Tom & Bruce vs crowdfunding
On their Kickstarter page, Tom Chick and Bruce Geryk, who have been freelancing in the gaming press for the better part of twenty years, ask us to back them with 10,000 bucks. In echange, they promise to deliver ten brand new episodes of their famous Tom vs. Bruce feature, that was created in 2003 for Computer Gaming World (and latter republished on 1UP). Let’s find what these two guys are all about.
The french translation of the interview, with a bit more of editorializing in what is actually my native language and not just one I pretend to know, is right there.
Merlanfrit : How did an ex theology student / actor and a brain surgeon ever became game writers ? How did you first started writing Tom Vs Bruce ?
Bruce : I actually started writing about video games before I started medical school. I had written in high school for a board gaming magazine called Fire & Movement (edited at the time by the late, beloved Friedrich Helfferich) and was asked by Games Domain to write a review of Interactive Magic’s Great Battles of Alexander port. They liked it enough that they asked me to keep writing, and I eventually became a regular staff member. The demise of Games Domain was one of the low points for me in my writing career, on par with the death of Computer Gaming World. We had a group and style there which was unique in my experience.
Tom : If you think Bruce’s first assaignment was wonky, I can rival that. My first assignment was a review of a submarine sim. My first paid assignment was a review of a flight sim. As for how I started, I’ve always been a writer, but I just happened to luck into getting paid to write about one of my hobbies. Are videogames still hobbies ? Are they art yet ? I have a hard time keeping up with that discussion. But back in the 90s, as I was knocking about looking for paid jobs, the brand new world wide web needed content. I met some people in charge of that stuff and worked for them, and they introduced me to more such people, and I went to my first E3 and met more such people. It was mainly a matter of being in the right place, at the right time, with the right skill set, and the right interest in a particular subject matter. Timing. I don’t envy anyone trying to get his foot in the door these days.
Bruce : I met Tom at an E3 in the late 90s, where he quickly demonstrated his credibility with a late-night exposition on St. Anselm’s Proof of the Existence of Permadeath, and I wrote some pieces for the early incarnation of his website, Quarter to Three. We were both submitting strategy/tips pieces for Computer Gaming World when we both came up with independent pitches for the game Rails Across America. The CGW tips editor, Thierry Nguyen, suggested we collaborate on a single piece, and we decided to do it as a competitive match, with the tips worked into the game narrative. It worked great, and Tom vs. Bruce was born.
Tom : Basically Tom vs. Bruce began because our editor was too nice to choose between us.
Merlanfrit : You’ve been writing for almost twenty years. What are the most significant changes that have impacted the field ? Is something like Tom Vs Bruce not possible anymore without crowd founding ? Maybe the press misses figures like Jeff Green ?
Bruce : Never mind the press —I don’t know *anyone* who doesn’t miss Jeff Green, and his regular games writing. But as many people have already observed, game writing/criticism (call it what you want) has become dispersed and democratized. New York Times critics A.O. Scott and David Carr had a great video discussion recently : how "everyone is a voter" now when it comes to cultural consumption, and this democratization leads to a certain resentment against anyone who is seen as trying to establish himself or herself as a self-styled "authority." Previously, there were only so many Jeff Greens, Steve Baumans, or Greg Kasavins, so rising to that position implied a level of achievement or authority in itself. Now, everyone can publish his or her thoughts, and the writing market has less use for cultural gatekeepers. Tycho at Penny Arcade took this even further in a recent post, in which he made the point that not only is criticism no longer the province of an elite commentariat, but culture itself is something anyone can and should create. In gaming, the ascendancy and viability of indie development proves this emphatically.
Tom : Yeah, what Bruce said.
Bruce : As for "something like Tom vs Bruce" not being possible without crowd funding, I would say that it and many other things are absolutely possible without any crowd funding whatsoever. However, they are not possible for us.
Merlanfrit : You both have tastes that aren’t exactly mainstream. Tom is (in)famous for bashing well regarded games, and Bruce is very much into hardcore wargaming. It’s pretty hard today to talk about lower profile games, except if they fit in the arty indie flavor of the month. QT3 was briefly on Metacritic, and that wasn’t pretty, especially when Tom dared rating an obscure iOS game higher than the latest AAA. How can critics reach an audience and tell them how important games like Dominions, Rebuild, or War in the East really are ?
Tom : Why do people think I have taste that isn’t mainstream ? I loved Arkham City, Red Dead Redemption, Starcraft II, Diablo III, Mass Effect 3, Bioshock, Marvel vs. Capcom 3, and plenty of mainstream games. I’m a total mainstream whore for the most part. Also, Quarter to Three is still on Metacritic. Isn’t it ? Let me go check.
