Muffins are the unsung hero of the games industry. They are the glue that binds publishers, PR, and the media together.
The idea of a muffin is, no one hates a muffin on principle. People (psychopaths) might dislike cookies, even chocolate chip ones, or they might have a thing against a particular variety of donut. Maybe they don't like strawberry jam. I've even heard of some people who don't like French crullers. You can even find people who don't eat glazed donuts, because they're on a diet, and they know that the crusted variety of sugar possesses perhaps the highest caloric content of any substance yet devised by science. Seriously, a Krispy Kreme glazed donut has something like a hundred and twenty grams of fat. (Slight hyperbole.) Even dieters can't find fault with a muffin. People on anti-diets look at a muffin, and they see food, something more fancy than, say, a Hot Pocket or a Quarter Pounder with Cheese.
A muffin has a cup, a stump, and a top. You can eat the stump and the top. You can't eat the cup, unless you're what professional dietitians classify as "too hungry." A muffin is like a cupcake — this is crucial — only it's usually earth-colored, and maybe topped with nuts. It is a cupcake for adults in one respect, and a cupcake which adults are allowed to eat every day in another respect.
We call this one
"the muffin dumpster"
The press room at the 2010 Game Developers Conference featured a T-rex choking volume of muffins first thing every morning. Well, one morning they had danishes, which bummed me out. I had to eat a protein bar. Danishes are delicious and all, though I'm not willing to risk that much sugar. This got me thinking about muffins: How much healthier than danishes are muffins, really? How much healthier can they possibly be?
Things we know: The GDC 2010 committee had provided muffins for journalists. Things we don't know: Why the GDC 2010 committee had provided muffins for journalists. Maybe they wanted us to be comfortable, and it was a pleasant little gesture. Wow, I'd love to think of it that way. Or maybe it was that they didn't want too many journalists writing predominantly about being hung-over and tired. That's bad PR: "On the one hand, GDC is a wonderful gathering of bright-minded game-developing individuals sharing enlightening ideas well into the depths of the night; on the other hand, GDC is a week in which I was hung-over every morning." Are muffins a hangover cure? Maybe not. Eating breakfast, however, is an essential part of any human being's day. People are always in a hurry at these big conference things; they forget to eat. If they forget to eat, they might become sloppy writers. If the writing is sloppy, readers might osmose the impression that the conference wasn't a great experience for the writer. So: muffins. It's all pretty simple, really.
Game companies, on the other hand, give out a lot of free food for maybe different reasons. I'll never forget my first run-in with the PR Muffin. It was E3 2003 — or 2004. Okay, I should have said I'll almost never forget my first run-in with the PR Muffin. I was writing for a couple of websites. As I might have explained before, I moved to Japan because I wanted to write about Japanese rock music; it turned out that all anyone wanted me to write about was videogames. Apparently I got good enough at pretending to write about games that I ended up at E3. I had a couple of "booth tours," which means that a PR person takes you around a booth and then talks you through a play-session of every game. With the PR as your guide, you walk past every bullet point in every demo of game. You have to be careful during these booth tours: If you act like a jerk, or stop listening to your PR guide, they're going to note your behavior in their report, and they might notify your publication that you were a jerk and that the company would prefer if they sent a different journalist next time. At times, your PR guide is like an elementary school teacher, in that they can call your parents and say you've been misbehaving, though once you grow up a little bit, you accept a couple of things, like how you can't grow facial hair, and you start to maybe-sanctimoniously pity the PR person: like the busboy at Denny's, he's just doing his job.
Nothing makes a journalist feel more important, however, than . . . well, than a free gift bag containing hundreds of dollars worth of merchandise. Okay, to be honest, I've only ever gotten two or three of those in my entire career as a man with a hobby. If not a bag of merchandise, the company can always make you feel important by — well, by granting you an exclusive, three-hour interview with a world-class game developer. Okay, that doesn't happen very often, either. The most important you'll usually feel at a games convention is when, rather than walk you around the booth, holding your hand, they take you backstage to a little meeting room so you can sit down and play the game in relative comfort. If you're super-lucky, there'll be muffins.
I propose a new unit of measurement for gauging how hard a game publisher is marketing a product: The Muffin Dumpster. As in, how many dumpsterfulls of muffins were purchased and consumed in the name of hyping your product to the masses.
My first big super-important muffin session was related directly to Bethesda's Pirates of the Caribbean game. The game was originally a sequel to Bethesda's pirate RPG Sea Dogs, though it'd had the Disney movie license slapped on it at the last minute to ensure maximum exposure. Since the game only shared the title of the film, and not the actual presence of Johnny Depp, the publishers and PR compensated by offering the journalists all the free muffins they could eat.
