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Niero talks 10 years of Destructoid (Part 1)

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This is a story all about how...

I can't remember exactly what it was that brought me to Destructoid so many years ago. It had to be an article, probably a review, that attracted me here. I know for certain it was the community that made this my new home for video game news after the tone of comments found at my old site became too much to bear. I didn't want to bitch about games, I wanted to celebrate them and make jokes about them and not take this whole thing too seriously. That's what I found here at Destructoid, both in the users who fill the comment sections with delightful gifs and clever wordplay, and in the editors and writers for this site who seemed to really enjoy this hobby we all share.

In this time I delighted myself getting to know the personalities that made Destructoid, Destructoid. This is what brought me back to the site hour after hour, day after day. Through two site redesigns, multiple controversies, sudden staff changes, and hundreds of 404 errors, the spirit of Destructoid never died and neither did my fascination with this site. What's funny is that as I familiarized myself with everyone here, there was one person who remained an enigma to me. Even after I was brought on to the main staff, his presence was by this point buried so far behind the scenes that you might not even know he ran the place. That's why as we approached Destructoid's 10 Year Anniversary, I knew it was the perfect opportunity to really introduce myself, as well as some of the newer readers here, to Yanier "Niero" Gonzalez – the founder of Destructoid.com.

CJ: Hello Niero and thank you for agreeing to this interview. Here we are at the Golden Week, celebrating 10 years of Destructoid, which is quite an accomplishment these days. I want to start out by talking about B.D. – Before Destructoid. According to The Destructoid.com Story, this all began ten years ago when a friend suggested you start a video game blog to get invited to E3. According to that post, back in the '80s you started video game clubs and dreamed of being a Nintendo Game Counselor; but it doesn't really mention anything about you in the months or years directly before you started the blog that would become Destructoid. Prior to all this were you trying to get into the video game industry and if so in what ways?

Niero: Let me take you back into the '80s -- a time when I wanted to date Vanna White. Anyway, the point is, she's like 132 years old now so maybe I have a chance. Dreams are important. 

To be perfectly frank, in 2006 I regarded working in the video games industry in the same way that an adult reflects back on their childhood dream on becoming an astronaut. That realization that, though I'm no longer a creepy-looking tadpole, I've spent too much time back then looking for the Rune Axe in the frozen moon caves. I was cultivating every shape of excuse to talk me out of embarking on some ambiguous path on the actual planet I'm standing on.

Maybe little Niero thought filling up notebooks in a vacuum was doing the work to get the job someday, not yet understanding that jobs don't actually go to the smartest people. That's some bullshit early-20s Niero had to unlearn during his first real office job, and while trying to teach myself how to down healthy servings of Jagermeister at South by Southwest in 2007. That night, a year after Destructoid was launched, I finally understood the value of just looking like you belonged there and blending in with everybody else that's faking it -- from the VC funded to the Tumblr jockey. That's the game.

Remember when we met at the Fig after E3? You were like "Hey, I'm CJ," and then you're suddenly all-access Destructoid. From random Internet yelling to industry mixers to looking at games nobody can talk about yet. I showed up at E3 eight years before you and I met, I walked into the Fig looking for people's faces that I could recognize from their online avatars, dying to give them my homemade business cards.

(Fun fact: Niero and I have never met. This meeting that took place after E3 was between him and a different CJ. Apparently he thought that guy was me the whole time. Because of how funny this case of mistaken identity is to me, I decided to keep that passage intact.)

So, before the blog?

Honestly, I didn't do shit but dream my little dream and burn-test my consoles, hoping the video game job fairy would show up at my door. Something fucked up has to happen to you (get equipped with parents divorcing, earn +999 grit) and then you go on a crazy mission and create your own luck, which is ultimately what I really attribute to getting me here. I don't know that things would had turned out the way they did had I had a more stable home growing up. I mean, I had a good childhood and a solid group of close friends, but then I went on for years without a cohesive sense of family until Destructoid happened. I felt needed here. People relied on me. I couldn't have known it would be so satisfying for me personally either, as that came much later.

But to answer it in more detail -- no, I did nothing. I hadn't even tried, or sent a resume, or tried to meet anyone. Actually, one guy, Jayson Dubin, had a gaming magazine in Fort Lauderdale (he runs Gamezone now) and that was inspirational, knowing that somebody on this coast was doing something in gaming. I think I met him in 2006 during a completely unrelated event I had attended.

