This originally started as a “Democratization of games is important/What’s on the front page isn’t the same as what’s sellable”, but it slowly sort of morphed into a bit on the role of critics in a world where curation isn’t happening upfront by companies like Microsoft, Apple, or Valve.Also, hooray! I finally made a Short Wave Transmission that’s actually short!
Due to the proliferation of free and cheap game tools, the ongoing exodus of developers from AAA studios to smaller companies, and the rise of digital distribution, there are more games than ever. And this poses a problem for platform holders – how do you handle the onslaught of content? Historically platform holders would limit the number of slots they hand out to smaller titles and cherry pick games that look to fit whatever corporate initiatives they have going on. But increasingly platforms aren’t as self-absorbed, especially when the next Goat Simulator or Flappy Bird could prove to be the next surprise hit. The Android and App stores have opened up to degrees unheard of on consoles. The big three consoles have also started to open up, although some are more reluctant than others to open the floodgates. And the rate at which Steam has Greenlit games has done nothing but increase since the service’s launch. But this has resulted in complaints that the trickle of new content has turned into an uncontrollable flood. There’s been an increasingly loud call for Valve in particular to back off on the releases, to institute some quality control, to effectively return to an approved curated list of games to buy rather than an open and vibrant library.
But I’m not convinced curation on the part of the platform holder is the answer here. Curation in a museum setting makes sense – there’s a limited number of walls and floor space so a decision must be made as to which works to host. More than that, curation is an act of editorializing, of building a collection of objects that in being brought together makes a statement. Different museums get curated by different people with different goals, and the result is that the Louvre and the MoMA and the National Gallery all have different specialties and focuses.
So curation is a great way for art galleries to define what they value. It’s great for private collectors interested in showing their taste through their selections. It’s even great for things like the Criterion Collection, which highlights important or influential works of film with what they consider a definitive home video release. In all of these situations, the beauty of curation is in the selection AND the exclusion of works. Curation is a commentary on the works that get chosen by placing them next to one another and apart from the rest. What curation isn’t, and has never been, is a safety net so you don’t accidentally buy a bad game, or a filter to keep the games showing up under “new releases” germane to a specific demographic.
Look, I know I went over a lot of this in the Greenlight video, but I think it’s worth revisiting – both because people are still bringing up the idea that the best thing to do is to block games from release, and because that Greenlight video made some frankly terrible, arguments, including but not limited to: “The cream will rise to the top”. Yeah, that was a dumb thing to say. Discoverability remains a major problem on any open platform, and I was wrong for dismissing it. In this brave new world that has eight or nine releases a day, how are we supposed to find the wheat from the chaff? How can we know what is truly worth playing?
Well, I’d like to think that at least part of the answer to that is through more and better criticism. I’m actually shocked by how many of the people advocating for various platforms to clamp down on releases are also game reviewers. Lots of releases mean job security for a game reviewer. I mean, the whole problem is that there are too many games being released and no one knows how good they are and they might make a bad purchase or miss a great game. You know who’s supposed to help with that? Reviewers!?
I’m just going to be blunt – through no fault of their own, most professional critics and reviewers are trapped in the hype machine. I don’t mean “Game journalists are corrupt and evil and AURUGUGH,” I mean that writing jobs are scarce and views and clickthroughs are king. The job of the modern reviewer, if they want to make a living reviewing, is mostly to tell people exactly how much to “get hype” for the upcoming major releases, and maybe squeeze in some top tier indie and digital stuff where possible. The result is a world where five or six indie games are hitting Steam a day and no one knows if they’re any good or not, both from a consumer advice perspective and an analytical perspective. And I’m as guilty as anyone when I spend two weeks writing about a half-baked Thief sequel instead of something smaller but arguably more intimate, touching, or important. And we do it because the information most people want right now is to know whether their hype in Watch_Dogs is validated, not which of this week’s 25 Steam games are genuinely worth looking into. There simply isn’t a big enough market for lots of focus on smaller games yet, and the blogs that do that sort of stuff are usually done as passion projects. But passion projects aren’t breadwinning projects, and we continue to push some of our most important critics to the sidelines.
But in a world where your options for games this month aren’t just Watch_Dogs or Wolfenstein but a bevy of tiny, small, medium, mid-tier, B-, single-A, and AAA games, the critic’s job changes. It’s no longer about whether we give GTAV a rubber stamp to justify the money it’s going to make, but about explaining which games truly carry merit to our audiences. Critics and reviewers stop being hype validators and start being active guides and tastemakers to an entire ecosystem of games big and small, with each critic cultivating their own audience with their own tastes. Critics and reviewers become, effectively, independent curators of a myriad of canons rather than a monolithic canon approved by bean counters at a digital distributorship. And maybe the increase in demand would mean an increase in pay for the game writers already doing a lot of this work for free. Well, a man can dream, anyways.
I suppose I’ll close with this thought: Who would you want curating the list of games you find worth your time? Apple, who already limits games about politics and sex? Any of the big three, who are still playing catch up on this whole small developer thing? Valve, who many erroneously assume will be benevolent forever? Or a myriad of writers who each have their own ideas about what makes a game worthwhile, each one contributing to a sense of which games have what kind of value, and producing their own curated list that doesn’t prevent you from buying most things but instead encourages to buy specific things? If the problem is too much choice and too little information, the answer is more information – not fewer choices.