Monday, July 11, 2011

Exclusive Patrick Garratt Interview

I’m going to let you in on a secret that’ll blow your mind: every sentient being in the universe writes their own videogame blog. Thing is, practically all of them are shit. And besides, competing against the likes of Destructoid, Kotaku and Joystiq is a waste of time. So don't bother. Do something more constructive with your life, like pissing into the wind.

Unless of course you are Patrick Garratt, in which case I urge you to blog until the tips of you fingers bleed. You see, Patrick owns that rarest of commodities: a UK videogame blog that people actually read. In fact, they flock in their thousands to suckle at the nourishing teat offered by VG247.

For the uninitiated VG247 is a gaming newsblog that launched in February 2008. Its strict news-only format was the first of its kind in the UK. Pre VG247 *shudder* the UK’s blogging scene consisted of the inane musings of that most pathetic of creatures: the aspiring games journo. These would-be wordsmiths sired a plethora of identikit blogs, each one regurgitating the same old shit from Kotaku.

It was, quite frankly, depressing.

After all, the UK publishes the best videogame magazines in the world. If ever the call arises to assemble an Olympic Squad of games journalists, our boys and girls would bring home gold every time. Thankfully, Garratt identified the need for a UK based games blog and VG247 was born. The rest, as they say, is history.

So then, here he is - winner of the 2009 Games Media Award’s Best Specialist Online Writer – Mr. Patrick Garratt…

Hullo Pat, let’s start right at the beginning. What's your earliest gaming memory?
It was probably playing Tranz Am on my friend's Spectrum. I can remember playing Pong on our black and white TV when I was really young, but that's pretty hazy. Tranz Am's the first proper memory.

Tranz Am: Pat's earliest gaming memory.

As a youngster, were you drawn to console or PC gaming?
When I was at school, there were no real "consoles" as such. Just Spectrums and Commodores and TVs and tape recorders. I loved the Mario games on NES and SNES, but I still played stuff like Quake. I was an all-rounder, really.

Did you ever dabble in the arcade scene?
Not really. I played a lot of arcade games, but I never really considered myself to be "part of it". I didn't even know there was a scene, as such. I just loved playing games. It wasn't really a social thing for me.

Whose games do you follow?
I love Epic's work. I do get excited when there's a new Epic game around. I'm 38, so that's saying something.

Pat is a fan of Epic's work. Aren't we all?

What was your first job within the games industry?
My first job was as a staff writer on a site called FGNOnline in 1998. I was working out of a bedroom in a small town near Manchester for a guy called Colin Campbell. We had 26k modems and had to wear coats at our desks over the winter. I did it for a year then moved to London to work on CVG.

Can you remember the first game you ever reviewed?
Blimey. I honestly can’t. Reviewing was never my forte, to be honest. I’m pretty much terrible at it.

Why did you start up a gaming newsblog? Surely the likes of Kotaku had that particular base well and truly covered.
When we started VG247 there was nothing else like it in the UK. Kotaku and Joystiq are both US-based, and both of them have their “schtick” - I love them, but I don’t think either of them takes a service approach to news. There was nothing out there that just answered the question, “What’s going on?” to people like me. I was in my mid-30s and had a very good knowledge of games in general, but no site provided a comprehensive daily output that kept me informed. Hard to believe now: that was only three years ago. VG247 was just a response to that.

At the time of VG247’s launch you were the only staff member. Did the pressure to deliver gaming news 24/7 ever come close to breaking you?
It was extremely busy, and it did exhaust me. I had a lot of help from a freelancer, Mike Bowden, in the early days. Without him putting in so much effort when the site was very small I think I would have found it hard to build it, yes.

Pat's homely workspace.

On average, how many unique hits does VG247 receive per day?
We’ve never gone public with our numbers, but I’m hoping to before too long.

VG247 won the Best Online Blog at the Games Media Award’s in 2009. In light of your success, other gaming sites sat up and took notice, namely CVG. In a thinly veiled dig, you highlight their recent copycat revamp. How would you describe your relationship with them – respected rival or sworn enemy?
I enjoy the fact that CVG’s placed so much emphasis on news recently. It shows there’s a need for it, and healthy competition means healthy sectors. I was CVG’s online employee number three, so I’ve got a soft spot for it. It was actually my idea to name it in 1999, so it’s nice to see it worked. During my interview, the guy asked me what I’d do with the site in its current state: I told him to close it because the name was terrible. I think it was called Game-Online, as the print CVG chaps were so paranoid about it being associated with the magazine. They offered me the job as news editor, and when I started they’d changed it to the current URL.

It’s good that it’s still there, and I think Tim’s done a great job of reinventing it. I’m not sure we’re either enemies or rivals, although I’m sure there are those that think otherwise. We both have a news focus, but we’re very different.

You’re known for your no-nonsense opinions on the gaming industry. Has this ever landed you in hot water?
I’ve been shouted at on the phone a few times, but nothing more serious than that. To be completely honest, VG247 has been remarkably trouble-free. We report news in the main, and opinion pieces are very much a secondary thing. It’s opinion and reviews that tend to upset people. A few big issues have produced some terse emails and calls, but we’ve never been in a situation we haven’t recovered from immediately.

