Wednesday, December 28, 2005

high street reborn


How was Christmas for you? If it was anything like mine, it was bloody expensive. At what point did Christmas become an enforced debt? I was amazed to learn from a family friend this week that some only finish paying off last Christmas in November, then take out a loan for the next one. Oh well, each to their own.

Credit cards have become, as far as I can tell, an extension of one’s finger. And it is the Internet shopping phenomenon of the last half decade that has helped drive this unrelenting virtual debt accumulator. Three days after Christmas, leading online retailer Amazon revealed record festive sales.

Take a second to digest the statistics. In the run up to Christmas weekend Amazon’s UK division delivered 480,000 gifts. On the busiest day a Royal Mail truck left one of its three distribution centres every 15 minutes. Globally, December 12 was busiest. Customers bought 3.6 million items, or, if you like, 41 items every second.

The news reminded me of a conversation I had with a colleague before Christmas, where we discussed the problems of shopping at this time. Busy streets (so busy indeed, that it is recommended that consumers attach indicator lights to their shoulders when in need of entering a shop), lengthy queues and SOLD OUT signs that stand smirking in place of the most desirable items.

I found myself arguing with my colleague that Christmas shopping, being the distasteful, stressful and downright soul destroying experience that it is, is in danger of becoming extinct. In a survival of the fittest kind of way, I argued, online shopping would rise from the primordial jelly that was physical retail therapy and abolish the high street for good.

But my colleague, fresh faced from a daring last minute lunch hour power shop, remarked that, for all the advances in Internet shopping over the last few years (including making it more simple, advances in educating a sceptical technologically afraid public that it is safe, and the proliferation in credit cards and the social acceptance of debt) the high street will never die.

Why? Because, despite the stress, people enjoy going out and shopping. They enjoy having a sales assistant make them feel important. They enjoy accumulating endless swathes of bags. They enjoy trying on clothes and discussing how big their bum looks with an apologetic friend. In short, they enjoy a day out shopping.

He has a point. I love Internet shopping. I bought a number of gifts online this Christmas and waited, gleefully, for them to arrive in the post. But the actual process of the purchase – logging on, registering, selecting a product and entering credit card details – is quite boring. Browsing is an exercise in website navigation, and, of course, there is no chance to try before you buy.

The conversation came to an end with some kind of compromise. The physical and the virtual would co-exist happily. Indeed, a blurring would emerge. What if Amazon opened a retail store on Oxford Street? It would include rows of designer computers that allowed customers to browse their website free of charge and place orders in a comfortable environment. Sales assistants would be on hand to offer guidance for those who are not as tech savvy as others, and food and drink would be available, perhaps in partnership with Starbucks, in the same way Borders does. Not only would this increase sales, but it would help convert the uninitiated in a shopping environment in which they already feel at home.

So, as other online retailers release record figures over the next few days, as I’m sure they will, traditionalists need fear not. The future promises a utopian shopping experience perfect for those who love the hustle and bustle of the high street, and those who enjoy the comfort of their own computer chair – and, perhaps, something for those who enjoy both.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

only as good as your last edit


The news this week that Wikipedia had passed a research test will have relieved founder Jimmy Wales and the many thousands of people who read its articles. What's interesting to discuss is whether facts and comment on Wikipedia can be considered an authoritative source for journalists.
When researching for the London-based national newspaper I work for, I often wonder about Wikipedia. Previously I have used it as a gateway to point me in the right direction. It has been extremely useful for me as a journalist in this sense, and links at the end of articles often jump to established authorities in specific areas.

But has Wikipedia become a valid authority itself? Probably not. At the present time, I would still refrain from quoting from Wikipedia in an article on any given subject, simply because I know the tiny team employed by Jimmy Wales cannot possibly check the millions of facts contained within.

Even if every entry was given a thorough going over in the same way British journal Nature did for Wikipedia's science pages, I still wouldn't be able to quote it. It simply doesn't have an aura of authenticity. This is to be expected - Wikipedia is only five years old. Compare this with Encyclopedia Britannica for example, which has been going for since 1768, and you start to get the picture.

Another hindrance to the authority value of Wikipedia, and indeed almost everything on the web, including journalism, is anonymity and ease of publishing. Because of this, web publications struggle for respect. This situation is changing. There are many websites that can be considered authoritative (although they usually carry the weight of an established name, like the BBC or The Guardian). But web journalism, like the Internet, is still in its relative infancy.

If Wikipedia wishes to be considered a credible, quotable authoritative source it will take many more accuracy studies like the one conducted by Nature. But it also needs to invest more in fact checking and expert consultation. And it's not just Wikipedia either. A wholesale image change of web journalism needs to take place. Then, perhaps, we will see web journalist salaries rise and sweat on the brow of Encyclopedia Britannica.

Friday, December 09, 2005

fools gold


Whether he knows it or not, prominent journalist John Seigenthaler has just advanced the cause of online journalism tenfold. How? He complained about Wikipedia.

Wikipedia's page on Seigenthaler was full of innacuracies. Significantly, one comment suggested he was involved in the Kennedy assasinations, making the piece defamatory. Online fools should suffer a similar fate to their print cousins, and, perhaps smelling a suit, Wikiedia founder Jimmy Wales withdrew the article and introduced a registration system for those who wish to publish articles.

What are the implications of all this? Wales says the number of new articles on his site will reduce. He will also be able to track posters. Editing will, however, remain anonomous (it is a wiki after all). Will the move improve the quality of Wikipedia's journalism though? This is, after all, what the fuss is about.

