Helpful games journalists: Stop telling the shackled to run

Do you ever get advice from someone who is qualified to give it, but you’re not capable of acting those suggestions? If so, you know it can be frustrating, if not, you can probably imagine how it might be. With an increased amount of scrunity on games journalists lately, there’s been a big focus on improving the content being produced by major video game news and reviews outlets. Some prominent writers often hand out freebie bits of advice through Twitter, blogs, and podcast, all with the hope of helping less experienced or skilled writers to raise their quality of writing.

The problem is, many of these tips are impossible to achieve for your average newcomer.

Last week, an editor that works with quite a few freelance writers began to vent a bit. Other writers and editors chimed in and either echoed statements or added to the list of dos or do nots. Some of the tips were quite helpful, such as common cliches to avoid or how to abandon old standards that make you look dated. Some tips focused on things that seem clever, but are actually annoying or disingenuous. But then some gems got dropped that left me shaking my head a bit.

One editor told writers the differentiate themselves by picking up the phone and talking to sources to get their own quotes rather than reporting on existing quotes from reports posted on sites. It’s good information, but few writers who are just getting started have the talking heads at Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft and the big publishers on speed dial. In fact, getting that information can be a bit difficult, and some companies dislike being contacted by site owners or writers that have no established history of communication. It’s a solid tip, but it’s not that helpful for a writer that lacks the resources or clout to act on it.

Another tip, well intentioned but misguided, was that small site owners need to do their own independent fact checking. Much like the previous tip, this is simply a near impossible task for small outlets. Over at Gamer Theory, we’re at the point where we can contact a publisher and get a timely response, but it wasn’t always like that. It used to be that we’d contact a company to verify something and we’d not hear anything back. If we did get a response, it would be a quick note that someone might get back to us if they get time. By the time we’d hear anything, the news cycle had turned over and the story no longer mattered.

I love that certain writers are engaging their audience and providing tips for hungry writers. It’s great that they do this, but there needs to be some recongnition as to what a helpful tip would be for someone with limited resources. At times I think we forget what it’s like to be a startup or a newcomer on the scene. We expect everybody to have the power of a major network behind them, when that’s simply not the case.

And really, those tips are still worth putting out there, but they should be accompanied with some understanding. Too often these tips are followed up with a remark that includes criticism of those not practicing them. That criticism is only fair if the writer is capable of acting on the advice, but then chooses not to. When a writer’s hands are shackled, it’s really quite rude to offer them an ice cream cone before the key.

Until we get better access to PR and industry influencers for smaller outlets, it’s time to stop expecting more from the lesser established writers out there. Yes, feed them with “tips from the pros”, but reserve the criticism for them until they’re ready to act on it. All you do is sow discouragement and make the writer question whether or not they’re fit continue writing for this industry.

The incestuous relationship between games journalists and PR

It’s something that gets talked about once in a while, but it’s always a subject that either quickly gets brushed under the rug, or it gets laughed off nervously. It’s a reality, however, and it’s the biggest obstacle in our industry when it comes to getting gamers to trust us as journalists. I’m talking about the incestuous relationship that exists between games journalists and game developers and PR.

To deny that there’s a whole lot of coziness going on between games journalists and PR is akin to sticking one’s head into the sand. As I talk about this, I’m going to name specific examples, but I’m going to refrain from naming names or companies outright. The point of this article isn’t to point out who is guilty, because the problem runs much deeper than what can be named from a few specific examples.

A few years back, a bit before the launch of the Wii and PS3, I attended a media day at a large publisher’s office. We were there to see games for the 360, Wii, and PS3, and for many in attendance it would be their first hands on with Wii and PS3 software. After the first couple of major titles, we broke for lunch. The publisher treated us to a nice catered meal, but I noticed that a few reporters left to “go get some real food” with a couple of members from the PR team. At the time it seemed harmless.

As we sat down to eat, a few guys at the table grumbled that the guys who left for lunch were getting a great free meal, but that they “typically paid it back with a glowing preview.”

I didn’t think much of it and chuckled at the comment, figuring it was more of a joke than anything. But sure enough, as embargoes lifted, the guys who went to lunch served up previews that were devoid of criticism that were also packed with bits of information that nobody else had access to at the event.

