Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Interview with Andym4n

Recently I wrote about Culdcept Saga, the youngest cult hit out on a console. I'm posting the full transcript of the chat I had with Andym4n, a player who is almost single-handedly trying to preserve its community.

Andym4n: you here?

me: Yes, yessir, I am

Andym4n: how goes it?

me: pretty well
thanks for taking the time to chat with me

Andym4n: np

me: So, I write a column
and it's about game communities
I used to play CS, esp. when I first got it
And for various reasons, I dropped it, but I remembered that there was a website where everyone gathered
and that's where I saw you, though I also saw you at the official xbox forum too

Andym4n: yeah, I post on all of em heh
for CS anyway

me: I take it you still play then?

Andym4n: yeah, often

me: like, one match per day?

Andym4n: I'd say closer to 5 a week... I don't get to play during the week as much as I'd like

me: still, you know what you're talking about : )
Can you even get a match without asking a friend?
Is it pretty much impossible to random?

Andym4n: there's usually a match or 2 available. of course, I'm usually available right in prime time, so I bet it would be very difficult earlier in the day.
it's mainly due to the game matches being 2+ hours in length

me: don't they ever go 1-2?

Andym4n: the more people in matches, the fewer in the lobby

me: ah
You have a long friend's list, so you'd know
I guess I thought hardly anyone still played it

Andym4n: you can make shorter matches, but most folks like a decent-length game
I don't mind the lobby wait, I usually edit books while I'm waiting
CS has a thriving online community, you'd just never know it by the GameFAQs, Xbox.com, or Proboards forums... the culdceptsaga.com forum is where all the activity is.

me: You still there?
(no rush, mind you)

Andym4n: yes

me: So, let's say there are two types of people
one knows about the best forum, the one where the admin is AWOL
the other one has no idea that that forum exists and just tries to use LIVE
Do you think there'd be a difference between these two?

Andym4n: in terms of...?

me: How well they'd be able to play...what kind of experience they'd have
(or lack thereof)

Andym4n: I'd say anyone who frequents a forum is going to have an advantage
as far as how much fun each would have, the edge would probably go to forum guy there as well, as you connect with more people

me: I agree--forums generally enhance any game community

Andym4n: and as you probably know, playing against friends online is generally much more fun than playing strangers

me: (aye); The admin is AWOL; what would happen if that forum suddenly disappeared, do you think?

Andym4n: I'd have to speed up my plan lol
I'm in the process of creating the go-to Culdcept site
www.culdceptcentral.com if you're curious

me: oh-ho, I didn't know about this; I picked the right guy to talk to

Andym4n: a few of us at culdceptsaga.com offered our services as co-admins/moderators
the admin chose three of us, but it's been a month since he last e-mailed and we have no admin access as yet
given that knowledge, I decided I'd go ahead and create a reference site for Culdcept stuff (which seemed a good idea, with a DS version coming in the not-so-distant future)
I have a feeling culdceptsaga.com might just vanish someday here

me: That's the feeling I got too, and I've barely been there, heh
you can't even message each other on there

Andym4n: yeah

me: that's why I had to use LIVE

Andym4n: if I did implement a forum on my site, it'd probably be different than the FireBoard one he uses
a little more robust
nothing against the admin there, mind you... I think he must travel a lot for work

me: or he just gave up, or he lost Internet access, or something bad happened to him, etc.
Hmm...did you tell people at the first site that you are making a new one?

Andym4n: some folks there know
I haven't announced it publicly yet
trying to resolve a few minor issues with it first

me: tick tock, eh?
Oh, I know you probably don't know this, but do you happen to know if this game is still in print? I know you can get it on Ebay or maybe a huge Internet retailer, but they're not making more or selling more to hard retailers any more, are they?

Andym4n: it's still in print as far as I know, but I do know it didn't have nearly as wide a distribution as some games

me: where I got mine, they had 2 copies
and that was the day of or after it came out

Andym4n: yeah, stores tend to get only enough to cover perceived demand
I ran a GameStop up until January, some games we'd get only 1 of (or none)

me: Okay, last questions: what do you think the state of the CS community is right now and where do you think it is headed?

Andym4n: hard to build a big fan base when few copies are out there :/

me: haha

Andym4n: I think its fan base is growing slowly but surely
the forum at cs.com is steadily growing more active, and I think new people are trying the demo and liking it
the community is definitely growing tighter
we did an informal league that went over well, and nearly double the players have signed on for season 2

me: I was wondering how that league went

Andym4n: I just hope cs.com lives long enough to get my site fairly well known, or people will scatter if it goes down

me: So the people who are in it and the number of people..that status won't change much, but there's some stability there, you're saying?

