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Why So Many Games Journalists End Up Going Into Game Development

A long, thorny history

Champion Studio / Shutterstock / Aftermath

Natalie Flores wasn’t going to let herself get laid off twice. She made her peace with the idea of getting cut from a games journalism job one time – she’d already seen it happen to numerous friends and peers – but that’s where she drew the line. In September of 2022, the reaper’s scythe cut Fanbyte, the Tencent-owned publication for which she worked, down to nearly-nonexistent size, and that was that. It was time to move on.

“Things have gotten worse for game development layoffs, but in terms of journalism, it feels like part of the job is to be laid off,” Flores told Aftermath in a recent interview. "I help my parents financially. I still live at home, but my parents don't make enough by themselves in order to get by. … I wasn't going to put myself in a position where I was going to be really vulnerable to having my life undone."

Flores now does PR, editing, and consulting work on games. She, like countless others in her field, has gone from writing about and reporting on games to helping make and sell them. And while her shift is relatively recent, it’s indicative of a broader trend that’s pervaded games journalism nearly since its inception: Journalists hit a financial ceiling, whether due to layoffs or an accumulation of life’s little obligations, and they find themselves needing to go elsewhere. Development, unlike journalism, is a (potentially) more stable and well-paying job. Moreover, skills developed in the course of reviewing games and contacts amassed while reporting on them are often transferrable. It’s a natural next step when media starts to look less like a walkway and more like a cliff. 

But this dynamic comes with potential pitfalls. If you were to ask a too-online industry outsider, they might suggest that the press-to-dev pipeline is evidence of collusion and that journalists can’t be trusted. But the most pervasive problems underlying this revolving door are more complicated, born of incentives at a company level rather than that of individual journalists. The end result is a slow brain drain across publications, resulting in a lack of experienced journalists (and even more importantly, editors) with the skills to hold a gargantuan industry to account, as well as even fewer perspectives from writers of diverse backgrounds. As publications fold and video game companies openly pay influencers – who perform a very different, more advertising-friendly role than journalists – the industry finds itself in a position where it increasingly dictates the terms of conversation about itself. It chooses, as most industries do, to talk about products. 

"In order for a medium to be taken seriously, you have to allow for criticism of it to be fostered and to flourish,” said Flores. “It's sad to think about all the ways in which it's not allowed to flourish anymore. I have the privilege of working with a lot of smaller sites nowadays as a PR person, and I see all the good work that those sites do. But it's totally just people doing it on their off time while they have day jobs and families to feed, and games journalism isn't gonna help them pay for that."

Magazine Dreams

While the games press looked very different in the ‘80s and ‘90s – with magazines largely serving as sales catalogs to help people decide which games to buy from stores – the incentives that caused journalists to take roles at video game companies were established early. Jaz Rignall, a former games journalist and current analyst who got his start in the mid-’80s, likened early games journalists to modern-day influencers. Their medium of choice might have been magazines rather than the internet, but their writing focused on evaluating games’ fun factor with a personality-driven slant. Wider industry and cultural concerns played second, third, or fourth fiddle on the rare occasion they played any fiddle at all. 

As the industry grew, companies flew journalists out to the kinds of lavish events influencer marketing budgets cover today, which in Rignall’s case meant a weekend at the Monaco Grand Prix, among other things. But as with influencers – the majority of whom, contrary to what the potential apex of their career would suggest, do not make big bucks – there was a constant refrain: You’re lucky to be doing this. With that came opportunistic bosses who paid writers as little as possible. 

"Despite the products we produced in the video game magazine division being incredibly popular and actually winning awards, we were paid far less than the motorcycle [magazine] guys,” Rignall told Aftermath of his time at a British publisher called Emap producing magazines like Official Nintendo Magazine, Official Sega Magazine, and Computer And Videogames Magazine. “I got about a third of what the car [magazine] guys were being paid, even though our magazines were more profitable. ... They paid us less because they knew we knew we had a cool job. And they were playing this sort of brinksmanship of how low can they pay us before we go 'Fuck it, I'm gonna go find a different job.'"

Jaz Rignall

Rignall ended up temporarily moving over to the development side of things in the mid-’90s. After running multiple UK-based magazines in his early twenties – which he described as “insane” – he got a fortuitous job offer from Virgin Interactive Entertainment, for whom he’d been doing some consulting, while on a trip to America. He decided to take it.

