Well here I am, doing the whole video game journalism thing again. I never thought I would be doing this again, but I was urged ad nauseam by my friends and colleagues to get back on the horse. Many times when I see readers comment about thebitbag.com, it?s usually prefaced by ?Who is thebitbag anyways??. Well I?ve decided to write a 2 part article about who I am, we?re we came from and how we got to this point. It may shed some light on things like how to start your own game site, how to get into game conventions and more importantly, how to get support from game publishers. Some of what I write might seem boring, but I hope to spark an interest, shed some light and entertain.
It all started back in the 80?s. I used to spend the summer in California while my cousin, Perry Mercer, gamed the summer away in Boston. We?ve always been huge gamers. We were so geeky that we would write video game reviews on paper and mail them to each other during these summers. I can remember a specific review he sent me of Roc N? Rope for the Colecovision. We were really dedicated, but we weren?t Arnie Katz and Bill Kunkel. These guys were gods. They gave us Electronic Games magazine. We could only hope to one day be like them.
I had spent some years working for Databased Advisor magazine. While I was there, I learned everything I could about PC?s, databases and magazine publishing. I sold my music equipment and built a PC. My roommate ran into some money and wanted to pay for recording my whole album. I told him how hard the music industry was to get into and instead convinced him to put his money into publishing a video game magazine. I contacted Perry, made a few friends locally and started working hard on the first issue of Video Game Time magazine.
I had to start somewhere. I needed content. I started grabbing all of my video game boxes and manuals to find phone numbers. I called each and every video game publisher I could and asked for their fax number. I created a logo and letterhead in Microsoft Word and entered all of the phone numbers and names I had into Winfax Pro. I had over 50 faxes to send out. My intro letter had a mission statement and details about what Video Game Time was going to be. I started sending out faxes and went to sleep. Once the faxes were done, I started calling people and making more contacts. I needed anything and everything I could get to publish my first issue.
The first true contact I ever made was Jay Malpas from Data East. This guy was too cool for school. He was the first publisher support I ever had. He sent me ROMS for games that weren?t even finished so that I could write previews. Back in those days cartridges were still popular because of the Super NES and Sega Genesis. So if you wanted to preview anything for the system, you were sent a cartridge. These cartridges had no stickers or fancy plastic, just the circuit board and chips. After you were done previewing the game, you had to mail the cart back. I was so grateful with Jay and Data East that I gave them a free ad on the back page of the magazine. I did the same for Readysoft on the inside.
Through my hard work I had gained support from Data East, Readysoft, Sega, The 3DO Company, Atari, Nintendo, Crystal Dynamics, Sunsoft, Universal, Shiny Entertainment, Capcom, American Laser Games and JVC. Games, images, press releases and systems were arriving at my front door. I was having Perry and our small group of writers send their reviews through Compuserve and regular mail. Perry even interviewed Naughty Dog in their apartment in Cambridge. He got to see Way Of The Warrior first hand and got info that they were working on a secret project for the Sony Playstation.
After many sleepless nights, I had laid out our first issue of Video Game Time. I worked long and hard and submitted everything to the printer. Aside from them screwing up the quote and my roommate having to pay more than we wanted, we had a beautiful, fully colored video game magazine. Now we needed to distribute it.
I sent copies to all the companies that supported us. The free ads I had placed in the magazine added that professional touch. At this point they were taking us seriously. I had 3,000 copies of the first issue printed. They were in boxes stacked in my garage. I had distributed a couple hundred at local Electronic Boutique shops but needed to take the rest to LA for the very first E3. If you?ve ever been to an E3 before, you know that they have these bins for free magazine give aways. We would stack about 100 mags inside the bin, go check out the show floor and come back to find empty bins. People were grabbing the magazine. How cool was that? My only concern at this point was if they were going to subscribe or not.
The very first E3 was incredible. It marked the beginning of the new video game era. Sega had just dropped the Sega Saturn for $399. I had already received mine in the mail and was given the complete library of launch games at E3. I met a lot of my contacts face to face and established great relationships. We were invited to parties and previews and treated like kings. The first years of E3 were the best. Who can forget what an impact the Playstation 1 made on the show floor? What was really fun was making that last minute sweep on Day 3 of the show to get all the stuff publishers didn?t want to take home.
I had left the show with new relationships formed, a stack of business cards and press kits and enough info to get started on my second issue. I started to wonder how I was going to fund my next issue. We didn?t have the money and subscriptions weren?t coming in. The problem with giving away free magazines is that readers expect the next issue to be free too. I had no way of putting out another issue. I even contacted the same printers that were doing Diehard Gamefan magazine and got a great price, but just didn?t have the money.
I was introduced to the world wide web in it?s early stages and thought it was a waste of time. When I was trying to decide what to do about VGT, I did some research on the internet. I had an epiphany and decided to create vgt.com. Everything I knew about magazine publishing was now useless as I was entering a new era; I had to learn publishing on the web. After learning some html I started creating the website.
I worked as hard on the website as I did the magazine. I remember it having a start page and a counter. That was real popular back then. It was very basic looking and had no flair. It was however, vgt.com. After some time and some more research, I learned about image maps and tables. I redesigned the site and it had flair, great colors and lots of links. We had news, game reviews, cheats, movie reviews and kung fu movie clips and reviews. Our cheats and movie reviews, especially Kung Fu Theatre, were very popular.
