N'Gai Vs. Stephen Rd. 2 - The Problems I've Asked N'Gai To Fix

N'Gai Croal and I conclude our e-mail discussion about his departure from Newsweek with a conversation that covers 1) the widespread acceptance of flaws in games and 2) a very special pony. This is the final round of Vs. Mode...for now.


(This is the second and final round. Be sure to read Round 1 first!)

To: N'Gai Croal

From: Stephen Totilo

Date: March 3, 2009

Re: My One Request


Is Graeme Devine even available? The man just shipped a game. And his old company is turning into all sort of new companies. Perfect time to jump?

You know, almost no one ever jumps this way to Team Journalism. There was Todd Zuniga, who turned his back on PR to cover sports games (though I think the more appropriate phrase would be "saved his soul". And there's Matt Hawkins, good old Fort90, who can both make games and cover them. Oh, and your Edge-mate Randy Smith seems to like dabbling in interviewing people, though I sense he's not bailing on game creation any time soon.

I think the pony will be okay and still grow into a majestic stallion.

So you asked, in somewhat different terms, if you were kicking the legs of the innocent, big-eyed pony of games journalism, ramming its shins with steel-toed boots, by stepping away from the reporting field to do stuff on the creative side. I think the pony will be okay and still grow into a majestic stallion.

Seriously, I think the challenge gaming journalism faces is that information yearns to be free, in all senses of the word. That puts a greater strain on those practicing reporting than the exodus of any one reporter or critic. It both keeps people from holding jobs they're good at and it risks diluting the value of crafted, considered, thought-through reporting. In this time of media business crisis, as newspapers shut down across the country, more information is being consumed than ever before. People still want to know stuff. People still want to inform people of stuff. What we need is to continue to ensure that the abilities to both report about games and follow the reporting is economically viable.

I hope people will always want someone out there to ask questions, to be skeptical, to bring to interviews the awareness of so many previous interviews and games and to synthesize all that. You did it well. As long as you inspired at least two people to follow in your footsteps (you did, right?) then you've given us a net gain. The pony's shins can take it.

What kind of changes do I want to see in the games I play and cover?

The reasons are myriad why games ship with lard.

You know, the thing I find odd about games is how flawed it is acceptable for them to be. You can talk to the best developer of the best game and he or she will acknowledge that their game has padding or lame parts or material that didn't work out. Well, most of them would. Some games, like "Braid" and "Portal" and "Wii Sports" don't have any body fat. But most do, even brilliant works like "Grand Theft Auto IV." It's taken as given that games don't have to be as perfect as a great movie or a great novel. The reasons are myriad why games ship with lard.

Among them: 1) developers/publishers don't hone the latter halves of their games due to crunched development cycles and the assumption that players won't finish their games; 2) creators load a game with side quests which don't have to be as good but can add value and fun to the product (you cut the excess paragraphs in a novel and chisel the ridges on a sculpture, but why cut the so-so vigilante missions in "GTA" if they add a little extra fun to the product?), 3) Games last too many hours or cover too much virtual territory ("Far Cry 2"!) to be as consistently good as a great two hour movie. Etc. Etc.

The point is that game creators have this odd acceptance of flaws in shipped product, this strange resignation that these games will be played to incompletion, that so much of them is forgettable. And no one, not even me, can argue that there's profit in crafting games to be any other way.

I wonder what you, with your sensibilities as a writer and editor could bring to that phenomenon, if you could help developers and publishers take out the pruning shears or at least test a new ratio of the good and the excess. What do you think?

Also, what advice do you have to young game journalists out there who are stepping into the field just as you're taking at least one stride out?

I'll let you have the last word.



To: Stephen Totilo

From: N'Gai Croal

Date: March 3, 2009

Re:That's a wrap


It's possible that I may have inspired at least two more people to follow in my footsteps as a journalist covering video games. Which means that even as my own head has been severed, metaphorically speaking, two more dreads should take its place. But for the same reasons that you've laid out above, I'd actually like to discourage more people from becoming professional games journalists. It's getting harder and harder to make a living at it, and hey, don't people deserve to make a living from their labors?

I do think that there could be a growth market in amateur game journalism, i.e. people who make their money by other means during the day and write purposefully about games in their free time. Some of the best writing about games comes from people like Bill Harris, Michael Abbott and Iroquois Pliskin, none of whom are paid to blog as best as I can tell.

This young medium still needs to be carefully and forcefully reported on for reasons beyond the promotional.

But this gets back to something that I know is a bugaboo of yours: what exactly is game journalism? Is it just previews, features, reviews and the occasional opinion piece, each dosed with a sprinkling of snark? Or is it something more? The "something more" -- that would be reporting --often requires access to developers and publishers, time to cultivate a variety of sources and money to travel—things that the amateur journalist may be unable to procure or unwilling to provide. That would be a shame, because this young medium still needs to be carefully and forcefully reported on for reasons beyond the promotional; far more so, in my humble opinion, than older art forms whose processes are much better understood.

Moving right along, your observations about common flaws in video games -- weak latter halves, side quests as padding and games whose running times are too long or whose virtual spaces are too large -- are accurate. It’s interesting, however, that you compare them to novels, sculpture and movies. Because you might be more charitable if you compared them instead to serialized works like television shows or comic books. It’s not a perfect analogy, I know, but just as the length of a series’ run is unpredictable, so too is the behavior of players—and both wreak havoc on a creator’s ability to properly pace his or her work, to give it a truly flawless arc.

Games like "Braid," "Portal," "Wii Sports" and "Flower" avoid these problems because they’ve been scoped much more tightly than a traditional AAA game -- but none of these games cost $50 or $60, either. To use another dubious analogy, that’s what HBO does with its TV shows: a typical season falls between 8 and 13 episodes, rather than the 20-plus episodes for a primetime show on regular cable. That’s not to say that shows like "The Sopranos," "Deadwood" and "The Wire" were perfect, but they got much closer because each season was tighter than "Lost" or "24." On the other hand, many video game narratives are the worst of both worlds: they’ve got the plot of a two-hour summer blockbuster stretched out over the length of an HBO TV season.

Many video game narratives are the worst of both worlds: they’ve got the plot of a two-hour summer blockbuster stretched out over the length of an HBO TV season.

So what would I tell developers when confronted with what you’ve so colorfully termed "lard"? Assuming that we’re talking about story-based games, hopefully I’d encounter this problem early enough in the development process to suggest an HBO series television approach to their narrative structure rather than that of a two-hour movie. If this problem popped up later, I’d simply explain why it doesn’t work for me, offer up some ideas on how they might go about fixing it, and stress that it’s generally better to be ruthless about the parts that can’t be repaired. Because that unswerving, unsparing commitment to pervasive excellence is what separates companies like Blizzard and Valve from many others.

Speaking of which, it's time for me to properly scope this exchange and bring it to a close. It's been far too long since the last Vs. Mode, and I hope that we’ll find a way to keep it going Sparring with you has been one of the highlights of my tenure, and even though I’m ready to move on from day-to-day coverage of video games, I couldn’t have asked for a better ending to this phase of my career—or a more auspicious beginning to the next stage of history.



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