Comment & Opinion

Game journalism and my part in its decline

Game journalism and my part in its decline

This talk was given at Manchester Metropolitan University as part of the School of Art's Unit X program.

1. Who am I?

I'm Jon Jordan: I've been writing about computer games professionally since 1999, even though I quickly realised the term 'games journalism' was an oxymoron.

By which I mean computer games are very difficult things to write about.

It used to be said that writing about music was about as relevant as dancing about architecture, but the issue with games isn't so much the subject matter - although there are difficulties here - as the audience.

Gamers are defined by their ludic or 'game playing nature'. They are not very interested in reading about games, and certainly not in ways deeper than a recommendation or comparison to other games.

Similarly, there aren't many games writers who have the cultural hinterland to talk about games in terms more complex than comparisons to other games or Star Wars, Game of Thrones et al. And those that can don't hang around very long.


2. So, which sort are you?

I'm a hack (not a hacker. I don't have a clue about coding).

Thankfully, I quickly worked through the process of attempting to write culturally-aware or (self)-important articles about games.

I'm also not particularly interested in writing about the existential experience of playing games (of which more later). Instead, over time I've increasingly focused on abstract elements of the computer games industry itself - that is business news, the underlining technology, and the people who make games.

My job title is Editor-at-large for PocketGamer.biz.


3. Advice #1: Specialise

If you want a career, unless you are already brilliant at doing something (and you're not), you have to develop your skills.

Everyone starts out as a generalist.

In the case of writing about computer games, you'll start out writing some news, maybe reviewing games you've never heard of, uploading videos, updating Facebook feeds, making the tea, doing the things the previous lowest level person doesn't want to do. The only way to progress and become more valuable is to start doing at least one thing better or more enthusiastically than anyone else.

If you remain a generalist, you'll be replaced by someone cheaper or more enthusiastic, probably both.


4. Advice #2: Never review games

Everyone wants to review the hot new game. Guess what? The editor or senior writer will review the hot new game. You will get to review the crappy game you've never heard of from the developer you've never heard of.

And if you are paid for that privilege, you won't be paid for the time spent playing the game. You'll only be paid for the words you write and you'll be playing a game for at least five time longer than you'll be writing the review.


5. Back to the beginning: 1999

But we're running ahead of ourselves. Let's go back to the beginning. How did I get a job as a games writer in the first place?

Without it sounding like an old boys' network, it's simple. I knew someone who was leaving Edge magazine at the same time that I was looking for a new job. I'd previously been a generic writer for some supermarket magazines and then spent some time doing public relationships for bands.

Edge had been unsuccessful in one interview round so because I came personally recommended, I got an interview and then the job, even though I didn't know that much about games.

I started as a writer for Edge magazine in January 1999, for the princely sum of £1,041 a month.


6. Advice #3: Connects are really, really important

This has always been the case, but the good news is that in a world of Facebook, LinkedIn and especially Twitter, you can get connects really quickly. In fact, the first thing any prospective employer will do is check whatever social network data they can find about you. That tells them much more than your C.V. will.

And, of course, with great power comes great responsibility.

All creative industries are smaller than you think. It's very easy to get a reputation and very hard to lose a bad one.


7. Advice #4: No matter what - be enthusiastic

When it comes to entry-level jobs, specialist skills aren't required. What is required is someone who can do the basics - which in the case of journalism is being able to write with the correct spelling and grammar - who is reliable, and who is enthusiastic.

The best piece of advice I've ever been given is always be enthusiastic. If you can't be enthusiastic about your job, go find one you can be enthusiastic about. The enthusiastic person is a joy to work with. The glum is a pain in the ass, and unless they are particularly skilled, is generally first to get the chop, when the chop comes, and the chop always comes.


8. Times were grim, really grim

Back when I started working for Edge in 1999, websites did exist, but not as successful commercial entities. (c.f. the Dot-com bubble).

Journalism was about writing things down that days or weeks later were printed onto paper and distributed in shops. In many ways, it was an idyllic time. I didn't do any work for two weeks and then worked furiously for two weeks to hit our print deadline. But you had time to think about things, even edit your own work before the sub-editor changed it all.

