In some deep corner of my mind, I’ve got a couple of dream jobs, things I would like to do at some point in my life and that would not crush my soul daily. The ultimate dream job for me would be an author, preferably science fiction or fantasy. Seriously, I could write cheesy fantasy books for a meager wage and be a happy man. That’s more of a long term goal, though.
A slightly more realistic (but still far-fetched) and more short-term dream of mine would be to work for a gaming site, one with some actual financial clout behind it, instead of just a handful of dudes that made about zero dollars producing some Web shows for two years. But while many portray the Intertubes as a wild west where cowboys can get famous and make a name for themselves, there are just as many no-name bandits running around as well, trying to eek out some kind of online existence.
GamerSushi started about two and a half years ago, and it was a project that came out of a desire to create a space where people could talk about games in a way that real gamers do: intelligently and without the stuff that infuses many online discussions. For us, this didn’t just mean commenting, but the way we approached the subject matter, how we talked about it, and what we pulled away from it. From the get go, we wanted to focus on tone. We wanted to stay away from being overly snarky, overly critical, and yet unwavering when it came to pointing out what we saw to be total bull (and not just for the sake of generating hits).
I’m going to try and keep this as classy as possible, but since we began this venture, I can’t help but notice how other sites operate, and sometimes it upsets me. Whether it’s game reviewers seemingly trolling their site’s own users by crapping on games just to get a rise out of the commenters (and gaining more hits in the process) or site editors waxing philosophically about how it’s courageous to turn music off while gaming, much of the “discussion” that happens on the front page of many video game sites is at best filler, and at worst just trite and sophomoric. Even worse, much of this gets passed off as true and pure interaction about gaming.
Something that I’ve especially noticed in the last two years is the gradually degenerating featured content that appears on these sites. A quick perusal through any of the heavy hitters shows that many of them do not create their own original takes or ideas about gaming very often, and when they do it’s the kind of strange self-indulgent ramblings I linked to above.
I remember several years ago, I loved going to gaming sites and seeing unique content – really thoughtful articles written by people who cared about games and played them regularly. Many of the sites even would link to thoughtful posts they saw that other people were making, inviting others to join in on the dialogue. But somewhere along the line, things changed. Gaming sites became more about shock jocking, controversy, cynicism and information overload. Seriously, go take a look through some of the sites you frequent – I doubt many of them will have too many unique features that aren’t “x reasons why x game sucks/is awesome”.
For the last few months, I’ve wondered what the cause is for this trend. Why are game sites so hermetic now, unless the content they’re linking to is yet another fan mash-up of a product that has been mashed more times than we can count? How could someone small like GamerSushi keep up with these wells of gaming news, and where did their stories originate from when they weren’t just ripping them from each other’s headlines?
There are a variety of reasons for this, but one of the many answers to this question was the last straw that led to my game site disenchantment. You see, GamerSushi tried to make a push to “legitimize” ourselves, in terms of getting news before it broke to several other places. We signed up for a gaming press service that would give us instant access to screenshots, trailers and breaking news as it happened. In our minds, we were taking a peek behind the curtain, seeing down into the depths of what made gaming sites really tick – and we discovered that there was no great and powerful Oz back there. What was there instead? Press releases.
Don’t get me wrong, it was always obvious that video game sites had easy access to press releases from video game companies. Naturally, this would be the easiest way for them to get news and then distribute it. What I underestimated, however, was the sheer volume of these press releases across the front pages of all of the gaming sites we know and love. After looking through the daily news blasts we would receive, I would estimate that no less than 95 percent of content on gaming sites all originated in the marketing department of a video game company.
For instance, here are some of the news bits you will probably see today, January 13, 2011:
Heroes of Might and Magic VI from Ubisoft
Shift 2 Unleashed announcement trailer
Free Soundgarden song to Facebook fans of Guitar Hero
And those are just a few samples of the re-published press releases that will probably garnish our gaming sites by later today. What we tend to think of as gaming “news” is nothing more than just free marketing and publicity from the spinsters at video game companies. I’m sure they must love it. At my current company, I’ve been in charge of press releases before, and I can’t tell you how much we would have gone nuts if as many Web sites clamored for our press releases the way gaming media does over the stuff game companies put out. Want 8 screenshots of some game nobody cares about? News! Here is a developer diary number 46 about the narrative in our mowing simulator – news!
Taking a look at this really changed the way I read gaming sites now. It’s almost sad to have something like that happen, because it affected the enjoyment I used to derive from it even more than it had been already. I tend to scroll down the front page and think “press release, press release, mash-up, fan made trailer, press release, press release”. It actually makes sense that there would be less features and linking to other interesting content, because half of the work is already done for you when the game companies send over their press releases. Why work hard to get the best content out there when you can be the first one to give everyone this valuable news?
It must be noted here that I’m not suggesting that game journalism sites are in bed with these game companies. I don’t think that the companies are requiring them to publish this content, and that they’re doing it out of any obligation other than the compulsion and drive to be the first one to post it out of all of the competition. I don’t think there’s any kind of corruption or hob-knobbing going on. I just think the game sites are lazy, not compromised. The content is there for the taking, and on the Web, content is key and king, so why would they choose to ignore it? I’m sure it’s a tricky place to be in, especially when you’re at the top of the game.
If I’m being honest, we had a few months there where I wanted to try to play the game with them. To be the first to get news, to be the first to post about something. But really, it’s just an exercise in futility. What matters to us first and foremost is unique gaming content, and a real gamer’s take on video games. You know, people that actually buy their games and have to think about what goes into their purchases. In 2011, our focus is going to be on this kind of content, the kind of content that we love to see and that constantly stirs our passion about video games, this silly hobby that grew up right alongside us.
That doesn’t mean we won’t ever link to other sites. We will still do plenty of that. We want to show you guys when we see something cool, whether it’s a trailer or an article or something hilarious. If there’s big news, we want to post it to get excited right alongside you guys. If there’s a cool list, we want to gripe or laugh about it here. This just won’t be the goal of the site, the way it might be at some other places. We want more GamerSushi Asks, more reflections about what we’re playing and more probing questions about what’s happening in the industry.
This isn’t me saying that I think we’re better than those places, far from it. We certainly don’t have the resources or staff to be better in any way, shape or form from a material standpoint. We’re a few guys that do this in our free time (and in our un-free time) for no money, and at least for me, no ambitions to try and turn it into something else. What we can offer though is honesty, candor and incisiveness. What we really care about is writing about this thing that we love. We’re going to play games, talk about them, and hopefully some people join in.