Usually, when looking for inspiration, we choose idols that we feel are most like us. Sure, I wanted to be a writer since I was a little kid, but I sort of fell off the train in high school. After high school, when thinking about what I would do with my life, video game journalism was always somewhere at the back of my head, but I just never had the drive to start trying to achieve it.
I could easily say that several industry veterans finally inspired me to make a go of it, but that would be a lie. Thinking back, it was Nick Suttner that started it all for me. I quickly learned that his tastes mirrored mine almost exactly, and he was only a few years older then me. So, when he recommended people start a blog and write write write, I did just that.
Nick was kind enough to jump through hoops for me just to answer some questions. He was one of the victims of the 1upocalypse early this year, when Ziff Davis closed down EGM and sold off 1up.com, but he landed on his feet and is now playtesting games over at Sony. This is an interview of the man though, not his job -- so let's get to know Nick Suttner a little bit better, shall we?
1UP for a relatively short period of time before the fallout and your subsequent move to Sony. Do you regret not having been able to write for very long? You have a blog but you don't update it very much. Do you miss writing at all?
My time at Ziff certainly went by quickly in retrospect (a little under two years), but I can't regret having held a dream job like that, even if it was cut short. I'm thankful that I'm still writing about games in some context and able to stretch a new writing muscle as a result (writing evaluation reports and giving design feedback), even if it's much more analytical and internal in nature…but yeah, I do miss having my voice out there, and critical/creative writing.
Though I hope that the impact I'm having now is just as relevant, albeit in a more behind-the-scenes way. Reviewing games is a one-way conduit of feedback -- as much as you write about a problem in a game, it's not going to get fixed. Now, I'm in a position where what I write can help improve or change that problem.
Despite all the talk of print media dying, many of your former co-workers have been returning to it. John Davison is now heading GamePro, and the new EGM has landed the Bitmob team (Dan Hsu, Demian Linn, Jason Wilson, Aaron Thomas, Greg Ford, Michael Donahoe, and Brett Bates) as well as the CO-OP guys. Now that they have more control, do you see these magazines succeeding? Is this possibly the new era of print? One that won't adopt the poor tactics of the old era.
Well, one thing to keep in mind is that both of those outlets are putting a heavy focus on their online elements as well. Unless it had a drastically new approach/angle to coverage or some brilliant subscriber model, I can't see a new print outlet getting very far on its own. But when running in tandem with the website portion, and the right people behind the wheel (which both of those places seem to have), there's plenty of room for success.
Even Game Informer seems to have taken a lot of smart steps recently, like putting together a great website that builds upon their print resources, and hiring my heterosexual life partner Phil Kollar. Seriously though, I'm a content guy, not much of a business guy -- I just know what I like, and what I'm willing to put my interest and support behind. I currently subscribe to Edge and Play, because for all of their idiosyncrasies, they provide me with unique, interesting content. If more people can bring that to the print realm, well, that's fantastic.
Yeah, losing 1UP FM was the hardest thing about being laid off, since it had become my favorite part of the job; I felt like Phil and I were doing something relevant and unique in the podcast space. So yeah, I can't deny I miss that too. But I can't imagine I'll never have a podcast again, so I'm not really worried about it. Whether it's being a part of something at Sony or somewhere else eventually, I'm sure I'll figure out something.
Appearances on Rebel FM? Maybe another CAGcast appearance, or would you have to lose this job before CheapyD would have you on again?
Well, CheapyD owes me for life ever since I saved his family from that burning house. And I'd like to think that the Rebels would let me hang out in their living room to chat any time. But it'd also be tough not being able to talk about what I'm working on, or rip on the competition where appropriate. So…who knows what the future holds, but probably not at the moment.
Are you looking to move further up, maybe into actual game development? Game Critic and Product Evaluator sound like similar fields, but development seems like a whole new challenge. Is that something you hope to one day try?
One day? Most definitely. I can't imagine I'd work in the gaming industry for my entire life (as is certainly the plan) and not want to eventually work on a single product more directly. I have a few ideas perpetually floating around my head (as does everyone, I'm sure), but I'm also not in any sort of rush. It may sound weird, but there are more than enough great games out there right now, and I'm content with playing them, thinking about them critically, and seeing how the industry (and my place in it) develops. That could change tomorrow if the right design opportunity or idea came my way, but it's not something I'm specifically working towards.
Joystiq. Some other former 1UP alumni have been rather harsh on the short form writing that Joystiq commonly uses. Do you see a place for the news blurb and the thought-provoking editorial to co-exist, or is the former a threat to the latter?
I can understand the vitriol towards news blogs, but I think it mostly comes from a place of frustration with readers; places like 1UP can put a lot of hard work and thought into a great unique feature, and have it only generate a miniscule amount of traffic when compared to a quick news story with a sensationalist headline on a blog. I think it's also easy to (wrongly) lump them all together into one big threat to long-form criticism/reporting; I think Joystiq in particular has grown a lot in the last year, doing a great job of balancing news, hilarity, and unique short-form content without sacrificing quality or ethics.
