My Twitter feed was oddly divided this afternoon, with lots of emotion and opinions swirling around a pair of articles from Kotaku and Penny Arcade. In short it comes down to Kotaku wishing more people in the industry would talk with press honestly, and Penny Arcade calling them childish for expecting that.
As rarely as I find myself saying it these days, I found myself on the side of Penny Arcade. The other developers I know (either in real life or via the large communal break room of Twitter) were fairly split on the issue, but I noticed a pretty clear pattern: small developers agree with Kotaku, and large developers agree with Penny Arcade. (There are exceptions, of course; I’m making a gross generalization.)
I’m a game designer, so I tend to see most things in terms of incentive structures. What it comes down to, I think, is the perspective of the given studio. What’s the incentive to speak with the press? For a small studio, you get exposure; for a large studio, you have some more risks. Because the press wants something newsworthy, and the larger the company gets, the more likely it is that “newsworthy” == “negative.” Since most small games fail, it’s newsworthy when one does well, so the press (rightly) wants to tell that story. When a large company screws up, that’s more of a story than “Great company releases another great game.” And honestly, there’s already more than enough coverage of positive news from big companies (because, well, marketing and PR departments exist), so to find a scoop, you’ve got to find dirt.
(I’m speaking mostly of the enthusiast press here, rather than more in-depth journalist pieces; I have friends in both types of games writing, and hope I’m not offending either here.)
I don’t blame journalists for this; it’s just the nature of the beast. Deliver an interesting, unique story that will draw in readers. Sometimes that means finding one negative quote and twisting it out of context to form a compelling headline. I’m not so cynical that I think the press is lying in wait wanting to trap us in gotchas, but from a game design perspective, their incentive system is set up to make us suspicious.
This is why large studios have just a couple mouthpieces, and they’re almost always the people at the top. Usually they’re at the top because they’re good, but they’re also able to speak authoritatively about the game. Our team at Bethesda is huge and I honestly don’t know everything that everyone is working on. If I were to offer any kind of speculation, I’d have to be honest and say “I don’t know how [New Feature X] is going to turn out,” and no matter what I said around that, it could be construed as “Bethesda designer skeptical of marquee feature.”
Like most issues worthy of discussion, it’s not simple, and there’s no easy solution. I personally would love to see more interviews with people lower down the chain, simply for my own selfish reasons of wanting to hear the perspectives of people at similar positions to my own. The way Ken Levine relates to Bioshock is so different from the way I relate to Skyrim that reading interviews with him actually doesn’t teach me a whole lot. I’d love to read interviews with junior designers or artists, but I completely understand why Irrational doesn’t want to have that happen. There’s just so little upside.