It’s Scary Out There for Game Critics

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There goes 20 years of editorial experience
There goes 20 years of editorial experience

The recent layoffs at Gamespot got me thinking about game criticism and the precarious position current and aspiring game critics find themselves in. In case you didn’t know, last week 7 of Gamespot’s longest-tenured, writing-focused editors were let go by the company. The longest-toothed members of the staff, Ryan Mac Donald and Justin Calvert, had been with the site for over a decade each. Gamespot’s layoffs also managed to spare the relatively new video and audio focused editors. These layoffs are clearly in line with the way the industry as a whole is trending: they allow Gamespot to restructure toward video content (and the more lucrative video ads that come with them), at the expense of writing. These layoffs were terrible for the people involved and for the people like me who value strong, opinionated writing about games. I am willing to sit down for a 10 page editorial or an opinionated review and I wish there were more of them. I trusted the opinions of the editors who were laid off last week and I am going to miss reading them, at least until they find new homes.

Video seems less like the future and more like the present
Video seems less like the future and more like the present

While I think these layoffs were bad in the abstract, I unfortunately don’t know if they were short-sighted from a business perspective. While people like Justin Calvert and Carolyn Petit are talented writers who offered quality work at a steady rate, I honestly don’t know how valuable their work is in the current world of click-bait articles, video content, and community content. In an internet landscape where top 10 lists dominate both views and comments, Let’s Plays are running wild on Youtube and established sites, and talented community members/ perspective employees are willing to do both for free: why pay a writing staff at all? Why would you pay someone to spend days working on one well-reasoned, well-written piece when you could churn out 10 buzz feed lists in the same amount of time AND get more views and comments and shares and tweets. All of the measurables seem to suggest that shallow and divisive nostalgia based content is the way to get the greatest response for the littlest effort.

I tested this assertion a little bit with my own writing in the last month, and what I found only confirmed my suspicion that short articles centered on divisive topics generate the most internet reaction per hour. I wrote a 9-10 page essay on FFX almost a month ago that has been on the front page of GiantBomb for a few weeks now (YAY!) and in that time it has received 46 comments (almost half of which are me responding to people) and over 3000 views. It took me a month of writing and editing in my free time to produce that one essay. I have had other long essays posted to the front page of GB for similar lengths of time and they have received similar responses. Two weeks ago I wrote a post about my issues with the Kingdom Hearts franchise. The post took about 2 hours to write while watching TV and I posted it around 9 AM on the following morning. In about 3 days that post received 62 comments (most of which were not me responding) and over 1000 views. A post I made on a whim generated more of a response than an essay I have been ruminating on for months. I find that with a lot of my writing there is almost no correlation between the amount of effort I am exerting and the amount of readership I am receiving. This issue is even worse for professional writers because there are tons of people like me who are producing writing that is at least good enough to live on the front page of a gaming site. People like @mento, @video_game_king, and @arbitrarywater (there are too many shoutouts to list but check out the community spotlight if you want to find the many GB community all-stars) are producing work that honestly could stand up as professional quality and they are doing it for free. Community writers are not shackled by deadlines, they don’t have to stay current if they don’t want to, and they are hungry. It’s clear that the supply to demand ratio here is terrible for a professional game writer. I mean how good would a professional writer have to be to get away with just writing in the current day? Would they have to be a leading voice in game writing in a way we haven’t seen yet? Would they have to drive site viewership all by themselves like Bill Simmons on ESPN.com and Grantland (ironically Simmons has been doing the cross media thing as well as anyone and its gotten to the point where I'm not sure if he even counts as a writer anymore)? Just as importantly, if Justin Calvert’s resume and portfolio doesn’t guarantee him employment, then what kind of hope do new people have?

Would you need to be this level of writer turned personality to stick in the game industry at this point?
Would you need to be this level of writer turned personality to stick in the game industry at this point?

The current panacea for the move away from writing is to diversify. A game critic can’t just be a writer anymore: now you need to be a visible personality too. That means making good videos to let people know your sense of humor and your style. It means trying to do a podcast if you can. It means hustling to try and win some viewership in a buyer’s market. All of that grinding is to establish a brand and a personality that people like and value enough to keep around. You need people to miss YOU when you’re gone not just the content you produce. You need people to care about your well being on a personal level. That seems like the only way to keep a job in this industry (and increasingly the internet at large) at this point. You can’t afford to be faceless.

The saddest part of all of this, for me, is that the central issue here is that people are either unwilling to actually read the written content that authors are putting out or the written ad model is so broken that readership doesn’t matter anymore. If articles held economic value, then Gamespot wouldn’t fire almost its entire writing staff. Maybe the current ad model for written content is just fundamentally broken, but I would hope that a business team could find a way to monetize consistent, strong readership. Odds are that both of these problems are coming together like Voltron to stamp out the market for written content. Despite all of the monetization issues that writers are facing, the fact that well written articles are receiving less traffic than top 10 lists is our fault. Jeff always says that we vote with our dollars when we buy games, but I think people should regard their page views the same way. When you click on a top 10 list your vote gets counted, and when you don’t click on an editorial it doesn’t. If we want to stop lamenting the click-baitification of the internet we need to stop clicking the bait. Hopefully patronizing the strong writers will help to slow down the erosion of game writing from sites and game critics from the industry.

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