Me: How did you get your start in games journalism?
Tom: Halfway through college, I realized that I wanted to write professionally in some capacity. I wasn't sure exactly what that entailed, but I took journalism and fiction writing courses to get my writing skills up to a respectable level. At the same time, I started a blog with a friend of mine, and after a few years of putting time and energy into updating that, I decided that game journalism would be the best way to earn a living. I bounced around a little after college, but landed the GameSpot gig after a couple years. Good luck and good timing.
What was your first review as a professional journalist?
Katamari Damacy. While I was writing for my blog, Brendan Sinclair was running the entertainment section of a small town newspaper in Oklahoma. His current video game reviewer was quite lame, so he hired my buddy and I to contribute a weekly column. It was a very different take on gaming from what you'd typically get from a mainstream publication. We covered the games we were interested in, so Katamari, Alien Hominid, Battalion Wars got the big stories while lame games like Call of Duty were left in the cold.
What is the biggest change in games journalism you've noticed since the start of your career?
It's self aware. It seems as though everyone is intimately aware of what the general public is saying about their site and every rival publication. It's strange having immediate feedback forced your way even if you don't care to know, and that instant reaction to every piece of content ultimately shapes what people produce. I'm not sure I agree with that, but it make sense that the audience is the guiding hand since they're the ones devouring all this information. It was nice living in a bubble and just witting whatever came to mind without any fear or knowledge of how it would be received.
If you met someone who had never played a video game in their life, that didn't even know what a game was, which game would you show them as a definitive example of modern gaming?
Modern gaming is Call of Duty. The trend in the last few yeas has been to simplify everything so you get a streamlined experience that is nearly identical to every player's. Events happen all around that seem exciting, but they mirror a movie more than a typical interactive experience. It's about the sizzle now, what can draw your eyes to the screen and capture your attention. It's about eliminating any ounce of frustration so players can turn off their brains and take in the show. And it's about constant rewards that don't mean anything, but serve as treats to keep people engaged for just one more hour.
Do you have any little rituals or self imposed rules for when you are playing a game for review?
I'm in constant media blackout. I avoid pre-release coverage as much as possible because I don't want it to tamper with my expectations. I don't want to know what promises Peter Molyneux made or the development problems of Duke Nukem Forever. I want to just rip off the shrink wrap of whatever game I'm reviewing at my desk, and start with as clean of a slate as possible. Obviously, I can't avoid all information, but the less I know going in, the better.
Which of your reviews has created the most controversial or divided response?
Transformers: War for Cybertron, by quite a wide margin. This was an interesting review for me because I have no connection to the source material. I had a Transformer growing up (Bumblebee?), but I rarely watched the shows and don't really care about the lore. So I judged the game entirely on what it was, rather than what well-known characters were slapped on top. It's arguable if I should have been the person to review it, since Transformer fans obviously want to know if it makes good use of the source material, but I think I did a good job. It's important to have someone just break down what the game is and is not doing right, and it's easier to do that if you aren't distracted by a beloved license.
What kind of game do you dread writing a review for?
Completely average games. This often happens in the third or fourth iteration of a long-running franchise, when new ideas have dissipated and you're left with the same ol' gameplay as before. There aren't any interesting angles or insights because everything has been said already, there aren't major flaws because everything has been polished through the years, and there aren't spectacular moments because the creativity has been sucked dry. So boring!
How is the relationship between reviewers and game developers these days? Can you get honest information easily or is it a battle with developer PR?
I live in a bubble. I never talk to developers and I'd like to keep it that way.
Is there a shady side to game journalism? Bribe offers? Back alley deals? General skulduggery?
Ha! I honestly don't know. I avoid talking to developers because I don't want there to be any chance I could be influenced. For instance, I know someone who worked on BioShock 2, so I made sure to stay far away from that review when it came into the office. As far as bribes go, I think that idea is vastly overstated. It's easy to assume journalists are underhanded sleazes when they deliver a score you disagree with, but it's ultimately just a difference of opinion. It's not worth the hit in credibility to receive bribes, so I really doubt anyone in the industry is so underhanded.
I have been called hopelessly naive, though, so who knows?
What do you love about games in 2011? What pisses you off?
I love the indie scene. Some of my favorite games come from small developers -- Meat Boy, SpaceChem, Comet Crash -- and I think it's incredible that such talented individuals are given a chance to let their abilities speak for themselves. Digital distribution has made it possible for anyone to make games (As long as they're good enough), and that means more choice for consumers.
I hate that development costs have spiraled out of control. Last generation, there were all sorts of crazy retail games for PlayStation 2, hidden treasures that made it worth owning that system in the first place. Games like R.A.D., Graffiti Kingdom, and War of the Monsters were some of my favorite games, but it's just so rare to get (relatively) big budget games that are so quirky anymore. Games cost so much that companies are scared to veer slightly away from the norm, so you end up with a lot of very similar games with no personality.
What's your most anticipated game for the near future?
Right now, Mortal Kombat by a wide margin. I loved the first three MKs, and this seems to be returning to the old-school roots, so I think it's going to be amazing. For the rest of the year, Shadow of the Damned, Earth Defense Force, Skyrim, and Dark Souls are my most wanted. I'm crossing my fingers they turn out to be special.
What do you have the most hope for in the long run; the large corporate companies or independent developers?
Independent developers. They continue to innovate while the big guys are reluctant to try something new. But then I see something like the EA-funded Shadow of the Damned, and I have hope that creativity will find a way.
What is the greatest game of all time?
Super Mario World! My favorite game is still Super Mario Kart, though, and my desert island game is Perfect Dark. That still has more content than just about any modern shooter!
You can find Tom's blog here, or many of his in depth written and video reviews at Gamespot.