Rock, Paper, Shotgun And PC Gaming – Interview With John Walker

With the internet spreading its sticky fingers over our lives like a drunk frat boy on a prom queen, and the prevalence of WordPress, Tumblr, and other ‘DIY’ journalistic platforms, never has it been more easy for those with opinions on… just about anything… to make their voices heard.  However, rising above the internet white noise and steering a gaming site to success – especially in such a cluttered sector – isn’t easy, but in just five years, respected PC gaming site, Rock Paper Shotgun have done just that.

Back in July 2007, the dedicated PC gaming blog was launched by four UK game journos, Alec Meer, Jim Rossignol, John Walker, and Kieron Gillen, and has risen to become one of the UK’s most popular gaming sites, scooping several GMAs, and boasting a dedicated readership.  Politely maverick, often humourous, and holding on staunchly to their independence, despite being partnered with the Eurogamer network since 2010, the site is an unapologetically individual concoction of serious features, light-hearted esoterica, reviews, previews, and interviews.

According to a recent audit by ABC – media data wranglers responsible for independent verification of circulation figures – Rock, Paper, Shotgun have racked up over 2.1 million unique users, with an eye-watering daily average of over 117,000 visitors.  No, they didn’t bribe their readers with shiny baubles, Pokemon pencil cases, or nudey ladies (we can still hope), they just did it the old fashioned way.  Hard work.

After the announcement in the gaming press about their impressive traffic, we grabbed the attention of RPS-er and ‘funny word specialist’ John Walker for a chat about Rock, Paper, Shotgun, PC gaming, and one of his ‘light the blue touch paper’ hates.

Congrats on your uniques, it is quite an accomplishment!  So, in the beginning, what made a handful of respectable games journos decide to go it alone online, and what challenges did you face in building RPS to where it is today?

Well, we’d all been at it for ten years, and we were all a bit fed up with having bosses. So we decided it made more sense to become our own bosses. Spotting that (at the time) there was no dedicated PC gaming site, Jim Rossignol rounded us up like the Nick Fury he is, and the four of us (that’s Alec Meer and Kieron Gillen as well) started putting something together in our spare time. We committed to writing two posts each a day, for six months, to see what would happen.

Challenges were there many. Just having a site infrastructure that suited what we wanted to do was, and still is, a big effort. Also, we didn’t make any proper money for the first two years, so had to keeping working as freelancers elsewhere to keep it going. Hosting would have been a nightmare if it weren’t for the amazing people at Positive Internet helping us out. And we argue, a lot. Oh, and so many other challenges too. It was an awful lot of very hard work, really.

What was the initial reaction to the plan to create your own site?  Were your peers and the industry generally supportive?

Yes, they were. That’s the thing about the industry – it’s mostly made up of really nice people. At the time PC Gamer didn’t have a website of its own, so we weren’t even competing directly with them, and people generally hoped we’d do well. I think. I mean, they could have been spitting bile and casting hexes on us behind our backs, of course.

How does RPS compete in an increasingly cluttered online space?  What makes you stand out and apart?

We don’t think about it. I think that’s key to all of RPS’s success. In our press release about the 2.1m readers, we weren’t kidding about avoiding all the SEO crap that makes so many sites look so sad. We just write what we’d want to read, and that seems to work. We’ve now got a big “competitor” in the form of PCGamer.com, and there are always rumours of others arriving, but we don’t look at it that way. We just get on with being RPS. And a big part of that is celebrating the writing, enjoying being silly, and standing behind the industry, scrawling rude words on its walls.

Did you ever envisage RPS being at the point at which you now find yourselves?

Not for years, no. But that was my failing. Jim has always been the one with a laser-guided knowledge that RPS would be here by now, and where it will be in a few more years. It took me a while to catch on that he wasn’t delusional. Then, I didn’t think it would fail either. I just didn’t think. It pays my rent! That’s amazing!

While many fledgling game sites start from ground zero, as experienced journos, you already had a firm foothold in the industry.  Do you see this as a key element of your success?  Can other sites, without this benefit, emulate the success of RPS?

I don’t think we can ignore that we had some sway with our names. Especially having Kieron on board back then, who was unquestionably the most famous UK games journalist at the time. So yes, dedicated readers from PC Gamer, or Eurogamer, or elsewhere, would have come because they knew or liked our writing already. But really, I’d say that’s going to be a very small group of readers, and then mostly other industry types. I expect it made us more likely to get linked from elsewhere, maybe? I dunno. But no – I don’t think it’s necessary to succeed at all. Like I say, I’m sure the vast majority of our readers would have no idea we’d worked anywhere before RPS, especially those outside the UK. And as I said earlier, it still took at least two years of barely paid graft to begin to be a success. And Kieron’s dead now, anyway.