The answer is, essentially, no. It will merely slow it down. The only thing a registration system will do is make those who wish to deliberately post libellous articles on Wikipedia think twice.

But what is the ultimate outcome? If a Wikipedia user posts something which is libellous, can the poster be held financially accountable? I assumed there would be a clause within the registration that warns prospective users against posting dubious information - maybe even offers a crash course in media law.

I never trust to assumptions. So I found out. During registration, nothing informed me that I would be liable if I published libellous information. Fair enough. Mr Wales is quite obviously prepared to protect the users of his website by making Wikipedia responsible for everything published in it. Just like in print: where the publication is sued, not the journalist.

Unfortunately, this isn't quite true. Here's a quote from their disclaimer:

"None of the authors, contributors, sponsors, administrators, sysops, or anyone else connected with Wikipedia in any way whatsoever can be responsible for the appearance of any inaccurate or libelous information or for your use of the information contained in or linked from these web pages."

Interesting eh? So, basically, if something on Wikipedia is libellous, then Wikipedia is not repsonsible. But wait? If users aren't responsible, and wikipedia isn't responsible, then who is?

The improbable answer is, funnily enough, no-one. Seigenthaler, being the dogged investigative hack he is, persued his biographer with a determination not seen since the days of The Terminator. I'll let the man himself tell you the result:

"Federal law also protects online corporations — BellSouth, AOL, MCI Wikipedia, etc. — from libel lawsuits. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, passed in 1996, specifically states that "no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker." That legalese means that, unlike print and broadcast companies, online service providers cannot be sued for disseminating defamatory attacks on citizens posted by others."

In short, defamation doesn't exist online. This is a rediculous situation. Imagine how farcical it would be to see a similar disclaimer to the one found on Wikipedia's website appear on the front page of the Daily Mail.

It does, however, beg a curious question: why did Wales remove the entry? He has the support of the Communications Decency Act and a nice, big, bold disclaimer to bat away any suit that might be lobbed his way.

This cannot continue. Online journalism cannot complain about professional rejection from print and broadcast media when it seems to be exempt from basic media law. How can online journalism convince the public that it's stories are factually correct when, by law, they don't have to be?

Seigenthaler's view, expressed in his excellent USA Today piece recounting his fight for justice, is that shared by many in the media today:

"When I was a child, my mother lectured me on the evils of "gossip." She held a feather pillow and said, "If I tear this open, the feathers will fly to the four winds, and I could never get them back in the pillow. That's how it is when you spread mean things about people.

For me, that pillow is a metaphor for Wikipedia."

Seigenthaler will be blissfully unaware, but he just might have forced Wikipedia, and online journalism, out of the virtual world and into the real.

Friday, December 02, 2005

roger ebert


The esteemed film critic Roger Ebert, of the Chicago-Sun Times, says games are not in the same league as film and literature in the art stakes - why? Because games allow users to make their own choices, whereas film and books have authorial control. Fair enough. He's probably right, but give us time. Won't be long until his generation are extinct and the gaming generation rises in his place. Until then, check out his reasoning.

angry gamers


I went to the launch of the XBox 360 last night at GAME in Oxford Street, expecting to see riots. What I saw was a damp squib. There were one or two people who left the line, I'd say about 150-200 strong, after a GAME employee told us that those who hadn't been called personally by GAME were not allowed in.

No riots, no fighting, no molotov cocktails. It was quite civilised really, for urban gamers. Check back soon for some vids of the launch I took with me trusty mobile phone. I may swear.

a new beginning . . .

For the Christmas period, this blog will change subject material. Every week (probably a Saturday) a news story will be deconstructed, analysed, and generally screwed up. It will be a news story that has raised my eyebrow, something out of ordinary, or something so scandalous I just can't help myself. Either way, a looming shadow will be cast over it - journalists of the world ph34r my wrath - the end is near.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

it's a bit gorgeous . . .

This week I showed a copy of Edge to a fellow student at City Uni, talking about the layout and design. He doesn't play games really - a bit of Pro Evolution Soccer whenever he is around a Playstation and a pad. He saw a screenshot for Quake 4 and he almost died.

I quote: "Fucking hell that looks good."

And it does. Thing is, we "hardcore" (I hate that bloody word) think of so much more than aesthetics when buying a game, but for the majority of the game buying public, some snazzy screenshots, a game trailer running on a plasma TV in GAME or a FMV filled advert on Sky One is all it takes to convince.

This is the reality of the market unfortunately. This is why publishers and marketing managers laborously pour over screenshots and footage packs until they get that magic "money shot". The casual market only has a limited time to be convinced - and each game is fighting with a thousand others for attention. The screenshot needs to be right on the money - you only have one chance.

Strange. This logic implies people buy games to stare at them, not play them, but there you go. The challenge is to seduce them with glory visuals, then take their breath away with amazing gameplay. Off you go.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

is it a bird, is it a plane?

No, it's Edge, but it's no less beautiful

I'm studying things I've never even considered before. You would expect one or two unusual thoughts and observations. This one's a no-brainer. I always knew Edge was gorgeous. Now, I realise why.

The visual journalism lecture was eye opening for a number of reasons, but most of them gush from Cosmo or GQ. She was getting quite excited by red/black combos, celebrity pictures spread over two pages and Saddam's eyes, which is all well and good. But I sat there thinking - how do I apply this to videogame journalism.

Simple. The same fundamentals apply. Striking images work beautifully, but the magic is in the placement of words. Jay-Z looks great in a suit, but how do you translate that into a four page preview on Gunstar Heroes, or a retrospective look at Manhunt? Bob Dylan looks classic on the front page of the Radio Times, but how do you make Quake 4 look good on Edge?