The experience caused me to open my eyes a bit to the practice. I’ve witnessed countless similar occurrences in other settings. I took a trip to cover a gaming event outside of the country once. I was treated amazingly well on the trip, but again, there was another group that had a deep familiarity with our hosts who ended up posting previews that were far more glowing and, once again, contained additional information than we were able to collect at the event.

I’ve seen the same sort of stuff take place at E3. I’ve seen it take place over Twitter. Anybody who is looking will see it, you don’t need any sort of insider access to see that certain reporters benefit from a friendly relationship with developers and PR.

These relationships aren’t some devious plan or the result some under the table dealings in most cases. The reason this happens is because we often become friends with PR or developers as a natural consequence of communicating and spending time with them. The problem arises when people find that they have an easy time talking about what they like about their friends’ work and that they struggle to criticize that same work. The issue is compounded when former journalists are now in production, and they have former co-workers handling critiques. And while I do like that some journalists often refuse to review games that they get a little too close to during development, they still do benefit greatly from increased exclusive access.

So what can be done? If the nature of the industry pushes us naturally into these positions of friendship, is there a way to avoid favoritism? If you’re on the PR side of things, wouldn’t you want those who tend to give you the best press to be the ones you trust with increased access to your products? If you’re the reporter, wouldn’t you overlook a few minor gripes in exchange for a better working relationship with your PR contact?

Well, it would take a denial of basic human nature. I don’t know that journalists are ready to fairly criticize their friends, and I don’t know that PR is ready to bestow equal access to all individuals and news outlets, regardless of how critical or kind they may be. It’s what needs to happen for us to improve as journalists, and for the games themselves to improve. Proper criticism is key to improving products.

If we truly love this industry, we’ll start doing the hard thing and start getting honest, even with our friends.

Can Kotaku repair their image with the hardcore audience?

I’ve been an outspoken critic of Kotaku over the years. I’ve refused to give the site clicks, and I’ve heard countless complaints from other gamers about how poor the coverage is at Kotaku. Normally I wouldn’t rail so hard against a publication, but Kotaku was seriously one of the shining of examples of everything that holds games journalism back from being taken seriously.

Always willing to sacrifice quality for the sake of a few extra clicks, Kotaku was notorious for putting out articles that were extremely low quality, rushed, off topic, not properly sourced when they were reporting on another site’s exclusive news, and for having a poor attitude when answering to criticism and negative feedback.

But everything is changing now. Kotaku is not the same as it was even three months ago.

Stephen Totilo has taken over at Kotaku as top dog now that Brian Crecente has left to be part of the Vox Games team and former editor-in-chief Joel Johnson is writing for Jalopnik. New faces at the site are headlined by the highly respected and likable Jason Schreirer. These changes have brought about an immediate change in the attitude at the site, and the writing has noticeably improved. The design is still a mess, but we’ll worry about that later.

In recent weeks, Stephen Totilo has shown that he’s a responsible editor-in-chief that cares about the content produced under his watch. There’s still a disposable story that slips through here and there, but the blatantly offensive or truly awful posts have been put to a stop, and when one has slipped by, Stephen has apologized via Twitter for it. It’s radical change in attitude coming from the top at Kotaku than we’re used to, and I hope people are paying attention.

For years Kotaku’s stance has always been, “we’re Kotaku, so deal with it.” Seeing Stephen opening up increased dialog is what is going to be the biggest difference for the blog. For the first time in years I’ve been willing to read articles at Kotaku, and if I don’t like what I see, I have patience because I am seeing a sincere effort by the staff to improve.

I’m curious what others think. I’ve rarely heard a good word about the site said when I’ve been sitting down with other journalists or talking to gamers who are well read in the world of gaming.

For Kotaku to turn their image around, they’re going to have to stay pushing into this new direction. It may cause their overall click count to go down, an I’m not sure how the upper management at Gawker will feel about that, but I just hope that they stay patient and allow Stephen Totilo to continue to have free reign.

Personally I’d love to see Kotaku become a respectable website in our community. The more great outlets we have, the better we are as an industry. It’s a long road back, but it looks like the driving forces at Kotaku are willing to stay in for the long haul.

Can I get an explanation here?

