Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Nintendo Switch and the State of Video Game Journalism


The Nintendo Switch is released in a few days. Review embargo for the Switch hardware has passed, so outlets have been busy publishing. Reviews are pretty similar across the board. The device looks very nice. It feels very sturdy, except for the flimsy kick stand in the back. If you hold a Joy Con, one of the included controllers, behind your back, it will loose signal with the console. Online functionality is not available yet, so cannot review that. And Zelda is a great game, but there are no other great games coming out until Mario around the holidays, so you'd be safe waiting.

I am pretty passionate about gaming and own all of the consoles. I grew up with NES and even bought Ultra Pong at a neighbor's garage sale. There are few systems I haven't owned or at least played once. I'm also smack dab in my mid thirties. Thinking about my experience and perspective, and those of the reviewers, I wondered what people who were not like me thought of the Switch and I couldn't find many reviews from outside of my narrow perspective.

Granted, I am not a professional game critic. I do not have to play games quickly in order to write reviews. I don't have to take notes while gaming, or record YouTube videos. I also don't get review copies of games and have to buy anything I am interested in playing, so there are several differences between myself and those in video game journalism. However, I am familiar with the ways journalists critique games and I do get the sense that a reviewer is speaking directly to my demographic. Things like resolution, frame rate, field of view, draw distance, all of these things can make me more or less excited for playing a game, but ultimately, don't have as much impact on how much I enjoy playing a game.

When I grew up, as many kids did, we didn't get every new game that came out, and there are way more game releases now than when it was just the NES. Maybe I'd get one or two new games a year. Something people may not remember, is that Super Mario Bros. 3 was $60, just like today. I read Nintendo Power and Game Pro. I also had a subscription to Game Informer due to my membership at Funcoland. I read each magazine cover to cover, but spent far less time reading about the new releases simply because I knew they weren't options for me. I'd take the newspaper price list from Funcoland home every month and underline the games I wanted, far more than I could ever get, but I still remember looking through old issues of Game Pro for games which had dropped in price that I could now pick up and have fun with.

Back then, at least with my rose tinted glasses of the future, reviewing a game was much more about how the game played, what was in it, what was it about and if it was fun. Not that games today aren't reviewed in a similar way, but as technology has advanced, there are more and more ways to criticize an experience. When it was NES, story wasn't a big element, or graphics, or audio. Sure, Game Pro did break each of these sections out eventually, in an effort to distinguish one game from another to tell you which one was, "best," but looking back on those games, the differences really weren't that striking.

Lamarr Wilson, a YouTuber known for unboxing everything from amiibo to Oreo's, but generally not providing reviews, posted a video a few days ago asking, "What makes something the best?" Because he opens a lot of gadgets, toys, electronics, etc., people want him to tell them what phone to buy, which is odd for him. His response has been, buy the phone that's right for you. If you have a bunch of money to spend, you can go out and buy the top of the line phone which fits your needs, but there are plenty of people who don't have the money to make that an option, so their choices are limited. Some people, he noted, would even get mad at someone for not buying the best phone. I think this same kind of consumer elitism can bleed over into video games and helps make the community stay small and isolated.

Being an avid video game enthusiast is expensive. First, because PC gaming is far superior, and you have to buy the latest video card each year in order to play the latest games at Ultra quality settings, in 4K and running at 60 frames per second, someone can easily spend $500+ annually just in hardware to have the best experience. However, that's not all. Due to console exclusive titles, you need to purchase the latest console from Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo. All video game manufactures have begun to cut their hardware life cycles in half, from about 8 years, to more like 3 or 4, by selling hardware with advanced performance. So, to play the best games at the best quality, you have to upgrade to an Xbox One S, PS4 Pro, or New 3DS XL, or pay the penalty of inadequacy.

From my perspective, the hardware advances over the last few generations have done little to make a game more compelling, the stories stronger, or the game play anymore fun. However, I can appreciate the jaw dropping experience of pausing a game like Witcher 3 in 4K and seeing detail from a very far away town and marveling in the technology which allowed this experience to happen. But, I can also flip on Super Mario Bros. 3 and have a great time with that game too.

I don't mean to say that reviews from people who are passionate about games aren't valuable, but I feel like there is a temptation for reviewers to speak too broadly and to answer that question, "Is this the best?" Too often "The best," is out of reach for a lot of people for a lot of different reasons, cost only being one of them. It would be like an audiophile encouraging everyone to buy $10,000 speakers without qualifying who they may be good for.

So, when I take my limited experience and my reflections back when I was younger, I wonder who is out there writing game reviews for younger gamers? I would imagine the market is bigger for people who don't spend $500+ in computer hardware annually than who do. Or, who is writing reviews for all of the people who owned the Wii? That console sold 100 million copies. That kind of number would be huge today, however, so many of those people who played the Wii are considered by gamers as filthy casual gamers, not real serious gamers.

This kind of elitism, which I don't think is intentionally exclusionary, does impact games and development. Games are expensive to make and expensive to promote. If you don't make a game which appeals to game journalists, it can be difficult to get pre orders and early sales to justify your existence. But, game journalists aren't typical consumers. There are few people out there who devote the time needed to play games, the money needed to buy hardware necessary to play games, and I don't think journalists take that into perspective enough. The internet has made that worse, since reviewers can get immediate feedback, maybe from people who are also like themselves, that it creates a sort of bubble.

Let me know if you are not a dude in their thirties, who doesn't own every console, but who is interested in games, what reviewers do you like?