Managing Editor's note: A number of errors originally ran in this article. With the help of the author, we have corrected those errors. We apologize for the editing lapse. -Jason
Editor's note: Dennis has got a bone to pick with the way the press handles E3 awards and coverage. I've never been, but the picture he paints is definitely unappealing. -James
Nailing down impressions of the Expo is challenging because the event has so much to throw at you. E3 feels a little ridiculous now that I've gone through it personally. For example, take its Best of Show awards. To the uninitiated, this might suggest that the items being judged are video games, right?
Part of my education is a film degree. If I saw 15 minutes of a movie at a film festival, and then nominated it for a "Best of Show" award when it was a three hour film, would you take my nomination seriously? You shouldn't.
Head over to Kotaku's list of nominees and you'll see Homefront listed in the "Best New Game" category. I am made to understand that Kotaku was allowed to play the game privately for the purpose of E3 award consideration. I wish I knew just how much of the game they'd experienced, because this presentation on GameSpot mirrors precisely what I saw of the actual gameplay at E3. It contains 6 minutes of actual gameplay. Is this what Kotaku got? Does that really qualify as "a game," or "just enough bits and pieces for someone to play to get an idea as to what the game might feel like when it actually comes out?"
It's that "might" which concerns me. Homefront is still in development. THQ could change the skins on the characters, alter some of the lighting effects, make changes to those levels, and that's just speaking of the graphics. Weapon sets could be altered, sounds could be changed…a lot could happen between now and when Homefront is released.
There's a reasonable argument to be made that before a video game journalist issues any official statement as to the value of a game that they not only play it, but finish it. At least the single player campaign, if we're talking about a first person shooter, and a substantial amount of the multiplayer if the game has it. In order for official assessments of games to have any meaning, they have to be assessments of the whole game. Not parts of the game, or clips of the game, or demos of the game.
I consider a "Best of Show" award to be an official assessment of value. A nomination is putting a game in consideration of that official assessment. I don't think that the video game press does its readers any justice in attaching labels like "Best of E3 nomination!" to any game that is still very much in development.
Tom Bissell is the author of Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter. He has written for The New Yorker and was in the inaugural issue of Kill Screen. I think he’s a fair voice to listen to in a discussion of video games, and I asked him these questions about whether the demos I saw at E3 were actually games. "I'd say no, they're not games–they're demos,” he said. “The game is what's finished and released. Just like a car is a prototype until it's available for purchase and use. Or a story is a draft until you officially send it somewhere. But it's a sticky, weird area, no doubt."
I agree, it's a very weird area, which is why I couldn’t, in all good conscience and while maintaining the ethics I think a critical evaluator like a film or music critic needs to maintain, nominate Homefront for a “Best in Show” award without some sort of modifier to the title of that award.
We like to complain about video game journalism being an arm of the PR companies. I think stuff like this is why people levy those charges. Surely there were plenty of games shown at E3 which were getting close to release to deserve a "Best of Show" nomination, and other award categories such as "Most promising demo" could be awarded to games like Homefront.
Rob Savillo wrote a piece here on Bitmob entitled Game Journalists Shouldn’t Be Public-Relations Shills. Rob’s piece was concerned with bad journalism in terms of fact-checking. It’s ironic that I cite this article when I had to produce a new draft of the one you’re reading right now due to factual errors; but in my defense, there’s an awful lot about this games journalism business that only some serious research might elucidate for a newcomer. In my case, I had Aaron Thomas to educate me, and I’m sincerely thankful for every word of it.
But Rob was also speaking to a general sentiment that many of us share, and I think these “Best of E3” awards are part of that PR shilling as long as there could be more appropriate labels for the awards that the journalists and media outlets refuse to consider.
I have no problem with Homefront being issued some sort of recognition for how cool their presentation was at E3. I wrote an extremely positive piece about it, myself. I can’t wait to see this game – but I’m not going to issue an official assessment as to its value yet, because I just don’t know. Neither does Kotaku. Either of us can only make best guesses, and when I was a film student, I would never make an official assessment of the value of a film by watching a very small part of it. I won’t do so for a video game, either.
"Showing a game" at E3 doesn't actually mean allowing journalists to play it, or even having a full game to display. That's the reality that an observer of E3 news coverage may never realize until they hit the floor themselves, and because we have so many novice video game journalists here reading Bitmob, it seems worth stressing. Showing a game can range anywhere from cold trailers and no questions from the press to extended gameplay sequences and tons of questions.
When the team from my site had our Ubisoft appointment, one of the games we got to "see" was Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. We asked about the abilities we saw in the demo like calling for satellite scans and marking targets for different human players so as to coordinate takedowns and VIP captures. Were these abilities that people would have in the game, or just parts of the demo presentation? No comment. That was the answer we got to any gameplay specifics we asked for: "No comment." You can see the same presentation we did here.
Note that the Associate Producer from Ubisoft calls it "a live demo of the walkthrough." She's showing us "hotspots." My games don't have hotspots. I actually have to play through the levels. That's when it's a “game." Would it be ethical as a journalist to make any assessments as to the value of Ghost Recon: Future Warrior based on that? Again, it looks cool, but how does it feel to play that game?
In an earlier version of this piece, I mistook a GameSpot sticker on the monitor that displayed our Future Warrior demo as standing for some sort of GameSpot editorial nomination. It was actually a Peoples' Choice sticker, which designated the games that received the most traffic on GameSpot.com on the first day of the show, and had absolutely nothing to do with GameSpot editorial. Again, I thank Aaron for the education, and now I’ll know for next year.
