My Nvidia Story
Author: Koroush Ghazi
Last Modified: April 2013
Over the past few months I've received many emails inquiring about the release issues surrounding my Far Cry 3 Tweak Guide and Crysis 3 Tweak Guide. Due to significant problems with these releases, as well as major delays for other guides stretching all the way back to late 2011, I recently announced that I had ended my three-year working relationship with Nvidia.
For those who are interested, this article explains exactly what happened behind the scenes, as well as some of the insights I gained from the whole experience.
Long-time readers would know that I've been writing guides for many years. My first published guide was written in 2002 and released on TweakTown.com. I did several more such guides there, each one receiving very positive feedback, so in 2004 I set up my own site TweakGuides.com to continue that work, free from outside interference. Over the past 11 years I've written many guides and articles, ranging from a few pages, all the way to the several hundred page TweakGuides Tweaking Companions for Windows XP, Vista, 7 and 8.
The aim of these guides is to explain how software such as games or Windows work in plain English, helping you to better optimize and customize them to suit your system and your tastes. Most of what is in these guides is available from a range of sources, but the key benefit of a guide is in having the information all in one place, neatly presented and accurately explained.
I don't pretend to be the only person who writes these guides. A bit of googling will quickly net you a variety of tweak guides and tutorials on virtually any topic. But setting modesty to one side, I take great pride in the fact that my guides tend to be different to most of the others out there, in terms of accuracy and scope of content, as well as clarity of presentation. Instead of quickly slapping together a poorly written article containing a bunch of half-guesses and placebo tweaks, I try as hard as I can to only include safe, working tweaks and comprehensive descriptions that are devoid of technical jargon. All of this takes a lot of time and effort.
Over the years my guides have proven to be very popular, and based on feedback I've received, people find them quite useful. This is very satisfying to me, and encourages me to keep writing. The only real problem I've had is in finding a source of income to compensate me for the increasing amount of time and effort I put into these guides. I oppose the concept of loading up my site with intrusive and annoying advertising, which sadly is the only kind of advertising that actually pays reasonably well. Not surprisingly, there is also a distinct lack of sponsor interest in supporting unbiased free guides. And just to make things even more difficult, game developers seem to be going out of their way to make tweaking of games harder to do - checkpoint save systems, removal of the command console and config/ini files, locking out command variables, a complete lack of documentation; these things make writing a decent guide all that much harder.
As an aside, it's also surprising to me just how hard it is to get game developers and major publishers to accept, much less support, the concept of a tweak guide, despite the obvious benefits that a good guide can bring. I'll discuss this in more detail shortly.
Anyway, enough with the sob story. The point of all this is that I wasn't finding it viable to plow countless unpaid hours into tedious testing, research, writing, editing and formatting for game guides. I set up a special arrangement for the TweakGuides Tweaking Companion which ensures that, thanks to the generous people who actually buy the enhanced Deluxe Edition of that book, I can continue to invest the copious amount of time into writing and releasing a free edition of it for each version of Windows. But for game guides, it just isn't viable.
Interlude 1: The Cost of Free
Let's digress for a moment. My story isn't unique in any way. Think about how many free resources you enjoy on the Internet, such as free news sites, free review sites, free videos and free software. I'd wager that most of them are bogged down in the struggle to monetize. The reality is that most people don't want to work for free, because bills don't pay themselves, and the more time and effort put into something that earns no income, the less time there is to undertake income-producing activity. So for most of the people who put together these free resources, the issue of monetization inevitably comes up.
The common solutions to the monetization problem are as follows:
Like anyone else, I love free content. Who wants to pay if you don't have to, right? The problem with this "everything should be free" mindset is that when it comes to good free content, first the "good" part, and then the "content" part, will eventually be lost. The free content we have right now is coming at a hidden cost: a marked decline in the accuracy of the news we read; biased reviews and editorials; increasingly more intrusive advertising; more adware, crapware, even malware, being bundled with free software; and a developer exodus to platforms where they can actually earn a decent income. Something to think about the next time you enjoy a free site or some free software.
Every time I think of this topic, it brings to mind one of my favorite quotes, from Lord Acton:
Liberty without responsibility leads to decadence and decline. And when we abuse our freedom, we will lose it.
In order to remain free we must each govern ourselves.
Basically the ingrained mindset that everything must be free on the Internet is undermining the very freedom and diversity we want to enjoy. Quality costs in terms of human time and effort. Most people want some sort of compensation for that time and effort, if not in the short term, then almost certainly in the long term. Without a change in consumer attitudes, we're going to be stuck with progressively more restrictions, such as DRM and closed platforms, and content in general will be of poorer quality.
The preachy interlude ends and we get back to the story. In 2008 I decided to stop writing game guides because I couldn't work out a way to monetize and still present the guides the way I wanted them - unbiased and free to the reader. It stayed that way until the middle of 2010, when out of the blue I was contacted by Nvidia with an offer that to me seemed to be the perfect solution: sponsorship to write and release game guides for free to the general public, in a relatively clean format devoid of intrusive advertising, and without any major bias. The idea was that these guides would help launch Nvidia's new GeForce.com website, aimed at PC gamers.
