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Niero talks 10 years of Destructoid (Part 2)

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My life got flipped turned upside down

Welcome to Part 2 of my interview with Yanier "Niero" Gonzalez as we look back at 10 years of Destructoid. In Part 1, Niero and I discussed the early years of the website, its struggles, and its successes. For Part 2, I asked Niero about the future of this website, games journalism as it stands today, and the best game he's played since starting all of this.

CJ: This probably should have been the first question I asked you, but where did you get the name for this website?

Niero: Imagine me hiding at my day job, monitor turned away from the door, banging away at the keyboard trying to find something that wasn't taken. I knew that I didn't want to call it something as indistinguishable as GameDudeBrosDatabaseZero, so I came up with a ton of stuff. We almost called the site something like Red Angry Stick, which I'm glad we didn't do as there's so much Angry brands in gaming. Still, I wanted something that sounded like we were coming to fuck shit up, and Destructoid really fit that mold. I was worried it would be too hard to spell so I came up with Dtoid later, and had to buy a bunch of typos from domain trolls in later years. But yeah, totally made it up somehow. It sounded like a robot's name so I got on Getty Images and licensed the likeness of the Smoking Robot later that evening, and then eventually drew my own. The original Mr. Destructoid was blue and had this weird rooster crest on his head. I grew up reading those really bizarre neon early issues of Wired so that very much influenced our early art direction. My card was bright yellow with neon green and giant bit fonts. So annoying. People asked me to tone it down so they wouldn't have a seizure when scrolling the site.

CJ: I think we need to bring back retro Mr. Destructoid, even if for one day like with throwback jerseys in the NFL. 

Destructoid has outlived many of the more well-known video game websites there have been. Just recently we’ve lost Joystiq and Gametrailers. Off the top of my head, you’ve outlasted 1up.com, Daily Radar, Game Daily, whatever the hell UGO Networks was, and Escapist seems like it can go at any minute. I look at these websites and it’s pretty much the same thing over and over again: corporation starts or buys website to reach an audience where 50% of them block any sort of revenue you might make. Cutbacks are made, then more, and then it’s shut down. Besides the courting of IAC (which we mentioned in Part 1), have you ever been offered to sell Destructoid to a larger media company?

Niero: Since 2009, I've gotten an offer almost every six months like clockwork. Even a Chinese gaming company recently tapped me for acquisition. That's the thing: I've never wanted to sell as much as I've wanted to find somebody that will help me scale Destructoid into a monster, but I've yet to find that deal. You read about the Penny Arcade story and that's one-in-a-billion shot, but that's the right way to do it.

The way sites are valued financially keeps changing. Now I get less questions about my pageviews and more questions about our half-million social media followers. The whole thing has changed.

It's kind of like a rich kid who wants to start a restaurant without watching Kitchen Nightmares first. The publishing business is brutal. If you want to get depressed, look at the wiki of the history of gaming web sites. You have to really understand the cost of good editorial.

We've outlived way more than I care to count. Sometimes we end up on these Top 20 Gaming Site lists and a year later 1/3 of those sites are defunct. I'm still waiting for someone to bring me something strategic, where I'd want to continue working. When the founders check out, that's the beginning of the end.

CJ: I remember the first website I was asked to write for was NintendoStar. I was so excited about it even though most of my work turned out to be shit. I only lasted a few months because the guy who ran the site was in school and didn't really have the time to run it, so uploading what I had written fell into the hands of a friend of his who just didn't do it. I eventually said fuck it and left. That website no longer exists.

What I did like about that site as well as working here is I have a certain amount of freedom to what I can write and as a content creator I treasure that. How important is this website's independence to you?

Niero: Creative independence or financial independence? I want more of both. We've yet to hit our potential. Feels like two half-empty glasses; sometimes a little more in each cup than others by the year.

It's important that I can guarantee to the editors that they can go out and do creative stuff without consequence. We can lose an ad deal or get blacklisted and we deal with it our way. That's been key. Of course, there's the tradeoff. How important is it that we can pay everyone so we have less turnover? That's arguably more important to the readers who get really attached to their favorite writers.