When I want thought-provoking editorial, I look elsewhere, like Gamasutra, some of the 1UP features, or actionbutton.net (which I embarrassingly just discovered). But honestly, I'm not entirely content with how any one place is covering games, which is frustrating but also leaves a lot of exciting room for new ideas. (Also, how can you resist that swarthy, silver-tongued McElroy devil?)
I think downloadable games as a whole are hugely shafted by the enthusiast press unless they're attached to a decent PR budget (to get the word out there early and often). To me, games are games, and it so happens that many of the ones that I find to be truly interesting and worthy of discussion are smaller, more singular visions.
So would I hype the ones I liked every chance I could? Most definitely, and I'm thrilled to be associated with that reputation if that's the case. Someone has to fight for the PixelJunks, Flowers, and Braids, as they're making larger strides in both design and sentiment than the majority of triple-A titles. That said, when it comes down to reviewing them, I'm going to call a spade a spade and score it honestly and accordingly…by measure of my personal tastes of course, which is what was so liberating about the subjective approach of 1UP.
But I think being simple in concept, downloadable games are more likely to fall higher or lower on the scoring spectrum than retail games; they either execute their handful of ideas well, or they don't. I fought for them to be reviewed on a simple thumbs-up/thumbs-down scale at 1UP, but it never quite happened. But that's just reason four of 104 that I can't stand numerical scales.
Then what is, in your mind, the best possible review scale? A select few places have attempted to go scoreless, but I believe Joystiq is the only major place to have kept that up. In a perfect world, scores wouldn't exist, but in the real world I'm happiest with a set 5-point scale. 1 = Terrible, 3 = Average, and 5 = Excellent.
And I love that I can dig into a review on Joystiq without having to fight the urge to scroll/glance to the bottom or top to see the numerical results. I think it's human nature to want to see things summed up and compartmentalized though (to say nothing of good ol' fashioned laziness, mine especially), so I can understand wanting some sort of final assessment.
I don't have any perfect answer off the top of my head (despite having spent way, WAY too much time thinking about it), but I think even the "buy it/play it/avoid it" scale would work better than most. It still gives an essentially binary choice for those in it just for purchasing advice, and either way encourages people to actually read the review for more context and be open to the criticism within.
I don't like seeing games covered exclusively as disposable consumer products, as I think it devalues the artistry and (developer) intention behind them; but until everyone is on the same page about that, I'm okay with reviews that at least encourage people to join in on the discussion and ultimately make decisions for themselves.
I can only speak from my experience (and that's a huge question), but I think what I said earlier about singular visions is relevant here too; you can feel when a game is a specific designer or team's uncompromised idea, or when it's been focus-tested into innocuousness -- regardless of the size of the publisher. And the games that resonate with people are generally the ones that stick to their guns, and put forth their ideas with confidence to be experienced for what they are and loved or hated as such, rather than taking a safer route to more universal but unambitious appeal.
I also think that indie games excel at being less superfluous with the elements surrounding their gameplay, and don't shoehorn in narrative or multiplayer for the sake of it, for instance. Conversely, they also don't use them as a crutch -- strip away all of the arguably self-indulgent story and lush art from Braid, and it would still be one of the most brilliant puzzle games ever, even with silent stick figures.
Alright, you were my favorite game reviewer because if you said a game was great, I usually loved it as well. But explain N+ to me. Why is that such an amazing game? It bored me pretty quickly.
Hmmm…do you hate fun? More seriously, did you play it with other people? When playing locally with at least three players, it's just hilariously hectic and actually requires constant cooperation and team coordination due to the brilliant co-op design. The co-op levels are truly co-op, not just the route of "same design, more obstacles" that many games employ. That, and I find the physics to be inherently enjoyable; like the best platformers, it's simply fun to run and jump around, opening the door for all sorts of interesting level design to build off of those great fundamentals. It's also the only game, ever, that I've bought every piece of DLC for.
I only played by myself. I don't have many local gaming friends, so co-op would have never worked out for me.
There's your problem, sir. Though you could always cross your fingers and try to hook up with a friend online; if you can swing a game without lag it's still stupendous.
Man, where to begin. Well, as far as my mom, it was just the one time (yes, yes, har har). I'm sure there are people who do nothing BUT race ostriches, so I suppose that's technically full time. But if they're not getting paid for it -- which I'm going to say is 100% of them -- then they're probably just insane. As for the process, as I understand it, you put your legs behind the wings, hold on to that crazy neck, and pray to your respective deity that you don't shatter your coccyx.
I just recently discovered that I've been driving past some ostriches here in Michigan every single day. I was THIS close to knocking on the guy's door and asking him if I could do a live-action re-creation of Joust, but now that you're talking about shattered coccyxsesess I'm glad I didn't. My wife tries to talk me out of my obsession for us one day raising ostriches and greeting guests by riding up on them, by saying that they are extremely mean animals. True? Or can they be tamed well?