Maybe I was afraid of getting rejected, or wanted to blame it on my parents hating each other, or being poor, or not being white, or not having this ridiculous Spanish accent to confuse people over the phone and living in Redmond, where my dad could learn how to play golf and meet Howard Philips somehow and get me a job in the Nintendo mailroom where I could work my way up. It's completely idiotic nonsense, but I remember being a little kid trying to figure how America worked, I didn't really have a template.

Destructoid was manufactured in Hialeah, whose tagline back then was "fango y factorias" -- mud and factories. I lived facing the water treatment plant. I'm lucky I didn't get deformed. My mom assembled purses and my dad delivered pizza. So yeah, had Trump been president instead of Carter back then, you wouldn't be reading Destructoid today. I'd be hoping somebody would toss me a copy of Nintendo Force over the wall so I could read the other good Carter. Hialeah's pretty nice now, though. They planted some trees after they legalized gambling.

To live the dream. Let's see, well, I remember interrupting my parents one night as a child, Nintendo Power magazine in hand, asking if it was okay for me to win a life-sized statue of RoboCop because we didn't have too much space in the house. We didn't have a lot and I certainly couldn't even go out of state for college, and growing up with a childhood dream of working a job as unambitious as answering telephones (and also simultaneously unlikely) was worrisome. Nobody took me seriously, even though from the letters I had collected over the years from those game counselors I had the complete plan: after high school I would move to Redmond, read the newspaper every day (Nintendo posted the wanted ads there!) and there was no way they'd turn down my encyclopedic knowledge of their games. But realistically, I didn't even know anybody who had ever been on an airplane that didn't involve fleeing their shitty country. So, to get on a plane to try to work in the video games industry was no different to me than hoping to be an astronaut. What money would get me there? How do you even get a job in another state? It was just not going to happen, but it was a dear dream to me anyway.

Still, as a child it made so stupidly happy to draw my own gaming strategy guides in notebooks and organize gaming nights with my friends, which back then meant finding out whose parental big TV setup was not going to be dominated by Spanish soap operas and getting everybody to ride bike there at once. You kids and your Steam, I envy you so hard.

Right after I graduated high school, the Internet suddenly blew up and that game counselor job had long gone away, and I was working on a backup dream. This is going to sound so indie elitist, but games were also changing. I thought that the future of 3D video games was fucking gross and I really lost interest after the beautiful sprite-based games were dying out, so I turned to my comics. I was drawing a lot at the time and wished I could draw for a living, because I hated the idea of a 9-5 job or wearing slacks and doing something dickless in them. I became an intern artist at the Miami Herald newspaper in '98, not because I was amazing, but because I had also done 300+ hours of community service so I wouldn't have to deal with the depression of being at home.

That year, the newspaper started laying people off by the dozen. The Internet chased me out of two dream jobs! So, for Destructoid to happen, that's some cosmic what-the-fuck right there. I had learned enough about computers there (we couldn't afford one) that I eventually got a job finally answering telephones... for TigerDirect and in a tie. Why the fuck did we have to wear ties to answer phones? I swear America in the '90s was retarded. Half a dream. The only thing I did here to get myself into the industry was buy myself a Diamond video card and rediscover games through Unreal and Half-Life. I eventually became a web designer and jumped around a few jobs, trying to do my own agency, to eventually working at a travel-focused one that let me come to work in jeans.

In 2006, I was living in the hookerville part of Miami where I was freelancing Flash websites for local nightlife talent, and regularly read Joystiq thinking, "How the hell do they find all this shit?" A childhood friend of mine, Fraq, had just come back from the army and was looking for work so we got him into web design. He somehow became obsessed with Nick Denton, the Gawker guy. He wanted to be Nick and even wrote to him, who replied "Don't do it for the money." He and my other high school friend, Tom (who later wrote all of our software), were doing these college culture, last night's party, and Miami nightlife blogs, trying to figure it all out. They did. Fraq was chilling at the pool at 2:00pm while I was making banner ads for hotel chains, hating my life. So when my birthday rolled around and I got that close to living my dream for one weekend and having someone tell me I couldn't go to E3 because I didn't have a web site, I was like, okay, all the broken Lego pieces from this dissatisfying life are right there. I know web, I know bloggers, I know gaming. If I stack them, I can do this, even if only for a weekend. Now that you know my life story so you can understand why I wasn't going to take no for an answer.

CJ: You know if your friend Fraq is still looking to be Nick Denton, I have a sex tape of Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake he can refuse to take off his website.

