Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Interview with a legend

Johnny Wilson, the former editor-in-chief of Computer Gaming World, is one of my all-time favorite people in the game industry and one of the individuals I most respect on the planet. He's written one very good book with Rusel DeMaria on the history of the industry, and I'm hoping to get another one out of him for Castalia House.

Like a lot of the old school game industry people, Johnny is more than a one-trick pony; in addition to being a professor at DePaul University, he's also a theologian and a pastor. The whole Gamasutra interview from 2012 is fascinating, but in light of #GamerGate, I found these two answers to be particularly prescient.
Was there any moment that made you realize game journalism had finally reached the main stream?

Considering the shoddy state of mainstream journalism today (even some once-great newspapers are pure sell-outs), I guess we reached that bottom rung level a long time ago. I know that when I was editor, I had definite ideals of serving the reader, avoiding conflict-of-interest, and getting behind the corporate facades and into the real stories. The truth is that I don’t know of any modern publications—analog or digital—that have those ideals.

Do you think game reviews with percentages and stars somehow cheapened game journalism?

No, I think the desire to get the “first” coverage cheapened game journalism. In the pen and paper world, we used to talk about “shrink-wrap” reviews. I know that some of the early pioneers in the hobby game magazines would talk about popping the shrink-wrap, looking at the components, reading the rules, and writing the review without even pushing pieces around. My feeling was that European publications, because they had a more competitive environment (and efficient distribution system), rushed reviews to press. That doesn’t really serve the reader at all.

My argument with, for example, PC Gamer’s percentage system wasn’t that they used percentages, it was that an astute reader would notice that the magazine (at least, during the Gary Witta era) always had some sacrificial lamb of a product that they rated in low percentage ratings. But, if you looked at those games, a lot of them were never released in the U.S. and certainly weren’t advertisers in that publication. At CGW, we didn’t have enough editorial space to deal with games that weren’t going to be released in the U.S. So, we wouldn’t even have touched those games. On the other hand, there were times that lousy games we might have been tempted to ignore were actually advertised in our publication. If they were advertised, I felt an obligation to review them. And I had more than one advertiser yell at me that I shouldn’t treat them that way after what they had spent. I shrugged my shoulders on one occasion and said, “Ironically, I probably wouldn’t even have assigned the review if you weren’t trying to get my readers’ attention.”

But, did our star ratings cheapen our review work? No. If anything, the stars sharpened our efforts. The reviewers suggested a number of stars and the editor covering that genre was expected to defend that star rating in the general editorial [OK, “Star Chamber”] meeting where we debated the ratings. The meeting often required a half-day or more of heated discussions before we approved those reviews to go to press. We didn’t discuss the reviews among ourselves as much before the star ratings were implemented. To be honest, I resisted the star ratings for as long as possible. I wanted the readers to READ the reviews. But, the bottom line is that I just kept getting hammered by readers that we NEVER gave bad reviews when I thought it was clear that we gave bad reviews. I eventually realized that our readership was becoming younger and more casual and, as a result, we had to spell out what we really thought.

The world wide web was the death of game journalism. There simply isn’t any reliable metric to determine which site is really reliable and which journalists are legitimately trying to do their work and which are merely “fan boys” getting their dopamine fix by slamming people and using “tabloid” style headlines. It always makes me nervous when I read reviews on the web because I don’t feel like I can trust anyone to have played the game all the way through.
Go read the reviews from the older CGW issues sometime. The difference between the level of expertise and the depth of knowledge possessed by the writers then versus the writers of today is astonishing. The dirty little secret of the SJWs in game journalism today is that they don't actually know very much about games, which is why they always lean towards using their nominal game reviews and articles as a platform for non-gaming issues.

I wrote for both Electronic Entertainment and Computer Gaming World, and writing for the latter was always rigorous. Chris Lombardi not only sent my first review back to me for re-writing, but rejected an article on games as the realization of the Wagnerian concept of Total Art that later appeared in a BenBella SmartPop book. The most notable thing CGW had that most modern game sites lack was integrity.

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Anonymous Athor Pel March 11, 2015 8:36 AM  

I've recently listened to some podcasts at that had Gary Whitta on them. Funny guy. Doesn't mince words. I hope that living on the west coast of the US, in San Francisco, doesn't dull his whit or his whits.

Anonymous Ajax March 11, 2015 8:50 AM  

I always enjoyed reading CGW. It was the information I wanted in an understandable format. The other magazines were so busy and disjointed I could never get anything out of them.

