Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Phoenix, to ashes

Last week, after over 40 years in print, the Boston Phoenix ceased publication.  There have been plenty of odes to the paper from some of its most distinguished alumni: Charlie Pierce, Susan Orlean, Joe Keohane. Humbly, I'd like to take a shot at it too. Because while most of the Phoenix fraternity has made its mark across the world of hard news and traditional arts coverage, the Phoenix was also one of the first real newspapers to take a chance on covering video games, and I had the good luck to be there at the beginning. After almost a decade, I can trace everything good that has happened to me professionally to those days at the Phoenix.

In 2004, I was working in the Phoenix's web department, taking the newspaper content and publishing it on the website. My boss came up to me one day and asked if I knew anything about video games.

"Sure," I said. "A little."

I didn't mention that I had spent the entirety of my high-school years self-publishing video game sites, writing daily to the various IGN sites, and even hounding PSXPower's Jay Boor for career advice.

"All right," said my boss. "We're going to start covering video games for the web site. It's your job to figure out how."

It wasn't even my idea. I feel like it's only fair to say so. A WFNX radio personality named Jim Murray had cornered the Phoenix's vice president, Brad Mindich, at the Best Music Poll show. Fueled by liquid courage, Big Jim told Brad that video games were the wave of the future and that we were missing the boat if we didn't start covering them. He made his case well, and soon we were given the green light.

I had no idea what I was doing. I wasn't a journalist. But I started firing off emails to publishers and PR firms, renting and even buying video games to review, and writing a weekly opinion column. Some publishers never gave us the light of day. Others couldn't get us on the list fast enough. Whenever I talked to a PR rep with local ties, they tripped over themselves getting stuff to us. They knew that we had a direct line to tens of thousands of college students, and tens of thousands more young professionals. I have to imagine that, for them, it was a white-whale opportunity they'd been waiting for.

We scraped along for a while, publishing exclusively on the web. I got an intern, a journalism grad student at BU who was surely more qualified than me. I put him on a weekly news roundup, and we worked the phones and emails even harder to chase down more review copies. My actual job title -- not to mention my salary -- never changed. But shortly I got a stack of business cards calling me "Video Games Editor."

In the winter of 2005, the Phoenix gave us the greatest exposure yet. I don't know what kinds of numbers the web-based gaming coverage was doing. But the paper's editor, Peter Kadzis, made the decision to do a cover story of some of the collected game reviews we'd recently run. And so, there on the front page, was a full-body image of Leon Kennedy from Resident Evil 4, and a tease of several more reviews within (NBA Street Vol 3 and Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction, as I recall.)

Yes, the headline read GAME ON.

From then on, game reviews appeared regularly in print. To this day I am still not sure what decision-making went into getting them a spot. I'll never forget an early conversation I had with one of the arts editors about how video games worked. I don't mean on a deep level. I mean, he didn't know what a video game console was. "It's like a VCR," I told him.

But here's what I do know: the Phoenix won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for its classical music coverage, and, in the mid-aughts, they had the foresight and the stones to start running game reviews in the same section. Today, when the New York Times regularly runs content from Kotaku, that might not seem like a breakthrough. But somebody had to do it first.

Things went well for awhile, and, for me, this led to a lot more professional opportunities -- opportunities I never would have dreamed of when it all began. I wrote for Paste, for Slate, for Joystiq. I guested on podcasts. I was published in a book. I appeared on a panel at PAX East. I met dozens -- hundreds? -- of amazing writers, all of whom were equally convinced that we were heralding a new age of games journalism. Things reached their apex when the editors granted me full-page space for reviews of Metal Gear Solid 4 and Grand Theft Auto IV, as well as a cover-story thinkpiece about violence in games. Life was good.

At the beginning of this piece, I mentioned just a couple of notable ex-Phoenicians. There are an awful lot of us, ex-Phoenicians, and that's because the Phoenix is an excellent place to be from. Even as the paper was putting more muscle behind game reviews back in 2005, as a low-level staffer, I was faced every month with a legitimate question of whether I'd be able to pay my rent and my student loans. That summer, I got a new day job, one that was easier and less stressful, that offered better benefits and about 50% more pay -- and the Phoenix still kept me on as a freelancer, which frankly was a more lucrative arrangement with them. For a time, it was an excellent situation.

Things began to change in 2008, when the recession hit. Advertisers bailed. Page counts dropped. My reliable weekly column started to run bi-weekly, and sometimes less than that. My own life was starting to change, too. By 2010, my low-level editorial day job had become a mid-level production job, which required a lot more time and energy. Then my wife and I bought a house in the suburbs, and a long commute started to make playing games impossible on weekdays. Weekends were often filled with housework and yardwork.

