Blitz 1UP

Giving indie developers a boost


Interview with Rock Paper Shotgun's Kieron Gillen

The Blitz 1UP team interview Kieron Gillen, director of Rock Paper Shotgun and author of the infamous How to Use and Abuse the Gaming Press blog, to find out what lights up his inbox.

1. For those who don't know you (for shame!) can you give us a brief overview of who you are and what you do?

Hello. I'm Kieron Gillen and I'm one of the four directors of PC Gaming website Rock Paper Shotgun. I've been writing about games professionally since 1995. I worked for PC Gamer between 1998-2003, where I ended up as their Deputy Editor. Then I went freelance, working for everyone from Edge to Eurogamer, from the Guardian to Gamasutra. When I'm not doing this, I dual-class as a comics writer, where I do indie books such as Phonogram and mainstream books like Marvel's Thor.

2. So that people know what buttons to push with you, which types of games do you most like playing and what are your favourite three of all time?

Oh, god. RPS doesn't do many list features for a reason, y'know?

I'm the classic generalist. My prime teenage years were on the Amiga, which was such a wide-ranging system, with the platformers rubbing up against the flight sims. It wasn't as good as the PC or the consoles at the specialities but it gave a wide grounding. I carry that with me and am kind of sad that it's gone away. And one of the reasons we do RPS like we do RPS is to try and encourage the widest possible idea of what gaming is.

What am I into right now? On RPS, I lean towards the most indie of the indie, things with hexes, perverse stuff and splashes of the mainstream. I played far too much Blood Bowl last year, despite the conversion being a bit nob.

All time, you're looking at – ooh – Deus Ex, Robotron and Sensible Soccer. That'll do, eh?

3. Roughly how many games do you check out each month, and how do you prioritise them?

Less than I used to, due to the aforementioned dual-classing. I'm mainly a comics writer now, so I no longer get to just relax and obsess into something. I don't earn all my money from playing games, so I get to pick and choose as opposed to taking commissions from an Editor. As I said, I play a lot of indie games. Today? Played 4 or 5 indie games to have a nose. Played some Lord of the Rings Online. Am about to play some Starcraft 2 when I finish this.

I don't always play deeply, but I play widely.

4. Rock, Paper Shotgun has a very strong following in no small part because it covers the small, obscure indie games as well as the AAA, even if some of these games are not available commercially. What made you and the team choose this approach for a gaming news site?

I've touched on some of that up-thread in that we see it all part of the same fabric. The Facebook games are the same thing as the hyper-indie-art game are the same thing as whatever costs 400 trillion pounds. It's all games and we want to help encourage people to think of it as such.

But there's lots more of 'em. The main one is to try and counter a problem I see with the games press. If you look at other forms, you'll see that pop-journalism does basically two things. Firstly, it tells you more about things you already know about and are interested in (so, to use pop music as a comparison, the NME sticking Radiohead or whoever on the cover). Secondly, it tells you about things you know nothing about whatsoever (so, to use pop music as a comparison, the NME sticking Sleigh Bells or whoever on the cover).

The games press is very good at the former and awful at the latter.

The idea of discovery – of a critic finding something a little obscure and bringing it into the wider eye – is much rarer here. I always remember one comment threader on Eurogamer saying something like "It can't be any good because I would have heard about it already" when I'd given a rave review to some East European oddity.

That's how indoctrinated the audience is to the big budget PR campaigns.

But we've tried to forge a reputation for going into depth on stuff which no-one else covers. We've been involved extremely early with some games that blew up enormously (e.g. we did the world's first review of World of Goo). We do enormous features on stuff barely anyone had covered (the Solium Infernum diaries spring to mind and Quinns' enormous Pathologic feature – both features which actually were very popular in terms of pure hits too). We just cover what we think is interesting, and try to do as much Sleigh Bells as Radiohead.

5. Your 2005 blog post on How to Use and Abuse the Gaming Press is still popular and relevant today, but it came from a time when there was less social media in the world and the landscape is always shifting. You did add some more points to the list at the World of Love conference: is there an update coming and are there any new fundamentals that you think developers should be aware of when trying to get the attention of the gaming press?

I was told that the videos for World of Love would all be put online. It hasn't happened yet. When it does, you can be sure I'll link it to death.

