The changing face of video game coverage

I am a child of the ‘80s and ‘90s, so I’ve seen video game coverage in its infancy, and watched as it developed into what it is today. As such, I was an active participant in the golden age of video game magazines, and I saw the shift towards the Internet in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. As I myself matured, I wanted to be a part of the fun, and over the last 10 or so years, I’ve had two or three of my own blogs and written for several independent enthusiast websites. Over time, though, it’s gotten harder – for multiple reasons. On the one hand, there’s just not enough actual jobs out there to make “chasing the dream” a worthwhile use of my time (not to mention the fact that the jobs that do exist probably don’t pay what I would need to survive). On the other, I’m just not sure that what I want to do actually fits into what the industry needs. In fact, I’d even go as far as saying that the industry isn’t really sure what it needs right now.

The Magazine Age

From the early ‘80s to the late ‘90s, magazines reigned supreme. At the time, the only way to gather information about anything related to video games was to read it in a magazine – there was just no coverage anywhere else. Sure, the information was outdated by the time you got to read it, but you know what? It didn’t matter back then, because it was still news even if you read it a month or so later. Even huge industry events like E3 initially had their best coverage in magazines – you knew they happened, but you had to wait for the next issue of your favourite magazine to come out, and all you got was a write-up and a few screenshots.

Still, this was how we lived back then – personally, I bought a new magazine every week, and read the thing from cover to cover (I regret not keeping them, as I had a great collection). Previews, reviews, news – all of this was of utmost importance, and this reflected in the content, as very little space was reserved for longform articles. This wasn’t a huge problem, because the features that were included were all top quality. Often, magazines would also include a tips and tricks section, and I even read all of that, because I CRAVED information.

And because of that – a lot of the information has stuck with me. It’s funny – there are plenty of games from the ‘80s and’90s that I still remember reading about in magazines, even though I never played them. I recall the covers, I remember the content, I even remember some of the writers (none of whom, I might point out, ever referred to themselves as “video game journalists”- not intended as a slight on anybody, but I do wonder when and where that started). Magazines were a big deal.

Later in their lifecycle, games magazines would even come with demo discs – these would contain some video content from time to time, but they were generally demos for upcoming games. This was a way to get access to some new content, and even though they were often short, it was something new and different. When the PlayStation released, it was finally possible to do the same with console games, and so magazines evolved even further.

Later in the ‘90s, as the video game market itself evolved, so too did the players. Many of us had been playing since childhood, and we were now entering young adulthood. We had big ideas, and big expectations, and we were starting to have a different perspective on the world. Magazines such as Edge took advantage of this – this was a new style of magazine, for the “discerning” reader, those looking for a magazine with a bit more style and content to it. Less advertising and more opinion. Longform over shortform. I guess this is the point where video games began to mature into something deserving of a following.

Around this time, the Internet started to come into being (OK, it had existed for quite a while by this point, but the mid-‘90s is where it started to become ubiquitous). It was still somewhat in its infancy – web pages were fairly static, and people tended to gravitate towards forums and user groups to chat, but this was a new place to find and share information. That said, people still tended to disseminate news via static newsletters, even over the Internet. For a while, magazines held onto their dominance, but by the end of the 1990s, the Internet began to take over.

The Internet Age

internet.jpg

While there were electronically published video games online from the early ‘90s, it wasn’t until the mid-‘90s that persistent websites were created with regular video games coverage. For example, both IGN and GameSpot first launched in 1996. The take-off wasn’t immediate, but that was likely due to the uptake of the Internet itself, and the slow proliferation of knowledge, but by the year 2000, video games websites were already big business, and magazines had already begun to decline.

The reality is – the Internet is virtually instant. Anything that happens can be posted online soon after the information is first discovered. The Internet therefore became the go-to place for information, because why wait 4 weeks for a magazine with information that was already several weeks old by the time you got it, when you could simply go to a website and have today’s news at your fingertips? As the Internet developed, and speeds increased, sites became more user-friendly and a hell of a lot prettier to look at. They also became easier to manage, update, and publish. Soon enough, there was no need to buy magazines because everything was available instantly on the ‘net.

Later in the 2000s, the arrival of blogs meant a couple of other introductions – for one, we saw the start of some big new names in the form of Destructoid, Kotaku, and Joystiq (RIP); and two, the possibility for independent games sites. Sure, if you wanted to, you could have built your own site prior to this, but HTML is a fickle thing, and the bigger a site gets, the easier it is to break. The blog format made writing and sharing simple –  so simple that literally ANYONE could do it.

