Press Pass looks at the judges of the Game Critics Awards — how they’re picked, what they do and why they’re so important.

Press Pass: The Most Important Game Critics at E3

In a little over a week, thousands of journalists and game critics will be among the tens of thousands of industry members descending on the Los Angeles Convention Center for the Electronic Entertainment Expo. But 29 of these critics enjoy a special position in the throng. They’re the judges in the E3 Game Critics Awards (GCAs), and they’re among the most important tastemakers and kingmakers on the show floor.

While the GCAs aren’t directly affiliated with E3 itself, they’ve become the de facto independent standard for evaluating the show’s hottest playable games since their start in 1998. Winning a GCA sets a game apart from the hundreds of games that come out each year, and helps drive the kind of hype and pre-release coverage that can lead to greater interest and sales when the final game eventually comes out. Indeed, winners of the GCA’s 16 categories are often among the best-selling games of the year, and marketers use the “Game Critics Award Winner” badge on game advertisements and boxes as a mark of the game’s quality.

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Press Pass: Blogging by the Numbers

When I talk about the subject of blogs (and videogame blogs in particular) with fellow journalists, PR people, developers and readers, I keep hearing the same few complaints:

  • Blogs just publish press releases and stuff from other outlets. They don’t do any original writing.
  • Blogs just post fluff like screenshots and rumors and pictures of cakes. They don’t publish real news.
  • All the blogs just steal stuff from each other (and the partisan corollary, [Blog A] just steals everything from [Blog B]).

While these arguments may apply to some blogs (and have perhaps fit all of blogging at one point), they didn’t really apply to my experience writing for Joystiq from 2006 through 2008. Sure, a lot of our day was spent summarizing and linking to the work of other people, and we posted our fair share of screenshot galleries and picture of cakes. But we also did a lot of original reporting, and wrote consumer-focused reviews, previews and other features that tended to get lost amidst the never-ending drumbeat of news posts.

Of course, I could make this firsthand argument to anyone who cared to listen, but I never had any hard data to back up my claims. Until today.

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Music is obviously the core focus of MTV News — it’s right there in the Music Television name. But over the last four years, the outfit has increasingly included videogame coverage in its ever-expanding pop culture sphere. That increased attention has largely been the responsibility of Stephen Totilo, who was hired as MTV’s first full-time videogame beat reporter back in May 2005. Since then he’s built MTV News, and its game-focused MTV Multiplayer blog, into a major destination for original game reporting and commentary.

The Totilo era at MTV News ends this Friday, though, when the longtime game reporter leaves to take a Deputy Managing Editor position at Gawker’s popular gaming blog Kotaku. I took the transition as an opportunity to talk to Totilo about the future of MTV News’ gaming coverage, his plans for Kotaku and his thoughts on the wider game journalism industry. Below are some of the most interesting excerpts from our conversation.

Key Quotes:

“Hopefully [MTV Multiplayer] doesn’t have to go dark … There’s a chance [it could happen], but if that happens it won’t be some weird frozen in time thing. We’ll let readers know it’s happening and what they can expect beyond that.”

“The plan is not for me to regularly re-post news gathered from elsewhere. … Imagine what I do in my current gig transplanted into Kotaku. That’s what Kotaku gets.”

“Just a week or so I was reading some rude comments from a developer telling me that he was sure I was just biding my time until I could get a cushy development job. He guessed wrong. If a meteor hits Kotaku and I manage to survive, then I will get another gaming journalism job after that.”

“Reporters need to pick up the phone more and find out about stories for themselves. And readers would be best served to identify those reporters and outlets who do the best work and keep supporting them.”

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Press Pass: Just Foolin' AwardsI certainly understand why a lot of game journalists absolutely loathe April Fools’ Day. Besides having to be on alert all day for fake news coming through the pipes, game journos also have to spend the day enduring some truly awful attempts at “humor” from writers who really have no business trying to be funny.

I can’t count myself among the Fool-haters, though. I look forward to April 1 every year as a day for game journalists to stretch a bit outside of their tiny, fact-based reporting-and-commentary boxes to try their hand at some creative fiction. It’s a chance to imagine what could and should be in this industry, a day to create elaborate fictional worlds where even the implausible is possible.

