Game Buzz is a weekly opinion column designed to take an irreverent look at one of the biggest news stories to break in the past week. Every Friday we’ll be bringing you another slice of reaction to topical gaming news, and inviting you to agree, disagree, shout assent, vent rage, scream and complain to you heart’s delight. This week, we look at Tim Schafer's controversial recent comments to Eurogamer and the nature of press sensationalism.
Back in 2005, Kieron Gillen made a speech to a room full of indie developers at the Free Play Conference down under in Melbourne, Australia. It was titled How To Use And Abuse The Gaming Press (And How The Gaming Press Wants To Use and Abuse You) and made some utterly fantastic points on the nature of the relationship between games journalists and industry creatives. In it, Gillen outlines seven lessons for the ambitious developer looking to raise the profile of their game, the last of which is headlined 'Be Good Copy'. Gillen stated that one of the questions he's most often asked is why the games presses always seem to quote the same people, Peter Molyneux in particular, and his eventual answer was four-fold:
- He's enthusiastic, intelligent and extremely talkative
- He's terribly indiscrete
- He'll play games with ludicrous concepts
- He'll get back to us
Image, you see is everything. This is an industry saturated with PR companies and marketing whizzkids, people desperate to place their products in the best possible light for those of us whose roles incorporate cultural mediation and critical discourse. With that in mind, it's easy to see why so many interviews and preview pieces are all essentially the same when it comes down to it.
Every so often, though, someone will say something that makes the hairs on the back of your neck tingle with excitement and force you to scribble it down as fast as humanely possible, eagerly anticipating the headline it might make or the reaction it might provoke. Not because it's necessarily sensationalist, not because it's anything particularly outlandish even, simply because it's a brutally honest opinion that gives us a little bit of insight into the hearts and minds of those talented individuals working behind the scenes.
Something like that happened this week.
As Jon reported, and revelled in, on Wednesday, Tim Schafer - he of Monkey Island, Grim Fandango, Full Throttle, Psychonauts and Brutal Legend fame - when quizzed by Eurogamer on what he thinks of Activision's Bobby Kotick (Activision famously sued Double Fine Studios over Brutal Legend after dropping the game, attempting to turn it into a Guitar Hero sequel and then throwing a tantrum when EA picked it up) Schafer responded with this:
'His obligation is to his shareholders [...] Well, he doesn't have to be as much of a dick about it, does he? I think there is a way he can do it without being a total prick. It seems like it would be possible. It's not something he's interested in [...] he makes a big deal about not liking games, and I just don't think that attitude is good for games in general. I don't think we're an industry of widgets. I don't think we can approach it like we approach bars of soap, where you're just trying to make the cheapest bar of soap. He definitely has that that kind of widget-maker attitude. I don't think he's great for the industry, overall. You can't just latch onto something when it's popular and then squeeze the life out of it and then move on to the next one. You have to at some point create something, build something.'
The first two lines are pure gold for games journalists: no holds barred, honest anger. We like emotions, it's refreshing to see an opinion expressed that taps into a gut feeling that I'm 100% certain is shared by a hell of a lot of people. But it's not about how many people hate Bobby Kotick, what's great is that Schafer basically said it how he saw it.
This brings me back to Gillen who goes on from lesson 7 to outline an industry archetype who would be reviled by their contemporaries yet utterly beloved by the press: The Rock Star Developer....and no, I'm not simply referring to the Housers.
'Rock Star is just used as short hand for fearless. It’s worth remembering that there’s all manner of Rock Star archetypes to follow. There’s Rockstars known for their piercing, caustic intelligence and puritanical rage as much as those who are just a byword for narcissistic excess.In short: If you’re angry, don’t hide it. To a journalist, your rage - or your passion or any of your ideas - makes you interesting. You care, or otherwise you wouldn’t even consider being an independent game developer. Don’t be ashamed of that. Don’t be ashamed of the creative urges which drive you. And certainly don’t be ashamed of your ego. Hubris is only hubris when it fails. When Hubris pays off, we call these people geniuses.'
