Death of the Critic

Reviews

Twitch, Youtube, and "New Media"

Written by: Tom Blaich

The online landscape has shifted drastically over the course of the last five years. Websites and blogs used to be king, with dedicated reader bases coming back day after day to read the newest posts. There was a golden period of growth where anyone could make a website, and if they were dedicated, it would probably do pretty well. Coverage of games was done extensively through written articles, blog posts, and reviews, and there was a stable, if slightly adversarial, relationship between these companies and the companies that made games. Sites would get early review copies of games, access to developers for interviews, or in-depth press kits to help prepare coverage. In return, websites agreed to not post coverage of these titles until an agreed upon date. An equilibrium was reached.

Then YouTube came along and changed things. By virtue of its audience, content creators on YouTube relied on heavily edited videos, showing only the most exciting moments of whatever they were talking about. The massive Let’s Play community grouped around different games, and audiences had truly immense amounts of content at their fingertips. Search the name of the game, and they can find dozens of highly edited, exciting videos making it look to be fun, or small communities of super fans religiously playing and dissecting the game for years afterwards. You can see it with
Counter Strike, or League of Legends, or DOTA, or Overwatch.

Companies noticed, and they took advantage of it. Many of these videos bordered on advertisements already in how they catered to audiences to draw them and in keep them interested. YouTube content creators live and die by audience retention, so they want to show viewers that they can come back day after day to consistently exciting and engaging content. Companies started reaching out to these channels, sending them free promotional materials or copies of the game, and any mention of this becomes positive advertising for the company. If someone receives a special
Skyrim hat from Bethesda and shows it off on their YouTube channel because they feel special, it alters the appearance of Bethesda in the mind of consumers, changing them from a faceless corporate entity into an attentive and caring company that looks after its fans. They don’t have to ask for positive press from the creators, because any mention of them is good.

Compare this to the way in which video game websites handle the same situation. People don’t want to read an article about a special
Skyrim hat that the author got from Bethesda, because it reads like an advertisement. Swag, or promotional materials, have been a part of the games industry, and indeed many others, for a long time. But unless the readers can get the exact same item, they don’t care. They view the pieces published by the website to be the statements of that website, regardless of who wrote them. There is less of a connection between the reader and the writer in most cases, and with this personal connection lost, appeals to the consumers work differently. Websites (outside of fan websites) don’t care about swag, because the audience doesn’t care about swag.

As YouTube has gotten larger, smaller content creators have slowly been getting crowded out. The platform enormously favors those with the time and the budget to produce consistent, daily, high quality, ten-minute plus videos, and the number of channels that can do this is low, in the grand scheme of things. Combine this with the too stringent DMCA policies that make it much too easy for a video to be taken down or removed from monetization, and many creators have been forced to diversify.

Twitch was there to pick up the pieces. Communities are only reinforced on Twitch, which shows categorizes livestreams by what games are being played while highlighting high profile streamers. However, on Twitch, channels did not have the benefit of editing to support their content, and personality reigned supreme. Tight knit communities form around streamers as they interact with their audience every single day to the point where a relationship is built. And companies have taken advantage of this. If a streamer is allowed to stream a game early, they are given a sense of exclusivity, and an implicit recommendation of the game from them to their fans. Anything that the company does for the streamer, from joining them on stream to sending them packages of promotional material, brings that company into the community.

There is nothing wrong with marketing or advertisement. It is how content creators can survive, and it is an integral part of the development and release of a game. It is a very necessary force. Print and online media have a whole host of ethical questions relating to companies that are being covered, ostensibly impartially, while these outlets are simultaneously running advertisements for these games. It’s a conflict of interest, and one that needs to be tackled and disclosed.

The issue with marketing comes when it stops appearing as marketing, when companies are manipulating fans and creators into giving them good press without revealing it, when content creators are being paid to create promotional videos without disclosing these facts, when the influence cannot be seen.