I’ve had my PS Vita for a little over two weeks now and overall I’ve been loving the game. I’ve already started rolling out some reviews for the games over at Gamer Theory, including my review for Hot Shots Golf: World Invitational. I gave the game a 4 out 5 star rating, which means it’s a very good game. I’ve also been downright addicted to the game since I gave it a go for the first time, but I’m also incredibly frustrated by it.

Allow me to explain.

Hot Shots Golf: World Invitational is far more deep than it appears on the surface. There are standard shots, power shots, and then there are special shots that you can execute. The game barely tells you how to do any of the three, and it’s all tucked away in loading screens or in the user manual, but even in those places it’s poorly described. And in no place does it mention that you need to level your golfer up to a certain level to use certain special shots. In addition to the different shots, there are conditions that aren’t explained very well. The game leaves a lot up to you in regards to figuring out the gameplay systems and what the visual cues mean. The end result is confusion and frustration.

At times the hole itself seems to be larger than at other times. It took a forum search to find out that there are different cup sizes throughout the game. Also, there are challenges on each course that are totally unexplained. As it tallies up your score after each round, you’ll see a bonus for completing a “Crown” goal, but you’re never told how to achieve the goal. Again, it takes some forum hunting to find out what the requirements are. Eventually these goals get explained, but not until after you’ve COMPLETED EVERYTHING ELSE IN THE CHALLENGE MODE. Silly is a nice way of putting it. Asinine is the accurate way.

And Hot Shots Golf is just a more recent example, but I’ve noticed that one area Japanese developers really fall behind is in their ability to train the player. SoulCalibur V is also light on tutorial, but then you have games like Final Fantasy XIII that hold your hand for far too long. I’m starting to see that Japanese developers are either lacking proper focus testing, or else they’re just stubborn in how they want to handle (or mishandle) tutorials.

As the average age of the gamer continues to creep upwards, and as more and more triple A titles roll out each year, developers really need to figure these basic issues out. If I have to waste time outside of the game itself to figure out how to play a game effectively by searching around forums or online guides, then the developer has failed.

How to improve the E3 Expo

E3 2011 was considerd a runaway success by just about everybody you ask. The show went smoothly, the booths were packed, there was plenty of awesome games on display, and as far as I know, nobody got hurt. So why nitpick? Well, there are some issues with E3 and I think it would be wrong not to talk about them. Here are a few ideas I have about how to improve the gaming industry’s greatest event.

Increase access to the show

I discussed how the ESA is in essence creating a closed loop by restricting access to smaller media sites a bit before the show, so I’ll keep that brief, but there are ways in which the E3 Expo could improve access to the show floor without compromising the media’s ability to work.
E3 2011 ran from Tuesday to Thursday. The press conferences generally take place on Monday and Tuesday, and a few parties last until Friday or Saturday, but the show floor itself is only open for three days. Publishers spend unspeakable amounts of money to construct their booths, only to have them up for three days. My idea would be to extend the show for two more days, but allow those who don’t qualify for media badges only to attend days 4 and 5, while days 1, 2, and 3 would be media exclusive. The media would benefit by dramatically smaller crowds during their stay, and even with one less day, the general attendees would also have a smaller crowd. The extra two days would also extend coverage of the show, allowing for some of the smaller titles to get some additional exposure. Due to thinner crowds, the ESA could relax the media restrictions enough to get smaller sites a better chance at attending the conference.

Consider a new venue

Los Angeles is actually not the most ideal city for holding E3. It’s convenient for many of the developers that live in the area, but for travelers, it’s not great. The city is expensive, it’s public transportation isn’t as good as other popular convention cities, and downtown LA doesn’t have much to offer in regards to activities besides crummy bars and some movie theaters. A city like Las Vegas offers better public transport, more hotel options, better activities, and an overall more affordable destination for most travelers. Even San Diego or the Bay Area would be better if they wanted to keep the convention in California.

Require more from official partners

The E3 Expo is a huge benefit to the city of Los Angeles, its hotels and restaurants, and local businesses. Hotels, in order to be part of the official E3 housing, should offer free Internet to their guests. My hotel, which was a very nice hotel, still charged a $13/day Internet fee. I guarantee that they’d drop that fee for E3 attendees if it was a requirement to be part of official E3 housing.
Given the huge boon to the local economy that E3 provides, it wouldn’t be hard for the expo to leverage their muscle just a bit more to help attendees get some extra perks. I’ve been to other conventions that have handled this much more proactively than E3 does.
I hope it doesn’t sound like I dislike E3, because I love going to the conference each year, but I do think it could be better. It seems that each year the show has a healthy showing and a good time is had by its attendees, but I rarely see the show organizers strive to improve the conference in a measurable way. With a few improvements, E3 could be more accessible, more affordable, and an overall more comfortable expo to attend for both media and general attendees.