Andym4n: yes, definitely
it's one of those games where if you play it, you want to play it mroe

me: Very consuming
It seems you can't casually enjoy it

Andym4n: and the more you play it, the more you realize that the possibilities are endless
with each match, loss or win, you see ways you can change/improve your book and gameplan
oh you can, it just sort of infects you heh
it looks like a casual game, but it's much deeper
I will say this
it has by far the friendliest online community of any game I've ever played

me: really?
maybe that's from change
I played a game with a couple of not-so-friendly fellows once

Andym4n: there's always a few bad apples online in every game
the nice thing about CS is that they usually shape up or stop playing

me: fair enough
seems like there is a lot more opportunity to chat, too

Andym4n: if they stir up trouble on the forum, there are 10 others there to say "hey man, that's not cool"

me: I played one where the guys talked non-stop

Andym4n: definitely

me: but they were actually chatting, not just singing or talking shit

Andym4n: I talk very little when I play, but it's usually because my daughter's in bed in the next room when I play heh
it's intelligent fun conversation
you know why, right?
in CS, if you talk smack, your opponents stop focusing on beating each other and gang up on you

me: haha
Aren't there 1 v 1s, though?

Andym4n: yes

me: not as popular, though?

Andym4n: people tend not to talk smack in a 1v1
something about it being more personal, I guess
1v1s are probably more prevalent than multi-player matches
due to the small number of people in the lobby

me: Well hmm, I think you answered all my questions
If there's anything you think I should know that we didn't get around to, feel free to email me
this column will give positive exposure to the game and community
I don't know when it will be up, but when it is I'll let you know

Andym4n: sounds good :)

me: Thanks again, sir

Andym4n: happy to, thanks for the chat

Monday, July 28, 2008

GEEX: Verdict from SLC's least qualified

Salt Lake City is a strange duck in the gaming world (it's a strange duck in any world, but let's stay on topic). I keep hearing the stat that in Utah, there are more gaming consoles per household. It has more game developers than you'd think, and hardly anyone, not even the people who live there, know it.

It also has an annual LAN sponsored by a local hosting company that is held at the University of Utah. It's all kind of underground here. So I was surprised when a show called GEEX, the Gaming and Electronics Expo, was announced. Even more strange was that it was held over E3.

Like anything in Utah, it was pretty tame. It lasted 3 days, all the Youtube videos revealed little about the show and there were suspicions that it would be...well, lame. Predicably, the news shorts and dry newspaper articles were nothing more than the usual "Hey, this thing is going on! Did you know?" type of pieces. I'm not sure which is more amusing to me: the article or the certifiably Utahn comments.

I didn't go. My gamer conscience told me I should, and I didn't, mainly because I didn't really want to spend little of the money we had on it. And anyway, I thought it would be little more than a glorified vendor display. This thing was half tournament and half convention full of speakers and vendors, a little hodgepodge. The topics seemed dry and some of the speakers (one guy was from Neumont University) were a little lacking.

One surprise was how much money was involved in the tournaments. A total of about 20 grand is a lot for Utah.

However, there are three promising signs and reasons I will go next year. First, a ton of people went, probably because of the tournament. Second, there are frequent rumors that some people snubbed it and wished they hadn't (oh the guilt I feel!). Lastly, it's coming back in less than a year.

Folks, this thing ended less than a week ago and they've already taken the old page down and put up the announcement for the next. The next time I've got to go.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The mega interview journey, part 4: Leigh

My wife and I went on a disaster of a vacation for over a week after I had talked to Kieron. My wife had a work party thing at the worst theme park of all time on the day of our return. I originally had thought I could interview Leigh inside of this park, but decided that no, I really couldn't, even if background noise was minimized. We went home and I rushed inside and called Leigh immediately because a car wreck on I-15 had made late (five minutes) to calling her.

Just as with the other New Yorker I interviewed, I talked to Leigh on Friday as the weekend dawned. I think I looked forward to talking to her more than anyone else because her blog was the first or second one I discovered and I had really based my own doctrine, if you will, on the content and style of what is written there and at the Aberrant Gamer. She stressed that we not say anything about Kotaku, and I stressed that SVGL was the thing I wanted to know about.