It's crazy to think that there was a time you could get into E3 just by having a blog. I don't know if that would be possible today. I imagine you have to work for a somewhat legitimate website or at least have 30,000 subscribers to your terrible Let's Play videos. Did you actually make it into E3 your first time?

Niero: I did, and it was everything I had hoped it would be. Why I made the helmet and all that is well known, so I won't go there. I'll tell you some different stories this year, maybe stuff I've never shared before.


What's funny about my trip to E3 is how completely clueless I was. I didn't understand anything. I had it completely, completely wrong. I didn't schedule meetings, I couldn't get into the big press conferences, I didn't go to most of the after-hour events, and I thought a lot of people would be in costumes. I thought it was going to be nerdy-as-fuck through and through, and it mostly was, but it was definitely more business than I cared for. Imagine when my surprise when I sit down at the ESA presser and I had to wiggle through a bunch of assholes wearing slacks. I thought, nope, I don't belong here, but I don't work for them anyway. I already had a few readers by that summer who I knew were waiting for my posts.

You see, I had realized that popular college web sites didn't want to link to these boring-ass journalists and were practically starving for gaming content. That was key, so I knew who to send my tips to. Destructoid was regularly featured on College Humor. In fact, and this is also not commonly known, Ron, Tom, and I took three trips to New York because IAC was trying to court us. I wanted to go big with Dtoid, but they just wanted us to help create gaming comedy videos, and take Destructoid in that direction. It wasn't a fit. We gave a bunch of ideas to a very healthy-looking thin white man named Michael Jackson, and we came back to Florida. Now you know the untold story behind Dorkly.com, who Jeff Rubin and Brian Murphy have done an amazing job with. In another quantum dimension, I live in The Village and look less like a cartoon villain, thanks to MJ's life-changing dietary advice.

CJ: Let's assume that version of Neiro lives in the Darkest Timeline. The Destructoid staff has obviously changed over the years as it's unfair to assume people will spend a decade of their life doing something that really doesn't pay. But take us back to the infancy of this website. Who all was there?

Niero: Not the girl I was dating at the time, that was the first casualty. The time Destructoid took plus my day job was unhealthy, and that's the startup life. She'd go to sleep and I'd go to the computer. I remember she would never say Destructoid. She used to call it "the empire." I went on to build my empire and I heard she got married to some nice-looking investment dude with abs and boats. Everybody loves a happy ending.

Who was there .... well, Jordan, for starters. He just broke 10,000 news posts this month. He's been through it all and would be another great person to interview. My friend who was doing the college blog, he decided he would add a video game column and he had found this brainy, lanky high school kid named Anthony Burch to submit these long, articulate thought pieces that were also kind of awkward and raunchy, and I thought, man, this guy is the future of Destructoid. I was basically specializing in calling out bullshit in press releases with another guy named Fronz, a guy from my original childhood Nintendo fan club was doing JRPGs, and that was enough to draw out more weirdos like us. My first female contributor, Faith, was not shy about her night job as a stripper. Hamza came out of nowhere and was sending me the weirdest stuff he could unearth from 4chan and YTMND, and this insane but lovable Tasmanian devil of a man called Ron Workman got our first videos going. Joystiq fired Robert Summa for being overly excited about the Wii going into production and we hired him the next day. It was Summa who taught us how the industry worked on the inside. I met Dale at E3, and when I sold my house in 2008 to fund Destructoid, that was when we really hit our stride, edited by the highly qualified Nick Chester (just kidding, he was a mattress salesman; we all winged it). It was around that time when a young taxi dispatcher by the name of Jim Sterling started posting in our community blogs, perhaps drawn to Dtoid by all the work Hollie Bennett had put in growing our readership overseas. We were misfits, like an '80s movie cast. Chad Concelmo. Colette Bennett. Topher Cantler. Alex Ryan. Jon Carnage. Rey Gutierrez. Some people whose real names I never learned. Kayka. Ocelot. Who was Zephyr? Who was Dr. Boa? Maybe they'll reveal themselves in the comments after all these years.

Oh, side story: so some very go-getter marketing guy from Future tracks me down under the guise of a partnership, but what he really wanted to know was what Destructoid's secret sauce was. We did a quick call and I sent him one of our top 10s that I thought he would link back to us, but this guy decides to use it as a template. Right after that, GamesRadar goes off the deep end with these awkward daily Top 7s, clearly forced, which surely alienated their readers. I kind of feel directly responsible for the period of decline of that site, but that guy didn't seem particularly interested in gaming and should not have been in charge, or maybe it was just a coincidence. Luckily, someone with common sense eventually undid this madness, but I still feel bad about it. If you worked at GamesRadar around 2007, maybe I owe you a beer.