Even as the publication schedule seemed to stabilize, by 2011 I was beginning to feel the strain. In the earliest days of the Phoenix's games coverage, it had been liberating and exhilarating to feel as though we had almost no editorial oversight. As time went on, though, it began to feel like a burden. I found myself scrambling to figure out the paper's coverage for them, trying and often failing to get my hands on a game in time to meet my deadlines, and turning in work that I didn't always think was my best. I kept it up, because I still enjoyed the work, and because the Phoenix still paid better rates than anybody else I wrote for. But the zeal was gone.

That's why, when the Phoenix changed formats last fall and stopped asking me for reviews, I didn't even bother offering. It was a relief, to be honest. Something was missing from my life, to be sure, but it felt right to have moved on.

Even so, I had no way of knowing when I filed it that my review of Darksiders II would be the last I would write for them. Reading it now, I wouldn't say it's the best I ever wrote, but it's true to the approach we laid out in 2004: irreverent, funny, not necessarily written for the hardcore crowd. In its news and criticism, the Phoenix had an approach all its own, and I tried to emulate that when I wrote for them. I felt I owed nothing to the game's publisher, and everything to the reader. I didn't assume that the person reading the review was an expert in games, but I did respect their intelligence. Above all, I always tried to ask one question especially. Not "Is this game good," but "Is this game bullshit?"

This post has been about me, not really about the paper, but the paper has been so much a part of me for the past many years that I can't separate the two. I am sorry for the many good people who have lost their jobs, and I am sorry for the city that is losing such a vital voice.

Worst of all, though, is knowing that the videogame section I helped to create is gone -- and with it, a template that helped to give rise to other writers and thinkers. We published some of Chris Dahlen's earliest game coverage while I was there, and after I left, Maddy Myers kept at it to become an indispensable voice in the video games scene. These people are talented enough to find work anywhere, but I think it's telling of the Phoenix's legacy that this is where they got noticed first.

I guess that's it. I'd like to sum up with something witty or wise, but mostly this just makes me sad.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Never-on DRM

The release of EA's SimCity, with its controversial always-online single-player requirement, has caused its share of grumbling. Because the game won't work without a connection to EA's servers, and the servers are overloaded, lots of people who have bought the game aren't able to use it. I've been following the kerfuffle more closely than I ordinarily would -- not because of a particular interest in the game itself, but because my Verizon FIOS internet has been down since last Saturday. Even if I wanted to play SimCity, I wouldn't be able to. When "always-on" faces off with "never-on," the latter prevails.

You won't be surprised to learn the myriad ways that being without internet access has caused me grief these past few days. Sure, I can't play internet-connected games. I can't pass the time by watching Star Trek on Netflix (and I'm so close to finishing season one!). Even cooking dinner has been difficult. We don't file recipes on paper like some kind of cavemen -- my wife keeps them on a Pinterest board.

First world problems, I know, but I'm also supposed to be working from home while waiting for our baby to arrive, and without an internet connection, I can't do that. Not only am I paying for a service I'm not getting, but the outage is now making it harder for me to make money in the first place. I've been working around it, but after three days of improvising, the cost in time and money is beyond a portion of our monthly FIOS bill.

We've been in contact with Verizon customer service every day since the outage began. Every day they have told us that service was estimated to be restored that day. I stopped believing them after the third day, and at this point I don't think I'll bother to keep asking. To be fair, everyone I've spoken to, either on the phone or through their Twitter account, has been very nice and has tried to help. The problem is that they're part of a corporate structure that is ensuring they can't help. They can give me their best estimates about when things will be restored, but can't do anything to make that happen. If it's out, it's out.

And so, even though I'm not attempting to play SimCity right now, I feel a kinship with those players who paid for a product and got a service, once that couldn't even be assured to work. We have reached a point in our commerce where transactions are one-sided, in which handing over your money does little more than improve your odds of getting the thing you want. Buying a game no longer means buying a game, it means renting access to the game.

One could argue that pirates have driven publishers to this point, but excusing always-on DRM as the price customers have to pay to avoid piracy is ridiculous, because paying costumers don't need to avoid piracy. Who is suffering when draconian anti-theft measures prevent honest consumers from getting a fair deal? It ain't the pirates. I'm not trying to make the counter-intuitive argument that piracy is a net gain because it expands the pool of players. I'm simply saying that preventing paying customers from getting what they bought doesn't help anybody. But, apparently, EA has found it necessary to destroy SimCity in order to save it.

Welcome to the future.