As a result, there has been a boom in video game coverage over the last 10 years. The big original publications (IGN and GameSpot) still exist and are bigger than ever, while a couple of other sites have grown to meet them (namely Kotaku and Polygon). Internationally, there are a number of other large video game websites (Eurogamer, for example), but on top of this, and by far the majority, there are literally millions of independent blogs. Some of these have died – along with the dreams of the owner – but many plod along, trying to fish for readers in a sea of choice. Some of these independent websites do quite well for themselves, and grow a respectable readership, but many languish (you are reading one now – thank you).

The main difference between all of these sites is that the big publications hire and pay “professionals” – generally these are classically trained writers or journalists, whose job it is to search and uncover news and juicy stories – while independent sites are all staffed by enthusiasts with limited writing experience. This isn’t intended as a dig at independent sites – many of these sites have fantastic writers doing great work, and often for free. However, the point is that there is a glut of information at our fingertips – often news is covered first by the biggest sites (as they have the most manpower), and this information is then reblogged by the smaller sites, with an injection of either local info or opinionated comment for flavour. The same information, everywhere you look.

Apart from news, there’s another thing all of these sites have in common – reviews. The popularity of reviews originates from the days of video games magazines (but let’s face it, it’s human nature to rate and evaluate, particularly when it comes to entertainment). Often, the only way you could have any information about a game even after its release was to read a review. Most buying decisions were made based on reviews as a result, and magazines would dedicate almost half of the pages to reviews. While reviews are not as necessary as they used to be (access to videos, screenshots, and opinions is at an all-time high, after all), they are still POPULAR, and drive people to websites in huge numbers. People just want to see what other people think of a game – in my opinion, most of the time it’s just to see if a given publication shares their view or not (which is why I don’t believe in review scores, but that’s another article altogether). However, so many games are released these days on a daily basis that it’s impossible to cover them all. Thus, the biggest, most popular games (that are also likely to draw the most readers) are the games that get covered – and this is a staple of both the big sites and independent sites alike. Why review a game if no-one is likely to want to read about it?

With all this competition on the web, it’s hard to have your voice heard. Independent sites struggle for readership, and if you’ve ever tried to start your own website, you might have an idea as to the kind of struggle I’m referring to. But it’s a struggle for the big sites too, as they lose revenue when they lose readers – and everyone is fighting for readership. So you see many sites offering longform feature articles – much like magazines did at maturity. It would be interesting to see which angle works best – all news, all the time, or a focus on features?

All of that said, it’s only going to get harder for online publications – the gamergate movement has shown that there are a lot of readers out there that are not happy with the current situation (whichever side of the argument you sit, the underlying theme is clear). For me, even I’ve stopped reading online publications – I realised I don’t actually NEED to be inundated with news. Will I go back to gathering my news from a magazine? No, the reality is that the news finds me these days, either by Twitter or by Facebook, but I don’t see either of these as being the next big age of media. That award goes to video and podcasting.

The Content Creation Age

apps

Over the years, we’ve enjoyed a number of improvements to technology. As Internet speeds increase, alongside mobile and wifi, we’ve seen the introduction of tablets and touchscreen mobile phones. While this may have seemed like an inevitable change, it’s important to note the flow-on effect that all of this had into other technologies. Given we now all have portable computers in our pockets at all times, we now have constant access to news. Withthe Internet so readily accessible, we now have constant and immediate access to each other – via Twitter, messaging, Whatsapp, Facebook, and let’s not forget that every device also has its own camera, so we can now do video chat on demand. It really is a new world.

Much of this desire for instant access/gratification has manifested itself in other ways – at first, it started with file sharing in the late ‘90s. For a good 10 years, as technology slowly advanced, legal battles raged around the legality of file sharing, but in the end, we ended up with on-demand services – Netflix and Spotify, for example. And alongside all of this, sites developed that were targeted at allowing users to share their own creations – YouTube and SoundCloud are two examples here, not to mention the huge popularity of podcasting. Both kinds of services have boomed – premium on-demand services providing paid content, and user-created content generally supported by advertising. In addition, we’ve more recently started to move towards live services, with streaming services like Twitch allowing users to share content live – the popularity of which has likely surprised even those that championed the idea.

As a result of all of this, not only is it easier than ever to share news, but people don’t even have to read anymore. I can now download a news podcast that can give me a daily update on virtually any given topic, and listen to that while I drive to the office. Or I can search YouTube for a video review of the latest game. Or I can just watch someone play it. For hours on end.

