Theory of Gaming: One Year Later

By Nick Olsen and Josh Snyder

Publisher’s note

Dead Space 3

Theory of Gaming’s first posts included a review for Dead Space 3 and essays on Super Mario Bros. and video game semiotics.

A little more than a year ago I approached Josh with the beginning of an idea. I wanted to create a website dedicated to honest feedback for video game developers. Since I’m not a developer it could serve as my own small contribution to helping improve the industry which had provided me countless hours of enjoyment. From previous experience I already knew Josh was an excellent editor and writer and was as passionate as I am about video games. So I asked him to co-found and run the site with me. Less than two months later, we published the first stories on Theory of Gaming (a review of Dead Space 3, and essays on semiotics and the gold standard of game design).

So in honor of the site’s one year anniversary, we each provided our thoughts on what we’ve learned about the video game industry over the past year including lessons about running the site, interacting with developers and publishers, and what those lessons might mean for the future.

Nick Olsen
Publisher and Co-founder
Theory of Gaming

Nick Olsen, publisher

By comparison to many stalwarts of the video game review/news industry, we’re still in our infancy. Even so, this year has been a journey. I’ve gone from avid gamer to avid gamer with a responsibility, and it’s changed the way I play and think about video games. I don’t lose myself in the world of games the same way I used to. I can’t, or I’m sure to miss things that are critical to a review or essay I’m working on. That’s not to say that the great games can’t still drive immersion, it’s simply that I’m much more attune to when it’s happening, and that’s a good thing. Now when I notice that immersion, it signals to me that the developer has succeeded in drawing me into their world despite my efforts to remain an outside observer, and that means they created something special and unique. In my case, that now means they’ve created something worth writing about.

Immersion is but one example. I find now when I play games, I’m much more attune to the entire experience; I try to examine each game mechanic and the impetus behind it. Why do guns work the way they do in shooters? Why create short story-driven games instead of expansive open world role playing games? Why did a particular franchise choose slight gameplay evolutions instead of a major gameplay revolution? And most importantly, why did these choices work or fail?

Paying close attention to these details and attempting to answer these questions as I play has added to my enjoyment in many cases. Before I’d play through a game and react emotionally to what I was given, telling people I loved or hated it but without much reasoning as to why. My new process allows me to parse out what about the experience piqued my interest, identify which mechanics I enjoyed the most, and provide clear thoughts on why I enjoyed or disliked a game. The emotional is part is still there, but now it comes with supporting arguments.

RSG_GTAV_Screenshot_HUD_002

Rockstar Games was one of the first developers to support us with a review copy Grand Theft Auto V.

The other lesson I learned in year one at Theory of Gaming? The video game development community is one that, for the most part, quickly embraces newcomers and supports its own. When we began our initial outreach to development studios and publishers, we found them welcoming and willing to supply assets and review copies of games even though we were new on the scene. Big names like Rockstar, Ubisoft, Double Fine and Telltale didn’t bat an eyelash when we requested titles for review. Small studios and indie developers offered the same courtesy and were quick to engage us in conversations on social sites like Twitter. We’ve even received feedback about the site, including what they enjoy reading most and what they find most useful. Sure, there have been some struggles to engage large and small studios alike, but to this point they have been the exception, not the rule. And for a startup like Theory of Gaming, it’s been invaluable.

When Zoe Quinn, an independent developer, faced extreme levels of harassment surrounding her game Depression Quest, many in the industry, from developers to journalists, rallied around her cause. For an industry still ripe with sexism, the response was from the individuals supporting Zoe, as well as Zoe’s own response, were impressive things to watch. While I’d never wish that type of harassment on anyone, it was an invaluable lesson for me, as a new observer and comentor on the video game industry.

Or when Irrational Games announced major layoffs and shift in creative direction after the major success of BioShock: Infinite, I marveled again at the response from developers and studios alike as they offered support, and reached out with job opportunities.

But perhaps the most lasting lesson I’ll take away from the first year of Theory of Gaming is that we can succeed in doing what Josh and I set out to do: make even a small impact in helping game developers to better understand, from a consumer perspective, exactly what it is about the games they’re creating that we love and hopefully, how to continue to make them just a little bit better.

Josh Snyder, managing editor

When I was first approached to start my very own, honest-to-goodness video game site, I had no idea what to expect. I certainly had experience playing games, but writing about them was something I only dabbled in during my days as a critic at my student newspaper. I recalled picking up my copy of Fallout 3, and insisting to my then-girlfriend-now-wife that, yes, I needed to stay up all night and open every single locked and metal box in the town of Megaton – I had a review to file. People were counting on me, just dying to read my thoughts on Bethesda’s latest.

I still remember that week pretty clearly – I spent more time on my living room couch, dried, bloodshot eyes fixated onto my large, shiny TV, than I had in my previous six years of my professional college education (I wasn’t always going to be a writer, OK? Cut me some slack.). I remember the rush I felt when exploring the Capital Wasteland for the first time, not only as a fan, but as someone who needed to document it, to form an opinion that others would read. There was a part of me that was thrilled with the idea, but I was only a tourist – Fallout 3 would be the only video game I would review, as opposed to the countless films I suffered through week in and week out.

