Today Ben Kuchera, of the Penny Arcade Report, wrote an article in which he explained how games journalism works in relation to content and advertising. That gaming sites put up the galleries of cosplay babes because it’s necessary to fund the better, less popular content, all driven by a constant need for pageviews and unique hits. In his article, he writes as if he’s speaking for the whole industry, although excludes himself from the process. I’d like to add RPS to that exclusion list, thanks very much, because I don’t recognise a word of how he says my business works.
I’m not going to get into how RPS’s advertising works, because frankly I don’t know, and I prefer it that way. That’s all done by someone who works at Eurogamer, with whom we have an advertising partnership. We have laid down strict rules, they follow them, but how the charging works I’ve no idea.
Kuchera makes a few statements which I want to make clear don’t speak for me, or the business I co-own.
“People like to say that the games press is just chasing page views with certain stories, but let’s be honest: We’re chasing page views with every story.”
This is a very loaded statement. It’s both as banal as saying “Newspapers only include news stories because people want to read news,” and as sensationalist as saying, “They’ll do anything to make you click!” The truth is of course somewhere between. RPS, and I can only ever speak for RPS and no other gaming site, is a business. We make money from advertising, and we get advertising because we have people reading the site. So yes, we post things on RPS in order to run our business. But how that defines what you post is always the business’s choice, and Kuchera’s frequent inference in his piece that it automatically causes nefarious or unsightly content does not speak for me. If anything, at worst his article ends up being apologist propaganda for the sites that lazily rely on crude hit chasing, as if it were the only way.
“This is the reality of the business. It takes so many page views and so many uniques to stay in business, you find yourself going after stories you know will be popular. You may pass up covering games that don’t have a large following. You may break one long story into two chunks to stretch it out. You do anything to get people to click.”
No, we don’t. It’s central to RPS’s ethos that we do no such things. RPS has always had the policy (although that’s too strong a word – it’s just a thing we did because it was what we felt like doing) to give obscure indie gaming and AAA blockbusters the same coverage. Of course a AAA game everyone’s interested in is going to do more PR, put out more trailers and pre-release teases – that likely tips the balance. But when it comes to what we review and preview, it’s about what we’re interested in, and what we hope our readers are interested in. In fact, we do far more interviews with indies than we do with big name developers, not least because they’re far easier to interview. We review more indies than triple As, because there ARE more indie games than triple As. If a game has a trailer worth posting, we post it, no matter the budget behind it. And why? Because readers ARE interested. Certainly, my review of an obscure indie platformer is going to get a fraction of the views of a review of a big-name FPS. But we want to post it, so we do. That’s partly because we have a platform from which we can promote good games. But also, fewer hits isn’t no hits, and it all adds up.
But the last statement is the most egregious. No we bloody well don’t. Were that true, RPS would absolutely be tailored to suit the stereotypically perceived gaming audience, posting endless list features and galleries of half-naked women, because the reality is, that WOULD bring in a ton of hits. It’s gross, we hate it, so we don’t do it. There are better ways.
“How do sites justify running longer, in-depth stories that won’t bring in the huge page views? I have bad news. They write shit. Popular shit.”
Of all the claims made in this piece, this is the one that’s riled me the most. Primarily because it’s so monstrously untrue in RPS’s experience. We have never, ever, set out to “write shit”. We’ve posted trailers for games that are very popular, because we know that a large portion our readers want to see those trailers, and will complain if they’re missed out. But in doing so, we’ll comment on them, mock them, criticise them, or celebrate them. They are almost never posts that get big hits, apart from peculiar exceptions where for some inexplicable reason a bunch of other sites will link to us rather than the YouTube page, or whatever. We’ll never understand that phenomenon, but we don’t expect it, nor aim for it, because it’s rare and insane. In general, such posts aren’t big deals for us, since every other site has likely posted the same, around the same time. Just without our commentary or analysis, which we hope makes it worth reading them on RPS rather than elsewhere.
But that’s not the issue with Kuchera’s claim. The issue is that for RPS, it’s the longer, in-depth stories that see the huge page views. Looking at our most popular stories, they’re the ones that are based on our own original journalism, whether they’re our having sourced interviews or information from developers that other sites haven’t got, self-sourced news stories on topical matters, particularly well written reviews of popular games, or carefully researched editorials. (There are peculiar exceptions – one of the biggest stories ever on RPS is a collection South Park RPG screenshots, that were publicly accessible to everyone. We’ll never fathom that one.) But the rule is for RPS, the in-depth, longer posts are those that bring in the larger page views. You know – the best stuff.
And this is the important point: RPS isn’t magic. RPS isn’t a fluke. There’s this perception in the industry that goes, “Yeah, but you guys are lucky.” Piss off. We are not simply lucky. We work incredibly hard, ruled by our principles, and do our best to be very good at what we do. I’m sure luck comes into it somewhere, but it’s obviously not what brings success. The site is a successful, profitable business, paying five people’s full-time wages, along with paying good rates for freelancers, without ever having compromised our values. It didn’t start off with money (although we’ve never had any debts) – we worked very hard for very little, and were very fortunate, to get here. But we’ve never needed to post a gallery of booth babes to be able to write what we otherwise want to. Not because it wouldn’t have made it easier – it would have! But because it’s gross, and we’re not willing to be gross.
RPS is a commercial site, and we’re not pretending that we’re not doing it to make money. But we’re doing it for other reasons too – our passion for gaming, our desire to communicate, and the opportunity to provide readers with entertainment, information, and discussion. We love those things. We have a platform where we can do this stuff, and we’re delighted that we’ve proven that such a platform is possible if you’re good enough at what you do, and work damned hard at it. (Which is why it’s all the more galling when it’s dismissed as an ideological fluke.) That we’ve realised we get the biggest hits when we work the hardest is, perhaps, the good side of this motivational model.
I’ve only talked about RPS here, because as I’ve said, I’m in no position to talk about anyone else’s business. But I want to be clear that this isn’t unique! There are many other sites who have not resorted to the scummiest practices of the industry, and are very successful. The suggestion that commercial success is impossible without base behaviour is a lie the industry tells itself to feel better about itself. Kuchera seems to have bought into that lie, no matter his opinion of it.
There’s one other point I want to make here, regarding Kuchera’s point on adblocking. Adblocking does suck for us, and every other site that relies on advertising. At RPS we make sure that the ads we run are the least offensive options. We NEVER have ads that obscure the content, pop up, or make noise without your permission. Sometimes – not often – they can be a little annoyingly flashy, but that’s as bad as they get. We do that because we want the site to annoy as few people as possible. Adblocking us does hurt us, and we’d obviously prefer readers didn’t do it. And on top of this, I think there’s an issue with the argument so many make, including in the PAR piece:
“Whitelist your favorite sites from your ad-blocking program, and share your favorite stories on your favorite social networks. Tweet a story you like, or share it on Facebook.”
Good stuff, except approaching it in the wrong order. Whitelist EVERY site. Set your adblock to be automatically off. When you encounter a site that then spams adverts at you, repeatedly covering the text you’re trying to read with their crap, block the hell out of it. Sites should not have to earn being unblocked – they should have to earn being blocked. This idea that you should only whitelist those that you like best is incredibly selfish. Because what about the time a Google result takes you to a site that gives you some amazingly useful information? You’re not going to bookmark it, or visit it again – you got what you needed. And they got nothing for it. That’s messed up. But I totally agree with the bit about sending money into your favourite sites : )
(It’s probably worth noting that this site carries no advertising at all, and it makes no difference to the entire universe how many clicks it receives.)