Crowdfunding can be used for so many things. From retro reboots to multi-million dollar movies, Kickstarter, Patreon and the like give board game fans new dice to roll, singer-songwriters the chance to record their tunes, and me an awesome new magnetic belt that I can’t wait to play with.
Whenever I’ve spoken to developers about crowdfunding, they always praise the free market mentality of it all – that if a product is worth buying, people will support it. But some projects are more than a great coffee table piece or a leg-up for a group of journeyman game devs. Sometimes it’s really about the people behind the product.
Greg Miller, along with fellow ex-IGNers Tim Gettys, Nick Scarpino and Colin Moriarty built on their successful stint with the gaming juggernaut by striking out on their own, bringing their devoted audience of ‘best friends’ with them to their new home, Kinda Funny, on YouTube, Twitch and Patreon.
I chatted to Greg about the success of Kinda Funny, the games industry at large, and whether games journalism really exists.
For Miller, Kinda Funny started as a side project alongside his day (and night) job at IGN, where he produced a variety of written and video content in a multitude of roles, serving as PlayStation editor and host of video game news and talk show, Up At Noon, during his time with the company. However, after seeing the chance to set his own creative challenges on YouTube, Miller started his own channel, enlisting the help of friends to make videos in his spare time.
“I always talk about when I got Up At Noon,” says Miller. “We’d been doing the pilots, launched the show, and [IGN] said, ‘we’re sending you to VidCon’, and I asked, ‘what’s VidCon?’ And they’re like, ‘It’s a convention about Youtube’, and I was like, ‘That’s stupid, I know YouTube’.
“I went there and came back, and Colin always says that I came into the house like an apostle with the flame above my head, like I’d just learned about the Holy Spirit and wanted to preach.”
“Part of that was that I’d been searching for a creative outlet,” he goes on to say. “I’d been at IGN a long, long time. It was a great job and gave me everything, and I’ll never be able to repay them, but I’d run into this thing of it being all consuming. I’d come home and play a game for work, then right before bed something breaks on Twitter and you have to write it up. I no longer felt like I was creating anything except under the IGN name. I bought a book about how to write comic books, and that didn’t feel right for me. I wrote a children’s manuscript, it was fun, but a pain in the ass to try and get published. So I was looking for something that I could pour myself into that could be just for me. Where there was no boss, no editor, no gatekeeper. So when I went to VidCon and discovered that’s what YouTube was, we came back and did A Conversation with Colin, Oreo Oration, and that was the thing.
“I’d take days off of work at IGN to sit at my kitchen table and edit 12 episodes of A Conversation with Colin because I loved creating it, learning on the fly, and that was awesome – being able to create on that level on my own. Before you know it, it’s infectious, you want more of it.”
From there, Kinda Funny grew, and as of 5th January 2015, Miller, Moriarty, Gettys and Scarpino quit their jobs to pursue it full time.
Kinda Funny’s content is characterised by its friendliness. Its flagship GameOverGreggy show, where the crew bring topics to a table for discussion, feels like a chat with friends – and has fostered a positive and loyal community. This connection with their audience is all-important for Miller, and as Kinda Funny continues to expand its reach, the whole team are careful not to lose touch with fans.
“That’s an honest concern for us,” Miller says. “Right now, in the grand scheme of things, we’re still pretty small. We talk to our audience and call them best friends, and I can tell you all about Amy Gils, Xyger and Sean Pitts – all of these different people who’re pillars of our community. There is one half of us that wants to grow and put out videos that get 500,000 views every time we post something. When we post a video now, if we get 100,000 views, we’re like, ‘Oh my God, this is awesome’.
“We want to be super successful, but at the same time, there’s a balancing act that comes with it. Colin always says that we exchanged the reach of IGN for the intimacy of Kinda Funny. That really is the mantra here. As long as we’re able to support ourselves, do the things we want to do, live the lives we want to live and make the kind of content we want to make, there’s no reason to rock the boat. We’re talking now about sitting down and figuring out what the next year of Kinda Funny looks like: that means shows, do we want a studio? All these different things. With those choices, that’s when it becomes clear that we need more people, and to get more help we need to hire people, and to hire people we need to make more money. So how do you get all that going? We want to be successful, but we don’t want to lose the community and the relationship we have.”
