(Note: Another one I did a couple of months back. Maybe I’ll fix the wording of this intro sometime, but I think I’m fine.)
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been e-mailing back and forth with Craig Harris, who, until recently, wrote for IGN as the editor for “all things Nintendo.” Harris worked at IGN for more than 13 years and now runs a Nintendo 3DS-centric blog at This Is Craig. Our interview covered his career, his writing and—of course—The Big N itself.
Aaron Kinney: I want to start things off by talking about your career. How did you wind up as a video games journalist?
Craig Harris: Well, first off, I don’t think I’ve ever called myself a journalist. I write about games, I was part of the enthusiast press…but journalist? Hmm.
Anyway, I have to say “right place, right time.” And a little bit of luck. I was fresh out of college working full-time as a store manager in New Jersey back in the early/mid 90s. The web-based internet was still in its infancy, and magazines were the place to read about all the up-to-date gaming information. At the same time, I was honing my writing skills doing reviews and news stories on PC Saturn, PlayStation, Atari Lynx and Atari Jaguar games for fanzines and early now-defunct websites — and I’ll be amazed if you’ll be able to pull up any of my old work nowadays.
In my spare time I sent letters to the big magazines at the time (Electronic Gaming Monthly, Game Fan, Game Pro) seeing if they had any openings, and never got a response back to any of them. And still I pressed on, writing reviews and articles in my spare time.
In late 1996, one of the websites I read daily, Next-Generation.com posted an “Editors Wanted” advertisement for the parent company’s fresh Imagine Games Network initiative. I gathered up my resume and emailed it off. I would check in every so often to see if they got my stuff, and the guy handling the hiring — Chris Charla, then editor in chief of Next Generation magazine (now some big shot at Microsoft) wrote back telling me to sit tight.
He eventually called, we had a great chat. I was hired over the phone and, in late March 1997 I took a huge risk, packed my things and driving cross-country from New Jersey to San Francisco on a phone offer. Fun fact, during the interview, Chris asked what games I’m currently playing. At the time I told him my Saturn was getting the most play with games like Nights and Panzer Dragoon II. Little did I know this would affect where I would be placed — had I told him about the fun I was having with my Nintendo 64 my path at IGN would have been totally different. Instead, I started at Saturnworld and got bumped around when that didn’t last more than six months after my hire date.
AK: The Saturn didn’t last long. Do you mean your path would have been more stable if you’d gone the Nintendo 64 route?
CH: Who knows. I could have been put on the IGN64.com channel instead of Matt Casamassina, who was hired two weeks after me. It’s one of those things that only Professor Farnsworth’s What If machine can tell us.
AK: You’re obviously pretty into writing about video games. (Personally, it’s something I’ve been interested in since junior high!) How long did you know you wanted to? Was there a “trigger” or “catalyst” that got you on this path?
CH: I can’t be sure what triggered it, I just knew I enjoyed writing about videogames and wanted to see where I could go with it. I got to know a few game enthusiast columnists in PC magazines back in the early 90s and saw that there was a possible career path there. It wasn’t a “get rich” career, but it was one of those “do what you enjoy doing” things that I wanted to pursue.
AK: You’ve been writing about games since I was just a kid. How has your outlook on gaming (both as an entertainment/art form and an industry) changed since you started?
CH: Tough question to answer! I have to recall what my impressions of gaming were back 15 to 20 years ago. It was a three-console market then and it’s a three-console market now…just the players have changed and it continuously switches back and forth on who’s king of the hill. Games were starting to get bigger, bolder, and more epic with the advent of CDROM technology, and games are now starting to get back to their 8- and 16-bit roots with the iPhone and free-to-play market.
I don’t think my tastes have changed much over those years — I still migrate to the pick-up-and-play action titles and steer clear of designs that try to simulate “Real Life.” I much prefer a balls-out arcade racer than the sim-style of Gran Turismo, for example.
It’s definitely a way more social environment now, but in a remote kind of way.It’s all about connecting systems online, showing off your achievements, and competing and cooperating. Online gaming certainly existed in my early days (remember the Saturn NetLink?) but now it’s expected that every system and pretty much every game has an online component. It’s been burned into the public’s gaming desires and it’s almost evolved to the point where it’s assumed that it’s one system, one player. The whole idea of four players jammed on a couch playing together in a split-screen environment has sadly gone away, and that’s why I’m actually very excited to see that Nintendo’s rumored to be bringing that back with its next console.