The decline of Sonic the Hedgehog and his hope for new glory

It’s no secret that Sega has struggled to put out quality Sonic titles. They occasionally come out with a decent effort, but your average Sonic the Hedgehog game is disappointing these days. What once was Sega’s flagship mascot that drove the sales of millions of consoles is now the butt of many jokes by gamers, journalists, and analysts. Why does Sega struggle so mightily to get things right? Is the problem on Sega’s side, or does the issue lie with Sonic himself?

Sonic the Hedgehog released in 1991 for the Sega Genesis. For all intents and purposes, he was intended to be Sega’s version of Mario; and for a while, he was doing his job well. Sonic helped push the Sega Genesis into a position of market leadership for 16-bit consoles in 1992, placing Nintendo is 2nd place for the first time since 1985. Sonic the Hedgehog arrived with a deafening boom. And that’s the kind of entrance you needed to make in the early 1990s. You had to show up in extreme fashion for anybody to take notice. In an era of neon shorts, MTV, Hulkmania, Ninja Turtles, and the Bigfoot pizza, loud and flashy is how we wanted our entertainment. Sonic the Hedgehog was built for the early 1990s.

Sonic the Hedgehog box art
Fast and full of that '90s attitude.

Sonic burst onto the scene, allowing Sega to create their “blast processing” buzzword and usher in their newfound in your face attitude. As long as extreme was cool, Sonic had no trouble pleasing Sega fans. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and Sonic CD followed quickly after the first release, and sales were strong for Sonic 2, which saw over 6 million copies sold. Sonic CD managed to buoy the Sega CD for longer than it deserved to be around, but it wouldn’t be long before Sonic’s appeal would begin to falter. Sonic the Hedgehog 3 would release to favorable reviews, but would only sell 1.8 million copies compared to Sonic the Hedgehog 2’s 6.3 million. While still no slouch, Sonic was seeing a decline. With Sonic and Knuckles, reviews remained positive, but grumblings about Sonic’s originality were starting to surface among journalists and gamers alike.

Sega continued producing Sonic games for their consoles with mixed results until the launch of the Dreamcast when Sonic Adventure came out. Again, Sonic was back on top with reviewers and fans excited by Sega’s latest effort. The game had been successfully brought into the 3D realm, despite some glitches and unsure feelings regarding Sonic’s new friends. It wouldn’t take long for that unsure feeling to grow. Sonic’s look also got a makeover, losing his pot belly and gaining some height, longer hair, and a bigger capacity for sarcasm. In the days of waning extremism, Sega dialed up his extreme attitude a few notches.

Sonic Generations
Sonic of the early 90s (right) alongside the more modern Sonic (left).

Sonic Adventure 2 still saw favorable reviews,  but Sega did little to correct some of the issues Sonic Adventure had (camera problems, odd glitches, unwelcome extra friends). In the end, Sonic Adventure 2 would become the signpost for the series, where the sign it bears reads, “CAUTION: BUMPY ROAD AHEAD.”

I remember being at E3 2003 and seeing Sonic Heroes. I got some good time with the game on the show floor, and I left hoping that what I had just played was just severely lacking polish and that it would be cleaned up by release. The gameplay seemed interesting, but it was a technical mess. Upon release, I found that most of those technical issues were still in the game, making it a big disappointment and a an obvious misstep.

Nostalgia and good will couldn’t keep up with Sonic’s slide into the downward spiral going forward; especially when 2005 saw the release of Shadow the Hedgehog. While Sega did a good job capturing the early 1990’s in your face attitude, their attempt to get in on the mid-00’s angst and “mature gaming” movement was a misfire of epic proportions. Forcing themes of maturity into one of gaming’s most lighthearted franchises didn’t spur on new fans, it only alienated fans more.