How do you make a game mag so striking that you see it in an instant, like a pheonix rising from the saturated pile of magazines that litter WHSmith?

Most videogame magazines look crap. I'm thinking GamesMaster, PC Gamer, anything official. Edge looks and feels beautiful. The Treasure piece this month starts with a skewed colour anime of three characters from Gunstar Heroes. It's dynamic, striking and action packed. But the text is skewed as well.

Edge have an expose on Quake 4. The piece starts on a spread with a black and white render of a gruesome monster and his gun-arm. You can't help but stare. But they wrap the first three pars around the gun. You're staring straight down the barrel.

But this is the best - the Manhunt piece. Anyone who's played the game will know its aesthetic centres on the snuff movie theme. You view the character from some hidden cctv camera. What do they do? Litter the background with televisions showing grainy screenshots of Manhunt. Genius.

Most hacks don't realise the importance of layout and design in a magazine. Hell, I didn't until this week. But it goes hand in hand with every phone call, interview or game test a journalist has to do. The words and the looks are inseperable bedfellows. Without one, the magic under the sheets ceases to exist.

Most game mags simply lump in screenshots and chuck in the text without a care in the world. At least Edge give a shit. This is, after all, about games. We obsess about aesthetics, graphics, design, layout. We commend games that do these things well. Should we therefore not expect the same from our journalism?

P.S: This is not Edge fanboyism. I actually hate the ugly thing.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Saturday, August 27, 2005

breaking through the establishment

Starting up your own game website with the aim to make money is probably one of the hardest things you can do. Just like any website I guess - making money off the internet is a little confusing, simply because most people haven't worked out how to do it just yet.

In the UK, there is a tier 1 of game websites that exist, make money, and are considered attractive enough by game PRs to be sent preview and review code and to be invited to trade shows and press events. They make money off of advertising, syndicating their words to other mainstream websites and other media avenues and so can pay a staff of writers.

So you can include Eurogamer, GamesRadar, TotalVideoGames, Computer and Video Games and a select few others as being in tier 1. All others are on the scrap heap, so PRs don't really listen to them when they beg for recognition and precious preview and review code.

The problem here is that the current set-up is self fulfilling. The established websites only work because of the resources at their disposal - most are feeder webistes from Future Publishing, like Edge-Online, CVG and GamesRadar. They employ paid up writers and already have access to a network of contacts. Some webistes, like Eurogamer and TVG, were born from fan sites and start-ups outside the normal publishing landscape. But it seems the market is saturated.

So when a group of people get together to launch a videogame website and hopefully make money off of it, it is extremely difficult to compete with what is already there. You can't afford to pay writers, so often the editorial content appears amateurish (which it is, inevitably) and news is always very much fed off of press releases, rather than generated from investigative work. The resources are not there to pay people to do this.

This is an extremely rare thing indeed - to be paid to write about videogames on the Internet is a blessing. Of the millioins of game fans with the amateur websites, fan sites and blogs, only about 0.1% of those who write about videogames earn a living from it. So how do you go about challenging the big boys and making a living out of writing on games?

First off, you have to be prepared to work extremely hard and for little reward. You also have to be prepared to lose lots of money before you ever have the chance to make some. You have to be persisitent, determined and single-minded, and never stop bugging publishers for assets. You have to act professional, even when you feel as if you've had enough. You have to have passion for games, and always write as if you are celebrating the form, whether reviewing Miyamoto's latest masterpiece of another movie-tie in. Above all, you need to be good.

In the beginning, when it's unlikely that you will be given preview and review code to get exclusive reviews, concentrate on features and opinion pieces. Keep the copy lively, controversial and thought-provoking. Think about writing things that no-one else covers. Top-tens, What Ifs?, Expopses, Who's That Developer, 10 Questions You Were Always Wondering About games but were Afraid to Ask? That kind of thing. There are a million different reviews of the latest GTA on the web, but they'll only be one feature from you.

Always approach others, never wait for them to approach you. If you can slowly build up a fan base of loyal readers on the web (providing a forum for your readers to vent their feelings is key), you can approach advertisers with hits and clicks and offer them space. Then the money starts to come in. Slowly but surely, if you're good enough, the editorial content is compelling enough and the website is accessible, you can justify PR attention, code and invites. It will all come slowly, but will, eventually, come.

Problem is, most people don't put the time and energy required to succeed, and give up after a while. They then go back to whatever job they had and write for nothing in their spare time. Nobody said it would be easy, but it is possible. Don't give up. One day, if you're very lucky, the PRs will approach you, and you'll know you've finally made a living out of game journalism.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

back to basics . . .

Fine, if you say I can't write, I'll learn. Ha.

Wynford Hicks' wonderfully enlightening book 'Writing for Journalists' is just the kind of thing I wish my tutors had insisted we all read during my degree. Everything is explained with such ease, from drop-down intros to feature structure, to the use of anecdotes to variations in style, that I can't believe it's not required reading for trainee journalists everywhere. Hooray for Hicks.

As I caressed each of the 150 or so pages while commuting this week, I got to thinking. The techniques explained, using examples from nationals, regionals and trade periodicals (just to show you need to work extra hard to make B2Bs interesting) aren't employed in game journalism.

They just aren't.

Things like what I just did there. Hicks advises against such posturing. I agree. And yet game journalism is over populated with this very same technique, as if making a statement of defiance that's simply not required. It's as if game journalism is sticking two fingers up at mainstream writing when they would be better employed turning the pages of Hicks' tome.