“The mentor for the company is Rooster Teeth,” he adds. “They started very similarly to us, very small, very lean. They’ve been able to grow and do such amazing things without losing their sense of community. That’s what we want to be.”
Kinda Funny are in the business of opinion. Over their tenure at IGN, Miller and Moriarty built a name for themselves as the go-to guys for PlayStation news and interpretation, hosting, for a number of years, the number one PlayStation podcast in the world, Podcast Beyond.
A really hot topic at the moment is how gaming wants to categorise its industry pundits. Are they journalists? Are they bloggers? Or do new labels need to develop as the industry does?
Colin always says that we exchanged the reach of IGN for the intimacy of Kinda Funny. That really is the mantra here. As long as we’re able to support ourselves, do the things we want to do, live the lives we want to live and make the kind of content we want to make, there’s no reason to rock the boat.
“Games journalism exists,” says Miller. “I think right now, it’s that people have to sit down and define what that is. When you look at entertainment tonight, you don’t say, ‘well, this is TV journalism, or entertainment journalism’. It’s this vast stretch that’s Variety, Entertainment Tonight, TMZ, these different ranges and spectrums of content that’re happening. Games journalism, and games in general, are a much younger industry, we’re still trying to come to terms with all these things and discover: What is games journalism? What is an enthusiast press? What are entertainers?
“That’s the struggle. You see as magazines fell away and websites came up, it’s like, ‘EGM was this thing, so now IGN will be that thing’. Now, there’re these YouTube people who’re playing games and getting pay-cheques and passing off their opinions. That’s where it gets all murky. I think as we see the generation that Colin and I are a part of come into powerful roles, that’s when these decisions get made.
“When I started at IGN, I was there right as the old guard were starting to burn out. I don’t think any of them came in thinking, ‘we’re making video game journalism’. No, they were a bunch of fans making publications about what they love. That was coming at it from a completely different angle than people like Kotaku’s Jason Schreier are coming at it now, with hard-hitting investigative pieces. There’s still room for people like me or Brian Altano to come in and be goons and have fun on camera, then there are people who want to come out and tell you something – like the long-form pieces Colin used to do. Games journalism exists, yes. But I don’t think it’s as simple as, ‘I go to E3 with a press pass, so I’m a games journalist’.”
A lot of this legitimacy crisis comes from the lasting cultural perception of gaming as a pastime for children. For people who’re into games, it’s obvious, but my Auntie still looks at me blankly when I say I have to leave lunch early to, “go and talk to people who made a computer game.” Those people were KnightMayor LLC, some of who worked on Mass Effect, Jade Empire and Star Wars: The Old Republic; the latter of which cost an estimated $200-300 million to develop. As these prejudices diminish, maybe mainstream culture will feel a little bit easier calling gaming writers ‘journalists’.
“When you look at the elements of journalism,” says Miller. “It’s a checks and balance thing. I think that even with the rise of the movie critic, you look at Roger Ebert, and the way he dissected movies made people think more intellectually about the films they were seeing. That was stuff that might’ve been relegated to just a classroom where someone’s teaching film. But suddenly here’s somebody in the newspaper doing it.
“The example I always talk about where these people in Congress, who’ve lived full lives that gaming wasn’t a part of, they think back to their daughter or their cousin sitting in front of the TV playing Mario Bros. That was the last time they looked at videogames, so they don’t understand the emotional power of The Last of Us, they don’t understand what Gone Home is making you feel. As you see people like Keza MacDonald on the rise, giving out pieces talking about what games mean to them and the impact they have, and the way they can change our perception of reality, that’s hand-in-hand with games being everywhere now and no longer being just kids in the basement with acne – as soon as we accept that it’s an entertainment medium that’s going to be around for ever, and start to critique it, dissect it, analyse it, that’s when you can start to see it taken seriously on that level.”
