This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #99. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.
A monthly glimpse into whatever gaming bugaboo Rob’s got on his mind.
Everybody has opinions about the videogame industry and a whole lot of them like to talk about what they “know” happens behind the scenes. Depending on who you ask, it could be a wonderland where everybody sits around playing games all day, a non-stop hedonistic party, a chill place where people hang out and talk about games but just so happen to be on a larger platform than the average player, or a criminal underworld where everybody takes bribes and rampant nepotism are as common as finding the previous year’s Madden in a bin for less than $5. Here’s the thing: All of those are accurate in some capacity, but none of them are correct in describing the industry in its entirety.
Before I launch into specifics, first, some backstory. I grew up dreaming of someday being able to write about games, in a magazine or at a website, and to one day attend E3. In 2008, I got involved with a small independent website called Crush! Frag! Destroy!, which was a good way to sharpen my reviewing skills up. It was a labor of love for all of us. That foot in the door eventually lead to writing for more “mainstream” game sites (and incidentally, me getting paid to write about videogames for the first time ever). Skip ahead to 2014 and I’m Editor in Chief of a fairly well-known mobile review site and had a brief stint covering iPhone games on another well-known website. All the while I found myself more drawn to the development side of things – not that I wanted to develop games myself, because I don’t have the patience for it, but I tended to prefer chatting with and hanging out with developers at conventions and on social media. Sometime in 2015, I even managed to branch out into games PR, hopping between a couple of places before finally settling into the part-time position I have now.
The reason I’m explaining all of this is because this background – all those years spent dreaming about finally clawing my way into the industry, somehow doing it, then finding my groove – have given me a broad perspective on more facets of what it’s like behind the curtain than most. I don’t mean to imply I know everything, or that I’m some kind of ultimate authority on the subject, but the fact of the matter is I’ve been a “gamer” for almost my entire life, have been a “games journalist” for close to a decade, spent (and still spend) a lot of time talking to game developers and have spent a couple of years doing PR. Pretty much the only perspective I don’t have is from the publishing end of things.
Gamers suck. People who play and enjoy games without being awful are awesome.
Starting with “gamers,” hooboy. Right, well, first off I hated being associated with the term well before writing a review in any sort of official capacity. As soon as I became a part of the “always on” internet (meaning no more dial-up), I saw how vile “gamers” could be. Death threats, accusing developers of being lazy, assuming reviewers who scored a game “wrong” were being paid off – that bullshit has been always been a thing, only now it’s more visible than ever thanks to social media. It’s extremely sad. I’ve met countless people over the years who love videogames and love to talk about them. Sure, there are things to criticize, as always, but plenty of people can do so without saying awful things about someone’s family or looking up personal phone numbers and home addresses. You know what? All of those decent people hate being referred to as “gamers,” too. It’s been a term associated with general shittiness for well over a decade. Gamers suck. People who play and enjoy games without being awful are awesome.
Anyway, let’s move on to writers, because that’s what I know best. People who write about games are almost universally doing it because they love them. Most games writing gigs pay very little. Depending on the outlet, the demands of a given article may far outweigh the rates. Most games writing is considered freelance, so paychecks depend entirely on output, there are zero health benefits and positions can evaporate at a moment’s notice. Games writers usually don’t get much say in what they write about, either. Most of the sites I’ve written for have been open when it comes to picking things to write about, but trying to earn decent money means writing a lot. Writing a lot means you sometimes (read: most of the time) will have to take on something you aren’t super enthusiastic about. There have been a few occasions where this resulted in a nice surprise, but more often than not, it can be a serious grind. It’s a grind I stuck with, though, because the moments I get to review something I’m looking forward to or go to a convention made it worth the effort.
Most games writing is considered freelance, so paychecks depend entirely on output, there are zero health benefits and positions can evaporate at a moment’s notice.
Of course, on top of this stress is the utter thanklessness of it, with many vocal readers often questioning writers’ integrity (among other inappropriate things) because they said bad things about a game. Or because they said good things about a game. Or because they didn’t say a specific thing about a game. Or because they said too many specific things about a game. Or because they weren’t objective enough. Or because they weren’t subjective enough. Or because the score is “wrong.” Real talk: anybody who would endure this nonsense for so little pay has to love games, otherwise they’d be doing just about anything else.