Simple things like employing narrative or anecdotes in feature intros. Hicks provides an example:

'According to a Chinese legend, a rich man commissions an artist to draw him a picture of a fish. Years pass by and the rich man grows impatient. He visits the artist and demands the picture or else he will cancel the deal.

The artist then proceeds to draw the most exquisite fish of all time, in a mere 30 seconds. The rich man is well pleased but intensely puzzled. 'If you can produce something so beautiful in 30 seconds, how come I had to wait seven years?'

The artist does not reply but instead leads the man over to a large cabinet which he opens to reveal several thousands of practice skethces of fishes.

The Boat Race is similar to this . . .'

Daily Telegraph

I've never seen an oblique intro, using a story, as well as this in game journalism. While it slightly concerns me, I understand it. Most game writing is for male gamers, who don't care about journalistic techniques when they read the latest GTA preview. Why make the effort?

And it certainly takes a particular skill to write entertaining and compelling reviews and previews for teenage boys, especially when you only have 250 words to play with. I don't even think I can do it brilliantly myself. But I'm not interested in that kind of game writing. I'm interested in game features, and from what I've seen, professional techniques, hell, even the lateral thought that goes into mainstream feature writing, just isn't there on the web or in print.

So, I reckon, wide-eyed game journos-to-be should learn from people like Hicks and employ these amazing techniques in their game writing. You'll stand out from the millions of other prospects and really set yourself high standards.

I see a future when game writing is of a standard of the Guardian's best feature writers, or the quality of the Independent's columnists. Game features, perhaps discussing the latest online commmunity phenomenon, or an interview with the latest up and coming developer, will have intros to die for, will have a structure than inspires and an ending that sticks in the memory like a fond childhood smell. I can already see these techniques slipping into some game writing outlets. The beginnings of this future is already upon us.

If you read the nationals, even words from Big Issue, NME or Maxim, you notice something. If you deeply analyse them, work out why you enjoy a particular sentence, why certain words make you smile, or other phrases roll of your minds tongue like a child sliding down a water shute, you'll understand what I'm talking about. As far as I can tell, it's not a problem doing it, it's just realising why you're doing what you're doing. Hell, if I can do it, anyone can.

I can't think of a good enough pay-off. Check back later after I've looked it up in Hicks.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

God-damn hovercraft!!!!!

How far will game PRs go to to ensure positive coverage of their client's latest product?

Drinks at the local bar? Dinner in some flash restaurant? If a game's really bad, maybe even a room in some flash hotel, a visit from a strangely lost 'madam' halfway through the night an apparent 'goodwill gesture'.

And so it was that I arrived at Stansted Airport on Thursday morning for the European Press Conference for NetDevil's new MMO Auto Assault already convinced it was so bad PR company Barrington Harvey were going to fly us out to the Riviera for an all expenses paid holiday in the sun.

What actually happened was very different, but probably more expensive.

I'm not going to talk about the game here, because the place for that is on a proper game website. I'm going to talk about the PR stunt BH threw to take Europe's finest game writers minds' off Auto Assault and onto . . . crazy mutant army chicks.

It was farely obvious something was going to kick off. Split into three groups (Humans, BioMechs and Mutants - we all had colour co-ordinated caps too!), we sat down in the hotel, a coach ride from the airport itself, and looked at our maps.

PRs are extremely excited by everything in the world ever. A few of them were cheering, slagging off opposing races and what not. I felt embarrased.

Then military guys burst in, shouting bloody murder and acting all in character. Their faces were painted, one of them was huge and bald, which helped I guess, and they had big black boots. I hid my face and died.

A small young woman, who was quite obviously considering a career change in front of our eyes, was wearing a green mutant mask that covered half her face. She put on a robot voice. First mistake people. The BioMechs are the cyborgs, not the mutants. How can I take any of this seriously now?

We put on combat gear, big black boots and strolled out of the hotel into the expansive and regal grounds the site afforded these kinds of events. Explosions either side of the path nearly made me crap myself, but I put on my 'I'm too cool for this stupidity' face and pretended nothing bothered me. Underneath, I was hurting.

We took turns on hovercrafts (I was first and worst), a quad bike (the guy in front of me crashed and went head first into a tree, which was nice), paint ball (had no idea if I was crap or not), drag cars (quite fun) and Quazar (we did OK I thought, although I headbutted on of my team mates in the darkness).

It was all good fun. The stinking humans won (we BioMechs hate them for ditching us before going underground and nuking the Earth apparently) and I didn't break my knee. But it had absolutely nothing to do with Auto Assault whatsoever, despite NetDevil head honcho Ryan insisting it 'tied in nicely'.

And it will have no bearing on my opnion of the game, which, at the moment, isn't much because we didn't get hands on with it. So why go to all the trouble to send 50 or so journalists out with an action events company in the middle of nowhere, pay for half of them to have a posh dinner in the hotel afterwards and even pay for a room for a select few?

I've no idea - but Barrington Harvey must have taken on a few more clients lately, because they obviously have money to burn. Although I suspect others love these sorts of things, I'd have been happy with a few hours hands on in a dingy London office. I'm told we need to be ready for extreme heights at the upcoming press event for City of Villians. Oh what fresh hell is this . . .

Saturday, July 09, 2005

for once, I completely forgot about videogames, as perspective came crashing down on my head like some meteor hell bent on the Earth's destruction

On Thursday morning, terrorists bombed London. My home city, my town, my village. A place I was born, raised, left and returned because I missed it. How dare they? HOW FUCKING DARE THEY?