Instead of immediately asking about the whole label or community thing, I simply asked why she had SVGL. Kotaku must take a heavy toll--that's a lot of writing and a lot of work and yet she still writes on her personal, non-ad-supplemented blog.

Why did she start it?

"I wasn't really sure what I wanted to say yet, so it was simply a repository for my thoughts and a place to practice my voice," she told me.

"Well, don't you get a hell of a lot of practice now without it? There must be another reason, a reason you still keep it."

"It's still important for me to be able to say things I want when there is nowhere to publish them," she told me. "I mean, it'd be a misconception to say that we are getting paid for our opinions all day and write thoughtful stuff--that's not what our jobs are." She did stress that thoughtfulness and opinions are still part of journalism as a whole; it's just that "think-pieces and editorials" are not the bulk of what she is getting paid to do.

Then I shifted, and asked if there's a commonality, a common, unacknowledged sort of creed all those blogs kept. "Game journalists are constantly having an identity crisis," she told me. "Fans have so few places to go," she told me. "Lots of people don't know about this kind of discussion, and many still don't. If more people knew this discussion was taking place I think we'd have more people who are interested."

"I didn't even know about this kind of discussion myself," I said. "I'd have gotten into a long time ago had I known about it. Gamasutra and GameSetWatch introduced me to it and from there I found the Aberrant Gamer and from there I found your blog and eventually decided to write this piece. Would you say there is a name for this? What do you all do?"

Unlike the last two people I talked to, there was no caution or hesitance with Leigh, at least not on this question. I'd never seen it written anywhere, but she'd obviously been thinking about it longer than I had. "Oh, I'd call it game criticism," she said.

Game criticism? Well then! "It's kind of like the difference between simply being a film review or a critical commentary on film. We have both of those in film, we see people being reviewers or truly being critics. We have plenty of game reviews--now we have critical game commentary."

"Only there isn't very much of it," I complained. "Why does it have to mostly be in little corners, blogs, all these writers' side-projects that provide no money?"

"Well, I don't think there's any game that's really justified it yet," she explained. What about Metal Gear Solid 4? Or others? Plenty of talk about that on SVGL "Well, I mean, to the world, to everyone else. I think we kind of consider ourselves ambassadors, really." I had felt that way before even meeting her. Fans of games, she told me, are "very insular" and "not open to change."

"We only discuss games in context of other games, not other life experiences. I recently wrote about a friend of mine who had a friend that died in Iraq. He played Call of Duty 4 to learn about it and deal with it. That's how someone is really playing it and viewing it. But we don't see much room for that kind of conversation."

"It's not going to get bigger until there's a mainstream need," she said.

"At least it's changing," I said. "SVGL has been around a while."

She laughed. "You think so? Do you know how long it's been around?"

"Uh..about a year, isn't it?"

"Well yeah. But why is it considered a veteran blog? It's only a year! And we're not ending up satisfied, are we?"

How long will it take, I asked? What's going to happen?

"Perhaps in 5-10 years it will change as people see that video games have cultural relevance."

"Really?" I said, thinking of N'gai's "young fogeys."

"I keep [doing SVGL] because I have hope. I have to. And anyway, the responses I get on it mean a lot to me."

She then launched into rapid fire comments--she just got done telling me she's not a veteran, but for all the opinion, experience, and stress in her voice, I certainly wasn't feeling like I was talking to someone who isn't a veteran. She started talking about burnout and how in all parts of the game industry, including games journalism, one is exhausted quickly. "One frustrating thing is games journalists have to play a lot of crap for their jobs, and so they write about crap, and the game-makers never wanted to make crap in the first place and are now stressed to learn that their games are crap in our eyes; crap begets crap and misery begets misery." Sometimes, I thought, crap begets crappy writing. I thought she thought so too.

"I think part of it, too, is that people don't realize games are still stuck in the 'toy' mindset," I said. "They're still toys in the eye of the public, and we can safely always think that--there are entire companies who make games as toys. I have a friend who develops mostly Disney IP. I hadn't seen him in a while and asked him 'So, what have you been making?' 'Well, we just finished out last project,' he said, and started tensing up. I didn't feel he needed to tense because I really liked him, so I pushed. 'Well, what was it'? 'Don't laugh,' he said--"

"Oh, what was it, Hannah Montana?" Leigh interrupted.

"Haha! Yes! Exactly!"

