Why Games Journalism Should Update Its Thinking

Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a video game design consultant and the creator of leading blog What Games Are. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Gaming’s media is increasingly under strain and the rumors around the journalist campfire are not good. Whether it’s site closures, staff shrinkage, YouTubers attracting all the views or the frothing headache of Gamergate, it’s a difficult time to be a games journalist. Relevance is falling and with it traffic and advertising. There’s an oversupply of coverage and a lack of significant experimentation of approach. In a classic case of a red-ocean business, too many providers are scrabbling over the same fixed audience and suffering for it.

And yet blue ocean opportunities do exist. Where? Mobile phone gaming. Mobile phone gaming is largely covered as an afterthought on existing gaming sites or is the focus of one or two business-focused blogs. This despite mobile being the biggest gaming market in the world. Why? Well because the vast majority of gaming sites still think and talk in the same old console-vs-PC paradigms. They need to change.

“Paradigm” is one of those words that gets bandied about in the loftier echelons of tech writing on a regular basis. A new platform emerges and dozens of columnists (myself included) ponder out loud what it means. We ask is it part of an existing paradigm or not, an specialization within an existing genus or a diverging mutation heralding a whole new line? Mostly the answer is the former. With the latter a follow-on question then demands answering: to what degree will the new line take root? VR and smartwatches are two good current examples. Some sprout and change the world, some find their niche and some die out as quickly as they emerged. So many of us writers in the field speculate, often wildly.

However a third aspect to paradigm thinking and that it tends to lead to conventional wisdom. Once a paradigm shift has taken hold it’s amazing how we all become resistant to further degrees of shift. We (by which I mean all humans) all tend to think this is how the world is and new information needs to fit into our pre-formed world view. We get stuck and it takes ballsy effort to really push beyond the stuckness and accept that the new really is new rather than a cousin of the old. This is why we are often surprised and occasionally angry when things change.

The narratives of paradigm drive deeply irrational thinking. In Silicon Valley for example the best way to get investment isn’t to have a great technology. It’s to have a story that conforms to the narratives of the investor class and has little to do with real business opportunities. A lot of Valley investment ploughs money into future-forward young-founders solving future-forward young-founder problems because it plays to the prevailing paradigm. This leads to the economic phenomenon that I call “smartups”, startups whose premise is wacky, whose technology is a shambles and/or whose ability to execute is abysmal. And yet because they speaks the Silicon Valley paradigm they repeatedly get invested-in for years – and in some cases decades.

Guess which group is most vulnerable to paradigm-led/narrative-led thinking? Journalists. Journalists tend to really care, and this means they tend to form belief systems that can be surprisingly hard to break out of. More than anyone else I’ve encountered in my years, journalists  to be the folks with the largest axes to grind because change came along and shifted their world views. They get most attached and are the most likely to be irrational true believers.

For example a few months ago I asked whether mobile gaming had become the new core gaming. This was the assertion that (based on research by Newzoo and now supported by DigiCapital) because mobile gaming is on the verge of overtaking console gaming in terms of revenue it represents a cultural tipping point. By 2018 the significant majority of customer money will be going to iPhone games, not PlayStation 4 games, much as the majority of players did a long time back. So I pondered whether this meant mobile gaming is also be the more relevant form of game culturally.

In the business side of the games industry this is not radical thinking. More people probably play Candy Crush in a month than play all PC games combined – so it’s reasonable to assume that their cultural view of “what is games” will come from there too. On a plain text reading there’s little disputing that the financial nexus of all things videogame is pretty much iPhones and such, and research consistently shows that new players increasingly enter the world of gaming through iPads. Fast forward 10 years and the hip 20-something players might be fondly remembering Framed over Zelda (although with Nintendo taking the plunge into mobile, maybe Zelda too).

However in videogamemedialand the idea that iPhone and Android games matter more than PC or console games is still heretical. This is because gaming journalists are still operating from an older paradigm with a richer cultural heritage. Theirs is the paradigm of console as blockbuster-cinema, PC as arthouse-cinema and a few darlings like Nintendo doing their own thing. This kind of thinking is so prevalent as to be unconscious. It’s the conventional wisdom, but it radically needs updating. Here’s why:

Since the early 2000s the encroachment of newer ways to play has challenged the old views. First there was web gaming, then Facebook, then sectors like social casino, mobile and tablet. The tendency among the chattering classes was to try and reconcile them within an existing framework by calling them “casual” but that label didn’t fit. It assumed that casuals would slowly convert to core and translate their love of FarmVille into love of Animal Crossing, but it never has. Moreover it wasn’t accurate. There are long time players of Clash of Clans every bit as engaged as there are of World of Warcraft. The gaming media for its part has largely ignored all this, or stood puzzled by it. Sites like Gamespot continue to give more prominent coverage to games on paradigm-friendly platforms like Wii U and yet almost entirely ignore mobile. Sites like Polygon cover mobile to an extent but it’s erratic.

But why does it need to update? Well as I say, because it seems to be under strain. There’s a large degree of fatalism at work in existing games journalism that stems from too many miners working the same seam. This means the power tends to be with the content provider (the publisher, the platform) rather than the outlet and so a great deal of coverage is barely-concealed PR rewrites. Moreover there’s increasingly a market for single-voice commentators (as seen on YouTube) over more organized media sites, which represents a downshift in the overall opportunity. A successful YouTuber might have helpers, but her organization is likely much smaller than the staff of a professional gaming blog. Moreover that kind of coverage seems to serve fan interest over broader coverage, which again exerts a downward pressure on existing business models.

The opportunity outside of the traditional boundaries, on the other hand, is huge and still largely unserved. They say that most gaming preferences tend to be formed in that period between the ages of 8 and 15 when everything was new and shiny, and for the kids today that means touch-based smart games are formative for their future. At some point they’re going to want to feel represented and their cultural cues will be radically different from the existing paradigm of today. They’re the new frontier audience, ill-defined but large.

Furthermore stronger coverage of mobile gaming serves an important function for developers. Coverage facilitates discovery, which in turns builds faith in experimentation on the part of developers who feel they have a better shot at success. This virtuous cycle is largely missing in mobile, and noticeable by its absence. While the App Store is easily the most important financial venue these days, for example, it is very top-heavy. It has several incumbent hit games maintaining their position by spending up to $400m a year in in-app advertising to drive installs and stay on top. Only a very few – Monument Valley etc – buck that trend, and they do so by getting coverage. But as yet there’s no follow-through of coverage discovering the next 20 Monument Valleys. So they struggle to find the necessary oxygen to build an audience and happen.

Steam, on the other hand, is the opposite: lots of diverse games cycle through Steam at lower levels of success. The difference? The Steam community is more actively covered by gaming journalists because it fits with their idea of “core” even though most players are not there. One feeds the other and back again. But it has to approached as fresh and new, not an extension of the old.

In blue oceans it’s important to drop the legacy features that prevent innovation and start again. A blue ocean company doesn’t just extend what it’s already doing with yet another line and achieve success. This is why I think sites like TouchArcade and Pocketgamer haven’t filled the role I’m describing here (yet!). They both tend to talk a little too business, too old-school and not define something new. It’s not as though mobile players don’t exist in vast numbers, but no outlet has really figured out how to talk to them yet and address their interest. The one that does will become the most important outlet in the gaming media, matching the most important paradigm.