Could 2015 be the year of the MMO Journalist?

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I recently finished one of Malcolm Gladwell’s pop studies, titled, Outliers, which explores some of the biggest successes in sports, business, music and more.

One of the discoveries that Gladwell makes is that, “Outliers” – people who appeared to be miles ahead in their field, had much more than simple talent driving them forward. One of the most significant contributors to the successes of big hitters in their field spur from the fact that they’re very experienced in an unpopular field at the exact moment that society flipped and decided that it was needed.

This is not such a time, not exactly; society isn’t crying out for MMO journalists. Infact, MMO gaming isn’t really crying out for MMO journalists – gaming journalism is crying out for journalists like MMO journalists and, frankly, there’s nobody else that can fit the bill.

So what’s changing in gaming journalism that MMO journalists can fix? The bottom line, which has even been expressed by some of the industry’s top players, is that gaming news is, on the whole, boring right now and the format of how games are reported on needs to change.

Back in the days of traditional gaming media, with magazines like Games Master and Arcade, this wasn’t such an issue. Gaming in the 80’s and 90’s was new and exciting with new technology, new experiences and seemingly endless potential. Here, in 2014, this simply isn’t the case. New consoles, for example, are now treated in the same way now that upgrading a PC has been seen since the mid 90’s. Hype boils down to stats, launch titles and exclusives and it’s all pretty clear-cut how capable a console is going to be. Furthermore, the role that gaming press has changed from being purely consumer advice and insider information into virtually a PR service for manufacturers and game developers.

The tail, in a way, is now wagging the dog and the majority of gaming journalism is done behind closed doors, in early access tests and interviews before a game has been released. Post-release feedback is handled, for the most part, by the player and by social media bloggers and vloggers and is only really placed back in the hands of the professional journalists in the run up to an expansion or a DLC launch.

It almost seems like gaming journalists no longer do any of the actual gaming. Gamers want the reviews before launch. Due to pressure from developers to begin making money before a game launches, through the means of pre-orders, paid-for beta access and founder’s packs, gamers need to know how good a game potentially is months, even years, before release.

So, what does this mean for journalists? It means a lot of fast, potentially pivotal decisions on a game, from as early as possible so that when a game begins to approach the radar, reviews are ready, gamers are informed and the cashflow has already began for the game, so that the publishers and investors stay off the developers’ backs during crucial development phases.

That’s a lot of responsibility for writers and it’s a bit of a touchy subject for many, since it’s not a role they signed up for and it’s dramatically shifted the expectations of journalists in the industry. As mentioned before, it also makes professional gaming news boring. Journalists are merely sharing PR information, reviewing developers and generating an abstract opinion on an unreleased version of a game.

The hard work of exploring the game is placed on the player and the senior editors and journalists are beginning to see a very bleak endgame for journalism, if gaming continues down this path. As a result, some of them have began to take some of that power back.

In a recent interview with TotalBiscuit (aka Cynical Brit), Kotaku’s Editor In-Chief, Stephen Totilo expressed his own opinion on the current stance of gaming media, with him and Mr Biscuit both agreeing that “boring” is an overruling sentiment. According to Totilo, Kotaku have been restructuring their own websites standpoint over the past few months, swaying their writing to focus more on post-launch articles explaining that the most interesting news of this year has came from titles like Borderlands The Pre-Sequel, Driveclub and Destiny as their communities strive to find exploits, improve their experiences and, in short, play their games.

At this point, a couple of things had piqued my interest. Firstly, Borderlands, Destiny and Driveclub. These games are all forerunners in the new generation of MMO gaming. Many question the definition of what makes a MMO game these days, including Destiny’s developer, Bungie, who were intent on separating themselves from the genre prior to launch. However, in the eyes of the gamer, the Destiny and Borderlands franchises rest under the MMOFPS umbrella and Driveclub revs alongside World of Speed and The Crew in the Racing MMO genre. MMO games, according to one of the World’s most recognized gaming editors, make interesting news. As a MMO gaming journalist myself, I can whole heartedly agree. These games create continuous content; in some cases, for as much as a decade and, on top of that, their communities create their own entertainment too. This provides a wealth of post-launch news, far more than any other genre and continually playing and talking about a game keeps the game relevant, keeps the medium of gaming relevant and, of course, keeps gaming journalism relevant.

In the realm of MMO games, journalism isn’t all about PR and reviews, it’s about what the players are doing now and it’s about what the developers are doing next, rather than simply interviewing the devs pre-launch and throwing out exactly the information that they want the consumers to see. This means, for the journalist, that continuous engagement with their games is required along with a fair amount of contact with the developers and the communities that they create for. Granted there’s still a huge amount of talking about pre-orders, micropurchases and beta tests – that’s simply the nature of the free-to-play-dominated beast the MMO gaming has become, but the important thing is that MMO journalists are already aware that there’s life after launch.

The other thing from Totilo’s statement that got me thinking, was that writing more post-launch articles had been their agenda since at-least the summer. Going back through the archives, he wasn’t wrong. I even noticed articles I’d found at time of press and hadn’t realized the significance, at the time. This style of writing is already knitting its way into their culture. So, which other non-MMO sites are at it? Joystiq, with strong influence from satellite-site, Massively were a no-brainer, but the same behavior can be observed in other sites. Eurogamer are continually exploring games, post-launch, with head-to-head tests, Sticktwiddlers are heavily integrating themselves with the Youtube, “Let’s Play” culture, Destructoid are posting multi-episode, reviews and Siliconera are covering discount sales and reviews after launch and, lastly, several sites, including GameTrailers, are posting ever-popular videogame retrospectives.

A demand for continual game coverage has been identified, media outlets are straining to provide content and MMO games have been recognized as a tappable resource. So, what happens now? Do sites turn towards MMO games for this continuous coverage? Maybe a little, but the fact is, readers want all of their favorite games to undergo this treatment. They want to see newfound secrets, easter eggs, glitches and they want their games to stay in discussion for longer than an E3 weekend. The level of hype in the build up to a game, compared to the deflation that follows launch day is jarringly noticeable. In addition, it fuels the fire of the more negative gamers; happy gamers post the occasional “OMG Aw3som3! #BestGameEver” tweet when they get their hands on the game, but it’s no secret that disappointed gamers are the more vocal party and an overall good game can be dragged down, due to a minority of unhappy gamers acting as the only long-term source of feedback. The shift in press could remove this.

I think this drive for post-launch coverage will pull MMO games back towards the mainstream, but I also think that non-MMO journalists need to see this as an opportunity to look at the likes of Massively, MMO Champion and Ten Ton Hammer as examples of how they need to push their own journalism forward. These guys have been doing it for years, they know how to talk about a 10 year old game like it’s brand new, they know how to make the fans feel valued and like their investment in a game was worthwhile and it means they always come back, week after week to talk about videogames that they’ve already bought. Do publishers care? Short term, probably not, they’ve made their money at this point and are onto the next game. However, this is exactly why journalists need to push for it. Publishers can’t keep dictating the games – that should be the gamer’s job and by encouraging gamers to keep enjoying their games and keep talking about their games after launch-week, you’re encouraging the culture as a whole.

Unlike the rest of gaming journalism MMO gaming journalism doesn’t have to take this power back – they never let go of it in the first place. Now it’s time for everyone else to play catch-up.