The GameXplain Saga Highlights The Quiet Crunch Underneath Games Journalism

The GameXplain Saga Highlights The Quiet Crunch Underneath Games Journalism
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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.

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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’.)

cyberpunk 2077 pc
Image: Dead End Thrills (Twitter)

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.

Image: Kotaku

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.

Image: Steam

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.

Comments

  • “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.”

    Mate, I loved the article but that sounds utterly defeatist to me? Even hypocritical after all the articles recently slamming CDProjekt Red for the same sort of thing?

    The amount of articles coming out over the years slamming devs for Crunch culture (granted warranted in most cases), was almost insurmountable at one point. The question is, will this be a single article from a Games journalist site *about* the games journalism industry, or will you pursue the matter with the same fervor? Jason Schrier pursued the crunch culture one with a lot of passion, it’d be nice to see someone do the same here in this case? It’s ok to call out another part of the industry, but when it hits so close to home, that’s when it’s even *more* important to do so.

    Maybe I’m on the wrong path here, but I’ve always felt ‘lead by example’ was the best course of action?

    • What’s staggering is the amount of articles before Cyberpunk’s release that weren’t more perceptive of the issues of crunch — and the snark after the game’s failure — given the first-hand experience many of those writers would have seen with crunch. I put that down to various conditions: smaller cites, people producing content for US/EU/UK sites from countries where it’s OK to pay $20, $30, $40 an article, and just what happens when you get a lot of hobbyists who enjoy writing and want to write about what they love.

      There’s a lot of exploitation in the middle.

      But going on to your point: I’ve written a couple of pieces about the games journalism industry recently. I’ve linked the Cyberpunk story that’s touched on the reviewer conditions a few times above. But I think it was important for someone to add more context around Cyberpunk’s conditions to the rest of the industry, as opposed to just talking about Cyberpunk in isolation.

      The problem there, though, is I can only really talk about things from the perspective I have and can access. Australia’s very isolated and a bit different to where a lot of games media comes from. Most of the ‘culture’ we absorb is done at a pace — and vastly lower rate of pay — than what anyone would accept in Australia. And to be fair: places in Australia have accepted free work before, although that’s vastly less common today. (And to be SUPER clear: I’ve worked for free before too. That’s a very long time ago now, and a very separate conversation, but that’s also a big problem in terms of media where there’s no real space for new voices to emerge because of the challenges the industry faces.)

      The defeatist element is really more a problem of capitalism. How do you stop sites from paying writers in South East Asia an absolute pittance to churn out several ‘news’ stories a day, or channels from pressuring their social and video teams to churn out five or six videos a week? If their readers want that content, and its successful for them, the internet’s behaviour has shown that it will consistently reward that. And it’ll do so because most people, increasingly so, have their content ‘chosen’ for them by search/social media algorithms. I can write a story calling everything out — but I have absolutely no guarantee that it might reach the people who would want to read it the most.

      Put another way: how many years of complaints, whinging and public backlash has The Daily Mail had against its style of rewriting and coverage? It’s been a constant, and yet, they continue to be more successful than ever. That tells you a lot about the attachment mass audiences have with content, and that’s just on a local level.

      Now imagine a world where the Daily Mail in AU is not competing amongst its Australian competitors, but it’s measured commercially and editorially against a global market.

      NOW add that into a greater trend within gaming where the preference is for corporate communications to be the first point of contact, which makes the race even more of a 24/7 battle.

      Don’t get me wrong: crunch fucking sucks. It is the absolute worst. But a lot of the reasons why crunch hasn’t really been removed from game development apply to games writing as well. Nobody has worked out a better solution, and while direct funding (subscriptions, bits et al.) has worked in some scenarios, it’s doesn’t fix the broader systemic problems. Push that against the advertising challenges games media has had for ages — it’s not well understood by traditional sales departments, ad dollars from publishers are inherently risky for various reasons, and the decline of the traditional ad business over the last few years — and you’ve got fewer people struggling to cover even more bases.

      That’s probably way too much detail, but it’s at least a view from my side of things, if it helps.

      • No, that’s a fantastic answer, thanks.

        I myself experience a different sort of ‘crunch’ on a weekly basis being a teacher. There’s bullshit expectations that go against the Department of Educations own expectations foisted upon us by our own local schools. It’s only when we finally clamp down as individuals, then as groups (hence why I became a union rep at my school) and stand up saying ‘No more!’ that they finally listen. It becomes combative, it becomes annoying, but eventually, they do listen. Unfortunately, jobs do fall by the wayside. Teaching is obviously a different job than journalism, as the pay structure and expectations are different, but the ‘crunch culture’ for data and overworking is very, very similair in that respect I can assure you.

