Over the past week or so, a group of former employees have gone public with their experiences working at GameXplain, one of the larger YouTube channels exclusively covering Nintendo content. Their tales are a familiar woe for anyone who has despaired at the state of games writing, blogging or journalism over the last several years, highlighting an industry culture of crunch that’s not far removed from game development itself.
The saga all began via an offhand comment made in Today’s News Tonight, a YouTube podcast established by a trio of former GameXplain contributors (Derrick Bitner, Steve Bowling and Ash Paulsen). It was a regular show, and their first podcast of 2021 wasn’t intending to hash up old memories.
But at one point in the podcast, talk of Final Fantasy 7 Remake came up. That prompted a quick discussion on what the experience of covering FF7R was like.
“[FF7R] was the worst experience I had reviewing a game in 2020,” Bowling said on the podcast. “And that is because, due in no small part to Square. The review embargo was April 6th. We got the game on April 4th,” he continued.
“They just didn’t give us time, and I don’t know if it was lunacy or what it was … but I did not sleep. I powered through this whole game in two days, basically, and I mean I don’t think I’ve suffered more to make a video than I did for this game. I sent Derek my draft for the review … I had a jumble of thoughts, but I literally, thinking back on it now, I can feel my eyes burning. Just the incredible pain I was in to get it done, and I remember my wife, God bless her, said, ‘I love you, I’m glad this is over, go take a shower and leave GameXplain as soon as you can.'”
In a follow-up post with VICE Games, Bowling revealed that his wife asked whether the effort was “worth US$500 to you?”. She posted a similar sentiment on the official GameXplain subreddit, saying that the hourly rate of pay worked out to be “around $US1-2 an hour” after factoring in the writing process, production, and the bits and pieces around a job: organising code for games, maintaining relationships with developers, admin, and so on.
What made the whole process worse? The video ended up being flagged by Square Enix after the publisher raised concerns over whether an influencer disclosure was necessary. The delay pushed the video’s publication back by another 48 hours, and the toll on Bowling was pretty evident.
“I broke down into tears at my desk,” Bowling told VICE, “just bawling my eyes out because I had put so much energy into this and destroyed myself for it and I could have had two more days.”
The conditions Bowling and others worked under reportedly extended far beyond Final Fantasy 7 Remake, however. VICE has a great chat with four of the staffers outlining their experiences and pay — Bowling reportedly received $US550 a month with no set hours. While in principle that sounds like a potential positive, the intense culture just meant the writers felt constantly pressured:
The atmosphere was one where, at any moment, you could be pulled into work. Messages, phone calls, and emails would show up at all hours. Bitner would avoid going out to dinner, worried he’d miss a piece of news. Bowling, for example, was working a full-time job while contributing to GameXplain on the side, and Segers would ask him to schedule lunch breaks so that he’d drive home and make a video for GameXplain during it.
But while the GameXplain situation centred on the culture of its leadership, its operations and allegations of delayed payment, it’s worth pointing out that a lot of the systemic issues aren’t related to GameXplain. It’s the culture of the industry, the way things are announced, teased, released, reviewed, and the speed required to succeed in a global marketplace. (The owner of GameXplain also published a statement Thursday Australian time, saying that he regretted staff feeling ‘subjected … to unfair compensation or unrealistic deadlines, often a result of adhering to tight embargo deadlines beyond our control’.)
If a lot of these complaints around crunching sound familiar, it’s because we’re not that far removed from the last massive crunch in gaming. Part of the Cyberpunk 2077 debacle was the lack of time to review the game. CD Projekt’s CEO and co-found Marcin Iwiński partially addressed the timing this week, trying to explain why console codes (and PC codes) were sent out so close to the game’s release.
“Every extra day that we worked on the day zero update brought visible improvement [to the console version] — that’s why we started sending console review keys on the 8th December, which was later than we had originally planned,” Iwiński said.
Something that’s missed in Iwiński’s comments, however, is the lag between developer and publisher. The process of distributing review codes was sent from CD Projekt Red to its publishing partner — which was Bandai Namco in Australia. Factor in the timezone lag between a Polish developer and a global publisher communicating with its regional branches, and that’s even more time lost to inform the public.
But as I pointed out last year, as badly as Cyberpunk 2077‘s launch was handled, the real issue is much broader than Cyberpunk.
The video game industry has been closing ranks for years. It was only a few years ago when Bethesda was openly saying they would only provide copies of their games the day before release — even though select YouTubers and influencers had revealed they’d been given access weeks in advance.
Bethesda aren’t the only ones to have done this, either. While the last 12 months have been a little bit better when it comes to the biggest games — Sony, in particular, handled COVID and the restrictions everyone was under really well — there are still a litany of restrictions that can make life unworkable for those trying to do the core bits of consumer journalism that underpin games writing.
For instance, if you’re a site or outlet that just covers PC games? Many of the biggest releases, AA games and even indie titles, often don’t have their PC codes available until the day of launch. That’s been the case since before I started at Kotaku Australia back in 2015, and it still happens frequently with codes today.