"SHUT UP!" She's having more fun and learning that we see things similarly; she's starting to sound more like herself and less like someone who is forcing herself (out of necessary habit, I'm sure) to sound androgynous. Oh! That reminds me...

"Yeah, it was crazy," I explained. "He just got so defensive before he even told me, but I explained I understood. He then let himself get excited and proud about what he'd done."

I continued, "Oh! Before I forget, speaking of toys...I have a question that I'm going to ask you and I know you hate being asked questions because of this--"

"Is it about being a woman?" she said.

"Ah...yeah. But wait! It's really a question that you are best qualified to answer, because the question is about women in general. Um, okay. So N'Gai and you and I'm sure many others think the age factor is part of why gaming has the status it does. However, I was thinking that the gender gap is part of it, too. You can't deny there is a gender gap, especially in the industry's workers..."

"Nope, I never have denied that or said anything to that effect," she said.

"Right. Well, I was thinking part of it is because women just consider them toys. Only like, scary ones. Women may groan when they learn that someone who is dating them really loves sports, but at least they know what that entails. But guys who love games, not so much. So I have a theory, but I'd really like to talk to someone qualified, as no one cares what a man thinks."

"Makes sense," she said.

"Okay, so...why do women hate games? I've even seen them denounce them in public and in journals and newspapers and...well, everywhere."

"Well, I'm not entirely sure, since I don't agree with them."


"But you know, I've certainly had girl friends, and I've heard lots of them talk about them. They don't seem to bother to learn more about games because they consider them unfeminine and they worry about it because it's messing up their men."

"Messing up their men?"

"Yup. Definitely. And when I meet new women, the majority are put off by what I do for work. It makes many people, especially women, uncomfortable; they don't find it interesting. Kills conversations. I mean, once people get to know me, it doesn't bother them so much, but all the time when I'm meeting new people...I have hard time even finding people who accept that what I do is a career."

"They don't even accept your job?" I say.




So the story goes. I talked to her for a while and found her to be one of the most interesting people I'd met online or off, games journo or no. A charismatic woman who can carry her charisma online and off, is interested in games and sex in games, and has strong opinions while remaining civil and (here's the hard part) able to keep the conversation interesting if anyone disagrees. Yet, all that by itself won't net Leigh a legion of adoring male fans (the only kind available), and she knows it. Game enthusiasts are harsh critics and demanding of the other parts of life, too. No, she has to write well, too, and write she does, in spades. Thank goodness for that, because, perhaps unlike most other writers, she's aware that as a woman, she is a needed voice when the discourse between "gamer" and "fogey" emerges.

Because of the vacation, my wife and I take out my dad for Father's day that evening. "Dad," I say to him, because he's long been interested in technology and the Internet, "what would it take for women to be interested in video games, or a specific video game?"

Someone linked a video on a Game Journos discussion today. I didn't know something could be so funny and depressing at the same time.

The only thing I know that I should do is simply insist on writing only for paying outlets, but that's shrinking, especially in game coverage.

Are we going back to a dark age of writing that is similar to the 17th and 18th centuries, where the demand for and quality of writing is poor and market and governmentconditions do little to provide pay to the few writers who do otherwise?

It seems people accept poor writing anywhere these days: business, advertising, magazines, books, and especially the Internet. Crappy crap out there. I remember reading a certain well-viewed game writer's stuff and thinking "man, his writing really is shitty and I have no reason to be discouraged. I can write better than that." So I simply assumed I should be published, since that guy is. And I then I got a few assignments.

But man, there are very few to dole out, especially in games. Oh so few.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Why I don't like E3

1. For all the reasons everyone else doesn't like it. It's declining in quality, not serving the desires of consumers and press, etc.
2. It means that anything I'm doing is delayed or put on hold for more than a week, like some holiday season that is more European or Indian in style than American.

I guess I'm mostly upset that I didn't realize number 2 and prepare accordingly, so I'm irritated about it. An article I anticipate writing for a certain publication would be done by now, but someone in a different state simply doesn't have enough time to grant me a pass into a building in Utah that would give me material to write 1,000 words. I really need that article on my resume so I can be more persuasive when I pitch. Also, I applied at a couple of places that really need writers but they don't have time yet.

Don't get me wrong: if I were to have my ticket paid to California so I could cover it, I'd be glad to go, but that would mainly be because I'd get to meet up with certain people and because it would mean I've reached a certain point of success, not because "OMG new stuff I'd have heard about anyway".

