It’s no secret the popularity of The Escapist exploded with the arrival of a certain Englishman with a sweet hat. While we could certainly make the case that without the excellent foundation of quality we’d built with the rest of the content on The Escapist or our innovative web design features, the site as a whole would not have evolved into the massively popular juggernaut that it is today, no one can deny the popularity of Zero Punctuation in and of itself. And for that, we have Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw to thank.
Yahtzee is a unique talent. I’ve been his editor at The Escapist for almost two years, during which I’ve gotten to know him fairly well, considering we live 14 time zones apart. He’s one of those rare individuals who can shine at pretty much whatever he puts his mind to doing, and these days he’s doing a lot. Aside from Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee is shooting television pilots, working on writing projects, developing videogames and, of course, enjoying the lifestyle of an internet celebrity playboy. Or something. But he’s still best known for the snarky, insightful videogame review series that introduced him to the world and helped usher The Escapist into a whole new era of internet media dominance.
In the interview, Yahtzee talks about what it’s like working with The Escapist, how fame has changed his life, why gamers like dick jokes and what happened to that girl he broke up with, prompting him to start making videos on YouTube.
RP: Zero Punctuation will air its 100th episode on August 5th. Did you ever suspect there was such an insatiable appetite for intelligent, multi-layered videogame commentary peppered with occasional dick jokes?
YZ: I knew that there were plenty of game reviews in the world, and I’d read enough British newspapers to know that the media is never unbiased and trustworthy. And I knew that there were things like Penny Arcade where people could go for more honest, personal commentary on gaming. I assumed that niche was filled. I could never have anticipated everything that’s grown up around ZP by now. As for the dick jokes, I guess people can just never get enough. Like Pringles.
RP: You’ve stated in previous interviews that you were motivated to create the videos that became Zero Punctuation out of the boredom following a breakup. Can you tell us what happened to the girl you broke up with? Is she pulling her hair out these days, ruing having ditched the “Man Who Would be Yahtzee”?
YZ: I’d been with her for quite a few years in a state of relationship stagnation where neither party was particularly interested in the other anymore, but routine was too deeply established to break off. We were both just kind of … there, I guess. I eventually realized I had to get out or I’d go insane. We haven’t spoken in a while. She’s sent a couple of texts but I’ve got no idea what to say. “Hey, life’s much better since I left you, thanks a bunch?”
Anyway, I’m single now and perfectly happy. I don’t seem to have any desire to enter another relationship, and that feels quite liberating. You’re never alone when you’re totally self-absorbed.
RP: From day one, you’ve enjoyed a fairly positive relationship with the developers’ whose games you eviscerate on ZP. Why do you think that is? Are they just gluttons for punishment?
YZ: I think what it is is that I’ve got no beef with any individual developers (mostly), but I hate the process so many mainstream games go through that leaves them smothered and homogenized. And that’s something I think a lot of developers agree with. More than once I’ve spoken to the developers of a game I’ve ZPed and they’ve said “What you said was exactly what we said to our publishers, but they wouldn’t give us any more time …” So my relationship with developers is cordial. As for my relationship with publishers, probably best not to look into that.
RP: How are your own game development efforts going these days?
YZ: ZP and other projects are taking up a lot of my time, so I haven’t been as devoted to it as I have been in the past. I do have a couple of freeware games in the works that I work on in a hobby capacity, but it’s even odds whether they get finished. That’s always how I’ve worked – keep a lot of projects on the go and let yourself realize over time which ones you’re actually interested in seeing through. It’s like hedging your bets.
I’d love to develop games professionally. Critics and professionals have traditionally had a close relationship. That’s a long-term thing, though, and right now some interesting avenues are opening up that are well worth exploring for a while. The good thing about being a writer is that virtually every creative medium needs one at some point, so you’re free to spread your wings a bit.
RP: Tell us a bit about your television work. I understand your fame has transcended the internet in Australia.
YZ: Hee hee. Not just yet. The Game Damage pilot that was released online last year is bearing fruit, and we’re working on developing something for a TV network here with further advancement into online stuff pending. And trust me: We’re ten million billion times less rough around the edges than we were when we made the first pilot. We’ve been writing and rehearsing constantly since then, and the difference is thick enough to beat whales to death.
RP: It’s been almost two years since you started making Zero Punctuation videos and signed on with The Escapist. Since this is The Escapist’s birthday and all, I imagine fans of the site would like to know a little more about how your relationship with the website works. What can you say about that?
YZ: I really think I lucked out with The Escapist. When I first started doing ZP on YouTube, I was a simple young English boy who was completely bewildered by the mere thought of actually being paid money for this folderol. I was naïve and could very easily have been exploited by some evil corporate jerks, but The Escapist snapped me up first. And they’ve always treated me well. I get extremely fair cuts of traffic and merchandising income, and I feel I’ve gained actual friends rather than mere publishers.
And of course the editorial freedom is very nice. A story I like to tell is when I first started with The Escapist and I asked [you] if [you] wanted me to cut down on the swearing and risqué gags. [You] replied with just one word: “No.” So ever since then I’ve diligently censored myself as little as possible, no matter how many whiny bitches bleed out their cunts.
RP: You’ve made some snide comments about videogame fans in general and your own fans in particular. How do you really feel about the fans, and why?
YZ: I seem to have gathered a reputation for being a jerk in real life, because frankly fans make me uncomfortable. Complete strangers come up and talk to me like they’ve known me their whole lives, and for that reason I can seem a bit stand-offish. Some of them seem so awestruck. They’re just knob gags, guys. You imagine things that would be funny if a knob was put in them, and then you write it down. It’s not like I’m revolutionizing global culture.
No, the whole “fan” thing confuses me. I like things. Maybe you like the same things as me. That’s cool. But I like a lot of things and it’s almost certain I’ll find other things some day that are even better than the things I currently like, so getting attached is just weird. I’ve seen guys who get ZP tattoos. It would be instructive to wait and see how they feel about that 20 years down the line.
RP: One thing most audience members don’t fully appreciate is exactly how difficult it is to stay motivated to keep playing a new game every week. How do you stay positive about that part of the job?
YZ: Yes, that’s always the trouble when something you love becomes your job. That’s exactly what it becomes: a job. Sometimes I’ll put off starting a new game for days, procrastinating with internet videos and work. That’s one thing I miss about my poverty days: constantly replaying a small handful of titles and learning their every slightest nuance inside out.
Every now and again, though, I find I have enough time to replay something, and often I’ll find myself with a weird urge to play an old review game I might even have completely trashed. Alone in the Dark, for example. It was so broken it could barely limp, but there was so much potential there it makes me want to cry. It’s nice to take time out to revise your internal game database now and then.
RP: If you could start over with ZP, what would you do differently?
YZ: Like a slightly brighter shade of yellow? I dunno. It’s a difficult question. So far nothing but good has come out of ZP – I’m not sure I’d want to meddle with causality. I guess my biggest regret so far is picking up the Wii version of The Force Unleashed rather than the PS3 one. Christ that was stupid. But hey, there’s still time.
Note: This interview originally ran in The Escapist’s celebratory PDF of Issue 210, which you can download here.
Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. Catch a new Zero Punctuation video every Wednesday, only at The Escapist.