Your repeated wins at the GMAs testify to your continued success… where do you see the site going from here?

Heh – I’m not sure GMA wins make any difference to anything. As for where we go from here – obviously we have plans in the works all the time, but mostly it’s to continue defiantly producing great written content.

Are there any areas into which you’d like to expand; anything that you just don’t have the time to do, but would love to?

Gosh yes. But I don’t think I could say, in case I/we ever do them. There’s stuff I’d love to spin off from RPS, but indeed, time. There’s still only five of us working full time on the site, from editorial to management. We’re busy!

Do you see the number of new game sites – good and bad – that spring up on an almost daily basis as a good thing for the medium, or are they muddying the waters, so to speak, or even diluting the quality of games writing out there?

I don’t think it’s any bad thing for readers. More choice is great, and the good will rise to the surface. I worry for sites that launch with misguided ambition, or even debts, but that’s their business. My only real concern, as we’re about to discuss, is those that are making money who convince people to write for them for free.

GamingLives isn’t currently self-sustaining, more a labour of love (and pain – although those are pretty much the same thing) at this time, and as much as we would dearly love to pay contributors (and ourselves) we have to settle for other incentives and small gifts when we can, along with the simple offer of a platform.  As such, it disgusts us that those who can blatantly afford to, don’t.  i.e. Pocket Gamer and NowGamer and their recent ads for unpaid columnists/interns.  This is a subject about which you have been quite vocal on your blog.  For the benefit of those who may have missed it, can you tell us why this has got you so (rightly) riled up?  Is it so much that they are skimping on paying writers, or the fact that there is that arrogant conceit that said writers should feel privileged just to have a position with them?

It’s both and more. It devalues the concept of writing. It’s a clever and unscrupulous trick that is being played long-term on writers, where the lie is spread that there’s no way to get started on their site without working for free first. It takes advantage of people, and is frighteningly accepted. I’ve had arguments with editors doing this to others, who defend it by saying it’s how they got started too, which makes no sense! They were taken advantage of, and now they’re in a position to ensure others aren’t! Madness.

The gaming industry seems to be one of, not just change – such as print to online; physical to digital – but of ebb and flow.  It seems that not so long ago, gamers were shifting away from the PC platform to consoles… do you now see this trend reversing?  If so, why do you think more gamers are now coming back to the PC?

I think what actually happened is lots of new people arrived into gaming via the consoles, and the PC numbers, while always growing, were dwarfed. And as the industry adjusted to that, the PC was rather stupidly sidelined. So while a game like Call Of Duty will only sell 5% on PC, 5% of eleventy billion dollars is an awful lot of money. As this generation of consoles dies out, the PC is becoming more obviously the place where the best version of a game can be played, and developers love making the best version they can. 2012/13 will be great years for PC gaming, and then come Christmas 2013 and two new consoles, the PC will continue doing just as well, but the industry will get distracted by the new shiny objects yet again. It’ll be interesting to see how consoles attempt to co-opt the digi-download and indie markets that are the PC’s biggest strengths right now. And around and around it will go.

Now those look like gaming PCs, or just objects of lust

It is perhaps fair to say that the PC has traditionally been seen as a more of a platform for ‘core’ gamers – is this still the case?  Do you think that this perception (right or wrong) has influenced recent migratory choices of those (I can speak personally to this) perhaps jaded by the casual/motion drive on consoles?

Well, I think the PC was the platform when there were only core gamers! So yes, that was definitely its tradition. And look at a PC, too. It’s this giant, ridiculous behemoth of a box, with a mouse and a keyboard attached. It doesn’t even vaguely look appropriate for gaming. The reappropriation of this work tool into a source of fun is masterful, but it’s not instantly accessible like a console (well, that’s increasingly untrue – I just got a PS3 and the interface is more complicated than installing drivers.).

What would you say the biggest changes have been in PC gaming over the last few years?

Digital downloads, I suppose. That’s made a big difference to accessibility, and created an equality between AAA and first-time indie products, especially on places like Steam. As for the games – not nearly enough changes have occurred. Games are getting extremely good at what they’ve done before. I’m looking forward to the new stuff.

How do you think that digital platforms and crowd funding sources, such as Kickstarter, will drive PC gaming over the coming years?  Is there a risk of burnout or over-saturation in these areas?

I think the saturation has already occurred. People only get paid once a month, but big projects asking for hundreds of thousands of dollars are racing to the goldrush when everyone’s tapped out. I wish people would pace themselves – the internet’s not going anywhere. My guess is that we’ll eventually see a shift away from Kickstarter, and more toward just fund raising, where there’s no target to hit or miss. It certainly causes people to want to give more, and to encourage others to give too, but I think that has a lifespan. But then I’m just some guy making stuff up.

