INSOMNIA

An Insider's Account of the Videogame News Racket

By Fishie / December 16, 2017

The following is a quick translation (from Dutch) of an article I wrote in 2007 for BeNeLux media. The article got me blacklisted for years by a number of media outlets and publishers. (I knew this would happen before publishing but decided to go ahead with it anyway). As I prepare my exit (as a full-time writer anyway) from the games industry I decided to publish it in English as well since over the years a number of industry people have asked me to read it in a language they can actually understand.


When I first started to notice the games press, the magazines I checked at newsstands (I couldn’t afford to buy them) consisted mostly of simple information and hacks for commercial software. Magazines like CVG had entire pages filled with code to add a new level to a game or even get an entire game for whatever machine the code was published for. As the games industry matured, however, after the wild west days of the late '70s and early '80s, so did the games press.
   From underground magazines and fanzines the games press evolved into professional magazines that essentially still did what they always had done: Inform the reader about games. What had changed however was the fact that they became professional and profitable parts of the big magazine publishers who invested in them. Gone were crude hand-drawn graphics and barely readable writing and in came professional lay-outs and professionally edited articles. The publishers and their commercial departments didn’t care much about the editorial content because the magazines brought in profits worthy of the investments they had made. As such the late '80s and early '90s could be seen as golden years for the games magazines where the editorial wasn’t constrained by just the domestic markets but included hefty amounts of import coverage and even things like console modding et cetera.
   And then there was Gamefan. When Gamefan magazine appeared on the market there was a certain amount of disillusion with a large segment of videogame aficionados the world over. Commercial pressure by game publishers and hardware developers towards the magazine publishers made the latter cut back on coverage of niche and import games. Many gamers felt left out by the mainstream magazines because of this and for them Gamefan magazine felt like Manna from Heaven. After all here was a magazine that was seemingly giving them exactly what the mainstream magazines had taken away. What they failed to realize however was that Gamefan magazine brought in a new era of exactly that which they thought to be rebelling against.
   Gamefan magazine started out as Diehard Gamefan (DHGF), a magazine published by Dave Halverson to push the import games he was selling in his Diehard Gamefan store. The readers of course didn’t realize there was such a huge conflict of interest and continued to buy the magazine to rebel against the mainstream magazines which they felt had squandered their credibility by caving under publisher pressure. As Gamefan magazine grew however it too came in the spotlight of and it too caved under the pressure to provide more coverage to those hard- and software companies that advertised in the magazine. This culminated in a huge and semi-public spat with game publisher Working Designs where Vic Ireland from WD felt shortchanged and decided to pull all advertisements from Gamefan. It worked so after a lot of lost advertisement revenue from Working Designs and a few other publishers Dave Halverson caved in and published a Maxi Mea Culpa apologizing for the content about WD they had published before. And thus ironically the magazine gamers bought because they felt shortchanged by the mainstream magazines accelerated the erosion of editorial freedom.
   For the hardware manufacturers and publishers this was of course great news as now they realized that yes their PR companies could in some cases DIRECTLY dictate the content of some magazines. A new era had begun. And it was not just the meddling of PR departments with editorial content that was hurting the magazines, it was a new era as well because there was this little thing manifesting itself called THE INTERNET. Game magazines now were attacked on two fronts: On one hand you had commercial departments pressuring them for coverage that brought in more money, and on the other hand there was the internet where literally thousands upon thousands of upstarts were screaming to the world and demanding to be heard. Some magazines sadly could not stand this onslaught and turned into nothing more than thin pamphlets where selling advertorial content became their only modus operandi, most of which didn’t survive.
   As the influence of online media grew however there too the influence of commercial PR departments grew. This gave some magazines the opportunity to regain some of the independence they had lost in the preceding years. This was never so true as was the case in 2000 when the internet crash happened and many outlets both small and big without any form of real income found venture capitalists stop their funding. Almost overnight the entire internet became a different place and this too was true for online games media. What remained after the bubble burst and the rubble was cleared were two extremes: The really big sites that survived and the really small ones maintained by game fans with more time then sense.
