Broken: Phil Fish and Marcus Beer Controversy Highlights a Fractured Industry

What happened a couple weeks ago between Phil Fish and Marcus Beer is old news by now. The short version of events is that Beer had some choice words for Phil Fish and Jonathan Blow on a podcast. Fish confronted Beer on Twitter, there was a heated and immature back and forth, and then Fish canceled development on Fez II. But, I think we can still gleam a few things about what happened that point out some of the ways in which the industry has a lot of growing up to do. If you want a detailed version of what happened between Fish and Beer, you’re more than welcome to scour the Internet for information. There’s plenty of it. But, I’m not interested in talking about the men themselves, or what they said to one another. I’m interested in talking about what it all means.

The blunt answer is this: The portion of the industry that I work in, the portion of that industry that Phil Fish works in, and the relationship between the two is fractured. It’s broken. The events that unfolded on Twitter were symptomatic of a relationship that hasn’t been subject to much scrutiny, critique, or even level-headed evaluation. I’m talking about the relationship between the press and those who make the games we write about. But, there is something wrong with what I just said… there’s something about that word “press” that just rubs me the wrong way.

The game press… what the hell does that even mean? Game journalist? Game critic? Game commentator? Just a guy who talks about games? Which one was Marcus Beer that day? I’ve been working in the field of journalism for the past three years, but only one of those years has been spent writing about video games. In that short year I’ve had the privilege of talking to colleagues and peers working at all levels of what most would call traditional game journalism institutions. I’ve also had occasion to have a one-off conversation with YouTube game commentators, critics, and guys and gals who would consider themselves just your normal every day person who happens to be really passionate about video games. In my conversations I’ve come to realize that, for as much as the writing portion of the industry likes to critique and offer judgments, it sure isn’t very introspective. We’re so interested in philosophizing and critiquing the course of events in the future as we seem them, that the trajectory and future of our own discourse is left to wither and die, having lived the quintessential “unexamined life”.

There is no more New York Times effect among the writing corps of the game industry. There was a time in history when the New York Times held such influence over the world of journalism that foreign heads of state would stay up half the night waiting for their copy of the day’s next newspaper to arrive at their door step. It was the journalistic institution that set the standard, so much so that national nightly news programs largely programmed based on what was in the Times the day before. A day late and dollar short, I suppose. There was a time, before the advent of YouTube and the proliferation of technology that allowed people to be connected at all times, that the journalism corps of the industry was dominated by a few. In the early days of the Internet and gaming websites, it was the likes of IGN and Gamespot that set the standard. The plus of being the only two sites that enjoyed a wide readership in a portion of the industry that was just getting its feet wet, was that you still had room to maneuver around the more serious questions you would inevitably have to confront later, as your institution professionalized. In the nascent days of any fledging workforce, there is a sense that everything is permitted and nothing is guaranteed. More than once I’ve heard the early days of game journalism described as “the Wild West”.

But, eventually, the luster begins to fade and you have to get down to the serious business of administering a journalistic institution. IGN and Gamespot did that over the coming years, as a greater number of gaming websites popped up across the net. Because of their adaptability, knack for seeing the future course of events, and extremely sharp content management, both IGN and Gamespot continued to prosper, but not without a few hiccups along the way. In the last five years, and particularly in the last two to three, the journalism portion of the industry has experienced great change, but hasn’t really been talking about it.

The proliferation of technology that allows people to always be connected and YouTube drastically changed the journalism portion of the industry. Now, anyone could start a blog and write about games, anyone could get a camera and some video editing software and start a YouTube channel and anyone could do a podcast. It meant that anyone who’s anyone could express their opinions about a wide variety of issues confronting the industry. In many ways, we’ve returned to the Wild West mentality that dominated the writing portion of the industry in its formative years.

But, the portion of the industry that I work in hasn’t taken the time to really have a conversation about what it all means. Big sites like IGN and Gamespot have had to institutionalize even more just to set themselves apart from everyone else running a website about video games; although they’ve been very clever about doing so, in recent years adopting some of the best practices of YouTube game commentators to develop smart ways of staying relevant. But, what about everyone else? What about guys like me, who just started recently and have been working at spreading my craft around the Internet? What about guys like AngryJoe or TotalBiscuit?

