On the occasion of Kotaku's 10th anniversary earlier this month, I'd like to tell you all about a big change we've been working on since June. If you've been paying really close attention to the site you might have already picked up on it. But probably not. It's been a slow but, I think, essential change.
Short version: While we remain a site that puts gaming first and will continue to tell you about the most interesting games as soon as possible, we are shifting from what has been a heavily pre-release approach to covering video games to one that gives a lot more attention to games after they've been released.
I described this shift in an e-mail that I sent to Kotaku staff on June 16. Here's a key excerpt:
The future of games coverage is in the present. For too long gaming coverage has focused on the vague future, the preview mindset of possibilities and maybes. And when it's involved the present it has been drenched in the dreary falseness of empty interviews, bland producer-speak and executive-hype. It's neither been real enough nor true enough to what is actually happening now. For too long games reporting has involved staring at what is opaque, maybe glimpsing something through it and reporting about that possibility, all the while ignoring so much of what is clearly visible and exciting around us.
I believe there is a better way to cover games, one that puts future-based coverage and executive interviews in proper diminished proportion. We must focus on the games that are being played now and the human beings—the gamers, mostly—who are doing interesting things with them.
Millions of people are playing games right now. They are having amazing experiences in these games. They are discovering fascinating, crazy, and/or scandalous things in them. They are celebrating funny discoveries and raging at emerging bullshit. They're doing this on YouTube and Twitch, on Reddit and on forums. They do it here, too, though we've not given them much space to do so. Most of this is missed by the games press, however, because the games press focuses too much on covering games before the real world touches them and too little after games are released. Exhibit A in that is that people are assigned by their editors to play and write about a game before it comes out in order to review it and are just about never assigned to do so afterwards. They abandon writing authoritatively about a game as soon as it is released. This is archaic and an insult to gamers. This is changing at Kotaku as of now.
As I alluded to in the June e-mail, and as we began doing in the days that followed, all full-time writers at Kotaku are now assigned games or franchises that they're expected to cover post-release.
To give you an example of how this works, Kotaku writer Mike Fahey was assigned to review Mario Kart 8 back in May, but, since then, Yannick LeJacq has been assigned to keep playing it, keep an eye on the Mario Kart community and continue to file stories he finds interesting.
If this sounds like a no-brainer to you, trust me, it's not. Most gaming news and opinion outlets, including Kotaku, typically drift away from covering even the biggest games within a couple of weeks following those games' release dates. And, sure, we and other gaming outlets covered the Luigi Death Stare meme after the game came out, but it was thanks to Yannick's attention that we covered the Mario Kart 8 hacking scene in July, ran detailed impressions of the game's first major patch in late August, explored the issues with Nintendo's change to the game's online ranking system in September, and continue to follow the game to this day.
Typically, we would have probably only covered the game's downloadable content announcements, because that kind of "news" comes easy, via a press release from Nintendo. Instead, we've offered the kind of stories that a game company wouldn't ask us to cover but feel vital to telling the story of Mario Kart 8 and the community of gamers playing the game. This feels right, and it feels more relevant than simply doing a bulk of Mario Kart 8 coverage prior to release—covering Nintendo-administered preview demos, E3 announcements and such.
Yannick also keeps tabs on The Sims 4 and Shadow of Mordor, both of which he reviewed and which he's now following closely to see what the stories of those games' post-release lives are.
Kotaku writer Patricia Hernandez keeps up with the Pokémon and Fallout scenes, among other things, resulting in stories about exceptional gamers who are doing exceptional things with games in those series: a guy who hunts shiny Pokémon and a guy who tried to kill everyone in Fallout 3, respectively.
Each writer is essentially "embedded" in up to four or five games or series. They play games they're embedded in regularly. They keep up with the community around those games. The result, as you would have seen last month, for example, is coverage of many surprising turns of events in Destiny after it was released and in a slew of fun things being accomplished by players of Diablo III.
We began this change in early summer at a time when few major games were coming out, because we knew we'd need time to figure out how to do this best. When, for example, would we stop following a particular game post-release? After all, even with a dozen or so Kotaku writers handling multiple games, we can't follow everything, certainly not forever. What we're trying is giving any game we review at least a month of continued attention. If the scene around the game seems to dry up, we move on. We've already left The Last of Us: Remastered and Tomodachi Life behind.
All full-time writers at Kotaku are now assigned games or franchises that they're expected to cover post-release.
We're also still working on the mix of games we follow. There are types of games we just don't have the internal expertise to keep up with (sports, primarily). And there are games we love that we're not sure make sense to follow after they're out (should we embed a Kotaku writer in Threes?). We're also still figuring out how to ensure that we're not falling into a trap of just embedding in big corporate games and failing to follow indies (indies assigned to writers include Minecraft—an indie no longer!—and Divinity: Original Sin).
Of course, our writers are balancing these assignments out with their various obligations to report news, aggregate cool gaming and gaming culture stories from around the Internet, review games and whatever else in the world Kotaku writers do. It's a lot, but we're up to the challenge!
My e-mail above lays out the case about what I think has been wrong about the future-centric nature of so much gaming coverage. But I'll happily re-state it and re-emphasize why I think this is so important.
Gaming coverage needs to be interesting. What's interesting is what's real, what's actually happening. What's real has the irresistible scent of the truth. You get that from the front page of a newspaper that tells you about what's happening in war and politics. You get that from sports reporting that tell you who did what in a game yesterday and who won as a result. You don't get it from any news and opinion coverage of an entertainment medium that's been successfully co-opted by a cycle of coverage dictated by public relations firms. You don't get it from the bad habits of anyone in the gaming press who still waits for a press release to tell them what's "news" today. Readers sniff that kind of thing out. They look at gaming sites, including Kotaku, and they recognize that much of what's on them just isn't that interesting.