I'm angry. Not simply because they bombed London, nor because they nearly bombed my girlfriend on her way to work, but because I feel they have sullied my soul. As I was reflecting on this reactionary feeling this morning, I came to a conclusion: American's are not all dicks.

I'm trying to come to terms with my anger. I know it's irrational, unhelpful and pointless, but, like a scratch in the roof of your mouth that you can't help tonguing, I can't shake it.

I remember 9/11, which was far ahead in terms of scale than the London bombings (although this fact seems to have escaped the UK media). I remember thinking how stooopid those American's were for getting all hot-blooded and calling for everyone to nuke Bin-Laden's ass. I remember thinking how bloody irrational those red-necks are. Now, I have begun to understand them.

I guess it's part of human nature that no-one can escape. The irrational immediate reaction to something that has hurt you. Ancient Greek philosophers believed we would only find truth and enlightenment when we could cast aside these feeling s and see the big picture - a bit like Spok really.

Well I can't. I know I'm being irrational. I know I'm being a dick. I know I'm being narrowminded. But If I ever find the bastards who blew up my town, I'm going to rip out their balls and shove em down their throats. A bit like Bruce Willis in Sin City, except in full colour.

It's only been two days since, so I'm sure this anger will subside, but really - the Government must do something about this. They must catch these people. They must prevent it from happening again. Whatever it takes. Although I'm not going to hold my breath. Last time I checked, Mr Bush still hadn't caught Bin-Laden. If the US can't find one man, what hope do we have of finding four?

Saturday, July 02, 2005

making money

How hard is it to make money from game journalism?

Think about that for a second.

The answer? Very.

Now, ask yourself this: how hard is it to get rich from game journalism?

The answer? Impossible.

There are extremely rich political journalists, extremely rich showbiz reporters, extremely rich sports reporters, extremely rich music and film critics. There are no rich game journalists. Forget it.

Now, a more interesting question: why?

Because gaming, like it or not, is still a niche hobby. It's becoming more mainstream, but is not, yet, mainstream. Halo 2 might make more money on an opening weekend than Spiderman, but at £40 a pop, compared to an average £7 a pop to see the film, less people are playing games than watching films, DVDs, CDs, going to gigs and most other forms of entertainment gaming is competing with in the big bad world.

So, a lot of people buy game magazines, but not a hell of a lot. Compare the readership numbers of the biggest selling game magazine in the UK, Official Playstation 2 Magazine, with, say, an average selling womans glossy, and OPSM2 gets shat on every time. I know which I'd rather read. But I'm not most people.

£10,000 a year for a staff writer position on a certain game mag? Forget it - an aspiring game hack, with ideals, ideas and a glint in his or her eye can make more working in GAME. No wonder game journalism is so turgid - there's no fresh blood. They're all in bloody PR.

What to do? Well, as gaming breaks into the mainstream, theoretically speaking, more people should buy game magazines, read game websites and generally be interested in games. If, as the publishers say, the industry needs to double to fund next-generation development, then the readership should double. Then, pay your writers more.

For now, still pay your writers more. Don't moan, just do it. Your copy will be invigorated by an enthused new generation and your pay offer will catch the eye of better journos with national experience.

P.S. I will be the first person in the history of the world ever to get rich from game journalism. You heard it here first. I shall not be buying you a drink, I shall be buying you out.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

reverse

Haruki Murakami is an author I have only recently discovered, but his thoughts are sticking in my head like crystal clear memories from my childhood. There's no reason why they should, they just do.

I can't remember what page it was on, but it was in Hard Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World, which I have just finished reading. The main character, a thirty something male that isn't named, is waiting for his consciousness to end and for his mind to be transported into his subconscious. In effect, he is waiting to die.

So, in the forty or so hours he has left, he takes a trip around Tokyo, and goes into a video arcade. He plays a game where he defends a base from invading tanks with a turret. He is beating the game at first, but as more and more tanks invade, he struggles to cope and eventually dies. The game says:

GAME OVER: INSERT COIN

So he does, and has another go. Same result. The character comments that it is an impossible game to win, because if he was good enough to cope with as many tanks as the game throws at him, it would never end. They would just keep coming and coming and coming, and he would be stood there forever destroying tanks.

What Murakami is commenting on is the endlessness of the mind, but enough of all that philosophical rubbish. It made me think about games for about five minutes while on the bus this week.

It's true - games are a never ending form of entertainent. Theoretically, you could play them for eternity. To extend longevity, they simply get harder - more enemies, better skilled AI, faster action. It's improbable that the human brain could cope, but if you were as good as, say, D.A.R.Y.L, you could stand there in the arcade until the Sun burns out.

Sure, modern games are a little more complicated, and story based titles have an 'ending' as such, but they all operate around the same premise. Take Metal Gear Solid 2 for example. That had one hell of a convoluted storyline, and once the gamer had reached the end and sat there through the twenty minute ending movie, you have finished the game.

Not so.

Play it on the harder difficulty, get all the dog tags, expose all the easter eggs, it just goes on and on.

Think of World of Warcraft. Once achieving lvl 60, the game doesn't crash. You can continue to kill beasts, fight other players and explore the environment until the servers give up. But just because you don't gain any more exp, it doesn't mean the game crashes.

And so, games are designed to be eternal. They never finish. Imagine if a game designer programmed into the code that his game would stop working once the ending FMV had been unlocked. Gamers would be in uproar. By the very nature of the medium, they have to have replayable value. For £40 it's essential.

So next time you boot up the latest Miyamoto masterpiece, remember Murakami's tragic hero as he awaits his own death, stuck in an endless videogame. If you had enough beer and pizza, you too could be playing for a long time.