AK: You’ve been following Project Café, then. What do you think of all the stuff coming out on it? Controllers with hi-res screens, streaming data from the console—it sounds pretty wild. (Then again, Nintendo’s been pretty bold lately.) Does anything we’ve heard so far strike you as too good to be true?
CH: At this point, nothing can be too good to be true. I’ve read a lot of editorializing on the rumors, and I will say “don’t get your hopes too high.” This is Nintendo, and while the company’s good about innovating in places — touch screen gaming, motion and pointer controls — the company’s also notorious for being conservative and, let’s face it, pigheaded when it comes to supporting gaming features it didn’t innovate itself.
Here’s the deal: the next console has to be something truly special and unique for the market to stand up and notice. A status quo powerful console just won’t cut it in the next generation. We’ve already got some pretty versatile kits with the 360 and PS3 that are, essentially, doing exactly the same thing, so if Nintendo wants to stay competitive, it won’t just give us what Sony and Microsoft already does.
The idea of a controller with a huge touch screen display that streams content from the console is definitely something that fits that bill. Nintendo’s already dabbled in the idea with connectivity from the Game Boy Advance and the Nintendo DS, but this brings it as a standard…and as we all know, something really only gets full-on support if it’s a feature that’s been a part of the system since day one.
It’s an idea that also fits the Nintendo idea of social gaming. Like I said earlier, the idea of same console multiplayer is quickly disappearing, and anyone from the Nintendo 64 era can tell you fond memories of gaming with buddies in splitscreen GoldenEye or Mario Kart. The Wii certainly retains a lot of that social aspect, but it sort of has to since the console has a terrible focus on online.
There’s definitely more to the next generation Nintendo console that we’re not seeing yet, but I’m pretty confident there will be both headscratching as well as “why didn’t we think of that” revelations during the E3 reveal.
AK: And Nintendo will have to future proof the machine if they want it to stay afloat next generation. Do you think Nintendo will make a machine that can compete in the future?
CH: If by “future proofing” you mean “make it wicked powerful,” who knows. The company gave us aging technology with the DS and Wii and they lasted five years on top.
I would hope the system ends up more significantly more powerful than the current generation, because that’s where a lot of the third party issues came from — the Wii just didn’t get a lot of the big non-exclusive games because the system couldn’t hack it. No Fallout. No GTA IV. No Red Dead Redemption. No Mortal Kombat 9. It even took years to get a day and date Call of Duty port!
Obviously the majority of people buying into a Nintendo console are doing so because of the Nintendo-published games, but it’s not so good when the non-Nintendo consoles get the superb non-Nintendo games. The occasional third party exclusives like GoldenEye and Epic Mickey just aren’t enough to compete.
But if you want me to go on the record, yes, I think the next Nintendo console will be a significant powerhouse that’ll last at least the next five years…until a new innovation comes along that can’t be incorporated or adopted unless it’s a standard issue feature.
AK: Speaking of innovation and tech, systems have come a heck of a long way since the mid-’90s. We’ve seen massive leaps in technology and plenty of gameplay innovations besides. Out of all that, what’s left the biggest impression on you?
CH: To be honest, and as gimmicky as people seem to call it, I’ll go with the glasses-free 3D. The tech isn’t *quite* there to make it “natural” but it definitely works. And, at the very least it now offers up a platform that makes it possible to get 3D to the masses. Which means developers can start practicing their game designs with stereoscopic depth in mind, which will become important when the 3D tech becomes cheaper and better for the bigger screens and bigger productions. Because, like it or lump it, 3D is going to become a video standard within the next decade.
AK: The 3DS is certainly impressive. How do you like it so far?
CH: I think it’s a great system. I’ve got a couple issues with its overall design, but I believe it’s an excellent “next generation” to Nintendo’s handheld line. It didn’t launch very strongly, but neither did the original Nintendo DS. Give it some time and I’m sure it will ramp up its momentum to levels that are appropriate for a Nintendo system.
What needs to be addressed is the price. I’m cool with the $250 on the system, but what I’m not digging is the $40 standard for the games. It’s ridiculous and I think it’s bound to hurt the system and retail software in the long run pricing individual handheld games that high.
