- [In a special version of his regular GameSetWatch column, British games journalist and producer Simon Parkin interviews editorial leaders from Eurogamer, IGN, and Edge Magazine to produce 'a snapshot, albeit partial, into the state of the specialist gaming press in mid-2008.' Oh, and the picture is how the games press are portrayed, not necessarily how they are.]

Few avenues of journalism are so dimly regarded as the specialist gaming press. Viewed as little more than hobbyists covering an adolescent industry, game journalists earn few accolades and command little respect from their peers in the older mediums. And readerships too can be vicious in their skepticism, accusing gaming websites and magazines of being fawning mouthpieces for the industry they cover, their writers rarely breaking real stories or offering anything approaching lucid commentary or incisive critique.

Poorly paid and overworked, a minority of game journalists continue to cover games full-time into their thirties, drawn away instead by more lucrative jobs in gaming PR, acquisitions, consultancy or development itself.

But despite this grim, stereotypical overview, the gaming press is far from an impotent one. The disrespect it attracts is more than matched by raw readership figures, which would be the envy of many a news editor in 2008. The biggest-hitting gaming websites attract in excess of a million unique hits a month, and even boutique-y publications, such as Edge Magazine, while boasting monthly ABCs of only 31,304 issues, exert a global influence on the industry and its consumers that few specialist publications manage.

As the games industry matures and diversifies, so too does the range, breadth and ability of its commentators, reviewers and critics. There are those who are writers first and gamers second, who love the games industry enough to be able to examine its products with white honesty, rooting out the real stories behind the precision-written press releases. And, of course, leading, coordinating and inspiring these writers to produce their best work, work that bucks the stereotypes, are the editors who steer the publications, define their tone and set their boundaries.

GameSetWatch directed a clutch of identical questions to five of western gaming journalism’s most prominent editors: Eurogamer’s Tom Bramwell, IGN’s Tal Blevins (Vice President of Games Content), Kotaku’s Brian Crecente, Edge Magazine’s Tony Mott and Gamespot’s Ricardo Torres.

In the interview we ask each man (and they are all men) for their perspective and approach to game journalism, the relationship between advertising and editorial, what the most popular articles and posts are with readers and what advice they would give to young writers looking to get into the industry.

All five editors initially agreed to take part but only three actually delivered their answers. Their replies are presented here in full to offer a snapshot, albeit partial, into the state of the specialist
gaming press in mid-2008.

What, if anything, is wrong with videogame journalism and how are you working to fix it?

Tony Mott (Edge): There's so much of it out there today, especially on the internet, that it's difficult to have a catch-all opinion on the state of game journalism. There's certainly an awful lot of shit out there, but there are lots of people happy to read shit about videogames in the same way they're happy to watch shit on TV or read shitty newspapers. If enough people are satisfied with that -- if it's fulfilling their needs, such as they are -- then it's serving a purpose, right? It's just different to what we try to do. I don’t think we’re in a position to 'fix' anything, and it would probably be arrogant to think that it's in any way our responsibility.

Tal Blevins (IGN): The biggest thing that I think is wrong with "videogame journalism" is classifying it as "videogame journalism." What makes reporting on videogames any different from any other form of entertainment reporting or product critiquing? One of my biggest pet peeves is when someone compares IGN to a publication like The Economist. Compare IGN to Entertainment Weekly or At the Movies, not The Economist. Writing about videogames is nothing to be ashamed of, and I don't feel the need to try and justify it as anything more than it is. Are we investigative journalists or war correspondents? No, but we don't want to be, either. We strive to be just as accurate, in-depth, and compelling as any publication in existence, but we're also very aware of our audience, and we write with them in mind.

Tom Bramwell (Eurogamer): Videogame journalism isn't as glamorous or highly paid as film, music or literary criticism, so the quality threshold isn't as high. Eurogamer's popular, so I can employ the best writers and that's how I try and fight that. I also evaluate what we're doing and listen to feedback from our readers and contributors as well as other people who work in the games industry.

It's a bland answer. I don't have a manifesto or anything exotic. But I think I have the right principles and instincts and I think that shows in the site's growth and the level of respect for it among our readers, peers and folks within the games industry.

What differentiates your publication to your rivals?

Tony Mott (Edge): I have to be honest and say that I don’t read enough other multi-format magazines to be able to offer an opinion.

