“Has the situation got so bad that executives are surprised when journalists ask questions that are hard to answer?”
“We’re far too obsessed with catering to our PR contacts instead of supplying our readers (who should be our primary focus) with refreshing editorial.”
“As a result, most, nay, all of my peers, including myself, write not only for our audience, but for each other.”
“What I think makes this so hard for everyone involved, including any MMO player, is that the parent publisher kept smiling, shaking hands, and affirming to us that any fears we had were ill-founded and completely wrong. Yet, they still felt free to turn around, shoot the staff in the foot, and then point and say, “Look, it’s dying! Really!””
How many times have you read an interview between a studio developer and a journalist concerning a rather controversial and negative issue, where the journalist almost apologetically asks about the issue in a lowball kind of way, and then meekly accepts whatever carefully hedged doubletalk response comes back?
It doesn’t happen all the time, but it happens far too often for my taste. I’ve long come to suspect that gaming journalism is, to put it bluntly, afraid to ask the tough questions and demand straight-forward answers.
It’s not like this is a new thought to me or others. One of Penny Arcade’s strips from 2006 — “The Partial Revolution” (language warning) — and their attached blog post tackled this subject specifically, and it opened my eyes a bit to how this back-and-forth between journalists and studios/devs/PR reps typically go. Again, not always, but typically. In magazines and now on major gaming websites, it’s as if the writers are genuinely afraid of offending their interview subjects, which results in a dancing around of thorny topics and pulled punches when full force is called for.
Now, I’m not a professional journalist by any means, and I’m not naive to how this works elsewhere. Sure, there’s always a bit of give-and-take between journalists hungry for the real story, and information holders who don’t want to expose all. If the journalist pushes too far too often, then they are seen as aggressive and hostile, which makes the subject get defensive and angry in return. If the interview subject is too cagey and vague, then they’re less likely to get the good PR they so want. Heck, you see this at every White House briefing since TV started recording them.
As gaming journalism struggles to find legitimacy in the eyes of the larger news media, it only hurts their cause to lob softball after softball at games studios instead of doing their job and getting to the truth of the matter, even if that means ruffling feathers. Even if that means getting blacklisted because you end up reporting something that isn’t on the company’s marketing talking points. Even if, and this is a BIG “if”, it costs them advertising revenue from the same company.
I’d also like to see journalists follow up on these tough questions (which usually never happens) if the subject is employing vague marketing speak (which usually often happens), like so:
INTERVIEWER: [tough question]
SUBJECT: [vague response]
INTERVIEWER: [presses them for more clarification or confronts them with substantiated info]
Out of the many Star Trek Online interviews done prior to launch, MMORPGITALIA’s stuck out at me like a sore thumb because they aren’t doing the song-and-dance of soft journalism. Read it through — they’ve identified several serious issues with the Klingon faction, as noted by themselves and players, and they’re downright blunt in asking what should be asked, instead of framing it in flowery niceness. They’re not mean about it, they’re not bearing a grudge, they’re just pursuing a story that’s of interest to their readers and they’re not willing to back down because of that.
I had a talk with a friend (who preferred to remain nameless due to connections in the industry) about this subject, and he agreed that there’s a lot of this going around. Part of the problem, he said, is that the gaming industry (and MMORPG genre in particular) is so small and incestuous that everyone knows everyone. Journalists like to be “pals” with the developers and establish mutually beneficial relationships that will keep the information flowing to their sites — as long as it doesn’t offend, is the unwritten rule. As long as they say more good than bad, and downplay the bad if at all possible. More often than not, the real story never surfaces, because the payback — against employees who speak up, against journalism sites who publish it — is seen as not worth the trouble.
Let me get this one thing straight — developers and community managers and any employee of MMO studios can and often are delightful people and fellow game enthusiasts. They’re great to get to know as people and often have a lot of passion for what they’re working on. But that doesn’t mean they’re always being transparent and open; to the contrary, any journalist has to begin from the position that “communication with the individuals who make our games are shielded, their second skins those of the PR firms that protect them from the rabid media.” (Gamer Limit)
I understand it’s not a black and white stance that journalists can always take, but my feeling is that, as a whole, the gaming media is erring too much on the side of “the benefit of the doubt” in favor of the gaming companies, and not nearly enough investigative reporting that seeks to draw out the truth whether it be happy or not. Game companies might get savaged by bloggers and forumgoers, but journalists are safer ground — and they’re used to being fawned over. Many times you see the harsher questions come out in editorials instead of interviews, which is unfortunate as the former is done without the company in the room.