Meanwhile, our traffic was exploding while our technology stack was imploding and I had to leave the home page altogether to figure out how to keep us online and how to pay for all this travel and humanity. Tom modified Wordpress 2 so much that he eventually wrote our own platform. To this day, this still requires a lot of Batman-after-hours from Tom and I. It's always been a hustle, and there's no book or class that teaches you how to do this on a shoestring budget, because you're not supposed to build a company and continue to stay a starving artist. I kind of thrive on it -- it's really challenging.

Another early days Destructoid unknown hero in all this is Justin Davis, who is now at IGN. He helped me attract advertisers to pay for the party, and helped explain why Nex couldn't have giant spiders eating women out next to an Intel banner if we wanted to make our hosting bill. You can't really do that, but then again we all just put a bunch of phalluses in our mouths to prove Darren wrong. He and Kyle and Chris and others were all community members that ultimately became the home page editors.

CJ: Giant spiders eating a woman out? I think I saw that hentai during a questionable period in 2005 when Nick Jr. tried to rebrand itself as the destination for spiders sexually pleasuring women. Perhaps the niche on that one is too small. 

So you have the website and you have the staff. What were some of the websites out there that you looked to for inspiration and were there sites that you knew you wanted to avoid replicating?

Niero: The first gaming site I really fell in love with was called something like "Red Puppy," and it was a blog. They were incredibly witty and then suddenly were sold for millions and the buyer just killed it, and it was the strangest thing. After that I read a lot of Snowball Network-era IGN and specifically being super pissed when they paywalled video, maybe 2001ish. I somehow got into Kotaku, particularly the surreal work of Eliza Gauger and Florian Eckhardt (John Brownlee), who openly made fun of each other, which was a refreshing change from all the goobers at E3 hating on my helmet. I loved the terror that was Cmdr Zorg of UK Resistance, and how Perez Hilton would draw cocaine and jizz on people's face with MS Paint. If you look back on early Destructoid, we would tag up all the photos with horrible captions and put memes on the home page before they were even widely called memes. I think we called them forum fads because that word wasn't popular yet.

These people, and having just read Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, set the tone for the rage and fuckery that I would unleash on the video game Internet when GamePolitics tried to decide for me that I couldn't be a games writer. Even in 2006, there was a lot of colorless and otherwise impersonal video games writing, older sites that buried their community content and refused to accept that they needed comments sections, and I never really understood that. From 2004-2008, having a blog was like having an STD. PR people didn't want to touch you unless they had to, but the legacy sites were forced to add comments sections because we were blowing them away. And now being a total jackass is the norm. I love that YouTubers and Twitch stars ultimately beats the preppy gaming press in every possible metric.

CJ: There is something inherently good about the plucky upstart YouTube star beating the mammoth gaming websites that are funded by News Corp or those that let Microsoft pay for a documentary about how awesome that website is going to be. Even if I don't watch those streamers, knowing they're on top brings a little joy to my otherwise crushingly dark world.

Destructoid, now at 10 long years in this business, is one of those established sites getting crushed by the TotalBiscuits of the world, but at one time you were the plucky upstart. The first big break Destructoid got was with the Bully hearing and Jack Thompson. Thompson was on a rampage against this game and brought a public nuisance lawsuit against a bunch of retailers to keep them from selling it. You were in the courtroom on October 12th when the decision came down and beat everyone else to the punch on reporting it. If you could, walk me through that day?

Niero: I wish I could show you my video of that day, but Destructoid's first YouTube account was deleted over a Pokémon trailer. Thanks, Nintendo.

That was perhaps most notable by core gaming news enthusiasts, but that wasn't how I won our readers. I had the Undertaker (Machinima) doing a flamboyant lady's entrance on every college site linking in. I had every Spanish porn website looking at our nerdcore calendar photos. My first appearance on the big blogs was teaching people that Dell's $10,000 gaming computer was a grossly overpriced PR stunt (Joystiq picked it up) and Kotaku had picked up my Mr. Destructoid web comic that made fun of the barebones Xbox 360 year-one lineup and PlayStation 3 delays. Isn't that something? My two biggest competitors each picked up a piece only made possible by the computer phone job I had at Tiger, and the drawing job I had at the newspaper. My broken Lego puzzle was taking shape. I kept scouring a site called Technorati to understand what kind of stories bigger sites were linking to, and I knew I had to take risks and produce original content. A crazy person on staff who I won't name told everyone he could control Digg, and we submitted everything using our real names, but we were kicked out by the Digg 2 elite. The irony was that Kevin Rose later designed Digg 3 to win sites like ours back, and then their community imploded (karma!).