I’m also very interested in seeing how Nintendo pushes the online digital distribution, because the company’s sort of dropped that ball twice. Wii and DSi have some pretty good downloadable software, but what the systems don’t have is a good way of telling the gamer that they exist. It takes forever to log into the stores and even longer to surf for new content. Nintendo claims it’s got a better system in place for 3DS to highlight downloadable games, which is good news for developers. Hopefully they’ll follow through, because I’m looking forward to playing some great 3D experiments that wouldn’t fly on retail shelves.
AK: Changing gears here, let’s talk about your writing. A lot of writers have kind of a process or “ritual” they go through before or during writing. Is that true for you, too?
CH: A ritual? No, nothing crazy like that. I write what comes into my head, and I make sure that it flows well enough to be enjoyable to read. On occasion I’ll look to other writers’ articles for inspiration, like when I’m drawing a blank and need a way to kick off a review with a grabbing intro.
But ritual? Not unless procrastinating until the last minute with frequent trips to the vending machine counts.
AK: Procrastination? There’s something I can relate to. Are you more fond of features or reviews?
CH: Definitely reviews, because it’s way more cut and dry. You play a game and you break it down whether it’s good or bad. There’s more creative freedom in features writing, but features are all over the spectrum, from Top 10s to interviews to retrospectives — there’s a chance a feature you’ve been assigned might not be an exciting task.
AK: Out of everything you’ve written so far, do you have a favorite? Something you had the most fun writing?
CH: You know, because I write on a daily basis I don’t really have anything that I’ve written that I’ve savored long after — I move right onto the next thing. I did enjoy writing an editorial on why Wii needs an Achievement system like 360 and PS3, and seeing the outcry of Nintendo fanboys defend Nintendo for not listening to the masses.
AK: (That doesn’t sound like a bad idea. It’s amazing that people would make a fuss. Maybe they’ll want to smash a couple looms while they’re at it.) Much as I love Nintendo, it has some of the craziest fans out there. Is that why stirring things up was funny?
CH: I don’t stir things up for humor or to see people buzz around like I kicked a hornet’s nest. I write what I believe, and truly believe that Nintendo is the best and worst video game company out there. They continue to put out some of the best gaming product, but they also refuse to adopt gaming trends that they didn’t create themselves. Weak online support. Bare minimum story presentation (Link doesn’t have to talk, but come on, surrounding characters should have voice over). It’s stubbornness more than anything else, and as long as the public consumes what they’re doing they’re not going to change.
Luckily the company’s seeing the trends shift with Apple aggressively moving in on its territory, and it’s clear that 3DS and the next console address that competition.
AK: I guess doing it intentionally is more Scott Bromley’s style, judging by that (hilarious) Final Fantasy video he did. As far as online support goes, it looks like Nintendo’s beginning to get the picture. But what about story? They dabbled with Metroid: Other M, but the fans seemed to hate that. Do you think Nintendo will take more risks with storytelling efforts in franchises like Zelda or Metroid or stay the course they’re currently on?
CH: I think the whole Metroid Other M thing was an experiment that went a little astray, not because they gave the character a voice, but just because it was all done so heavyhandedly. I appreciated all the effort that went into the story, but there were definitely times where I was rolling my eyes. There’s good writing and bad writing — Metroid Other M definitely went sour because of some bad writing. I still really enjoyed the game even with some goofy lines.
The public outcry might actually scare Nintendo into not putting an extra budget into other games. “See? Listen to the public! This is why we don’t do it!” That’s what I’m afraid of.
AK: Whatever their reasons, a lot of gamers say platforms like the iPhone and iPod Touch aren’t legitimate competition for platforms like the 3DS or NGP. On the other hand, industry people are sitting up and taking notice of Apple’s success. It looks like they’re getting nervous. Do you think Apple presents a long-term threat to Nintendo and Sony?
CH: Of course it does. if anything, Apple’s platforms have drawn developers away from other consoles and handhelds because of the cheap development kits, massive hardware numbers, and efficient storefront that makes it easy to get software spotlighted and found by users. And as long as these developers are focused on making games for iOS, they’re not putting as much attention on Nintendo’s systems.
AK: Shifting focus once more, have you done a lot of traveling in your career?
CH: Sure have. Game events happen all over the place. You’ve got E3 and Penny Arcade Expo every year and individual publisher events that happen in this country. And then you’ve got huge international shows like Tokyo Game Show and Gamescom. I definitely had to get a passport the first year I started at IGN.