One of a journalist’s first duties is to hold powerful institutions to account, protecting the public from the shady practises of big businesses and questionable government policy. Gaming however, is so entrenched in the culture of the internet, where free discussion is so widespread – do players need journalists to fight their battles for them?
“Games journalism exists,” says Miller. “I think right now, it’s that people have to sit down and define what that is.”
“I think that any industry that’s unchecked with no watcher there look out for the people, then you run the risk of absolute power corrupting absolutely, or something to that effect,” explains Miller. “Right now, we’re lucky enough that there are so many people out there asking questions, whether it’s on NeoGAF keeping people up to date on copyrights this or trademarks that. There’s that thing where publishers and developers understand that they can’t screw around. The reaction of the internet and the reaction of the fanbase is a real thing and so solidifying that, cauterising that, making it into one firm movement where you know if you hit site X or publication Y, you understand that someone is there checking the power and the balance. That is needed, because this is an industry that has that power. We talk about how much bigger than movies it is, how much money it makes, there do need to be checks and balances and there does need to be a gatekeeper.”
Another thing about games journalism is its roots in hobbyist culture, starting with fans writing about their favourite systems for other fans. You could easily raise questions about the ability of these people to take on the might of giant publishers who hold all of the cards, and who could easily restrict access to information about their products.
“I think we’re at the point where that’s all fallen away,” says Miller. “It doesn’t matter how big and bad your PR department is, I mean look at EA, it’s this enormous company that has all the resources in the world, if they wanted to spin stories and brainwash everybody into believing it, then they could; but that isn’t the case. Everyone on the internet has an opinion about EA, whether they’re the worst company in the world or whether they’re misunderstood.
“Peter Moore was just in the news, we were talking about it on Colin & Greg: Live, where he’s talking about the ‘player first’ mentality. He came to us at E3 and told us about that. That means that they’re putting out the arty game, it’s not going to sell, but they’re allowed to do that because FIFA’s there to make them money. That’s what it comes down to. Really it’s companies who’re willing to be open and honest about the reality of making video games. This is a business, and that’s maybe why your favourite game’s forced out the door faster than it should be, because they’re trying to make a profit. You have to make a profit to keep the ship running.”
Running on weekdays at 11am PT, Colin & Greg: Live is a news interpretation show, modelled on sports news programs like SportsCenter, on Twitch.tv. C&G:L blurs the lines ever further between entertainment and journalism, delivering informed discussion with a jovial edge and silly humour.
“Colin and Greg: Live is part journalism, sure,” Miller says. “Part journalism and part us ranting and raving about Full House and how John Stamos looks like a werewolf. There’re bits and pieces there, but that’s not the goal of the show. We’re not there to break the news, we’re there to interpret it alongside you. Commentary is part of journalism, so you see us read it, debate, talk, and ask the chat their opinions. We’re evolving on the spot, so it’s not that we’re coming in with some idea that we’re the be all and end all gold standard. That’s not what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to produce an entertainment property, something that does keep you informed, but also comes in and entertains you, keeps you excited and makes you want to keep watching. We’re in that realm, but that’s not the goal.”
The culture of gaming is expanding, coming to encompass so many different styles of written and video content that the term ‘media’ maybe fits creators collectively better than ‘journalism’. In this new games media space, specificity is key.
“It’s not niche, as much as, ‘let’s talk about something specific’,” says Miller. You see that with YouTube people and that’s what’s got the big sites and the .coms scared. You talk to people and they go to IGN, Kotaku, Gamespot, usually one of those and then they’ll pop into another one. It’s boiling down so that the catch-all sites are fading away. What’s up-and-coming is people who’re like, ‘we’re the site about Amiibos’. Next to me I have an issue of The Vita Lounge, which is a magazine out of the UK that’s just about Vita. There’s an audience for this, they’re getting support on Patreon, there’re people out there who’ll pay for this kind of content, because they want it.
“It’s fascinating, because I don’t think we all saw it coming when we were in the early days at IGN. It’s funny to look at the way the written word evolved, even at a site like IGN, when I first started Hillary’s GTAIV review was seven, eight, nine pages long – then we were finally like, ‘every review’s going to be a page long, maybe two if you have something crazy to say’. And you go back and look at these PSP reviews I was writing that were two pages long and it’s like, ‘Good Lord, what were you saying?’ I’m going through mechanics, this that and the other, and it’s like, ‘nobody cares about that, they just want to know if the game’s worth your money’.”