More important, however, in term of the professional character of the games industry was the flow of information, or its lack.

Email existed, of course, but hard facts were hard to come by and the big publishers' PR machines were firmly in control. Looking back, they sucked up most of the energy from writing about games.

It was nigh-on impossible to play games before they were commercially released, you needed to import Japanese or US consoles to play games released in Japan and US (these blew up if you plugged in the wrong power supply), and when it came to 'review code', the PR machines were ruthless in their machinations, playing off one magazine against its rival for positive coverage.

No ingénue - I'd just come out of the music industry - nevertheless I was surprised one evening to find a faxed contract detailing the coverage that one magazine was signing away to a publisher over several issues in order to get a cover exclusive when the game was out.

And that was the way it was. After all, the bulk of a magazine's sales were generated by what game it had on the cover - whether that was the hot new review or its cover disk.

Longform journalism about games wasn't in vogue. Where it existed, readers got it for free whenever they bought a magazine, likely quickly turning over the central pages to get to the reviews. (Or like men with newspapers, reading from the back.)

More importantly, as a writer, you had very little feedback from your audience. A handful of letters from weirdos, and the monthly sales number, provided two months later.

It was a time of flying blind.


9. Known unknowns

Of course, even back then, we understood the internet was the future of everything. Certainly I wrote plenty of articles about it. The only problem was no one could work out how to make any money from it now, and games magazines were making significant money in 1999. The Official PlayStation Magazine was outselling Loaded (if only thanks to its playable demo disk. The Official PlayStation Magazine was really a playable demo disk of games, stuck to a very disposable magazine).

And no one was going to stop doing something that was very successful to replace it with something totally unknown. Even if you did stop, the worry was did you have the skills to make the new thing successful, anyhow?

Read The Innovator's Dilemma.

It's a pretty dull and now dated book, but it addresses this problem head on. Its sub-title is "When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail". The point is that even, or especially, great companies suffer from this problem. Its answer is you have to set up an entirely new company with different staff, work processes and overheads...


10. New beginnings: 2000

After 12 months at Edge magazine, I left to co-found a new company. It was 2000 and the world was exploding with the glorious potential of the internet.

So we set up another games magazine. Even better than this it was a kid-focused magazine about a brand new games console. (At least it had a website, though).

Surprisingly Mr Dreamcast was not a success. It closed after two issues. I was unemployed...


11. New, new beginnings

I'd been working as game journalist for 15 months. Three months earlier, I'd left the UK's largest publisher of games magazine in less than amicable circumstances. I was screwed, right?

No. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.

I was free, I was enthusiastic and I had 15 months of industry contacts. I was also cheap. Within a month, I was a working as a freelance games journalist. What other option did I have?


12. Free as a bird

Most people at some point in their professional lives will be self employed. It isn't for everyone long-term but it's really not that difficult. Sure, there are legal issues to be taken care of - particularly tax - and you do have to be organised and self-motivated but on the upside, you're in control.

Potentially, you're able to choose how much you work, when you work, and for who you work.

More likely, however, in the early days, you will be desperate for work. In fact, you won't turn down any work, and you will worry about money (and/or your tax bill).

But, personally-speaking, I enjoyed being freelance more than being employed and more than helping to run a company, which is what I currently do.


13. Advice #5: Keep developing your skills

In any creative industry, there is going to be a lot of competition for any opportunities, whether entry-level or c-level. For that reason, you have to keep developing your skillset.

Even if you don't end up using those skills, they make you a more rounded character. For example, I learned how to make a website; a skill I've never used professionally. On the other hand, I invested to become a half-decent photographer.

That was relatively expensive in terms in buying cameras, but it meant that when I interviewed people I could also provide exclusive photos of them. Even if I was only paid for the words, not the photos, I was more likely to get the job because I had an added skill.

And as I got better at photography, I'd occasionally get jobs that were only photography.

Similarly, since I've been involved in running a company, I've had to learn a lot more about accounting and finances. It's not something I would ever have chosen to do, but it makes me much more valuable for my next job. And even my photography skills have continued to develop. Now I can also shoot reasonable video interviews

In a couple of years, I might have become half good at public speaking...


