Xbox’s Corporate Vice President Mike Ybarra isn’t a stranger to controversy. During his years at Microsoft, he’s said a number of things on Twitter and in interviews that have caused a multitude of furrowed brows – but back in February, he managed to draw the ire of many game journalists with this pearl of wisdom;
“I don’t do “reviews” because everyone enjoys different things. I’d suggest “modern reviews” should be watching streamers play a game”.
This was in response to a number of negative reviews for EA’s Anthem, a game for which Microsoft carried the marketing rights. In other tweets, he lambasted a specific review for seemingly missing a game play aspect: “One reviewer […] reviewed the game yet in the review cited that he didn’t even know how to do a combo. Embarrassing to review with such a lack of knowledge.”. While Mike is entitled to his opinion, time will attest to how obtuse some of Anthem’s instructions were, demonstrated in a smorgasbord of highly critical review (you can read ours here). Mike’s outburst was derided by many video game critics which in turn, sparked a p̶l̶e̶a̶s̶a̶n̶t̶,̶ ̶w̶e̶l̶l̶-̶m̶a̶n̶n̶e̶r̶e̶d̶ ̶d̶e̶b̶a̶t̶e̶ ̶i̶n̶ ̶w̶h̶i̶c̶h̶ ̶e̶v̶e̶r̶y̶o̶n̶e̶ ̶s̶t̶a̶y̶e̶d̶ ̶c̶i̶v̶i̶l̶ ̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶v̶a̶l̶i̶d̶ ̶p̶o̶i̶n̶t̶s̶ ̶w̶e̶r̶e̶ ̶m̶a̶d̶e̶ ̶ furious argument on the internet.
“Sure, because it’s a lot easier to get streamers to take your marketing money and say the game is good. of course you don’t want people who will actually hold your game accountable to review it. actual critics are the only thing keeping this industry from falling into the sea” argued one Twitter user in response to another gamer who had this to say;
“Game journalists contribute nothing anymore. They routinely waste time attacking the players and when they do review a game they’re so inept as clear none gamer wanna be NYT journalists that what they say might as well line a birds cage for the value of measuring if a games good.”. As you can imagine, things got heated.
While Mike probably didn’t want to open up the whole Critic vs Streamer debate with his tweets, it did so and it was a debate worth having. It was certainly eye opening to see fans of game critiquing and streamer/influencers coming out to bat for their favourite method of consuming games media.
The simple fact remains, however, that the remit of game critics and influencers/Streamers is vastly different to one another. A critics’ job, in the simplest of terms, is to inform. In a few thousand words, they’re tasked to eloquently evaluate what a game is, what they liked and disliked about a game and tell the reader why. It’s a quantified opinion which is designed to give like-minded readers the information required so that they can make (or not make) and informed purchasing decision. A streamer/Influencer, on the other hand, must entertain. If their content isn’t entertaining, it’s not worth watching. What they play and how they play it is often entirely different to how a typical end user would do so to ensure that it’s content that will resonate with their audience. While it’s certainly possible to straddle this divide, a critic creating an entertaining review (such as Game Maker’s Toolkit) or for streamers/influencers to provide critique on what they’re demonstrating (i.e. Jim Sterling), this is not the core of their role. The difference between these roles in the games industry is essential.
For example – let’s talk about Guts and Glory. In this game, you ride vehicles likes bikes and golf carts through a variety of deadly traps with ragdoll physics there to make every fail a hilarious moment. It’s a game which has been played by a number of the biggest gaming content creators including PewDiePie, DanTDM, Drae, LetsPlay and more. I’ll admit to watching hours of people play this game when it initially released on PC in early access and was excited to play it when it finally reached the PS4. What I didn’t take into consideration however, was that all of these videos I had binged had been edited to include only the exciting, funny, or worthwhile sections of game play. The game itself, I found to be frustrating, limiting and a down right chore to play. Our man Rossko put this eloquently in his review of the game where he called it “turgid nonsense” but admitted it’s fun to watch on a stream. This is something mirrored in the Metacritic score for the game too, reaching the heady heights of 59/100 for the Xbox One version with User Reviews being even more critical, averaging out at 4.7/10.
