We often don’t get the chance to see the video game industry through the eyes of those who work in it and that is why I decided to start a series of feature interviews to get a fresh perspective on what’s really going on in the hearts and minds of those involved.
My first interview is with Chris Kohler, who is a gaming blog editor for Wired. I had the opportunity to speak with him briefly while attending the Portland Retro Gaming Expo in Portland, Oregon.
How did you get your start as a gaming industry journalist?
Kohler: I started doing video game journalism when I was 12 years old and I wrote reviews of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3 for the NES in my 6th grade school paper, which was distributed to all of the 6th grade classes, not just mine, so that was really a great time. Really, around that time, I discovered Electronic Gaming Monthly and there were things that were not Nintendo Power out there. For instance, in 1993, Electronic Games—they were doing stuff that was more than just reviews and previews and that sort of thing. EG had a “fandom central” column and it reviewed amateur publications and so, 13-year-old me was like, “I’m going to make one of those!” So I made a fanzine and I called it Video Zone and I traded it with people. I eventually started sending it to editors of magazines just to get it reviewed in their magazine.
Eventually, they came back to me and said, “Yeah, we might be able to review the fanzine but do you want to do some writing?” and I was 16 at the time. This was for VIZ Media and they had a short-lived magazine about Japanese video games. So, I got my first paycheck for writing when I was 16 and it was pretty much a hop, skip, and a jump from doing stuff for VIZ when an editor asked me to write for Wired. I was 22 and that is what I do now.
What was the first system you owned growing up?
Kohler: The first system we played games on when I was a kid was probably the TRS80 and I remember playing Atari 2600 Superman, but our first “real” gaming system was the Atari 800 computer, which used cartridges and discs. We had no cartridges and barely ever used the cartridge slot. We had drawers full of pirated copy software and my dad would make sure we got every single game from his friends and that is what I played video games on until 1988 when Nintendo was huge and we just had to beg our parents to get us an NES.
What is your view on the Kickstarter indie developer craze?
Kohler: Obviously, we are still waiting to see what will happen with a lot of these Kickstarters coming out and are wondering if people are going to be satisfied; how people going to feel like when they donated money to this; are they wondering if what they are getting as far as rewards are actually fulfilling to them . For those people having gotten rewards for funding those early Kickstarters, they think, “You know what? I’m going to kick in more money for the next Kickstarter when it comes along because I am into this.”
When it first started out, you know, Broken Age, the Double Fine game, and a lot of the big ones, people still don’t have their rewards from those games yet. So we really don’t know yet if people are going to feel totally satisfied with the whole cycle and are going to be happy with that and then kick in more money the next project. I can say for myself, I got all the rewards for Leisure Suit Larry: Reloaded (I think that’s what it was called). I got my boxed copy of the game, a t-shirt, a condom, and all that kind of stuff. The game came out and I played it and I was like, “You know what? I feel good. I donated $100 bucks, I got a game made that I really, really, wanted, it happened, and I helped make it happen. I got a bunch of stuff as rewards for helping making that happen and I feel good.”
I personally am ready to kick it into the next round of Kickstarters because I think crowd funding is great. I hope it works out as well for everyone else and they don’t feel disappointed that they had to wait a long time or that the rewards weren’t as exciting as they thought they were going to be. Because, remember, shopping is very kind of psychological because you buy something, you’re excited about it, and two years later, you might not want that thing you bought. With Kickstarter, when you back or buy something, you’re waiting two to three years later to get the fruits of what you paid for and, if people start connecting those up and thinking, “Do I want this now?” or “Do I want this three years from now?”, there might be some issues.
Who do you think is winning the current next gen battle?
Kohler: Not Nintendo. I think that is the only real answer at this point. Between Xbox One and the PS4, I really do not know what is going to happen. Sony seems to have the hearts and minds of gamers at this point, but at the same time, you know, Microsoft has shown amazing tenacity, I mean the original Xbox was the punch line of the show—it was horrible. It was so bad because they made all the wrong moves and everything that could have gone wrong with the Xbox did and then, the next generation after that—industry leaders!
You can never really tell before consoles come out what’s going to happen, so I am looking forward to seeing what happens with the PS4 versus the Xbox One. I am really looking forward to seeing if the industry seriously gets disrupted like, is Valve really going to hurt sales of next gen consoles with Steambox? Maybe Apple, later this month, when they have their big iPad press conference and pull out Apple TV, you will be like, “Hey, look at this! It’s like ioS gaming for your television!” With the full faith and credit of Apple behind it, that could send the PS4 and Xbox One into a tailspin. So it is exciting times and I do not know what Nintendo is doing but it is not what is going to work for them at this point.
Who is the most famous person in the industry you have met?
“The most famous person I have met is Shigeru Miyamoto. I have interviewed him several times. He is a genius. Interviewing Miyamoto is fantastic!”
You can do so many interviews with so many different people and he is the only person that, with any question I ask, I am going to be really interested in the answer, because the answer has a great deal of thought put into it and it reveals something to me that I hadn’t thought of before.
Would you agree with Nolan Bushnell, who said Nintendo has become irrelevant?
Kohler: If Nintendo just keeps trying to do what they are doing now and not making the graphics better, then yes, I agree. Being an innovator in this space Nintendo will innovate and go through dips and then will innovate again and you know, “This is going to happen to you. You can’t just innovate all the time.” Nintendo, out of all the companies it started out with in the late 70s in Japanese video game space, is capable of turning things around and making an interesting new product that is a success. They know how to make hit products and, whether it is a traditional video game console or something else entirely, I do believe that within five to ten years they will have another huge hit product on their hands, but it might not be the Wii U.
They might have to content themselves with the 3DS level of turnaround for the Wii U, where it gets the point where it is not a disaster anymore, but it is not a huge hit and they just have to go to work on the next thing. They have the processes, they have the people in place to make that happen, and I do not see a crisis in leadership at Nintendo. Maybe other people do, but I do not.
What advice would you give to aspiring gaming journalists out there who may want to interview Miyamoto some day?
Kohler: I would always say develop a specialty. I did Japanese video games back when a lot of people didn’t read or speak Japanese. I did previews of Japanese video games and, not understanding what was going on with it, I learned the language in order to tell editors, “Hey, I’ll play this roleplaying game for you instead of you muddling through it and not understanding what is going on and I will give you a preview where I will actually explain what’s going on.”
In the early 2000s, that was a valuable thing and now, everyone takes Japanese in college and so now, that advantage has come and gone. Now I try to tell people to go learn Mandarin or something like that, you know, try to find some area of expertise that editors don’t know about or want to cover. If I could just write the same thing you’re writing, not get paid to do it, and not feel like I am getting something in return, why would I do that? One of my writers was on top of iOS gaming and had written a book about it before anyone was covering it! So, for me that was like, “This is an emerging market, I don’t know anything about this, you’re my guy.” Therefore, you must be that guy.