Saturday, April 30, 2005

life without Internet access is like life without a bed . . .

. . . you can sleep, but it's just uncomfortable.

And unnerving. Having moved flat this week, I can no longer leech off of the family computer, and that wonderful broadband connectionn that keeps the blood flowing to my heart. I have, in an act of complete desperation, purchased a laptop, which, I have been informed by text message (isn't technology a wonderful thing?) will arrive at my doorstep shortly.

Until then, I've had to go without. Let me tell you how 'going without' Internet access feels.

Lonely, for a start. I haven't been able to instantly message my global friends list for a week now - how can I feel important if I don't hear that reassuring 'bleep-bleep' noise at least fifty times a day?

Out of the loop: I don't have an aerial for my television, my radio is still at the family home and I can't seem to muster the strength to attwempt the ten minute walk to the local newsagent, so I have no idea what's going on in the world. More importantly, I can't keep refreshing Gamesindustry.biz every five minutes either - keep up the good work Rob!

Falling behind - the single worst side effect of going without Internet access for more than two days: my guild mates in World of Warcrft are leaving me in their wake. I'm lvl 51, Xero is 54 (last time I checked) and everyone else seems to be 60. I need my bloody laptop!!!! Must grind!!!! Ahhhh!!!!

Saturday, April 23, 2005

pr for the people

I've often thought that at the heart of all this crappy game journalism that seems to be flying about are crappy games journalists. But it's not all our fault. I've come to realise that crappy game PR is to blame too.

For as long as I can remember, game PR's ship out bog standard press releases to the mainstream media, notifying of releases, new features and general uninteresting rubbish. Instead, they should be thinking harder about tailoring press releases to specific journalists that talk about interesting subjects.

For example, game PRs should have gone nuts when the figure for the in-game economy for Everquest was worked out as the 77th richest in the world. That should have been all over the mainstream media.

When Hollywood scriptwriters get on board with games, and find the transition difficult, that should alert PRs to an excellent opportunity for features in arts suppliments.

When political activism starts happening in MMOs, that needs to be shipped out to broadsheet news desks across the country.

When we start to see accurate, historical storytelling in action shooters, we need features on living World War 2 through games.

I'm not saying it's easy. In fact it's very difficult to persuade mainstream journos to write about games in an intelligent fashion. But it's possible. And it won't start until PRs pull their fingers out.

. . . and breathe.

Perhaps, instead of moaning, I should do something about it myself . . . from the dark side.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

apologies . . .

Sorry if I've been neglecting you of late. The thing is, I've been playing games every spare minute my life will allow.

Have had wild, unrealistic thoughts recently about opening a game shop.

Hear me out.

I'm keeping the ultimate selling point of the place close to my chest, but, basically, there's nowhere, at least where I come from in London, that caters for hardcore gamers and the culture that surrounds them.

Yeah, sure, that are tonnes of GAME shops that sell games, take your money and say thank you very much, have a nice day etc have you got a loyalty card.

But there's nowhere I can go, buy games, play games with others over a coffee or something and have a chat with similar thinking people about games I love.

Watch this space.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Will playing an MMO take years off your life?

Funny week, really.

I just can't quite remember specific incidents, only a general haze of adventuring, questing, grinding, and flower picking.

Everone ribs me for it, but I don't care, flower picking is great fun.

In a vain attempt to keep up with everyone else (one of our guild members reached level 40 last night and bought a spanking great horse to prance around on - we ribbed it for having a dress, but secretely were very very jealous) I've been playin World of Warcraft obsessively lately. I play when my girlfriend is in work - I play when she's asleep. I stop playing when she gets up for work, have breakfast with her then start playing again. I sleep for a few hours a day - usually in the afternoon - about the time Neighbours first edition is on, which is fine by me, because, you know, it's rubbish.

I seem to be getting on OK, but a few things, little things mind, have been happening that, perhaps I'm being paranoid here, seem to me just a little disturbing.

For some reason the fingers on my right hand, the ones I use to move and click the mouse, twitch, lock, then twitch again, for no apparent reason, for five minute bursts.

Fair enough, I can handle that.

Then there's my jaw. It aches. Why would it ache? Because of a lack of sleep? It makes no sense, but, as clear as a flower ripe for picking, it does.

And then there's the obvious side effects - bloodshot eyes - constantly, yawning every waking minute, even though you're at the stage where you've 'gone past tiredness'.

But, perhaps most worrying of all, I don't piss as much as I used to. I drink just as much as I used to - perhaps even more (coffee breaks are a regular feature of our guild). WTF is all that about?

So, I ask you - does playing an MMO take years off your life? If it is to me - WTF is it doing to that crazy lvl 59 that was playing yesterday? Why isn't he dead?

I'm instantly reminded of that documentary on MacDonalds 'Supersize Me', where that American guy almost killed himself by eating nothing but McD's for a month. If I keep this up, will I get fat(ter), have serious kidney problems and puke regularly?

I see disturbing similarities between the two addictions. McD's sell you food that's deliberately addictive, unfulfilling and, according to the documentary, makes you ill.

WOW is designed to make you addicted to it - the level up mechanic is designed by psychologists who are experts in reward systems; it constantly leaves you thinking about it when you are not playing, so much so that you ignore other responsibilities; and, as far as I can tell, makes you ill.

Of course, I don't give a shit. I love the fucking thing, even if it is the bane of my life. (I'll be lvl 40 by the end of next week you mark my words) But, just in case there's no post next week and you're wondering, I may have to get carted off to a hospital farely soon (at least, that's not if my girlfriend doesn't kill me first).

