Dying Light‘s been released, and boy are game journalists angry. They were already sort of mad about only getting review codes for the game twelve hours before its release, but forget about that. A quote from PewDiePie has been used in the game’s marketing material, and That’s Just Not Right. Critical responses have highlighted the incredibly disingenuous nature of the quote – which is lifted from a 2013 playthrough of the demo version of Dying Light that was apparently sponsored by Techland (I say “apparently” because I’ve been unable to find a legitimate source that confirms this, but if it’s true it’s grossly misrepresentative and pretty unethical even if technically legal).
Less useful are the journos¹ declaiming how them gosh-darn YouTubes are killing game criticism one Vine at a time and lamenting the tarnishing of the sanctity of box quotes – you know, since they clearly used to mean something, with a case in point being the cuttingly insightful ruminations on the packaging for Game of the Year Edition “10 out of 10”, which came bundled with a free copy of Batman: Arkham City.
The release of Dying Light is a lens that beautifully focuses in on an industry slowly bleeding out amidst a new games media landscape. Longstanding publications (such as soon-to-be-deceased Joystiq) are closing down or massively shedding staff; several game critics, most notably Jim Sterling², have departed from traditional outlets to start their own ventures via Patreon. Reviews being available prior to launch are an increasingly rare sight in the triple-A space; the number of people willing to pay for games writing grows smaller every day and tends to be… well, other writers.
I penned a piece early last year about “new” video game journalism, and that publications and writers dismiss it at their own peril. I’m not defending PewDiePie’s video, which is awful, but addressing these malcontent writers (who are upset that a publisher would think it more valuable to appeal to an audience far larger than theirs via a popular YouTube personality) who have simply added denial and outrage to their previously dismissive stance.
There’s a legitimate conversation to be had about how PewDiePie felt this advertising was ethical given his reach and appeal, and the broader subject of the responsibilities of YouTubers when the industry engages them, but it’s been dominated by those furious at being overshadowed by this new medium, throwing about condescending phrases like “appealing to the lowest common denominator”.
The root of this outcry is a fairy tale: that we’re somehow all in this together, that publishers and developers and PR agents and readers deeply care about critical analysis of games by games publications and the people who work for them, unified in our appreciation of the noble art. I’m not saying journalists are naive, but I wonder if the privilege of our position hasn’t resulted in some of the business relationship Kool-Aid leaking into the coffee urn.
Take the situation with reviews. In reality, publishers and developers are gambling when they give a publication a review copy. They’re hedging that their game will significantly wow the reviewer enough to obtain a high ranking and – more importantly – exposure via what essentially amounts to an advert in the publication for the cost of a copy of the game. Before the Internet, this exposure was critical – the gamble was worth the risk, because if you couldn’t afford a massive advertising budget it was also probably the only way anyone was going to hear about your game. Bad publicity was better than none at all.
“Because if all that costly advertising and pre-launch marketing amounts to little more than a negative number on a balance sheet, the industry will go back to the drawing board.”
Now the risk far outweighs the reward. In an environment that leverages pre-orders as a form of economic blackmail, pre-launch coverage is far more controllable and appealing to publishers – whereas an early review is completely out of their control and can undo months of hype and promotions. Rather force reviewers to stream their review live while everyone’s going mad about it, fanning that FOMO fire.
Oh, they play ball with continued advertising and publication support, because there’s value in having an independent channel that’ll deliver – of their own volition, with no need for editorial interference – all of that great pre-launch content: the trailers, the feature drip, the interviews, the preview impressions, the system requirements.
I’m not concerned about YouTubers in the same way that some of my fellow journalists seem to be. I feel that missteps are the natural blisters of a young medium going through the growing pains of transitioning from hobbyist coverage to professional criticism, and that as long as there’s a concerted effort to rectify ethical slights and lack of transparency, all is well. I’m less enthused about how the industry’s marketing arm sees this as a means to intertwine itself with the press apparatus, willfully blurring the lines between the two.
While we can highlight such occurrences, gamers are the ones with the real power to make a difference in this circus of failed launches, buggy releases, unrequited promises and nickel-and-diming pre-order frenzies. Instead of harrumphing with snide remarks and petty digs at how gamers will just accept any coverage these days, I ask you simply to consider that the system is broken; that when developers embargo launch-day reviews, or prevent access to information, or partition content into slivers of DLC, or sponsor gameplay sessions for the purposes of marketing, their contempt is aimed at you.
The priest is gamers, the hand-wringing parents are the games media and the possessed girl hellspawn
is the games industry screaming about pre-order bonuses. This concludes the TL;DR editorial summary.
The answer to these troubles is “sooo good” in its simplicity. Give your support to platforms you trust, and don’t pre-order games. I pre-ordered Evolve following the open beta, a decision I now deeply regret. Not because I think Evolve will be a terrible game – I’ve put almost 30 hours combined into the two public tests because it tickles that asymmetrical multiplayer FPS itch I’ve had since Versus mode in Left 4 Dead. No, it’s because Evolve‘s pre-order shenanigans are manipulative and gross.
“…as long as there’s a concerted effort to rectify ethical slights and lack of transparency, all is well.”
Speaking to a friend, he made the excellent point that even at the lowest price, people are being incentivised to pre-order Evolve based on the idea that getting the Behemoth – “valued” at $15 – means they’re saving money when, in fact, they’re in the pits for the full $60 because the game might be awful anyway.
So don’t pre-order. Buy the game after launch, when whichever person or publication you trust has delivered their verdict . Because if all that costly advertising and pre-launch marketing amounts to little more than a negative number on a balance sheet, the industry will go back to the drawing board. It can’t afford not to. But when Assassin’s Creed Unity shifts a million more units than Black Flag in spite of bugs and day-one patches and mediocre gameplay, there’s no incentive for paradigms to shift. “Good enough“ becomes a safety net under their acrobatic high-wire song and dance.