        Thanks for the explanation, it’s very much appreciated 🙂

  • Thank you for actually summarising what happened with GameXplain before leading into this article.

    My view on on the crunch in reviews is that it shouldn’t be necessary for the simple reason that embargoes have gotten to the point where they make reviews subject to them pointless. Look at TLOU 2 as you mentioned in your previous article. Kotaku and many other outlets were slammed for not commenting on story and gameplay decisions you weren’t allowed to reveal. Consumers weren’t happy with either NG or the reviewers for these details not being mentioned in reviews.

    Likewise, CDPR outright prevented you from showing off the games as they stood with the footage they provided and the refusal to supply console codes. The end result is that outlets were again panned, even though you’re obligated to follow the embargo to keep access. Consumers again weren’t happy that no one broke the embargo and that they had to rely on review copy leaks or early release leaks to get a realistic sense of the game.

    At this point, is it even worth it? The reviews you can do are being hamstrung and the outlets reputation damaged by not only the short deadlines, but the conditions on these releases as well which are ultimately there for studios to mislead consumers who have preordered. This system doesn’t benefit the reviewers or consumers in the long run because the outlets lose reputation and the consumers lose confidence.

    All of the review videos I’ve personally watched in recent times have been made weeks or even months after the game released, usually when it’s going on sale for the first time. In these reviews there’s enough time to cover all relevant nuance, pros, cons, etc of the game without the reviewer killing themselves for it and without the reviewer having to mislead the consumer for it due to an embargo. While I know being first is important for exposure etc, I honestly think the quality of the review matters far more than busting one out in unfair, unhealthy and often misleading conditions.

    In addition to killing preorders, it might be time to kill the Day One Review as well to prevent that process from being abused by publishers.

    • Everyone would have been more than happy to kill those reviews, or day one coverage, were it not for the bigger benefit it provides. The nature of a huge chunk of the internet all posting about the same thing at the same time is how you break through algorithms, and that guarantee is really one of the cornerstones that publishing relies upon (esp. in a world where so much of your readership is determined by black boxes out of your control).

      The better systemic answer is rather to have rolling coverage that carries on, and coverage that viewers can follow along with (or check in/out of as it happens) — but that’s a different model entirely. And it might not work. But it’s one idea I’ve had floating around in my head.

      • Of course it comes back down to Google/Facebook/Twitter and tech in general’s automation , meaning people have to play an entirely unhealthy game that’s curated by machines. This is the identical problem content creators of Youtube have and if they don’t play the game the revenue flies out the window and they’re gone. As you’ve pointed out, that’s beyond everyone’s control. At least until that system itself inevitably collapses or it’s regulated against for promoting unhealthy behaviours and industrial practices.

        Rolling coverage honestly does feel like the better solution in the long term. Cyberpunk’s coverage, for example, since its release has been fascinating from both a news/industry standpoint given the fallout and what it says about standard industry practices that are cutting it less and less as time goes on. I won’t deny that it nice to have follow ups on older articles (as demonstrated in this article), even if they aren’t quite as in the public eye as the latest breaking news. We can only hope something better gains support and comes along in the interim.

      • id like to keep up with the cyberpunk coverage, except that 99% of it is from the US and they seem hell bent on focusing on trans issues rather than the game itself. maybe put in a word or drop the american crap?

  • Minor nitpick because it’s confused me and I’m not sure what I’m missing.
    “GameXplain, one of the larger YouTube channels exclusively covering Nintendo content”, but then Bowling was reviewing FF7R.

    Anyway, good write up. Very good. I’ve been hearing the stirrings over the past week. Mainly the awful pay the video editor(s?) had been receiving and Andre’s terrible non apology. It sounds like he’s beginning to reap what he sewed. His dominoes are falling like a house of cards. Checkmate!

  • One other thing industry related, are you guys going to chip in on Google’s “experiment” censoring media outlets in an attempt to avoid paying them with the new government guidelines?

      • The lack of clarity is the actual story itself from what I can tell when I read about it. Google hasn’t been transparent at all about what they’re doing, who they’re targeting and why the “experiment” is running . The government and outlets are speculating that they’re doing it to deliberately screw with the revenues of the outlets and/or attempting to use it to threaten the government’s ACCC changes. Worth keeping an eye on at any rate.

      • Didn’t they also want access to, and essentially control of, Google’s own algorithms in order to abuse the fuck out of them so they can get their content front and centre above anything else being offered?

        • Yeah not only did they want access to Google’s trade secrets. The also wanted unobstructed access to our private data just coz.

          The Australian media at large is furiously trying to paint this as the legislation just being about adequate compensation and refusing to acknowledge the very problematic aspects of the bill which constitute a huge overreach solely designed to prop up a business that has failed to keep up with the times and wants to punish those who have adapted.

