Monday, April 16, 2012

Video Game Journalism: Is It Corrupt?

After analyzing over ten different reports on the video game journalism industry, I can confidently state that this industry is partially corrupt. Video game journalism is a relatively new field, and closely tied to the rapidly growing video game industry.

Here are some interesting facts: A rating of 89% versus 90% in a video game review creates a difference of several thousand game sales. This means that a rating difference of one percent can cost a company around $200,000. Now imagine the difference between a review of 60 and 85. Video game journalists acknowledge that PR companies regularly try to bribe them, sometimes successfully. They also state that PR and video game companies can manipulate journalists. These companies can hold a moratorium on video game reviews until the product is released, unless the game gets a review of over 80%. This allows video game companies to cherry pick favorable reviews in advance of a game’s release. As with every other type of online journalism, having an exclusive is crucially important.

Intriguingly, a recent news article regarding video game journalism corruption was released by Metacritic. Metacritic is a website that acquires every single review of a given game, and then provides an average rating from all those sources. The administrators of Metacritic said they were removing several websites from their rating system for “corrupt practices”. They also said certain reviewers “Can absolutely be bought.” Metacritic would not name the particular sites they were removing.

Are these attempts at bribery something that is rare, that only unscrupulous companies do? No. In a recent press conference with a crowd consisting primarily of video game journalists, Microsoft promised everyone attending that they would get an Xbox 360 Elite for free. This item is valued at roughly $600. The story was reported by one journalist who said he was returning it, and felt that this type of bribery occurred far too frequently.

On average, freelance video game journalists make $26,000 a year. Not exactly a huge amount of money. PR companies acknowledge they use a “carrot and stick” strategy with video game journalists. They offer them monetary incentives of some kind for favorable reviews, and deny access if the reviewer gives a game a poor review. These incentives also include incredible vacation opportunities which the journalist could never afford on his or her own. Understandably, these incentives can be extremely difficult to resist.

Here are a few tantalizing examples of “incentives” offered to video game journalists by PR firms and video game companies: An all-expenses paid vacation to a tropical island, where they would live in a mansion for a few weeks while writing their review. For the game Grand Theft Auto 4, journalists were given the opportunity to fly to a professional driving course and race in expensive cars. The explanation by the PR company involved was that “this would allow them to feel like the main character in Grand Theft Auto 4.”

Of course, video game journalists try to defend themselves against these charges. Especially journalists from large magazines or websites like Game Informer or Kotaku. In a 100 page report I read in which several journalists with over ten years’ experience in the field were anonymously interviewed, some interesting points were acknowledged. These journalists said that while they felt “they weren’t biased,” they are beholden to PR companies and video game companies regarding what questions they can ask in interviews. If they mention “unacceptable topics” PR companies nix in advance, they lose access to that company for interviews in the future. This allows these companies to dictate what information video game interviews and initial impressions contain. That is why pretty much every preview you ever read about video games will say “it’s the next big thing” and that it “will be amazing”.

The simple fact is that video game companies control access to their products. They can use advance review opportunities to help journalism companies flourish, or never speak to them again if they write unfavorably about a product. They can offer underpaid journalists vacation opportunities they could never afford otherwise. There are even cases of direct cash in hand bribes given to journalists. Don’t worry though, because most video game journalists will tell you they’re unbiased and that the industry is fair. In my experience and through the research I’ve studied, this is a blatant falsehood.

Video game journalism corruption is a prevalent issue in the industry at this time. Hopefully in the future more thorough watchdog websites and news services will call out journalists who accept “carrots” from PR companies. Perhaps in the future as video game journalism becomes more mainstream and established the corruption issue can be resolved.

As it stands, you should look at most video game reviews with skepticism.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Kerbal Space Program and Games that Educate

I’m a big fan of video games that educate you about a subject while entertaining you at the same time. Dismissively named “edutainment”, the problem with some of these games is that they focus too much on the learning and too little on the entertainment. This is a trend that some new games are starting to break. Kerbal Space Program is a prime example. There’s an image from the game on the left.

Kerbal Space Program is a video game about building and launching rockets into space. You can even go to the moon and back if you have the willpower. I say willpower because just like in real life, getting to the moon is impossibly hard. One small error made when constructing your rocket and you’ll watch helplessly as it breaks apart, dooming your astronauts (named “Kerbals”).

Kerbal Space Program is an incredibly detailed game. I learned almost as much about rocketry from this game as I did from a college level astronomy course – wow! It’s one thing to listen to a lecture regarding the differences between solid and liquid fueled rockets and quite another to place the thrusters on a spaceship and see the difference yourself.

Kerbal Space Program also gives you all the tools real astronauts use to pilot a spaceship. After you’re done constructing a finished spacecraft, you can have all the joys of taking it into space and trying to fly to the moon. You have to deal with yaw, pitch and roll as if you were a real pilot. You even have a gimbal that is used to keep your spacecraft oriented in the right direction.