   The magazine publishers and the remaining online media thought that the darkest days were over, because they had weathered the storm and came out stronger. Those who survived were big enough and had nothing to fear from small independent sites and fanzines; after all it was the surviving big boys who received the press releases, reviewable content and invitations to check out the next big budget thing on location. Most magazines and online media outlets were quite happy with this new reality where they could coexist and where exclusive content by the publishers was neatly divided between the magazines and websites. Every now and then there were small ripples when a smaller site who didn’t sign an NDA uncovered things, or when some disgruntled employee leaked things that were meant for a certain outlet, but hey those things can happen.
   You can’t check up on and control thousands of people ALL of the time and sometimes someone will leak information which has not been cleared yet. Recently for instance a Brazilian freelancer figured out the Ziff Davis passwords for their media FTP, found the assets for SF4 and leaked them before the deadline agreed to between EGM/1UP and Capcom. But as I mentioned, these things can happen and the surviving and growing media outlets entered a few years of relative ease, a calm moment to breath considering the years that had preceded. The influence of the commercial departments and hard- and software companies however remained, and all involved looked like they had settled at some sort of status quo.
   While this was going on, however, silently a new problem for the surviving outlets threatened to destroy this status quo: The smaller independent websites that all but disappeared in the 2k/2k1 internet crash were making something of a comeback and they did not come alone. They were joined by a relatively new phenomenon on the internet: Blogs. Meanwhile the big sites like IGN and GameSpot were growing so big that they became interesting and profitable enough to be acquired by huge media conglomerates (IGN for instance is owned by Fox while GameSpot is part of CNET). The smaller sites and blogs most often had no direct connection with the heavyweights from the videogame industry and thanks to their independence (or in some cases stupidity) they often sang a different tune then the megasites and magazines.
   The biggest problem for the industry giants was an event called E3 (no introduction needed): E3, after nearly imploding after 2k1 (the internet crash) when hundreds of exhibitors went bankrupt, was growing again and remained an event where every industry professional needed to either exhibit at or report on. Companies like Microsoft, EA, Sony et cetera every year spend tens of millions to exhibit their wares and throw wild parties with world renown bands and free booze and food et cetera, yet many of them felt they saw very little return on investment compared to the huge amounts of money they threw at their E3 presence.
   The event was costing the big guys tons of money yet the press they got out of it could not be controlled by the PR departments: EA for instance had been complaining to ESA, the organizers of the expo, for years and had been threatening to pull out of the event. EA as the world’s largest third-party publisher each year spent way north of ten million dollars at E3 yet most of the coverage they received was not favorable. Tons of small and medium-sized sites at E3 did not have direct relations with EA, so they could color their reporting either way, and the big sites and magazines could not afford to set their EA favored editors on covering their E3 presence because then their reporting would be too positive compared to the overwhelming majority of reports coming out of the event.
   Eventually EA and all other big publisher thought they had found the solution by deciding to show more and more things behind closed invitation-only doors so that they could better control the message that went out. The message was simple: you have been favorable to us in the past so you can see what we have; we don’t know who you are or you have written negative things about us and the door remains closed. Pressure was applied to ESA as well to allow fewer fan sites and freelancers into the actual event. And then 2k6 came along and it was as if a big bomb had exploded.
   After a disastrous press conference that would continue to haunt Kaz Hirai ( FIVE HUNDRED AND NINETY NINE DOLLARS, GIANT ENEMY CRABS, ITS RIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIDGE RACER), Sony decided it had had enough and sat around the table with the aforementioned EA and a few others and together they decided to destroy E3 as we knew it. Without their support E3 as we know it was financially impossible and thus these brothers in arms destroyed E3 and turned it into a small-scale event which can only be entered by the grace of the publishers.
   Invitations for editors were compiled by lists made by videogame publishers, making the editors entirely dependent on the companies exhibiting. If you are not a big enough name in media, and you have been critical about some companies, you could kiss your invitation goodbye. Don’t get me wrong, there was a lot wrong with the E3 of old: Too crowded, too much show, filled with money-wasting decadence and YES too many people who have no business being there. The other extreme we have fallen into now however has killed the one opportunity where completely independent people could go to in order to form their own opinions.
   The invited press, megasites and magazines can now again be better controlled and have become even more dependent on those they have to write about. Mission accomplished in other words. Be negative and the information stream you rely on and which your consumers want to read WILL be cut off and despite the fact that most editors do whatever they can to be unbiased it remains something that can influence them subconsciously.
