Hang All The Critics: Towards Useful Video Game Writing

Jonathan McCalmont @ 18-01-2012


  1. The Problem

It does not take a genius to realise that the world of video game reviewing is completely and utterly fucked. Their reputations sullied by an endless cavalcade of scandal and stupidity, video game reviewers routinely find themselves in the impossible position of having to balance the financial requirements of their publishers with the (frequently unreasonable) expectations of their audience, all the while striving to be completely objective, irreproachably fair, amusingly articulate and uncommonly insightful. Frankly, nobody could satisfy all of these demands at once — and, even if they could, I doubt that anyone would care. The age of the critic has now well and truly passed. Continue reading “Hang All The Critics: Towards Useful Video Game Writing”

Young market problems: ebooks as clearing house for unpublishable content

Paul Raven @ 09-06-2011

Part of me really wants to get a decent ereader and start plunging into the brave new market of electronic books; as a writer, reader, some-time publisher and general technoforesight wonk, I feel I should be down in the trenches if I want to see how the campaign is really going. The other half of me is the half that’s been burned by classic early-adopter screw-ups ever since I acquired that tendency from my father; I’m waiting for either a universally accepted open format, a decent open platform, or both. (I doubt I’ll have much longer to wait; I expect I’ll be nailing myself an affordable Android-based tablet in the post-Xmas sales next year.)

So, perforce, I have to get my news about the actual content sloshing around in the ebook marketplace from other people… and while I’m not taking it as broadly representative, this post from James “Big Dumb Object” Bloomer highlights the state of play wherein creators and new middle-men/aggregator outfits are testing the water to see what will actually float. Or, to put it more plainly: everyone’s throwing shit at the wall in order to see what sticks:

The other day I bought How To Write Science Fiction by Paul Di Filippo, tempted by the price (69p) and the prospect of another author’s view on writing SF.

It’s an interesting read, containing thoughts on what maximalist SF is, how to (attempt to) write it and an essay on the creation of Di Filippo’s novel Ciphers. There’s a few interesting nuggets there for me to think about (plus, now, a need to read some Pynchon). However it’s not very long, not really a book and not really about how to write Science Fiction. It’s the sort of text I’d expect to be posted to a blog. It’s the sort of text that in physical form would be thin and flimsy, and I probably wouldn’t ever buy.

It’s going to take a while for pricing to settle down in line with customer expectations, but the nature of the content being sold is a big part of that. Perhaps it’s the case that no one’s gonna pay for a lengthy blog essay when there are umpteen thousand of the things – some of exceptional quality, others not so much – floating around out here on the unwalled web, just waiting to be read. But then again, Nick Mamatas’ Starve Better – my dead-tree version of which I’ve been greatly enjoying over the last week or so, incidentally – is essentially a collection of essays and articles, many of which either were or started out as blog posts or fanzine pieces; it’s retailing at $3.99 for a selection of electronic formats, and – had I been in possession of a decent ereader – I’d have considered that a damned good price for the material it contains. I don’t know how long the di Filippo piece is, exactly, but perhaps the problem here is the attempt to price a single essay fairly; meanwhile, Starve Better is a curation product, an act of filtering Mamatas’ prodigious output down to the best material devoted to a specific topic.

So perhaps we could say that Apex, by doing the old-school publisher thing, have added value to the raw material and thus earned their middle-man cut, while 40k – who, I should note, I think are one of the more interesting ebook ventures I’m aware of at the moment, and not just because they’re publishing a lot of stuff from sf authors – are just rolling chunks of content out of the door with a snappy title and hoping for the best. Maybe the latter would work at a lower price… but until someone sorts out a decent and widely-adopted micropayments system, pricing at under a buck will remain the province of big clearing houses like Amazon who can afford to eat up the transaction charges on a lot of tiny purchases. Economies of scale haven’t gone away just yet, it seems.

More musings from James:

Will this mean that buyers will tread ever more safely when buying books? Perhaps now people will only trust books from the bestseller top ten or those recommended by a high profile book club? It feels to me right now that the lack of physical form may actually hinder more experimental buying once the blush of the new fangled eBooks dies to the norm, the marketing departments have tried to pull a few fast ones and readers have been bitten by buying some dreadful self-published novels?

I think these are very real issues, and not just for publishing; a flattened media landscape means curation and aggregation are becoming at least as important as the traditional editorial roles, and the marketing/PR channel needs to become more focussed on finding the right niche vertical to pitch to, as opposed to the old model of making generalised statements of awesomeness about a piece of work and hoping some hack will cut’n’paste it verbatim. Interesting times ahead.