In this economy it's hard to have it both ways. The concession I've had to make so far has been to be more sponsor friendly, a little less cunnilingus, if you will. That goes back to the crazier Destructoid red-lining it. I like the freedom of sitting down at the computer every day and making what I want of it, and everybody that works here gets to do that. That idealism of running the anti-company, and the way we operate as a creative collective. That's everything to us.

CJ: Speaking of getting blacklisted, in my less than a year's time on staff I’ve nearly got us sued and certainly got us blacklisted by at least one company. I know just recently we had to pull a story at the request of a publisher. What are some of the battles you’ve faced with developers and publishers in the past over what’s been written on this site and how did you handle them?

Niero: Holmes was recently on the phone with a senior marketing rep who was infuriated with us about something that happened six months ago, and I had no idea what they were talking about until they went into specifics.

It's kind of cartoony, right? The blog writes a scathing review, the developer cries that it was unfair, a blacklist happens, and the readers come down on the developer even harder when content is withheld. We don't really have patience for that and just buy our own software as needed. To them, it's the end of the world and perhaps the end of the relationship. To us, it's what we reported to our utmost qualified ability -- putting our reputation as a reliable critic on the line -- on a random Tuesday between going to get chicken wings. Still, blacklists are a way of life here. Unless something is factually incorrect, I would rather lose my shirt than take down an article. If we fucked up, we fucked up.

In your case, I think they were upset that we used real names in a parody article, which I can sort of empathize with... but I mean, it's a parody. Take a joke. You should hear the things people whisper at these happy hours that trickle back to me. One day I'll write video games confidential and burn them all, right? Honestly, it's a little petty. I wouldn't do that. That's obviously a harder conversation to sort out when you're trying to work with Japan, which is where most of our blacklist issues originate from. Different culture, and possibly somebody seeing all kinds of ghastly translations if they're not fluent. You have a culture of modesty and an indirect way of speaking where you're supposed to "read the air" often trying to cope with American sarcasm. As if that's not complicated enough, British sarcasm is insurmountable.

I'm sure Konami has a team of assassins with photos of our staff due to our critical coverage of its recent business practices, but then you meet its USA team and they're almost giggling at their tied hands, or in the case of whatever company's senior person changing positions and the new blood coming in like a sheriff to teach these wild blogs a lesson. Then they do the job for three years and get with the program and unblock us. It's just part of the business. Basically, people suck.

CJ: The word suck brings me to my next question. One of the things you’ll hear a lot from former readers of Destructoid is that it used to be good and now we suck. They liked it from this year to this year because so-and-so was working here. Do you think the website has passed its peak? Do you feel the tone of Destructoid has lost its edge?

Niero: When people say that what I mostly hear is that people miss Destructoid video. I get that. We went for it, you know? Built the whole studio, tried to make it member-sponsored, and it didn't work by the numbers. That could of buried us. Of course, people remember the stunts and of course some very amazing talent has come through these doors, but my job has always been to measure and repeat what works, and crazy stuff takes time to do right. We had a lot of fun doing Dumb Idiot Ideas (series) and before that, Public Access Destructoid, but both did low enough numbers where we had to change. It took three of us a whole weekend to shoot and edit some of those, instead of working on the site, and then we're late to report on stuff which by the numbers can be worse.

I could have held back the Undertale review until we had a video of us dressed in children's flower costumes trying to bite random people in public. It's tempting to do stuff like that all the time, because it's fun, but then something else will suffer because we're a small team. Like, this week is GDC -- it's not out of my budget to buy 15-foot red carpet to be worn as a cape by Jonathan Holmes and hire a mariachi band to follow him around, but then that means I can't afford to have Zack fly down from LA. We're not owned by Time Warner so I have to juggle. If that's not weird enough, Steven and Laura can be seen slowly rolling on the ground into the scene in the distance with half-melted sticks of butter to rub on his ankles, wrapping each interview by throwing glitter in each other's eyes. The Internet makes it easy for me to find people willing to rub ravioli on themselves in the name of journalism, that's never been a problem. When I get a room of us together to brainstorm a stunt, you get stuff like Faxtoid, like OkDtoid, which took me weeks to code instead of trying to make the mobile site responsive. It's always been a balancing act.