"I found myself in an editorial director position, which was about as high as you could go for someone with a journalistic background,” Rignall said. “You'd either run a magazine, or you'd run a magazine group, or a website. Unless you went into the business side, you'd hit that limit. And those seats are incredibly limited. At any given time, there are maybe, like, three or four really well-paid executive jobs for creative folk. If you didn't get one of those seats, you would stay as an editor forever or you'd move on. That's when we began to see people going 'I don't want to spend my life editing magazines. I want to earn a bit more money – develop a career path that doesn't stop.’"

It didn’t hurt that the development job paid “double” what Rignall had been making as a journalist. 

Rignall doesn’t believe that the prospect of an eventual job helping make games impacted his critical faculties. "I remember walking in on my first day as a developer,” said Rignall, “and I bumped into a guy whose game I'd absolutely crucified probably about three or four years earlier, and he had a real go at me. So yeah, that [kind of possibility] existed, but it wouldn't stop me from talking about a game."

Before going into development, Rignall ran Europe’s Official Nintendo Magazine and Official Sega Magazine at the same time, which is funny in hindsight considering the bitter playground rivalry between the two console makers back then. Companies wanted these publications to act as glorified marketing tools, and in some ways, they did. Nintendo, especially, was a heavy-handed steward of its license, but Rignall and his team insisted on (contractually obligated) editorial independence when it came to reviews.

"[Nintendo] certainly moaned about it and tried to be like 'Why are you giving us such a low score?' and that kind of thing,” said Rignall. “But we had to be honest, because if you write shit, people won't read your stuff."

That’s not to say companies like Nintendo were entirely unable to influence the review process: "The only caveat we had is, very occasionally if a game came in that was clearly just absolutely shit, we might delay the review a month,” said Rignall. “And that was always done under great sufferance, but sometimes we would do that as a favor."

[Nintendo] certainly moaned about it and tried to be like 'Why are you giving us such a low score?' and that kind of thing. But we had to be honest, because if you write shit, people won't read your stuff.

But Rignall also feels like European publications had more leverage than American publications in this regard. In some cases, it was a matter of structure. Nintendo Power, America’s official Nintendo magazine at the time, was, as Rignall put it, “a marketing tool produced by Nintendo to promote their products.” (Even as a child, I remember reading its reviews and thinking they were more product descriptions than opinions. The magazine did its job effectively, though; tearing through a glossy multi-page spread about Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages and then buying the game the second it came out remains a core memory of mine.)

Magazines, like websites now, made much of their money on ads, and this is where Rignall – who departed development to join the American games press in the late ‘90s – thinks American magazines were uniquely vulnerable to outside influence. Europe’s distribution system for magazines, he explained, made more of their money from sales of the magazine itself. This meant that in Europe, people like Rignall could tell advertisers to take a hike if they didn’t like what was being printed. In the US, it was a riskier proposition. 

“US magazines were far, far more dependent on ad revenue,” said Rignall. “Advertisers knew that. They threatened to pull ads. Whereas in the UK, people would threaten to pull ads, and yeah, we’d lose that money, but ads were kind of gravy because we were already making money on the newsstand sales. … They’d threaten to pull their ads, and we’d say, ‘Let them. They’ll come back to us.’” 

Small World

That sort of vulnerability, according to former 1UP.com and USGamer editor-in-chief and curator at publisher Limited Run Games Jeremy Parish, eventually led to the fate that befell a beloved beacon of games journalism in the US, Electronic Gaming Monthly. Originally launched by Sendai Publications in 1989, EGM became the property of Ziff Davis in 1996, leading to an era in the late ‘90s for which the magazine remains fondly remembered. 

"[EGM] started publishing more thoughtful, constructive arguments,” Parish told Aftermath. “They started taking on aspects of game culture and talking to game developers and really going more in depth." 

In the late ‘90s and early 2000s, Ziff Davis founded a slew of video game publications including 1UP, its flagship gaming website, as well as magazines like GMR (“a little bit edgier [than EGM],” according to Parish), Official PlayStation Magazine (it would “kind of toe the line, make Sony happy”), and Xbox Nation (“wanted to be official, but wasn’t, so they just kind of did their own thing and weren’t afraid to talk trash about their own platform”). Too many names to count from those mastheads eventually found their way into game development, but Parish feels like, for the most part, the journalists under Ziff Davis’ umbrella were further removed from the video game industry marketing machine than their counterparts in the ‘80s and early-to-mid ‘90s.  

