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Editor’s Note: You may remember Nick Suttner from his days at 1up/EGM, but how much do you really know about the man behind the words? Alex grills his idol on his love for indie games, the perfect review system, his future plans in the industry, and more. – Aaron
I wanted to be a writer since I was a little kid, but after I sort of fell off the train in high school, it was Nick Suttner who inspired me to get back on track. I had always felt a connection to his writing, so when he recommended people start a blog and write, write, write, I did just that.
Nick was one of the victims of the “1upocalypse” when Ziff Davis closed down EGM and sold off 1up.com, but he landed on his feet and is now playtesting games for 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?
Alex: For all your work to get into game journalism, you were only at 1UP a relatively short period of time. You have a blog but you don’t update it very much. Do you miss writing at all?
Nick: 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.
Alex: 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 as well as the CO-OP guys.Do you think that these magazines can succeed? Is this possibly the new era of print? One that won’t adopt the poor tactics of the old era?
Nick: 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.
Alex: You and Phil (Kollar) seemed very passionate about 1UP FM/Rebel FM. Do you miss podcasting? Will we see any podcasts from you in the future?
Nick: 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.
Alex: Any future ppearances on Rebel FM, or perhaps another CAGcast appearance? Or would you have to lose this job before CheapyD would have you on again?
Nick: 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.
Alex: Are you looking to move 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?
Nick: 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.
Alex: You seem to have started a Twitter love affair lately with Justin McElroy of 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?
Nick: 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?)
Alex: When you were a reviewer, a lot of people gave you flak for falling in love with indie darlings and hyping them up more than they felt the games deserved. Was this a result of your desire to see the indie gaming scene grow?
Nick: 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.
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.
Alex: 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. What is, in your mind, the best possible review scale?
Nick: 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.
Alex: What do you think indie developers can teach the big studios?
Nick: 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.
Alex: Alright, you were my favorite game reviewer because if you said a game was great, I usually loved it as well. But you loved N+, and I found that it quickly grew boring. Why is it such an “amazing” game?
Nick: 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.
Alex: I only played by myself. I don’t have many local gaming friends, so co-op would have never worked out for me.
Nick: There’s your problem, sir. Though you could always cross your fingers and try and hook up with a friend online; if you can swing a game without lag it’s still stupendous.
Alex: Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me! Not many people would have gone to the lengths you did for someone as unimportant as myself. You’re a stand-up guy, and the games industry could use more people like you.
Nick: My absolute pleasure, sir, thanks for the opportunity.
An extended version of this interview is available at Cerebral Pop, as well as more of my writings and those of other contributors.