The person I was dealing with at Nvidia was a decent guy, and after a couple of phone conversations and some emails, we'd hammered out what I thought was a good deal. I would do basic game guides within around a week after a game's release, they would be edited with minimal changes, and we both agreed that we were to steer clear of overt advertising for Nvidia within the guides. The guides would be published for free on GeForce.com for everyone to access, not just Nvidia owners.
The best part was that I was working on a freelance basis, ensuring my independence. I wasn't an employee of Nvidia, I didn't sign any contracts such as a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA), or sign up as a formal contractor. Nvidia tried a couple of times to get me to sign, but I politely declined in each instance. The process was that Nvidia would commission a guide from me by first asking me if I was interested in doing a guide for an upcoming game. I could accept or decline as I wished. If I agreed, the understanding was that the guide was to be published on GeForce.com in the manner we had previously discussed, and Nvidia would have reasonable editing rights, and ownership of the content once it was finalized and I was paid for it. It was a fairly loose arrangement, more of a gentleman's agreement than anything else. This suited me just fine, as it gave me the freedom to reject guides for games I knew would not be popular or tweakable, or which I would have no interest in, and I would also maintain control over the content right up until final sign-off. If I didn't like the final result, I could refuse payment and veto publication of it.
I'll be honest and say that for most of the first year I was working with Nvidia, I was a pain in the backside to work with. The guys at Nvidia have my sympathy for having to deal with my attitude in that initial period. Having been my own boss for over 6 years at that point, with only a brief 6 month stint when I wrote a monthly column for the Games for Windows print magazine, I found it hard to compromise or change my writing style and layout. I was constantly wary about the guides being commercialized or biased towards Nvidia users, I was not happy with any hint of dumbing them down in any way, and I wasn't really being a team player.
Over time, as trust developed, we eventually got things to run much more smoothly. I started to see that GeForce.com was turning out to be more than just a cheap marketing gimmick for Nvidia, and the staff there also got a better idea of how and why I did things a certain way. We could therefore quickly arrive at acceptable compromises whenever we had a disagreement. To their credit, Nvidia really didn't push me to bias my guides towards their products. At least 95% of the content in every guide was completely applicable to, and useful for, owners of AMD graphics cards as well. Only the performance graphs, which used data provided by Nvidia's test labs and were obviously done on Nvidia GPUs, as well as instructions for things like advanced anti-aliasing methods, were Nvidia-specific. I think that's an excellent outcome for a sponsored guide.
So all was going reasonably well, and I was finally earning some money for writing guides, but still putting out what I thought was fairly good quality content - which was improving over time I might add - free of charge to the end user in a nice clean format.
Interlude 2: The Nervous Games Industry
Earlier on, I mentioned my disbelief regarding just how much game developers and/or publishers seem to go out of their way to make tweaking difficult, and their lack of support for tweak guides. You might have just thought it was an excuse for me to have a bit of a grumble, or indulge in self-pity, but there was actually a point to that reference, and a great deal of relevance to how this story unfolds from a tale of everyone holding hands and skipping merrily down the street, to one of inevitable doom.
On the surface, it's indeed incredibly confusing why a game developer, or the publisher, or both, would resent a relatively accurate tweak guide. Sure, I can understand it if they oppose some of the messy hack jobs out there that provide all sorts of misinformation and harmful nonsense. But when a game is released with virtually no documentation on any of its settings, a good tweak guide not only helps to reduce tech support costs, it provides a greater level of satisfaction to players who would otherwise struggle to get the game running properly. Seems like a win-win to me.
When you dig deeper into the mindset of the games industry, you start to understand why they seem incredibly nervous at taking any sort of risk with their products: tens of millions of dollars in investments are at stake in each and every major game. It brings to mind what Jean Seberg said about the movie industry: "It's called show business, not show art". In other words, games developers and games publishers don't spend tens, or in some cases, hundreds, of millions of dollars on putting out a game just to amuse you, or to make a creative statement. Seems obvious doesn't it, but it's a fact most of us tend to forget. The Call of Duty series for example has become the biggest entertainment franchise in the world, with the latest Call of Duty: Black Ops II netting $500m in sales within the first 24 hours. Gaming has become a very serious mainstream business, and there are plenty of risks the industry faces that can have multi-million dollar consequences.
So as a result, games developers, moreso publishers - who are the ones actually coughing up the dough for games development - are incredibly nervous about public perception. They are wary of every single word uttered about their game, by anyone, anywhere, especially around the launch period. This is particularly true for game reviews, and any game guides, that delve too deeply into the game, potentially pointing out any technical issues or other aspects that could be perceived negatively by the public, and thus affect sales.