How the game industry lost its way (and how Nintendo could save it — again), part 2

Infendo

corp_news.gifEditor’s Note: First off, a big thanks to everyone who commented on part 1 (even some of the negative ones over at digg.com πŸ™‚ ). It was by no means a perfect column, as I discovered upon subsequent re-reads, but I do appreciate that many people out there share my view on the industry today. Perhaps we can change it, if only just a little.

For now though, onward and upward to part 2…

Part 2: The irrelevant video games media

What do you get when you have hardcore gamers writing articles about games that are then read by other hardcore gamers? If you said the gaming media as it exists today, give yourself a cookie, but the word “free advertising for publishers” gets bonus credit.

But that’s exactly what exists today, isn’t it? An elite clan of people write the reviews, the previews, the commentary and the news articles; and then in turn a very small segment of the population reads that material and takes it as gospel. The material never escapes the echo chamber because, in reality, no one outside the clique really takes video games very seriously. The mainstream media outside of gaming probably views Sony, Microsoft and even Nintendo to a certain extent as interesting distractions for antisocial boys who enjoy flashy lights and loud noises. Is it fair? Not even close. Is it the truth? Absolutely.

Even publishers don’t respect video games journalists. They mock us with fake gamer blogs like Sony did with its PSP for Christmas campaign; they heap lavish review packages on established sites that give out the much ballyhooed “game review score” (free anything immediately tainting that site’s review, btw); and they blatantly lie about or conceal information about their very expensive products because they know there’s really no one who will seriously take them to task.

I cover software companies for a “real” living outside of Infendo, and let me tell you a few things about lying to the press. Even just in the software media circle, for example, if a company displayed the bravado and outright dishonesty that Sony shoveled upon the gaming press over the past year and a half, there would have been dire consequences. Scathing commentary would have been written; real investigative journalism would have been conducted. Instead, in gaming, we see behavior from publishers and developers that leads me to believe they really don’t see any consequences for their actions. If they say something truly outrageous, they know their forgiveness is but a few Motorstorm screenshots away.

But why is this? To answer that, I’m going to borrow a quote from some forgotten web site that I read many moons ago: Video game journalists today are gamers first and writers second. Unfortunately, that formula fails the readership because there’s no objectivity in that equation. What constitutes a gamer today is a niche sect of the population that grows even more niche by the day (if that makes any sense). I discussed that ad nauseum in part 1, so I won’t beat the horse armor here. Today it’s gamers writing for gamers, instead of journalists providing objective information to gamers. “Preaching to the choir comes to mind,” and leads me back to my original point about free advertising.

One could argue that there really hasn’t been any real innovation in the industry for a while now (yes, yes, I’ve heard of Loco Roco and Katamari and Puzzle Quest, etc. — exceptions to every rule). Well, in that vein, there really hasn’t been any real innovation video game journalism either. In fact, I’d say things have regressed since the pinnacle of (IMO, mind you) gaming journalism: Next Generation Magazine. Even the material they used for the cover of that magazine kicked ass.

Now, detractors of this post will say, “but gamers know the industry best, so they write the best articles.” And I say, if you believe that, then be a gamer, not a journalist. There are no exceptions to that rule, otherwise you’re in the world of marketing, not journalism. Which is perfectly fine. But like any “job” you need to commit 100% to be good at what you do. There needs to exist some degree of separation between the two. Otherwise, you become a pawn of the industry, and write only about what they push forth onto the table. Again, marketing. Is it a coincidence that as the major competitors to Nintendo’s DS and Wii strategies started their “it’s a gimmick” attacks, et al, the same voice was present throughout the media as well? “I’m sure it looks cool, but is it just a gimmick?” — Who here heard that from someone who was not working for a developer, publisher or manufacturer (meaning a “journalist” said that)? Blinders aren’t only for horses, it seems.

What about Nintendo though. This is a Nintendo blog, so how is Redmond, WA’s other gaming company getting video game journalism back on track? That one’s easy. They’re ignoring it.

This past year is riddled with instances where Reggie, Iwata, Miyamoto and crew have blatantly blown off the “mainstream gaming media” in lieu of a much more receptive, honest, and engaged audience: the public. When a journalist fails to do his or her true job function — accurately inform the public — you must remove them. It’s not entirely their fault — the danger of implementing a disruptive business plan (DS and Wii) is that in addition to taking the industry in an entirely new (and lucrative) direction, you can also alienate the Old Guard that covered it for the past 10 years or so.