Tad Blevins (IGN): At IGN, we stress the importance of entertaining our readers as well as informing them, so we write with a very casual voice and try to come across as if we're talking to an old friend. We also strive to expose our readers to more than just games, so we report on other subjects that gamers are interested in, such as movies, television, comic books, music, and more.

Tom Bramwell (Eurogamer): Having not edited GameSpot or IGN, I can't answer in terms of how they are run except to say that we're privately funded and they are part of big organisations, but there are a number of obvious differences.

Europe may be the "most important continent" in Phil Harrison's phrase, but the people who control access to games and their developers rarely see it that way, so we have to fight harder for big stories and exclusives than our US rivals.

Our location also means that our readers are very sceptical, and the only way to satisfy them is to employ writers of exemplary skill and pedigree, so our core staff and contributors are veterans of broadsheet newspapers, fierce trade-press environments and prestigious magazines like Edge and PC Gamer UK.

We also publish in four languages (English, French, German and Portuguese) with another four set to come online this year. Individual territories have complete editorial autonomy but we share resources and cooperate when it's useful.

Which has been your most popular post/ article in the part six months? Why do you think that is?

TM (Edge): We had lots of positive feedback on the cover feature we did focusing on the making of the Grand Theft Auto series. It was popular because GTA is obviously such a huge deal, but also because we were fortunate enough to spend a lot of time with Sam Houser and the Rockstar team when we were putting it together. Actually, we still have plenty of interview content left over from that article. We'll have to make it available online soon.

TB (IGN): The Grand Theft Auto IV review was our most popular article. We published the first online review, and the franchise has always been very popular with our readers.

TB (Eurogamer): Oli Welsh's review of Metal Gear Solid 4 is our best-performing feature of 2008.
Early MGS4 reviews were controversial because reviewers had to sign up to complicated review guidelines that restricted what they could say, but after exploring those thoroughly and discussing them with Oli it was obvious we could still say everything we had to say.
Oli's review also drew attention because he didn't give the game 100 marks on a 100-point scale as some of our competitors did.

Who's the best videogame publisher to work with and why?

TM (Edge): I don’t have a favourite. That probably wouldn’t be healthy. All I'd say is that any company putting out good games tends to be easier to work with, for obvious reasons.

TB (IGN): We're in contact with nearly every publisher on the planet, big or small, and we really take the same approach with them all, which is to inform our readers of gaming titles, news, and events from around the world.

TB (Eurogamer): The level of access to games and developers that UK PRs are empowered to provide varies from publisher to publisher - certainly compared to how equivalent roles are fulfilled in the US - so you can't easily compare the qualities of people working here.

However, there are a number of very devoted gamers in the ranks of UK PR, and while their job is to manage expectations and public opinion many of them are pragmatic and honest when it comes to bad games and brilliantly productive on the best ones. PR in the UK does more for the European games industry than a lot of the people who sign their paycheques.

How do you balance the needs and pressures of your own publishing parent with those of your readership?

TM (Edge): We’ve never been about chasing reader numbers, so we’ve never suffered from management pressure. We just make a magazine about games we're interested in. Sometimes we put a game on the cover that has obvious commercial appeal, and sometimes it's something a little bit more leftfield -- this year we've run covers on both Grand Theft Auto IV and MadWorld, for example. Hopefully our readers are interested in the same games as us. If they're not, they usually write in to let us know about it.

TB (IGN): We really see them as being very complementary to one another. Without the readers we wouldn't have a publication, and without a publication we would have the readers. We're very cognisant of keeping the needs of the readers a top priority at IGN, because without their trust in us as an editorial unit, we wouldn't have a successful Website.

TB (Eurogamer): The question implies that the needs and pressures of my boss differ to those of our readers, but I don't think that's true. They both want interesting and timely content on the website because it drives traffic upwards, so that's what I try to commission.

What are the ways in which videogame publishers put direct or indirect pressure on your publication to inflate/ weight coverage of their games?

TM (Edge): I honestly don’t think anyone bothers to try that sort of stuff with us, so I couldn’t say.

TB (IGN): It doesn't happen often, but we have had a few requests not to run a review before a product is released unless we give it a favorable score – which we’ve never agreed to and violates our editorial review policy. Some publishers also don't send us pre-release review builds unless we promise a certain score – which we also never agree to. We would never change our score just to post a review early, so we just wait until the game is publicly available in stores. At that point, we go and buy the game and rate it as we see fit.

