Some highlights from this afternoon’s staff Q&A: Stephen Totilo’s description of the history of Kotaku, and Stephen Totilo’s highlights of Kotaku’s best work, both written while he was starving himself in preparation for a blood test. Read’em here:
Brethren: What’s the story behind the birth of Kotaku? Who’s idea was it? Has its focus changed over the years? Was it always part of Gawker?
Stephen Totilo: It started when someone (I can’t remember who, sorry) suggested to Nick Denton that he should have a site about video games, not just a site about tech (Gizmodo) and NYC media gossip (Gawker.com’s focus at the time).
The first guy they hired to run Kotaku flamed out almost instantly, leading to the hiring of Brian Crecente, who ran the site starting in mid or late 2004. Brian also still worked at the Rocky Mountain News and had a very small staff for Kotaku, making what he accomplished in his tenure with the site all the more impressive. Brian recognized some weaknesses with gaming media at the time that he could exploit to better serve readers. Other sites sat on news and published maybe once a day and not on weekends. Brian and his team published 24/7. When other sites would reverently present company-provided gaming news (PR), Brian and co. would offer a take on things, call bullshit more often and overall just act more fearlessly without concern of pissing off advertiser thanks to Nick’s business model.
By the time Brian hired me in May 2009, he was looking to publish more original criticism and reporting, which is what I was doing at MTV News. Bit by bit, Kotaku aggregated less and did more of its own stuff, breaking more news, publishing more reviews and critiques. Few gaming cakes. More gaming scoops.
For about a year, Joel Johnson served as our editorial director at Kotaku and worked over me and Brian. During that year, we began to incorporate more coverage of, for lack of a better way of putting it, real life issues. We covered sex and sexism, ethnicity of gaming characters and the diversity of development teams. We took inspiration from sites like the Border House to showcase a more diverse set of writers and to cover a more diverse set of topics. This wasn’t something you saw on big gaming sites, but we thought it was important to fleshing out discussions about gaming and gaming culture.
In 2012, I took over. Brian and Joel went on to other things. My focus wasn’t entirely different than theirs. Editorial independence was also important to me. Not being beholden to game companies was also important to me. So too was covering the culture in and around games and tackling tough or taboo topics. Like Brian, I felt the obligation and responsibility of journalists to tell interesting stories, to do the work of reporting and to tell people stories that we felt they needed to know, not just the ones they wanted to know.
I’d like to think that one of things that has become more of a signature of my time running Kotaku has been putting the readers to the fore. I am, ultimately, a populist and obsess over the idea of serving readers, of getting readers stories, of respecting reader feedback or acknowledging the interest people have in a thing and tackling it. The absurd attempt a couple of years ago by the Gamergate crowd to characterize us as anti-gamer—anti the people who play video games—was as sad as it was plainly wrong (but, to be fair, I did take the alienation that some GGers said they felt from the games media to heart and thought a lot about where that came from and what we could or should do about it).
In addition to all of that, and perhaps most significantly to the site as it it is now, I had an epiphany in mid-2012. I had an epiphany about how we and the rest of the games media covered games. At every site, including ours, writers were assigned to games to review them. At many sites, they were also assigned to preview games. But no site, to my knowledge, assigned people to cover games after they were released. This seemed wrong. Covering games before they came out mostly amounted to covering hype and hypotheticals. Covering games AFTER they came out meant covering games as they evolved through patches and DLC. More importantly, covering games after they came out meant covering the experience gamers were having with those games, and that is, as so many of our team have demonstrated, where the most interesting stories are. We decided to shift away from pre-release coverage in favor of post-release coverage. We assigned writers to follow certain games and franchises after release. The result, I think, has been the most interesting version of Kotaku that there’s ever been. We run into problems of scale. It’s tough to cover a lot of games post-release with a staff as small as ours, but it’s been an enormously fun challenge to try to tackle.
A helpful answer, I hope!
Eccah: Inspired by a Gawker post yesterday about each writer’s favorite story, would you be willing to do something similar? If not a full story, do you have any particular favorites from current/former Kotaku writers?
Stephen Totilo: Of my own stuff, I was really happy with how my feature about the hacker SuperDaE turned out: http://kotaku.com/5986239/the-ri…
I’m proud of the profile I did about Sean Smith, the gamer who was one of the four Americans killed in the infamous attack in Benghazi: http://kotaku.com/the-extraordin…
But I’m also proud of this weirdo piece I did about why people like drawing penises in games: http://kotaku.com/why-do-people-…
In no particular order, and without links, because, sorry, I’m short on time:
- I am a big fan of Patricia’s pieces about people doing amazing things in Mario, Pokemon and Fallout games.
- I loved Jason’s investigation into what really happened during the development of Destiny. I think his series about gaming layoffs is woefully under-appreciated.
- I was proud of Patrick’s coverage of localization controversies and his explanation of the ugliness that ensued.
- Kirk’s written some brilliant reviews and also did a great piece on Tom Clancy’s legacy in gaming. I’m also partial to his coverage of EA’s glowering sports bros.
- Yannick had done some really cool post-release coverage about Mario Kart including a fine piece about two brothers who hacked the newest version of the game.
- Evan had a couple of signature pieces about black game developers and gamers but also routinely was damn near poetic in his analyses of comics.
- Fahey has made me laugh (intentionally) so many times, with pieces about things like why there was a game box stuck to his ceiling but also has written movingly about gaming addiction, relationships and weight loss.
- Nathan’s interview with Narcissa Wright is one of the most powerful pieces we’ve run. He is also a wizard at covering Steam.
- Tina boldly wrote a couple of years ago about women being harassed at E3.
- Cecilia just started and has already written and reported impressively about communities around things like Overwatch and Twitch.
- I really liked Ashcraft’s coverage of the secret history of Nintendo and was really proud of him hustling his way to Tokyo to be the first reporter to tell the story of Sony’s Japan Studio.
- Luke and Riley, one of our longest-standing employees and one of our newest, have both written terrific reviews or re-reviews of older games. I also love Luke’s cosplay.kotaku.com site and the work he’s put into it.
- Owen was always good at sports gaming stories, but I also really liked the more personal stories he’d fine about gamers who’d done incredible things.
- Crecente and McWhertor were a great early tag-team on huge scoops like the Modern Warfare 3 leak, and the PlayStation Home stuff before that.
- Chris Person’s baby, Highlight Reel, is one of the best, most positive celebrations of what gamers do in games that you can find. I’m so proud to have it on the site.
So many other writers (Gergo! Kate! Andras! Steve! The other Luke! Leigh! Tim! GB! Kevin! And more...) contributed fine work to the site. And so many have probably done great things that I’m not thinking of, especially because it’s 4:15pm and the doctor told me to not eat since midnight. So please attribute any glaring omissions (or inclusions) to food-deprived wooziness.