Subsequent releases in the mainline Sonic the Hedgehog series have continued to disappoint. 2006’s Sonic the Hedgehog and 2008’s Sonic Unleashed both turned Sonic into a sad joke. Any word of a new Sonic game has since been met with derision, mockery, and downright bitterness from once Sonic supporters and fans. I personally handled the review for Sonic Unleashed, and it was at that point that I resolved to avoid any Sonic games until they were both proven through solid reviews and the lens of time.

The Werehog did far more harm than good for the Sonic franchise

So why did Sonic falter when Mario was able to continue to flourish under Nintendo’s watch? Well, while Sonic himself was changed to fit the evolving fads of the 1990s and 2000s, Mario never needed changing as a character, simply because he wasn’t created as a reaction to what was hot in marketing. Both characters appeared in product-of-their-times titles, but only Sonic changed noticeably as a character. Mario could afford the occasional misstep, but everybody learned to blame that individual game, and not the Mario character himself. Additionally, Nintendo has been far more reserved in mainline Mario releases while Sega has been fairly liberal in their project green lighting. Nintendo refused to repeat mistakes between their releases, while Sega often repeated and magnified their bad decisions.

So is their hope for Sonic? Well, if you’ve been paying attention to the handheld space, you’ve known that Sonic has actually done quite well with his mainline titles on the GBA and DS. Additionally, Sonic Colors was well received on the Wii, even if many people refused to believe it. It just feels as if Sega is going to have to roll out multiple solid efforts before fans are going to fully trust again.

And what of Sonic Generations? For those that don’t know, Sonic Generations looks to be offering a mix of the old-school Sonic we all loved in the 1990s and mashes his up with the current era Sonic. The game will visit 20 years worth of Sonic levels, allowing the player to control either the classic Sonic in 2D side-scrolling action or the current era Sonic with 3D action. Early buzz is positive, and E3 2011 will be the make or break moment for the game. The concept is great, and it just might be what Sega needs to get the series back on track again.

Sega hopes that Sonic Generations will please Sonic fans from both eras.

Personally, I feel that Sonic is a relic of a bygone era. The 1990s ended, and with them so did Sonic’s heyday. Any attempts that Sega has made to modernize Sonic have irritated longtime fans, while his 1990s-based roots continue to shine through and deter those that don’t carry nostalgic feelings. It’s not to say that Sonic won’t see any quality games, but Sonic will never again be looking down at Mario unless Nintendo loses its collective mind. The Sonic name still carries decent weight in the industry, but if Sonic Generations is a flop, the damage just might be irreparable.

In one week I’ll be down in Los Angeles, attending the E3 expo. Among all the huge titles that are sure to be at the show, I hope Sonic shows well. A well-received Sonic can only help this industry when far too many games are based on space marines and bro-fist military squads.

The PSN outage is harming developers and publishers

Update: Some aspects of the PSN are back online, but not in all regions, and the PSN Store is still offline.

Imagine you owned a business where you made a nice product. Also imagine that you were incapable of selling directly to your consumers, so you partnered with a store to carry your products for you. This store promised that they’d be open 24 hours a day and that they’d be helping you promote your product to millions of  potential customers each day. Like most stores, you’d have to share your space with the competition, but whenever you released a new product, it would get a featured placement in the store for a little while. Now, imagine that you were happy enough with the arrangement that you committed your products solely to that store and never partnered with anybody else to sell your product. What if the lights suddenly went out in the store with no indication of when they’d be back on?

For many developers, they’re facing some serious problems with the PSN Store being down. As the PSN limps back online, the storefront is still closed and a few developers and publishers have begun to comment on it a bit. While it’s not good practice to come out and say how many estimated losses they’re dealing with at this time, the losses do appear to be significant for some. The PixelJunk team has publicly stated that the outage is hurting them and have encouraged fans to buy some PixelJunk swag, such as t-shirts to support the team. Ubisoft has said that their losses have been noticeable but that they have the Xbox Marketplace to buffer the effects. Really though, the larger publishers still have disc-based sales and other platforms as revenue streams, it’s the smaller developers that are in danger.

For some of these developers, it has been nearly a month with no revenue stream. Nothing has been said in public as to whether or not Sony plans on subsidizing publishers and developers for lost revenue, but they have no legal obligation to do so. No employees have broken ranks to speak out as to whether or not their pay has been affected, but if the outage continues companies are going to have to start taking measures to stay afloat.