TB (Eurogamer): Very few actually do this in my experience. The ones who do will threaten to withdraw advertising money or access to games we want to write about. My boss insulates me from the former and sometimes you have to accept the latter.

What’s been the most dramatic fallout from a publisher when you’ve not bowed to this pressure?

TM (Edge): See previous answer.

TB (IGN): We may get a terse phone call after the fact, but it usually doesn't affect the relationship in the long run. The publishers understand that we have to maintain an independent voice lest we damage our credibility with our readers.

TB (Eurogamer): We've had five-figure advertising deals pulled and I've been shouted at on the phone a number of times.

Which other videogame publication do you enjoy reading for commentary (not news) and why?

TM (Edge): I like some of the things the guys on the official UK PlayStation magazine have been doing. I very much like NGamer for its personality. I think N'Gai Croal's done some interesting things online, coming at the industry from a slightly different perspective to most game journos, though obviously a disclaimer applies in his case because we have him on board writing a column in Edge. I recently enjoyed a piece written by Bill Harris, about playing videogames with his son, on Level Up.

I don’t really follow one publication over another. It’s all a bit difficult for me, because I've been reading computer and videogame magazines for something like 25 years, and working on them, on and off, for about 15, so nowadays it takes something a little different to catch my eye.

TB (IGN): I enjoy reading N'Gai Croal's Level Up blog. I think he has an interesting take on the industry, and is an entertaining and brutally honest writer.

TB (Eurogamer): I like blogs like Kotaku and Joystiq because they're direct and uncompromising. My favourite magazines are Wired and Private Eye. I think the majority of British newspapers are appalling but I find Observer interviews amusing.

In terms of books I very much enjoyed Raph Koster's Theory of Fun and I'm reading Jim Rossignol's recent effort, This Gaming Life, at the moment, and it's very thoughtful and observant.

How do you work to maintain integrity in the face of advertisers?

TM (Edge): We've all heard stories about advertisers leaning on publications in an attempt to influence review scores but, again, that's not something we've ever experienced on Edge.

TB (IGN): Our editorial department and sales department are totally separate, and even work on different floors in our office building. The editorial teams have no prior knowledge to what ads are running before they appear on the site, and don't know how much a publisher is spending on any given campaign.

TB (Eurogamer): By having absolutely no professional connection with them whatsoever!

Videogame review scores: pointless or pertinent?

TM (Edge): It's a weird one. On the one hand you want to say that you shouldn't need to put a number at the end of an opinion in order to communicate what you think, but then you look at how people talk about your magazine and see that most of the discussion centres on the numbers that appear at the end of its reviews.

A few years ago, when I wasn't working on Edge, the guys on the team experimented one issue by removing review scores, but the experiment didn't really work because all of the scores merely appeared in a group at the end of the review section rather than alongside the individual reviews. Perhaps we could try something like that again in the future, but not include scores at all. I’m not convinced that the majority of readers would really go for it, though.

The problem, I think, is that review scores have existed for so many years that they've become deeply embedded in the commercial critical process. So it’s a conditioning thing. It can get silly, of course, when you're trying to differentiate between things like 93% and 94%, but also 7 and 8, and 6 and 7, and so on. Actually, the other day I was saying to someone that I'd like to launch a videogame magazine called Seven, which focused exclusively on games that were 7/10s. You could have some fun with that. Well, for one issue, after which the joke probably wouldn't work.

TB (IGN): I'd say review scores are pertinent, but they don't live on their own. Review scores are a useful gauge for readers to compare games that are released around the same time on the same platform -- seriously though, you can't compare an Xbox 360 score today to a PC score from 1993 -- but they don't live by themselves; the text is the most important part of any review, and should do the job of explaining what a score means. I've seen so many arguments on message boards similar to "IGN gave this game a 9.2 when the game is clearly a 9.4," but I rarely see the a debate along the lines of "IGN said this game fell short as an overpowering emotional experience, but I found the scene where Sir Yardley sacrifices his own life for that of his squire to be truly moving."

TB (Eurogamer): I'm not sure there are absolutes in this debate. Review scores add context to a writer's comments and I find them valuable. I think our readers do too, although there are always debates about how things are weighted or explained.

