Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Quality vs. quantity

The new year is still young, and game writers are looking forward to the new games that lie on the horizon. Two articles in particular caught my attention, because they highlight the extreme gap between publications that focus on gaming and those that cover general topics. Namely, the two articles I'm referring to are by The Associated Press and GamesRadar. Let's take a look at where each one excels and where they fall short.

First, the article from GamesRadar exposes its critical flaw early into its very first "preview" of BioShock 2:
We don’t know the story. We don’t know the setting. We don’t know any of the characters. We haven’t seen a single screenshot or a single frame of actual gameplay footage. The teaser hinted at the involvement of a grown-up Little Sister, but we don’t know if she’s the protagonist, antagonist, sidekick or twisted love interest of a seriously confused Big Daddy.
OK, so that tells us...nothing. Absolutely nothing. But hey, at least there's lots of pretty pictures on the page to distract us as we read. In fact, the pictures and graphics take up more space than the actual text. As I was reading, I struggled to find tidbits of information within the text that couldn't be gleaned just from the pictures themselves. Let's see...
  • Final Fantasy XIII is "heading in a direction we like." What this new direction might be is left unexplained.
  • Resident Evil 5 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 will have co-op gameplay
  • Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and the Damned will have biker gangs
  • Brutal Legend stars Jack Black
Apart from tiny nuggets of information like these, the article may as well have been written by the games' own public relations departments. If that were actually the case, at least sentences like "Expect StarCraft II to rekindle your love for the RTS genre, improve your sex appeal, and make you a better person - and if it doesn’t, you can at least expect to see some awesome cutscenes" wouldn't feel so damn awkward.

If it feels like I'm being harsh, it's because I expect more out of a preview article than, "Hey, look at the pretty pictures! Aren't you just bursting at the seams to buy this sucker already? No? Well, here's another screenshot! How about now? BUY IT!!" Writers are not supposed to sound like salesmen. That is not their job. If the GamesRadar writing staff was truly, honestly anticipating all 100 of the games they mentioned, then they gave themselves a whopping 3.65 days apiece to enjoy each game. Doubtful.

Next, let's examine the article from The Associated Press:
Video games expected to evolve in 2009
By DERRIK J. LANG, AP Entertainment Writer

LOS ANGELES – Don't hit that pause button just yet. Despite the tanking economy and an increasing number of video game-industry layoffs, many believe 2009 will be a year of evolution for games. The combination of innovative new titles, long-awaited franchise follow-ups and desire for escapism could spawn a gaming renaissance.
The opening sentence made me roll my eyes a little bit, but other than that, I'm already intrigued. A gaming renaissance, eh? The article continues:
"While game makers providing traditional retail product will continue to concentrate on high-profile sequels and licensed properties in an effort to mitigate risk, many of the field's most exciting developments will actually be happening outside of your local GameStop," said publisher Scott Steinberg.

By focusing on surefire $60 sequels that are appearing on next-generation consoles for the first time — like "Resident Evil 5," "Street Fighter IV" and "God of War III" — gaming publishers are expected to avoid economic pitfalls while independent developers are poised to provide cheaper, quicker and quirkier alternatives, such as $20-or-less downloadable games like "Flower" for the PlayStation 3 or "Darwinia Plus" for the Xbox 360.

"Why pay $60 for a game you don't have time to play anyway when dozens of bite-sized, instantly intuitive and schedule friendly alternatives are available for $5 to $15 right from your couch?" muses Steinberg.
I notice the AP, like GamesRadar, doesn't give us much information about what the actual games will be like, but at least the writer doesn't sound like he's shilling the games to you. But what about the "gaming renaissance" promised in the top paragraph? Well, unfortunately, the writer doesn't get back around that until near the end of the article:
"Video games are poised to eclipse all other forms of entertainment in the decade ahead," Activision president and CEO Mike Griffith proclaimed during his [Consumer Electronics Show] keynote speech. He cited market statistics which stated that between 2003 and 2007, the cumulative number of movie ticket sales and hours of television watched fell by 6 percent, music sales slumped 12 percent and DVD purchases remained flat. Over the same four-year period, Griffith said the gaming business grew by 40 percent....

Wedbush Morgan video game analyst Michael Pachter describes his outlook for the gaming industry in 2009 with one word: discovery. He believes the increasing number of diverse console owners, especially those with Nintendo Wiis, will demand new software — and publishers will figure out how to directly market their wares to such folks in exciting new ways.

"They must discover how to reach those audiences," said Pachter. "It's not like they won't want new games."

So this "renaissance" still appears vague, but the end of the article nonetheless left me with a sense of anticipation, something the GamesRadar article did not come close to accomplishing.

While the AP article isn't perfect, it is still miles beyond GamesRadar's masturbatory pablum. The bigger issue here, though, is that GamesRadar covers games exclusively. The AP is a news agency that covers practically everything. Why is it that they seem more knowledgeable, more genuine? It's clear to me that GamesRadar is passionate about games, but it looks like they cater strictly to those that share their level of passion. The AP, in appealing to a more general audience, is much more approachable.

Something I would have liked to have seen in both articles was a more in-depth analysis of the games themselves. What makes next year's games inherently different from 2008's? How does having co-op gameplay change the experience? What makes the downloadable titles so "quirky"? Ultimately, I'd like to see an article that can answer these questions while still maintaining the broad appeal that that AP brings to its writing.


  1. I think what's mentioned in the article is related to what you're seeing in the magazine with the lame writing. Games are booming, 40% more people in the last four years just *became* GameRadar's target audience, so all GameRadar has to do is keep catering to its advertisers and even more people will buy games and read it.

    The bit you quoted from the review in the gaming magazine is confusing because it makes it sounds as though the reviewer hadn't played it, but only seen a teaser trailer. Is that typically all they have to go on?

  2. Both writers are not talking about games they've played, they're talking about games they're looking forward to playing. So, what they are going on is indeed things like teasers, screenshots, and perhaps press releases and interviews with representatives from the respective game makers.

    You bring up an interesting point about the expanding audience for gaming publications. I would hope that GamesRadar would endeavor to do more than simply cater to its advertisers. Admittedly, every publication has to do this to some level. I just hope that readers would have higher expectations than that.