Monday, July 14, 2008

Oops, I've been meaning to get around to playing that

Since a point in 2007 there is one encouraging thing I've seen about games, and that is their status as an object of consumption.

In the industrial world, we have more food and more leisure time than ever before. Unlike other types of countries, industrialists spend their time consuming and evaluating their choices as consumers, and discussing those choices with friends.

"Did you try the new sushi place?" "Yes, it was way better than I thought it would be. Make sure you get the ninja wasabi harroken."

"Go see that action movie?" "Yeah, it sucked. He's getting old and should move on. The stunts were bad."

"Okay, I'll read that, but there are ten other books in the queue."

Books, movies, TV, all media: we treat them like a diet. Instead of stomachs, we have mental space and time. We only have room for so much, and we only wish to consume the best. This reveals much about our society and culture, but this is a blog about games, so I leave you to your own conclusions about consumption and markets in your industrial country.

The thing that I am happy about is that games are becoming part of the "media diet". The fact that media are treated like a diet saddens me, but the fact that games have gained respect from it does not.

I purchased Halo 3 and GTA IV, both games that I'm not terribly interested in, because of this rhetoric. I felt that even though I didn't like Halo 3, I felt it was my duty as a gamer who wants to get back into the games world to purchase it. I bought it the day it came out and beat it on heroic within a couple of weeks.

I had these thoughts resurrected when a good friend of mine lent me his copy of the Orange Box for the 360. He texted me to ask if I'd beaten Portal yet, and the fact I haven't played Portal yet is causing me guilt; it's something I've been meaning to do for months. My wife keeps forgetting that I wanted her to at least watch the beginning, and so tonight she will. She loved seeing Bioshock, and considering that my brother has been comparing my wife to GLaDOS, (squeaky, high-pitched voice that knows much more than it lets on), I really wanted us to see it together.

Tonight we will, and this week a burden will be relieved. I've been reminded and gladdened that games are now considered things we can't miss!

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The mega interview journey, part 3: Kieron

My second interview was with a writer from the blog RockPaperShotgun, a place that covers my favorite games format, the PC. Not knowing how to approach, I thought, “Well, they’re four game journalists and they’re all British.” So I tried my best to do what an intelligent British gamer would: I mailed all four of them with the subject “I request a sacrifice”. One of them replied in part with

"Hi Mr Walbridge

You have prompted a shadowy gathering of the RPS hive mind. I step forth, and give the answer. Imagine this in a voice that's very deep, and flames are spouting from my nostrils.

Anyway - pleasure to meet you. Sorry that Carless has talked you into doing work for his evil GSW. I fear and shun him."

That’s how I met Kieron Gillen. I chose to talk to him over talking to all four of the RPS writers because I'm not sure how to talk to four people at once at this point, and I'm still collecting my thoughts. Good thing I chose that way.

Like N'Gai, his being early in line set the tone for the rest of my interviewing. His being in the UK forced me to use Skype, a thing I'm grateful for. I also had some slight difficulty understanding him. The guy talks a mile a minute and he talks with excitement, enthusiasm, and anxiety. More than once he said "Oh yeah, your question," then answered the question. He seems comfortable speaking to me but also seems to be exerting a lot of effort in not jumping to conclusions about anything. The only thing he's actually conclusive about is RPS; he owns part of it, he feels he can represent it. But anything else? No. Perhaps it's a British thing, or perhaps it's because he's dealt with some harsh, unfair criticism.

“Why’d you make RockPaperShotgun when the four of you are writing at plenty of publications who pay you in English money?” I said. “It’s about the PC only. You surely aren’t writing only about consoles, are you? You’re making enough money, aren’t you?”

Yes, he tells me, they write about PCs. But some PC stuff needs more coverage. “Every few days we’ll discover something that people don’t usually see, and it’s a shame if it’s not exposed,” he explained. "I've been a games journalist for a decade at least. 13 years. RPS is an outlet for our PC stuff because we're not seeing people write about the format the way we want to."

“And how do you want it done?” I pried.

"You gotta understand—the editors I work for do give me a long leash. I just…I'd be lying if I were to say it doesn't bring me pleasure to have the cuffs off."

Unregulated? “It’s just part time. Games journalism doesn’t tend to emphasize the PC. But I do. So commercially and intellectually, making and working on RPS makes the most sense because it’s not something anyone else does. It’s especially something that American readers don’t see in approach in tone.”