14. Structural changes: c.2003

But this talk isn't just about me; it's about games journalism. During this period, there were some pretty significant changes happening.

On obvious one was the rise of websites; in the UK that was Eurogamer, which morphed from a multiplayer gaming technology company to become a key consumer site.

Indeed, it could be argued that even now Future Publishing has never managed to divorce itself from its printed magazine business, although its key website TechRadar does now generate 50 percent of the group's total revenue.

Indeed, going back to The Innovator's Dilemma, one of the biggest problems for Future was it had some big magazine brands - Edge, PG Gamer, Official PlayStation etc - so it was never committed to launching proper websites for them because all that would do would be to cannabalise those magazine sales. However, when it set up an all-in-one games hub under a different brand, those magazines had the all the experienced staff and the industry contacts, so content-wise the hub remained weaker than the magazines - a worst of both worlds situation.

Another important shift was the games industry became much more international. The PR machine's grip on power was slipping fast. This was particularly laughable when Nintendo US would grant a US-based website a timed exclusive, while Nintendo UK would grant a UK-based website a timed exclusive a day later.

Information was now travelling faster than the ability to control it; something that's certainly the most significant and best change to happen to all forms of journalism over the past 10 years.


15. It's all about me: 2004

Interestingly, it was around this time that games journalism started its slow decline from facts to opinions.

Like many bad revolutions, it started with noble intentions. Given form by PC Gamer's Kieron Gillen in a blogpost entitled 'The New Games Journalism', it was a reaction to the decline of the controlled semi-professionalism of game magazines and the babbling rise of voices on the web.

"While it's using videogames as its subject, what it's really talking about is the human condition," Gillen writes in reaction to an article about an incident in the multiplayer mode of Jedi Knight 2 entitled "Bow, Nigger".

"The worth of gaming lies in the gamer not the game," he says, wrestling control from the professional to the consumer.

It was a worthy goal, but ironically, the first two articles heralding 'The New Games Journalism' remain the two best examples of 'The New Games Journalism'.

Just because you can write in iambic pentameter, doesn't mean you're Shakespeare. As we now know, everyone has an opinion, but only a small number are actually relevant.


16: Gaming's on the move

It wasn't just games journalism that was changing, however. Gaming devices were also changing. In 2003, Nokia released its N-Gage, followed by the Nintendo DS and Sony's PlayStation Portable in 2004.

Of course, Nintendo had been making portable consoles for year, but despite the success of Pokemon, the Game Boy remained a kid's toy.

So while Nokia N-Gage's was a commercial failure that disastrously rolled on for years, the DS crossed over, becoming a device for all the family. Even granny picked it up to play Sudoko or Dr. Kawashima's Brain Training.

This might not have seemed like much, but I remember thinking how significant it was at E3, the industry's big conference in Los Angeles in 2005. Sony had just announced the PlayStation 3 and Microsoft the Xbox 360, but Nintendo had set up pods from which you could download demo games to your DS. It was the first time people were bringing their own consoles to the show and accessing new games.

Something new was happening.


17: The fall and rise of Pocket Gamer: 2005

During this time, I remained a freelance games journalist and sometime photographer, writing for magazines such as Edge, Develop, Official PlayStation, even some proper publications such as Business 2.0 and the Financial Times.

But through the friend of a friend (those contacts again), I heard about someone who was putting together a website about these type of games. He was calling it Pocket Gamer.

Now, we can't pretend to be particularly foresighted about the rise of mobile games. The concept of Pocket Gamer was kicked around for around a year, and I only got onboard when it was agreed that as well as mobile games, we would also be covering DS and PSP. Despite pushing to be PSP editor, I ended up with the role of DS editor.


18: What we did wrong

As far as anyone of us remember, PocketGamer.co.uk officially when live in March 2006, although we didn't get Google Analytics hooked up until 1 June 2006. That day we had 3,642 page views, most of them from us.

Yet because we didn't want to launch the site without a backlog of stories, the first stories were entered into our CMS in March 2005. We almost launched in September 2005 in conjunction with the UK launch of the PSP, but couldn't work it out in time.

Yes, we wrote for a website no one could read for a year, and once people could read it, it took us another three months for us to find out if anyone was reading it.