Zen and the Art of Literary Gatekeeping

Paul Raven @ 04-04-2011

Via Chairman Bruce, here’s a very interesting post-and-comment-thread combo at Self-Publishing Review. It’s interesting for a number of reasons, not least of which is the aforementioned comment thread, which contains (gasp!) spirited disagreement conducted with a rare degree of civility, but the big central point is one I’ve danced around a few times before: when the barriers to publication are negligible, will definitions of quality shift considerably by comparison to the old “gatekeepered” model? Or, more simply: when anyone can get their book in front of potential readers, will we find that “good writing” doesn’t actually matter to a lot of the audience? Because that’s what appears to be happening on the wild frontiers of the ebook boondocks right now…

From the original post itself:

At the risk of sounding like a snob: non-sophisticated readers will not care if writing is non-sophisticated, and there are a lot more non-sophisticated readers than sophisticated ones. That’s millions of potential readers.  Publishers might like to believe that they have the finger on the pulse of what sells – or what should sell – but when mediocre writing is becoming a bestseller, this pretty much renders the slush pile meaningless.

If mainstream publishing is really hurting for money, it would make sense for them to get into the ebook-only/print on demand business. Devote some resources towards basic editorial and cover design, some press, and see which books take hold. Right now, word of mouth is more powerful than reviews – a lot of people find books just browsing the Kindle store, rather than reading press about a book, and there is a lot of profit to be made on slush pile books that appeal to a huge number of people. It’s possible that eventually people feel burned by bad, cheap books and stop buying them – but, again, the majority of the reviews on many fast-selling self-published books are positive.

The (currently) final comment makes an important counter-argument, though:

This is an interesting and provocative article, but one that also completely misses the point. Yes, some quite poorly-written self-published books are selling in minor quantities (from a few hundred to a few thousand) in Kindle form. Why? Because they’re priced at around a dollar, whereas even the cheapest commercial Kindle titles sell for four times that amount and upwards.

Commercial publishers simply aren’t interested in selling a few thousand ebooks for a dollar apiece: they want to sell tens of thousands of copies, in both paper and ebook form, for between five and ten dollars apiece. To suggest that they could make a few extra quid by starting up self-publishing ebook sidelines is like advising a Michelin-starred restaurant to open a serving hatch late at night offering kebabs to drunks wandering the streets. Not only it is it not what they’re set up to do, but it would also very quickly cheapen their brand.

As mentioned before (by me, and by many far smarter folk from whom I’ve wholesale stolen the riff), gatekeeping is all over; curation is the new game, but the rules have yet to be written. The argument above, though, pretty much crystallises the root source of panic in the big publishing houses: all they’ve ever had to show their superiority to vanity presses and one-man-bands was their insistence on selecting for “quality” – though it should go without saying that “quality” is defined differently from one boardroom or editorial office to another. But all of a sudden, there are hints that “quality” may not matter to the biggest slice of the market pie… and when your entire philosophy of business is anchored solidly to that notion by a chain of centuries-old tradition, well, you’re going to struggle to swim with the tide.

Personally, I think it’s too early to say definitively that “quality writing” is a dead scene; the market is too new, too chaotic, and the metrics currently used to assess the market’s assessment of “quality” are utterly subjective – I really don’t place any faith in Amazon reader reviews whatsoever, for instance; an effective crowdsourced curatorial system will be much harder to game, and perforce deal with a much smaller slice of the total market (niche verticals, long tails, blah blah blah). But of course, Chairman Bruce has a long-game grenade to throw into the punchbowl:

The unseen literary player here is machine translation. It’s getting “better” fast, and we may soon be in a world where on-demand machine-translated texts become major literary influences. The real web-semantic breakthrough would be a machine-assisted ability to painlessly read texts outside one’s own language. At that point we’ll have entered an unheard-of state of linguistic globalized electro-pidgin.


It’s not that the slushpile is profitable; it’s that there is no longer an analog dam against which the slush can pile.

If the dam is gone, then the would-be curator must discover a new method for catching fish. Trying to work the whole river would be madness… but finding a little pool or slow-flowing channel to focus on might reward you with fish of consistent species and health.

FUDushima continued

Paul Raven @ 21-03-2011

I appear to have lost my original source for the tweet that pointed me to this piece at Talking Points Memo, so my apologies for the lack of attribution; I think it’s been doing the rounds, and – if there’s any justice on the intertubes – it should continue doing so (preferably at high volume), in the hope that it might counteract even a small part of the underinformed lipflapping about the Fukushima reactor. So: excerpts from a letter to TPM from a Japanese student who was in the country for the quake and its aftermath:

… the Japanese news coverage has been largely calm, rational, informed, and critical. Some of this is naturally to avoid creating panic, but it has been able to do that because as a whole it has answered many of the questions people have and thus gained a certain level of trust. As a media scholar, I can pick this coverage apart for its problems, and of course point to information that is still not getting out there, but on the whole it is functioning as journalism should.

It also just looks good because there is something so ugly beside it: the non-Japanese coverage. That, I am afraid, has been full of factual errors and other problems. This has not been just Fox News, but also CNN, MSNBC, ABC, and even the New York Times to differing degrees. They get the reactors mixed up or report information that is simply wrong (e.g., writing that the TEPCO workers had fully abandoned the effort to control the plant because of radiation levels when TEPCO had only withdrawn some non-essential personnel). They are perpetually late, continuing to report things the Japanese media had shown to be wrong or different the day before.


