Steven L. Kent, living in Seattle, old guy. In my fifties.
Okay, so in 1986, I started doing book reviews as a freelancer for the Seattle Times. Went off to BYU to get my master's degree. When I came back in 1993, had a PC, didn't have a CD-ROM drive in it yet. Back then, you had floppy disks, right? Figured that if I could get them to let me doing a review of virtual haunted houses for Halloween, i.e. 7th Guest and Alone in the Dark and a game called Legacy. If I could get them to greenlight me to do a review of those games instead of book reviews, which I had been doing, I could afford to put a CD-ROM in my computer, a CD-ROM player, and I could get those games free. So, I got permission to do that. That was October 31st. The article ran 1993.
I decided since that worked so well and I got three games for Halloween, just think what I could get for Christmas. So, they did greenlight me to do a Christmas list. It turned into two Christmas lists, and I got dozens of games scot-free to review.
I thought I was in heaven. I was making a whopping $50 for these enormous articles, comparing all these things for the Seattle Times, but I was also getting great games. The following year, that expanded to a column with the LA Times syndicate. I was writing for Electronic Games Magazine. I got into CD-ROM Today. I believe in the next year or the year after that, I was an inaugural writer for a fledgling new web promotion called MSNBC. Became their columnist. Became a columnist for the Japan Times. Wrote weekly columns for a lot publications. And so, I suspect that's what you're interested in.
I also spoke in the senate about videogame violence. I was invited in by Senator Joe Lieberman for 10 years in a row.
And I wrote the Ultimate History of Videogames. Didn't come up with that title, by the way. Hate that title.
[Laughs.] I assumed not.
It was originally titled The First Quarter, referring to that games were 25 years old at the point that I started writing it and also the double entendre.
But unfortunately, that didn't sail because -- so, I self-published. At first, nobody would buy the book from me. The quintessential example was Workman Publishing, where one of their editors said, "You know, we'll take it!" And then Peter Workman walked through, looked at it, and said, "What's this?" And she said, "It's a book on videogames." And he said, "People who play videogames don't write books. We're not gonna publish it." And that was the end of it." That happened at a number of publications.
Do you feel that has changed? The notion that people who play videogames don't write books. I don't know if you know Tom Bissell -- does that name sound familiar?
Yeah! I know the name. I don't know him.
We were emailing earlier this year and he told me the way that that has shifted is that people who play videogames now write books but don't buy them.
Blake Harris made some pretty good coin with Console Wars.
But do you feel that's an exception? Is that a trend that's shifted?
I think it's a trend that's shifting. I think he's one of the pioneers who is shifting it. I think that it's a combination there. One is that he's a very competent, very good writer. Two, he took an aggressive stance and he got good backing. He got Seth Rogen behind him. You know, and he had to work hard to do all that. I think that people like me and Tom Bissell and Harold Goldberg and Dave Kushner and certainly the real pioneer would be Lenny Herman, opened the door for him and he opened it wider.
Did you study journalism in school? What did you go to school for?
Bachelor's degree in journalism. Master's degree in communications.
I know you mentioned you started writing about games to be able to afford a CD-ROM. When you started writing about games, was there a path you were trying to head down? I know as a writer, you start doing a thing and then organically -- you started rattling off those other places. That work sometimes just finds you, and sometimes you have to find it. But was there a place you were hoping to go toward?
Nope. Lots of free games. [Laughs.] Truly that was the motivation. I'm not a pleasant person. I've gotten better. I've mellowed a lot. But I was not a very employable person when I was younger. I had a terrible temper. I don't control my mouth very much. So, freelance work appealed to me.
And so, at the time that I got started, really, truly the vast majority of people in the game industry only knew two adjectives: Things either sucked or they were awesome. Since I knew a few adjectives in between them, I was able to flourish.
I'm 33, so I certainly remember reading games writing at that time you mention. The stuff that you're talking about. What was the directive or the wisdom from editors at that time? What did they see as the purpose or the point of covering videogames?
You know, really truly, at that point, the Seattle Times, they had me on record. That's why they took me. It was like, "Oh, great, here's somebody who knows something about videogames. We can write something about games and that'll be great!" That's really all they were looking for. They were excited about that. I'm a pretty polished writer, and that helped. At the point that I came in, people looked at me and they said, "Well, he understands videogames and he can write on an adult level. We'll take him." That was really all it was.
When was the last time you talked to someone about videogames or really thought about them critically or culturally? I know I wrote to you last year, but it sounded like from our correspondences that it's been awhile other than that.
I follow what's going on in the industry fairly carefully. Not as carefully as I should. I do the annual Christmas list for CostCo Connection Magazine. Although, doing the Christmas list is an interesting compilation. The buyers have a core list of games they want me to describe, and then I'll go through and add a few more that I like to the list.
You mentioned that you don't write about videogames as much anymore.
No. I'm a full-time novelist.
Right. Were there stories you wanted to write about videogames, but maybe the cultures at publications weren't there yet to provide those opportunities?
Back when I was active at it?
You know what? People were so supportive and so interested. You know, I wrote for USA Today quite frequently. I remember when I went to Bruce Schwartz. Okay, so, this is a quintessential example. It's probably -- it was the same time that Stephen King's book The Green Mile came out. So, whatever year that was. I think it may have been the same year that either the Dreamcast came out, which would have been 2000 -- no, 1999. Dreamcast came out in 1999, and 2000 was when the PlayStation 2 came out. So I think it was that year.
I went to Bruce and said, "I'd like to do an article on videogames and violence." And he said, "Well, don't you think that topic's been kind of done up too much?" I said, "No, I think it would be a good to do a really, truly non-biased article on it." Bruce gave me carte blanche. I mean, he just gave me carte blanche. He simply threw the door open and said, "Whatever you think you need to do to do this right, go ahead." It turns out it was one of the largest articles I think in USA Today history. I mean, it was in three separate sections of the newspaper. It was on the front page partially. I got that kind of support because they were that kind. They knew they didn't know videogames. They felt I did know videogames and they wanted to support me however they could, as long as I was giving them good, readable information.
