they came across them in the stores, and no additional information on them beyond what is written on the back of each box. This is, therefore, where the magazines come in. They are, above all, a vital source of news coverage -- the only one that exists -- compared to which their criticism aspect is merely an afterthought.

But with the arrival and rise of the internet, the need for the news sections of game publications vanished overnight -- though hardly anyone seemed capable of grasping this fact. Each game company immediately established an online presence with its own dedicated website, and began designing dedicated sites for each and every one of their upcoming games. Because of slow connection speeds and high webspace and bandwidth costs, these sites were at first rudimentary, containing little more than a handful of screenshots and a few paragraphs of text, but it wasn't long before those technical difficulties were overcome, and official websites became extremely sophisticated, capable of delivering more information on each title, and of a much higher quality, than any all-purpose gaming site or magazine.

With the arrival of the internet, in other words, a direct link between game companies and gamers was established, rendering news publications obsolete. Why, then, over a decade later, are they still in business?

The reason they are still in business is because they have in the meantime struck a deal with game companies, under the terms of which the companies are to feed them information at regular intervals, while WITHHOLDING IT FROM THEIR VERY OWN OFFICIAL WEBSITES until such a time as this information has become practically worthless. If you think I am just cooking up conspiracy theories, ask yourselves: How on earth is it possible for sites such as LameSpot, Euroidiot or Fanitsu, to get hold of a screenshot or video clip of a game before the very people that are making it? Even if these websites employ superspies that break into the offices of these companies and steal screenshots and videos every week -- surely, these screenshots and videos were made at least a few hours before being stolen, and surely the people that made them could very easily upload them to each game's official site within a few seconds -- either sometime before they were stolen or shortly afterwards.

And yet they never do. They never upload these screens and videos (and in-depth mechanics explanations) to their very own websites because if they did they would have no "exclusives" to bargain with in their negotiations with magazines and websites -- no bargaining chips with which to secure magazine covers or extended frontpage time. (Of course these "exclusives" are not the only bargaining chips the companies have at their disposal. Or, to put it another way, ALL companies have these chips, but the bigger, more powerful ones have another, additional kind of chip: that of advertising.)

This is therefore the process by which the honorable, legitimate business of game news reporting evolved into a despicable racket, a disgusting scam that has been shaping the direction of our favorite hobby for well over a decade. Because you must understand that there was very little dishonorable about news reporting back in the '80s: game journalists back then busted their asses on a daily basis to bring to us the latest news on as wide a range of games as it was financially feasible for them, and to present it to us in an aesthetically pleasing manner. They had to cultivate and maintain contacts with key people in as many companies as possible, they had to travel to trade shows across the world and report back on the latest developments, they had to go without sleep for days on end to meet deadlines. Without them, we'd have been left completely in the dark.

Compare all that effort to what would be required in 2008, if each company SUDDENLY BEGAN FEEDING THE LATEST INFO AND MEDIA ON EACH OF THEIR UPCOMING TITLES DIRECTLY TO THEIR OFFICIAL WEBSITES, in a timely manner. All you'd need then would be to subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds, and the information would arrive straight to your mailbox, live to the second. At the most, one could start a website that would gather all these feeds, compiling all the information in real-time into appropriate sections (by genre/hardware platfom/etc.), presenting it to each reader in an easier to digest format, and all this with absolutely no need of human intervention (and therefore no need for staff, a budget, and advertising). The necessary technology for all this has been available for years: It may be decades before it's finally put to use.

This then, is how the legitimate business of game news reporting morphed into a scam. Specialist news publications originally appeared because there arose a need for them; once that need had disappeared, they could only stay in business by insidious manipulation. And we are all paying daily for allowing ourselves to be manipulated.

The death of opinion
What you must understand is that what separates popular publications from less popular ones these days is not the quality of the coverage they provide, as was once the case, but the quantity and the timeliness. Specialist gaming publications no longer live or die by the breadth of their coverage (everyone covers the same games made by the same five publishers), or by the sharpness of their aesthetic design (all websites look just as dreadfully ugly), or by the quality of their editorial (lol) -- they live or die by their ability to play this game of manipulation. Why is Fanitsu the no.1 gaming magazine and website in Japan? Surely not because of the insight of its reviews and articles (all Japanese publications suck equally) but because it manages to secure the most "exclusives" -- in other words, because it has learned to play the manipulation game better than its competitors. Why is LameSpot the no.1 gaming website in the English-speaking world? For the same reason.