AK: Do you have any convention horror stories?
CH: Horror stories? I guess the E3 during my first year at IGN — 1997 — was one horrific week-long ordeal for the newbies. See, we didn’t have the budget to send everyone to the show since it was all the way on the other side of the country in Atlanta. Only a handful of editors (four, I think) attended, leaving a core group of four editors back at the home office to build the pages as stories rolled in.
Now here’s the problem. We didn’t have a cozy content management system like most sites do now. It was something hacked together to post basic stories up in basic HTML, and it wasn’t something that was accessible to outside users. So the editors at the show had to write up the stories and email them back to us, where we hand-entered them one at a time and published them as they were added. It wasn’t a cakewalk for the remote editors, either, since in the early days of the internet publishers still handed out art assets on CDs (magazines were king), so the editors at the show had to also email over choice imagery for each article, and we, in turn, had to process and publish this media as well.
Add on top of this a show that’s running three hours ahead of Pacific Standard Time, and you get a very early wake up call by my Eudora Mail “You’ve got mail” alert sound, to publish news as it’s happening. I remember sleeping under my desk at work since the remote editors were submitting stories all the way up to midnight our time, which took us even longer to post with all the data entry for text and media in this sluggish entry system.
Luckily I used this experience to help the engineers redesign the CMS for E3 1998. I did such a great job here that the home team had everything in order so quickly, we had plenty of time to hop off for extended lunches while the Atlanta team was off at their appointments.
AK: I take it E3 became progressively less terrible after that.
CH: You take it correctly. Especially after it left Atlanta and returned to LA, everyone could go…and the mass of editors ensured that we could cover the show proper and daily. It’s evolved over the years. Live blogging press conferences is the norm now — it’s something we toyed with over the years but perfected with experience. And getting stories up is a lot easier now that everything has been streamlined with who handles what. IGN now has a video team working on cutting together footage, a media team to get screenshots up, and a news director who can get out there and score the interviews. It works and works well.
AK: So, you started enjoying working on big events a little farther down the road?
CH: Traveling is a large expense. I’d go to local events as they happen, but when it comes to airfare and hotels, those all depended on the budgets at hand. Not everyone goes, and people have to stay behind to man the shop.
AK: This one’s probably been done to death by now, but what’s the deal with this “Reaction Guys” thing?
CH: It’s the internet. It all started when a photo of myself, Peer Schneider, Matt Casamassina and Chad Chambers (an IGN intern at the time) had a candid photo snapped of us by co-worker Cory Lewis during Nintendo press conference…2002, I believe. That picture, one of indifference and unexcitement, was pretty much the poster for the mundaneness of the Nintendo GameCube announcements (and its 10 minute focus on Pac-Man VS) on the Gaming Age and IGN message boards. Whenever someone talked about Nintendo’s 2002 line-up, that photo almost always sprouted up in the conversation.
So, we decided to have a little fun when we found out prior to the 2003 press conference that there will be a trailer for a “realistic Zelda” game (remember, we got cartoony Link in Wind Waker). To tease this event, we got together and reposed the photo, but with sheer excitement instead of indifference. That photo was posted as-is to the IGN boards as a tease for the next day’s event.
Little did we know that those photos would take on a life of their own thanks to the power of the internet and random memes. Those poses have been used in everything from photo bombs to anime cartoons, even being recreated on t-shirts in Japan. I don’t think it’s as popular as it once was, but it’s still an internet staple that refuses to go away! Not that I want it to…I’m flattered to be a part of the net culture, even if people hardly recognize I’m Reaction Guy Number 3. (or two, depending on which way you count).
AK: Will you miss working at IGN?
CH: Of course, I miss it now! I’ve still got friends there and I miss seeing them every day. I hook up with them on occasion after hours and at gaming events, but it’s not the same as hanging out with them from 9 to 6.
But life moves on. IGN will continue without me. And I’ll continue on without IGN.
AK: All right, final question: What’s the future hold for you?
CH: I’m ready to dive headfirst into game development. My move has been slow but steady, but I’m keeping busy while I work behind the scenes nailing down where I’ll end up on a full-time basis. I hope to be able to reveal where I end up shortly.
(UPDATE: Craig Harris has since announced that he will be working for Sega.)
AK: Thanks for your time.