Or MSNBC, I mean, MSNBC, at the time I was writing for them, they were an unquenchable thirst. They would just -- I'd contact them and I'd say, "I'd like to do an article." And they'd say, "What do you want to do an article on?" If I did an article a day for them, they were happy but they actually would have preferred two.
So, some of the things I'd do would be goofy. I'd go to Japan to cover something, and then I'd go to Akihabara. Are you familiar with Akihabara?
Yeah, the electronics district.
Yeah. Back then there used to be lots -- before PlayStation 2, Akihabara was probably 60 percent videogames. Now it's maybe 10 percent videogames.
But back then, it was wonderful. You'd go into these stores and if you looked around long enough, you'd find absolutely goofy, strange things. You know, I'd buy a bunch of those goofy, strange things and I'd come home and I'd tell my editor at MSNBC about it. I'd just say, "Can I write an article about this goofy, strange thing?" And he'd say, "Sure." And I'd write an article about it. So, yeah.
Why do you think you had that freedom?
Well, one, I was readable. I hate to sound cocky, but I was readable. The things I writing about, you wouldn't find them in the rest of the mainstream press.
Yeah. That's what I was trying to figure out how to articulate for readers who maybe don't remember that context, but I think it was -- why was it so unusual? I remember, like, Mortal Kombat getting a lot of attention. I remember Nintendo getting a lot of attention. Why do you think that despite those types of surges, there wasn't more nuanced mainstream media attention?
Videogames hadn't received credibility yet. I think I may have played a small role in helping videogames get some credibility. Not a major role. But the point being thought of games as something kids do. What played a major role in games getting credibility was Sony. When Sony released the PlayStation, all of a sudden it was demonstrable. Especially the PlayStation 2. It was demonstrable. It was no longer elementary school kids playing these things. It was college kids.
So, at the time, Time might do an annual videogame story about the industry or somebody else might do something. Dean Takahashi at the Wall Street Journal. When he'd do stories, they were really insightful. For the most part, the mainstream didn't then pay attention to videogames. MSNBC -- you want to hear a really funny story about how I got into MSNBC?
So, I was writing for the Seattle Times. That's where I got started. My editor was Mark Watanabe. Really nice guy to work with. Mark got sick and so a guy named Mark Matassa took his place. I wrote a couple of articles for Mark. Mark was actually -- I think he was an assistant editor on the political desk, but he was sitting in for Mark Watanabe. We liked each other. He was nice to work with. I turned my things in on time and I proofed my spelling and I was readable and we liked working together.
Then one day Mark Watanabe came back and I got a call from Mark Matassa and he says, "Hey Steve, I'm at this new website called MSNBC. We haven't gone live yet, but how would you feel about writing for me?" And I said, "Sure." And so, the Superbowl as coming up. I did a piece about the Super Bowl and football videogames. I was kind of on the cutting edge of doing that. I don't think anybody had done it yet. I did a couple of other pieces. And when I called to turn it in, he was already gone. He had been at MSNBC for maybe a week and then the Seattle Times said, "Look, we really want you back. We'll give you this thing that you always wanted. Can you please come back?" But that was how I got in at MSNBC. I would never even have thought of applying at MSNBC. But because of that, that's how I got in.
A lot of conversations today online -- I'm guessing if you say you keep up, you see this, but people talking about how the medium can evolve or ways they'd like to see it evolve. When you were writing about games, were conversations like this taking place then?
Were people talking about different ways for it to evolve? What did evolving mean 15 years ago?
Exactly. That was the big thing. One of the big evolutions that people were predicting -- I remember at the Japanese launch of the N64, around that time, the big word was "convergence." Okay? The idea that videogames and TVs and computers would one day converge, and everyone figured that videogame consoles would go away and computers would swallow up everything. Imanishi -- Hiroshi Imanishi over at Nintendo, who was VP there, I interviewed him and he said something that was really curious at the time but turned out to be quite prescient: He said that he agreed with the whole convergence thing. He thought that there would be convergence, but he thought the end result would look a lot more like a TV with a console than it does like a computer. That was a really interesting take, because everyone else was saying, "No, no, the computers will swallow up everything." And he's right. Smart TVs are everywhere now.
Yeah. I mean, how do you feel that those conversations are different today about people talking about the direction for the medium and the industry?
So, the evolution that we talked about back then was -- it sounds so retro to you, now. Like, interactive movies was one of the big flashpoints: "Oh, they're gonna look like movies but they're going to be interactive." Back then we thought that meant video. Basically, there were videogames that, like, Prometheus or Flashpoint or The 7th Guest or Myst, where video was incorporated and it was really kind of a multiple choice test. You had to sort of decide how you were going to move when you hit the little break in the video, or the video would stop and a game would come in the middle of it.
Now, the graphics on the computers, they don't need -- with motion capture and high, high-resolution and high-def that, the regular games now look more like interactive movies than the interactive movies from the 1990's.
How do you sense that videogames are struggling with how to be a medium for artistic expression? What are things you perceive that people are trying to figure out right now?
Well, on the one hand, it's struggling because there's this huge dichotomy. On the one hand, you have the indie games, and the old creativity from the '80s is sort of back with those games. Some of those games are really amazing. It's really true that for with the new tools that are out there for very little money, you can make a very expressive game. But the reverse is true, too, that -- then there's this sort of no man's land where, frankly, not a lot of money is made and an awful lot of money is lost between the inexpensive indie games and this upper echelon where every game is an epic production and the budgets are unheard of now.
Yeah, it goes up by a factor of 10 each hardware generation.
Yeah, well, look at it this way: Are you much of a reader?
Have you ever read the Harry Dresden novels?