For years, better games reporters and critics have worked to remedy this. They've run increasingly skeptical previews. They've written about the garnish and pomp of gaming showcases. They've criticized the clipped answers of game developers who aren't allowed to stray from their pre-approved talking points. They've implicitly and explicitly labeled pre-release coverage to often be a farce, and yet, too often, they've still done it—which can be fine—even when it's too boring and not worth doing it—which is not fine. And, yeah, we at Kotaku been shying away from previews for some time, even though we still think that we and others can do some good ones, whether they're positive or not.
The truth is that we can't glean a whole lot about a game that we've only played for 10 minutes, whether the game is from a big publisher or from a two-person indie shop. We can seldom get a meaningful interview from most developers before a game comes out, whether it's because PR won't let them talk freely or because, well, they've been immersed in their game for two years, while we've played for only 10 minutes, and so we don't really know what the best questions to ask them would be. We should try to make the most of those situations (and we do, I hope!), but we should be too busy for a lot of that nonsense.
For the last couple of years, my team and I have been turning down the opportunity to attend preview events more frequently than ever before. We're even sometimes attending preview events and then, to the consternation of the people staffing them, deciding not to write anything up because we just didn't see anything there that we thought was worth your time. We can skip a preview of Call of Duty, frankly. We're more into what happens with Call of Duty after it is released.
As we've been making this shift, I've observed the largely wonderful and exciting rise of YouTubers and Twitch streamers as well as the growth of gaming communities on Reddit. I've been impressed with Nintendo's progressive decision to let Wii U users upload screencaps of any Wii U game to their social network. And I've been even more impressed with Sony and Microsoft's decision to approach parity with the PC by letting PS4 and Xbox One users capture video of any game they play and share that. All of this fits. The message is clear: A game doesn't stop being interesting once it has been released. What happens to games after they come out—what gamers do with the games they play—matters. It's exciting. It's interesting. It's part of a game's life. It's something we should be covering not haphazardly but with an institutional intent to make it a priority.
A game doesn't stop being interesting once it has been released. What happens to games after they come out—what gamers do with the games they play—matters.
Nearly a decade ago, when I was covering video games for MTV News, I lamented to some games-reporting colleagues that what gaming coverage lacked were stories about people. People are hooked on coverage of politics or sports or music, I argued, because ultimately, those fields are as much about their ostensible subject matter as they are about the unpredictable and innately fascinating human beings caught in its orbit. One of the people with whom I was discussing this pushed back and said that he felt that games were the stars of gaming. Games trump people. I was stubbornly fixed on the idea, though, and I wondered about the people who might feature in gaming coverage. At the time, I figured those people would be game developers. Lovely as many game developers are, however, I think I was wrong. In fact, even back then, I think I knew that wasn't the best answer.
In 2006, I took my first stab at figuring out that it was in fact the people playing games who were doing many of the most interesting things. Witness: The 10 Most Influential Gamers Of All Time.
Move ahead eight years and you'll see the evolution of that idea in various ways on Kotaku, both in the embedding in games that I've been describing above, and in Highlight Reel, a project we started in July that amounts to a thrice-weekly SportsCenter-style narrated compilation of amazing feats recently accomplished by gamers in everything from eSports and speedrunning contests to just regular old screwing around on their consoles at home. This feels like an important thing to have in our mix.
I believe that at least some of the perennial sense of disenfranchisement some gamers feel from the press stems from the correct instinct by all sorts of readers that reporters on the scene spend too much time and energy covering the vacuous hype of pre-release video games, while ceding the fascinating discussions of how a game's life continues after release to message boards and other supposed non-professionals. In that sense, yes, what we're doing that I've been describing here is aimed to better serve anyone who loves and cares about games.
I do worry that some of you may fret that this shift toward more post-release coverage means that we'll cloud Kotaku with stories about what gamers are up to and about how some new patch is affecting a Battlefield game and forgo telling you about the next games you should care about—or avoid! Don't fret. I believe that people who are fortunate enough to get to play games for a living ought to do their damnedest to find out about what's worth playing and what's not worth playing and let people who don't have as much time know. Kotaku will continue to be a place you can go for news and opinion about the games we think you should and shouldn't play. That will never change.
We'd like your help with this. Ultimately, we'll need it. Because, unlike our friends at Deadspin who only have to follow five or six sports, and unlike movie critics who cover a non-interactive experience that is rarely going to be subject to requests from fans to please change the ending, we are committed to covering a wide swath of games and the communities around them. We will do the best we can, but, if you hear about something fascinating happening with a game that's out, please let us know. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. E-mail the writer who seems to be covering that game the most.
We want to hear from you whether you're a fan of the game and have noticed something, whether you're a gamer who has done something amazing, whether you're a game developer, a community manager or a public relations person. We want to know about the lives of the games you love or work on weeks and months after the games are out. Of course, we only want to know the interesting stuff.
Oh, and if you're someone who writes about games and have some ideas along these lines that you would like to contribute to Kotaku, please drop me a line.
Kotaku has changed a lot in the last 10 years, and I'm hopeful that the slow metamorphosis we've been going through this year turns out to be our best change yet. I thank all of you for your continued support, for helping the site to continue to grow (more than 11 million readers last month!) and for going on this journey with me and the team.
Here's to another 10 years and the chance that someday we'll be assigning a Kotaku writer to do post-release coverage of Half-Life 3.