The vast majority of people who would be considered “journalists” do not, in fact, take bribes for favorable coverage and advertisers typically have zero say in editorial matters. With the latter, it’s because most outlets have separate advertising and editorial departments that don’t talk to each other, specifically so that they can avoid the situations that everyone seems to think happens all the time. With the former, I mean come on, just think about it. Do you honestly think somebody would say a bad game is good simply because somebody gave them a T-shirt at a convention? Do you seriously think all game publishers budget several grand for payments to give to various writers to try and ensure favorable coverage? No. Because that’s monumentally stupid. I’m not saying it doesn’t ever happen, because as with any industry in the world ever, it’s full of people and people are flawed creatures, but corruption is not rampant. In the entire time I’ve been writing about games I was offered payment for covering something exactly once, and both I and my editor at the time immediately turned it down. He also publicly shamed them on Twitter. There was also one instance when my boss at the time tried to get me to intentionally break an embargo date in order to get ahead of a big announcement and capitalize on views, which I absolutely did not do because I wasn’t about to betray the trust of my contact like that.
As for game developers, y’all need to cut them some slack.
As for game developers, y’all need to cut them some slack. Most of them (not the Steam asset flippers, of course) work exceptionally hard, both during and after development. Virtually nothing can be added or taken away from a game via the flip of a switch – even adjusting save systems can be a huge undertaking. And much of the time all of their efforts amount to barely any sales, virtually no “thank yous,” and a whole heap of rude (to say the least) complaints. There are others who have broken this part of the industry down a lot better than I can, so I urge you to look around a bit for yourself. Look up videos and posts about gamedev, try to understand what the process is actually like.
It isn’t just coding. Depending on the game and the team it will also involve writing and creating music, designing and implementing backgrounds/characters/enemies/items, finding ways to adapt games for completely different platforms, and so on. Then they have to get their game noticed, which sometimes falls to PR, but sometimes not, and is a whole other nightmare. The unfortunate reality is that there are some websites out there (not the ones you might be thinking of – it’s far more common with small time/independent sites than it is with popular ones) will try to prey on that desperation for coverage and attempt to charge for it. Sometimes they try to make it sound normal by calling it a fee to “expedite” the review or news blurb, but that’s complete bullshit. I can guarantee you that any website that tries to charge someone to cover their game is looked down upon by upstanding and honest writers and sites out there. Seriously, those who would try to trick people into paying them for coverage are scum.
Finally, PR. Yes, the job of games PR is to try and get people to notice games. They are, essentially, there to generate interest. As with reviewers/writers and developers, it’s not black and white. Some places will pay “influencers” (i.e. YouTubers) for coverage – not necessarily obligate them to positive coverage, but coverage in general. Conversely, some will only agree to take on a game if they themselves think it’s good (or at least marketable). The pay is better and less nebulous than writing reviews, but it’s also extremely stressful because the work comes in waves. Things could be quiet for several weeks, then suddenly it’s a mad three day scramble to generate screen shots, draft and finalize press releases, upload gameplay videos, figure out who to contact and decide how best to get even a small percentage of those who are contacted to at least open the email, let alone decide if it’s something worth writing about. On top of all this, writers often end up buried in pitches and press releases on an almost daily basis, especially if they work for a larger publication. Getting noticed is freaking hard. Sometimes keeping a client happy can be frustrating and exhausting, and sometimes that can lead to contradictory information. There are no guarantees.
It’s an industry full of people, and people are fallible.
In essence, the videogame industry is a mixture of all those descriptions I tossed out at the beginning. In my experience, it’s mostly been pretty chill and going to conventions or checking in on Slack is a lot like hanging out with buddies while talking about/playing games. Much as I wish I could say otherwise, there are predatory websites and asset flipping developers and shady PR tactics. Like I said, it’s an industry full of people, and people are fallible. But it’s not the wretched hive of scum and villainy that some want to believe. Most of the people who work in the industry do it because they genuinely love videogames. So much so that they continue to do so despite bad pay, uncertain futures, very little thanks, tons of stress and, usually a near constant barrage of vitriol .
This sentence needs to be re-written so that it makes sense. I get what you are saying here but you could say it better.
Rob Rich has loved videogames since the 80s and has the good fortune to be able to write about them. Catch his rants on Twitter at @RobsteinOne