As I begin to wind down my involvement with reviewing games and the like, with time becoming more and more difficult to dedicate to it, I wanted to share some honest observations and experiences.
The games industry is a strange and possible unique one. Since I started writing in 2006, it has gone from being seen as the pastime of spotty teen boys, to being seen as the potential mainstream saviour of the UK economy. In that time though, it has never been taken seriously by the mainstream press, a fact that has always annoyed the shit out of me!
I have had some great fun and some real heartache during the last few years, met some awesome people and a fair share of total dicks. Thankfully, the majority were at least decent! I have been to events, got very drunk, very bored and played games – lots and lots of games.
Starting out is very hard. You have no reputation and all you can do is graft and beg. Really you are trying to review anything you have and beg companies to send you stuff to review, with luck before the release date! Some companies and people were great to me. Anna Larke, Simon Byron, Hamish Brown, Koch Media and Rockstar spring to mind as early supporters. Nintendo sticks in my mind as a pain the arse in the early days. Not so much Nintendo as their PR person. Every time I hit a goal this person had set for me before they would send review stuff, they changed it. This happened 3 times before I gave up on them.
Sega and EA were also examples of companies that had goals, but as soon as I hit them, they were so helpful it was amazing. The smaller companies and indies also used to bend over backwards to help small sites like mine, as long as I was willing to review what was sent, they would send more – good scores or not. That was not always the case. Some companies would threaten to black list you if you gave a game or a product a low score. There were several occasions this happened and as a small site that sucked. But I, like most others, was not willing to put a free game ahead of honesty.
Thinking of free games, I had a lot. Since 2006 I have pretty much not had to buy a game, or a mouse or a headset! I have had loads of them and reviewed every single one honestly, no matter what the pressure put upon me.
An awkward truth that many haters don’t want to believe. Free stuff does not colour an honest writer’s objectivity. All it does is give them something to write about. If I had to buy everything I had reviewed, I would be bankrupt. Another truth is that small games review sites make very little money. In the early days, it was easy to get advertising and one year I even made enough money to buy a new laptop! Other than that, I was lucky if I was covering the host fees most months. Advertising became harder and harder to get as money got less free flowing in the industry. Same can be said of the free games!
As well as free games, I got to go to a lot of launch events. At first these were awesome. I have fond memories of a Forza launch party early on. One of my fellow site owners had invited his Dad, who got me very drunk on (free) whisky! It was one of the events I remember as fun, because people there were all excited about the game, not just the free drinks.
Another fun one, one of the last I attended, was a Wii Sing launch party. I can’t remember which one it was, but I remember discovering that Kitty Brucknell was pretty cool, Matt Gardener had an amazing singing voice and it was possible to get so drunk that I could not find my way home from the train station! Yes, these events had a lot of free alcohol.
I have a great memory of meeting Jo Twist, head of UKIE at their old head offices. We chatted and drank until the early evening whilst playing Xbox360 (and I lost at a Star Wars dance off!). She is an awesome example of passion in the games industry and is still flying the flag high.
It was not until I attended the Call of Duty Black Ops launch party that I started to see the true cracks in the industry. It was a huge event held in Battersea Power Station. A bus picked us up from a “secret” location and took us there. It was on the bus that I started to discover some things I had been trying to pretend I had not noticed. I was sat next to some guys who turned out to work for the BBC (the don’t any more I might add). I asked them if they were fans of the series. Their reply stuck with me. “No, don’t really play games, but the party is going to be wild”. That was only the first time of many that night that I heard a similar sentiment.
The Party was indeed wild, and filled with people who could not give a single fuck about games. There was a fenced off area for “celebrities”. There were orange people from TOWIE (or some such show), actors whose claim to fame was dying on Hollyoaks years earlier, XFactor rejects and then there was Larry Lamb the MC for the night. I fondly remember listening to him ripping the piss out of gamers as he hosted a night that was supposedly about games. One strong positive memory however, was finally meeting Andy Payne of Mastertronic – a very awesome guy!
The end of the night really highlighted one of the big issues. Twitter was filled with people moaning about the fact that they didn’t even get a free copy of the game, only the “bigger” celebs got one. Many were saying that they would not have bothered going if they had realised that was going to be the case.
There were other events that made me realise how things were going. I remember attending the BAFTA Games Awards. An event that saw large groups of press, journalists and site owners in a small room watching a delayed feed on a small telly trying to report on the events. The interviews were awesome though. Getting to chat to Bossa Studios before they were famous and Notch being two highlights. A lowlight was having a journalist agree to send me audio files of interviews I had done and he had recorded, only to see my words transcribed on his site and him never speaking to me again. Or a games journalist from a very large media organisation asking me what certain games that were winning prizes even were. He had no idea what FPS or RPG meant for instance. The BAFTA event has improved I am told.
What I really learned over the years is this. Like all industries there are great people who love the industry and it is their passion. Then there are those for whom it is just another pay check. Sadly, the pay check brigade tend to belong to the larger organisations and are the ones who give the rest a bad name.
I have generally enjoyed my time so far in the industry, but have become much more cynical about some of the people in it.