No. I mainly read non-fiction, sorry. [Laughs.]
Oh, okay, well.
No offense to you personally.
No, no problem. Jim Butcher wrote a really sensational series of novels about a wizard who works as a gumshoe in modern day Chicago. They're the Harry Dresden novels. There are quite a few of them out there. If you were to take all of the Harry Dresden novels -- okay, so, if you were to write the word "magic" on one little piece of paper, and then you put that on one side of your desk. And on the other side of your desk, you stack all of the Harry Dresden novels, plus all the Harry Potter novels, including the new one that's about to come out this month. The difference in the number of letters between that little slip of paper that says "magic" and all those pages and all those letters on all those books is the difference between the amount of coding and work that went into Pac-Man versus the next Call of Duty. You know, so I was around watching all of that evolution take place. I started at a point where a guy could still lock himself in his garage for a year and come out with a Choplifter or a Prince of Persia and make a million dollars and go home.
But by the time I was done -- one of the watershed moments was when Mario 64 came out and other companies complained complained and complained about how many people Nintendo had working on Mario 64.
How many was it?
Oh, I think it might've been 75 people or something.
Yeah, I was going to say, it's probably a number that seems conservative by today's standards --
-- where you have teams of hundreds of people all over the globe working in concert together. Seventy-five -- I mean, that's a lot of people, but it's not hundreds of people.
You take a look in the movies, too. They said in the end if you saw X-Men: Apocalypse, one, you were the only person there, but the other thing is if you did see it, at the end of the movie they said that 10,000 people were involved in the making of that movie.
I interviewed Neil Druckmann a couple months ago, who -- he works for Naughty Dog. They do the Uncharted games. I asked him whether that trend -- because I feel like I haven't heard people complain about it, I guess, since like you're saying with Mario 64.
But I asked Neil whether these conversations take place at big game companies about whether this is tenable and is going to be sustainable. That company, they're in a position where -- the way he put it, they don't need have those kind of existential conversations because they're lucky enough that their games make money and are able to sustain themselves. But I think for most companies, that's not the case?
Did you ever do stories about this kind of thing when you were actively writing about games?
Yeah, I thought so.
First of all, I was there for some of the most notable failures of all time.
Are you talking about, like --
Where companies were destroyed. I actually did the book on the making of the Final Fantasy movie, where a single game could -- you know, so much was banking on this game, or in the case of the Final Fantasy movie of a game, the idea was, "Not only are we investing all this money in this game, which we thought would do well, but the technology that supported this game will keep us going another generation." And it didn't work and companies went away. When's the last time -- even though I personally think they were brilliant games, when's the last time you saw a Ninja Gaiden game?
Oh, I mean, are you talking about the modern reboots or the original?
Yeah, I'm talking about the modern reboot.
I think the creator of that was let go, and I don't think --
Yeah, Itagaki. I think they did about four or five remakes of those games and I think they're just kinda done.
Yeah, in fact, I think Tecmo merged with KOEI, didn't it?
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
You know, so, these are all evolutions and these are all things that are changing. Tecmo, for a little while, they had these two enormous peaks where they were a company you looked at, that you stopped -- when you were talking about videogames, you stopped and you talked about Tecmo as kind of a pioneer.
Do you feel like the videogame industry learns from its mistakes?
That's a great question.
Usually people just laugh when I ask that question.
No, that is a brilliant question. I think there are people in the industry who learn from their mistakes. I think that Howard Lincoln and Peter Main and Minoru Arakawa looked very closely at Atari and said, "We don't want to make those mistakes." And yet it's so interesting because a couple generations down the line, they did indeed make some of those mistakes and were pushed into them very hard by Nintendo of Japan. You know, one of the crucial things -- one of the watershed moments in my time covering videogames, and we're getting there again, and I think Nintendo is watching this really closely, was the fall of Sega.
Because during the time of Dreamcast, you could argue very very very solidly that Sega, with its different game studios was probably the strongest game company on the face of the earth at the moment. But the reason they were so strong is because they had their backs against the wall and if they didn't keep Dreamcast alive, they were gonna pull out. And then one by one, they got rid of those great studios. Now, Sega is a shadow of its former self.
I think Nintendo's in a position where they need to fight back because they're in the Sega seat if they don't make some good important calls now.
We've been talking a lot about companies and publications. We haven't talked too much about the audience yet. What do you remember about the audience for games or maybe people who read your articles and your interactions with them? What do you remember as far as general demeanor or types of things you would run into?
Well, one, because I did a lot of TV and I've done so many different publications and things, there was a point where I would get recognized walking through an airport or something, and not just by kids. The big change in the audience -- and this is when it was obvious and I'm just stating what you know, so I apologize.
But, the big change is the mainstreaming of videogames. When I was getting started, the Genesis was still out. Nintendo really was what your younger brother played. The older brother played Genesis. He might play Super Nintendo. But if he did play Super Nintendo, he was a little embarrassed about doing that.
There was a wonderful moment when Sony was getting ready to release the PlayStation and they brought in focus groups. They knew they had equal parts Genesis players and Super Nintendo players. But Sega did such a good job of branding and making their brand cool. What Sony's research had found was people who owned Super Nintendo were embarrassed -- even though they liked their console better, were embarrassed to admit they had it.
So, they'd have these focus groups and they'd know that half the people there had a Super Nintendo and the people -- it was like that Austin Powers scene where they pulled out his extender and they said, "No, that's not mine." "But you said you owned a --"
"No I didn't." "But don't you play Super Nintendo?" "No, never have." You know?
I've kind of wondered -- in some pockets of the videogame audience today, there's a bit of toxicity. There's a bit of aggression. There's a bit of vitriol. I've always kind of wondered whether that has roots in the way Sega approached its marketing and branding.
Sega certainly discovered it and exacerbated it. But throughout history, the Nintendo people always sort of circled the wagon. They loved Nintendo.