E3, back then, was an ocean of "swag." It was hard to find a journalist who wasn't carrying four baby-giraffe-sized shopping bags (two in each hand) bursting with free pens, coffee mugs, T-shirts, and terrible baseball caps. This was before American popular culture could finish completely absorbing a facsimile of decent fashion: The T-shirts were invariably huge like bed-sheets, with a tiny logo on the left side of the chest and a huge version of said logo on the back of the shirt. What they were doing, back then, was giving you clothes you'd only ever wear in front of your cat or sleeping girlfriend. Carrying all that terrible shit was hard work, and the typical E3 sneaker-inner had only his dreams of eBay dollars to keep him climbing up the hill of life for those grueling days. Hardcore journalists — like the one I was invited to poorly impersonate — had their dreams of eBay dollars and the raw explosive energy force of muffins to keep him going.
Bethesda had some fantastic muffins. They had banana nut, they had poppy seed, they had this cranberry thing, and they even had a chocolate muffin, for the journalist with a sweet tooth. It's important to note that these are the same four varieties of muffin that GDC provided this year in their press room. Anyway, there's a little story I'm trying to tell. Me and my friends Eric-Jon Waugh and Frank Cifaldi, who are both occasional game journalists even today, were sitting on sofas and chairs in that little meeting room, watching a demo of that there mediocre video game half-about pirates and half-about fast-traveling around a tiny town populated with NPCs you could kill if you wanted to screw yourself royally. There was another journalist in the room with us. We didn't know who he was. We were sharing a time slot. He was seated in the money position on the sofa. He was pretty big. He looked like a bouncer. He was a hairy beast of a man. I judged from his appearance that he could probably turn me into soup with just his index finger. I was a scrawny jerk back then; this is before I started lifting weights and challenging Brian Crecente to push-up duels. The guy had coarse black hair all over the back of his neck and the front of his neck and the bottom of his face. He wore a tight black T-shirt and little, tinted glasses. He took careful notes in a palm-sized analog notepad. (We didn't have iPhones, back then.) The Bethesda PR guy, who probably hadn't seen this game before two days ago, bless his soul, played around in town, talking to NPCs, explaining how the player has dialogue choices. He showed us a cave outside town. He fast-traveled to the city hall to give us a feel for the "diplomacy" aspect of the game. Me and Frank and Eric-Jon and this other guy were just nose-breathing all over these muffins. My muffin was positioned such that the texture of poppy seeds aligned perfectly with the floor beneath the goateed player avatar's feet. "Now I'm going to show you the ship-to-ship combat," the PR guy said. He fast-traveled to the marina. "So," said the burly journalist, "excuse me?" The PR guy responded with a stilted "Yesss?" "I'm sorry: could I try one of those banana-nut muffins?"
In ten minutes, the coffee table before us was a muffin graveyard. When it came time for the question-and-answer period, I asked, "If I have to take a drug test and I show up positive for opium, can you call them and explain that it was the poppy-seed muffin?" The guy lolled at my question, though I don't know if he thought it was funny. Maybe he was a "Seinfeld" fan, maybe not. Bethesda sent me a free copy of the game when it was released. I wonder if it had anything to do with the muffin question. It probably didn't. Or, hey: Maybe it did.
I've discovered, over the years, that doing things like asking The Muffin Question either gets me a crazy-warm response or a crazy-cold one. The muffins, however, always get a warm response, as long as it's early enough in the day.
What do you do, however, as a PR planner, after noon? One of my journalist friends, at this year's GDC, managed to talk his way into a free steak dinner with Valve's Gabe Newell. That's not bad. He'll probably be a Valve fan for life. If developers could take every individual journalist out to a steak dinner, they'd have everything covered. Every videogame website reader would probably buy every piece of hardware or software that ever got released. They can't do this, though. It's just not logistically possible. There aren't enough minutes in the day for every important person to be flying around the country constantly, et cetera. Also, I'm sure even a Dude as Huge as Cliffy B would get tired of steak after awhile.
What companies do is they throw parties. They provide venues in which journalists can drink a whole lot, forget what they saw, and remember only which particular corporation contributed to their memory loss. I went to a bunch of these at GDC; thanks to my alcohol allergy, I remember everything. I could start telling you about everything, though what would that accomplish? The parties thrown by and for developers were generally more laid-back and low-key than the parties thrown for journalists. I would tell you about the developer parties I went to, though in literally all cases, the people inviting me said that they'd appreciate it if I didn't write about their party, because they knew that writing about this stuff is something I do. The parties for journalists, however, never said anything like this. Journalists generally don't talk about the nature of the party; they talk about the product being celebrated. Why do developers have big parties at big, party-packed weeks like this? They're not advertising a product to the world: They are advertising their power and well-being to their peers and rivals. It's something like a PR Muffin, and something not like a PR Muffin at all.