He continues: “Reviews have moved to that, and now there’s the rise of hearing like-minded people give their opinions if they’re educated. That’s what you see in video, that’s what you see YouTube people saying. You look at when Colin and I did Podcast Beyond, or even now with Kinda Funny Gamescast, the breakouts do so much better than the hour and a half long show, because they’re more specific, they’re speaking to one thing. Video is this interesting evolution of the written word. There’s a reason you see Kotaku doing such great, in quotes, ‘video games journalism’ – breaking stories and getting sources. Even today one of the stories we were reading was from Jason [Schrier], and he has quotes and responses going back-and-forth and that’s great. But meanwhile, if you want to know what I thought of the Batman vs. Superman trailer, you probably just want to hear me tell you about it, rather than me sit there and write all that out.
[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]“We always get caught up in the fact that, Colin says it best, we’re in this echo chamber. We sit around and talk, and we all have the same feelings like, ‘this game is amazing, and this thing’s happening over here, why don’t more people buy Vitas?’ If you were just some person who got dropped in the middle of all of this, you only followed Colin and I and everyone who responded to us on Twitter, you’d think everyone owned a Vita. Because everyone in this one community does. It’s the specificity of it again. You look at our success on Patreon, you look at the Vita Lounge. People want specific things and they’ll pay for them. Do I want a Grantland for video games? Fuck yeah, I do. I think it has the chance to exist in the current place we stand and it can sit there with Angry Joe being mad at Nintendo, as well as this giant IGN thing, that sits next to me playing 80 hours of Metal Gear on Twitch. There’s an audience for just about everything now, and we’re luckily at this place where they’ll support it.”
For Miller, this simultaneous broadening and fragmentation within the games media has mirrored the wider games industry as a whole. More games are being published than ever before, so for every personal taste, there is a game to play.
“It’s Silly Putty, right?” Miller says. “Things started very small, very compact, this is what an 8-bit game is, this what Mario looks like, here’s Duck Hunt. Then people started grabbing the edges and pulling it out in different directions. First off, how many dozens of games are published on Steam and the App Store, PlayStation Network and Xbox Live every day? Literally, whatever mood you’re in, there’s a game that fits that mood now. If you want something that’s Mario, there’s still Mario, if you want something that’s Her Story, there’s Her Story. There’s all these different experiences out there now.[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]“You talk about the way that games have evolved, they used to be this one painting in primary colours, and now it’s exploded into all of these different realms with different kinds of art-style, different kinds of colours. It’s different in every way – there’s something out there for everyone.
“You look at what Neil and Bruce are doing at Naughty Dog, and think back to the games that they were raised on. The people who’re coming of age now, who’re getting to play all of these games and listen to all of this deep, critical thinking about gaming theory, and story, and design. What kinds of games are they going to make in 10, 20 years?”
People often talk about the rise of ‘on-demand culture’, that, like Verruca Salt, we don’t care how, but we want it now. There’s a lot of pressure on the fledgling games industry to solve all of its problems all at the same time, but as gaming finds its feet in more mainstream culture, the growing pains will subside and inevitably, things will get even better than they are now.
“It’s a slow process, because people have to age into it,” says Miller. “Who’s an older person in games media? There’s not many, because they all went to PR, development or whatever. Now we need to be that generation that have to decide if they want to commit, change things and stick around. Back in the day, it was a very Jets vs. Sharks kind of thing with the different sites and publications. You’d like imagine now that you could have something like an Associated Press, people working together, crossing lines, sharing content. Especially if we are getting more and more specific. IGN maybe, one day, isn’t doing everything, but they are bringing in videos from other people and showcasing them on one site.
“There’s a lot of fascinating things that could happen. Will they? Who knows?
You can reach James (me!) on Twitter @Jiffe93.
A special teaser for next week’s subject: This vanishing astronaut worked on wet-weather projectiles.
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