It does make me wonder whether all that web traffic was coming from gamers who really understand what a “demo of a walkthrough” is, and ran that knowledge through the appropriate filters…and I have to mention that if we pop over to GameSpot and check out the "game" they awarded "Best Shooter" to, it's Killzone 3.
Read their commentary. "Seems to be." "Seems like." "It looks like." They don't know a whole lot, do they? Yet they feel comfortable awarding Killzone 3 a “Best Shooter” award. It’s the lack of specificity which kills me. Call it “Best Shooter Demo” award, and find a more actualized shooter on the floor, a more complete product, and award that game the “Best Shooter” award.
My next eyebrow-raising moment came on Thursday when I popped into the LucasArts booth to get a picture of Daniel Erickson from BioWare to accompany an interview I'd conducted with him the previous day.
I'd come into possession of some information about The Old Republic during that interview that I had not read about in the gaming press prior to that point, nor in any of the multitudinous interviews with Daniel conducted at E3 I've seen since I got back. I'm intentionally being vague because I'm shopping the story around right now, but as an MMO player of long standing, what he told me was a pretty mind blowing revelation. As I was taking Daniel's picture I asked him how I hadn't read about this before. His answer: "Because no one asks any questions."
What do you mean, no one asks any questions? It clearly isn't true in the literal sense, as I've read plenty of interviews with Daniel that follow the Q&A format. He said that people tend to ask the same questions over and over again, so perhaps he meant that no one asks the right questions to get new information out of him?
An acquaintance of mine who is a Producer at a very successful local game development studio tells me that whenever he's been in press interviews, the press walks in, hears the public relations spiel that the game producers and designers have prepared for them, and they ask questions based on the spiel. Many don't ask probing questions, which is what a good journalist does.
I don't remember the last time I've seen any investigative journalism in the gaming press, and I don't know why a game journalist wouldn't want to ask more questions during an interview. Maybe staff positions breed indifference. Gamers who follow the press get very attached to certain sites, and they are likely get all their news from that site. Logically, all those sites need to do is provide the same news that everyone else does so their audience doesn't migrate. When it comes to interviews, perhaps the "official line" from an interviewee therefore suffices.
When it comes specifically to E3, it may be a matter of writers not having enough time to prepare good questions because they have a set of information they need to wring out of people to satisfy their readers. I didn't have that burden at the Expo because my site is very new, and we don't have many readers or much traffic. I could afford to focus on questions or angles that might differentiate my coverage from someone else's because that's what I would need to get anyone interested in reading my articles.
Even with that leeway, however, I wasn't always successful at finding those questions or angles either. A lot of the limited demos aren't really that thought provoking, and the no-comment stonewalling can be frustrating. I barely had the time to ask the LucasArts representative two questions after the Star Wars: Force Unleashed 2 presentation because the PR people were hustling my group out of the room and shoving the next one in.
Which brings us to the PR people. My site director has a friend who works in a fairly high position at a game development studio, and when he attended E3 this friend wasn't even allowed to book his own hotel room. This friend reported being shepherded around, with PR handlers needing to know his every move at all times.
I don’t think there is anything wrong with this, I just find it shocking. I had always thought that the developers and the producers ran the show at events like E3. They would tell the PR people what to do, who to bring in, who to escort out, and control the pace of things. The developers and producers are the people with the information that the press want, and usually he or she who controls the goods runs the show. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
PAX bans booth babes under the premise that anyone who is working at a game booth should know something about the game. In that case, wouldn't they have to ban some PR representatives, too? I mean no offense to these people; I saw how hard they worked at E3 in trying to manage an insane asylum, but many of them got into PR independent of video games. What they know about is scheduling and traffic management.
The PR people are the gatekeepers in just about every aspect of the video game journalism industry. Again, I have no problem with that, but it’s something that a gamer who reads the gaming press might never really consider, and probably doesn’t know.
The last thing I walked away with from E3 (and from editing this article with Aaron) has to do with how difficult doing the job of a video game journalist can be. I never thought it was easy, but when you read some of the comments on gaming forums, you see how many people assume that the job is just playing video games and goofing off.
If someone doesn't write, you can't convince them that writing is work. That's a given. But running around E3 for three days was only fun because I was doing something I love. The show floors and the back and forth between private rooms while toting a sack full of notebooks, gear, recorders, etc. was not enjoyable. Audio recording was an aural impossibility throughout much of the Expo, and hand writing notes felt like taking a history or philosophy course in the middle of a cafeteria — which is to say, not fun.
Talking my way into interviews or hands-on demos when I didn't have an appointment fed into my natural gregariousness, but it wasn't easy or fun by any means. A six hour flight to L.A. from Boston in coach is horrible — which is why my wife and I upgraded to first class on the way back.
Doing this job full time would be immensely fulfilling for me, but it would also be a tremendous amount of work. It would also probably be disruptive to my family life once I had a child. It was extremely valuable to have the opportunity to stare the reality of being a video game journalist square in the face and not flinch. If anyone ever tells you that it's easy, they've clearly never tried it themselves.
I also got to meet Jasmine Rea from Bitmob. We checked out the DC Universe Online presentation, and we tried the single-player and multiplayer demos. She showed me where the WiFi hotspot was for the press (my site director had somehow missed this info). That was pretty cool.