Saturday, February 26, 2005

A few hours with the Colonel

I'd never been to HMS Belfast before - I'd always wanted to go, for no reason in particular except that it's there - and a very big there at that. When Ubisoft invited me to their press event for Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30, which would be on board the mighty warship, I thought I may as well kill two birds with one stone.

I was prepared for the enormity of the place, the bumbling 'crew' and the reams of tourists that blight my home town of London so. What I wasn't prepared for was the Colonel.

Yes the Colonel.

Colonel John Anstal, a retired US army vet of over 30 years, is doing the PR circuit for the games upcoming release. Gearbox (of Halo on the PC fame) have made him a full-time executive in charge of getting all the military stuff exactly right.

A couple of things about the Colonel first. He's very American, and very Colonely(?). He's in your face, loud, abrasive, over the top, enthusiastic, compelling and lovable all at the same time. He's exactly the kind of person you want on a press tour publicising your game, and exactly the kind of person to win over all the cynical game hacks that sat around the briefing table on board HMS Belfast on Wednesday afternoon.

Here's my interest - Ubi claim the game is the most authentic/realistic tactical action game ever. And it's all down to the good Colonel. He put the poor Gearbox dev team through basic military training so they could better express the reality of war to gamers. He advsied on tactics. 'Flank him!' he kept shouting as we bumbled our way through a playtest. He researched the event in WW2 that the game is based on - a period just after D-Day. He even chose the real-life soldiers the games central character is based on. Most impressive, and, in my opinion, necessary, the Colonel has the backing of vet's associations, thus minimalising accusations of trivialising the war.

And so, it seems, games are becoming a valid method for telling historical stories. Forget documentaries and historical textbooks, I'm comparing these games to films like Saving Private Ryan, which, although not telling a true story, are based on fact, and really give the viewer a sense of what it was like to be at war. This game, Colonel Anstal would have us believe, is the best game available to this end. It will be a very interesting feature, I think, that discusses games as storytelling mediums.

I questioned the Colonel on these subjects. His dialogue is full of slogans - 'brilliant software', 'excellent representation', 'this is why I believe . . .', but underneath all the fluff, he genuinely believes in the game, and has a passion for it. Nothing can give you the interactive experience a game can and thus nothing can give you the feeling of being at war as well as a game. With graphical power rapidly improving, military advisors being employed to make sure everything is as accurate as possible, you can learn a lot about humanity's brutal past from electronic entertainment.

Of course, Ubisoft's main concern is to make a fun game, and, from my playtest, that remains a sticking point. But the good Colonel seems to have done his part. Leaving a windswept HMS Belfast, I felt like I'd just had a history lesson, and it didn't bore me at all.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

I'm a zombie and need sleep

Right, since I've managed to pull myself away for five mins, I may as well let you know how it's going -

I got WOW on Staturday night and it feels as if I haven't slept since. I wouldn't have bought the game if it wasn't for a mate of mine. I've never played an MMO before, and I think they can be quite intimidating to the uninitiated and solo players.

So, wanting to play with my mate, I did the same as he had, (he had been playing since the games release on Friday).

Night elf, priest, herbalism, alchemy, pvp Shadow Moon server.

That was Saturday night.

Now - Level 16 and more spells than you can shake a mystical staff at.

The game's amazing, utterly depressing and completely addictive. I'm not going to go into the functions of the game etc, but why this is the most addictive game I have ever played.

There seems to be a constant competitive streak among many players, in that they do not want to be left behind. I've seen players in the level 30s, which blows my mind - they must not have slept one hour, or have jobs, or have girlfriends, or need to eat or drink.

In other words, I play all the time so I can keep up with my friend, and all his other friends, so we can quest together and generally be on a level playing field.

It's a curious, and utterly new feeling for me in a game.

Then of course, there are more traditional gaming thrills to be had, like the moment you learn a new spell, and kill a beast three levels higher than you with it for the first time.

Or when the sun is coming up over the horizon in real time, just as the sun is coming up outside my window, during a gaming taht has seen the last seven hours lost in an eyes blink.

Then, there is the pleasure only an MMO can give - like running into Horde territory with two mates and taunting other players into a duel, only for them to sound the alarm and draw a huge mob that runs you out of town.

Savage.

Utterlly compelling, sad and wondrous. Fuck the server problems - wipe the next year off my life.

Monday, January 31, 2005

depression + 9999999999999999999999999999999

What is depression?

Is it just a chemical reaction, in the pit of your stomach like a cancer?

When you are told by 'professionals' that you cannot write, your confidence will inevitably be affected. It is then up to the aspiring journalist to do something about it, be proactive, practice until your fingers bleed - until you start to inhale the stench of cheap plastic keys eroding from the mesmerising flurry of digits protruding from your palm.

I, on the other hand, do not take criticism well, even constructive criticism. I am, as they say, depressed.

Fuck everyone and the stinking world we live in.

Fuck the media, fuck London, fuck Bath, fuck writing, fuck inverted pyramids, fuck careers and, most of all, fuck games.

Fuck game company PRs masquerading as games journalists . Fuck T-Shirts, fuck jeans, fuck trainers. Fuck short haircuts with a bit of fucking stubble.

Fuck the Internet. Fuck blogs. Fuck advice on how to write videogame news for 16 year old gamers.

Fuck getting a trendy flat near a trendy bar. Fuck expensive rent you can afford. Fuck art on your fucking wall. Fuck intelligent comedy/music/film.