And the other blogs? Do they get a label for style or purpose? And I don’t remember what he said, not only because he’s a fast talker with a foreign accent, but because he soon jerked me out of my chair: “Well, I wrote this thing called ‘The New Games Journalism’”…

I had read it a long time ago and hadn't gotten around to looking at it again. There are four writers on RPS and the one that I get just happens to be the guy I didn't know wrote "New Games Journalism." Oops. There already was a guy who loosely did what I'm doing right now in this very interview! He had made an attempt at clarifying the changes that occurred. Could I learn from it? I gently encouraged him to talk about it. I was awe-struck here was Mr. "I've been writing for 13 years, have my own successful space and am well-read and liked by my peers" feeling frustrated; he sounded like a man who felt that fate had dealt him failure and there was nothing he could do about it. I was digging up skeletons, picking at old wounds, resurrecting old fights, and he let me proceed. I'm not sure why he was so willing to talk about it, other than the fact we got along. He took a deep breath beforehand, knowing that anything he said about "New Games Journalism" to me was going to be added to the long-buried canon on it.

“The whole thing was not something I foresaw,” he said, exasperated. “It was more of a letter, really. I was speaking to my peers, not the readers, and so it ended up seeming condescending to some people. Most people thought it said ‘no reviews.’ People thought I was trying to change games journalism—I was simply trying to add to it.”

He also gave me an ultimate summary: “It helped precipitate the debate about what games journalism could or should be. It seems there were more pieces written about it than in the style of it. Some people got inspiration from it. I’ve had enough people tell me that to make me think it reached enough people and some of the people it was intended for.”

So no, (duh), he didn’t have a name or label for me; he was kind enough to concede hmm, yes, look at those similarities! But no more. "I didn't think it would get passed around so much. I had no idea so many people would read this thing and take it so seriously." We then calmed down--he talked to me more about games journalism as a whole and I begged him to tell me more about what I should do to succeed, and he obliges me.

I ask him if many people get to talk about games in this kind of way, or if people are feeling lonely in the land of games writing. "Actually, I've always had someone to talk to about games," he tells me. "But I know that for many others, that's not the way it is."

He's got plenty of friends and has no label for me, and I don't blame him. Combined with N'Gai, I have now had two different kinds of warnings that I'm barking up the wrong tree.

I'm grateful he still mentioned my article here on RPS. The tagline? "Michael Walbridge talks to assorted games writers trying to find a scene name. I just tell him the one he shouldn’t call it. For God’s sake, not that."

Thursday, July 03, 2008

The mega interview journey, part 2: N'Gai

N'gai was the first writer I interviewed, but not the first person I contacted. On the first day I started asking, which was June 6th, N'gai responds with "Can you do a phone interview at 4pm EST...i.e. in 20 minutes?"


I realize that it's Friday. He's a busy man, he happened to be in his office, and he has about an hour left before his work week, if it has any semblance of normal standards, is over. In short, I get lucky, and I also don't have my questions because I assumed that I'd have the weekend to write them. Guess not.

So I don't have a way of recording phone calls. I still wonder how a good way to do this would be--not everyone will agree to Skype. They may have better things to do, and they may not be interested in using a headset.

I called him in what seemed an instant later--the last time I felt like this was when I called up a girl to go on a date, a feeling I thought would never resurface in my lifetime. Who the hell do I think I am? I could talk to some of these other people, sure, but an editor at Newsweek? As my very first interview that I'm doing in video games land? When I just have one commentless little first article on a column at GameSetWatch?

"Hi," I say. My first question is incredibly stupid, yet I don't realize how laughably bad it is until weeks later; I'm still embarrassed every time I remember. "So uh, how do you pronounce your name?"

"Guy," he says. Stupid Sprint service blind spot in my stupid apartment! "Excuse me, what?" I say politely.

"Guy," I hear again.

Shit. Well, I'd better get on with it--I can find out how to pronounce it from someone else. I can do that thing where I never use his name in the conversation, and he'll never know. He's an extremely polite fellow; in what little time I had for imagination I thought that he would sound like a New Yorker, with all the speed that implies that every word being said is worth money; and your money, too, so let's get this thing the hell over with.

But that's not what he sounds like--he sounds like he could be from the Midwest, or maybe California (he went to Stanford, I learn); I don't know where he's from, but he sounds very relaxed, and this relaxes me, despite what happens next.

“What is Level Up for, exactly? Why do you write?”

