Sunday, March 27, 2011


Professional game journalism is an industry that has grown, like the gaming industry itself, by leaps and bounds over the past few decades. These days gamers demand up to the minute reviews and information on the in's and out's of gaming. One of the largest and most respected gaming sites is Gamespot. The core of Gamespot is gaming news, in depth reviews, detailed previews and interesting articles and opinions. Gamespot is also a space that has attracted a large and vocal community, ever eager to disucuss, comment and speculate on their gaming obsessions. Tom Mc Shea is one Gamespoter that takes on the coveted role of a professional game reviewer. As cool as it sounds to critique games for a living, any good reviewer must try and stay unbiased despite their personal passion for games, write a review that encapsulates the essence of what a game is about at its core, and at the same time be an entertaining read. Tom was kind enough to take some time away from the controller/keyboard to answer some questions about modern game journalism.

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.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Burn my bra (with dragon's fire)

Dragon Age II. The big sequel. I won't get into too much of a review. You know what's what. Awesome Bioware single player RPG, complex characters, cool story, nice combat, sweet eye candy. Pretty par for the course for 'ol Bioware.

I will just take a few sentences to say what I think is improved over the original. They have 'awesomed' up combat. I feel like I'm alot more mobile during battles, particularly boss battles, than I was before. You have to physically get out of the way of some enemies when it becomes clear they are going to unleash a huge blast of magic or trample over the top of you. It's cool. It feels almost like an MMO boss encounter. There are also ability synergies between your characters that you can set up to make your party more effective. Touches like this are cool. It just adds a little more depth to the combat. I've seen plenty of comments on various sites about how the combat in Dragon Age II had been 'babied up' for consoles. I find this perplexing. To me it feels challenging, looks outstanding and theres plenty of strategic depth there.

Aside from combat, the game is great, just like the first. I really like some of the characters, I'm luke warm to others and some just annoy me (I'm looking at you Carver). I love that your character actually has a voice now. You're not just clicking lines of text for your responses. There is a dialogue wheel that will be familiar to anyone that has played Bioware's other epic RPG series, Mass Effect.

As for my character type, I picked a staff wielding female mage. I don't usually like to gender-bend, but it feels right in Bioware games. The actresses that did the voice work for both female Shepard in Mass Effect and Hawke (mine is called Tessa) in Dragon Age II did a fantastic job. They really bring the dialogue to life. I almost always find myself picking the 'lighthearted/comedic' response icon with my Hawke. It just feel right with my sassy, fireball flinging, red-headed mage. Girl power. Medieval fantasy girl power. I'm not done yet but it can be assured I'll be playing this game to completion. Baldur's Gate (one of my top five games of all time) lives on in Dragon Age. It's a great time to be an RPG player.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Wow factor

I've been getting back into comics lately. I've been reading some of the classics. The Dark Knight Returns, Sandman, 1602, Arkham Asylum. All amazing stuff.

Then I decided to try the World of Warcraft comic series. I know that Blizzard's Warcraft lore isn't exactly Tolkein, but they have managed to create an interesting world and some cool characters, even if it is borrowing heavily from things like classic fantasy and Warhammer. Never the less I was interested in seeing what they had come up with storyline wise for the comic. Having read half a dozen issues all I can say is that it's pretty underwhelming. The dialogue is very 'Saturday morning cartoon', and the plot line is so rudimentary that it's inches away from being completely boring. I hate to say it but I've had quest lines in World of Warcraft itself that have been able to hold my interest better than the comic book series.

It isn't a total loss, however. It's got some really nice art. The main penciller, Ludo Lulaby, has an interesting look to his art. It's very stylized and borders the line into 'manga' territory but never crosses it completely. Jim Lee does the odd cover here and there, which is a thrill to see, being a huge fan of his run on the X-Men back in the early nineties. And, of course, Blizzard stalwart Samwize does some covers too, in his hand painted style, which is awesome.

I don't know if I will keep on with the series or move on to something else. If this is the quality of writing Blizzard is giving the green light then I'm glad I didn't waste the hours it would take to read one of their Warcraft novel series, and it makes me mighty worried about the forthcoming WoW movie.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Who wears the frogpants?

These days podcasts are a dime a dozen in my experience. For every well produced, entertaining cast there are a bunch that sound unprofessional, do a bad job of holding listener interest, or are released too sporadically, leaving listeners never knowing when they're going to be able to download a new episode.

