Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Better Not Tell You Now

I never imagined that I would have any “back in my day” stories, but here is one. When I was in fourth grade my family moved to Vevey, Switzerland for my dad's job, and each Sunday we would bike from Vevey to neighboring Montreaux in order to procure American and UK gaming magazines from the one English-language newsstand in the area. I read Gamepro and Computer + Video Games cover-to-cover every month, even though I didn't own the majority of the systems in them. All I knew about the Amstrad, Amiga, and Spectrum was that you could play Rainbow Islands on them, and that Rainbow Islands was the shit. 1989 was a lean year of my gaming youth, and reading about games became a great substitute for playing them. It's crazy to think that at one point during my lifetime it was necessary to bike to a different city in order to obtain coverage of video games. Such were the days of print.

All this is just a roundabout way of getting to the point that I really love reading about games. One of the best things about being someone who likes games these days is that there's such a wealth of smart and entertaining commentary on games out there in the internet, some of it unpunctuated. If you're in fourth grade, and you only own a Sega Master System, and you don't mind reading about games and systems you'll never own, the pool of content is now endless. You don't even have to bike to the next town to find this content, and be forced to live the rest of your life with the memory of that one time you toppled an elderly woman on the bikepath near Lac Leman while she was bending over to clean up after her Bichon Frise.

So even though it is churlish for me to complain in the midst of such bounty, I have an issue to raise with the games press. It's the previews.

Coverage of games in the enthusiast press is about evenly split between three areas: previews, which describe games at some point in their development; reviews, which evaluate a game on release, and everything else. For me, the last two areas are golden. I want reviews, because I want to know which games are worth playing. And I want the “everything else” because it's here that people have interesting discussions about matters unrelated to camera behavior. But the proportion of games coverage given over to previews drives me insane.

First off, game development takes a really long time, and on the current model you begin to see a proliferation of articles on a title some years before it's ever released. To take an extreme example: for a title like Silicon Knights' Too Human, which was in development for ten years, you can see dozens upon dozens of articles in the enthusiast press before that game is in any shape to be objectively evaluated. If you want to know if the game is any good at all, there's really no way to tell three years out.

Take the Super Bowl. That's a really important game. They run previews of the super bowl for two weeks and the general consensus is that it's really tiresome. After three days you run out of storylines and just spend the next eleven days wildly speculating about how the game is going to turn out. Sure, you can make some intelligent predictions about what the make-or-break elements of the game are going to be, but beyond that commentators just spend a lot of time on television and websites and the radio speculating that it's going to come down to the Colts' linebacker play. The truth is you really don't know how it's going to be until the game is played.

Secondly, if a game is going to be good, you really don't want to hear a lot about it beforehand. As a general rule I think one is best off playing games with as little advance knowledge of their contents as possible. Imagine playing Bioshock for the first time if you went in cold; you just fired up your console and found yourself plunged into an underwater Randian dystopia. That game would just knock you flat on your ass. It's that unique and beautiful and atmospheric. When I finished Bioshock I wished there was a way to erase my knowledge of the whole affair and just relive that experience of seeing it for the first time. (Maybe other people have this feeling too-- you have to systematically avoid getting any foreknowledge of Fallout 3 whilst being bombarded with information about that game for months prior.) So previews also make your experience of the finished product worse.

Finally, the games industry-- by which I mean the economic interests that bankroll the creative process-- is in full control of the media access that generates the preview cycle, and this is a bad thing for journalism. Once a game is released it belongs to the world; but before then it belongs to the publisher. And because the enthusiast press is reliant on access to pre-release versions of the game to drive page views, this is a situation that is rife with temptations to the transgression professional ethics. The ability to manage access to previews gives the financial interests an unsavory degree of leverage over the press. And rest assured: the companies will not shy away from using this leverage if they can get away with it: preview coverage has this odd effect of determining which games are the “AAA,” “can't-miss” games on their release, and this status is far too valuable to be left to the untutored judgment of games journalists.

I don't agree with Too Human developer and Silicon Knights head Dennis Dyack often; when it comes to issues even tangentially related to the creative success of his products he loses what little sense of proportion he possesses. If electing a chimpanzee prime minister of Canada would move units of Too Human, rest assured he would be out on 1up.com stumping for Nim Chimpsky. But even a stopped clock is right twice a day. Scaling back preview coverage would leave up more room for talking about other important issues, and eliminate all the problems that come with them. I'll go half way with you, gaming press: just let me know three months out that late October is going to be amazing, and we'll be square.


Anonymous said...

Don't you think that objective previews of games in progress would be a blessing? Assuming, of course, that developers actually took what's said to heart. I'm sure very few game designers actually crack open a copy of Game Informer to see what's said about the title they're spending eighty hours a week perfecting. But if the gaming press were to provide a working critique that the developers could respond to...

Kirk Battle said...

I dunno man, how would you feel if you were half-way done with a painting or novel and someone wrote a critique of it? At best you'd get a bunch of empty praise because you still don't know what the reaction to the finished product will be. At worst? Your art gets squashed and ignored before it even gets a proper chance.

I dunno, there's enough stuff to read about video games without resorting to twenty page commercials.

Anonymous said...

Strangely, I enjoy reading about video games probably as much as I do playing them.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@thesimplicity: I think you're right that it would be really valuable to have an objective assessment of a game at some point in development, but that's what playtesters are for. And the press shouldn't be working for game developers, they should be working for us.

@l.b. jeffries: I'm with you. I didn't get to it here but I think that Dennis Dyack's right, the preview cycle is bad for game developers too.

Yeah, and previews always read like commercials because their tenor has to be positive by default; in previews the press usually takes a charitable attitude towards the game's failings at the time they saw it.

@catfishmaw: word.