CJ: I think one of the things that makes the balancing act that much more difficult is when the talent leaves. I'm always surprised to see how many of the people who are pretty big in the industry today got their start right here. Jim Sterling, the Burches, Chad Concelmo, Max Scoville, Tara Long, and probably many others I'm forgetting who have all graduated for this state school of a website into what many would consider dream jobs in gaming and entertainment. How does it make you feel to know you’ve helped foster so many outstanding careers, or at least facilitate their development?


Niero: There's also some of that element of "the best Destructoid was the Destructoid when I was 23." In the future, somebody will definitely say Destructoid sucks now that CJ went to go work at Clickhole.

Removed from my bookmarks, terrible site. Just last week, one of my top guys got a job offer at a very prominent game developer and decided to hold out. It used to tear me apart like Lisa. (Nice pull!) We're Dtoid College all-stars and then we at some point have to separate with people that worked here. It's like breaking up the band, you know? A terrible feeling. It's not just money reasons either -- we are a definitely an assembly of egos. Sometimes I have to drop everything I'm doing just to keep two people from clawing each other's eyes out, and over time people just want to collaborate with a different set of people. Still, it's never easy to let them go. But over time, I learned to deal with it and to learn to be happy for them. Now I can say I'm like Papa Niero, having helped shape so many weirdo babies into professional adult writers. It's bittersweet. We helped each other out, we lose touch, and the show must go on.

CJ: When you look at what Jim's doing or Max or whoever, they're all adding to the tapestry of gaming that grows more and more rich by the day. There are now so many people out there, so many personalities, that literally anyone could get interested in gaming if they just find the right person to latch onto.

I've been around long enough to know it hasn't always been that way. Looking at games journalism today versus game journalism when you started, how would you say it changed and has that change been for the better?

Niero: Night and day. In 2006, when we started, there was a term called "New Games Journalism" coined by a fellow two years prior that tried to explain the social internet to people who saw themselves as information gatekeepers. Now you have people entering the public relations workforce armed to the teeth with a social media plan, and there's almost never a distinction between a database site and a blog -- it's just press. In 2006, it was like "these are the adults, and these are people that resemble adults but there's a subhuman blog algae possessing them." I was at E3 in 2008 and I saw IGN held back from an appointment because TotalBiscuit wanted to see something. I was like, damn, that's different. The whole landscape has changed.

CJ: Many other websites have expanded their coverage to movies, music, and television to reach a broader audience. Some don’t even look like video game websites anymore *cough* IGN *cough*. Have you ever thought of combining all of the Modern Method websites into one to perhaps reach more broads?

Niero: On one hand, I can empathize with sites trying to diversify their coverage on slow gaming news days. I mean, I run a blog network and it would take a flip of a switch to have Game of Thrones as our top story, and some readers don't mind -- but I think most of them find it obnoxious. When I see that I think, oh, slow news day and they need to pay the bills. But I'm a purist. I called a bunch of them out in a feature called Not Pictured: Videogames, not because they're bad sites, but because it upsets me that they're putting games second. We're the damn gaming press. We're the last people that are supposed to do that. If you're going to do that (or are forced to do that for business reasons), then give the readers a setting to turn it off. In the future, we may optionally put Japanator's game coverage and Tomopop's gaming toys front and center in the feed: I think that's the respectful way to go about it.

CJ: I like that this website is committed solely to gaming. For me personally, I don't want to scroll through 10 articles on Batman v Superman spoilers just to reach an piece about a new Xseed game. Mostly because I fucking hate movie spoilers. 

Let's talk games for a second, as the website's motto or slogan or something is STFUAJPG. In the 10 years you’ve been running this place, what is the best video game you played?

Niero: Let us not speak of Project Offset. It still hurts. But nah, Skyrim. I want to go jogging through it every morning in my HTC Vive someday, strapped to an Omni maybe. I'm so pumped about VR that I want to just hollow out my house and staple pillows and backup pizza to my walls so that I can just lurch around safely and not have to break immersion, occasionally spitting a feather.