I will now open a parenthesis and try to explain to you the job of the videogame news writer. Whether we are talking about corporate game journalists or random aficionados who post their ramblings on their personal blogs, the job of all these people is the same. You can think of them as black boxes: The latest information comes in on one side, gets processed inside them (inside their brains, that is) and comes out the other end slightly (or considerably) altered -- with a spin, so to speak. Their job is to take the pure, undiluted information that comes out of the game companies, and put their personal spin on it. There is nothing more they can do -- there is nothing less they should do.

This process, however, the process of providing worthwhile commentary on the latest news, is costly -- because it requires time and brain power. In the case of game writing, it means that the writer must be well acquainted with the genre each game belongs to, and remain up to date with new developments not only by looking at screenshots and watching trailers online -- but above all by spending lots and lots of time playing all the key games that come out in each genre, AS they come out.

Now, normally, this would not be a problem with the major publications. The big sites and magazines employ at least a dozen people each, and could therefore easily see to it that they have a couple of experts in each genre among their staff, so that their commentary would always be interesting to read and insightful.

Yet in an industry where being "interesting to read" and "insightful" means to commit professional suicide, such people would be a liability, and therefore cretins and simpletons are preferred instead. Besides, the nature of this industry is such that even if you had Friedrich Nietzsche in your staff, anything he had to say about an upcoming game would be forgotten the moment your competitor pulled out of its sleeve a brand-new "exclusive" screenshot or video clip.

Insight, therefore, takes a lot more time, effort and talent to be produced than random screenshots and videos, and results in less traffic. And since on the internet traffic = money, is it any wonder then, that insight has been abandoned?

In the case of blogs, things are even worse. Most blogs are run by one or two people at most -- even big ones such as Siliconera -- yet in order to generate the necessary traffic to start making money, these blogs STILL purport to cover thousands and thousands of games across dozens of genres. How do these people find time to play anything? How do these people manage to keep up to date with each of these genres they cover so that their commentary will still have some value?

The answer of course is that they don't, which is why you will never read anything genuinely interesting in any of these blogs. These people -- these cheap, malfunctioning, worthless "black boxes" -- are failing to do their job properly. In their mad efforts to cover as many games as possible in the least time possible, these people, these leeches, instead of processing the latest information and putting their own spin on it, simply copy it verbatim, or at best throw in a couple of dimwitted observations or stale jokes, and move on to the next game. And the reason they are still in business is because the companies refuse to give us all the information directly. This is why I call corporate game journalists and professional bloggers leeches, because they stand between the players and the companies, making money without providing any useful service to their readers -- only to the game companies who know best how to manipulate them.

This process, finally, ends up having a tremendously negative impact on the quality of commentary and criticism available. Have you ever wondered why blogs like Kotaku and Joystiq, though they employ nearly as many people as the big sites, and though their traffic is oftentimes comparable, hardly ever review anything? I'll tell you why. Because reviewing -- because actually having an opinion which you might be called on to defend -- is bad for business. Much easier to fill the internet with hundreds of thousands of pages, each containing one or two paragraphs with random comments on a game, months before it is released -- comments which you can then retract at any moment because you made them before the game came out, and comments which no one is going to call on you to defend anyway, because by the time the game is released, months and years into the future, everyone will have forgotten them. -- Thus, the death of opinion.

How the internet works
By God, if I were to fully explain this to you right now -- and if you were to fully understand me -- your head would surely explode, you would surely go insane -- I have no doubt of that. The fact that I will try but fail is for your own good!

As I mentioned before, on the internet traffic = money, and therefore if someone wants to make more money out of his website (as all the owners of professional gaming sites naturally do), he would do well to copy the practices of the top ranked sites in terms of traffic.