During the rise of the Genesis, the Nintendo people -- if you wrote too many articles that were pro-Sega, the Nintendo people would accuse you of Nintendo bashing. I was always very, very pro-Nintendo. I loved Nintendo. Although, in the last years of the N64 -- well, the N64, too, but in the last days of the Super Nintendo, I thought that Sega came out with more good games.
But I remember when getting ready to go on a trip with Sega, to go visit Sega, and my editor warning me -- my editor, Arnie Katz, from Electronic Games warning me that I should be careful because Sega might just drive me out into the desert and shoot me.
[Laughs.] Sorry, I assume that was a joke? I take it that didn't happen?
Yeah. Of course. Again, it's funny because now that I'm out of -- I'm as far removed as I am, the people who I stay in touch with or the people who make an effort to stay in touch with me, I hear from Steve Rosen once in awhile. We have a really nice relationship. I hear from Minoru Arakawa once in awhile. You know, the guys at the top who were really at the top.
And I think I really pissed off a lot of guys lower down the field. I was not very good at watching what I was talking about. The other thing is, one of the things I did that made my writing entertaining was my view was if I was reviewing a game, and especially a bad game -- almost certainly a bad game -- that the review should be almost as much fun if not more fun than the game itself.
Do you have an example of a review you wrote and why it pissed off PR? What happened?
In 1993, the "holy grail" was to create the first great "interactive movie." Basically, CD-ROM had opened the door for games to include video footage with really, really bad resolution using early compression techniques which resulted in game delays and supremely bad acting. Some of these games were well thought out and had great actors. Donald Sutherland played a Soviet general in a game called KGB. That was a Virgin Interactive game. Back then, Virgin Interactive was always a cut above the competition. I remember chatting with Steve Baxter, the pioneering TV reporter who brought game reviews to CNN. We both agreed, Virgin, Access Software and LucasArts were the most dependable PC companies at the time. Neither Virgin nor Access survived intact. Virgin closed. Microsoft bought Access and eventually sold it to Take-Two.
Sorry. Old man. Memory Lane.
I didn't like many of the interactive movies of the early day, so I once described an early publisher as, "Not publishing games, rather, purging its vaults of heavy-handed, minimally interactive, politically correct slop." When the owner of the company called to complain, I let him shout at me until he said, "That wasn't a review; it was a personal attack." I answered, "No, man, that wasn't a personal attack. I didn't say anything about his hair." He hung up on me.
I was proud of myself for doing that at the time. Now i sincerely regret it. For the record, I'd never seen the man in person and have no idea what he looked like. I was just being a jerk.
I wrote a very popular article for MSNBC called “Generation Drek: The Worst Games for the Newest Consoles.” For the record, I played all of the games on my list quite a bit. In order to make that list, you had to be a huge letdown. One of the games was sort of like a Twisted Metal or a Mario Kart battle, only set at sea with speeding boats. I found the game exceptionally frustrating. I added it to the list not because it was terrible -- though it really was a frustrating game to play, but because I was so disappointed. That game was one of the reasons I was so excited about Xbox.
Anyway, my article came out, and a programmer who worked on the game sent me an exceptionally polite note in which he said, "I understand you are frustrated with the game, but it does not belong on this list." I sent him back a note saying that in all honesty, I believed the game did belong on this list and I explained why, which was mostly a rehash of what I had said in my article. I did not go out of my way be insulting in my letter. In fact, I think I was pretty polite. I certainly hope I was. The following day, the company that was going to publish the game cancelled out on the order and everyone at the company was laid off.
For the record, they guy who had contacted me the day before wrote me again to let me know that the cancellation was already in the pipeline and that it was not my fault. That was an unbelievably kind thing for him to do.
I think reviews written by young, aggressive and thoughtless journalists are more fun to read, but when you get older, you look back at what you wrote and find yourself full of regret.
Wow. Well, who at that time did people at game companies feel your responsibility as a writer was ultimately to?
They were -- it was an interesting time there. When I was -- oh, I forget the guy's name. Something, David Israel? Something like that. I forget his name now, and I apologize. There was a guy who worked for a San Francisco newspaper, and he accused the entire press of being bought out. That we were -- and he made a lot of trouble for a lot of people, including, not so much for me. I got myself in trouble later. A good friend of mine, it turns out to be not as good a friend as I had expected, but at the time that all this was going on, I was a freelance writer. The only way I could ever cover something -- I mean, cover the stories, was if for instance, Nintendo said, "Hey, would you like to interview Shigeru Miyamoto? We'll fly you out." That was the only way I could ever interview Shigeru Miyamoto. And so, if Nintendo offered to fly me out to Japan to interview Shigeru Miyamoto, I took it. I never hid it. I was very open about it. But this guy came out and accused us all of being bought.
He was a journalist and he accused us of all being on the take. And the thing that was really funny about that was I had met him once. Where I had met him was at a Virgin Interactive press thing. We were all staying at a Four Seasons hotel in California. There he was, staying in the Four Seasons with the rest of us, a guest of Virgin Interactive just like the rest of us. But once he was out and he wasn't being taken on trips anymore, he got really good at pointing fingers at people.
Oh, is this a little of what you were mentioning in your note to me, when you were saying you didn't want to be one of those people who once they're out they start pointing fingers?
Well, mine is different. Mine is -- one, I have a lot of respect for the guys covering the games. The writers today are wonderful. I think a real turning point might have been Geoff Keighley getting into the industry. He -- you know, very young, very smart, very sharp. I think N'Gai Croal, covering videogames for Newsweek was a real watershed moment for videogames, too. My wife was actually quite a fan of his. It's funny because she'd kind of show me his articles and say how wonderful they were. So, you can guess how much I loved N'Gai. But anyways.
[Laughs.] Well, speaking of pointing fingers. It sounds like you were able to write about pretty much anything you wanted to, but were there things you felt obligated to write about or take a stand on? In other words, to not just write about videogames as products but to provide some friction and context for how they fit into mainstream society?