I went to the Sony PlayStation Move press event / party at GDC 2010. As an after-noon party, muffins were out of the question. I got in without even being on the list. I don't know how I did that. I didn't even show my GDC pass. I must be a good person. I stood at the bar just inside and ordered a cranberry juice. I sipped it, watching a guy from Gamespot hold a microphone to a Sony PR representative. The Gamespot guy was wearing a huge, hike-worthy backpack. The phrase "Serious Journalism, Serious Backpacks" floated up in my mind. Go ahead, Gamespot: you can use that, if you like. I'm not sure that the guy with the microphone and the backpack actually appeared on-camera, though I wonder if his backpack didn't make the interviewee a little bit nervous. It's like, "Maybe this guy interviewing me is going to turn around immediately after we're finished and sprint to the airport".
Muffins weren't on the menu at the Sony PlayStation Move event, because it was dinner time. They had these little palm-sized hamburgers, which I was told were delicious. They also had macaroni and cheese. It was a little shocking how enormous the macaroni and cheese portion was. The tray was big enough to feed a stable of horses. The big slotted spoon jammed into the mass of macaroni beckoned brightly: "Eat as much as you can." I piled up a plate and started eating. It was some of the highest-definition macaroni and cheese I have ever eaten. The cheese was so fresh, natural, and real that I could see it melting and clinging all string-like as I speared a noodle and pulled it away from its brothers. Macaroni and cheese is a cliched invention, a tried-and-true meal which has survived decades, and though Sony's macaroni and cheese did little to innovate, it was certainly tastier and classier.
So we have the PlayStation Move. It's basically a Nintendo Wiimote. What shame is there in calling it that? Phil Harrison, former Sony Computer Entertainment Europe big-shot, said, shortly after leaving Sony for Atari, that Sony Computer Entertainment Japan wanted nothing to do with the EyeToy. They said it wouldn't work, because Japanese people don't play games together. All the different Sonys have the weirdest little petty ways of disrespecting one another. Like, God of War is Sony's biggest thing in the US, and Sony Computer Entertainment Japan doesn't even bother to publish it in Japan — Capcom does. Sony Computer Entertainment Japan published EyeToy it in Japan, though they marketed it in the ugliest manner possible: they made a sham out of it. They got Konishiki — the biggest, fattest sumo wrestler on earth — to stand right in front of an EyeToy, covering the entire TV screen with his image, while a little girl stood close by and shouted "No fair!" I mean, how is that supposed to sell a product? I remember this commercial for Comcast on Demand, way back when, where there's a guy channel surfing, and then a woman says, "You don't have to do that anymore." She explains that you can browse a channel / program listing and choose what you want to watch. You can even put together a schedule of things you want to watch so you'll know when they're coming on. "Isn't that nice?" the wife says. She kisses her husband and then walks away. He looks at her as she leaves, then looks to the screen, then proceeds to start flipping through channels mindlessly again. That was sometime in the mid-1990s. On-demand television wouldn't catch on for nearly a decade.
So it was with motion controls in videogames. Nintendo's Satoru Iwata must have been under immense pressure as the new head of that old company. He was maybe on the toilet when he had a eureka re: the EyeToy, and the DS was born. The early EyeToy games (not that "late" EyeToy games ever had a chance to exist) were mostly mini-game-like proof-of-concept trash where you waved your arms to wash windows. On the DS, it was scraping the screen with a stylus to shear a sheep in Harvest Moon. Only Nintendo accepted the truth: good ideas are, generally, good ideas. They put all their eggs in a basket, because it feels awesome when risks pay off, and eventually, there was the Wii — the Nintendo DS, on your TV, only you don't have to directly touch the screen. Now we have the Sony PlayStation Move, which is the EyeToy With Something In Your Hand, or the Wii HD, and Sony expended a whole four-point-two Muffin Dumpsters in encouraging us to sit back, relax, and enjoy it.
I was at first of the opinion that I would rather choke on my own tongue than wave my arms around in the name of yet another virtual ping-pong simulation. Then I got into PlayStation Thrii Sports — I mean, "Sports Champions" (you know, that's just the sort of British working title that ends up being the actual title of a game) — and discovered that, hey, there's a bit more depth here than I would have thought. The "Gladiator Battle" game — Thrii Sports' answer to Wii Sports Resort's fencing event — has a really neat shield control element. It's also in serious high-definition. It looks like Wii Sports Resort for people who would rather play God of War than Animal Crossing. I guess that's nice enough. I mean, why not? I guess this is all that you or anyone need to know about the PlayStation Move: It's like the Wii, only shinier and a bit deeper. I toyed around with the new SOCOM game and hey, it feels like you'd expect something like that to feel, and it looks nice, too. The only question is, am I going to have to get a taller stand for my television? Am I going to have to stand up to play these games? My current sofa sits so low to the ground that it's literally on the ground. That might not work.
