The accusation levelled at the game press this week is that advertising money – the revenue source that keeps pretty much every games website you’ve ever read ticking over – makes writers and editors ever-so-slightly corrupt.
The logic is that the advent of a ‘free’ online games press has shifted the priorities of those behind the words you read. Whereas magazines of old derived a source of their income from readers parting with their cash for the latest issue, advertising is now, by and large, the only way that most games websites can stay afloat.
And what do advertisers want? Page views. There’s no point paying for prime slots on sites if the eyeballs aren’t there. So, if we carry this argument forward, critics suggest that websites become increasingly focused on serving up ‘quick hits’. Fully formed features that might appeal to a select audience are cast out and in their place come news stories with sexy headlines based on content sifted from secondary sources.
There’s some weight to this. We can all think of websites that have made this approach their prime focus in recent years – successful sites that, in a very efficient manner, scan the internet for consumable soundbites they can fill out and publish in quick time. It’s tried and tested, it keeps the page views rolling in and it allows them to run a successful and sustainable business. However, it doesn’t necessarily do all that much for raising the bar when it comes to the profession as a whole.
Nonetheless, even if you accept that there are a lot of ‘tabloid’ style games websites on the market pushing out disposable ‘churnalism’, it’s a big leap to then suggest that those behind them have been corrupted by ad money.
It’s a big leap because those that make this case overlook one important detail: in the running of most professional websites, the ads people – the folk who sign the big bucks deals – act as a buffer between the companies looking to spend their money and the journalists producing the articles.
Writers and editors don’t sign off advertising deals. Hell, if my experience to date is illustrative of other editors in this industry, the first we know of an ad deal is when the skin pops up on the website – in short, roughly around the same time as the readers do.
I can safely say that, in the case of any of the sites or magazines I’ve written for, I’ve never been pressured by anyone to cover/not cover a story because a particular company was advertising with us, or even to colour our coverage of an event in a particular light. Indeed, I imagine it was a touch embarrassing for our ads people when a new skin for a much maligned OEM popped up on PocketGamer.biz at the exact time we had several stories on the front page detailing its downfall.
Did it do our relations with said company any harm? I have no idea – and neither should I.
Of course, the whole issue of whether ads money corrupts the games press has been brought to my attention thanks to Patreon – a new crowdfunding platform that a body of games journalists have taken to in an attempt to change the way this industry is structured.
Their individual goals differ but their message appears to be the same: it’s simply not in the interest of readers for the games press to be funded by advertisers and we need to adopt a new approach.
This all sounds rather familiar to me. A couple of years ago, developers took to Kickstarter in droves trumpeting much the same message. Publishers, it was claimed, were solely focused on emulating what had gone before, delivering guaranteed hits that stifled creativity but generated revenue.
Their freedom, it was suggested, was being crushed. Kickstarter and other platforms like it would ‘cut out the middle man’ and allow consumers to decide what projects were worthy or not. Developers would be free from outside influences and could create the kind of glorious games publishers had been unwilling to back.
For some, this proved to be the case, and a catalogue of games have made it to market that otherwise would never have seen the light of day. Many, however, failed to find an audience big enough to support them – gamers proving to be just as picky as publishers – and other developers complained that, even when their games were funded, keeping gamers happy by meeting unrealistic goals they’d set in the first flourishes of the campaign proved more difficult than they’d anticipated.
Kickstarter’s big lesson has been that building a game that pleases a large enough audience to get funded is, more often than not, trickier a task than going directly to a publisher. It may be a controversial thing to say, but scores of studios have found out that good publishers actually serve a purpose: they know what gamers like, they’re able to keep projects focused and they act as a much-needed second pair of eyes.
I think we can quite easily apply these lessons to Patreon, too.
The case being made by many who have taken to the platform is that, by creating content that’s be pre-paid for by subscribers, those delivering it don’t need to worry about churning out ‘rubbish’ that brings in huge audiences. The crowdfunding model frees them up to do more creative stuff that’s currently locked off to them.