For my part, my experiences with colleagues at various game websites have been positive, although usually carried out in a way that leaves me feeling much closer to the ground on the Ladder to Game Journalism/Person Who Writes About Games Heaven. I can’t say that the relationship between myself and my colleagues and YouTube game commentators is anything but non-existent. Hell, I’d go so far as to say that some people on both respective sides would say that they prefer it to be that way. I for one, do not.

For many of my colleagues, YouTube game commentators are exotic fascinations, talking heads that are treated like captive subjects held for scientific study. Constantly, they cast their calculating gaze in the direction of those whose vocation it may not have necessarily been to talk and create content about video games. The interactions between game journalists and YouTube game commentators on my Twitter feed alone goes only to show that, in the eyes of the journalists, YouTubers are viewed as curious fascinations indeed. Sometimes the interactions are marked by the same condescending tone many of us who do the writing exhibit, popping in to asking AngryJoe why he chose the name AngryJoe and offering, although sometimes unknowingly, plenty of judgments in the course of doing so. Sometimes the interactions are positive, with journalists letting a YouTuber know that they really enjoyed their latest video on such and such a game. Even then, it shows that there is a separate but equal mentality between the two sides. We “journalists” don’t see ourselves as their colleagues, we see ourselves as consumers of their content.

My point is, that we are fractured, and that same fractionalization can be seen in the development portion of the industry. It’s also true that the proliferation of technology has made it cheaper and easier than ever to make a game, even as the budgets for AAA games balloon. If you think Jonathan Blow and Phil Fish could have made their games during the 90s when mid-tier publishers dominated the industry, you’re on crack and aren’t thinking straight. But, the David versus Goliath mentality carries over to the development portion of the industry too. Developers like Phil Fish—so-called indie devs—compete with the likes of AAA developers for coverage. That’s no secret. But, this competition has produced some interesting results.

If you go on to TotalBiscuit’s YouTube channel and browse his WTF Is… playlist, you’ll notice that a good majority of what he covers could be considered indie games. Jesse Cox and Angry Joe, while playing plenty of AAA games for their channels, also cover indie games. I have noticed a greater willingness on the part of indie developers to share their game with YouTube game commentators than with “journalistic institutions” like IGN or Gamespot. Yes, a year ago IGN had Journey and FTL short-listed as game of the year candidates, but the coverage wasn’t there.

Indie game development, like the development of some AAA games, contain an element of interest in the person making them. Personality plays a larger role because it is often the case that one or two guys made this amazing new game that people are talking about. They are closer to the game they made, and members of the press who cover it and guys like Marcus Beer are closer by way of association. They, we, played the game Phil Fish made, we got to know him through his participation in Indie Game: The Movie, his subsequent participation in panels at conventions and cons here and there. It should come as no surprise to Beer, then, that what he said was taken, on some level, personally by Fish.

But, we often don’t see what is right in front us, and in the case of the “gaming press” it is because we’re fractured. Everything is categorized in a way that promotes an unofficial hierarchy where certain things are assigned privilege and priority over other things, whether they be games, the people that make them or even our own colleagues. It’s an incredibly narrow-minded way of seeing the industry. This fractionalization is present on the development side of things as well, where AAA publishers set the pace and tone of game coverage. They hold enormous influence over the press, and to pretend they don’t is to deny a reality all too apparent. Could you imagine IGN not freaking out if Activision told them they weren’t going to forward any copies of or game material from Call of Duty: Ghosts? Of course they would freak out. And while that’s a hypothetical, it’s not really that far off. For game journalism institutions, the threat of a publisher to pull access to a game is motivating factor enough to fall into line, and you’d be crazy to think anything else was the case.

It’s still an industry where names on lists that get you into parties matter. It’s still an exclusive industry. It’s still an industry that has a lot of maturing to do. That goes for the press, developers and publishers alike. Speaking as someone who has sent countless emails out to members in all three portions of the gaming industry mentioned above, I can also confirm that it’s still about who you know. Disheartening, yes. Each portion of the industry has its own protection mechanism built up around itself. Each has its own priorities, driven by its own institutional needs. So, you see, it’s fractured everywhere. What the industry needs isn’t less Marcus Beers and Phil Fishes. What the industry needs is more. Because its people like them, people who operate from different perspectives within the industry, people that represent nontraditional aspects of the portion of the industry that they came from, that can mend what is broken.

jonshamlin

jonshamlin

jonshamlin

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