This is why game review sites have lost so much legitimacy with readers — who are just sick to death of most games scoring a safe “7” — and who are clearly terrified of offending readers and game developers alike with a purely honest review. This is why Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation has become such an internet phenomenon, because his brutal, funny and often profane examinations of games don’t let the titles off the hook just because of popular opinion or because he’s afraid of being blacklisted or upsetting developers. He writes for the people first, and I can respect that. Of course, he doesn’t have to deal with getting advance information about upcoming games, either.
Happily, it’s not all doom and gloom on this front. Some sites and blogs are showing a backbone and tackling tough topics, even if it doesn’t always please the PR guys, and that builds up loyalty in readers who, like myself, are hungry for something beyond the same-old, same-old PR rehash. In the lightning-fast age of the Internet, whoever has an exclusive will only hold that information for a couple minutes (if that) before it’s broken down, analyzed and repeated across the world on hundreds of other sites. Getting the news first is becoming less relevant than getting the facts right and going after the real story, and readers are voting with their attention as to who does this the best.
A Second Opinion – Massively’s Shawn Schuster
I asked Shawn Schuster from Massively to look over this article and add any comments from his perspective, and he had the following to say:
I believe that a topic like this depends on a few important factors:
The size or reputation of the news site. With Massively, we’re part of the Joystiq network, and we have a solid voice across that entire network that has already been established and respected by readers. This means we can say what we want and there’s a good chance the development studio will still come back to us next week when they have more news. They need us just as much as we need them, and not to sound too arrogant, but it’s a point that a site needs to build up to. This has nothing to do with size, but reputation.
The problem, I think, is with smaller sites who are most worried about making a name for themselves and establishing what they think is a good relationship with studios and their PR departments. I see this most often with people who are new to the business, as they think they’ll somehow lose their jobs for asking questions that are viewed as negative. The way I see it, if the topic is that huge among the playerbase, someone needs to address the issue. Dancing around it only makes you look scared.
Personal blog sites are immune to this, which is why they develop strong, dedicated followers. Unless these bloggers have a hidden agenda about one day becoming a “real journalist”, you’ll find that they speak their opinions freely and openly. Readers respect that and many would rather wade through poor grammar or spelling to get honest opinions.
On the other side of that spectrum you have large conglomerate news sites that give safe numerical review scores so they can secure that interview with the large international publisher’s CEO next week.
The company itself. I know of only a handful of companies that will literally blacklist you for speaking negatively about their game. The majority actually respect you more for being up front and having the balls to address the real issues.
My favorite example of this is Funcom’s Craig Morrison (and Funcom in general). He is a former journalist-turned-developer who has told me himself how sick he is of people not asking the right questions. If you go into a Craig Morrison interview asking when their next expansion will be released and for him to tell you how awesome it will be… he’ll probably roll his eyes at you. If you ask him why Age of Conan had such a bad time their first year and what he’s going to do to fix that, he’ll smile and talk your ear off. I love that.
Advertising relationships. Yes, game companies advertise on news websites. Does this directly influence the opinions of the writers on that site? I believe on many sites it does, especially when you look at the size of the ads on some of these sites. It’s embarrassing to me as a journalist and as someone who’s trying to run a legitimate site. Yes, Massively has advertising from a few MMO game studios, but that money is handled by AOL, who own the entire network of blogs. Does AOL care if we talk negatively about a game and upset the advertiser? Sure, but if the advertiser leaves, they’ll be replaced by a teeth whitener ad the next day, so it’s not a big deal. AOL doesn’t mind if we speak our minds because they trust that we know what we’re talking about and readers love us for our honestly. Again, this boils down to mutual benefits. If you want a whole bunch of readers to see your ad on Massively, you may need to put up with a few opinions.
The person asking the question. I really suck at interview questions. It’s just a thing. To help remedy this, I’ve been gathering questions from the Massively readers to ask of developers. This way, the real issues can be addressed, and I’m off the hook from pissing off the more sensitive companies.
All in all, relationships between game companies and journalists are quite important, but it’s not as cut-and-dry as many people assume. Respect is earned through more than just asking the “right” questions. If you establish yourself as a credible person with integrity, asking respectful questions that address the real issues — from both a company and player perspective — then you’re doing well. If you attack, make blind assumptions or skirt the real issues, you might want to consider another career.