   Locally here in the Benelux you have Gunk magazine quote me prices on selling their cover, Power Unlimited, who lets all their Nintendo content be handled by well-known fanboy Jurjen Tiersma, and Official PlayStation Magazine, which only exists by the grace and money Sony provides them. When you have these three local magazines be the first three in the world to review Assassin's Creed and all three give it the highest scores possible (with OPM even taking swipes at Uncharted in their review), while simultaneously running Ubisoft competitions and lots of exclusive Ubisoft info, you KNOW there is something more going on. Especially when one considers that Raf Picavet (universally seen as one of the most important persons in Benelux games media) months earlier was almost begging Ubisoft PR during Leipzig games convention to simply get access to the game for his freshly launched Chief Magazine.
   Don’t misunderstand me though: I am not claiming these magazines and editors have been outright bribed by Ubisoft, because that is something I categorically deny. There are no lump payments of cash from PR departments to the editors or the magazines in order to directly influence what they write. It works much more subtly than that and often it's a complex series of actions that are designed to try and shape the way editors write about certain games and handle certain content from certain publishers. In the end though it all boils down to what negative things you have written about a company and what positive things you have provided and might provide for them in the future.
   And even when your coverage is not negative, an editor, magazine or online media outlet might find itself on thin ice. When your coverage, even if it is positive, is not in line with what PR departments want, you can expect repercussions: As I was walking around Microsoft’s private X06 event in Barcelona I noticed that Jean-Francois Mammet was not present. Jean is the owner of the French website Gamersyde and I was expecting to meet him there. After the event I talked with him and he sadly had to tell me that Microsoft had revoked his invitation because a week prior he had set up a webcast of Microsoft’s TGS press conference, a press conference he had thought he was allowed to cover.
   For Jean this was a big disaster because while the website is now multi-format, back in those days it used to be known as Xboxyde and provided Xbox 360 coverage exclusively. Microsoft's message to him was simple: walk within the lines we have drawn for you. His readers of course had no knowledge of this and for them he was at fault for failing to provide the coverage he had promised them beforehand and which they had come to expect from him.
   The readers then (yes most of you who are reading this right now) are just as guilty for the state the games press is in as anybody else. The fanboys on all sides don't want nor demand honest reporting: You want us to validate your opinions and anything else we do you see as a personal insult. A friend of mine, Christian Nutt, was the first person allowed to review Fable for the magazine he wrote for back then (GMR). He scored the game a respectable 8 out of 10. Yet Molyneux fanboys, going by the insane hype and promises made for the game without ever having touched it, decided that this was a low enough score to send him death threats.
   I myself received my fair share of threats as well when I wrote that the CG show Sony put up at E3 2K5 was exactly that: A CG show, yet Sony at their press conference had declared it ALL GAMEPLAY so I deserved to die. The same thing happened later in 2005 when I was doing a round of interviews with Japanese developers. I posted on an internet forum that a spring 2006 release simply would not happen because neither the hard- nor the software for the PS3 were anywhere ready to go live. Two days later I am back home and the threats kept coming, calling me a fanboy, an affront to journalism, I should just kill myself because I am not worth being killed et cetera. Yet in these two examples both Christian and I did exactly what we are supposed to do: he gave a score he felt the game deserved and I reported what I knew was true. But it is not what you want to read and that too is part of the problem. And that is how we end up with cold and grey tasteless porridge where the only games that receive a trashing in the press are those which we don’t have to fear a PR company or reader backlash from, a policy designed to please both the companies publishing videogames and the expectations of the public.
   Some of you at this point might think, "Isn’t there anyone out there who can be fully independent and commercially viable; someone who doesn’t take that crap?" Well the short answer is NO, a longer answer is no because No because many have tried and only magazines like Continue in Japan have survived. In Holland we had Hoogspel, the oldest Dutch games magazine, close down in 2000 (you can read why on their frontpage [ > ]; for the non-Dutch-speaking people, they basically say the same things I do here; I might translate it if people care) because they refused to play ball. The thing with Continue in Japan however is that they do advertise new games, they just don’t review them. Instead their entire focus is old and import games. In fact it was their championing of GTA3 that made that game the most imported one in Japan and which convinced Capcom to pick it up for domestic release. So yes they can be honest and commercially viable because they do take in ads for new games but simply do not write about them, that and contrary to many Japanese game mags which are weekly or bi-weekly they are a monthly magazine.