Anyway, so back to Jack Thompson. This is maybe 2007 and I still had a full-time job as a web designer. I came in extra early to the office that day so that I could take an extended lunch break for a "personal issue." I had to prove I was there and it had to be without a doubt airtight or nobody would link to me. Do you remember how incredibly expensive cameras were in 2006? I took a horrible handycam with me. Now, think about how stupidly brazen that is. I have zero media credentials, zero journalism experience, I don't even know Thompson (but by then he knew Dtoid!), and I'm showing up at some random courthouse to film and report all this like it's my job -- and they let me.


It's so funny that I just went for it and it worked out. Nobody was coming to Florida for this story, so I was the guy, and he was the villain of the video game industry. For me to report for gamers everywhere was a huge victory for Destructoid. We had the traffic from other stuff, but I think you're right. That article gave us the credibility that was missing. And then I rushed back to my day job like nothing happened. It could have gone horribly wrong, you know? Jack was the smartest guy in the room and I liked him as a person. I wrote a rambling profile about him after that also got on Digg. I remember being proud of that piece at the time, and being sad that stories like that didn't traffic quite as well.

CJ: Do you think Destructoid would be what it is today if not for Thompson and his crusade of stupidity?

Niero: As a publisher, that's the balancing act. I need people on staff to do serious work but we can't take it too seriously or we bore people. I send these crazy memos with horrible ideas to the team sometimes and I'm glad they only listen to me half the time.

CJ, you know the news cycle. It comes and goes, and when nothing's happening you have to publish whatever crazy thing you can think of. I think I would have kept pushing and finding a way to get on the map through original content. We've had so many widely shared hits through the work of the team long after me. The job hasn't changed. I used to get up, write four posts, go to work, come home destroyed, and schedule four more. Every day, for two years, until I got a team who respected what I was trying to do and came to my rescue. I was losing my mind trying to do it all myself. We'll review a game on ten different platforms but it's when Brett imagines what each amiibo feels like in his anus that people remember. À la cartridge isn't a commercial success on YouTube, but three years later, people will ask Steven to bring it back. Weird is important, especially when it's authentic weird, which is a good segue to that photo you have there. 

CJ: Yeah, this is a picture I've seen on several occasions here but I have zero context to what it is all about. What is the story behind it?


Niero: Gamecock Media Group's debut year. Mike Wilson held a funeral for E3 during a time when the industry was at an all-time stupid belief that the event would better suit the interest of the industry by conducting themselves like a Realtor's conference. I basically grabbed the bullhorn and told everyone that the new direction of E3 was stupid, used the opportunity to repeat the word Destructoid as many times as I could (I think I took it too far, but it was too important of an audience to pass up).

To be certain, I made an ass of myself, breaking my own rule that Mr. Destructoid doesn't speak. But traffic jumped after that day. More industry sites noticed us. Afterwards, I made an indirect reference to Rick Astley, and spent the afternoon riding around in a Segway on the Santa Monica boardwalk, helmet and white suit, to try and get as many random people to add Mr. Destructoid to their MySpace. I stopped working in a vacuum. I was doing the real work in front of real people. Now they're inviting fans back to E3 because it's that insane enthusiasm, the people screaming when a game is announced, that seals the investor deals. By 2009, public relations people learned that blogs weren't the enemy, despite the mean (but fair) things we might say.

I did all kinds of stuff like that. I once ran a 5K in tiny shorts and the helmet. It almost gave me a concussion. It's a pleasure for me to lend the helmet out to the community and act out their own interpretation of "What Would Mr. Destructoid Do?" The quietest kid will show up at our meet-ups and then suddenly becomes this ballsy fuck, getting up on stages and taking group photos with random people, discovering that there's a certain kind of weird that puts people at ease. I love that. So I'd do these crazy things and post them to attract the kind of reader who would "get" Destructoid -- that there's a lot more going on here, and that it's very intentional.

*****

That's it for part one of my interview with Niero. In Part 2, we'll look at former writers, fallen websites, who will bring about the end of Destructoid and how the business has changed.


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CJ Andriessen
CJ AndriessenFeatures Editor   gamer profile

Just what the internet needs: yet another white guy writing about video games. Also, I backed that Bloodstained game. more + disclosures


 



Filed under... #Destructoid #Destructoid Originals #Interview #notable

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