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The critics rant session this year at GDC was pretty entertaining, and more charged than some rants of years past. Usually there’s a lot of agreement as to the problems, this year it seemed more divisive. My collected thoughts below (probably too random to deserve that description but not intellectual enough for “musings” so hey).

Let me start with Heather Chaplin’s rant. What’s weird for me is that I both agree with her, and David Jaffe at the same time. While I want to make the types of games she alludes to, it is difficult. I’m also sure there are more and more developers who agree but can’t find their way off the kind of projects she talked about. Jaffe’s point basically is, hey, I wanna make the games I wanna make, leave me alone, which is perfectly fair and there’s nothing wrong with the existence of those games. Chaplin’s rant also isn’t going to convince anyone to go out and make those games, because she kind of phrased it with this girlfriend-whose-been-dumped-by-her-boyfriend-and-is-blaming-it-on-the-videogames tone. 

I don’t want to work on power fantasies filled with steroid fueled characters, and I believe in the power of the medium to do much more, but just working in games at all has had that man-child connotation for a long time, despite the fact that it pays really well and is creatively fulfilling work, and regardless of your emotional maturity – so it’s kind of a sore point for me. However the gap between my agreement and disagreement is not a problem, because thankfully working for large companies has prepared me for dealing with hefty amounts of cognitive dissonance (granted, it’s a skill I wish I could unlearn).

I also find it odd that nobody picks on indie or alternative games for this either. While a game like Noby Noby Boy is certainly not power fantasy, eating my own ass isn’t exactly pushing the medium any further. From an emotional or thematic standpoint, I mean – I suppose you’ve never been able to eat your own ass before in a game. The same thing applies here for me, it’s perfectly fine that there are games like that, they’re just not super relevant to those of us trying to make games mean more.

So, Heather’s absolutely right in that the problem of achieving broader emotional relevance is one we should take on, but her rant is not going to convince anybody. The only way to do that is probably just make those damn games (which reminds me, I need to play The Path).

Leigh Alexander and Chris Hecker also touched on something divisive – the working relationship between developers and journalists. Leigh described (with puppets!) the system of negativity between developers, journalists, and the audience, where journalists are forced to suffer through PR shill to write stories under really tight deadlines for little money, eventually inevitably displeasing the audience. She mentioned that journalists actually do want to talk to developers and get more detailed on the building of the games themselves. Chris focused his rant on what happens when that goes wrong, that horrible attributions by journalists can affect people’s careers. 

It’s hard for me not to draw parallels between game journalism’s negative ecosystem, and the problem with CNBC (albeit in a thankfully much less impactful, much less negative way). There are two main parallels – the first is simply the destructiveness of the constant news cycle. It leads to rushed work and less ability to fact check and call people on their bullshit. At least game PR bullshit is less harmful than financial PR bullshit.

The second is the responsibility and/or lack of ability of the journalist to seek out the truth from behind walls of secrecy and lies. Jim Cramer described his interviews with people he had known as friends for 20+ years, lying straight to his face. John Stewart called him on his & CNBC’s responsibility to do the leg work in finding out the truth. And part of me says of course, CNBC’s not doing it’s job, and another part of me realizes in that situation I might be similarly stumped with the ability to verify anything.

But hey look, it’s a set of mechanics that are not producing the correct dynamics – us game developers never have any ideas how to deal with those. There’s a few lever points here that need to be adjusted: the time allotted to any journalistic work, access to developers and other perspectives besides PR, and managing expectations of review scores to both the developers and audience.

On the time front there’s probably not much that can be done. The only hope is that news models like the Huffington Post, split between actual reporters and high profile volunteer bloggers, alleviate pressure on the reporting side. Nice to see Gamasutra move that way with it’s expert and member blogs.

Then there’s journalists having better access to avoid being PR mouth pieces. It’s not just that PR people won’t give journalists access to devs, it’s that devs don’t even necessarily know who their PR person is and that there’s any opportunity to do so. I’d wish that devs were more knowledgable on this front, but somehow I don’t suspect this is going to happen without kicking them in the pants.

My advice to journalists – use your social network to get access around PR, talk to the dev, tell them you want to chat, do the interview, and tell them who the PR person is. From the dev’s point of view, it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. If the interview’s done and not printed it’s easier to get the trust of the PR person and let the dev show they haven’t said anything stupid. If you run into a PR person that’s super controlling and wants to revise the work, avoid them and get more detailed coverage from their competitors (eventually I’d assume they’d get jealous).

And so to Chris’ point – attribution is a hugely sensitive issue. All developers barring the most egomaniacial are aware that games are the work of multiple people. We don’t want our name to be associated with anything we didn’t do, and if journalists screw devs on this, trust is lost, preventing other journalists from getting access. That might even mean verifying with other sources on the team – not that a dev is misrepresenting themselves, but you might not have all the information from just one perspective. A coder who says he worked on some cool feature isn’t responsible for all of it, but you might get that impression accidentally because he assumes it’s obvious that he didn’t work on the visuals for it.

The last lever to fix the system is the pressure of review scores. Both Adam Sessler and Clint Hocking (in the micro talks lecture) talked about Metacritic – one of Clint’s points was that review inflation due to sites like metacritic mean you can compare relative scores for games that come out at the same time, but not for any series of games over time (which means game developers can’t actually use review scores to help improve their games). Sessler complained about the pressure the use of metacritic applies to people like himself to change their review standards to better fall in line with other reviews & review systems.

To this I have nothing much more to add beyond Spitfire: STOP USING NUMBERS TO REVIEW GAMES. Where’s Metacritic gonna be when more people use thumbs up/thumbs down (or buy/rent/avoid)? Probably much closer to movie scores, where even successful movies rarely go above 70.

It’s gonna take a few hardy souls to pave the way – as journalists build trust in devs, PR trusts devs more, and sites find ways to give more time to their writers. The cycle can break, but only through iteration, improving each friction point slightly leads to a positive feedback loop.

Now back to nursing my post-GDC cold.