Anonymous Athor Pel March 11, 2015 9:31 AM  

In reading the whole interview I got an answer to a question I've had for years.

Wilson talks about being frustrated with Ziff-Davis while editor of CGW. They wouldn't push distrubution of CGW more widely. In the outlets where they were sold alongside PC Gamer CGW sold just as well or better than PC Gamer. But PC Gamer was sold in many more places and therefore put up bigger numbers and as a consequence pulled in more advertising dollars.

Now I know why I more often bought PC Gamer rather than CGW. I usually couldn't find CGW and ended up with PC Gamer by default.

Blogger cavalier973 March 11, 2015 10:22 AM  

I still prefer Family Computing.

Anonymous Difster March 11, 2015 10:25 AM  

What video game review columns need is game play videos to go along with it. Do a video walk through, the good and the bad along with a column. Just link to the video on YouTube, it wouldn't even need to be embedded. Someone couldn't write a review that hadn't played the game if this were to become the standard.

For reviews in actual magazines, just note the YouTube channel they can see the game play at.

Blogger The Deuce March 11, 2015 11:02 AM  

Vox: I just saw ads for Castalia House on The Escapist. Well done, you sly devil you :-)

Anonymous Aeoli March 11, 2015 11:17 AM  

Good idea Difster. That's basically what the show X-Play was (is? on the teevee?).

I think Yahtzee might still have the best review format for the moment, because video games are distinguished by the sense impressions of control and feedback. Nobody does a better job of describing these than Yahtzee. "Controls are clunky and unresponsive, like a paraplegic on stilts."

Anonymous Aeoli March 11, 2015 11:21 AM  

Oops, that wasn't a direct quote, it was an example of his communication style. Analogy, sense impression, and taboo breaking.

Anonymous Aeoli March 11, 2015 11:36 AM  

Last commnt, swearz.

Examples of games made purely from the sense impressions of control and feedback: Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja, Guitar Hero, anything you could put in an arcade. These have no analogues in movies, board games, puzzles, choose-your-own-adventure books, etc., although they can sometimes be improved by the addition of narratives and such. FF3/6 would have been awful if it were *just* the RPG elements and no grand opera overtones.

Anonymous Ain March 11, 2015 11:37 AM  

Some of them do. At least one of them reads their reviews word for word to game play video, though it falls flat because the writers lack narration skills.

Anonymous Daniel March 11, 2015 11:39 AM  

Yahtzee's good for this reason: he desecrates every game, good or bad. Okay, games aren't sacred, but he attacks the core mechanic, theme and fun with unfiltered abandon. It is very different than when a "normal" reviewer hates a game and rants on it, which just seems unprofessional and is rarely funny. Instead, you get inside his play experience. His sense of boring is interesting too - not quite a match for mine, but hilarious and insightful.

That's the only reviewer I have paid any attention to in the last year until Reaxxion. Interestingly, his reviews are more likely to sell the game, good or bad, just to see if it is "really like that".

CGW actually did that, too: I still distinctly remember buying a Mideast war game decades ago that they didn't like that much because of the review (and I'm pretty sure it was a review in CGW, but it could have been something else). They were right: it wasn't that great, but their description had some unique things in it (I vaguely remember having the ability to play Russia-backed Mideast countries or something that which was a little unconventional at the time) that made it worth buying for me. It was mediocre, but I wasn't disappointed because I knew what I was getting going in.

Anonymous Athor Pel March 11, 2015 12:05 PM  

"Difster March 11, 2015 10:25 AM
What video game review columns need is game play videos to go along with it. Do a video walk through, the good and the bad along with a column. Just link to the video on YouTube, it wouldn't even need to be embedded. Someone couldn't write a review that hadn't played the game if this were to become the standard.

For reviews in actual magazines, just note the YouTube channel they can see the game play at."

You're doubling or even tripling the workload of the reviewer and possibly requiring the addition of one or more people in order to be able to produce the content you are suggesting.

Game play videos require skills beyond the ability to use FRAPS or some other video screen capture software. If you wish to give the fullest sense of the game you must control the camera and edit the resulting footage into something comprehensible and interesting to watch on its own merits. It sounds easy but it is not.

Playing a game for review versus playing it in order to show it off are two different things.

Anonymous Ain March 11, 2015 12:58 PM  

"Worth a Buy?" is a good one too.

Anonymous Sevron March 12, 2015 1:31 PM  

No. Thousands of people do this constantly, for free. It's called "Let's Play". The gameplay is the review.

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