He was gentle with me. “Well, I’m curious to know what you think it’s for.” He sounded almost like a preacher who was trying to convert me--I'm not really sure where he's going with this. My interview skills are already being tested; I have to learn to talk with this Gai, not just interview him. Thankfully, I'm good at talking and bullshitting, or at least think I am, so I answer with some semblance of confidence.

“Uh…I would guess it’s a blog to discuss games and the game industry from different perspectives,” I gulped. Something like that--non-committal and without possibly conflicting with whatever he would surprise me with. Yeah, that'll work.

“Sure,” he said. “The short answer for why I made it is: to write about what interests me.” I was disappointed with this answer at first, but he elaborated: “I write about the art and craft of games. I’m aiming to writing intelligently about the games business with the knowledge and feel that what happens at game companies is affecting what we get to play.” He also spoke of trying to add more variety to his blog, “mixing in some essays about people, problems, trends, and a little bit of culture and art.”

Looking for a story, I said “What about these other blogs I’ve mentioned? Is there a common purpose or mission or method? Can the writing you’re all doing be labeled?” He mentions something about indie film and New Black Cinema and I have no idea what he's talking about, because I know don't know about those things.

I had to remember that more than almost any of these other writers with a heavy Internet presence, N’Gai has traditional, “regular” experience, and that hit home very hard by the time I was done. “It’s a lofty ambition to change coverage of games,” he told me. “I don’t think my writing could affect that. I’m just trying to fill it with interest.”

Oh! I get it. He's a journalist, after the old sort. He mentions one of the few things I already know--he has been writing since 1995. Level Up is an extension, a piece of his vast and superior multifaceted career (my words, not his). I remember something Leigh Alexander said to him on her own blog: that she views his position as the ideal place for her to end up, but that she doesn't begrudge him--he's earned it.

I take it in that direction, asking about coverage in the mainstream press. I treat him like a regular journalist and he gives me some juicy tidbits about journalism as a whole.

"Printed publications are shrinking and in the middle of layoffs, so the first area to go is the entertainment and arts section. And in there is video games. How high a priority are they going to place them? It's harder to convince editors that games merit coverage."

Awesome, and simple, and something I could have figured it if I'd thought about--game coverage struggles in the mainstream publications because (duh) mainstream publications as a whole are struggling. "We should be thankful we've got what we have," I think.

I still press the issue: why are games not desirable to be covered? What problems are there with game writing? He had said the traditional models are broken, after all.

Continuing with the issue of general difficulties in the publishing industry: "Less space contributes to reductivism; much space is used to compare games to other media. But it doesn't reveal enough. What we also usually see is a game's plot summary, what things the player can do, and how similar it is to other games."

There are exceptions; he dishes to me about some other publications and pieces and tells me what he likes and dislikes about them, and he talks to me about the state of the industry; as a professional he tells me it's all technically on the record; I know that he'd probably rather not see a quote about him talking about some other publication the next day, so I simply convey I'm interested in it but not for the sake of my article. This makes the interview extend to about 35 minutes.

Toward the end, and knowing he will be best qualified to answer, I introduce a new topic: "Do you think this is generational? Like, it's simply because most editors are baby boomers?"

Again, he gives me an opinion that is the most realistic and perhaps most depressing and encouraging at the same time. He says something different from what most of the other people I interview say.

"Sure, my editors are mainly boomers, so they have a harder time understanding. But it's my job to write well." He adds, "I have editors who indulge me--they did on GTA IV and MGS 4." I pause, distracted by the uninteresting fact that these games use different symbols for four.

Oh, right. But "no"?! Games aren't generally more accepted, played, talked and thought about by people between the ages of 10 and 40 compared to people between the ages of 40 and 70? Why? Why? "I agree. There's a lot of bad writing about games out there, but still, don't you think that some good writing about games is rejected due to simple differences?"

"Time won't fix it," he warns me. "There are editors you could call 'young fogeys' who don't know games. If they don't know, they don't know. It's my job as a writer to make it interesting."

I think on this. For the Xth time, he enunciates slowly and pauses so I can write. He gets that I'm not using a recorder, even if I probably should. He's a professional, he understands the older style of journalism I'm trying to do that he used to. Young fogeys? I'd have to agree, especially if that young fogey is a woman. I remind myself to ask the only woman I'm interviewing and indeed, the only other one who at this point has confirmed that she will interview, about what she thinks about the other divide. And I think for the Zth time: this guy is a professional, and definitely knows what he's talking about.