So, this year, as in years past, I’ve put together this set of awards to celebrate the best (and denigrate some of the worst) of the April Fools’ form. Enjoy.

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Ah, the first-quarter doldrums… It’s time of year when the good games spigot stops flowing so torrentially and we can catch up on that backlog of holiday hits. It’s also the time of year when we game journalists put together the obligatory “Most Anticipated Games of the Year” lists. These lists are a lot of fun and a good way to guide coverage and reader interest for the coming year. But what do these lists look like with the benefit of hindsight? Did the games on these lists deserve our anticipation, or were we distracted by the shiny, shiny hype train? In short, how well did our collective expectations conform with our final evaluations?I decided to find out by looking at a bunch of “most anticipated” game lists from 2008, and seeing how they stand up to the test of time. The result is the below list of “Crystal Ball” awards for interesting, confusing or otherwise noteworthy picks made roughly 12 months ago. Enjoy the list, and keep it in mind when you’re reading all those “Most Anticipated Games of 2009” lists.

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As the holiday release season comes to a close, Press Pass sees if any journalists survived the onslaught of reviews.

  • Game journalism navel-gazing and its malcontents
  • Hey, who Spiked the Video Game Awards punch?
  • Swimming up the mainstream
  • News bits
  • Quote of the moment

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Imagine that you’ve got the best game idea in the history of game ideas. You don’t work at a major videogame publisher, but you do have a modicum of programming and artistic skill, so you set yourself to many long nights of work in order to get your vision out of your head and into an executable file. Finally, after months of toil, you’re ready to share your wholly original, accessible and eminently playable creation with the world. You upload your creation to some free Web space and … despair as a grand total of 10 people download it in your first month. Hey, at least your mom said she liked it.

Independent games — generally, games released without the support of a major publisher — can’t rely on major marketing campaigns or months of hype to generate interest. For these games, the challenge of convincing people to download a demo or buy a copy only comes after the challenge of simply making people aware of your game’s existence. This is where the videogame press can help, turning readers on to the best under-hyped indie gems. So, how well is the press performing this vital function? Well, it depends on whom you ask.

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What do Barack Obama, E3 and conflicts of interest have in common? This month’s Press Pass Round-up column, that’s what!

In this issue:

  • Game The Vote
  • E3 2009 Gets Re-bigulated
  • Conflict-of-interest Watch
  • The TV Zone
  • News Bits
  • Quotes of the Moment

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Can pure hype prop up a clunker in the reviews? Do overhyped games get punished by critics? Press Pass investigates.

Sometimes it seems like the game industry is drowning in pre-release hype. Before a major game hits store shelves these days, potential players can look forward to months, sometimes years, of slowly leaked information, screenshots, trailers, interviews, gameplay videos, demos, developer diaries, blogs, events, flashy print and TV ads and more. It’s all designed to breed familiarity among gamers so that, by the time they’re able to actually buy the long-hyped game, they’re already intimately comfortable with its look, its feel and, most importantly, with the idea of owning it.

But while the end-consumer is the main target of all this promotion, the critics are definitely an important secondary audience for promotionally-minded game publishers. Even the most secluded reviewer can’t help but be exposed to the deafening roar of pre-release hype for the biggest releases. But does this hype have an effect on the final critical reception of a game? And if so, is the net result good or bad?

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Madden 09 Xbox coverIn August 2008, four separate versions of a single game took up four of the top 10 spaces in NPD’s monthly game sales report, including the three top spots. These sales were seemingly unaffected by the previous month, when a similar game in the same genre took two of the top 10 sales rankings spots, including the top spot. During the summer release doldrums, you’d think that such sales domination would merit blanket coverage in the gaming media — coverage of the sort seen for marquee releases like Halo 3 or Super Smash Bros. Brawl.

For one reason or another, though, the gaming press largely ignored top-sellers Madden NFL 09 and NCAA Football 09 this summer. For the most part, it focused instead on yet another fighting game sequel, a long-expected, arguably overhyped role-playing game and, of course, the upcoming holiday releases. The press’ cold shoulder for this year’s football releases is just the latest example of a consistent pattern of neglect that the big name publications routinely have for sports games. Despite better-than-healthy sales and a huge fan base, sports games, for some reason, can’t seem to get any respect from the gaming press.

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