#47: Known unknowns

When I was out and about representing Edge back in the day, I would often be asked what my favourite part of the job was. My answer was always the same: the first day of work on a new issue, when I would sit in front of a mostly blank flatplan that it was up to the team and I to fill. What did we think our readers wanted or needed to know, or would be interested in hearing about? What did we think was exciting or important? We’d do a reader survey every few years, if we remembered and had time and could be bothered, but apart from that it was a very one-way business. We followed our gut and hoped it would work. It’s no wonder Edge never really took off online, but this speaks to its longevity in print, I think.

I was reminded of this late last Friday by a searing, sobering, blaze-of-glory Twitter thread by Mike Rougeau, the no-longer-managing editor of GameSpot. He has packed his bags and quit journalism, finally having been broken not by the demands of the job, but the shape of it. “The entire journalism industry,” he writes, “is now totally dependent on a series of ever-shifting algorithms re-written weekly behind closed doors by a handful of giant tech companies that do not have anyone’s best interest at heart. My entire job for years has been a game of whack-a-mole.”

There’s plenty more specific stuff behind his departure: the fact that GameSpot has been passed around between a succession of corporate owners, the endless reshuffles at the hands of cold-hearted suits, the departures of some 20 of his colleagues in the past eight months, and so on. (It really is a heck of a thread.) But I was most struck by the universal truth that contemporary online journalism is not about serving the reader, but trying to satisfy an unknown, and unknowable, series of algorithms. 

I don’t blame websites for doing this stuff, because it works (sort of) and makes money (ish), and because it is simply what the job is these days. In print’s heyday, the entry-level jobs were staff-writer positions. When I came along in 2010, there were online news shifts. These days new people coming into the profession are writing guides and deals posts and updating the archives, trying to fatten website stats with whatever the audience team reckons the algorithms like this week. 

Journalism should, at its core, be about forging a connection between the writer and the reader. The algorithms, by inserting themselves in between and dictating what should be written and how, make that much harder. Add in corporate owners who long ago stopped seeing their staff and their readers as people, reducing them instead to points on graphs and cells in spreadsheets, and it becomes as good as impossible. There is still excellent, vital work being done out there by writers of remarkable tenacity and talent. But it feels like it’s getting rarer, and it’s definitely getting harder to find. I’m not sure there’s a way out, at least for established outlets with corporate owners.

There’s a pretty obvious segue from all this into the reason I write a newsletter three times a week, but I think you’re all intelligent enough for it to go without saying (it’s true, though). Besides, this isn’t about me. It’s not even about Mike, really. As he points out, people are leaving the profession in droves. It is no fun, and largely thankless, and it doesn’t really seem to be working for anyone, be they a writer or a reader or some suit poring over last fiscal’s P&L. And nothing is going to change any time soon, if ever. So, do me a favour, if you would: get out on the socials or in a website’s comments section, and tell a writer you like how much you appreciate and value their work, and that you want to see it continue. I think they could do with the boost.


MORE!

  • An important update on the PS4-PS5 upgrade farrago covered in Friday’s Hit Points: on Saturday evening, Sony’s Jim Ryan walked the whole thing back. The Horizon Forbidden West cross-gen upgrade will now be free, while all future firstparty games will levy a flat $10 fee. Victory! Sort of! Does this make me a ‘thought leader’? I think it does? I’ll update my LinkedIn.

  • For those still wondering about Sony’s motivations in all this, enter former worldwide studios boss Shawn Layden, telling Bloomberg of his belief that firstparty PS5 games will eventually cost $200 million to develop. Eep.

  • Also at Bloomberg, Toshiba reckons the current semiconductor shortage could squeeze supplies of consumer electronics until 2023. 

  • A survey conducted by two Swedish union groups has slammed Paradox Interactive for a culture of “mistreatment” and silence. The revered strategy-game developer has pledged to conduct a full investigation.

  • In an error of judgement for the ages, Tripwire Interactive president John Gibson took to Twitter on Saturday to offer his full-throated endorsement of the anti-abortion legislation passed in Texas last week. I mean… look. By all means have your beliefs and your opinions, even if they’re wrong and horrible. But telling everyone about them is just asking for trouble. So it already has proved: Chivalry 2 developer Torn Banner has stated its opposition to Gibson’s nonsense, while Maneater co-developer Shipwright Studios says it’s in the process of cancelling its contracts with Gibson’s (current) employer.

  • Staff at Activision Blizzard and Ubisoft have hit out at their employers for failing to provide a “meaningful response” to demands for reform in the light of the misconduct scandals that have rocked the two firms. 

  • Forza Motorsport 7 is being delisted later this month, a development that will also see it removed from Game Pass. The Forza series is weirdly short-termist: both the mainline entries and the Horizon games seem to get four or so years in the sun before licences expire and they’re consigned to history. Sure, there’ll be another one along in a minute, but it’s still a shame — and means Microsoft is left with the rather embarrassing task of deleting its own game from its own subscription service because it doesn’t have the rights to it anymore. Most odd.


I do believe that’s everything! As ever, if you’ve enjoyed today’s Hit Points — well, maybe not enjoyed, per se, it was quite a depressing subject and it would take a strange heart to find much joy in it; let’s go with ‘if today’s Hit Points has struck a chord with you’ — do please give it a share, and sign up if you haven’t. Becoming a paid supporter, meanwhile, puts food on my table and also acts as a statement of support and intent for a brighter, more sustainable future for people writing fun nonsense about videogames. See you on Wednesday.

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