So aside from the PSN Store coming back online, what can PSN-exclusive publishers do? Unfortunately, there’s not much that can be done. It might come as a hard lesson that going exclusive these days is a risky move unless there is some subsidizing that is taking place from the hardware maker. I’m wondering if this will make publishers think twice about putting their games exclusively on a single platform. While this security breach only brought down the PSN, it could have definitely happened to other services as well.

It’s hard to say what the ultimate fallout will be for smaller developers and publishers that are locked into PSN exclusivity, but they’ve definitely taken one pretty hard on the chin in this process. Not only do they lose revenue that can’t be recovered, but their games have aged. In this industry it’s very rare for games to see a sales surge after the first month or two from launch. Sony has said that they’ll be accelerating PSN updates in the short term to make up for the outage, which means stuff that launched before the store went down are about to get buried in a deluge of new content.

If you are waiting for the new PSN Store to come back up to 100% functionality, don’t forget about the games that launched just ahead of the outage and give them a fair shot.

What Nintendo needs to do with their next console

Speculation is wild regarding the next Nintendo console, which as confirmed to be an HD console. For some fans, simply having a Wii that’s capable of 1080 resolutions. For most, however, Nintendo is in need of some reparations in order to get the hardcore to embrace their next offering. I’ve done some digging around into the rumors, have touched base with some developers I know and some PR people and they seem to think Nintendo is sincere in their desire to regain popularity with hardcore gamers and it’s not just lip service to ensure a strong launch support. So what does Nintendo do to get back in the good graces of the hardcore audience?

Better Online Support

One of the most important areas in which Nintendo needs to improve is in their online offerings. The Wii is online-enabled, but it’s pretty horrible overall in regards to the experience you get with online play. Nintendo needs to make friends list management easier, communication a focal point in gameplay, and a better solution for downloading games, content, and updates/fixes. To accomplish this, Nintendo is going to have to back off of their nanny tendencies and trust in parental supervision a bit more. It’s unlike Nintendo to open up the gates to wider communication via their platforms, but the time is now if they want to seriously contend in the online realm.

And for the love of all that is good and holy, Nintendo, make the Virtual Console service better!

A Standard Control Scheme out of the Box

Using a Classic Controller or a GameCube controller is a decent way to play games in a more standard manner on the Wii, but since neither controller came with the console, the inclusion of standard control schemes in games was an option that was typically an afterthought for many developers. With rumors swirling of a screen embedded into the controller, it’s nice to hear just as many rumors saying that the controller has a dual analog setup. How’s this for crazy? Nintendo has NEVER had a console with a dual analog controller unless it was an optional accessory. It’s time to get on the dual analog train, Nintendo.

Standard Media

While just about everybody has more DVD players than TV sets these days, it can’t hurt for Nintendo to finally support a common disc format that allows the system to play media other than video games. A blu-ray player would be nice, but if they don’t opt for blu-ray, DVD has to be the choice, despite its limited storage capacity. Swapping discs from time to time is preferable to an oddball format that doesn’t allow for any other uses.

Actual 3rd Party Support!

Nintendo has always raked in huge profits thanks to their high selling 1st party games, but no console in history has ever won the console war on the strength of their 1st party library alone. It’s time that Nintendo opens its doors more widely to 3rd parties and provides them with better tools, licensing agreements, and does a better job promoting 3rd party offerings. Many times Microsoft or Sony will help 3rd parties advertise their games and it always helps push more units through the sales channel. Nintendo needs to do the same.

Bring Back Core Titles Development

Miis are everywhere these days, and when used properly they’re great. However, aside from a handful of Zelda and Metroid titles, Nintendo has been far too casual with their offerings to appease the hardcore crowd. Not since Perfect Dark has Nintendo had a strong FPS offering (no, Geist doesn’t count) come from one of their own studios. That’s far too long. Keep up with the Marios and Zeldas, but explore some deeper content as well. While 3rd parties could carry the majority of this burden, it’s the 1st parties that generally need to provide the exclusives.