19: What we did right

Steel Media, the company behind Pocket Gamer, was set up by six people; an assortment of games journalists plus a designer and sales guy.

We weren't very competent when it came to launching Pocket Gamer, but we have proved to be competent enough when it comes to running a company.

Within a couple of years of starting up, two of the founders left; one for financial reasons, and one for personal reasons. Yet the four of us left have continued, through highs and lows.

I think that's because we always viewed what we were doing to be more than just Pocket Gamer. That continues to be what we're best known for, but we have a numbers of other websites and commercially, we've always been about more than web advertising, although it's clearly a big part of the business.

And to that extent, we've always been aware that we're running a business. Yes, we write about mobile games, but our vision - in particular - the vision of our MD has always been much bigger. It's been about how we interact and help the entire mobile games business.


20. Advice #6: Nothing worthwhile happens without hard work

Running your own company sounds like an impressive thing. It's not. It's loads of extra work, particularly when it comes to vital but entirely boring tasks such as paying the bills, filing accounts, hiring people, firing people, dealing with emergencies at 4am, working weekends for months on end.

The bottomline is that the founders of Steel Media could have worked many fewer hours and earned more money taking other jobs, and on occasions we have been sorely tempted. But, equally, there is enormous pride in successfully setting up something and seeing it slowly build into a brand that has some level of importance and value within the wider world.

But I think that back in 2005 if we had know just how much work it would have entailed, we wouldn't have started.


21. Advice #7: Decide whether you want to work for love or money

Despite everything I've said, the main reason few people remain as game journalists - or as journalists per se - for very long is the pay is terrible. It's an easy way into the industry, but there have been months where I've worked at what on a hourly rate would be a sub-minimum wage.

Most game journalists will switch into PR, marketing or community management after a couple of years, to earn a decent salary. At Pocket Gamer, we've had people leave to Unity, the big engine company, and developer NaturalMotion, which was recently bought by Zynga for $527 million.


22. A collision of events: 2008

When Pocket Gamer launched, the mobile games we covered were Java games. You could only buy them by going to the games section on your phone and selecting from the 10 or so options your mobile operator had available.

It seems crazy, but actually it was a good business for some companies, Steel Media included.

The mobile operators didn't want to deal with small developers, so they set up deals with big publishers such as EA Mobile and Gameloft to supply their games. In turn, these billion-dollar companies spent some advertising money with the only website in the UK that covered mobile games.

Two unconnected things changed this.

One was the launch of the Apple App Store in July 2008. For the first time, this enabled any developer to upload their games to a digital store and sell direct to consumers; at least those people who had iPhones.

As we all now know, this was a revolutionary move from Apple, but it wasn't a big deal to us at the time. One of our enthusiastic writers started writing about iPhone games, but iPhones were very expensive and so it wasn't a big market compared to the hundreds of millions of Nokia phones in the market.

The other issue for us was these small developers weren't rich enough to advertise on Pocket Gamer. Our money was still coming from the big publishers selling Java games on operator decks.

As explained in The Inventor's Dilemma, we were committed to a certain business model and couldn't see how to embrace the new one.

In the end, the world economy made the choice for us. The financial crisis of 2007-2008 saw the big publishers stop all marketing of mobile games. Almost overnight, our biggest advertisers pulled the plug.


23. Waiting for a wave

In many ways, these two events were the best thing that happened to Steel Media and Pocket Gamer. We quickly downsized the company and started writing about iPhone games, after all, no one was paying for us to write about Java games any more.

In some ways, we were also lucky that the iPhone and the App Store proved to be massive success, generating plenty of cash for developers, who could then spend money on advertising.

And as it turned out, you can get more money from a lot more developers spending a lot less than a few big companies.

The other big shift was that mobile games became available for a much wider and global audience, which in turn means that pretty much every game developer in the world is now making mobile games.

To that extent, by surviving for long enough, the changes in the industry have made us successful. As the business phrase goes, "If people think you're an overnight success story, it's more likely that you're an overnight success story that it taken ten years for anyone to hear about".


24. Whatever happened to 'The New Games Journalism'?

Ironically, given my previous description of 'The New Games Journalism', when it comes to writing about games, I think this is the biggest opportunity for the games journalists of the future.