There was this PlayStation Move boxing game, which looked more or less like a pretty decent simulation of wrestling with a controller.
Soon enough, the party was ending; the PR dudes were flipping off the televisions (with remote controls, not middle fingers), and herding us toward the God of War III party. That party was scary. Women on stilts, things on fire, a stage set for a band to tear out a blazing, hard performance, God of War III playable on copious televisions. It was dark and dingy. An attractive woman wandered the crowd with an ominous pomegranate in hand. What was the meaning of the pomegranate? Was she promoting urinary tract health? The party was scary-huge. The journalists were getting scary drunk. The place was dark and the strobe lights were having a heart attack. Years ago, I would have copped some anti-establishment attitude, and found a way to consider the whole thing idiotic and unnecessary. This time, I didn't. I'm perfectly fine with this stupid spectacle. It was classy enough. Sony managed to not do anything stupid, like put a real, once-living bloody goat head on a table and correctly expect people to freak out. Without controversy, however, what is there to write about? My indie game developer friend offered my professional journalist friend a T-shirt just the other day, only to receive the immediate reply "I don't accept freebies." I would have thought that my existence as . . . whatever the hell it is I am would have concocted a conflict-of-interest-proof barrier between the two of them. I'd thought wrong. People and their principles! Maybe journalists in the video-game field have something of a collective inferiority complex, what with how young and full of potential the medium of games really is. The only way to push things forward is to be a devoted professional from the ground floor up. This might mean not accepting freebies, and it might also mean not writing blow-by-blow descriptions of publishers' PR dance.
It seems to me that the "P" in "PR", more often than not, stands for "Press", not "Public". The PR doesn't deal with the Public, they deal with the people who deal with the public. They only touch the public with Q-tips held by tweezers. Whenever I write about marketing campaigns in reviews, I get dozens of hateful mails telling me to just talk about the game. For me, the marketing is most definitely a part of the game. If journalists don't write about these parties, why do they happen? The publishers don't even ever tell the journalists not to talk about the parties. Are the journalists afraid of being accused of bias? If a publisher celebrates an awesome game with an awesome party, and a journalist writes an awesome article about that party, then his publication goes on to give the game an awesome score, someone might bring up the idea that the awesome party influenced the journalist's bias. [Editor's note: Technically, the concert, which was held in the room adjacent to the PlayStation Move demo showcase, was open to God of War fans as well and was not a purely press event, but Tim's account still stands.]
I used to know that I was immune to bias. I used to insist that I could hate anything, even something someone gave me for free, with a muffin on top. These days, I don't quite "know" — I just believe — and I never insist, because people don't like hearing people insist anything. I've worked enough in marketing to know that everyone breaks at some point, that no one needs anything outside food, air, water, and shelter, and that our whole lives are corporation-conducted symphonies. The only way for this to end is for the president of Coca-Cola to stand up before the world and announce that everyone should just start drinking water.
Am I excited about the PlayStation Move? I don't know. I wouldn't mind one, if I got it for free. If I got one for free, would I immediately get on Google Docs and type up a big-time gush about how great it was? How would the macaroni and cheese have anything to do with that? You know what — the first time I played a Nintendo Wii, I'd paid money for it myself. No one gave me any free food. I had to make the food myself. I made a big bowl of soup. I had to keep removing the Wii remote strap from my wrist every time I wanted to eat some of that soup. Compared to the posh macaroni and cheese of the PlayStation Move event, that situation was a nightmare.
Does gourmet macaroni and cheese make a game better? Yes, if it's free. Does a game make gourmet macaroni and cheese better? Maybe not. (That might be a crucial point.) Akira Yamaoka gave a talk at GDC this year entitled "As long as the audio is fun, the game will be, too." What a terrible title for a talk! I didn't even go to the talk, because I realized it'd be impossible for him to prove his statement, and I didn't feel like watching a dude flounder. I predicted that he'd just get up there and say, immediately, "Yeah, I didn't really think about that title." You could have a game where, like, Pac-Man is trying to navigate a maze, and the game keeps wresting control from the player every [random number] seconds. Meanwhile, masterfully recorded Mozart plays in the background. Would this be fun? Probably not. If Yamaoka could prove that audio is more important even than game mechanics, however, he'd probably be on his way to a Nobel Prize. It's much easier to say that a game is more fun with a muffin than without a muffin, and just be done with it.
Anyway, I think there was MSG in that macaroni and cheese, because I was hungry again, like a lion, in two hours. Perhaps with images of Kratos screen-burned into my retinas, I purchased a Colossal 100 protein bar and ate enough of it to start feeling sick. Maybe that's part of the pitch, too.