CJ: What about the worst?

Niero: Worst game I've ever played? Probably Plumbers Don't Wear Ties. I couldn't even get into it ironically.

CJ: Now there's a game I've probably spent less than 10 seconds thinking about in my life. Speaking of games, Mr. Destructoid has been in a surprising number them. What’s your favorite he’s been in and is there a game you wish you could get him into?

Niero: Monday Night Combat was great, though the one I played the most is The Blocks Cometh. MNC cut the best video and it was a really creative interpretation of the character. We need to get Mr. Destructoid in Portal 3 somehow. I've got a kidney to spare. We have the capital.


CJ: Why has there never been a Mr. Destructoid game? Pewdiepie has one, Jim Sterling is getting one, surely our mascot deserves his own title.

Niero: Some random dude sent me a really elaborate plan to use RPG Maker to tell the story of the Destructoid Community universe, and I sent back an edit, and I never heard back. I was crushed. Was it my breath?

CJ: It probably was. I've heard you have the worst breath in the biz, right behind the world's least popular YouTuber: Halitosis Harry.

With any website that's been around this long, there are bound to be some regrets. Besides hiring me, is there any moment in the site's history you look back on and think "Man we really fucked that up?" 

Niero: Regrets? I've had a few. Mostly software mistakes and trying to do my best to navigate creative differences between staff. I have a pretty high tolerance for working with difficult people because jerks tell it like it is and that makes a good writer, but that can get very explosive and I have to think about the sanity of the team at large. I don't know that I've made the right call every time, but it would be insane to wonder what if. Destructoid does almost everything democratically, so as changes happen we navigate it together.

CJ: In my time here, I’ve noticed in the reader base and staff there sure are a lot of gays. What is it, besides Jonathan Holmes’ endlessly fuckable face, that you think attracts so many gays, lesbians, and transgendered to this site?

Niero: We've always had openly gay staff members, so maybe that's a part of it. We probably have as many LGBT readers as any other site, but if people feel more free to be open about that on Destructoid, that's really great. I actively try to hire as many different types of people as possible. I see a lot of startups get that wrong, where the founder hires little clones of themselves. I've always sort of sought out the X-Men lurking in the c-blogs.

CJ: 10 years is a goddamn long time to keep at something. My current job is the first one I've worked for more than three years as I get bored really easily. If you weren't doing this, what do you think you'd be doing with your life right now?

Niero: I think I'd be doing volunteer work somewhere random for at least a few months, and try to get involved in a technology company that did something social. I don't think I'd like to work at a games company, though -- it would ruin the magic for me.

CJ: What do you hope to see from Destructoid over the next decade, assuming Jed doesn’t drive all of our readers away?

Niero: I love Jed, he's going to come into his own one day and blow everyone away, plus he's a squid now. I'm trying to find a way to make the site deeper and more intimate, and work better across more devices. I want to be everywhere in 10 years. When you're showering I want the showerhead to read you deep thoughts by Occams.

CJ: This week is GDC and we're there. From what I seen, Destructoid loves getting out to these events and really connecting with gamers. According to our Event Coverage information, we also attend the Adult Entertainment Expo. Please tell me you’ll send me to that next year?

Niero: Funny story there is that the guy who ran the marketing is a dedicated Dtoid reader. He saw that we were in Vegas for CES and he invited us over. It was totally random. Though there's probably enough VR-related content there now that would make it worth looking into for "research purposes." I don't think anyone in the comments is going to argue against it.

CJ: Final question, and I expect that you keep it 100: Are you, or have you ever written under the moniker of, the badger?

Niero: Haha, you thought that was actually me this whole time? No way, I'm one to burn bitches personally. It's not like I'm at any risk of being fired.

*****

Once again, I want to thank Niero for taking time out of trying to get this website running at full speed to talk to me about the last 10 years. Feel free to blame me personally for all the 404 errors. I don't know where I'd be today without Destructoid. I'd probably be dead or really, really successful. Either way, I thank this site for existing, for being weird, and for reminding me that gaming is supposed to be fun.

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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


 


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