Larian Studios Interview Pt. 1: Games Journalism is Broken

Author: Sean Ridgeley
Editor: Howard Ha
Publish Date: Friday, March 2nd, 2012
Originally Published on Neoseeker (http://www.neoseeker.com)
Article Link: http://www.neoseeker.com/Articles/Games/Interviews/larian_studios_pt1/
Copyright Neo Era Media, Inc. - please do not redistribute or use for commercial purposes.

Larian Studios is a studio known for its acclaimed Divinity RPG series, and is currently at work on the strategy RPG Dragon Commander. Its founder, developer, and businessman Swen Vincke is its leader, and one of the rare outspoken figures in the industry, particularly since going independent and starting up his own blog recently.

It's there Vincke goes into great detail on a lot of gaming industry-related topics rarely discussed in the media or elsewhere, one of them being games journalism. Like many developers, he's not happy with the state of it. Funnily enough, neither are we, so we called him up to chat about it, and also the business side of the industry (covered in part two of this interview, coming soon).

Read on for what you should find a fascinating examination of the state of things and what can be done to improve it.

Talk about your experiences with press from the early days up until now.

Press was a lot more open in the early days of the industry; they were much more accessible. And in my view they were much more representative of their players in what they were writing than they are today.

People are much more vocal now and that vocality is translating to the press, which seems to be more free. But then you have a press which seems to be almost run by the advertising agency of a publisher. You can see a lot of examples of that in the reviews being posted; you can almost pick which ones where you say 'Well, I know where that influence came from', which is publisher organized, and then the ones where you say 'Well that guy actually played the game and is just writing what he's thinking about it'.

I feel like that's a misconception, though. Maybe you know things I don't, but, as I've usually understood it, the advertising and the public relations (PR) teams are generally very separate and have little or no influence over each other. We've never had that problem; it's never been brought up. I mean, we're not a massive site, but I think we're big enough we would've seen that by now, because we deal with a lot of big publishers.

More often it's an issue where the writer isn't as critical as they should be, but it's more down to them and PR. It doesn't even have to be a spoken thing, they just don't want to upset PR for whatever reason.

In general it's not that outspoken. Sometimes it is; I've seen examples of it. But it's probably not the norm. Although, and I'm not going to mention the magazine (it's a fairly big one), not sooner than I'd just done an interview with somebody [recently] was the advertising manager talking with us on the phone a couple of hours later about how many pages we'd wanted to buy, etc. So it does happen like that.

Public relations is all about creating the perception around a game, which does cause problems. You see situations where the guys going to review a game are invited to go to Venice, and they're going to spend a half hour with the game and a week in Venice in a five-star hotel. It's going to be extremely hard to be extremely negative about it.

I've seen a PR manager in action for one of my games make a 79 an 81. And it cost him a lot of money; it cost him full page ads over multiple titles, but he managed to, and it had a big impact on the sales of the game.

Scoring is an issue in itself. As an editor, personally, I hate scoring. For awhile we didn't score our games; we brought it in eventually. I understand the need of it, and why it's useful, but it causes so many problems, with readers and PR. Idealistically I would like to eliminate scoring but that's not happening.

It's insane it can have such an impact. I was comparing numbers for Divinity II: The Dragon Knight Saga and Dragon Age II, because it had the same Metacritic rating (82). I went to look at the user scores for both games, and Dragon Age II had 73% user score on GameSpot, 70 on Amazon, and 42 on Metacritic, over thousands of votes. In our case it was much higher; our Metacritic fits more with our user score: 85 on GameSpot, 84 on Metacritic, 90 on Amazon. I know it's because it's purely PR machine work.

And if you look at the trends you see the initial Dragon Age II reviews were very high, and as you go over time...

Yeah, that's managing from the PR end. They know certain publications are guaranteed or pretty much guaranteed to give the game a very high score, so they give them early review copies.

It's creating a very distorted view toward your players who typically only have a budget for buying a couple of games over a year. Say you have a bad RPG that's getting initial 85 or 90 Metacritic rating, and people buy it and say 'I don't like RPGs'. You've basically done a disservice to the entire RPG developing and publishing community.

I agree with one the comments in your blog about how you tend to follow reviewers as opposed to publications. More people should do that. I read a lot of comments whenever the topic comes up on forums or wherever, and usually there's a large amount of people that say 'All reviewers are terrible, they don't know what they're talking about, I don't read reviews, etc'.