Now that’s a scenario that works from the publisher perspective — they have alternatives, after all. But presumably for a lot of sites and channels that can’t feasibly cover every single platform or exclusive, it’s a small instance that effectively forces a crunch-type scenario. Rush out the coverage as fast as possible, or miss out on the algorithm-juiced tide of views that naturally follows from a sizeable chunk of niche media all writing about the same thing at the same time.
Multiplayer-only games are sometimes not available until the day of launch, too. (This happened most recently with Demon’s Souls, with the game receiving no pre-release coverage until release day supposedly due to complications around how its multiplayer works.) This has happened a lot with the Battlefield series, and in some odd instances, embargoes for the games have even been placed after the game’s release in Australia. That, again, creates another crunch scenario — if you didn’t sign up to the pre-release embargo, you might find yourself with a 24-hour window to get lead on everyone else out there.
It might not be a head start over certain YouTubers or streamers, but for the person who gets stuck in the game and then wants to search for a quick guide, or graphics comparison between Xbox and PlayStation? Or if you just want to get the benefit of appearing at the top of the pack in sites like Metacritic or OpenCritic, with the referral views that brings? That opportunity will often be there, provided you’re OK with sacrificing a large chunk of your life and health.
The news cycle is where it’s become especially brutal. As more and more publishers leverage what’s fondly called the Fallout strategy in some places — a term rooted from the massive hype and success generated from Fallout Shelter‘s instantaneous announcement and release, as well as the short turnaround from Fallout 4‘s announce and release at the same conference — the amount of time anyone has to write, record, script, film, edit and post content is increasingly smaller.
The former GameXplain staffers highlighted how Nintendo Directs could be particularly brutal. Nintendo is another publisher that’s gone in hard on the “announce and reveal” strategy — as an example, Fortnite and Hollow Knight both received trailers during the E3 2018 Nintendo Direct, and both games launched immediately.
“I’m pleased to announce, the game … is available on the Nintendo eShop starting today,” former Nintendo of America head
Reggie Fils-Aimé revealed.
Now part of this isn’t inherent to games media or writing. The sudden nature of breaking news is just how news works. But in 2021 where the vast majority of younger audiences get their news through some form of query, prompt or instant notification via Google, Facebook, or other social media channels, it makes the competition massively skewed. (The highlight on younger audiences is especially important for media, as the global advertising business that underpins almost all media — including those who benefit from ad revenue as influencers or YouTube channels — highly prefers the 18-34 market, or younger.)
In years past, there was some regional guarantees for outlets and channels. Networks would often promote geo-centric content to a user, meaning that Australians would be presented with Australian content first or more often. That’s less the case now, and when outlets like GameXplain find themselves in a battle with 24 hours to race against other channels and networks with much more staff, money, and more collective time to hit all the bases, you’ve naturally got a scenario where crunching becomes the norm.
The benefit of the embargo system is that it can ensure a level playing field for all contenders, regardless of size. But when the time for those embargoes becomes less and less — or vanishes entirely — you’re left with an environment where only the biggest can sustainably survive. Those striving to grow — filled with people who love games, the industry and the stories within it — recognise that if we just push through this release, this month, this year, the views and algorithms will grow to a point where more people can come on board, the workload can be spread around a little more, and life will get a little easier.
Of course, that doesn’t happen in practice.
This constant burning of the candle at both ends is why you’re starting to see at least some outlets implement new leave procedures for reviews. Understanding that games, especially the biggest ones, can’t be enjoyed or completed within the realms of a normal 9-5 work day, outlets like our US partners and VICE Games are enforcing TIL for staffers who have to complete games, and reviews for deadline:
One of the biggest yet most mundane challenges games journalists and critics face is the time commitment necessary to cover games well. It creates immense difficulties in terms of allocating people and resources. It’s also part of the gig. Giving people time off after a review doesn’t alleviate that, but it’s the right thing to do.
Playing games for deadline is work and, silly as that may sound to some—lord knows we have bigger problems in the world that need fixing—I’ll make sure we always treat it as such. That’s best for the reviewers and is, I hope, what readers would also want.
The advantage here is obvious: when you’ve got a bigger team that has the benefit of a proper HR department, teams have the freedom to do this. Looking inward, you could easily make the argument that Kotaku couldn’t have done this if it wasn’t for years of writers being paid per-blog, crunching out ten news stories/reviews a day plus extra time spent on content, to grow the site and brand to a certain point.
And that’s really the systemic culture underpinning this all. It’s partially the nightmare of how games publishing works in the modern age, and the way social media has not only transformed the relationship of how people receive news, but also where people get their news from and how its delivered. Google is just as liable to send you an automated push notification from a site in Bulgaria, one run out of Kentucky, or a writer in the UK, as it is from a regional outlet you’ve read hundreds if not thousands of times. Or even over the post from the actual developers and source of the information. Which is fine if we’re talking about, say, official government sources debunking myths around coronavirus vaccinations. But in a consumerist world where publishers and developers are striving to convince you to hand over money sight unseen, what does that do to the long-term public discourse and the coverage of the world’s biggest entertainment industry?
In the short-term, the impact is pretty simple: crunch, even if its to the detriment of your life and the products themselves. And as long as there’s a groundswell of individuals and fans willing to fill any void that arises, and an industry that strongly favours controlled access wherever possible, it’s hard to see those conditions ever changing.