November 13, 2008

Interactive Journalism

[Written by Duncan Fyfe and Marek Bronstring. Marek is a professional game developer with experience designing browser-based MMOs. Visit his blog, Gameslol.]

If you are in the game industry and privy to scintillating inside information, you'll occasionally find fault with news stories as they appear in the gaming press. Usually, they're a paraphrase of the press release, containing only the readily available details. That's where the reportage ends. The story then disappears from the front page, replaced with the Top 5 Hottest Babes In Game Development and you're left saying to nobody listening, "Wait, aren't you interested in... don't you want to ask about...?" Writing a more robust feature doesn't require access to classified documents, it typically just entails a Google search and maybe a phone call. You can't fill in the blanks for everyone due to NDAs or etiquette or that it's not your job to do their job. You can't be Deep Throat in the underground garage dishing dirt to Bob Woodward. Sometimes, though, you do feel like Deep Throat and Woodward's not giving you his full attention because at that moment he's booked for three other garage appointments where he's going to be told all about new Xbox 360 faceplates, a Mean Girls-branded Puzzle Quest clone, and "what's next" for mobile gaming. You urge Woodward to follow the money; Woodward instead writes a post briefly announcing the existence of the money.

It isn't as if game journalists are closer than they'll ever know to uncovering an international criminal conspiracy. Research simply makes for a more complete story. The September NCsoft reorganizations/layoffs were portrayed largely and generically as the company renewing its commitment to competitive and triple-A MMOs. To look at the information more critically would reveal that 70 NCsoft Europe staffers were made redundant; that the company was ceasing European development; and that the political power within NCsoft US was moving from Austin and the Garriott brothers to Seattle and the ArenaNet founders -- a conclusion pretty well borne out by the recent resignation of returning astronaut Richard Garriott. It still wouldn't be Pulitzer-winning material by any means but certainly a far more interesting and worthwhile comment on the state of MMOs than a rote preview of the latest sci-fi/fantasy endeavour, wherein the author disingenuously hypothesises that maybe this will be the game to take down World of Warcraft, concluding "we'll see." With the NCsoft story, the writer even has an easy poetic lede all ready to go: "As Richard Garriott left the earth's orbit, the world too was in the process of leaving him behind."

Game journalists are never expected to be crack investigators, but in fact they sometimes do demonstrate intrepid lust for detail. Unfortunately, they only unmuzzle that nose for news when analysing marketing stunts like the Halo 3: Recon teaser trailer. The press watch Lost too and can't resist the cryptographic intrigue of decoder rings and freeze-framing grainy video. With the Bungie trailer, and the Diablo III teaser before it, the press are determined to uncover the truth. They give their own theories, their reader theories (no idea is too extreme to consider when there's so much on the line), put the story up on the front page, and will stay on the case for as long as it takes. They dig into the HTML, check what trademarks the company registered recently, what retailers are listing, what was on an old Powerpoint slide from a previous shareholders' meeting or GDC presentation. Everyone's on red alert for the hottest story of the news cycle and they work tirelessly to solve this manufactured puzzle which was created to provoke this exact reaction. Here's some sample coverage from the last time this happened: 1UP, Eurogamer, Kotaku, Joystiq, NeoGAF. NeoGAF isn't a press outlet but at this level there's functionally no difference.

The question becomes, for those who care about such things, how to translate that journalistic zeal to the cause of something greater than theorising over an incoming product announcement. How does one get the press to pay attention to the "real" story? The solution, obviously, is to remake the entirety of game journalism as an elaborate ARG to play.

In many ways, an alternate reality game is a lot like journalism. Within the basic information of a press release, there may be one or more strategically-placed phone numbers for the reader to call and glean more details about this crazy story. If they read further into the press release and Google some of the names they see mentioned, they'll see all sorts of other websites that presumably the company put up themselves to expand this complex fiction.

Those similarities alone evidently aren't doing the trick. Game journalism could do with some Web 2.0 flourishes.

Arbitrarily-selected passages on company websites or press releases should appear in code; something confusing at first but easily decipherable. To make sure it can be understood by the gaming press, it should be written in one of the two official languages of the internet: binary and Elvish. Also, game developers should post a seemingly random series of numbers all over their website, stirring the internet into a speculative frenzy. At the climax, they announce that those numbers are their parent company's annual profits.

Discreetly, of course, so they think it was a result of their own cunning, journalists should be furnished with fictitious account details with which they can "log in" to a developer's website and access secret developer diaries. These entries recount the developers' personal lives up to the point where their domestic worlds are rocked by the announcement that Activision is buying them out. Also, studios might consider releasing a series of confessional YouTube videos from "lonelydeveloper15" wherein this hopefully attractive female developer extemporises on her boyfriend and general relationship issues, building up the audience's sympathy before it is revealed to them that, really, she's even lonelier now that she and her whole department have been laid off.

It goes without saying that all televised press conferences and stockholders' meetings should be alarmingly interrupted by a video transmission of a panicked woman shouting "S.O.S.... this is Lieutenant [bzzzzzt] [krrrcchh] they're... everywhere... [kzzt] oh, God... [scchhhh]... they got Mendez... [brrt] coming from... all directions..."

The journalist, sitting at his computer, pores through pages of commendably plausible company backstory and trades e-mails with a possibly fictitious creative director, extending his reality by arranging an interview. I'm in deep, he thinks.


Travis Megill said...


Seriously, where do I sign up?

Alex P said...

I love how the post starts out so full of purpose, almost instructional...and how quickly it descends into pejoration.

Anonymous said...

If it weren't for PixelGirl707, Alex - if it was just last week - I'd agree with you.

But game companies are already talking to the games press in that language, and journalists are diving face first into it.

Duncan said...

If we were really industrious we would have created an ARG to go along with this post. Pathetically, I think creating a Twitter account for Benjamin Day exhausted my capabilities.

Alex P said...

If we were really industrious we would have created an ARG to go along with this post. Pathetically, I think creating a Twitter account for Benjamin Day exhausted my capabilities.

I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit, I actually went to twitter to see if you were joking or not.

Duncan said...

It existed:

Impressively, it managed to attract followers before I ever told anyone it existed. Kind of a bad strategy to promote yourself, I guess. I am definitely no PixelVixen707.

Anonymous said...

While the plea for higher journalistic standards is laudable, they will fall on the deaf ears of an industry and community whose raison d'etre is titillation and gratification. If the reporting doesn't fall into either of those two categories, then for all intents and purposes, it doesn't matter.