MOP reader Avaera recently sent in a question that I thought would be fun to address here in my poor neglected Ask Mo column. (Truth, most of the questions folks ask that would go here get answered on the podcast instead! But this one, I thought, deserved more depth.)
“I absolutely love when I have the chance to read interviews with the people responsible for designing our favourite games because I always come away having learned something and seeing these worlds in a completely different way,” he writes. But then he wondered why we don’t do more than we already do. “Is this because there is shaky ethical ground around the quid-pro-quo for dev access, or the perceived danger of self-promotion? Is it something that is very difficult to do via online means only? Is there any chance this kind of thing could be more of a regular column?”
No chance. There’s nothing “regular” about interviews. Let’s talk shop!
I know that Avaera, being a long-time reader and supporter of the site, knows we do and enjoy doing interviews. Fewer than we did with thrice the budget and staff on Old Massively, of course. Fewer than we did when genuine MMORPGs were coming out faster than we could count them. But I do still love doing them, especially when we can meet with the developers face to face. Our coverage at the five conventions we’ve gone to this year so far produced dozens of interesting interviews, and we’ve done more besides that too of course, plus we bring devs on our streams from time to time.
But those are just the ones you see, the ones that make it over all the fences and into the wild. The majority of interviews we send out don’t get published, for a multitude of reasons. A lot of times developers just flat-out don’t answer questions. They decide they are better off not being transparent at all, or they’re concerned about how talking to the press (in lieu of just pretending to be “transparent” internally to superfans) would come across. Or they aren’t allowed to answer because it would botch marketing plans. Or the answer is bad and they know it’s bad so they’re better off staying silent. Or they prefer to stay in control of any messaging they do (the better to delete it later). Or they offer us an interview, but change their mind once they see we’re not pitching softballs. Realistically, we’re not going to bother asking easy questions; if questions are worth asking, they are going to pose a challenge, otherwise it’s something the devs would gladly post without prompting. When they decide to hide out and hope we go away, it’s a waste of our time.
And sometimes if they do answer, they skip questions. Or they edit the questions. Or they delete some of them in the return email, hoping we won’t notice. Or they dodge a question and try to talk about something different. Or they turn their answer into an advertisement. Or they return their answers so long past when they were relevant that there’s no point to running them. Or their answers are such obvious untruths/spin that I don’t feel comfortable giving them a platform. Or they get sent around to four different people for approval until they’re watered down and useless. Or they’re passed down to lower-level employees who couldn’t conceivably know the real answers, a big scoop of dodge with plausible deniability sprinkles on top!
Heck, people are people – video games aren’t some haven from the kind of petty crap you see going on in politics or entertainment. MMO interviews in particular see more shenanigans because of the “live service” nature of the game. Last year, within a week of each other, I had two studios blow off my questions maliciously: One then bragged on Reddit about refusing to talk to the press, while the other intentionally scooped the report I’d courteously asked for comment on by publishing a hasty late-night community update instead. (Studios that do this do not get my courtesy heads-up again.) I’ve even had studios take my questions and post them, and the answers, verbatim on their forums, without responding to me or even asking my permission to reproduce my text. Likewise, I’ve had studios promise us an exclusive interview, only to find out that was a bald-faced lie, that it wasn’t actually exclusive at all, and some other site got to publish first, making ours a colossal waste of time.
And I bet some of you remember the time we called one studio out on these kinds of repeated shenanigans, posting for our readers the questions it was refusing to answer, only to find ourselves virtually blacklisted by said studio. Which, incidentally, no longer exists.
On the opposite end of it all are the folks who will talk until your ears bleed, but it’s all off the record or unpublishable, so it’s something you have to forget you knew. (They tell us so we can’t ethically speculate, which is annoying. As I’ve said on the podcast, sometimes the things we’re not talking about are akin to our very own warrant canary.) Or they’ll give you something you can’t run with until a broader press release embargo anyway, and then you may as well have not bothered. One studio (which I’m personally fond of regardless) is notorious for granting detailed interviews but then cluelessly putting out all of the information from the preview well before lifting the press embargo. (I do appreciate those studios that give us inside scoops, I do, but if I can’t use it, why do it? Do they think we do this just to be the first to know? Because… my personal elucidation is not why I do this!)
I’ll never say I’ve seen it all because as soon as I do, somebody will surprise me with something even worse, but I’ve seen a lot. There are some lovely folks in games PR whom I genuinely enjoy working with, and then there are the people you get warned to stay far away from on your first day of work. It’s all part of the job, whether it should be or not, and it’s not something I suspect the average gamer or blog reader knows (or cares, or even should care) about, but I feel as if you need to understand it to really understand why in an industry favoring enthusiast press, interviews are not necessarily a good model for the kind of writing we seek to do here.
And yet, like Avaera, I really love a great interview when we can throw hardballs and the studio hits them back just as hard and I feel like we all really learned something: It’s those amazing perfect golden interviews that keep you in the game, keep you thinking that this time it will be different! Seriously, the best compliments I get amount to, damn Bree, those were rough questions! Good job, devs, y’all survived Bree’s gauntlet! There are some devs notorious for being willing to sit for these – Mark Jacobs comes to mind – and Neowiz has surprised and impressed me several times lately with a similar approach to interviews, including the one earlier this week. Naoki Yoshida would walk through fire to answer Eliot’s questions. Larry and MJ have gotten great material from the BioWare and Funcom devs (in fact, all the pics in this piece are from companies I am complimenting here!). And so on.
But dang, when I know that more often than not, interviews go literally nowhere, I have a hard time justifying asking writers to spend time on them that they may not get paid for, or justifying spending company money to pay them to do work we’ll probably never get to publish. That’s just our reality, and while Major Network Newspapers can afford spec time on salaried journalists, we’re still a scrappy indie MMO blog getting by on ad revenue and Patreon, and I don’t want to spend your money on wholly predictable kill fees. This is, incidentally, why many of our non-con interviews are done by me or another flat-rater, since we can better absorb the loss, but the site is nearly always better off spending that research and writing time on editorials and news instead (and yes, it’s a lot of research time if you want the interviews to be any good!).
In fact, this has been my position for as long as I’ve run the site. We have to focus on the content and coverage that is truly within our control. We can’t force studios to answer our questions; no journalist can. And some interviews are fun, but they aren’t actually our most useful tool. “The real role bloggers have in holding studios accountable for their games is in penning honest opinion pieces, not conducting interviews,” I opined in my first Ask Massively as Editor-in-Chief six years ago. “Developers and their PR handlers might control interviews, but we control editorials.”
But then, every once in a while, there’s that one interview…