How do you balance the need to attract readers with avoiding sensationalism and maintaining balance?

TM (Edge): As I say, we've never been driven by reader numbers. We just try to make a mag about games we're interested in.

TB (IGN): Our editorial philosophy has been to exude passion, but only when that passion is warranted. As I said earlier, our voice is as if we are a friend sitting on the couch next to you talking about this game that you probably haven't seen yet, so we want you to know when we are excited. With that said, we also want you to know when we are disappointed, or when we're rather indifferent. As writers covering an industry that such be fun and exciting to write about, we think it's important that our personalities, enthusiasm, and passion shine through the page.

TB (Eurogamer): As much as I'd like more readers tomorrow, I'm more interested in having even more readers on the same day next year. They won't come back unless you treat them with respect.

On past evidence, what is the most effective way to generate hits to your website?

TM (Edge): Anything with a negative spin tends to get attention. It seems that you’ll always attract a bigger audience by giving something a kicking. There are people out there who seem to make half-decent livings out of it, actually.

TB (IGN): It's really about maximizing information, speed, and creating a community where readers feel like they are a part of the site.

TB (Eurogamer): First, writing about the biggest games every day and being honest about them. I know it sounds obvious, but it works. Second, looking at what did or didn't work and then recalibrating.

How long do you expect your writers to have played a game before submitting review copy and why?

TM (Edge): I don’t think you can make a hard and fast rule. If you want to include in your review section a 70-hour RPG but only have time enough to play it for 50 hours, should you hold the review until the following issue? Most reasonable people would say that you shouldn’t, that 50 hours is enough. In an ideal world, of course I’d like every game to be completed before the reviewer arrives at a conclusion, but that’s only practical up to a point. I think this discussion and the one about review scores are probably longer ones than we have time for here, though.

TB (IGN): Our reviewers complete most games before they submit their final reviews, but it's not a requirement. Some games are simply unable to be "finished" (MMOs, sports games, etc.), while others don't necessarily have to be fully concluded in order to write a balanced, insightful review. With that said, our reviewers always have the last say in the review process, and we tell them they don't have to post a review until they feel comfortable giving their final judgment.

TB (Eurogamer): I don't employ reviewers unless they're enthusiastic about and devoted to games, but you have to take a certain amount on trust. I expect our contributors to play the game until they know what they're talking about, and that varies depending on the game.

What advice would you give to a writer wanting a career in games journalism? Would you try to put them off? Why?

TM (Edge): If the candidate was only a mediocre writer I would absolutely put them off entering game journalism, because there are more than enough mediocre writers already out there. But I would encourage anyone with talent to go for it, because they will stand out -- they have the opportunity to make a difference.
If someone was applying for a job on Edge I’d tell them to write something original about gaming. Don’t send in another review of Ico or Rez. I’ve seen too many of them already. In fact, don’t write a review at all. Reviewing a game is one of the most basic activities in game journalism, so give us some copy that proves you’re already capable of something more demanding.

One advantage prospective journos have today is that there are so many more entry points than there used to be. I've hired plenty of people whose writing talents I first became aware of via the internet. If you're any good, there's no excuse any more. When I applied for my first job in game magazines I bought a second-hand Amstrad PCW256 word processor, printed out my sample copy on a ‘near letter-quality’ dot-matrix printer, and then had to walk to town to fax over my sample copy. Then, obviously, when I got home, my dad and my mother killed me and danced about on my grave, singing ‘Hallelujah’. You try and tell that to the young people of today, though, and they won't believe you.

TB (IGN): Keep writing, keep trying, and keep bugging whoever you can until you hear a definite "yes" or "no." Because of the few open slots and the large number of people who would love to write about videogames for a living, it's a tough career to step into. Yes, you have to be a gamer and know your videogame history, but don't overlook the most important skill of being a good writer. Also, learn to live meagerly, because this kind of work doesn't pay much, and it's coupled with the unforgiving truth of being centered in three of the most expensive areas of the country: San Francisco, New York City, and Los Angeles. A taste for ramen is a good trait to have.

TB (Eurogamer): Read and write. When you're reading, pay no attention to literary prestige or commerciality, just read everything you can get your hands on! Then work out why it works or doesn't work on you. And write all the time - but you shouldn't need to be told to do that. A good barometer for whether you're improving is if you hate everything you write within about half an hour of finishing it. That's how it goes!