"That marketing aspect was never part of the editorial remit,” said Parish. “It was never really on the editorial teams' minds. They were being themselves and expressing their opinions – basically trying to make the best magazines they could. They spent a lot of time thinking about 'What should be on the cover? What kind of coverage should we tackle? What should our tone be?' But that's true for any publication.”

1UP

Dan Hsu, who was editor-in-chief at EGM from 1996-2008 and went on to work at companies like Sony and Activision Blizzard (from which he was recently laid off), said that while other publications failed to keep everything above board, EGM strove to be different.  

"I've done editorials before where I call out deals being made on the side or even money changing hands for coverage,” Hsu told Aftermath. “I was lucky [EGM] was my first journalism job, because long before I got there, they already had a history of making sure that they were independent, that they operated independently of PR other than for access to developers, review code, and all that stuff."

As in Rignall’s case, companies – not writers with an eye toward the door – were responsible for exerting the pressures that compromised publications. 

"A big part of what killed Electronic Gaming Monthly was their falling out with Ubisoft over their [original] Assassin's Creed review and a few other things,” said Parish of the magazine’s discontinuation in 2009. “We gave our honest opinions about those games, and Ubisoft pulled their ads for a while. That was when every penny started to count. So I think that hastened the demise of that print publication. They went down to the very bitter end being authentic to themselves." 

(EGM later relaunched on a couple occasions under another publisher and with different writers, but it never gained anywhere near the same level of acclaim or readership.)

By the time EGM folded, the era of websites was in full swing, transforming video games coverage into something that moved at a much faster pace than in the magazine days. Games journalism widened, with the boards and forums of the early internet paving the way for a new generation of writers with their own blogs and podcasts. I was one of the many who voraciously consumed 1UP content and posted on forums like Parish’s Talking Time, fueling starry-eyed dreams of becoming a games journalist. Esports and content creation would soon follow, but at the time, games journalism was the most visible way to become a professional gamer. Enthusiast blogs sprouted like pimples on the face of a rapidly growing industry, many of which popped just as quickly after their owners got bored, realized writing – even with free video games involved – is work, and/or used a blog to secure E3 press credentials and discovered that it wasn’t as exciting as advertised. (Citation: I “worked” for a bunch of these types of sites, largely for free.)

It was a messy time, with some writers doubtless viewing games journalism as an easy stepping stone into video game development. Whether or not they succeeded is another question.

“I have yet to meet anyone who’s a successful director, designer, writer, [or] whatever who exclusively leveraged a games media position to get the job,” said Mitch Dyer, who, like myself, started out as a freelance writer for sites too numerous to name in the early 2010s before, unlike myself, securing full-time work at IGN in 2011 and then pivoting to a career in video game narrative on series like Star Wars and Batman in 2016. "Over time, I just started connecting with more and more creative people through osmosis, right? I'm interviewing people and going to these studios all the time. I'm trying to set up phone calls with people that I admire. Ultimately, over a period of time, a recurring theme with a bunch of them was 'You should maybe consider doing this. Instead of doing what you're doing, why don't you jump the fence and try this? Have you ever thought about it?’”

Dyer never realistically considered the possibility until he found an offer to work on Star Wars in his inbox, which he ultimately took. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t conflicts of interest. They’re just not as exciting as those behind movements like Gamergate – which followed shortly after the blog explosion, as social media began to assert its dominance – seem to think. 

"I had been a year or two into my time at IGN, and I was taking phone calls from, like, recruiters who reached out randomly and asked if I'd be interested in a localization job or a video editing job at a developer,” said Dyer. “There's probably ethical questions there. Like if I interview at Double Fine, I probably shouldn't ever touch a Double Fine game [for coverage], right? It gets really weird. This recruiter is never gonna talk about it, but internally, in your inner world, it gets very complicated."

As Parish and others watched friends and colleagues – some of them jobless after the closures of 1UP and Joystiq in 2013 and 2015, respectively – migrate into development en masse, things only got more complicated.