Back in the '90s, the concern was violence in videogames. In the early 2000's we started to notice -- well, first of all, in the '90s -- have you read Freakonomics?
I have, yeah.
You know, they made this -- back in '93, which was the year I got started, which was the year of the senate hearings, strangely enough violence went down. Physical violence in the United States.
And it continued to go down. I remember in maybe' 97, Doug Lowenstein -- he was the head of the ESRA or IDSA, I think, at the time. Whatever it was. He was the lobbyist for the videogame industry. ESA. That was it. And he made -- he pointed out that since the year that Doom came out, which was also '93, videogame violence had gone down every year. And if you don't blame school shootings on Doom, then we won't try to take credit for the drop in actual violence and say that Doom caused the drop in violence.
In Freakonomics, they make a really, really, really solid argument that the drop in violence is actually traceable to the passage of abortion, the legalization of abortion. That a number of kids who have grown up neglected and disadvantaged and at risk weren't born, they were aborted. Many of those would have been kids who would have been attracted to violence.
It's interesting because I've done a couple interviews for this project where I've talked to rap historians and rap academics who teach about the history of rap music and industry, and there was one person I talked to who told me that actually videogames are also partly to thank for a decrease in videogames. That you can't blame rap music for increasing violence, that actually videogames are to thank for there being less violence.
But a throughline that I've been exploring is wondering about what videogames have in common with rap, and of course you'd be an interesting person to ask about this because they both had congressional hearings in the '90s.
On how they were both ruining the youth. When I throw that out to you, that there is a parallel, how crazy does that sound to you?
There's real truth to it. I mean, there was a point -- look, I think that in politics, it's very very very attractive to create a bogeyman and blame everything on that bogeyman.
Tipper Gore, who I actually agreed with on many things, by the way -- I don't see the problem with labeling and ratings systems. I don't see a problem with that at all. In fact, I think that in many ways, it should be seen as a very freeing thing. It's not -- there's an enormous gap between telling somebody to rate something and then to label what the content is and censorship. People who don't see that gap I think are being obtuse. Purposely being obtuse. So, but, you know -- I think that at somewhat at the same time, there was a very distinct effort to point at rap music and say, "This is different from us. This is different than what good people listen to and this is leading to violence." And the same time, Senator Lieberman, who I worked with closely and who I really admired deeply -- you know, Senator Lieberman did point the finger at videogames. I think, again, there's a huge difference between Joe Lieberman, who wasn't calling for censorship -- he really in his heart of hearts, he wished the videogames never existed.
But he knew the dangers of censorship. He knew them implicitly. What he was calling for was he was calling for sensibility. He wanted -- I mean, everyone agrees that the IDSA has actually been helpful for videogames. That having -- you know, I remember when we got our ratings system in America, which was before they got one in Japan, I remember going back to Japan and interviewing, oh, I think it was the guy who was doing the Resident Evil games at the time, and he was really lamenting that in America, there was a way to communicate to the kids that this game was going to have this, this, this, and this. Or communicate to parents that these things will be in the game. There was no way of communicating that to Japanese parents.
He was lamenting it because?
Because he didn't want kids picking up his games -- you know, he didn't want five-year-olds picking his games thinking, "Oh, this will be like Mario, only a haunted house." And then seeing zombies biting people's necks and all the scary things that made Resident Evil Resident Evil.
It's interesting because last year I had interviewed someone who had quit writing games like Call of Duty. He reached a point not where he felt that shooters had to change, but that he got tired of acting as though those games don't influence on some level. But the main thing I remember him saying is that people are playing those games too young. That they're allowing kids who are too young to pick them up.
No question. As a journalist, I've said this time and time again. So, this is on the record and I still believe it: What's the point of having a ratings system? I think it's incredibly hypocritical that the game industry says, "Hey, we're so behind the ratings system. We love the rating system. The rating system is the greatest thing since sliced bread." But then they spend millions of dollars a year making sure they can't be enforced.
For people who don't follow games closely, how do you mean?
Oh, that if any governor or any state starts saying, "We're gonna enforce the rating system, we're gonna make sure that stores only sell M-rated games to people who are 17 and up," the game industry takes them to court, they threaten to sue, they call it illegal, they fight it. They love the rating system. They think it's the most wonderful thing on the face of the earth: It liberates them from responsibility. But the second state and government organizations try to enforce the ratings system, they say, "Leave our games alone. What happened to our constitutional rights? Everyone's supposed to have access to everything. If it's okay with the parents, we think it should be okay with everyone."
What do you feel the audience for games doesn't understand about the work that goes into writing about games?
Well, you know -- that's another interesting question. One of the things that people didn't realize -- this happened during my ship, when I was an active game journalist, was that people didn't realize that -- so, the Nintendo Entertainment System, you know, the basic Nintendo came out in '86, right? In '89, the Genesis came out, and '89, interestingly, and '90, the first full year that the Genesis year was out was the most successful year that the old NES ever had. But, by '91 and '92, the majority of gamers -- the big hot spot in gaming was teenagers, people in high school. It wasn't people in elementary school anymore. And then, by the time the PlayStation came out, really the hot spot started to be college kids. What people didn't realize was if you looked back mathematically, those elementary school kids who loved their NESes were now in high school and they were playing Genesis. And when they graduated from high school, guess what? The PlayStation came out and that same generation was picking them up.
Okay, that generation was game fanatics. Those were people who liked the idea of playing games. What we have now is a very different thing. Now, you're not a game fanatic any more than you're a movie fanatic because you go to movies or a TV fanatic because you watch TV. Instead, you have people who have just grown up with this medium and it's just part of their life.
When were you writing about games, were you always able to support yourself with your writing?
Oh, yeah. I did really well. I had never done as well as I did then. But, you know, I published an article a day.