   Starting a new magazine or website that writes about current games and is entirely independent is simply impossible because you rely on the videogame publishers for your preview and review code, you rely on PR companies to get access to the developers of the games you write about. In short, in order to deliver news, previews and reviews in a timely manner we have to rely on them every step of the way. And our troubles don’t stop there because when we are late with a review because we pissed off a game publisher previously or whatever reason, you the reader gets pissed at us as well. You also don’t want to read that your favorite game sucks, that its features were stolen wholesale from another better game that didn’t sell. You will get angry at me if I would dare trash MGS4 and call it a pile of pretentious bullshit, you simply do not allow us to have an opinion that might stray too far from yours. Yet at the same time you have the gall to look down on mister and missus casual gamer as inferior creatures because they are not HARDCORE like you and they DON’T UNDERSTAND GAMES like you do. How dare they play those Wii games just to kill some dead time between real life tasks. No you just want us to validate your own opinions and if they differ too much from yours we are clearly WRONG.
   "Who the hell do you think you are?", some of you are thinking at this point. Well I am Ali and I have been playing games since the '70s, and since the early '90s in some capacity or another I have been involved in the videogame industry. Sometimes as an outsider when I was doing videogame retail and wholesale for instance, and other times as an insider like I am now. The last few years I have had the pleasure of conducting interviews with some of the biggest names in the industry OUTSIDE of the framework of a current title, as most interviews are just PR-affairs designed to push an upcoming game.
   I have had extensive chats with people like Yuji Naka, Shigeru Miyamoto, Mark Rein, Alexey Pajitnov, Yuzo Koshiro, Tomonobu Itagaki, and countless others. I asked them the hard questions and afterwards posed with them while giving them the bunny ears (V sign behind their head). For PR companies I am not interesting because giving coverage for the next title they need to push is not what I do. I provide depth and backgrounds, I ask the questions others don’t or are not allowed to ask (and even then I am not always allowed to publish). The PR companies over here rarely if ever invite me to their events and I get forced to talk with personal contacts abroad to get the info I could have gotten locally in the first place.
   I fully understand their reasoning though: Why invest time in me, someone who does not provide them bulletpoints for the next job evaluation they will undergo to see how well they did their jobs, or increase how many mentions they managed in the magazines and websites or how many magazine covers they could score for their next (deservedly or undeservedly) big game. What matters for PR companies is to push their games as hard as they can and preferably with a neat plan that increases the hype as time goes by, not just for the readers but towards us in the press as well. In that regard we from the press (all of us) and the actual developers of the games are elements that can mess up their neatly organized PR campaigns.
   And for that they hate us: They invite us to lush parties with food and booze to push the big titles yet they can't directly control what we write, which proves again that we are NOT in their pockets as some of you seem to believe. If we were they wouldn’t go trough all the trouble of setting up those events, it would be much simpler then. If you want to bribe someone you give them money and you say here is some cash and my game is a 9 out of 10. The simple fact that they go to great lengths at the events they organize is proof of and in itself that outright bribing simply does not happen. The developers too are hated because they might do something silly like change features in a game that PR was hyping or (God forbid) delay a game because they feel it is not ready to go live yet, as things like that might mess up their neat little plan for promoting said title.
   Wow I just checked and I have already written well over 3000 words yet I feel like I have only scratched the surface as the problems the games press are facing are way bigger and more complex than I have written about here. Maybe best if I end this with a few examples of media misbehavior that most people have no knowledge about.
   IGN, as the biggest games media site out there, has this thing called gamermetrics (there are others with similar software) which is used as a marketing tool. What it does is look at and analyze the behavior of gamers online, on websites, in forums et cetera. The gathered information is then used to market products and ads. In that regard for IGN a forum post with recurring words that push a certain thing becomes far more profitable than any article, review or interview they publish. Big Brother is not just watching you, it's analyzing your movements, actions, words and then sells the data so it can be marketed back to you.
   EDGE is a universally respected magazine but even they have made grave mistakes and have been abused by commercial departments in the past: The mid '90s are closing in and future publishing (publisher of EDGE) is in a huge fight with EMAP (a publisher no longer involved in games media) who has good relations with and publishes single-format magazines of Sega and Nintendo. Along comes Sony and they make it clear that they wouldn’t mind one of them to publish an official PlayStation magazine to complement their upcoming entry into the console business.
