Writing about Mac Games

I originally intended for this to be a comment under Justin Goff’s “The Nascent Aspects of Mac Gaming Journalism” article, but then I realised I had quite a lot to say on the matter after all.

There’s been another wave of Mac gaming navel-gazing this week, with Mac Gamer HQ’s Ric going to the extremes of sitting atop a mountain and dreaming of a Mac gaming community holding hands and playing games together, and then every other respectable Mac gaming news site picking the story and running with it. A world where Mac gamers share their experiences and form strong communities? Hell, I’m all for it.

But the piece that really got the synapses all-aflutter was The Mac Gaming Blog’s The Nascent Aspects of Mac Gaming Journalism. It’s fabulously well-written, addressing such concerns as being offered money for favourable reviews, coverage of high-profile vs independent titles and so on. There’s a lot in that article I’d like to call out and address specifically, but I think instead I’ll do something of a treatise of my experiences in doing this for the past two-and-a-bit years.

I have an unpublished draft of my farewell post lingering in the WordPress dashboard, something I wrote a couple of months ago when I was trying to decide whether to shut down this site for good, or attempt to continue in some diminished capacity. I chose the latter option, but I haven’t trashed that farewell post yet, just in case.

Running this website has been challenging. It has been “reinvented” several times since it was first launched. Initially I conceived of it more as a wiki, where it would just have objective notes about Mac games’ performance, run both natively and through a wrapper, but I quickly discovered I didn’t have the energy for that, and besides, I actually enjoy the process of writing, so the experience wasn’t rewarding.

Quickly then, the focus changed, I envisioned a sort of Rock, Paper, Shotgun with a focus on Mac games, with reviews, news items, and other articles. With the support of some contributors (each of whom generously gave up their time for nothing more than the experience of writing, and the occasional game they didn’t have to pay for). We were putting out a couple of posts a day back then, staying on top of all the Mac news and games releases. It was exhausting.

One by one, the contributors dropped off the radar. I didn’t bother recruiting more. Soon it was just me, and it was simply too much work. Plus, Inside Mac Games and GameAgent were already doing a pretty bang-up job of providing everyone with news, and Mac Gamer HQ was doing a sound job of rallying Mac gamers. I decided just to focus on the thing none of them seemed to be doing: reviews.

Yes, I’ve read all the comments on the other blogs about how Mac game reviews are pointless, and yes I’ve spent a long time thinking about the futility of reviewing games that have been reviewed for other platforms a long time ago. I wholly agree with Justin’s take on the completely arse-backwards nature of it all: if you write about Mac AAA games, no-one cares, if you write about Mac Indie games, no-one reads.

I thought about this a lot, not just recently, but the whole time I’ve been running this site. I can justify writing about AAA Mac games quite easily: none of the other sites that review these games write about the Mac version. That doesn’t really matter for Diablo III, where the Mac version is indistinguishable from the Windows version. But what about Borderlands 2? BioShock: Infinite? Did any other website on the internet try running that game on a Mac  in full HD, only to discover it wasn’t actually possible until it got patched to work with the Mavericks flavour of OpenGL? So yes, I can justify reviews of AAA games, and we’ve had more than our fair share of Indie games too. I personally championed both Bionic Dues and  Expeditions: Conquistador, games which, at the time, no other site was covering. And not everything has been positive, take my recent review of Heroes & Legends, a game which is almost objectively bad, and yet which somehow has dozens of exclusively positive reviews on its Steam page.

There’s a darker side to all this, unfortunately. Justin touched on it, and it’s something which has been a thorn in my side since day one. This is something I was going to save discussing until my closing post on this site, but to hell with it. The truth is, this site depends on nothing else other than actually receiving games to review. I could certainly buy every game I review myself (and on occasion, this is exactly what I do), but that rarely gives me enough time to prepare a review that people are actually going to read, and perhaps more importantly, it can actually influence the review sometimes (people often complain that reviewers being given copies of games they review influences the review, but in reality I find that the reverse is true more often).

That doesn’t mean that I’m in the pockets of the publishers (any more incidentally, than does earning a tiny affiliate fee for game bought via links on this site; it’s hilarious to me that some people think I’d give a glowing review of a game just to make an extra $0.01 on referrals), but it does mean I’m more inclined to review games that I’ve been emailed about in advance (hence there tend to be a disproportionate amount of reviews for games by Aspyr, Feral Interactive, and Arcen). Even so, most of the review copies I receive are as a direct result of reaching out to developers that are bringing their games to the Mac.