There's plenty of narcissistic excess, chest-thumping and aggressive posturing already in the industry, mainly from the action crowd, but we journalists absolutely hunger for the pissed off, the disillusioned and the disgruntled to stand up and shout about it in bold terms. It's like crack to us. We can't get enough of it.
Unfortunately, it's so very rare, there are so few genuine identifiable personalities out there, that when a quote like Schafer's comes along we all collectively jizz our pants and make an absolute mess of things. Eurogamer immediately went and made a mini-news story out of it and we then went and made a mini news story about that mini news story. It's like classroom gossip...up went the Eurogamer mini story and a whole bunch of other games sites, ourselves included, went 'OMFG! He said what?!??!' There's a dichotomy at work here: you want to draw people's attention to this, but you know that if you do you jeopardise the trust between interviewer and interviewee. The press is a powerful entity and the power of that pen, or keyboard, or touchscreen doesn't stop and finish with reviews but the way we represent people outside of that too.
Of course, there are two sides to this and a true Rock Star developer forges their own destiny. Sadly, Schafer issued an apologetic explanation of sorts after Activision responded to his comments with assertions that Kotick was truly 'passionate' about games, but just didn't have much time to play them these days what with being the CEO of a massive interactive media publishing corporation.
I need to keep my mouth shut,' Schafer said. 'It is shocking how you really burn bridges in the industry. You start your own company and you don't have to work for that jerky boss any more. Not naming names.
'Then it's like Empire Strikes Back - you walk in the room and, "Holy s*** Darth Vader's at the table." It's such a small industry, you see the same people over and over again. No-one ever goes away.
[...] I'm definitely not saying anything about Bobby. After that Eurogamer thing I realised I'm a little nervous about what I want to say.'
Nice one Eurogamer...well....I would say that, but let's face it, if they hadn't written a little sensationalist post first someone else sure would have. I'd like to castigate the media for this, but we're all the same: we all want to provide entertainment and we all want to reach the most people we possibly can, the bottom line is that we all want readers. There just aren't that many outspoken industry figures out there. Kotick probably is one himself, but generally he doesn't give a damn what people write about him, he might be outspoken about devilish things, but at least he's got a certain amount of conviction. Molyneux, widely derided, is still one of the most passionate developers out there and a journalistic gold mine: yes we get the hyperbole, the promises, the bizarre statements and auteur predispositions, but it's clear that there's a personality behind it all, that he cares.
We want more, we desperately want our Rock Star Developer, but they've got to want it too. Schafer shouldn't be ashamed of what he said and, let's face it, the follow-up metaphor involving Darth Vader was frankly a masterstroke, but I really hope he doesn't go into subsequent interviews with reserve and trepidation. In an industry full of self aggrandisement and cookie-cutter development, Schafer stands out as one of the few developers who has never been afraid to take risks with his games, to forge worlds of his imagining rather than those dictated to him. Interviews with him are always entertaining and this latest peach of a quote comes courtesy of some serious smart questioning. But with regards to the follow-up, as journalists it's our job to make sure an audience gets to find out about cracking revelations like this, but it's also our responsibility to try and cultivate an environment where such honesty and free speech can take place without running up an enormous bar tab.
I'm not advocating an industry where everyone speaks their mind all of the time, in this day in this economic climate and with more and more power lying with big business such things can be career suicide, but rather a press that doesn't act like the boorish drunk at a party when people open themselves up. You know, the guy you'll be chatting to who'll then suddenly stop and yell out the last tidbit of gossip out at the top of his lungs before vomiting into a bin and falling over. No one likes that guy.
Of course, what's most likely is that Activision's lawyers gave Tim a ring...again. Frankly, though, that's a little bit like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. Law suits get thrown around more than frisbees these days and Schafer wasn't really ever going to change anyone's opinion of Kotick with his words. He was just saying what we were all thinking and, considering the bashing he's already been through with Activision, he's probably got more right than most.
Either way Tim, stand by your words. Please!