The Jones Report: It's Hard Out There for a Game Journalist
Not too long ago a publicist/marketing type reached out to me privately and asked me to reconsider a review score that I'd given to his company's game. Yes, this person was asking me to tack a few points onto my score, because he felt like I hadn't been entirely fair to his title.
If you've ever wondered if this sort of thing happens, now you know.
This PR/marketing person explained that he and "the team" were upset not necessarily with my score, but rather with how my score impacted their game's Metacritic score. My score was low enough to sandbag the game's overall Metacritic score to -- get this -- below a 90. Anything below a 90, or nine out of 10, apparently is considered a marketing failure these days.
I did the right thing and referred him to my editor. The editor stood by the score, as editors do. End of story.
Then it happened a second time. Another PR/marketing type reached out to me with the same request from a completely different publisher, again for Metacritic-related reasons.
"Stop pointing that magical flashing gizmo thing at me, damn it!"
After 10 years in this business, I've had game developers howl at me, expressing their disappointment in a review of mine. I get that. It's personal for these guys. They work on a game for years, they live and breathe it; who am I to come in and say critical things about it? But PR and marketing people? It's a brave, new world.
One publicist quietly went away. But the other -- let's call him "Don" -- started to argue with me via e-mail, stating at one point: "Look, I'm not going to blacklist you for this, but I think you really needed to look more closely at this game."
And there it was. The most dreaded word in all of game journalism.
After a decade in this business, after years of working with this particular publisher and with Don personally, does the term "blacklist" really need to be invoked? Is that necessary?
After going back and forth with Don, the argument petered out, the review score stands, and the Metacritic rating for this game remains something that Don and his team are still disappointed in.
Yes, this is more evidence that Metacritic, that great equalizer that presumes that all reviewers perceive the world from a single, universal point of view, is unhealthy for the medium. I know that stakes are high these days. Games cost a ton of money to make. The marketplace is crowded. I get all of that. The logical extension is that the screws are being turned on public relations and marketing people to deliver a certain Metacritic ranking. If they don't, they get heat.
Don got heat. And he passed that heat onto me.
Reviewing games is a privilege. It's something anyone reading this, at one point or another, has no doubt fantasized about. It's like being a beer taster, or a research-and-development person for a toy company. It is still genuinely shocking to me sometimes that I can make any sort of living doing this.
For years I scraped by, writing free reviews for sites like GameCritics.com in the evenings while working as a low-level editor for a rotten magazine during the day. Sure, I earn a steady paycheck now -- bless you, Uncle Crispy -- but I'm still a long way from what most people would describe as "doing well." Before I worked for CG, I was earning between 15 and 20,000 dollars a year as a game journalist. That's below the poverty line in New York City.
With the ongoing collapse of print media, and the vagaries of the Internet -- prices for blog posts, features and reviews can pay between zero dollars up to many thousands of dollars -- no one seems to know what a piece of writing is worth on a dollars-and-cents level. There are no parameters, no guidelines; there never really have been any.
Playing a game and writing about said game is a massive, time-consuming endeavor. On average, a game takes 10 to 15 hours to get through, give or take another hour or two for multiplayer. Tack on an additional two or three hours to write about said game, and now you're easily approaching the 20-hour mark. And forget massively-multiplayer online games. Word of advice: Never agree to review an MMO. Don't even think about it.
"Wow, this game articulates something unique about what it's like to be a septuagenarian."
For the reviews I referred to earlier, I was paid a total of $50 each. That's 20 hours of work for $50, or $2.50 per hour. Over the years, I've made less than this. Far less. I once received a check from a magazine, more than a year after writing the review, for $15. These days, you're usually lucky if you get paid at all for your work. I've had countless publications over the years either fold before they could pay me, or else make it so difficult for me to get paid that I eventually stopped pestering them with phone calls and emails and conceded defeat.
If you're considering a career as a game journalist, think about this: You might or might not get paid $50 for 20 hours of work only to 1) typically receive a string of venomous reader comments that usually question your sexuality, your sanity, your sobriety, your ability to do your job, and/or all of the above; and 2) receive a browbeating from people like Don who feel the need to tell you that they aren't going to blacklist you because you ruined their game's Metacritic party.
So I shouldn't have been surprised when, at PAX a month ago, I bumped into one of game journalism's most familiar faces. He gave me a hug, then strode into a nearby booth and positioned himself behind the counter separating the back of the booth from the front of the booth. With this stretch of counter between us, I thought, "Man, he must really be close with these PR people. Look how comfortable he is in this booth." Then he handed me his business card.
His new title: Business Development for Publisher X.
Ready for another shock? Those two PR/marketing types who reached out to me? Both are former journalists.
Faces are disappearing from the journalism side at an alarming rate. Publications are folding. Writers are more financially vulnerable than ever. I have many colleagues, goddamn good writers, who have sought out menial jobs just to pay the bills. Example: One prominent member of the Game Trust recently took a job as a fact-checker at a fashion magazine to make ends meet.
I realize I probably sound like an old fool saying this, but there is a craft to writing about games. And that craft only comes from having years of experience; from rolling up your sleeves, paying your dues, and honing your critical instincts. Yet our oldest, most valued craftsmen and craftswomen are slowly being exiled. Those mature voices need to be celebrated, not marginalized. These are the people who are old enough to remember the Atari 2600. These are the people who defined the very vocation from which they can no longer make a living.
Just look at us, with our crappy basement apartments and our old sneakers. Look at our cheap haircuts and threadbare T-shirts and our cut-rate cat food for our cats. Worse still, I feel for the unfortunate men or women who fall in love with us. As a whole, game journalists are sorry lot, and we're getting sorrier all the time.
Pictured: Future editor of Kotaku.
I know the line behind us is long. There is an army of bloggers and tweeters ready to step into our roles. No one is questioning their enthusiasm or passion for the medium. But these people still need experience; they need seasoning; they need to grow up. We need adults filling these roles, not inchoate 20-somethings anxious to declare that Modern Warfare 2 has "the best graphics ever."
At a time when games are growing up, when the medium is getting more sophisticated and adult, we are losing our most sophisticated and adult critics. We are losing our most articulate voices.
The darkest thought of all? What happens when you don't have 10 years in this business; when you're new to this business, and you get a call from Don, and Don complains about your score on Metacritic? If you're new, and the word "blacklist" gets tossed your way, wouldn't it be more than a little tempting to placate Don?
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