   Knowing that EMAP is already close with Sega and Nintendo, Future decides that they need to do whatever they can to make sure EMAP does not get the official PlayStation license. and thus EDGE is abused to hype the PlayStation to high heavens and downplay Sega every chance they get. When both machines release in Japan immediately all sorts of excuses are used to downplay the fact that the Saturn was actually selling better then the PS, and they start to circulate rumors that Sega will release a new Saturn that will have similar power to the PS (making the first version obsolete). Game reviews too are used to hype the PS over the Saturn and thus they declare Ridge Racer to be arcade-perfect and the fact that it has only one track to be no problem at all. Sega Rally on the other hand is ugly and with its paltry three tracks (nevermind the fact it has four) has not enough content. Mission accomplished, Future scores the OPM license.
   If you think that example is a bit too light take the EDGE mantra from those years: The bible of gaming, the most authoritative reviews in the industry, we only review finished software et cetera. And along comes a game called Turok 2 and attached to the same issue the game is reviewed in is an advertorial pocket magazine which obviously was paid for by Acclaim and which features content apparently written by EDGE staff. The review of Turok 2 in the actual magazine is filled with praise and superlatives about how good the game is so after reading it one was left wondering why the game ONLY received 9 out of 10 instead of the perfect 10 it clearly deserved (up to that point only Mario 64 had ever received a perfect 10 from EDGE). Thing is (not even taking into account the advertorial magazine) there was a little problem: at the time the EDGE review appeared in the magazine, the game still had four months of development to go. What was that about not being influenced by game publishers, bible of gaming, our reviews are gospel truth et cetera?
   The biggest games magazine in the world is an American one called Game Informer. With over three million readers it is more then twice the size of EGM, which is better known here. Just like Gamefan with which I started this article, Game Informer started out in the early '90s. It used to be a mini-magazine that was given away for free in what was then the Funcoland stores; these days the magazine is owned by the biggest games retailer in the world, a behemoth called GameStop which under its various brands owns more then 5000 retail outlets all over the world. It is always bad for the consumers when the same company that sells you a product is the one that unbeknownst to most owns the media that writes about said product. The editors there mostly do a great job staying independent but controversy was stirred when in 2004 one of them said what he shouldn’t have. Quote: "When reviewing a game we have to take into account how well it will appeal to the masses." In other words, if the game will sell well anyway but might sell better for GameStop with a better score feel free to turn that 8 into a 9.
   In Japan, Enterbrain's Famitsu magazine is the biggest and the easiest one to get high scores from, at least if your company name is either Square Enix or Nintendo. Some companies have agreements with Enterbrain that dictate certain scores for their games and the only thing the editors can do is hand their scores and be creative in what little they are allowed to write about said games. So when Square Enix was preparing to release Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII, the editors of Famitsu had a huge problem on their hands. Here is a game that can best be described as a festering bug-riddled corpse (believe it or not but the release we got in the West, while still being unplayable shit, was hugely improved upon from its original Japanese release), but they are obligated to give it at least four sevens because that’s the minimum for any Square Enix game.
   At that point the writers for Famitsu became creative and while they usually have their reviews ready a few days before a game releases (perfectly possible because they are a weekly magazine), the release of the game came and went with no review published. The week after that still nothing, one week later and the game was still not reviewed. After three weeks, and I am sure a lot of pressure from Enterbrain and Square Enix, the editors of Famitsu finally saw fit to review the game. While there was criticism in the texts of the review it still scored its mandatory sevens and thus netted a Famitsu silver award. For the Japanese customers it was obvious Famitsu did what they had to and by waiting three weeks with their review the sales of the game had already dropped dead thanks to the mouth to mouth trashing it received from the public, so by the time Famitsu reviewed the title they knew their Silver award would no longer matter at all.
   Andrew Vestal, an ex-games journalist who back then lived in Japan, in my opinion said it best when he wrote: a 7/7/7/7 game delayed THREE times from the official release date sends a different message. It admits you're the publisher and we're the Japanese press and we have to do what you say, but we're not even going to pretend there's a single person out there who could like this piece of shit. You're getting the lowest possible score from all of our reviewers that still nets you your Silver award.