Is It Possible to Make a Good Video-Game Publication?

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Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty images

Wenner Media, the publishing company that owns Rolling Stone and Us Weekly, among other magazines, announced this morning that it would soon launch Glixel, a site dedicated to covering video games and the people who play them. It makes sense from an editorial perspective — games are increasingly sophisticated and the industry increasingly important; there’s a lot of opportunity for smart criticism and reporting — and from a business perspective: The gaming industry is enormous and only growing; its audience is young and primed to consume.

But for what seems to be such fertile ground for publishing companies, there aren’t many examples of wildly successful outlets for gaming journalism and criticism. That’s in part because video games are relatively new, of course — but it’s also because video games, with their young and connected audience, are at the vanguard of a mass culture that’s increasingly uninterested in institutional third-party publishing. And anyone who wants to make a gaming site is going to need to reckon with that.

Since the first gaming magazines in the 1980s, video-game media has been governed by the same rules as any other enthusiast press: It’s generally driven by the big companies whose products are its main focus; news is made via press release (and the occasional leak); developers rarely speak to the media without PR handlers; and receiving games before they hit store shelves is generally predicated on playing ball with the companies who make them.

This isn’t new, and it’s different from its enthusiast-press cousins in tech and entertainment only in degree, not in kind. What changed with the advent of the web was the sudden realization that there was an enormous audience for just about any kind of information about video games, no matter how small-bore or how stage-managed. Just as many entertainment and gadget blogs found success in the late 2000s and early 2010s pumping out a steady stream of publicist-controlled updates and information — small nuggets that wouldn’t have made a daily paper — so too were websites like Joystiq, Kotaku, and Destructoid (to name three large gaming blogs) able to build success off of an audience that wanted every single morsel of info that companies would put out.

But eventually, gaming companies realized that they could step around the press and go directly to the consumer. Why rely on outlets that proclaimed even a small amount of independence when you can control the entire presentation? So studios and hardware companies started to publish announcements directly to Facebook (rather than on the pages of friendly outlets) or to unveil trailers on YouTube. The annual Electronic Entertainment Expo, when companies make their biggest gaming announcements, has seen an upheaval in the last half-decade as publishers and developers realized they no longer needed to use the press to reach prospective buyers.

Nintendo, for example, no longer produces an elaborate stage show for its announcements — it simply puts out a video stream, known as Nintendo Direct, every few months. Likewise, heavyweight publishers like Electronic Arts (the Madden franchise) and Activision (Call of Duty) have pulled out of the event. Gaming companies have steadily realized that, quite honestly, they don’t need the press. Websites that gained an audience as game-company conduits are experiencing an identity crisis. E3, which is officially an industry trade show, has even recognized the need to go directly to the consumer, and is organizing its own event for the general public.

Perhaps the biggest upheaval has been in concert with the rising popularity of gaming livestream service Twitch. Gamers who want to know about a video game no longer have to read about it and imagine the experience; instead, they can watch someone do so at length and in real time. The Let’s Play format (and the steadily lowering technical barrier of its production) has caused some sites to retool substantially. Two years ago, Gamespot laid off a significant portion of its editorial staff in order to shift toward more video content, and Polygon underwent a similar retooling of its video department around the same period.

If this story seems broadly familiar, it’s because it’s happening in the early stages all over the media industry: former subjects of coverage have found that they can access their target audiences directly, via social media. New platforms have allowed consumers earlier, and cheaper, access to the products that were once the subject of much-needed buying guides. Journalists are facing a crisis of access — it’s just that it happened in gaming earlier, and more quickly, than anywhere else.

Gaming journalism’s own crisis is made even worse by its audience. The gaming media, even before the flowering of anti-press Gamergate crusade, has always had a combative relationship with its readership. To some extent, it’s an intra-subcultural clash: The enormous audience for gaming news has traditionally been younger, and sought simpler pleasures (read: hornier), than the people producing that news. Good journalists and critics, who once felt free to take oppositional stances, are cowed by an audience that’s defensive of its favorite games and often bizarrely sympathetic to big studios. And hardcore gamers (or at least, their most vocal contingent) have generally struggled to accept that their once-outsider status is now mainstream, and that the medium is subject to — and often deserving of — criticism. That’s the fanboy mindset: publications can be simultaneously derided for regurgitating press releases, and for daring to be critical of a company’s product.

So the question becomes: What should a gaming site even be, if its potential audience is already predisposed to hate it, and its former subjects no longer need it? Some sites have decided to broaden their appeal. Polygon, which launched with dreams of producing ornate longform journalism about developers and their products, has since moved away from lengthy reporting and broadened its scope, adding film and television coverage.

Kotaku is probably the best example of this change, having shifted to a format in which writers “embed” in certain games, following their developments and the online communities surrounding them for months at a time. Editor-in-chief Stephen Totilo wrote of the strategy shift:

A game doesn’t stop being interesting once it has been released. What happens to games after they come out—what gamers do with the games they play—matters. It’s exciting. It’s interesting. It’s part of a game’s life. It’s something we should be covering not haphazardly but with an institutional intent to make it a priority.

In other words, Kotaku is reporting equally on the culture of gaming as it is on the games themselves. (And, frankly, the site’s coverage is noticeably more interesting following the move.)

This is the problem that Glixel faces. If news on the gaming industry itself is no longer a draw, then a focus on how people play them deserves greater prominence. Indeed, Glixel’s editors, John Davison, Simon Cox, and Miguel Lopez, state as much: “Meanwhile, the celebrities of gaming are no longer just the visionaries behind the most popular games, but entire cultures that include pro gamers, modders, cosplayers, bloggers, podcasters, YouTubers, streamers, artists, and musicians.”

It certainly helps that Glixel has the support of Wenner, a major media company that clearly wants to cash in on an industry expected to bring in $17 billion this year, and the name recognition of Rolling Stone (Glixel’s copy gives off the impression that it’s some sort of Rolling Stone subsidiary, rather than an independent brand). There’s still room for a luxury enthusiast outlet, for one thing; just because Sony and Microsoft can publish directly to their Facebook pages doesn’t mean they don’t also like the distance and prestige a good stage-managed feature can provide.

But the truth is that gaming journalism might actually end up better for the changes that have been undermining it. At the heart of the Glixel announcement is the fundamental push and pull between gamers, generally ahead of the curve on technological changes, and the media, which lags behind. Video on Twitch and press releases on Facebook have made those functions redundant for media outlets, and the sites that cover gaming are generally better now that they don’t have to worry about that stuff, ripped out of a PR cycle that made them complacent and reliant. It might be harder to make money off of writing about games, but it’ll also be harder to write bad coverage.