To an extent I understand that, because there's a lot out there that gives us a bad name, but if more people put the effort into seeking out reviewers they really trust, that 90% of the time are in line with their own opinions, and can tell just by how they word things they're not being bought off or suckered into anything, and they stick with that person. Seek those people out and spread those reviews around; I don't care where they're from.

Once I started making the list of all the things that affect a review...it's an enormous list. Other than the influence of the money I guess, there's the subjectivity of the reviewer...that's where it's important you find someone you can trust, and that he speaks for you as part of a target audience and player instead of just the target audience of the magazine. That can be quite complicated to find.

What do we do when we create a box? "IGN says 8/10, fantastic." And on the back we say "IGN says this is a very good game." But who the hell is IGN? If it was a particular reviewer, we couldn't just put his name on it because chances are nobody knows who he is, but that would be much more valuable.

That's a good point. Film works that way. There are famous film critics; I guess only a handful, but still, maybe if we put more emphasis on that in games that would help.

What we would love to see is a review of the reviewers - a Metacritic for them where it shows where they are in line with games, and you can say 'Well I liked the game' and it says 'This reviewer says you wouldn't like the game'. You would have the good reviewers float to the top, and these guys could then probably run their own magazines on their own. This would be a good thing.

There's no liability for reviewers right now. We had a very big issue with a particular magazine who gave us a 5/10 for Dragon Knight Saga, which we couldn't understand at all. Development had been working 16 hour days for months and months and months, and you're waiting for your first review and that was the first that came in. It's like 'What the hell did we do wrong?' So he wrote it hasn't become a good game, but he likes the graphics. Then a couple of days later the IGN review pops up and says "The graphics are acceptable but only barely." But he gives it 7.5, so fair enough.

We called the guy with the magazine, and they say 'The guy isn't here anymore, he's a student, an intern.' 'Oh really? So you let a student review for a Metacritic review site?' This affects the initial perception people are getting from our game, because it's being listed on whatever aggregators. There should be some sense of responsibility, because this guy was just an intern who happened to play games, he's not a journalist at all, and he's going to be reviewing the thing you've been working on for years.

It depends on the intern. You can have some highly skilled ones, but some are just amateurs, yeah. And especially for an RPG - that's a big deal.

Don't get me wrong. It's not that I have something against interns, it's just...it's already a big problem with the magazine, the consistency. There's a lot of publications out there where you pick three different RPG reviews, and it's probably easy to find statements immediately conflicting with one another.

We used to listen to what reviewers were saying, especially the big ones, but we discovered there's so little consistency that we just gave up completely.

That's disappointing from my end. I understand it; it's warranted completely, but it's unfortunate for reviewers that do work hard and are consistent and do put that emphasis in.

It's another example of where reviewing reviewers...the good ones would flow to the top. And actually that should be a factor in the weighing of values on something like Metacritic, which, like it or not, has become incredibly important in our industry.

I remember [PR company] The Redner Group saying "sales teams live and die by Metacritic", and I'm inclined to believe them. You can see that emphasis from PR and publishers. If they don't get that 90, it's like 'forget it' - they don't even care.

I saw a curve once from a [big publisher] showing the correlation for an RPG between Metacritic score and sales. There's an incredibly strong relationship, which is exponential. An 80 will get you a couple of hundred thousand sales, say, where a 90 will get you a couple million if it's marketed properly.

That's a very scary thing, that one number can have such a huge impact on whether or not a studio is going to be allowed to make its next game... Studios are killed over bad Metacritic scores. That happens every day almost. If you look at what makes up the Metacritic score and how it's done...you wonder how many reviewers or sites are taking it very responsibly.

I wish the user ratings would be much more important than the critic ratings, because then if you add up all the critic ratings, what do you have, 100 guys (or girls)? Versus thousands of players. So something is twisted there.

And when you see scores being manipulated, that drives you completely bananas as an independent, small developer. Obviously if I was on the other side I would be happy if I could put shit in a box and put a nice name on it and get a 90% score.

It seems like it's more possible than ever to promote a new game, it's just a matter of how clever and creative you can be with getting people to know about what you're doing.

There should be accessibility in press in that way.