Yeah. As a freelancer or ever as a staffer?
As a freelancer.
I know you mentioned you were a freelancer but didn't know if you were full-time freelance.
Yeah, as a full-time freelancer, I published an article a day and some of those publications paid -- I mean, it's funny, Seamus Blackley once made fun of how little money I made on some of my articles. But the truth of the matter is, yeah, I made a very substantial living as a game journalist.
You mentioned being able to make a pretty good living writing about games. It might be tacky to ask, but writers hardly make anything these days covering games -- $300 a pop for a feature if they're really ambitious, aggressive, and lucky. It can be $20 or $50 for a review, again, if you're aggressive. How much were you making?
Like Donald Trump, I am not handing out my tax returns. I will say this, Parade Magazine, paid me $5 a word. Sony Style paid me $3 a word. MSNBC was my best account. I wasn't paid anything even approaching Parade pay, but I couldn't ever write enough for MSNBC. My editor there wanted daily articles.
How did freelancing about games pre-internet even work? How would you pitch ideas and get greenlit? How did edits work?
Back in the day we had this thing called a telephone.
It was attached to a cord which was attached to the wall, so you couldn't take with you when you left the office. Phones already had buttons by the time I started freelancing, but they still had cords. Anyway, I spent a few hundred bucks buying Beacons Magazine and newspaper directories, and I called editors. Back then, you could call editors out of the blue, at least newspaper guys.
I started out at a tiny PR firm called Morse McFadden in Seattle. One day Joyce Worley of Katz, Kunkle Worley -- the founders of Electronic Games -- called about one of our clients. I was already writing reviews for the Seattle Times, and I asked, well maybe begged, for permission to review a game for Electronic Games. By the way, Electronic Games is not the same magazine as Electronic Gaming Monthly, a newer magazine that had a much larger readership.
Oh, I’m aware. I wrote for the latter.
Anyway, my first review happened to come out in May, 1993--the same week as the old Summer CES show, and they handed the issue out at the Sendai -- the publisher -- booth. I hid near the booth and stole as many copies of the magazine as I could get, tore out my review, and walked the floor of the show handing out copies of that review along with a really pathetic home-printed business card. That strategy landed me in CD-ROM Today and Computer Life.
I asked you before about the feeling among game companies about who writers are ultimately responsible to. I was a kid at the time, but I read about this years ago: Trip Hawkins from 3DO at that time, writing a letter to GamePro, putting them on notice for negative reviews they've done. Threatening to pull all advertising. I don’t even think it’s online but do you remember this at all?
Oh yeah, and I got in trouble with Trip a few times. I love Trip. Trip is a really amazing, bright, charismatic, smart guy. He puts his money where his mouth is. He really does. I like Trip, but the first article I did for Next Generation -- no, I didn't do it for Next Generation, I did it for Electronic Games. It was funny because one of the first issues of Next Generation did an interview with Trip Hawkins, and I did an interview with Trip Hawkins that same month for an Electronic Games. Mine was called "The World According to Trip," which was kind of playing off The World According to Garp.
Nowadays, people remember that book, so I have to point that out. But it was funny because when Next Generation did another interview with Trip a few years later, they stole my title for it. But the thing that was so interesting was I interviewed Trip for a long time, and in the time I was interviewing Trip, he was very aggressive about attacking his competitors. The 3DO was out, the 32X for the Genesis was just being released, the Saturn was coming out and Sega was hinting, at least, that if you had a Genesis with a 32X and a CD-ROM drive it would play Saturn games. They were really doing their best to insinuate that. PlayStation was coming out and N64 supposedly was gonna come out. So, this would have been 1995. Jaguar was out as well.
So, Trip said, "First of all, with Jaguar, they're saying it's 64-bit." He said, "That's absolute hokum. You can take a look at the specs. It's not a 64-bit. He said, "Nintendo's saying that their N64 is gonna come out next year. It's a lie. It's not true. It's not gonna come out -- you know, you call them this time next year and they'll say, 'Oh, it's gonna come out this time next year,' and maybe it'll come out in the following year but maybe it won't.”
Then he said, "As far as 32X Genesis being able to play a Saturn game, simply not true. Sega has no interest in doing that. Why would they do that? Why would you create a poor man's version of your console? It makes no sense."
You know, so, he attacked each of his competitors. Because I came from a real journalism background, before I went to press with my article, I called Nintendo, I called Atari, I called Sega, and Sony. I gave each of them a chance to respond to what he had said.
Boy, he was livid about that.
Because you gave them an opportunity to respond?
Yeah, because I gave them an opportunity to respond. Game journalists weren't supposed to say that. Do you know what the interesting thing is?
The interesting thing is in no way could a 32X ever play a Saturn game. The N64 did come out two years late, not the year they said it would. Everyone now agrees that the Jaguar wasn't a 64-bit game system. Every single thing he had said was right. He was just upset that I gave all these people a chance to respond to what he had said.
In fact, I remember once having dinner -- it wasn't his PR person. It was somebody else's PR person. I remember having dinner with a PR person who in the middle of our dinner said, "You know, I would hope that if you were looking at giving our games a grade between A- and B+, that you'll give it the A-." You know, I looked at her and I said, "Excuse me? What was that?" [Laughs.] She retracted instantly. She realized that she had stepped on a booby trap there. I went to an event as a guest of Square once. Or, I think we were guests of Sony but we went to Squaresoft. Square showed us a game and said, "What do you think about it? What are you going to write about it?" There was a whole room full of journalists and they asked, "What are you going to write about it?" I just sat in that room, shocked and amazed as journalist after journalist answered the question. They all sat there and said, "Well, I'm gonna say this and I'm gonna say this and I'm gonna say that because I really like that." When they finally got to me at the end, I said that as a freelance journalist and as a journalist, period, I resent the question and I'm not gonna tell you what I'm gonna write.