Make the Gimmicks Count and Support Them

Nintendo loves to engage in quirky behavior with their hardware. Sometimes the quirks turn into significant contributions to the industry (trigger buttons, rumble, d-pad, etc.), and other times those quirks fizzle and are left in the past (bongos, GBA link, Wii Speak, etc.) to fill closet space. While I don’t want Nintendo to stop pushing out their quirky accessories, they need to do a better job at supporting them once they’re out. The Wii Balance Board had some potential that was definitely left untapped. It’s fine to experiment, but don’t leave the buyers out in the cold once they gamble on new concepts.

It’s a long list of things that Nintendo needs to do, but I think that’s pretty indicative of where they stand with the hardcore crowd. Nostalgia always propels Nintendo’s efforts with the older crowd, but that effect seems to be losing its potency as each year goes by. If Nintendo is truly serious about becoming a mainstay in the hardcore gaming circles again, they better come to the next generation with a new attitude and a broader vision. We’ll find out more at E3 2011 this June.

Game and gadget reviewers, stop using these terms

Cliches are never a good thing to find in professional reviews. Often times we lean on them to convey an idea or concept in a quick or easy manner, but when we’re evaluating a product, it’s really important to avoid cliches and to opt for a more detailed and concrete description. Some things probably bother me more than most, and I probably use some terms and descriptive techniques that bother people, but here’s my list of terms I’d like to see banned from usage in game and gadget reviews.

Sleek

Often times people describe an interface, a menu system, or a hardware design as being sleek. The problem is that it’s a completely unhelpful term that vaguely implies a modern and clean look and feel. It can also mean streamlined, smooth, glossy, contoured, smooth, or even deceitful. It’s much more helpful to JUST SAY WHAT makes the object in question “sleek.” If we’re talking about a game’s menu system, use the extra words and say, “the game offers a streamlined menu system that’s easy to navigate and intuitive in its design.” If we’re talking about an mp3 player, I’d much prefer to read, “the player is smooth and comfortable to hold. The lines give the device an attractive look and the construction is tight and makes the player feel solid and modern.” Tell us what makes the object in question sleek, not that it simply is. Note: Slick is often used the same way as sleek for similar reasons.

Mixed Bag

Mixed bag is used a whole heck of a lot instead of saying that something has some high points as well as some low points. It’s far more effective to detail out the products high and low points and show the reader that it is indeed a mixture of pros and cons that constitute the overall package. Even when the term isn’t used to replace proper description, it still makes a terrible lead in phrase to say, “graphically the game is a bit of a mixed bag.”

Product X is Product Y on Steroids

This is another term that’s just a bit lazy to me. I’ve used it in the past, but I’ve resolved to not do it again. Saying that Vanquish is like Gears of War on steroids is a bit of a disservice to both games; but worse yet, it’s a disservice to your audience. Some gamers may be reading your Vanquish review because they have an interest in the game, but they may have not played Gears of War. Also, aside from the cover system, there’s very little Gears in Vanquish (and that applies to many similar comparison using this cliche). It’s far more effective to just describe the game or product and allow the readers to draw parallels between it and similar content or products. It is perfectly fine to compare things to one another, but go deeper than the surface of just a cliche.

Killer App

Killer app is synonymous to saying “AAA” or “must have.” Usually killer app is used when saying that a certain title fills an important gap in a console’s lineup or when this single game is going to send people out to stores in droves to pick it and its affiliated console up in droves. The term has just been overused far too much.

Cookie Cutter

Another shortcut term that allows the reviewer to avoid writing a detailed description. It’s not enough to say that a game only “offers cookie-cutter gameplay.” Use your words, people. It doesn’t take much more time to explain that the game uses tired tropes and conventions, but it’s far more useful to readers to know which aspects of the gameplay you’re referring to rather than just applying a single blanket term to everything.

Really I could name many more terms that I dislike, but there’s just one thing to remember when writing. Detail and specificity are always more valuable to readers than the repetition of cliches, even if the cliche is generally a well understood one within the context in which it’s being applied. That said, I’d invite all of you to ignore my past usage of many of these things, mmmkay?

Is the ESA creating a closed loop with their E3 Expo media requirements?

Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I have been accepted to E3 for 2011 and have had a media pass for the last 8 years. However, I have seen many great journalists denied entry for E3 2011 that have always been able to go in the past.