“If I was still in the press, I don’t even know what I could write about,” said Parish. “I couldn’t write about Spider-Man, because that’s [directed by] Bryan Intihar who worked at EGM with me, who assigned me reviews. I couldn’t write about Destiny or Marathon because that's Luke Smith, who worked with me at 1UP. I look at just about every publisher and see somebody [I used to work with]. What could I work on from Nintendo, because I know probably eight or nine people who were friends or roommates or coworkers, who now work in Treehouse doing localization or doing marketing?"

Kallie Plagge, who spent years working at IGN and GameSpot before taking a localization job at Nintendo in 2021, can relate. 

"Even before I left, it was a challenge in that I had friends who had already gone to publishers,” Plagge said. “That's sort of the issue with the games-journalism-to-dev pipeline: Once your friends leave [journalism], you're suddenly like 'How do I cover Ubisoft?' if you have a friend who works at Ubisoft. ‘How do I talk about what I think is bad?’”

Plagge noted that she’s opted out of covering games where “whether I liked it or not, I would not feel comfortable expressing how I felt about it.” This includes, among others, 2017’s Star Wars Battlefront II, because Dyer, with whom she previously worked, helped write it.

"I was like 'I really don't think I should cover this game because I know someone who wrote it, and it's really personal to him. I don't feel like I should be the person saying whether it was well written or not,'" said Plagge.  

If I was still in the press, I don’t even know what I could write about.

But Plagge, who has since pulled off the rare feat of returning to journalism by taking a copy editing job at Polygon in 2022, doesn’t feel like all coverage of games from companies friends or former colleagues work at is off the table. 

“I do have a friend at Ubisoft,” said Plagge. “She doesn’t work on Assassin’s Creed, [so] I do feel comfortable editing a piece about Assassin’s Creed.”

She went on to explain that her ex-journalist friends at publishers and developers make a point of not telling her about things that will put her in a “weird spot.”

"[For example], drama about 'It was delayed because of this' or the sorts of work conversations you might have with [a friend] normally, like 'Oh, my manager did this,'” said Plagge. “Anything that could give a weird impression of a product is something that people generally avoid." 

Brain Drain

Somewhat ironically, delays and managerial malfeasance are the kinds of information that a dyed-in-the-wool reporter would love for a source to tell them, and friends sometimes end up being sources (though that can be its own can of worms). But much of what we call games journalism focuses on reviews, even though those hew closer to criticism in form. Games journalism has never housed more than a few investigative reporters at a time, and the journalism-to-developer pipeline intersects with that issue as well. Every time a reporter with investigative chops, like former Kotaku reporter Sisi Jiang, burns out and leaves, that’s one less person to do the work and mentor others in understanding how to do the work.

"What shocked me is that not everyone can do investigative journalism," said Jiang, who wrote all sorts of stories – including investigative pieces – for Kotaku before transitioning into development at Genshin Impact creator Hoyoverse. "I thought it was a thing that everyone eventually gets to do when they build up experience, but no; it's a very specific type of person who does investigations, a very specific skill set that you can't teach to everyone and a specific emotional intelligence. And then I realized 'Oh my god, the investigative brain drain is so bad.' It's a real problem."

Jiang worked on indie games before they ever went into journalism, but they still did their best to hold the industry accountable with stories like an in-depth report on the human toll of Fallout 76’s launch. There were other stories they reported out, however, that weren’t published, not to shield friends or keep potential future prospects open, but because higher-ups interfered, citing advertiser concerns.

"I was sitting on stories that I was getting blocked on. I still think about those stories sometimes,” Jiang said. "It's about looking attractive to advertisers, which is really ugly to say aloud because we care so much about editorial independence. I don't want to spin this into some conspiracy of 'Kotaku's advertisers are controlling what's on the page,' because that's still not how any of this works. But it means that someone from the corporate side can get a little bit irritated if a certain story runs. … It's not direct. It's more like, does your boss want to be pulled into a morning meeting because an advertiser got very sad? It's a dynamic that exists, but it's not as out there as 'Big triple-A publisher says you have to write this about their game or else.'”

“It sucks,” Jiang added, “because on one hand you don't want to blow a hole in the credibility of people who are really trying to make this whole journalist thing work. But also it's an unfortunate reality that does affect what goes on the page – or rather, what doesn't."

