Pixel Hunt Re-examined (+ Some Words on Retroaction)

February 4th, 2010

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Back in April last year I heavily criticised endearing Australian multiplatform games magazine, Hyper, while simultaneously throwing praise to side-line act Pixel Hunt. Pixel Hunt is worthy comparison to Hyper. I mean, it’s free, conservative games writing brought to you by Hyper contributors with enough leeway to go rogue without the uncomfortable snapback of their part-time employers. In particular, I commented on Pixel Hunt’s skew for a more progressive, supposedly analytical approach to games writing.

My comments were made under the observation of the magazine’s steady progression towards a more feature-rich, analysis-heavy format that could, in a few issues, develop it into an authority, you know, something worth repeated reading in this competitive field of non-commercial games writing. Unfortunately, I feel that since then the promise has disappeared as the magazine settles down into a familiar template. Yeah, I’m sure you know the one.

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Don’t get me wrong, I agree with the comments made by Dylan Burns (editor) in his opening editorial to issue #10 “Our team of writers is, I believe, amongst the most passionate in this country”. They’re talented too. Really clean writers which I appreciate, even though it’s not my most preferred style as a reader. Yet despite all the talent and good writers they house, the format is suffocation.

I’m kinda tired of harping on the inherent flaws of the writing format adopted by the enthusiast and professional media alike (you’ve probably heard me talk about it before, anyways), so let’s just bang out a list, it’ll be easier:

None of this is designed to offend, but rather explain my own discontent with the magazine, because I believe that it’s capable of much more. Hmm, let’s take another online magazine, Retroaction, as a counter example to Pixel Hunt:retroaction-magazine-duke-n

Retroaction is a new, retro/indie games e-magazine run by a handful of retro game enthusiasts, most of which have little writing experience. Although the quality of writing has improved in leaps and bounds since the first issue (they’re up to their 3rd, so far), it’s still downright atrocious at times. Furthermore, Retroaction’s reviews are almost entirely full of information with very little evaluation to speak of, and most of the appraisal is glowing or at least generous. Did I mention that the layout and visual design leaves a little to be desired too? Yet despite the lacking amenities, I often come back to re-read articles in Retroaction because they’re original and therefore insightful, even within the retro/indie games niche. A two part feature on the ZX Spectrum’s Russian knock-offs and resulting indie development scene over the past 20 years is not only interesting, it’s material that can’t easily be found anywhere else. A lack of analysis in the reviews isn’t imperative to Retroaction, unlike with Pixel Hunt, because the information, the “here’s what happens in the game part”, is sufficient on its own, because the games themselves are largely unheard of in the mainstream**.

Conformity does not equate to incentive and it’s for this reason, for Pixel Hunt’s pursuit of the status quo of enthusiast writing, that my interest (and prior recommendation) has diminished.

On the other hand, I hope that my criticisms haven’t dissuaded you too much, because as it turns out I actually contributed an article to the latest issue (issue #10, download here, 38mbs). With a dash of irony though, I was wrongly credited. (And no, before you ask, the error didn’t spur me on to write this piece). I wrote the article on Dragon Quest IV at the end of the magazine, NOT Daniel Golding. You might know Daniel as the guy who gained rapturous attention after mapping out the self-important “Brainysphere”. You could’ve fooled me though, as I read half way into the article before realising I’d written it myself, and there I was feeling envious and all, shucks. I’m surprised though, honestly, it really blends in with the rest of the content, which is strange given that the nature of the writing isn’t usually part of my shtick. So check it out for that reason, or to spot the unedited spelling error…

*Can it be considered a selling point if it’s free? Probably not. Either way, the features are generally good.

**I’m starting to understand now why the majority of blogs in my RSS feed reader are retro or alternative-based. Conventional games writing is simply that (however, it can be analysis-rich AND progressive, as is the case with much of Eurogamer‘s content, for example), and even within the bloggosphere, good analysis is scattered, whereas the retro and alternative coverage is often always interesting.

  • Shane

    Daniel, rather than pointing out everything that’s wrong with the games-reviewing-industry in this ‘blog’, perhaps you should get a little bit more experience in life before passing comment on things you haven’t tried yourself. Writing for a games magazine isn’t all about free air-trips, meeting developers and any freebies that may happen to find their way to you (if you’re lucky).