I think it was a necessary sacrifice, but let’s take a look at some of those instances, and see what happened over the past year or so…

Wii Ambassador Parties

Infendo had a great exclusive look at one of these parties thanks to mom and Wii aficionado Tracey Clark. With a simple email to her personal blog, I was able to set up an interview with Mrs. Clark and get an insider’s look at one of these parties, of which there were many across the U.S. Nintendo basically found her through her blog, showed up at her house with TVs, Wii consoles and food, and allowed her and a large group of her extended family and friend play several then-unreleased games unabated. From what I gleaned from the interview and my conversations with her before and after, there was little to no pressure or marketing from Nintendo (she could not take pictures however), and the “gift bags” her children and friends received contained cookies — not consoles. I’ll never forget the impact of the event, as told to me by Clark herself: every person who left that house that day planned to buy a console. Can you see the same thing happening with an Xbox or a PS3?

Many people were invited to these parties by their hosts, but do you know who was not invited? The gaming press. They weren’t needed. In fact, if they had attended, I think Nintendo might not be enjoying the same success with the Wii that they are today. I think the system would have been framed quite differently by the press for the court of public opinion. But then again, I imagine Nintendo knew exactly what they were going to say in their subsequent preview and first impressions articles. I imagine they knew it would probably sound a lot like whining and complaining that followed an event from just two weeks ago, actually…

Nintendo’s Media Day

Ridicule. Angst. Dissatisfaction. Would anyone else care to add a word to the pile of adjectives I’m using to describe the gaming press reaction to Nintendo’s recent media day? Would anyone care to guess which games they all decided they deserved to see? That’s right, it was all of the games that didn’t need any coverage because it’s all they talk about anyway.

Metroid. Mario Galaxy. Zzz. All great games, but then again we all KNOW they’re going to be because Nintendo spends 100 years developing them and their core business plan depends on their success. There’s a reason they’re called franchises, and a reason why Nintendo had no intention or reason to promote them at its media day.

What it did need to promote are the games that will EXPAND its business (and by association, expand the industry as a whole). Trouble was, the media’s fly was open and their bias was showing. Many blogs ridiculed Nintendo for showing such artsy fartsy fare. Brain Age? More like Brain Dead! hahahah LOLZ!!11!

The gall of Reggie for not appeasing them! Like an evangelical lambasting the theory of evolution, they attacked games like Brain Age and questioned Nintendo’s “secrecy” regarding its first party IP franchise titles. In effect, and unbeknown to them, they were attacking that which they did not understand. Unfortunately, a rising tide will raise ALL boats, not just the ones you like. When we as a gaming community stop being so close minded about letting the “Others” into the fold, only then will the industry expand and the truly remarkable titles start to bubble to the surface. There are diamonds in the rough out there that come along and surprise us, but it’s still the Rad Racer effect all over again (see part 1).

Nintendo’s media day, ironically, was less about showing anything of any real substance to the media, than it was about exposing (inadvertently) the flaws in the media system.

Miyamoto’s GDC 2007 keynote gets panned

It’s my belief that there came no bigger slap to the face of Nintendo by the media this year than when Shigeru Miyamoto was panned for his keynote at the GDC. It was an embarrassment for gaming journalism.

There he was, the ******* father of video games giving a speech, and the drooling, shortsighted masses in the audience were screaming for screenshots. Honestly, wtf? Talk about failing to see the forest through the trees. Reggie took Phil Harrison out to the tool shed with one of the greatest quotes in video games history that day; I’m thinking he should have taken a majority of today’s bloggers and journalists out there with him.

First of all, my personal belief: Shigeru Miyamoto has earned a free pass for the rest of his life. If he wants to give a keynote about talking bananas at next year’s GDC, he can go right ahead and do it.

Second, there we have on stage one of the most influential people in gaming today, talking about expanding our minds and thinking outside of the box, and people attack him for it?! It boggles the mind at the close mindedness that exists today in gaming. It borders on irrational.

It also shows what a sham the conferences have become, and how the publishers know this. Personal invites to a show? A select audience of only the “best” gaming journalists? That’s not a conference, it’s a huge circle jerk of an advertisement.

Nintendo seems content to ignore the media to a certain extent until it changes or goes away. It would be a risky strategy if the media had any real pull over the industry, but to me they’re more like an extended press release service for the publishers. But hey, at least they get free review copies.

Am I jealous? Not really. I’ve got a fine job and my volunteer work and reader feedback here at Infendo is rewarding enough as it is. My end goal is not gaining “free review copy” status, which is how many of the blogs read today — it’s just plain writing about Nintendo and how it’s going to beat the snot out of the status quo and make everyone’s gaming experience a better one in the long run.