Helder Almeida / Shutterstock

Kotaku is a relatively large publication (despite G/O Media’s decision to staff it with an overworked skeleton crew). Other publications feel the pressures that come with advertising and, especially, PR-driven access more acutely. Elise Favis, who worked at Game Informer, The Washington Post, and Fanbyte before Fanbyte layoffs led her to take a communications job at Prytania (from which she was also laid off), did her best to push back on it. 

“[Pushing back] is easier to do when you're at a place like The Washington Post, versus a smaller place like Fanbyte. To be honest, I felt like I was able to do the more difficult stories or breaking news when I was at The Washington Post, because the big name of the publication and the reputation of it helps. PR is always going to be more forgiving when they know they can't really blacklist a place like The Washington Post. And that's a place of privilege, right? A lot of journalists don't have that kind of privilege."

In early 2023, The Washington Post folded its video game section, Launcher, at which both Riley and I had been working (Favis had already left by that point). In late 2022, Tencent laid off nearly the entire staff of Fanbyte, where Favis moved to after her time at The Post. As journalists play hopscotch between a series of rapidly melting ice floes, the publications that remain are largely those that avoid taking big risks. 

“[Game Informer] was not a place that was best equipped to do hard-hitting journalism,” said Favis, “and that is because we had such close relationships to PR and communications and to devs – to leadership at different studios, because of our cover stories. We needed those partnerships to be able to get those stories, especially when they were still doing cover stories about unannounced games. ... I really liked moving to The Washington Post, where I had more freedom to be critical."

Favis didn’t want to leave journalism, but she had no choice. She’s a Canadian living in the United States, so she needed to secure a work visa. In multiple senses, she could not afford to sit around and wait for the ideal opportunity. 

“I don't think I ever wanted to leave journalism,” she said. “I loved being a reporter. I loved being an editor. I really enjoyed the stories that can come out of the video game landscape, good and bad. I felt like I had found my niche and my community – and that I was good at what I did. So it was a very frustrating experience to feel like I had to leave that behind just because there were no jobs."

Jiang, on the other hand, left because they had to. They were burning out hard in a line of work that purports to be a dream job, but which – as a result – often gets away with chewing up and spitting out its most promising talents. 

"I was having brunch with some friends,” said Jiang. “It was the first time in years that we'd seen each other, and I was having a lovely time. Then I pull out my phone to check the time and see all these notifications from virulent transphobes about my article saying the Steam forums are a hot mess because Hogwarts Legacy is making the transphobes come out in droves. ... And I was just thinking about that the entire brunch that I should have been having a nice time with my friends."

Jiang feels like blowback to their work was magnified by their background. That further fanned the flames of their burnout.

"My job was harder than other people's in the same workplace because being Chinese – being the ethnicity of people that people think are a threat to Western civilization – readers already don't give you the same amount of credibility,” said Jiang. “I got harassment over stuff I know people who covered my same beat at other outlets did not get, and people just don't take you as seriously when your name is not a normal, standardized American name."

Other ex-journalists from marginalized groups reported similarly frustrating experiences from their time in recent iterations of the games press.

"I think about Gamergate and the fact that I was a teenager back then, and I was watching all these women and people of color and marginalized people go through this experience -- this absolute mobbing, this harassment,” said Flores. “But a lot of them were still passionate about the industry of games journalism, about the potential, about the stories we could tell. It felt like the landscape was, if it wasn't outright supportive, then it wasn't antagonistic to that desire. I felt inspired later in life to go into games journalism, because I saw all those people at the forefront fighting to make games journalism better, to talk about the industry, to share their perspectives. Now it feels like the landscape just doesn't support that. It's actively antagonistic to the idea of people fighting long-term for a better industry and a better games press." 

Harper Jay, who worked for Kotaku from 2016-2020 before moving into a community role at Double Fine, says that during their tenure, there were issues with the way sites like Kotaku allotted resources. “Certain voices weren't given as much support as they probably needed,” they said. But at least for a time shortly before and during that period, critical writing about video games was still able to find prominent placement on sites and drive conversation. Time and circumstances, Jay believes, have changed.