Well they had to do the motion capture for Joust somehow, right?
If only I had a dollar for every ostrich-related game I've pitched to Sony. I'd say I do a total of about forty minutes of non-ostrich-related pitch work each day.
You think whoever designed the Chocobo racing in Final Fantasy 7 had a huge ostrich obsession too? I mean, that's a pretty elaborate ostrich racing circuit they've got going on in that game.
I looked at it more like a full ostrich-racing sim with a small RPG mini-game component on the side. It’s weird that the RPG part got so much attention. I mean, priorities, right?
You mentioned Streetlight Manifesto once on 1UP FM. When I saw them live, it was in a tiny club, and when everybody started to dance, the whole floor swayed like we were on a boat. At one point, the stack of amps almost fell over until someone grabbed onto them and held them up the rest of the show. It was definitely one of the best concerts I've ever been to, what are some of yours? I believe you said you saw Catch 22 when Tomas Kalnoky was still in it, would that be one of your favorites?
Yeah, that was pretty special. I don't remember the year, but it was in the dead of winter at the historic Fireside Bowl in Chicago. Definitely in my Top 5 favorite shows ever; I distinctly remember walking through the snow in my t-shirt afterwards, getting in my friends' car, and marveling at the steam coming off of my body.
My favorite show, and probably the best night of my life, was watching my favorite band ever, The Impossibles, play their final show at Emos in Austin, TX (which I had flown to for that purpose). They even made a DVD out of it, which is incredibly rad; how many people can say they have a DVD of the best night of their life?
Some other highlights would be seeing the Mars Volta on their first headlining tour, when they played De-Loused in the Comatorium in its entirely. When "Roulette Dares" hit its explosive beginning that was probably the closest thing I've had to a religious experience. Less Than Jake/Suicide Machines at the Metro in Chicago on Halloween 98' is up there; just pure fun…toilet paper leafblowers, watching them surf the crowd in a full-sized inflatable raft, etc. Good stuff. And at least a few of the top spots belong to Les Savy Fav, for pretty much every time I've seen them, anywhere.
No Tremulant that time, but probably the last stadium show I ever attended was seeing Mars Volta open for QOTSA and RHCP in Madison, WI (May ’03) where as far as I remember they played almost nothing but Tremulant songs.
We seem to have a lot of the same tastes in music. Following you on Twitter has informed me of a new Dodos CD, a discounted Rx Bandits CD, and a bunch of talk of other bands that seem up my alley. I would ask you what your favorite band is for a recommendation, but I hate answering that question, so what are your top 5 favorite bands?
Uhh…I should have read this before I answered the above question. In no particular order, Les Savy Fav, The Impossibles, At The Drive-In, Q And Not U, with an infinite tie for fifth place between Criteria, Faraquet, The Ghost, Mirah, Small Brown Bike, Murder by Death, Phoenix, RX Bandits, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists…how much space do you have?
Yeah, it’s amazing how many people I’ve met out here from in/around Chicago. The gaming press is mostly one big Midwest love-in. And yeah, I’d love to catch one of their reunion shows too, I’m hoping they make it this far West.
Do you play any music yourself? Have you ever had or thought of having a band? If so, any funny/interesting band/imaginary band related experiences?
Woah, imaginary band experiences? Pretty much every moment of my life. Actual bands? I played drums in a few bands in grade school/high school. The first band was named Ed Hill, which I still love. I have a bad back now and live in an apartment so I have to be realistic with my drumming ambitions, but I did recently impulse-buy a guitar to guilt trip myself into finally learning. But there it sits, in the corner, collecting dust...
Sounds like me, doomed to forever want to be a musician because of my love for music, but I'll never end up just doing it.
As soon as spine replacements are an inexpensive, five-minute process I’ll be right back in the drumming game.
Damn your correct assumptions about my taste! I did see all three. Brothers Bloom was decent but surprisingly…boring (and certainly no Brick); Moon was pretty great, though its greatness is inseparable from the phenomenal soundtrack by my boy Clint Mansell; (500) Days of Summer was surprisingly funny and damn enjoyable, though judging it is kind of unfair since it stars two insanely likable people (though it was better than Away We Go and Paper Heart…apparently I like indie chick flicks?). So…Moon! But it was probably District 9 (a bitingly accurate portrayal of my hometown).
I never saw Brick, but I loved The Brothers Bloom. That was probably my favorite of the three. Moon was the kind of boring one to me, yet that was also why it was so great. It was more of a 2001 type of sci-fi, slow, dramatic and mysterious. But then, (500) Days of Summer had Zooey Deschanel in it, she's adorable. Tough choice indeed.
I also just watched Gigantic, which was surprisingly good, and also Deschanel-imbued.
Thanks so much for taking all the time you did, Nick! Not many people would have gone to the lengths you went to for someone as unimportant as me. You're a stand-up guy, and the games industry could use more people like you.
My absolute pleasure, sir, thanks for the opportunity.