Kerbal Space Program is one of a variety of games which mix entertainment with real-world education in a fun way. Other examples of this include Moonbase Alpha, a game created by NASA and designed to show you what operating a moon base would be like. Or America’s Army, designed to introduce you to how it feels to be in the military – including going through boot camp. Microsoft Flight Simulator is another example of a game which mixes education with entertainment in an enjoyable fashion.

Even games that weren’t built from the start with a goal of educating gamers often do so. Resource management is prevalent across many genres of games, and studies show that resource management “bleeds through” into real life resource management – like economics or time management for example.

Games like Kerbal Space Program can teach you about the minutiae of a subject that presented any other way would be dry and boring. Constructing a rocket and realizing that extra parts cause drag, or that fuel-to-thrust ratios are critical to a successful rocket launch are things most people won’t learn about or consider. Opportunities to learn a lot of detail in a fun way simply didn’t exist before. With the invention and development of gaming technology, the ability to learn about a subject in a fun way is growing rapidly. It wouldn’t surprise me if in the future the majority of learning took place in video games. If edutainment leads to a more thorough knowledge of the subject matter for students, why not?

Friday, April 6, 2012

How to Write a Beta Test Post

My post this week will be a continuation of my coverage of the Diablo III beta. The image is a picture of the Wizard class in Diablo III casting a magic missile. I thought it might be a good idea to give an example of a constructive feedback post. If you don’t follow the basic guidelines that most video game beta forums tell you to follow, none of the developers will ever read your posts. Therefore you’ll be wasting your time. Here are a couple of important guidelines you must follow to give feedback on a game:

1. Keep it constructive. You can complain all you want about various aspects of the game, but remember that game developers care very much about their games. Mix your complaints in with suggestions on how to fix said problems for the developers. The game developers won’t read your post if the moderators delete it because you said the company sucks and the developers are idiots.

2. Write clearly and well. I can’t tell you how many forum posts I’ve seen that don’t have paragraphs, or violate basically all the basic tenets of writing. If your forum post says, “Hay guyz, I reallly dont like teh wizzurd cuz of his spells and stuff. i tahnk you for reading tihs” do you think game developers will take you seriously?

3. Check to see if others have written about your topic before you make your own thread. If there are fifteen threads about how a door won’t open in a certain level, do you think the sixteenth will make a difference?

Finally, here is an example thread that I created on the Diablo III beta forums. A moderator eventually entered the thread and thanked me for my feedback.

Wizard Class Feedback – Diablo III Beta Post

I have to say, the Wizard's abilities are kind of boring. After re-rolling the Witch Doctor, I found I was having WAY more fun with the WD's abilities than the Wizard ones - and the Wizard's abilities are his bread and butter.

Here are my impressions of the Wizards abilities:

Magic Missiles: Yawn. In almost every RPG since D&D. Scales based on weapon damage, nothing particularly interesting here.

Wave of Force: Again, yawn. Area of Effect slow and deals damage, may trigger traps and make walls fall over. Also some knockback.

Arcane Blast: AoE ranged blast. Not a bad spell; good utility, but it suffers from the same problem as other Wizard spells: They're generally boring and don’t do anything new or innovative.

Buff that gives +15% weapon damage: Interesting. I'm guessing this +15% improves all your other spells, because they're based off of weapon damage. Right? (Yet I never noticed any damage difference before activating and after).

There are plenty of other Wizard spells, but none of them really stand out. This isn't just a complaint post however, I have some suggestions for more entertaining spells:

Flame/Ice/Lightning stream: A progressive damage and debuff that sets the target on fire/freezes it. The longer the stream is hitting something, the greater the fire/ice/lightning debuff it gets, the longer the debuff lasts, and the more damage the stream does.

Transmorph: A unique buff for monsters. A streaming buff that gives a monster (not a boss, to prevent griefing) +10% stats for every, say, 3 seconds it's cast on the target. Additionally, it increases the % chance you get a magic item from the monster by 1%, capping at 100%. Keep in mind that this 100% isn't a guaranteed magic item drop - it's a 100% increase in *that monster's* chance to drop an item, which is probably like 3 or 5%. Meaning it doubles the chance it'll drop a magic item when killed if fully cast.

Raging Madness: A channeled spell cast on a monster that doubles its stats and then forces it to attack the nearest target - friendly or enemy. Talents can make this spell pass like chain lightning through multiple monsters.

Just because a Wizard's spells are meant for Damage Per Second doesn't mean they have to be boring. There are creative ways to apply DPS in any RPG, and this one is no different. I'm of the opinion right now after spending hours with my Wizard that he's boring and desperately in need of more creative game design.