Certainly it's something that we're been struggling with at Pocket Gamer. As might be expected, our journalists are passionate gamers. They love hardcore games. They hate casual games.

However, the rise of mobile games over the past couple of years is the rise of casual games. Originating on Facebook, with the likes of FarmVille, now Candy Crush Saga is the biggest game in the world.

Our writers do not want to write about Candy Crush Saga.

Even more striking is that over the past two years, most mobile games are free. Players can buy in-game items if they want progress faster; a business model that has been massively successful.

However, not only do game journalists hate this model - called free-to-play games - because it often removes the skill element, it also makes game websites irrelevant. If something is free and can be downloaded and played within a minute, why would anyone need to see if Pocket Gamer thinks it's any good?

Flappy Bird is the best example of this.

In this manner, our current challenge is to find journalists and forms of journalism that combine entertainment and interesting information.

Our current solution in terms of written reviews has been to introduce a diary-style review, which is updated over a week of playtime. The journalists gives their impression day-to-day, only provide a score after a week is through.

Similarly, I have a column called the Promiscuous Gamer in which I list all the games I've been playing and what experiences I've had in them.

Of course, on a more general cultural level, video reviews have been massive growth area in terms of the consumer awareness of all products, including games.

Perhaps for these reasons, as a company we're shifting resources from the consumer market to a business market, which remains an area in which high levels of knowledge and industry contacts are vital and more valuable.


25. What's next?

As I've demonstrated, we really don't have a crystal ball when it comes to future events, but here are some thoughts.

The most active part of the world in terms of mobile games is China. Not only does it have a massive population, it's currently dominated by web games. Over the next couple of years, these games will all switch over to mobile. Some big Chinese companies will go bust in the process and some tiny Chinese companies will become household names in Europe and the US.

Wearable computing will be the next battlefield between Google, Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, Sony, Facebook etc. It won't be directly applicable to mobile gaming, but there will be cross-over between the two markets.

Facebook and Twitter will remain valuable companies, but the social messaging market will fragment both on a regional and demographic basis.

The most valuable up-and-coming (game) journalists will be those who have expertise in some or all of the following: video editing, presence on social media, a larger-than-life persona, the ability to be funny, a consistent and novel approach to the industry.


 

editor-at-large

A Pocket Gamer co-founder, Jon can turn his hand to anything except hand turning. He is editor-at-large at PG.biz which means he can arrive anywhere in the world, acting like a slightly confused uncle looking for the way out. He likes letters, cameras, imaginary numbers and legumes.

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jon jordan
Thanks for the comments!
Paul Flanagan
Hi Jon, thanks for relating the story. I'll suggest to my teenage boys, aged 13 and 15, that they read it. Not so much to encourage them to be games journalists (hands raised to make the warding-off cross sign! :-) ) but as a very good (and more imaginatively presented than usual) business school-esque case study on career management (work hard etc) and growing a business. All the best. /Paul
Oliver Birch Hothead Games
I really enjoyed reading that and didn't want it to stop! Respect to the skills Jon.
Fraser Ross MacInnes Product/Design Director at Danke Games
Awesome! Definitely required reading for aspiring games writers.

The thing that disappointed me the most about my time as a writer in the games world (and as an anything in the games world), was just how guarded and hostile gamers themselves tend to be - a gaggle of waring fiefdoms each with their niche passions and affiliations. There are very few enclaves of true lovers of the medium in a broader sense.

Point number two reminded me of the very first batch of Pocket Gamer reviews I did in the bad old days of jar. Almost all of them were Hentai themed puzzle games.
Matt Diener
This should be required reading for anyone looking to get into games journalism, specifically the bits about specializing, working hard, and establishing a (positive) reputation for yourself.
Tobias Piwek Senior Social Media Manager at Deep Silver Fishlabs
Thanks for the great article, Jon. It's a very informative and inspiring read that beats down the past couple of years on quite a few levels, from your progress of your personal career to the major changes in games journalism to the overall progression of the industry.
Dave Mitchell Games Designer at Two Tails
Deep stuff, great read :)
Simon Byron
Really enjoyed this, Jon. Looks like it will have been an invaluable presentation for those that were there.
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