    It’s about a writer, sharing his opinion on a game, in the way that he’s familiar with and how he/she wishes to do it. That writing style, or their opinions may not gel with every reader (which it doesn’t for you obviously) but that doesn’t mean just because you don’t appreciate the format that the content is delivered in, doesn’t mean that it’s wrong. Personally, I loathe blogs, and bloggers, but it’s all part of the rich tapestry of life, criticism and gaming.

    Pixel Hunt has nothing to do with Hyper, but while yes, some contributors to it have written for them, Pixel Hunt is completely independent and has nothing to do with Hyper what-so-ever. You don’t really inform your ‘readers’ of this point. No, I have nothing to do with Pixel Hunt OR Hyper and have never contributed to either publication.

    If you don’t like a magazine, don’t buy it. If you don’t like Pixel Hunt don’t download it. If you don’t like Kotaku, PalGN, Xbox World Australia, Gamespot, IGN etc, don’t visit them.

    All I’m saying is that the writers of all these publications work their arses off to review games and simply try to inform people of what games are great and which ones suck ass. Myself, I’d rather trust a smaller independant publication than the likes of IGN, Gamespot etc and have always found the reviews of the other sites I mention informative and most of all, completely honest with no hidden agendas. If you don’t like Site/Publication A, B or C, then fine, but do you really think people give a damn about your opinion of those publications?

  • Shane,

    Thank you for leaving a comment and letting me know how you feel.

    I think that you’ve misinfered my article as some kind of attack which has understandably made you quite angry. I have nothing against the opinions/writing style of the writers at Pixel Hunt, in fact, as I mentioned in the article, I think that they’re all very talented, great writers. My criticism is about a format which I feel squashes the opportunity for the writers to express their opinion. I want to hear more of their opinion, rather than “what happens in the game” (material that can easily be found elsewhere), which is why I wrote the article.

    I’m pleased that you prefer independent publications. I do too. It’s important to have a wide range of voices and approaches. In which case it would be nice of you to respect my own, even though you do not agree with some of the comments made.

    Thanks again,
    Daniel

  • Hey Dan, James from PH here,

    First up, apologies for the name SNAFU that seems to have occurred! I don’t know if it’s a bit late to do an edit…I suppose I’ll ask Dylan.

    Your concerns/issues are fair. I personally think that they stem from the fact that we have quite a few very talented gaming freelancers contributing, who would generally prefer to be, or are at least used to, being paid for feature pieces. Nobody minds so much with reviews, because you generally get the game for free, but naturally the experienced writers on the team are more likely to give their best stuff to the bigger sites/mags (and that includes our editorial staff).

    Having said that, we have some *enormously* generous contributors, which I suppose is how we manage to have any content, at all. You’re right that it would be nice to have more features though, and I imagine that’s something we’re going to try and address. I think our podcasts are genuinely very good too, in case you haven’t checked them out.

    As for the reviews being late – I think since we realised we were never going to be exactly on time with these things, focus has shifted to providing an analysis of the games that involves stepping back from the immediate review explosion and seeing how well the game has held up over the first month/however long, whether post-release support has been delivered and whether hype really played much of a factor in the game’s initial reception. Gamers don’t stop buying games within 2 weeks of them being released, and we’d like our reviews to target those people who are thinking of arriving at the party late, so to speak.

    I suppose, above all else, our focus in Pixel Hunt is just having fun producing it, and hope that this rubs off on the reader. If you’re not feeling that, it probably means we should try to improve in areas, so I appreciate posts like this. Many thanks for the feedback.

  • James actually makes a great point – and one that is something of a catch-22 for us. Given that we have quite a few active freelancers on the team, that we even get anything from them for free is, I think, a testament to their passion for the industry.

    Ultimately I’d love to have enough free games or (gasp!) a budget to pay every writer, but as a free magazine that’s only going to happen if enough people help out with donations.