I like to think we generally do a lot to help that. If someone is working on something brand new and is extremely well done. I'm thinking of Bastion, for example. Press jumped all over that and I think for good reason.

Yeah, well that's the trend. Once people are writing about it...

It catches on, yeah. In that respect, games coverage is healthy.

I once did a press trip to the US promoting Divinity II. We had meetings with all the large [publications], and I flew over the Atlantic to meet these guys, and they said, 'Sorry, we can't see you. We're working on this preview now.' I go the next one and it's a guy who was a fan of us, he gave the original Divinity 86%, but it turned out he was working on a preview of a major game, so I sat down with the intern who was into racing games. The only reason we did the trip was because online we got no response. I can only imagine how hard it is for [a studio] with nothing behind them who have to start from scratch.

I guess it varies from publication to publication. Some of us are eager to hear about some game nobody else knows about, because then we can be the ones to start that trend. That's exciting to us. But I guess some sites are not as open and welcoming and more concerned with what they're already doing.

There's a trend now where you have sites like you guys and Rock, Paper, Shotgun and others. They're very accessible and give startups and mid-size companies like ourselves a chance to talk to the public and that's fantastic. It's exactly what I had with GameSpot or IGN back in 1999. So that's changed at the very large sites. I guess it comes with the size and growing they've been doing.

I think it's also a different model. How they make their money is not how we make our money. We pride ourselves on uniqueness; they don't really have to bother with that.

Going back to reviews: how do you manage consistency amongst them?

You mentioned how sites like IGN will hire interns and whoever. I guess they want to cover everything and get the most traffic. That's not how we operate, really. We don't spread ourselves too thin I think is the key, and because of that it's a lot easier to manage what we are doing.

And we don't take anyone on lightly; I'm not just going to hire anybody. Reviews are a sacred thing, partly because it's a trust issue. We've had experiences where we thought we trusted people, hired them on to do reviews, and then they flake. I'm probably more strict than other editors; I put more emphasis on high quality work and look for someone that gets what we're doing.

There've still been issues even with those people. One of our writers wrote this review of a flight game. I'm not sure how that got through; we're not perfect and things do slip through. But anyway, somehow he got assigned to this game and shouldn't have been. Flight games are really advanced; you need years of experience in that genre, but he's more into somewhat casual games, reviews a lot of Nintendo stuff. So I just canceled the review.

Oh, wow. Good for you.

Yeah. I'm not publishing that; that's bad for us, and the publisher is just going to be pissed. He gave it a really low score, and I had to explain to him 'just because you don't understand the game, doesn't mean it's a bad game and deserves a low score - you have to understand that'. So we had a big talk about that and he got that.

I think if everybody was doing that Metacritic would be much more useful. It's too powerful, in any case.

It's sad publishers place that much emphasis on it. But readers do it, too. Some just look at the score and that's it. It's barely about the score; the score is just there because it has to be there, I guess. We could remove that, I mean, some sites succeed and don't have scores, but I guess it helps. But in the same way the game is about the experience, the review is about all of its elements and how they come together. Our readers are pretty intelligent, but nonetheless sometimes the discussion is purely about the score - 'I would've given it this score!' 'I would've given it this score!' 'I don't agree with this score!' 'Let's just talk about the review itself...' (laughs) Like you said, it's silly to quantify a creative experience. And what I call an 8 might be a 6 to you, but if we both described it, we'd be saying the same thing, so what does it matter?

I think the lack of background in journalism is a huge part of the problem. Many editors don't know how to edit and manage and do all that and oversee and look for issues in consistency and such. I don't think writers in this field necessarily have to have gone to school to be good at what they do, but you need an editor who has gone, for the ethics, the background, the function and the form and all these things. Then they can push the other writers up to that same standard, which is what I do.

This is a crucial point. You're right. And given the scale of the industry, it's surprising how few educated journalists are doing games journalism.

I understand that it's games and it's the Internet and it's easy to get into because a lot of people are into games and they're enthusiastic about it and say, 'I know all about games; I have good taste'. Usually that doesn't work out. You have the rare writer that is really talented and doesn't need the education and has that flare, but yeah, it's rare. Usually they don't understand the journalistic side of it, the ethics, the integrity, and even down to the actual writing: the skill, the flow, various techniques.

I concur with that. We've invited journalists over here, and sometimes you see previews which have nothing to do with what you've been telling them.

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