You have likely heard of Pewdiepie, one of the early YouTube celebrities. During his heyday, it was said that he made up to 4 million dollars per year, just making silly videos about playing video games. And all of this was simply due to the sheer VOLUME of people that watched his videos. As a result, anyone with a video camera and a computer (OK, it’s a little more complex than that, but you get the picture) can share a video to YouTube. This has resulted in around 300 HOURS of video being uploaded to YouTube every minute. Yep – far more than can ever be watched.

YouTube is therefore a new front, with content creators (as they like to be called) all vying for viewers, and often using sneaky techniques (for example, there are several popular Destiny content creators that share daily news videos – even when there’s nothing new to share – and often these are given hyperbolic titles such as “AWESOME new update” or “Finally – something we’ve all been asking for” but contain little to no real content).

And on top of all this? Twitch is slowly and silently becoming a behemoth. Here, streamers can share whatever the hell they like – cooking, dancing, painting, music making, or video games, for example. And people can watch. Or they can pay money to subscribe. Or they can cheer, using virtual currencies that they pay for using real currency. It’s big business, and therefore a NEW new frontier, with many streamers able to quit their day job and make big dollars. For example, a Twitch subscription costs $5 per month, and streamers make 50% as far as I understand it – thus they only need around 2000 subscribers to make $100,000 a year… not a bad gig. Considering some streamers have 10s of thousands of subscribers – You do the math. That’s not even including the “cheers”, which are essentially direct dollar payments. Ninja, a popular Fortnite streamer, reportedly has more than 90,000 subscribers, representing more than $225,000 revenue… per month.

Due to the money-making potential, everyone is giving it a shot. Even I’ve tried, and failed miserably. Sure – I’ve only given it a half-arsed shot, and with a bit of effort, I might even be able to make it work, but the reality is – everyone is trying. And everyone is watching.

But is anyone still reading?

Magazine revenues are dropping, and most of the big titles I used to read are long gone (long live EGM, C&VG, and Megazone). Edge and Game Informer still remain, but they try to leverage huge info scoops in order to provide impetus for readers to want to buy. The problem here is that 30 minutes after the magazine hits the stand, some YouTuber has already posted a video with all of the news content… as have the big online publications… and the independent ones… and the streamers are streaming their reactions. So where do you go to get your content? Personally, I now use YouTube more than anything else, because not only do I get the information without having to read, but I get to watch a video. I’ve also almost completely given up on reviews, because for me they just have no place in modern society when I can watch someone play a game live and make up my own mind… Or I can watch a video review and get a more accurate feel for it. And news I get from Twitter – if I want more information, there’s usually a link to some site (any site, let’s face it) where I can get the required detail.

All of that said, there is still room for the written word on the Internet – if there wasn’t, then why did I just spend all this time writing up this wall of text? Podcasting provides interaction and stream of consciousness conversation. YouTube gives us streamlined information alongside visual content. Streaming provides context. But the written form? The written word provides insight, and if you go to a page wanting to read something, then that’s PROBABLY what you’re after. You don’t necessarily just want the information (because you can get it anywhere else, and possibly in a better format), you want to know what the writer is feeling. The problem is that sometimes the way the writer feels about something conflicts with your own personal opinion, but this is the nature of opinion, and the root of larger issues.

What does the future hold?

To be honest, who knows? I’m no fortune teller, nor am I an analyst, so I really have no idea, but if I were to look to the past, I’d see that longform content always manages to make it’s mark as a medium matures, and I think we’re already seeing that in YouTube. If you disagree, and think you would never watch a YouTube video for much longer than 10 minutes, then go check out the NoClip documentaries and see what you think. You might find yourself far more interested than you expected you would be.

From here, though, the future is uncertain. I do think that video game coverage as a whole is at an impasse, though. I’m not really sure anyone really knows where they fit at this point, and everyone is just looking to find their feet. Part of this stems from gamergate, part of this stems from jealousy (why does Ninja earn $250,000 a month playing games when I don’t? realistically, he’s just another guy playing the same game I play), part of this stems from the relative immaturity of the services themselves – Twitch was only launched 6 years ago, after all. I’m sure the old guard are losing fans to the new, but in reality, the future of streaming and the ongoing reality or feasibility of such services is unknown, so everything is in a state of flux. It will be interesting to see how things progress from here, and you’re damned right I will continue to stream with random irregularity.

One thought on “The changing face of video game coverage

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s