    I do agree with you on some levels about the reviews. I will admit that they haven’t quite reached the tone that I was aiming for when I wrote that editorial – and a lot of that comes down to our writers being embroiled in a system that calls for traditional reviewing practices. Heck, I fall into that mode myself without even thinking about it.

    We are actually in the process of shifting a lot of our review content onto our new website (which will launch in a few weeks). I’m hoping that this will allow the e-zine to breathe more as an opinion and feature article space.

    A lot of readers probably don’t understand that Pixel Hunt is run by two guys on different sides of the country. I am in WA and James lives in SA. Then we have writers from Sydney, Queensland, Melbourne, Adelaide – all over the place. I think this gives us a really unique voice – but it also creates a logistic mountain to climb in terms of bringing each issue together and making sure that it flows well.

    I am extremely proud of the e-zine and I feel that we’re getting better with each issue. I’d love to see what you think of us a few issues into the future, as content gets shared between the website and PDF. Oh, and apologies for the byline stuff up – I knew it was *a* Daniel, just not which one 😛

  • Guys,

    Thanks for dropping by again. Don’t worry about the name credit. As the guy above establishes, I’m sure people won’t be fussed.

    It’s great to get your perspective. I feel partly guilty now, particularly when my criticisms forget to consider how much everything hinges on resources. I hope that you take something from it though, and I look forward to your continual changes and progress to the magazine and website.

    Daniel

  • Psst, Shane!

    Q: “If you don’t like Site/Publication A, B or C, then fine, but do you really think people give a damn about your opinion of those publications?”

    A: See subtitle of this blog: “Gaming Analysis, Critique & Culture”.

    Regarding the rest, you & Daniel can duke it out. 😉

    ——————————————————–

    As for myself, I’ve been reading game reviews since the mid 80’s, and I’ve often been frustrated with them. In the beginning, I’d read C64 game reviews in America mags, which gave every game at least 7/10, irrespective of quality. Bizarre! I have no idea *why* this was the case – editorial decisions? Maybe just an industry-wide culture of ‘be nice’? Who knows.

    I soon moved on to British magazines, who were at least honest with their scores. My favourite was Zzap!, who awarded ‘Robobolt’ just 3%, saying they’d “prefer to be injected with Gastro Enteritis” than play the game any futher. They also innovated by having 3 reviewers put their thoughts into every review, which was great; you’d soon identify who was ‘your style’ and pay more attention to their comments.

    Your suggestion Daniel, that the ‘content ratio’ in reviews needs tweaking – is something I would have agreed with at that time. Zzap’s review format was 70% description of the plot (“It’s the year 2643, and you’re the last…. blah blah”) then a short summing up of gameplay. I’d hardly read any of that, instead skipping ahead to read the break-out boxes, containing the reviewers comments. So, more than half of the ‘review’ was of no interest to me. (Here’s an example if you’re not familiar with Zzap).

    25 years later, and I’m still searching for _my_ perfect games journalism experience. And like all good “customers”, I won’t know what it is, until I see it. 😉

    Regarding your feedback on Pixel Hunt – I’m also more interested in reviews with less “this is what happens” and more “this is what I think”. I’ve been blogging for just over a year, and never done reviews until now. My facts/opinions ratio in my first review is about 50:50 as opposed to the 70:30 you bemoan above. Although, in my defense, this is a review of a game compilation I bet you haven’t played – and that’s OK, as per your “**” disclaimer.

    Oh, and glad you like Retro Action – you’re only the 2nd Aussie blogger I’ve seen writing about it.

    PS: This is my first time on your site Daniel, (via a PixelHunt tweet) and I clicked on your ‘about’ page, hoping to read ‘about’ you, but instead it’s more of a ‘why I’m doing this’ page. Where do we click if we want to know ‘about’ you, mate?

  • ^The about page is about the website, yes. It use to be about me and the website, but I changed it. I’m sorry to disappoint you.

    I feel that it’s worth adding that for all intents and purposes, reviews require a great deal of context setting, and so do analysis pieces to a lesser extent. In which cases I tweaked the former % figure.

    Furthermore, writing in the blogging medium affords me the luxury of being able to focus on the finer points of a game, rather than in print and so forth, where there is an expecting mainstream audience who bemoan writing which challenges their expectations.

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