Fuck awards shows, fuck festivals, fuck scouting the Internet all day for a nice cultural news story that would make a good feature. Fuck freelancing.

Fuck thinking you have a valuable opinion of games. Fuck thinking you can express your useless opinion in words. Fuck thinking you can add to the heap of shit people read every minute of every day, for the rest of your life.

Fuck it all.

I tell you what, how about I go and get the easiest, boring, pointless job this rotting society offers, spend my life playing games, die and wish I was back in my mother's womb waiting to explode in a fury of blood and dead tissue so I could try all over again.

Because that sounds infinitely more fun than going to an interview, getting pissed off, getting over it, trying again, getting pissed off again . . .

I'll get over this, don't worry, and I'll try again. Because I'm too much of a coward to give up. If I had an inch of bravery in my gaping soul, I would jack it in, but I can't.

The scariest thing is, if I come to realise I'll never be good enough to write about games, I have nothing to fall back on. I'm trained for nothing. All of a sudden I'm reminded of the summer, when Wayne Rooney got injured against Portugal and everyone started asking what Plan B was. Nobody had an answer. And we all know happened next, don't we?

I'm going to post this now before I lose my nerve.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

The Playstation Generation

The Independant has come, for me, to be a shining beacon of tolerance, rationalism and sanity in a generally fucked up mainstream UK press that has, including the Guardian, made me increasingly despondent of late.

The normally insightful and observant Johann Hari, who is a regular columnist for the virginal tabloid, said something today that caught my attention, not only because it stuck out like some sore thumb that had been stung a million times, but bcause of the context in which the dreaded word was placed.

To quote:

' . . . Wherever this British bourgeoisie gathers, there is a mood of quiet triumphalism. I earned my Mercedes; they (the poor) earned their Burberry hats and their scuzzy flats. And when - just occasionally - this belief is shaken, they reach for the soap. They scrub themselves down with the argument that nobody in Britain is really poor. They've all got fridges and jaunts to Ibiza and PlayStations, haven't they?

On the one hand, while reading this on the train home, I was shocked that a (sniff . . . previously) broadsheet carried the word PlayStation in the gargantuan accumulation of words that is the Inde nowadays, but more pertinently, what it's place in that paragraph says of our beloved hobby.

Are PlayStation lovers Chavs, as the writer suggests?

Are we all poor?

Is gaming, in the eyes of middle class Britain, still viewed as a low-art pursuit?

Of course it is. But it has clarified something for me. The Playstation marketing campaign of the mid-90s, for all its achievements, will ultimately be remembered for getting ravers to play games, not for dragging gaming into some mythically respected vacuum.

In the eyes of people like Johann, gamers may no longer be spotty nerds with no social skills. They have transformed into drug/booze fuelled louts who listen to The Streets.

We still have a long way to go, it seems. Credit though, must go to Ms Hari for putting capital letters where they should.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Tsunami Disaster Appeal raffle results

Just held the raffle. We sold over 200 tickets which is fantastic. Thanks to everyone who donated.

Results:

CeX £100 voucher: Elizabeth Losada, ticket number 44 orange
Framed Cricket 2005 sleeve signed by Michael Vaughan, kindly donated by EA: Mike, ticket number 29 orange
Framed A3 Tiger Woods Golf 2005 signed by Tiger Woods, kindly donated by EA: Ade Adebangbe, ticket number 6 green
Slimline PS2, kindly donated by GamePlay: Miss E Lecca, ticket number 91 green

Comiserations to the losers. Your donations have gone to a wortthy cause.
To the winners - congratulations, your prizes will be sent out to you very soon.

Which wraps up the whole big screen game tournament.

Breathe.

Until next time, which will hopefully be in a couple months - don't forget the victims of the tsunami. Just because it's off the front pages, it doesn't mean they stop needing our help.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Life bar refilling too slowly . . .

I am tired, overwhelmed, humbled and delighted all at the same time.

Which is a bit confusing.

The weekend, after starting slowly, really picked up on Sunday - we had some really good gamers in, who put on a great show for the grand final at the end of the day. I've got some pics I'll be uploading soon, so keep checking back.

We made over £1,000 which is wonderful, especially as we could only have 4 people playing at once. I had ideas to have 16 at one point, and realised that would have been rediculous - 4 is perfect.

Tickets are still on sale for the raffle of course, and you can get some by calling me, requesting them here or by some other electronic technologically fabulous way. Only £1 each - and you can win a framed A3 poster of Tiger Woods Golf signed by the great man himself - a framed Cricket 2005 sleeve signed by Michael Vaughan and a slim line PS2.

It's worth it - for the prizes, and for the cause we have all worked so hard to raise money for.

Microsoft have the winners addresses - they guarantee delivery by the end of Jan. Vouchers will be sent out by the end of Jan too to the runners up - Fearless - on both days.

We hope to do it again in the future - but bigger and better and we will raise even more money. Keep your eyes open.

For now, see you on Live - wyp100 - and I'll show why I wasn't allowed to enter!

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Game tournament tsunami disaster appeal

The place: Vue Cinema Leicester Square
The cause: The millions of victims of the tsunami disaster
The time: Sat/Sun 8th/9th Jan 2005 9am to 5pm
The prize: consoles, games, mrchandise
The price: £3 to play - £1.50 to watch

Come down this weekend and play games on the big screen against the best the UK has to offer to raise money for the millions of victims of Boxing Day's tsunami. Those who have survived face the grief of the death of their loved ones, homelessness, starvation and disease. They need our help - now's your chance.

Any questions - post a comment and I'll get right back to you.