You once said that, “Print publishers are finding it incredibly difficult to survive, because everyone is getting their information from the Internet. Game magazines in the UK are dying, there's no doubt about that”. Do you think VG247 is contributing to the decline in magazine sales?
I’m not sure if VG247 specifically is contributing to the decline in sales of games magazines. It’s just a natural trend, similar to the one we’re seeing with people gravitating towards e-books over paper. People now have many entry points to games information, and most of them are digital. I think if you want to see where we’re going with paper, just look at the US. Game Informer’s survived (something of an understatement) because it’s owned by a huge brick-and-mortar retailer and has successfully tied its website into content deals, but everything else really has died over there. Gamers read free websites on computers, tablets, phones, consoles and whatever else, and have very little need to pay for general games mags: that won’t change any time soon.

You also said that only Edge and a handful of other magazines would survive. What makes Edge internet proof?
It’s one of the few magazines that focuses on what a magazine does best. I’m sure it’ll become challenged by the proliferation of tablets in the coming years, but Edge is a very strong brand for the 30-plus “serious” gamer and fan-developer audience. I think it’ll be around in some shape or form for years, both because it has a good understanding of the people that read it and it has a team talented enough to manage the transition to digital.

Edge Magazine: one of the few publications that appeals to the '30-plus serious gamer'.

Do you still buy videogame magazines?
I haven’t paid for a games magazine for a long time. There are some great mags out there - the two that spring to mind are Official PlayStation and Edge, both from Future - but I just don’t need to ever look at paper.

Followers of your personal Twitter feed - @patlike – will know you’re a keen gardener and aspiring novelist. In the latest entry of your personal blog – Misery Guts – you reveal how a book deal you’ve been working on for two years ‘ended in failure’. Can you tell me about your book?
I’d love to, but I’m afraid I can’t. I’m under NDA (non disclosure agreement). It was a deal to write a novel based on a games IP, but it wasn’t to be. These things happen. I’ll get there in the end, no doubt. I’ll keep growing carrots in the meantime.

I’m going to start working on securing another deal along similar lines, and I’m also about to publish an original novel for Kindle. I’ll be talking more about that soon.

When he's not blogging Pat likes to tend his vegetable patch.

Is there an aspiring novelist inside every games journalist?
Every writer’s a dreamer. I don’t think games journalists are any exception.

Which authors do you admire and who has had the biggest influence on you as a writer?
I used to read a lot of American novels, so authors like Hemingway and Burroughs inspired me in general. A friend got me to read Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar recently, and I enjoyed that a lot. I like stripped back writing with purpose. I’m a total ponce, basically. I read Dostoyevsky and Sartre, then tell everyone I read Dostoyevsky and Sartre.

What’s the best book you’ve read about videogames?
I’ve never read one.

As a veteran games journalist you are uniquely placed to comment on the trends, fortunes and foibles of the industry. What did E3 2011 tell you about the future of the videogames industry?
E3 was really interesting this year, because I think it showed many of the industry soothsayers’ recent predictions have come to fruition. The publishing industry’s consolidated and we’re seeing obvious avenues of entry for tech outside of the console space, such as streaming and mobile. I personally didn’t go to the show, so I got the “general’s view” from the back of the battlefield, and it seems clear the big budgets are being pushed into dead certs like never before, but that huge tracts of the games market were ignored because E3 as a format isn't satisfying the needs of the market generally. “Games” is so much more than Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony now.

I’ve already said publicly that I thought E3 2011 was shockingly bad in terms of variety and innovation, and I haven’t changed in that opinion. What it told us about the future of the games industry was minimal - it was a duff year brought on by extended console cycles.

Is Onlive the future of gaming?
Streaming games will become far more widespread, but I think it’s only part of the future picture. I do think people with fast enough connections that live close enough to data centres will start to use streaming services habitually. I know I would.

OnLive: the future of gaming? According to Pat, it'll certainly play a crucial part in it.

Is motion control an evolutionary dead end for videogames?
No, not at all. Motion and gesture control in various forms will be with us for good. I think you only need to take a look at how swipe and tilt controls on touch-screens have re-invented mobile gaming to see how powerful an interface it can be. Kinect, Move and the Wiimote are just the first baby steps to us being able to interact with software on a personality level. Lionhead’s Milo gave a glimpse of the vision, I think, but it’s clear the market and tech just weren’t ready for it.

Which current gen console do you find yourself playing the most?
I use 360 and PS3 pretty much equally. It just depends on what’s out at the time. I’ve actually been playing games on my PC a lot more than either of them recently.

And least?
Wii. I can’t remember the last time I switched it on.

What’s your most cherished bit of videogame memorabilia?
It’s a shooting t-shirt from Las Vegas (see picture below). I’m not sure it’s “cherished,” but I think it’s funny. A PR company bought it for me on a trip to CES (Consumer Electronics Show).

As mentioned in the intro, everyone seems to write their own videogame blog. What advice would you give to people who want to make their blog less shit?
You have to seek to lead in whatever you’re trying to do. You have to constantly ask yourself the question, “Why would anyone care about this?” If you can’t answer that, do something else.

Sorry Pat, but it’s time for the obligatory ‘What’s your favourite videogame of all time?’ question.
I don’t have one. It used to be Super Mario World, but I think it’d be silly to say that now. I’ve had such amazing experiences playing MMOs, and FPS, and survival horror, and Pokémon, and whatever else, that I couldn’t peg it any more.

And finally Mr Garratt, what exactly is that tattoo on your arm?
It’s an octopus. My daughter’s name is Meredith, which means “defender of the sea” in Welsh. A German guy called Markus Lenhard did it for me. I love it. I want more.

Digital Gigolo would like to say a big thank you to the lovely Brenna Hillier for helping to secure this interview.

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