"There was a stretch of time where we had a cohort of writers that were really trying to teach people how to look at games through things like a diversity lens, the lens of race, gender, understanding that the way you interpret art is unavoidably affected by your lived experiences – by who you are,” Jay said. “We started to teach people all these skills and terms, and what they did is, they turned them into weapons to police fandom. … Instead of using that as a springboard to explore their own feelings and relationships with games, they turned it into checklists for what makes a thing ideologically pure or not. That's not criticism. In fact, it's incredibly incurious."

Things were way worse in many ways in 2014, but part of that was a response to a blossoming of discourse and criticism from marginalized writers who were getting access to publications for the first time or en masse for the first time.

Austin Walker, a member of that cohort who worked at Giant Bomb and then ran Vice’s now-shuttered Waypoint vertical before moving into development at Possibility Space in 2021, concurs with Jay and Flores. In his eyes, the problem is, as with so many others in this medium, just as material as it is cultural. 

"I think games crit now is in a really rough place compared to where it was a decade ago,” said Walker. “Things were way worse in many ways in 2014, but part of that was a response to a blossoming of discourse and criticism from marginalized writers who were getting access to publications for the first time or en masse for the first time. And we've seen pound-for-pound diminishment of that not only because tastes have changed, but because outlets are smaller – and gone.”

Especially in the past handful of years, the landscape of games journalism has shifted dramatically, focusing on guides and other forms of service journalism while in-depth reporting and criticism get sacrificed at the altar of the daily grind. It’s the logical endpoint of a failing ad market, relentless penny pinching, and corporate hyper-cautiousness. If you’re a writer or reporter who wants to probe deeper, it’s difficult to find motivation to stick around when the job is no longer what you signed up for – and that’s when you can even find a job at all.

"With [G/O Media head] Spanfeller and all them, it became very clear that the quality of your work didn't really matter. It just didn't,” said Jay. “It's that very old-school model of finding ways to situate ads on the page and then populating your site with as much content as possible to serve those ads. I just didn't really want to be part of that."

"We sent someone to report out the Def Jam: Fight For NY scene in 2019,” Walker said of Waypoint. “That's a story that was fun to edit and have someone report out. We sent a reporter to Guantanamo Bay to report about the culture of play from every possible angle. That was a deeply fulfilling thing to be able to do that we could only do with the budget that we had, and that was something that then disappeared."

(Vice shut down Waypoint in 2023, though it partially lives on in the form of Remap, an independent podcast and website you should support.)

Games Pressed

Parish left journalism to work on video games in part because he strongly disliked being in leadership positions where he had to steer one of the media industry’s flotilla of slowly sinking ships.

"I really hated the few times where I had to oversee staff reductions and layoffs and make those choices,” said Parish. “The first time I had to deal with that, I didn't sleep for, like, a month – just knowing 'Hey, I'm gonna be taking someone's livelihood away, but I don't know what else to do.' All I could do is come up with a plan that would mitigate the damage the most and do the least harm to people as I could manage, which I don't think anyone likes unless they're a sociopath."

Parish and others like Jay, Jiang, and Flores are much happier in their current roles, where they get to live more balanced lives while still regularly interacting with video game creators and putting their writing skills to use. But those skills are now in service of companies rather than (even occasionally) in opposition to them, reinforcing an industry status quo that already favored companies and treated games as products rather than anything more meaningful. The aforementioned former journalists have been fortunate enough to secure jobs where they can help demystify the game development process and, effectively, do something like journalism on the company’s dime from time to time. But it’s still unavoidably in service of helping move units of video games and generate profit. 

Frame Stock Footage / Shutterstock

The question now is, what happens to critical discourse – about both games and the companies that create them – in an industry that was already hostile to journalists to begin with? 

"A thing that I've had to contend with coming over to this side is the amount of people who have a very combative relationship with the press,” said Jay. “For fans, the goal they think the press should have is to validate their tastes. For developers, sometimes I think the goal they feel the press should have is to always champion their work – regardless of maybe the material circumstances that led to the thing's creation. ... I think that, when well considered, the goal of the press and developers is mostly the same: to create a healthy ecosystem for people to talk about and play games in. It's just that sometimes the press lights a few more fires, and when you light fires, sorry, sometimes more people get burned than maybe you'd like.”