          This legislation has a huge push from Murdoch because if passed the next thing he wants is similar legislation pass in the USA.

    • Of course the news is going to label it censorship, because it reads better than “We tried to straight up extort Google, but didn’t expecting them to put their foot on our throats instead of fall in line.”

      Most of the time I am not on Google’s side, but in this case from what I’ve seen thus far the Australian media lobbying that (let’s be honest) straight up bought these new guidelines simply didn’t account for Google turning around and giving them the middle finger.

      Google aren’t the only player in the search engine game, they’re just the largest… But the Australian media tried to tie their hands and exploit their systems only to have it not at all go their way, so now they’re smearing Google with censorship claims.

      • Just to clarify, my post might seem misleading due to wording, but since I can’t edit here we are. The new proposals aren’t yet in place to my knowledge, but the overall point stands.

        Google are giving them a taste of what is likely going to happen if you force them to not only pay your news outlet for directing people to your news, which is so fucking backwards it’s amazing, but also force them to hand over information that would allow them to directly exploit algorithms that Google use.

        Allowing them advantage over not so traditional news. Which is what this shit is REALLY all about… New media. Instead of old media adapting so they don’t perish, they instead want to force Google/Facebook to not only give them money but also the advantage of inside information.

        • hell half the time i tap on news articles on my phone using the microsoft news app i get presented with a website asking me to pay to read their news… of course im not going to. i use bing on my pc cause im not an idiot that uses google. if news disappeared from search results only grandpas would care. i dont use social media but i still know how to find news. the idiot youths know too.

          • I agree with you. But to be honest, it’s the older demographics this sort of stuff looks to exploit the most. The people who don’t know better.

            Having your news appear first in search results and any sort of automated news feed generates more clicks. But old media don’t want to have to compete for it, they just want it straight up handed to them. So they’ve manufactured this whole scenario in order to try to get it. If it wasn’t about the money and wanting to kill competition, they wouldn’t want information that Google/Facebook uses that basically tells them what users are doing, why, and how to exploit it.

      • I just got hit by the block from Google today actually. Was trying to look up the Norway vaccine information after reading an article previously and all of my locally used quick reference sites were MIA, even after specifically searching for the article name. Got a bunch of irrelevant crap from quack sources like The Global Times.

        For this alone when it’s relevant information for safety concerns, Google can fuck itself with a rake and I sincerely hope the Australian government rips its arse a new one.

        • I doubt Google has anything to do with your missing sites.

          Because it can’t block access to sites they don’t directly control/host, all they can really do is simply not show you how to get there by not having such things show up in Google searches. There might be an exception if you’re using their Chrome browser, but there are other browsers.

          No matter what people, or the Australian media, might want you to think… Only the government and your ISP really has that sort of blanket power to make sites seemingly ‘disappear’.

          It may seem like Google is ‘the internet’, but it’s not. It essentially a directory and advertising provider platform, to simplify it greatly.

          • It removes them from Google’s search results listings as part of the experiment I was initially talking about, Kasterix (which demonstrates that you haven’t actually read any articles on the the real problem before crying about Google being hard done by). That means the results outright don’t appear in the list and it’s not just a matter of the news tab being hit. I fail to see how Google wouldn’t be responsible for obviously missing outlets from their search page, unless you’re suggesting communist China has taken magically taken over Google’s results for the soul purpose of boosting the Global Times’ exposure.

            I have checked across various outlets directly and they do have coverage of the Norway vaccine issue quite readily, so why isn’t the Australian coverage appearing in my search lists but a hack website like the Global Times is being given increased exposure instead?

            So yes, Google is blocking the search results as I originally stated as part of their experiment. Try reading the news before commenting so ignorantly on it in future.

          • @louie Are you for real?

            I quite literally and very specifically said it could be removed from Google searches… But that simply does not make sites inaccessible.

            You are the one saying websites are being blocked.
            // I just got hit by the block from Google today actually. //
            The sites are still there, still accessible and Google can’t do anything about that. Google not holding your hand to get there anymore doesn’t mean they’re preventing you doing so.

            What people like you fail to realise is that Google is a service/platform they provide. They quite literally have ZERO obligation to offer you the information you want, just because you want it and think you’re entitled to it. And that’s got nothing to do with thinking they’re hard done by, because the exact same goes for other search engines like Microsoft’s Bing.

            Look at yourself and try reading what is said before calling anyone else ignorant.

          • What does anything you’re saying have to do with my complaint about censorship? I don’t know you’re arguing with, but this has no relevance to the topic I raised. Try using a dictionary to find out what the word “censorship” means, then come back when you have enough English skills to parse a sentence.

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