There are results to this irresponsible journalism. Many foreigners in Japan who do not have the language capabilities to access Japanese media or who are used to foreign media are in a state of panic, when around them Japanese are largely calm. People in California start searching for iodide pills on the internet and there are already people voicing worries about whether Japanese cars are now all going to be radioactive. But worst of all, the inordinate and sensationalist attention given to the reactors by American and other media has taken attention away from where it should be: on the likely nearly 20,000 people who died in the quake and tsunamis, on the nearly 400,000 homeless people, and on the immense suffering this has caused for Japan as a whole.


Japanese people and government officials will have to spend many years investigating all that went wrong in this accident. I feel it is likely that many at TEPCO and in the government will be found at fault for inadequate preparation, overly optimistic projections, willful ignorance, and just plain lying to the public. This will be an investigation in which the Japanese media will play an important part. But the non-Japanese media should also look at itself and see where it went wrong―so that it can better prepare for a similar accident which, unfortunately, is not altogether impossible in the United States as well.

I don’t think I need to add anything to that, really. But as a side-dish, here’s Tim Maly on the half-life of information in the 24-hour newschurn:

At this moment, the current status of the nuclear plants in Japan matters for about 200,000 people in the world. This is the number of people who can do anything about it. Most of those 200,000 people can only decide whether or not to flee further away. They need information at the 15-minute scale probably. A very tiny minority of the people need information at the moment to moment scale. This is the team of people tasked with bringing the reactors under control. For the rest of us, we need information at the daily scale or less. Because the ramifications of Japan reactor situation IF THEY MATTER AT ALL matter in regard to decisions made at the scale of decades and centuries.

It is completely insane that countries are announcing that they are scaling back or cancelling nuclear programs based on Japan’s troubles. If those programs were a good idea two weeks ago they are still a good idea now. And if they might have been converted from a good idea to a bad idea based on evidence coming out of Japan then smart decision makers need to wait until the information has the stability and solidity of data that will support a decade/century scale decision.

As a number of people have said to me over the last week or so, there surely needs to be new debate and research into nuclear safety.However, it needs to be done by experts in the field in question, with as much verifiable information as possible, as opposed to being done by uninformed television anchors with a five-minute Physics 101 briefing tucked in their suit pocket.

We have access to an utterly unprecedented volume and rate of information flow. Unless we learn to filter for the truth, we’ll drown in lies.

[ And yeah, I make mistakes from time to time; I’m making no claims to perfection here, and I learn a lot from sharp people in the comment threads, for which I’m grateful. It’s a collaborative effort, really… which is another thing we’d do well to remember as we look at problems overseas and worry about how they’ll effect us. ]

Genevieve Valentine on the future shape of social media

Paul Raven @ 04-01-2011

Super-awesome science fiction webzine LightSpeed has a non-fiction piece from Futurismic veteran Genevieve Valentine (“Is This Your Day To Join The Revolution?”), who looks into the imminent future of even-more-ubiquitous social networking. I’m not sure I quite agree with her template for excellence, though:

But frankly, an ideal template for the future of software responsiveness is actually already here: Apple’s App Store. The Store itself is a social network of user-generated content that provides both marketing and moneymaking opportunities (a holy trinity of market appeal). Populated by techies for techies, the App Store contains single-click download options for other platforms (Twitter, Tumblr), market-friendly apps (entertainment-blog feeds, Yelp) and even reference guides (sky maps, bird-call encyclopedias).


In some ways, it’s a comfort to see the emergence of technology that supports a concept rather than a user; the App Store technology has spread to other smartphone platforms, and the idea of individual, crowd-sourced utilities is the sort of technology that, because of its immediacy and flexibility, could develop smoothly as the years go by, until the next thing you know it’s the future, and social networking is easier than ever before. Right?

I suspect my objection hinges on an aspect that Genevieve wasn’t considering, but even so: if Apple’s App Store is the shape of the future, then the future will be a walled garden full of things that Apple has deemed safe, suitable and sanitised for our consumption.

In the Apple future, you won’t be able to read material from Wikileaks, or stories with cuss-words, or graphic novels with gay themes (whether in an explicitly erotic context or otherwise). Apple’s App Store decides what’s best for you, and limits your choices accordingly; it’s the gated community of the post-geographical web. That’s comforting to many people, which is fair enough; personally, I think I’ll outsource my content curation over a wide range of unfettered independent channels. Maintaining your own filters is harder work, sure, but it means you know what’s coming through and what’s getting turned back at the borders.

And as for technologies that support concepts rather than users… well, give me the user support every time. 🙂

I suspect Genevieve’s praise is directed more at the basic concept of “the app store” (uncapitalized, non-proprietary): a marketplace where all manner of useful things can be found. On that basis, I agree: we already have the ability to search for content, and app store systems allow us to search for functionality in the same way.

But I expect it’ll surprise no one when I say I think the ideal social media of the future will be built spontaneously from multiple platforms and networks, created and reformed on an ad hoc basis according to the needs and interests of its users from moment to moment. It is to be hoped, then, that open alternatives to the corporate solutions will remain available; the best way to ensure that they do so is to find them, use them and support them.

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