There is, however, a name in podcasting that has become synonymous with quality audio shows. That name is Scott Johnson. Scott got in on the podcasting game very early on, before the word 'podcast' even exhisted, with his first cast 'Extra Life Radio', which hit the web in 2005. The cast, taking its name from Scott's webcomic, Extra Life, featured Johnosn and fellow webcomic creators Brian Dunaway and Obsidian. ELR embraced all things geeky in a very funny, entertaining way. ELR was one of the first podcasts I ever listened too, and it was clear from the start the Scott was a charismatic, relatable host.

Scott has never looked back since his first foray into audio casts. In 2009 he launched his 'Frogpants' network, with a selection of different podcasts under the network banner, most of which he hosts and produces himself. Scott has attracted an army of fans over the years. It's hard not to like the guy. He is always very open, funny and relatable. You can't help but want to join in some of the conversations as you listen along. Scott even hosts a convention called 'Nerdtacular' once a year in his home town of Salt Lake City, Utah, celebrating all things Frogpants.

I recently did an interview with Scott via email. Here's what the elder statesman of podcasting and webcomics had to say...

Me: You were creating audio content very early on, before the term
'podcast' had even been coined. Was that just an experiment or did you
predict the popularity of podcasting before it hit?

Scott: Honestly, I had little idea of what it would become one day, but I was
certain that audio and video would be important technologies in the
near future, and I just knew I wanted to be a part of it. I have a
long time love of radio, and the internet suddenly provided a way for
me to experiment without having to own my own station. :)

Podcasting is still in it's relative infancy. Do you think it's going
to change or evolve in any way down the track, or is the format now
set in stone?

I think the method of delivery methods will continue to change and
evolve, but people will always enjoy audio content. We need to have
something in our heads when we jog and commute.

You've spent countless hours producing podcasts with a host of
internet personalities. Whats you're favourite or most memorable
recording moment?

I think it was my interview with Todd McFarlaine, of Marvel / Image /
comic book fame. He was a really cool dude, and I really loved
chatting with him. He's a bit of a legend in his own time.

You have always been very open with your listeners and readers in
terms of your views, opinions and your family life. Has there ever
been instances that made you regret being so forthcoming, or people
that have crossed a line?

Never. I think the key to building a strong mature community is being
open and honest about everything. Honestly, it's just the way I go
naturally, so it just happens that it worked out great, and now I'm a
big believer in it. Be who you are, and people will come. :)

Anyone that, like yourself, produces web content must inevitably
receive some criticism, sometimes in a 'not so friendly' way. Do the
demanding or 'trollish' critiques of your work ever bother you, or do
you just ignore them?

I was REALLY sensitive to this sort of thing in the early days. But
these days, I am sort of numb to it. I just ignore it, even though I
rarely remove stuff like that. If someone goes off on a blog comment
or on facebook or something, I typically let it stay and let it be
what it is. People can make up their own minds. But I don't really
have much of a problem with this. A pretty respectful bunch as it
turns out.

Do you think you will ever resurrect Extra Life Radio, or have casts
like The Morning Stream filled ELR's role on your network?

I think TMS has taken up the reigns from ELR in a very real way, and
probably better represents what I wanted ELR to be in the first place.
Will ELR ever come back? I never say never. :)

Your web comic is nearing it's ten year anniversary. Do you
still have the same passion you had for creating comics you had a
decade ago?

Actually, the 10 year mark is this coming June. And yeah, 10
years...holy crap. That time flew by. I had a baby that year, and
he's 10 now, so that shows you how crazy time passes. I LOVE comics,
and I love where my style has taken me over the years. Regret
nothing! And can't wait to create the next one!

Is there a possibility of a ten year Extra Life compilation book?

I have been meaning to do this forever. Thanks or the reminder!

Which piece of unrealistic frogpants related merchandise would you
love to see one day?

A Frogpants branded Mini Cooper. :)

Are there any forms of media you want to explore in the future aside
from webcomics and podcasting?

I would like to get into more video content. It's a lot more time
consuming, and I don't really have the face for it, but I have some
ideas that need massaging.

If you had an offer to turn one of your casts into a television or
traditional radio show would that interest you, or do you like working
exclusively on your own terms?

TMS for sure. I think it fits, and would be a blast in that format. :)

Lastly, some random speculation. What will be the game that finally
'kills' World of Warcraft? Which comic book character will get the
next big screen adaptation? Which classic video game series will
receive a current gen remake? What will Nintendo call their next home
console? What will be the next podcast to come from Frogpants be

RIFT. JLA. Jazz Jackrabbit. Wii2. RIFT...maybe. ;)

Thanks for your time.