Bruce : It depends solely on what the audience is and whether or not it wants to hear what critics are saying. I respectfully but adamantly disagree that it’s in any way difficult to talk about "lower-profile" games. It’s as easy as starting a Tumblr account. Or volunteering free content to any number of amateur sites. Or just posting a thread to a well-known message board and carrying on a discussion there. Remember the days of GEnie, AOL, and print ’zines ? I do. It was exponentially harder to be heard back then. Now you get linked once by a major site and your story enters the conversation. I was told a few years back by an indie developer that his project was on the verge of failure months after launch until he got a favorable review in Computer Gaming World. Then his orders took off. Look at how much coverage Unity of Command got. There are whole sites, like Troy Goodfellow’s Flash of Steel and James Allen’s Out of Eight, just looking for the next undiscovered gem. Those gems get uncovered a lot quicker now, in my opinion.
Tom : Okay, we haven’t been pulled yet. Quarter to Three is still part of the aggregates ! I agree with Bruce in that I think it’s a false premise. I have no problem talking about the games I want to talk about, and talking about them in the language I want to use. My two favorite games last year were tiny indie projects (Bastion, Space Pirates and Zombies). The problem is that too few writers have the time or inclination to look beyond the big releases. And that’s one of the things we’ve always wanted to do with Tom vs. Bruce : occasionally steer people to games we feel might be overlooked.
Merlanfrit : So you ask for 10.000 $ to produce ten articles over the course of the year. And there was this thread on Neogaf, with a lot of anger, where people said you should just do it, and get adds to pay you. I guess adds don’t really pay that much if you don’t have a deal with publishers, do they ? If they did, you could have done it on QT3 I guess.
Tom : Ad income for Quarter to Three is negligible at this point. Anyone who writes for Quarter to Three — and that includes me — is basically donating his time. What we’re doing with Kickstarter is testing the waters to see if people are willing to pay for what Bruce and I do. Since pitching to publications didn’t work out so well, we’re trying a direct appeal to potential readers.
Merlanfrit : In a sense the whole internet 2.0 contributed to the devaluation of writing. People write on forums (and Tom is partly responsible for that), on blogs, and they don’t ask anything (except consideration) in return. In a way, it’s thrilling (that’s what we do at merlanfrit, we just write for the sake of it), but then it makes it really hard to live from your writing. How do you feel about that ? What’s the future of games writing as a profession ?
Tom : I don’t mind that it’s hard to make a living writing about games. That’s true of any kind of writing. As for the future of games writing as a profession, my guess is that it’s mostly IGN and Game Informer, and that it will continue to be a forward looking enterprise in the service of helping publishers sell games. There are so many things we could be writing about, so many games worth playing, worth talking about, worth criticizing or lauding, yet we too often focus the conversation on a handful of current games and games we only know about based on what the publishers tell us so we’ll help them sell more copies. Hello, E3 ! Unfortunately, that’s a big part of the future of videogames writing. Wait, what happened ? How did I get up here on this soapbox ?
Merlanfrit : Did you consider the ethics of Kickstarter ? Crowdfunding is a very promising model, but it raises some concerns. The supporters give money for a product that hasn’t been in production yet. What if you don’t make it, or if the pieces don’t match the expected quality ? As game critics, you’re well aware that even with the best intentions, sometimes even talented creators don’t make it… I’m not saying that’s what’s going to happen to you, mind. But is it something you considered ?
Bruce : I’m not really sure how this is different from any other product purchased with some expectation of quality. When I buy a game, it might not meet my expectations, whereupon I will certainly feel disappointed. The real difference between Kickstarter and a retail product is that there is no guarantee that there will actually be a finished product at all. With this Kickstarter, we’re pretty confident that we can produce ten more Tom vs Bruce episodes of a similar quality as previous ones. Since we are pitching this Kickstarter specifically on the strength of our body of work, we presume that our backers would welcome that level of output. If anything, we’re hoping to do even better, which should be a win for everybody.
Merlanfrit : Another problem with Kickstarter is that so far the most successful projects have been from rather prominent figures. People like Tim Schafer or Brian Fargo aren’t really unknown quantities, neither are you in the journalistic field. So in a way the site allows people to cash in their brand, while equally worthwhile projects won’t get noticed because their lead is unknown. Do you think that might explain some of the negative reactions to crowd-funding ?
Tom : Yeah, Kickstarter is a kind of silly popularity contest, isn’t it ? You either need a built-in fan base, or you really need to work the Twitter and MySpaces and whatnot. What are the other ones ? LinkedIn, I think. You can’t just create a quality product and expect the world to beat a path to your door. Just like anything else in life.
Merlanfrit : Ok, so now you’re free to go ballistic with self promotion. How awesome are the new Tom Vs Bruce going to be ?
Bruce : So awesome.
Tom : Yeah, totally what Bruce said.