So where does that leave sites like ours, sites that don’t exactly fit into any of these molds? How do they survive? Do they attempt to extend their reach, diversify into different areas, start advertising the products that they are covering, or do they hunker down in their niche, trying to carve out a spot? The second is, without a doubt, more difficult. Staying truly independent is a challenge that all websites will face, and whether or not to stay that way is a question that every site will have to answer at some point during its lifespan. It is a question that we struggle with every day, and it is one that we eventually hope to answer.

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Tommy_Tom

Tom has been writing about media since he was a senior in high school. He likes long walks on the beach, dark liquor, and when characters reload guns in action movies.



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Sequels and Reviews

Written by: Tom Blaich

Earlier this week, we publish an article about sequels and how they are viewed in relation to their preceding works, and we wanted to take the time to clarify our position on how we address this concern when writing a review for a sequel. While we do our best to look at each work on its own merits, we cannot discount significant advances or steps back compared to other works within the same franchise.
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Updates and Reviews

Written by: Tom Blaich

When we are reviewing a game, we have a unique issue that we don’t encounter with any other type of media. When a game launches, rarely will it stay in the exact same state over the coming days, weeks, months, or even years that it will be in the public. It will be updated and changed over time. Sometimes these updates are small: balance tweaks to multiplayer, text fixes, or subtle adjustments that no one will ever really see. But on the other hand, some alter graphics, story, gameplay, or more. At the root is this idea: patches are fixing something wrong with the game, no matter how big it may be. So how do we deal with this as reviewers.
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Bethesda's Review Policy

Written by: Tom Blaich

Much has already been said about Bethesda’s decision last year to stop sending out early review copies of their games to let “everyone, including those in the media, experience our games at the same time.” It is bad for many people, like those behind large websites, but most importantly it affects the consumers and how much information they have when they go to the store to pick out a product. It does actually benefit one other group besides Bethesda: small sites like ours that would never receive these copies in the first place. I’m not a fan of this policy by any means, but it allows me to sit on the same playing field as a writer for IGN, Polygon, Kotaku, or others.

When
Dishonored 2 came out, I got it the same day that everyone else did. I was able to play through it twice that weekend, and four days later I published my review. I managed to beat a lot of major publications to press (due in part to my ability to focus on one review instead of many things at once), and while being able to do this did benefit our site, letting us see a tangible traffic boost from it, it had no way for me to help those people that wanted to buy the game on launch day.

We don’t get many pre-release copies of games at this point. Most of our reviews come one to two weeks after a game has launched, and are aimed at the smaller group of players who are waiting to buy a game. But a large portion of a game’s sales happen launch or in the week following, and we cannot help these people. Traditionally, this is where larger outlets have been able to come in with Day One or pre-release reviews based off of early copies provided by the publisher. This lets Day One purchasers make informed decisions about how to spend their money and if the new game is worth it.

The problem, as it was seen by Bethesda, was that sometimes these reviews would turn out to be negative. Instead of taking this like the criticism that it is and improving their games, they shut it down, only letting people who would talk positively about the game (read: YouTube and Twitch channels) have access to games before launch. It is deceptive, and it presents a very real concern about publishers being able to manipulate the message before and after launch. But what is actually strange is that some applaud Bethesda’s decision.

Over the last few years, games writers have caught a lot of flak, and some people see Bethesda’s decision as an affront to the side that they dislike and not to themselves as consumers. It helps that the titles that Bethesda has published since this policy has been put in place (
DOOM, Dishonored 2) have turned out to be really good titles. But even with this relative confidence in the overall quality of games that Bethesda has put out, we should be able to weigh our options before we spend money on a game.

With decisions like these, Bethesda has proven that they just want your money, and the fact that they actually make good games seem to be less of a concern for them. No matter how many free things they give to streamers, or cool videos they put out, this is the cold hard truth behind their decision-making process, and in a way, it feels scummier than the blatant money grabs of publishers like EA or Activision, who are at least completely honest about wanting all of your money.

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Tommy_Tom

Tom has been writing about media since he was a senior in high school. He likes long walks on the beach, dark liquor, and when characters reload guns in action movies.



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