So, Critics and Influencers have very different roles to play within the gaming industry but they’re both vitally important to the continued growth of the industry. While some would argue that critical evaluations of video games are becoming less relevant, they’re still an essential tool to give potential customers an informed purchasing decision. Whether it be via averaging out review scores on the likes of Metacritic or OpenCritic (which demonstrates what % of critics enjoyed what they played and how much they enjoyed it) or by following the works of individual critics who have a similar taste to your own (while I won’t labour this point because I’ve written about it at length before – BUT – if you don’t gel with the critical eye of a particular game critic, it’s because you’re reading the wrong reviews. There are review’s to cater to everyone these days), there are tools out there to help everyone understand whether a game will suit you or not, how it plays and what it’s like. Similarly, even with the wealth of human language at our disposal, it’s often impossible for a critic to truly encapsulate what a game looks like without visual aids. This is where Influencers and Streamers become important. Standing as a middle man between publisher/developer created hype trailers or bullshots, they can provide viewers with an insight into what a game looks like and contains within seconds.
The caveat here is that an Influencer must first and foremost be entertaining. It’s the core of what they do and game content that doesn’t fall in line with this remit will likely be cut. Another consideration is that Streamers and Influencers often play by a separate set of rules to games critics. The biggest streamers/creators are offered payment to play a game and, in return, are ‘handled’ in a way to encourage positive influence. How much you trust any individual Influencer is entirely your prerogative but it’s important to know that these deals do go on and it does influence what a Streamer/Creator is allowed to say, for better and for worse. Those considerations aside, Influencers wield the power to instantly make a game a success while also appealing to those who don’t currently play games (liked lapsed gamers or those who lack the skill or determination to play at a high level) in a way that a critic cannot. They’re a vital component to the games industry now and deserve that recognition.
If both Critics/Journalists and Influencers have important yet separate roles within the industry, why is there such a heated divide between the groups? Well, to put it bluntly, there isn’t one. The vast majority of other critics I’ve spoken to value what streamers/content creators do, while the streamers I’ve met and worked with have all found game critics and journalists to be an invaluable source of information. There are those that have a foot hold in both camps, acting as both Streamer/Creator and Critic who prove that this imagined hatred between the groups is purely imagined. When the 2 mediums work in tandem, with Journalists and Influencers referencing each other’s work (Kotaku et al covering interesting game play runs on their site or Content Creators crediting the work of critics/Journalists in their videos), it shows how well this relationship can work.
Unfortunately, there’s a small but incredibly noisy minority of each community that seems to believe that people need to choose either one and shun the other. Outlet’s such as The Quartering (among others), a YouTube personality that thrives on creating controversy, have undertaken a concentrated campaign against critics and journalists the likes of VG247, Polygon, Kotaku and more. While The Quartering often uses the hard won, journalistic work of these outlets as the base knowledge for many of his videos without crediting them, he then publishes videos such as ‘Game Journos: Why Gamers Despise You’ which take comments from critics and journalists out of context to stir up a controversy (in the aforementioned video – I won’t be linking to it – an IGN manager tweeted about how WoW Classic is unlikely to be what fans want because Blizzard had had to publish a list of features that were being reported as bugs. A literal storm in a teacup he had inserted himself into).
In the reverse situation, media outlets often report on the actions of Influencers because a). Big names generate a lot of traffic and b). they’re often interesting stories. Unfortunately, in the search for clicks, missteps are sometimes made – One example is when PewDiePie was watching randomly served Tik Tok videos back in January and a video of a self-confessed Alt-Right influencer appeared in one of the videos. While PewDiePie seemed not to know who it was in the video, the fact that it was shown at all was portrayed as him advertising alt-right beliefs to his audience by a hand full of media outlets because of his track record – but in this instance, was not the right call.
Despite these efforts to discredit their perceived opposites and the mistakes made along the way, it’s hard to argue that while these 2 communities have different aims, they’re now symbiotic. A wave of reviews hitting an embargo and rushing onto the internet at the same time often generate an electric online atmosphere, either good or bad. As time can attest, games like Anthem that look amazing and content rich on a Stream or YouTube video need that critical eye and informed judgement to give consumers an informed view. Elsewhere, Influencers are demonstrating the best (and sometimes worst) that games can be in a visual and easily disseminated way. Without one another, consumers are not getting the full picture.
When used together, consumers can be more informed than ever when deciding whether to part with their hard earned cash in return for a game. Rather than working against one another, it’s time for the small minority of both mediums that feel embattled against the other to realise that coexistence, rather than a messy fight to the death, is the best route forward – because without Critics or Creators/Streamers, the games industry would be far poorer.
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