Dyer pointed to a self-reinforcing mechanism he discovered after moving into development, one that doesn’t help matters: In the course of promotion, developers and publishers offer simplified explanations of complex topics and means of implementing video game features. This makes for better soundbites, which are crafted largely to get prospective players excited enough to spend money. But they’re also not entirely correct. Journalists then propagate these ideas about game development, and developers get mad at them for being wrong.

“We obfuscate the kind of infinite details of development, 1) because they can be boring, and 2) because what does it do to actually get somebody who's going to be a player excited about the thing you want them to be excited about?” said Dyer. “The result of that – and I was absolutely guilty of this – is 'Oh, I learned this thing about how Unreal Engine works. I now have a good understanding of how Unreal Engine works and what Unreal Engine is.' And it's just not true. … So publishers and developers create this authoritatively incorrect group of people who think they understand, justifiably, something because they heard it from an expert. But it's not always exactly how things work, because it's not detailed.”

But that’s still better than many content creators who, for example, see a baseless conspiracy theory about a small narrative studio puppeteering the video game industry as red meat, grist for the content mill. That’s not to say all content creators are cut from the same cloth, but they decidedly don’t serve the same purpose as journalists, nor are they held to the same standards.

"There is an impression on the part of the audience that [platforms like YouTube and TikTok] are somehow more real and more honest than more traditional journalistic expressions that a lot of us were trying, at least, to do,” said Plagge. “But of course, there's a lot of sponsorships tied up in that. They don't have sales departments. They're working directly with publishers in a way that journalists are not at traditional publications."

"People have been like 'You're lying about this game, you're paid by Sony.' If I were paid by Sony, there would be signs. I would live in a nicer apartment,” she continued. “Yes, there are fair criticisms about access journalism and relationships with publishers. But at the same time, there were standards that everybody was supposed to follow and tried to follow – and still try to follow."

While content creators are required to disclose sponsorships, getting paid to play a game isn’t even remotely the sort of dealbreaker that it would be for a journalist. It’s downright expected at this point – just part of the ecosystem. This shifts many conversations around games in a direction that favors companies, or at least keeps them in the realm of features and updates rather than labor and themes. With traditional games journalism on its last legs, where do those conversations go? Who will act as a countervailing force while PR people – many of them former journalists – polish messages to a corporate-friendly sheen and companies bury their skeletons under NDAs? 

The goal of the press and developers is mostly the same: to create a healthy ecosystem for people to talk about and play games in. ... Sometimes the press lights a few more fires, and when you light fires, sorry, sometimes more people get burned than maybe you'd like.

Certainly, content creators will talk about bigger issues if they prove salacious enough, and video essayists on YouTube are doing some legitimately great (if overly long) critical work. But at least so far, few – beyond outliers like People Make Games – regularly break stories about the video game industry. On top of that, the Sweet Baby Inc conspiracy is indicative of the incentive structures that underlie content creation platforms. Dissemination of accurate information is not the main priority; in many cases, it’s not even a priority. Views are king, and though modern Google SEO trends mean traditional outlets are subject to similar pressures, there’s still an expectation that they’ll tell you some version of the vetted, fact-checked truth. Content creators, meanwhile, are mostly just expected to entertain. They can get away with a more lackadaisical approach to what they say, and so they do. 

Walker believes that after a certain point, a reporter is a reporter, regardless of medium.

"If what you're doing is daily reporting, you're a reporter, and it becomes fair to hold you to those standards,” he said. “If the way that you interface with these companies is in a reporter-like way, I don't care that you call yourself a fan channel or something. I'm gonna start holding you accountable in that way."

In spite of everything, Walker remains hopeful for the future.

"I definitely think [the future] is this moment of subscription-driven outlets, but I also think it looks like something I can't imagine from if not TikTok then whatever comes after TikTok,” he said. "How do we get out of the hole? Who starts opening doors again? I think I'm fundamentally optimistic that there's always a window to open back towards meaningful engagement and criticism – that the world is never final and possibility always finds a way forward. But like, damn if it won't suck for a little while."

Inside Baseball is a week of stories about the lesser-known parts of game development, the ins and outs of games journalism, and a peek behind the curtain at Aftermath. It's part of our first subscription drive, which you can learn more about here. If you like what you see, please consider subscribing!

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