Every year the E3 Expo is the industry’s biggest showcase for games to be released over the next year or two. Major announcements are made at E3, media is able to get early impressions of games behind closed doors, and general attendees can play games that are still months from seeing a release date. For those that aren’t too familiar with the requirements to enter E3, here are the ways to get in:

  • Qualified Media – The ESA gives free E3 passes to qualified media members. This is how I’ve been going for the past 8 years. To qualify, you have to prove you are employed by a member of the gaming press and the site you represent must meet certain standards (traffic, quality, reputation, etc.) defined by the ESA for entry. The number of attendees from each media outlet allowed depends on how prominent your site is in the industry (usually defined by traffic numbers).
  • Exhibitor – If your company is showing games, hardware, accessories, or industry related services off at E3, you’ll be allowed to enter. A company can only secure a limited number of exhibitor badges, which depends on the amount of floor space they purchase.
  • Exhibits Only – Exhibits only badges are for people who are part of the industry but do not qualify for media or exhibitor badges. This can be developers, hardware makers, entertainment outlets, or anything related to the industry; even if the connection is rather loose. These passes are not free and must be purchased. Journalists that don’t qualify for media badges may get an exhibits only badge, but they must pay the $400 ($500 after the early registration deadline) for entry.

Nobody under 18 is allowed in the show, but exceptions are made for VIP guests (usually famous teen actors/singers). VIP passes may be handed out by the ESA or certain companies may secure them for special guests or contest winners. All of that looks fine, but I have issues with how the media passes are doled out.

What is happening with E3 is that only the bigger media outlets are being given free passes. I spoke with someone in the registration office and they said it is to cut down on overall numbers and that publishers have been asking for tighter control for years. Again, I  understand the need for crowd control, but the ESA is going about this all wrong. Rather than locking out the smaller sites, it would be far better to limit the numbers being sent by qualified sites. By locking out the smaller media outlets and the enthusiasts, they’re basically killing the best chance each year that these sites have at increasing their readers since they won’t have access to E3 demos and to publishers for interviews. Everybody will still flow to IGN, Gamespot, 1UP, etc. since they’re the ones allowed into the show with full media access. Also, the companies that can most afford to send people to Los Angeles for three days are getting their passes for free.

The ESA is playing a huge role in deciding the shape of games journalism, and it’s disappointing that the locking out of the little guys from E3 will be far more harsh this year than ever, despite the growing swell of support for the enthusiast press by the gaming audience. While this is all disappointing, it’s even more unnecessary to give large outlets a disproportionate presence when you consider all of the pre-E3 events.

Publishers understand that E3 is a busy convention and there’s not quite enough time for every game to get covered in great depth. They also know that the show floor is loud and crowded. In response to this, many publishers hold pre-E3 events where they invite top media sites and freelancers to come see their E3 offerings ahead of time. These sites get quality hands on time with the E3 demos before the kiosks have ever even been set up in the Los Angeles Convention Center. When IGN rolls into E3, they’ve already played most of the stuff they’re worried about and the stories have been written. So why do the big boys need to send 50 people? Well, they don’t really. In speaking with editors from larger sites they’ve always told me that E3 is an excuse to get away for a few days, attend some parties, and hang out with other journalists. They don’t have to sit up until 4:00am each night trying to pound out demo impressions on their computers because they wrote them up the week before after attending a pre-E3 event.

Given that these pre-E3 events are becoming more and more common, it seems that the ESA should be more lenient about letting smaller sites into the show. They can still have restrictions on entry, but maybe they need to scale back the numbers being sent by large companies and reduce the number of attendee passes they sell. Obviously the ESA is hoping that those that don’t quite make their thresholds for media clearance will buy their way in, but ultimately most smaller sites will just have to sit the show out.

Maybe publishers will be happier with the smaller crowds this year when they’re able to have more breathing room in their booths, but I have to wonder how much they’ll love the decreased chatter from the enthusiast press when it comes to impressions of their demos that they spent millions of dollars to put on exhibit at E3 2011.

I’m hoping that those that struggle to get into the show this year are able to make their voices heard and that for E3 2012 the ESA will re-evaluate their approval process and allow for the little guy to attend the show again. If anybody is left out of the show this year, and they need a hands on preview or two, let me know and I’d be happy to do some freelance work free of charge in exchange for a link or two my way.