How did that go over?
They were very polite about it. I mean, they may have decided never to have invited me back again. But I don't think they did. I think they were very polite about it and they did invite me on later trips.
But let me give you a different example that takes us the other way. I went to Japan as a guest of Sony. The PlayStation was out for one year and the N64 was about to come out for that Christmas. Again, a bunch of us went to Japan as guests of Sony and Sony showed us all these different things that were coming out for the PlayStation. They let us play with an N64 if we wanted to. Then they sent us home, and all those other journalists who had been there as guests of Sony turned around and said that they thought the N64 was a better -- was the console to buy that Christmas. I actually said that I thought the PlayStation was the console to have that Christmas.
I don't think -- I didn't say that because I was bought by Sony. And I know they didn't say it because they were bought by Nintendo 'cause Nintendo hadn't sent them to Japan. I mean, you know, they were being honest. But I'm gonna just point out that Sony flying them to Japan didn't buy their endorsement.
Is there any sort of harm -- I mean, I've heard and lived through so many things like what you're talking about here that I forget what I know and the fact that most people don't. Do you think is there any sort of harm done to anyone with that kind of expectation from game companies that writers and journalists are towing a party line together?
Well, I don't think -- the writers I knew back in my day wouldn't have towed the party line. I mean, there was an incident where a PR woman slept with a journalist, and that'll remain completely anonymous. But other than that, the truth of the matter was these guys were gamers back in my day. You know, you try and go to a gamer and say, "Tell people you like this game and I'll give you $10 and most gamers can tell you what you can do with your $10 or $100."
Well, maybe. There’s been a ton of stuff with YouTube and vloggers running into trouble with not disclosing that they’re actually making endorsements or essentially doing paid product placements. It’s a story that goes back for years and years and isn’t only happening in videogames, and it’s a big deal. Laws have been changed and clarified around assuring this is disclosed. But anyway, please continue.
Now, there were some smarter things they did. One of the things they did, which made a big difference: Gamers may be proudly independent, but on the most part we were a lowly, pimply, chubby breed, and most of the smart companies had a stable of very, very pretty PR gals who were very free with their time. They weren't sleeping with you, they weren't doing anything questionable whatsoever, but they were paying attention to you on a level that you certainly didn't get in high school. I think that there were certainly games that got flirted into better reviews.
People, when they leave games writing, they typically go and do PR, which we were just talking about. They do that or they do community management for game companies.
Yeah. A lot of them do.
Yeah, you went in a different direction, which I want to ask about. But why do you think that typically happens? Does it say anything about the field of writing in games and who writers are beholden to?
No, I don't think so. I don't think so at all. I think that that's the case -- it's the case in politics. It's the case in movies. That the journalists -- in PR, one of the things you need is somebody who understands the industry and is able to write. Yeah, no, I see nothing incestuous about it whatsoever. I think that -- you know, frankly, I think the main reason I never got offers like that wasn't because I was fiercely independent. It's because people had nightmares of being stuck in an office with me for long periods of time.
I'm being honest there.
No, I take your word for it. I don't find myself at all being bothered speaking with you right now.
Okay. Well, I've gotten better over the years. I think when I announced that I was retiring, you could hear a quiet little chorus of "Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead" going in the background.
Why leave -- it's funny because we haven't really talked much about the internet and the way that that's changed freelancing. I mean, I don't want to lead your answer, but --
Oh, but that's an interesting thing you're bringing up 'cause -- what you're bringing up is really interesting. There was a pecking order. When I got started, the pecking order was TV above all else. If you were TV news, boy, you walked on water. Nintendo would open any door for you. And then after television, broadcast news. The next thing was Time and Newsweek, and then after that it was the game magazines. After that, it was the newspaper. And then after that, the websites and everything else. But if you were a big newspaper, you were really treated well. So, since my middle initials were USA Today, MSNBC, and Japan Times, that opened a lot of doors. Sometimes some of the PR people would quietly make jokes about how they'd hear it from all these kids who would say, "I'm with this little website and one day we're gonna be big, so you need to send us games."
Okay, so, the first thing to die was the newspapers. When -- you know, people don't buy newspapers anymore. So many of the newspapers I wrote for back in the day are just gone. They've been eaten up by -- you know, I wrote for Seattle Times. That's where I started out. But when I stopped getting work from the Seattle Times, I went to the Post Intelligencer, which no longer exists. So many of the newspapers are gone now. And then, the newspapers that are there are languishing. The TV guys aren't the biggest guys anymore. The big magazines -- I got into Parade Magazine. I did their Christmas list for three years. Parade Magazine at the time had, I think, 75 million readers every Sunday. It was considered the largest publication in the world. Then everyone looked at what Parade was doing and they started doing it and then the newspapers started dying and now is Parade not such a huge thing. Now, Kotaku, which would have been laughable back in '93, if it existed at all, is as important or more important than anybody. And GameSpot is very important. And Geoff Keighley -- I enjoyed this little window of time where, you know, I was arguably not the biggest, most important journalist. I think Andy McNamara always was very, very important.
But I was important. And now, the things that I wrote for would have been nothing. I would have been the one that wasn't all that important when I'd contact Nintendo or Sega, they'd say, "Well, yeah, we like you, so we'll loan you games if you want but that's about it." There was a point where I had about 1,500 games coming through my mailbox every year.
[Laughs.] I would believe it. Not just the games, but the extra stuff they would send you with it: knick-knacks and toys and tchotchkes and --
Oh yeah, they were -- and jackets and suitcases. I got one PR person really, really angry at me. Well, I got lots of PR people angry at me. But in this particular case, when they sent their game out to most journalists, they sent it with a mountain bike. When they sent me my copy of the game, they sent it with a little box of Slim Jim meat sticks. I think there was a message there. Most of the games that arrived would arrive between late August and late September or October. There was one year where my family was getting ready to travel in late September, my wife and I our children. My next door neighbor said, "Oh, no problem. I'll just pick up your boxes everyday and keep them in my living room." And when we returned home a week later, he didn't have a living room. It was filled to the brim with my boxes.