I gush as I thank him. He reminds me (okay, now he's definitely giving advice on how to write this) not to let his opinion color the whole thing as I write it, but it's too late. I've already had some conceptions shattered and I can't help but take a new approach when I talk to Kieron Gillen 5 days later. Any questions about games journalism are questions about journalism as a whole.

The original email I sent to N'Gai, with my wide eyes beaming, reflects one thing only: how I felt at the time I started this piece. By the time I was done, this was not the approach I'd taken when interviewing everyone else, even though I sent similar emails to everyone else.

"I write one of the columns at GameSetWatch. I'd like to do a piece on "intellectual" gaming websites and I'm contacting some of the people who make them. I was wondering if we could chat. If you are exceedingly busy, I'd be happy to just send a few questions along and get a few pat answers. If you're willing to talk, I'm open to Ventrilo, phone, Aim/Xfire, Gmail chat, email, etc.

Example question: what you would even call Brainy Gamer, SVGL, Level Up, and similar blogs? Do they merit a classification?

Let me know if/when/how you are available. It's not an extended interview--I'm going to talk to as many as I can and get some material from a variety of places, so it won't be putting you or Level Up on the spot. The format is casual/newsy with quotes from different figures and places.

Thank you,
Michael Walbridge"

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The mega interview journey, part 1: how I got to writing the damned thing

Prior to setting up the Game Anthropologist, I’d only been paid money for one piece of games writing. I applied to write at GameSetWatch because I like the kind of writing done there. As I mentioned earlier, two of the first columns I read and loved are Chris Dahlen’s Save the Robot and Leigh Alexander’s now retired the Aberrant Gamer. I also mentioned that I discovered a sort of blog chain.

Despite their similarities, there seemed to be no formal recognition or label of the type of discourse they were engaged in, something I now think is mainly the result of two things: the spectacle over New Games Journalism, and the fact that it is mostly private and personal stuff with varying agendas and no money or official governing body involved; in short, they were blogs, and no one considers a group of blogs a community. Instead of only making my own observations, I realized they knew better than I did and that I should get their opinions.

The main reason I interviewed 7 people is because the column is about communities, and because I wanted to make sure I wasn't getting the opinion of someone in the minority. For however intelligent all these writers are, I had no way of knowing for sure what they agreed on. They'd have surely been pissed had I described all of them, labeled them, and said what they thought and what they disagreed and agreed on without talking to them. So I absolutely had to interview a number of them if I were to represent a group of people. I did talk to some people who said things no one else said and said things that basically no one else thinks (that I know of). For example, Leigh said "game criticism" with a hell of a lot of confidence; would the interview have gone well if I kept asking "Gee, is that what everyone else thinks?" Wouldn't have worked. And I did ask that question in the basic sense, but only one or two times, and only about the broad focus of the article and the basic questions I had regarding why these spaces existed, what they were for, what similarities they bear, if their methods warranted labeling, and if they were communities and not just casual publishing space. To ask it about every single response would not be an effective interviewing technique.

I had some criteria for the all the people I interviewed which is simple and self-evident: they had to 1. have a personal blog space of some sort which is separate from their official title, they 2. had to be frequently linked and part of the network I'd found, they 3. had to write about games in this different style I yet had no name for and 4. had to be successful in writing about games in some other successful venue or venues.

There were exceptions, but only minor ones. N'Gai's space isn't strictly his, it's Newsweek's; still, he runs the thing and it was his idea to even set it up. He can definitely count. Shawn Elliott is not someone I'd have thought to ask, but his podcasts are legendary, he thinks differently, and N'Gai said he may be interested--with N'Gai's recommendation, talking to Shawn was too good an opportunity to pass up. He also has a blog on 1Up, which gives him a space that is somewhat similar to N'Gai's. Michael Abbott isn't a game journalist, but he definitely fits in with the rest of them on conversation--and technically, he does get paid to write about games as he's doing Brainy Gamer as part of his sabbatical (he will do a presentation on it to his Wabash College colleagues this fall, as I understand); and anyway, if he's teaching a class on it, he's definitely a professional who is talking and writing about games and getting paid for it. And anyway, having some variety and slightly outside perspective helps when it's coming from someone who writes at a very successful, very mainstream publication, someone who resides at and has lots of experience at a traditional games outlet, and someone who is in academia.

The very first person I talked to was N'Gai.