Now the owner of each site can only ever know the traffic of his own site -- never that of his competitors (to do that he would have to have access to his competitor's statistics reports, something which is impossible without illegal hacking or industrial espionage of some sort). Therefore, the only way to compare websites in terms of traffic is to use some third-party company that compiles statistics. Far and away the most reliable such company is Alexa, and a quick look at its Global Top 500 will tell you that out of the top four sites, three are search engines (the fourth, YouTube, is an aberration whose presence in the top four I could explain, but I won't because this explanation would have no bearing on the present discussion).

Now why do search engines receive more traffic than any other kind of site on the internet?

The answer is simple: Because they contain the internet.

This is the mind-blowing part. To fully grasp it you must know quite a bit about how the internet works, but it is not my purpose here to teach you this. Suffice it to say that if I had never built Insomnia, and if I hadn't looked very hard into ways of increasing its traffic, I never would have realized this, nor all the other things I am about to reveal to you. The point here anyway is that the more pages your site has the greater its traffic will be -- even if those pages are filled with nothing more than random screens, videos, and tiny bits of worthless text. There's no doubt that for very small sites quality counts more than quantity, but as a site grows in size quantity becomes increasingly more and more important. Once you finally begin approaching the level of traffic of search engines (as sites like LameSpot do -- currently ranked #131 on Alexa), quality of content is not only unimportant -- it is harmful to your quest for ever more traffic, because the vast majority of human beings are mired in such unfathomable stupidity, that they instinctively draw back from everything that so much as displays the slightest hint of quality in it. The masses despise quality because they can never hope to comprehend it. Search engines -- the ultimate websites in terms of traffic -- are agreeable to everyone because they do not make judgments. They give everyone everything they could possibly ask for -- no matter how worthless, banal or even deprived. This is the key to their success -- a success built on principles antithetical to the demands of culture and of criticism, which thrive on exclusion.

People have the desire to take everything, to pillage everything, to manipulate everything. Seeing, deciphering, learning does not touch them.
--Jean Baudrillard

Have you ever entered the title of an upcoming game into Google in search of information, only to be confronted by a results page full of links to pages that have practically none? This is what these websites do. This is how -- in their insane efforts to get closer and closer to the traffic of the search engines -- they become increasingly more like them. The moment a new game is announced they make a brand-new page for it -- a practically empty page! And yet this page will bring them more traffic than any insightful review ever would, because by the time the game is released (at which point it becomes possible to review it) hardly anyone will care about it anymore -- they will be too busy Googling like mad the next upcoming game, and giving millions and millions of hits to other blank pages, or, later on in the development process, to hastily slapped together "previews" (nothing more than reworded versions of info contained in press kits) full of "exclusive" media obtained from game publishers through their dirty little scam of manipulation.

These blank pages are the key to one's understanding of the problem. Their existence proves that the people who run these sites know very well how to manipulate -- not only the publisher-gamer relationship in order to profit from it, but also the search engines themselves, which send them a great deal of their traffic -- the amount of which determines the value of their chips in the game of manipulation with the publishers. The greater their traffic the more inclined will be the game publishers to grant them "exclusives", which in turn will only serve to drive their traffic ever upwards.

Both corporate websites and game publishers are locked into this game, like partners in a dance that never ends. They live or die -- they fail or prosper -- based exclusively on the capacity of their marketing departments to manipulate those of their partner's. Were one of them to suddenly stop dancing, its partner would immediately shun it, causing it to lose a great deal of business and eventually driving it into bankruptcy. If a game publisher suddenly stopped feeding "exclusives" to random websites, and instead always updated first its own official sites, then LameSpot et al. would immediately retaliate by giving more frontpage time to the games of its competitors. Similarly, if LameSpot's bosses suddenly developed a conscience and self-esteem, and hired intelligent experts to act as commentators on the news released by the game companies, then the companies would simply stop granting them "exclusives" in favor of other, more compliant websites. And if one partner does at some point decide to put an end to this wretched dance, there are always numerous others willing to take his place and dance dance dance as if the world was on fire.

In the words of fellow videogame aficionado Raúl Sánchez, this whole situation consists of, much like any other in the world of electronic gaming these days, "comedy and drama in equal part". But can there possibly be some way out of this madness?

I have a few ideas...