Why leave to become a novelist?
Well, a couple of things. One was I had written two books. Well, I had written one book. I had written a book called The Clone Republic. It sold -- they said they would buy that if I could give them a good outline for a sequel. So, The Clone Republic had released and was selling pretty well. I was hoping that they'd buy more books, and before I even finished the sequel, which was called Rogue Clone, they called up and asked for two more books. Okay, so, that's the positive side of why I quit.
A very real truth to the matter was that the writing was on the wall. The beginning of the end for me was September 11th.
Why is that?
On September 11th, obviously I was in Japan -- well, not obviously I was in Japan, but I was in Japan covering the launch of the GameCube. Obviously, the World Trade Center came down. And a number of my editors said, "Hey look, Steve, let's lay off for a month or so because we really need to concentrate our space on terrorism and what's going on." And I took them at their word. So, for a number of them I didn't contact them for a month. A month is a long time in journalism.
Especially in the internet era.
Yeah. And so during that month -- they obviously stopped hearing from me and a couple of them had quit their jobs and the new guys who came in didn't know that I was writing for them. Other places hadn't heard from me and thought maybe I'd moved on, so they let new writers. I lost a lot of really good clients at that point. So I started scrambling and I still had some big clients. I could make a decent living. But the writing was on the wall. I'd had 15 years of really good success at the time that I quit.
Can you talk a bit about fandom for sci-fi novels? What seems similar or different about it from videogames?
That's an interesting question. You know, the person you really should be talking to would be Arnie Katz, because Arnie Katz -- the founder of Electronic Games Magazine and really truly the pioneer who launched game journalism -- went on to write columns and things about fandom and science-fiction fandom. That's really his area, so he might have a lot more to contribute to you than I would have.
Maybe you'll feel this is a little out of your expertise if you're referring me to someone else, but have you heard of the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies?
I don't think I know those.
You don't? Okay.
Maybe I will reach out to Arnie, then.
Yeah, I think you'll get better information from him than you would from me.
Okay, sure. Well, something else I wanted to ask about your writing sci-fi was with some of the work you've done, can you talk about how you build worlds out and establish universes without fundamentally changing things too much?
Well, you know, the funny thing is that my Wayson Harris novels didn't start out as Wayson Harris novels. They started out as Star Wars novels.
You've heard that story before?
Yeah, so, I thought I was writing Star Wars and then I really did have to change it quite a bit. [Laughs.] Because obviously they didn't want me to write Star Wars novels.
How do you feel like your years of being a student of videogames influenced your novel writing?
All those years of playing games influenced my sense of narrative very deeply. I read a review of one of my novels in which the writer commented on how quickly I ramp up from scene setting to full-on-violence. My zero-to-60 throttle came from playing video games, I think. I did some boxing in high school, and I constantly draw on that experience for fight scenes, but shootouts and chase scenes are absolutely and deeply influenced from a life spent playing videogames.
What do you feel that videogames have accomplished?
Oh, they've accomplished a lot! They've accomplished the impossible. They've become a new medium. Right? When you stop to think about it, first there was print, and then somewhere along the line we got -- I think, didn't we have moving pictures before we had radio? I'm not sure who came first: Edison or --
Well, didn't radio start or first get invented in the late 19th century?
Well, let's see. When McKinley got shot -- who was one of the pioneers of radio?
I don't think it was Marconi. They were involved with trying to pull the bullet out of him. I don't remember who it was. It was either Garfield or McKinley, but one of them was shot and it shouldn't have been fatal. But they spent so much time trying to get the bullet out that it killed them. One of the people they brought in to do that was one of the pioneers of radio. I don't think it was Marconi -- no, you know what? It was Alexander Graham Bell, I think. Yeah. I think it was Bell.
So, I'm mixed up. I'm not sure which comes first, but when you think about the space between when print became a medium and when radio and TV -- you know, it got closer and closer. To the point where I can't distinguish which came first, movies or radio, and then TV wasn't too far after that. They've tried other things. They tried to create other mediums, but videogames pulled it off. And not only are they another medium, but they're a major medium. They're shaping society. I mean, so much of what young men think and do now they learn from videogames. One of the big differences -- you know, videogames are an active medium. Somebody once pointed out to me -- and it's a really good point -- that the famous creator of Sonic, oh, come on. You know who I mean.
Oh, I mean, I'm probably going to mispronounce it, but do you mean Yuji Naka? Is that right?
Yeah, Yuji Naka. Thank you very much.
I had to think there for a second.
Well, at least you were able to think. Like I said: old.
So, Naka, when Naka came out with NiGHTS, another journalist -- a good journalist by the name of Jared Horowitz made the comment to me that Naka was a great teacher. And he was exactly right. The thing that made NiGHTS and Naka and Shigeru Miyamoto stand out is that really they were teaching you new behaviors. New ways to press the button and new patterns to press the button. They could do it better than anybody else around them at the time. And that's the difference between an active media and passive media, is that active media does teach you behaviors. And videogames -- you know, I think if you were to check to test the acuity and the dexterity of young videogamers, you'd find that with the exception of maybe magicians and musicians, people didn't have the kind of dexterity that now you find in great supply around the United States, the finger dexterity. I think the way that people approach problems -- again, this is the positive side of videogames. I think that videogames -- a lot of videogames -- teach a kind of quick analysis.
On the negative side, videogames combined with TV combined with a society that's involved in entertainment more than work, we're heavy now. We've put on weight. We've got obesity. We've got -- one of the scary things with videogames, and I wasn't the first journalist to get concerned. Actually, David Sheff was the first journalist I know of to bring it up, which was fears about addiction. And videogame addiction has turned out to be a very key concern.