6. Which Indie Developers would you highlight as doing the best job at generating hype for their games?

It's a question of the right kind of hype, I think. I think someone like Cliff Harris is an interesting case to look at. He rubs a lot of people up the wrong way, but he's also very capable of getting much more coverage than an indie of similar size. Not that he tries to hype the game but he does create interesting stories. The big argument with Epic was an interesting one, but his "Talking to the pirates" and "Why didn't you buy my last game?" got a whole lot of attention. One of the things I said in the World of Love update was that you should stop hating the whole idea of marketing your game. If you think of it as something hateful, it'll be hateful. If you think of it as a logical extension of your creative act... well, you can start doing fun stuff which entertains people.

Positech's Gratuitus Space Battles

My advice to an indie without a game out yet... well, I'd primarily worry about making sure your game is totally brilliant. Most of your PR efforts should be after it comes out. If you haven't got a track record, it's very hard to get any coverage before it comes out.

7. You naturally get to see sooo many more games than the average fan or developer. From your view how is the gaming landscape changing, and what can indie devs do to further capitalise on this?

To state the obvious, look for what people aren't doing. If you're doing something inspired by Braid right now... well, it's too late.

The platform-as-expression-of-indie-game is, I suspect, approaching the end of its natural life cycle. And if you're trying to do it as a business, and there's a freeware or webgame thing out there which basically does what your game does... well, it's normally a bad side.

Selling a scrolling shooter is enormously tricky, due to how many fascinating freeware stuff is out there. One reason Cliffski can charge $20 a game is because his games are a little to one side of the main thrust.

Originality is, of course, an enormous risk but being unoriginal is an even bigger one, in my opinion.

8. Do you find that any genres are particularly better than others when it comes to doing features about them?

Interesting question. Something I've often said is that games criticism is only ever as good as the games. In a fallow time for games, the writing tends to be shit because the really best stuff needs something worth writing about. One of the best things I've ever done – IMHO and all that – is a ten page feature on a single level in the third Thief game. If Jordan Thomas and Randy Smith hadn't designed the curfew, it simply wouldn't exist. There hasn't been a game with a level which demanded that level of treatment since.

Generally speaking, the combined-arms sort of game is the easiest to write a feature about. Your Deus Ex, your Fall Outs. A game which melds narrative with freedom with lots of lucid bits and pieces. The other thing which works well is a game with a big human element because even people who don't care about games at all can be lured in with interesting things humans are doing. I'll read about Eve all day and I have no desire to ever play it.

This is mostly my own leanings, however. I've seen writers pull interesting stuff out of pretty much every genre. When you've seen Tim Stone write about flying across the Atlantic in real time in a flight sim and keeping the reader totally enthralled, you know people can.

Making features interesting is our job. Just make a good game. We'll handle the rest. Or give it a shot.

9. What are the best and worst things about the indie gaming scene in your opinion?

The sheer unexpectedness of it. I never know what's going to be in my inbox on any given morning. That's a joy. I like surprises.

Worst thing is when you see someone with the freedom to do whatever they want... and they just make the same sort of thing they'd do at a major studio, just without a budget. The glut of Counter-strike mod-clones back in the day always depressed me.

10. Which other games journalists would you generally recommend indie developers follow and court for coverage of their games?

This feels like I'm compiling a sort of 1950s McCarthy-ite Communist Sympathisers list or something. Obviously all the Rock Paper Shotgun guys – Jim, Alec, Walker and Quinns will all pick up stuff from various places. You'll all be following Tigsource and Indie Games, yeah? If not, do so. Throw in Simon Parkin and Mathew Kumar. Brandon Boyer, obviously. If you're on the strategy side, Tom Chick, Troy Goodfellow and Tim Stone. And if it involves perversity of any sort, Leigh Alexander. Or me, for that matter.

11. Is there anything else that you’d like to share with us?

Nothing particularly. I look forward to whatever developers out there wish to share with us. That's the whole point of the endeavour.

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Latest Comments

  • Clever Tips for Marketing Your Game: try "accidentally" dropping the name of your game into sentences in place of other, similar-sounding words.

    "If Jordan Thomas and Randy Smith hadn't designed the curfew, it simply wouldn't exist."


    Posted by: Fraser on August 19, 2010 16:07 GMT