I realised a while ago that I can’t possibly review every Mac game that comes out at this point. But I do try to at least contact the developers behind each and every one of them. These days, I get a response to maybe one in six of these (and to my eternal shame, I still can’t make the time to review all the ones that do). Astonishingly, the vast majority of those who do not reply are independent developers, you know, those developers who don’t have a large audience, and whom, you’d think, would want to get people writing reviews about their games, good or bad. So a great many games, from Goat Simulator to Rebuild: Gangs of Deadsville, won’t ever get a review, because they’re not interested in me writing about them, and I’m simply not interested enough in their game to take the plunge and buy it.

It’s a similar story with some bigger publishers though. Deep Silver, the publisher behind Metro: Last Light and Dead Island, told me point blank:

In order for a site to establish a direct PR relationship with us, we have had to establish a minimum traffic requirement, as we are a small publisher and want to make sure that we can effectively take care of all of our media. What you’ll need in order to qualify is a rank of no higher than 100K US on Alexa. For YouTube Channels, we require more than 5000 subscribers.

The nerve of them! Even IMG doesn’t have that sort of traffic. But ok, they’re the publisher, they set the rules. That’s how it works.

But these were big games, from a publisher that had previously shunned the platform. I wanted to be able to tell my readers what they were like. So I paid full price for both games, and as a now-consumer, I felt extremely displeased by the shoddy performance in both. At the point where I would ordinarily reach out to the people who’d given me a review copy, and politely enquire as to whether these performance issues were going to be fixed, instead I wrote about the game somewhat incensed, having just paid for something that didn’t work as intended. Perhaps my sense of disappointment came across in the published Metro: Last Light review, more so that it would have done, but the bones of the review would have been the same: good shooter, better played on Windows. And when it came to Dead Island, I couldn’t even stomach playing the thing for more than an hour, I posted a video, wrote a few words about how badly it ran, and moved on.

Then there are publishers who are a bit more extreme, either trying to bully you into fitting into their marketing schedules (which I usually give in to, because it doesn’t affect the consumer one way or the other), and those that seem to play a “one strike, you’re out” game with you. Telltale Games, makers of the episodic Walking Dead and Wolf Among Us series’, first provided me with the 400 Days DLC for review after they read my glowing report on The Walking Dead. Sadly, I did not receive 400 Days as well, and now Telltale don’t reply to my emails any more. That’s fine, as I question the value of reviewing episodic material now anyway.

Absolutely none of this should matter to you as a reader of this site. There are more than enough games to write about, and at this point in time, many ways to get other peoples’ opinions of them, from Steam store pages to YouTube channels. Mine is just another voice in the choir. My only, genuine hope is that you guys and gals are able to trust what I say. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with what I say (much in the same way I can read one of John Walker’s reviews on RPS and assume that I’d have the exact opposite experience 9 times out of 10, thus actually giving me a good idea of whether I’d like a game or not), but that I do stand by my opinions (when they’re not unknowingly founded on ignorance at least), and I do care strongly that you get as good an experience playing a game on a Mac as you would on any platform.

The only question that matters then is: why write about games at all?

It took me a long time to figure it out for myself, although the answer is simple: I enjoy the process of writing, and games are strange and varied enough to give me an outlet to write on a regular basis. Playing a game with the intent of reviewing it is, for me at least, a vastly different experience from playing a game for fun. I have to take the experience apart when writing, try to understand what it is that I do or don’t enjoy so that others can relate to that experience. It’s an enjoyable process for me, but is more like work than simply playing a game for the experience. As Adrian Gaucher says in the comments of Justin’s article, “I am not sure why we need this specific platform segregation”, and I have to agree. Maybe  there’s no need to be writing about the platform any more, just the games. To paraphrase Adrian later in his comment, “we did it, we made the Mac a viable gaming platform”.

I can’t think of a better way to sign off than with that sentiment.

…but I’m not going to just yet. I still enjoy writing about games, I still write about the games I play on my Mac, and I hope I can continue to do so until that changes.