I used to love going to the movie theater, watching two to three films a week, eating my weight in popcorn and washing it down with a healthy dose of Mountain Dew. But these days, going to the theater seems like a chore (You mean I have to leave the house? And I have to put on pants?!). And I fear that part of the reason I feel that way is because of the countless hours I spent watching cinematic gems such as Fool’s Gold or The Eye. An art form that I once loved and cherished is now associated with the worst examples of its craft. Yes, I still get out every once in a while – I knew Machete Kills was a film best experienced on the big screen – but those instances are the exception, not the rule.

So I knew I could enjoy writing about video games, but this experience with film was still fresh in my mind. What if, after starting this site, I grew to loathe the medium? What if my days were spent not leisurely exploring new worlds like Skyrim or Los Santos, but instead forcing myself to plow through the most recent iteration of Generic Military Shooter 13? Why risk ruining what is otherwise something that brings me great joy?

Thankfully, after one year of writing about games, critiquing and analyzing them, playing more games (for research, of course), and writing some more, I can say that I still love the medium just as much as I did before that fateful night one year ago, when Nick and I published our first piece of content. If anything, I actually enjoy the medium more than ever before.

When I think back on this first year, the things that stand out the most are actually the reviews and essays which presented the greatest challenge. My four part retrospective on the seventh generation seemed like a great idea… until I actually had to write it. I recall late nights, constantly editing and revising the list of the seven items I wanted to discuss. It was the closest I will ever come to being that romanticized version of the thinker at his desk, pen in hand, countless crumpled up pieces of paper thrown about the room, the wastebin at the side of my desk overflowing with countless rejected ideas, until suddenly I found the perfect formula. And once it clicked, I would find myself writing furiously, these ideas forming at rapid speed, the culmination of eight years of gaming finally paying off, resulting into something bigger than me consuming media for the sake of it. It wasn’t easy writing that series, but I am thrilled I had the opportunity, and would do it again in a heartbeat.

Dead Island Riptide 2

Despite the lack of enjoyment with the game, reviewing Dead Island: Riptide stands out as a high point of year one.

And then there were the games. I’ve been lucky in that the games I’ve reviewed have, for the most part, been pleasant experiences. That certainly helps when you have to spend six hours a day, even on work days, playing a video game. But the one review that stands out the most is, strangely enough, my review of Dead Island: Riptide. If you’ve read my review, you will know that I was less than thrilled with the game, and if it weren’t for this site I would have either skipped it altogether, or played it and immediately forgotten it. But I’ll never forget hopping in my car and driving out to what had to be the last Family Video in existence, just to rent that game, just to review it. Every little action I took on the drive over there had this larger sense of purpose, like I was some big-shot gaming journalist, and my review of Dead Island: Riptide was somehow the one thing that was going to save planet Earth from some impending doom, and if I couldn’t get my hands on a copy of that game, then the world as we know it would cease to be. In my head it was all very dramatic – and although I told my still-for-some-reason-willingly-married-to-me-wife that I was only kidding when I said that this excursion to the rental store was serious business, in my mind it kinda, sorta felt that way. Gaming wasn’t just a hobby anymore – this was something I had to do, for the site.

At the very least, renting that game to review it for Theory of Gaming did provide one awesome memory – walking into Family Video and heading straight for the video game section, the only aisle in that store that saw regular foot traffic, thinking to myself “who still drives to a store to rent a movie?” After grabbing a copy of Dead Island: Riptide off the shelf, I turned around to find no less than four Juggalos, all of them rocking some totally wicked ICP jerseys and haircuts, all of them with a copy of Cloud Atlas in their hand, all of them intently reading the back of the case. I was able to pay for the rental and take off before they ever finished reading just what the hell a Cloud Atlas is.

These memories may seem odd or weird to many, but the reason they stick out to me is because gaming just isn’t a hobby anymore. Theory of Gaming has forced me to critically think about the medium, and it has led me down some interesting paths. You pick up an old game, a favorite, and you start to notice things, both good and bad, that you never really gave thought to before, and it’s like reconnecting with that old college buddy. He still looks the same, maybe a little older than you last remember, but he’s different in a way, more nuanced and complex if you’re lucky (that would be you, old pal Ico), or shallow and base if you’re not (I do not remember Shadow of the Colossus being that boring…).

It has been a crazy year, but honestly, I’ve loved it, and I hope Theory of Gaming gets to stick around for many more. We just started recording a podcast, and we have a solid group of writers who are contributing some kick-ass content. In just one year I’ve seen the site grow, and I can’t wait to see what it will look like in April 2015. And if I’m lucky, I’ll be driving to the store to pick up a copy of Generic Military Shooter 15, eagerly anticipating the experience of sitting down with another game to review, and another review to share.