I disagree. I think if your sole form of funding is your readers/viewers – and you’re attempting to make a living from this – then you’ve got to make damn sure that you have enough of them paying month after month to keep going. From where I stand, the crowdfunding model doesn’t free you up to deliver the kind of content you want to – it makes you a slave to working on the content your paying subscribers want.
Now, you may be lucky. It may be that you’re so good at what you do that you’re entirely at one with your audience, and both you and them want the same things. There’s certainly enough evidence in the world to suggest that subscription services work – HBO a prominent example of an organisation that has been afforded creative freedom thanks to viewers paying in advance for its content – but most have been able to draw on huge audiences to keep going.
Conversely, the kind of figures that those on Patreon seem to be aiming for suggest they’ll be relying on a relatively small and loyal band of backers to keep them ticking over. Even if your audience is only a few thousand, there’s even more pressure on you to ensure that every one of those few thousand don’t get tired and drop their subscription. In short, Patreon may well clear a few hurdles for the truly gifted, but for the rest it’ll put up a whole host of others in their place.
The fundamental thing critics of the ‘advertising system’ overlook is that the statistics websites produce to attract advertisers are based on averages. That means you actually have the freedom to push out quality articles that don’t necessarily draw in huge audiences as long as you balance them out with other pieces that do. As such, it’s especially unfair to suggest that creative freedom doesn’t exist within the games press as it stands, and it’s also downright arrogant to hint that the bulk of journalists working within the current system are in any way untrustworthy.
I also have another, perhaps slightly more controversial problem with this, and this is where I may lose some of you.
Patreon is being used by some to fund ‘video journalism’, or rather videos about gaming uploaded to YouTube. I have a problem with this, and it’s less to do with the people behind those videos and more to do with the relative freshness of video journalism as a tool in the games media.
I’ve seen plenty of good videos on games websites – ones that enrich the content of those sites and, more often than not, add a much needed dose of humour. But up until now, the vast majority of video content on games websites has been entirely free for the consumer. That’s because, like articles, it’s been funded by advertising.
Rarely, however, is it the lead feature of a site. Like podcasts, videos are more used to help complete the circle – they act as the icing on top of the cake rather than the cake itself.
If someone asked you to pay to see those videos, I doubt most would open their wallets, because as good as videos are, they’re ultimately disposable. Never have I watched a video on a games site and thought ‘hmm, that offered real value, I’d be happy to pay for that’.
I may be at odds with my peers, but I have real a problem with journalists going directly to readers or viewers cap in hand and asking them to fund their careers, and that’s a feeling that’s amplified when I talk about video journalism specifically.
Putting the games media aside, I’m not especially comfortable with the growth of ‘YouTube superstars’ who, popular as they may be, seem to be able to earn a living (and, indeed, great influence) from simply sitting in front of their webcam and saying whatever comes to mind. What you can say for those ‘stars’, however, is that their living has been funded by Google Ads rather than viewers tapping into their bank accounts.
My personal view is, if you think video journalism is currently at a level where, all on its own, it’s of a quality that warrants paying for, you should be brave and attempt to fund it the ‘traditional’ way – put it on a website, steadily build out an audience by publishing unique content and then utilise advertising so you’re not reliant on a portion of viewers paying out month after month to keep a roof over your head.
Going directly to punters – willing or otherwise – and saying ‘fund my lifestyle and I’ll record some videos about games for you’ sets my teeth on edge, however small the amount being sought. Locking off additional content to those who pay more – videos that somehow weren’t good enough for the masses – also goes directly against what online video has, to date, been made for: sharing on social networks.
There will undoubtedly be people who successfully fund such projects via Patreon and, what’s more, their supporters can feel free to rub this in my face. Ultimately, if journalists are able to make a sustainable living from this without compromising their creative freedom in the coming years, then I’ll have been proved wrong – the value of something differs from person to person. However, that doesn’t mean I’ll ever be comfortable with the process, or willing to tolerate the notion that everyone else working in this industry is somehow tainted or unworthy of the readers’ trust.
In the vast majority of cases, companies that pay out for advertising do so because they have cash to spare. If you’re going to ask the general public to take their place, you better make damned sure the content you serve up is worthy of their money.