Why Developers Need To Quit Whining
Is the gaming press really misquoting developers?
Has the games press become a pack of marauding jackals, or are developers getting caught in the tightly controlled PR machine that supports their games? We investigate a series of complaints made by designers about the press to find out.
Claiming that games journalism is a difficult job is a foolhardy endeavour. In the grand sweep of possible vocations it pales in comparison to the vast majority of alternatives, but in an age of instant information, abundant self-publishing tools and increasingly tight PR control, reporting on the industry and satisfying audience demand is more of a challenge than ever before. Competition for the handful of news-worthy stories that emerge in any given month is intense, and in the last year several high-profile developers have spoken out against what they see as a growing trend towards “tabloid” journalism in the games press.
The most recent example is an interview between thatgamecompany’s Jenova Chen and the official US PlayStation blog. In a discussion broadly about the studio’s new project, Journey, Chen lamented the lack of games that simulate anything other than violence and visceral excitement, saying, “As I get older, what’s the point in pulling off another infinite combo? What does that do for your life? It’s not useful.” Chen’s comments quickly made their way onto a large number of websites in the form of brief news stories, prompting Sony Santa Monica developer Tim Moss to express his disappointment at the press’s conduct to Eurogamer’s Richard Leadbetter in a Twitter conversation.
It is worth noting that Chen has not expressed any similar feelings about the use of his quotes, but Moss’s reaction is representative of a number of isolated incidents where developers feel they have been mistreated by the press. As professional journalists, it’s not necessarily our place tell you that all of these people are wrong – and let’s be clear, some of them aren’t – but in every single case the developer’s response to the alleged sensationalism has brought the conversation to a grinding halt, leaving no opportunity to really analyse whether the press acted inappropriately. Ultimately, the people who play games will generally side with those who make them.
The most famous example from recent years is Chris Hecker’s talk at GDC 2007, in which he called the Wii, “a piece of shit.” Now, Hecker was taking part in a “rant session” – short lectures designed to be amped-up and thought-provoking. He made his claims with tongue firmly in cheek, while Public Enemy’s Fear Of A Black Planet blasted out in the back ground.
The press jumped on the story, prompting Hecker to write a lengthy response article that accused the press of deliberately using his words out of context. “Journalists have a responsibility to present their readers with the context of a quote, and to not pull quotes out of their context simply to drive traffic or incite flame wars.”
Is that what actually happened? Hecker defends his position on the grounds that the comments were part of a rant, but looking back at the coverage from popular outlets reveals that the majority mentioned that fact. He also complained that his position on the Spore development team was also mentioned, implying that EA and Maxis shared his viewpoint, but there’s nothing unprofessional about identifying an individual by their current role. Isn’t this just a case of poor judgement on Hecker’s part? After all, there are many ways to rant about the Wii without branding it a piece of shit, particularly when you’re working on one of the year’s most anticipated releases.
Braid developer Jonathan Blow made similar claims after he participated in a joint interview with Hecker for Edge Magazine recently. CVG reprinted comments Blow made about console digital services, in which he called most Xbox Live Indie Games “not very good” and claimed that Sony had done a superior job of supporting quality content. Blow was so incensed he wrote a reply article titled “CVG appear to be a bunch of lazy hacks”, in which he claimed that the site, “misrepresents the content of the interview almost entirely.”
However, reading both the original interview and the news coverage, CVG seems to have done nothing of the sort – the quotes were entirely accurate, and Blow added no caveats in the material excluded from the story. Yes, the conversation was wide-ranging and Chris Hecker wasn’t mentioned in the news story, but Blow’s accusations of being misrepresented ring hollow. He said those things and meant them, CVG’s coverage did not alter their meaning or implications, and that they were newsworthy is beyond dispute. If Blow expects interviews to only ever be used in full then his position betrays a lack of respect for the function of the press, and the people that consume its content every day.
The list goes on: Ted Price called out GamesThirst for running a story with the headline “We’re Best On PS3 Insomniac Boasts”; Cliff Bleszinski was involved in two incidents, the first of which was an ill-advised joke where he called Heavy Rain’s children “hideous”. In the other case he genuinely was misquoted by CVG as saying that the Japanese industry couldn’t keep pace with Western technology, but the site issued an immediate apology when the mistake was highlighted.
This is important, because in the one incident that was unquestionably a case of misquoting and misrepresentation the media outlet acted accordingly. Apologies weren’t issued in the other instances because none were merited: it may aggravate, inconvenience or even traumatise Hecker, Blow and Bleszinski that their comments stir controversy, but if they said them, they own them. It isn’t the job of the press to ignore errors in judgement, a lack of subtlety, or unpopular opinions, particularly when the very same developers would be all too happy to take an “out of context” quote from a positive review to use on the box of one of their games. Certain corners of the videogames press could be more professional, of course, but outraged responses from game designers have little or nothing to do with where the line between news and sensationalism really lies.
The point is that writing interesting stories about the games industry is difficult. PR teams erect a more formidable barrier between journalists and developers, one that very few developers question or oppose. Tom Bissell, who has covered videogames for The New Yorker and published the excellent essay collection Extra Lives, has written about many subjects over the course of his career, including a book about his father’s experiences in Vietnam. He claims that it was easier to gain access to the military than most publishers, and this is a problem the press, with an audience that demands content all day long, has to tackle every day.
The relationship between the press and developers needs to improve, but when designers use decidedly ambiguous events like those above to question whether they should talk to the press at all they miss the point. The competition for decent coverage is created by silence, and shouldn’t be used as an excuse to create still more. The press should be more than just a promotional tool.