Many great looking projects have got off the ground thanks to Kickstarter, but will the bubble burst soon?

Piracy has always been an issue for PC games, but how can publishers balance the need to protect their IP without alienating gamers like your readers with DRM?  Has anyone got this right so far?

Well, while others on RPS will disagree with me, I think piracy has always been a boon for PC games. I’ve never seen a scrap of evidence, let alone convincing evidence, to demonstrate it causes a reduction in sales. Games sell more than ever before, despite piracy being easier than ever before. Go figure. And even if someone vehemently disagrees with that, no attempt to combat piracy is even vaguely effective, other than providing a service better than piracy offers. Once publishers start doing that, then they’ll see even more money coming their way. The people who have got it right are those who just ignore it, and get on with making and selling their games. We live in an incredible time where people are paying astonishing amounts of money for games being offered for free, with bundles, etc earning millions upon millions for DRM-free games that could have cost them 1c or be pirated. It’s a beautiful thing.

Don't ever expect to find a decent PC section...

With the PC game sections in traditional retail outlets ever-shrinking, where do you see the future of high-street PC retail going?  Will this retail neglect be reversed if more gamers return to the PC fold, or is the writing on the digital wall?

I can’t imagine it will even exist in two years time. But then, we rightly complain about the ridiculously tiny PC sections in GAME and Gamestation, but take a look at their PS3 and 360 sections too. Heck, the Wii sections. They’re almost no better now. They made such a serious mistake when they stopped keeping catalogues of games in their stores, and I’m certain they’re suffering because of it. And it’s too late now. Some people will always want boxes, but why would you opt for a shop that seems to treat almost all new products with disdain over a website that has the lot?

How does it feel to see classic PC titles, such as UFO: Enemy Unknown, re-imagined and/or pilfered for the console market?  Should we be proud that they are stealing our toys, or should we feel like our house has been burgled?

I think people’s complaining about that is just ridiculous. It’s as if making a stupid shooter version of Syndicate somehow erases the original game from existence and our memories. There being a crappy FPS of your favourite game doesn’t harm your favourite game in any way, and as the Firaxis UFO project shows, it also doesn’t prevent more appropriate sequels from appearing either. It’s definitely a shame to see something great being remade as something rubbish, but people haven’t been robbed of the “proper” sequel. The universe just contains one more crappy game – that’s all.

Is the future bright for PC gaming?

I sure hope so, or I’m out of a job.

Thanks once again to John Walker for taking the time to talk to us.  He has kindly waived his usual appearance fee and, instead, asked that we donate the money and fizzy cola bottles to the Kieron Gillen Memorial Fund.




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9 Comments

  1. Chris-Toffer says:

    Really enjoyed reading that interview Lorna. Top stuff. I wasn’t aware of that blog post so I’ll take a look at that now!

  2. Alexandra says:

    Very poor choice of picture up there, even if ostensibly for humor.

  3. Ritter says:

    I really enjoyed every word of this. As a long-time supporter of RPS, and a fan of John’s candid approach to the industry, it was great to read this insight. I also enjoyed your introduction and questions and, as such, have read several articles since. I’ve bookmarked your site and will be checking back daily.

  4. Pete says:

    Yeah, nobody really wants to see a pikachu pencil case!

  5. mark_s says:

    Loved this Lorna. Seems John has a very similar view to me on much of the games industry.

    Great read.

  6. Keegan says:

    Really interesting this. It’s nice to hear people with a passion with the industry put their opinions out :)

  7. Edward says:

    John seems like an awesome guy for letting you throw questions at him, and his answers are nothing short of brilliant. I’m going to have to make RPS a regular read, methinks.

  8. Lorna says:

    Thanks very much for the comments folks, always appreciated :) It was great to pick the brains of a well respected PC gaming journo and hear his views on a number of things, especially piracy.

    @ Ritter – Thank you very much for your kind words. A warm welcome to the site; glad to see that you stuck around to read a few more bits and great to hear that you’ll continue to do so – we hope you enjoy it :)

  9. MarkuzR says:

    Enjoyed reading this for the second time. Didn’t have time to comment before, and didn’t want to comment without refreshing myself with what had been said. For the most part, I’m in complete agreement, especially with regard to professional sites with a valid revenue stream thinking that it’s fine to offer aspiring journalists internships or experience without pay while they enjoy the fruits of their labour. If you can afford to pay yourself, and your staff, you can afford to pay anyone who contributes.

    I hope we do more of these.

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