There weren?t many gaming websites at all when we launched. Well, there weren?t that many professional ones. The fact that we had a dot com meant something to game publishers. There were tons of Little Johnnie?s Sega Saturn Land websites sitting on Geocities shared space. Of the professional ones I can remember that sprung up and had an impact were gaming-age.com and egm.com. That was pretty much it. Back in the late 90?s, there were no Alexa ratings, search engine optimization or this thing called cpm. There was no way to track how well a site was doing. The best you could do was get high on the yahoo.com search engine.
I probably could have secured advertising for the site, but never cared about making money off of it. We were getting so much stuff in the mail, it seemed criminal to sell ad space. We were saving thousands a year on video game purchases. Anytime I needed something I could get it. One of my editors controller ports on his PS1 broke. I?d email Sony and have a new PS1 in the mail the next day. I tried hard to get one of the blue debugging units, but there was a huge line for those. We played beta?s using one of the old tricks to play imports on the PS1. In fact, I still have a PS1 game that never made it to market.
Not only were we getting shitloads of games to review, we were also getting A class treatment in other areas. You hear this talk about how publishers shower editors with gifts and other goodies in hopes of getting good reviews. Well, we got to experience that a lot. We would get limo rides from E3 to free dinners every year with Homemedia. Sega always had the best parties and we were always invited. The biggest Sony party ever was in Atlanta, Ga during E3. We got in because of people we knew at Sony that made special accommodations for us.
The biggest goodies came in other forms. One was a day at the Playboy mansion for the award ceremony of the Shiny Entertainment gaming marathon. We met playmates new and old. I got to shit on Hugh Heffner?s toilet in his arcade and we ate all their food. Too bad our digital camera?s sucked back then. If you ever wondered why Psygnosis went out of business, it?s probably because of those spur of the moment trips they used to plan. They would call me on a whim and ask to have someone sent out to preview their games. Perry, my senior editor, got flown out to Coeur D?Alene Golf Course for two days, all expenses paid. He got to play 18 holes of golf, stuff his belly with steak and lobster and wine and got a chance to see Psygnosis? new golf game. They paid for everything including a limo ride from the airport. The second time they called me was to preview their snowboarding game. No one could make this trip because of the short notice. In fact, all the editors at other publications had trouble making the trip too. Only one editor was able to go and apparently he got a new snowboard, gloves, goggles, boots, jacket, a free day at the slopes and a preview of their game.
We were considered A list and didn?t even realize it. We were attending events and parties with the likes of Dave Halverson and Ed Semrad. I had run into Ed Semrad several times at E3. He sat behind me on the shuttle back to the hotel and I asked him why he gave Third World War a bad review. He claimed that they didn?t. I guess he didn?t read that issue. He reminded me of Bill Murray in person.
E3 was always great. It got better every year, peaked in 2000 and then went downhill. Getting into E3 became more difficult every year. There was so much paper work to send in to qualify credentials that it became a nausiating task. I went from just sending business cards to sending a large envelope with business cards, signatures, letter heads and a few fingers. Unlike the CES, they never kept a database of who qualified as press the previous years. With the CES you literally pressed a button on their website and you were in.
We still enjoyed E3. I remember seeing Team Fortress 2 in 2000…or 1999. I can’t quite remember. It was on the PC and looked totally different. I also remember seeing Duke Nukem Forever and getting really excited about it. We had full access to everything at E3. They would feed us every day in the press room and as technology got better we were able to update the website from the show floor. We had images up pretty fast. Interact had all their new Dreamcast accessories on display in their booth and didn?t allow photos. I took some anyways and by the time I got home they were all over the net with credit to vgt.com.
Sony always had an open bar in their booth which was high above everything else. We?d get these VIP pins that would allow entry in and out of the booth. Sega usually had food and drink in their press area too. All the major publishers had parties after the shows on certain days. We tried to get in as many as we could. Usually during the 4 days we always had a meal ticket somewhere in town. The Sony party in Atlanta had an open bar, free food and Foo Fighters. Sega did the same in LA except at one party they had Filter and another year Brian Setzer at the House Of Blues. Damn those days were great.
I ran the site well into the Dreamcast era. Playstation 1 was still huge, Dreamcast made a splash and the PS2 had just hit the shelves. We were bored doing reviews. A lot of the games that were coming out either sucked or were me too games that offered nothing different than the others we had already reviewed. I hated updating the site. I wasn?t aware of dynamic html or how to link everything up to a database. Everytime we updated the site we had to create a bunch of new html files. The E3 updates were huge and required tons of uploads. I grew tired of it and so did everyone else. I did another rehash of the website using flash and the navigation looked great but everything else sucked.
I decided in late 2003 to shut the site down. I didn?t know where to go with it and the technology was moving faster than I could discover it. There were tons of video game sites popping up everywhere. Of all the sites that popped up in the mid 90?s, only one of them still stands?gaming-age.com. They stuck to it and haven?t changed their format at all since their inception. I wanted to dabble in film and photography and I did. I had already been taking some film classes and helped with producing, editing, sound design and special effects on a few shorts. I wrote and directed my first short in 2004.
I actually attended a few E3 conventions post 2003. They all sucked. I remember one year it was made impossible to have meetings because so many people were packing into booths to get free t-shirts. It was a mess. I saw the launch of the Xbox and after laughing at it decided to get one thanks to Wreckless.
In the midst of attending film festivals and looking for work, I discovered some web programming languages and the dawn of Web 2.0. I found ways to dynamically update websites with the use of Mysql databases. It was the coolest thing ever for me and I wish I had discovered this years ago. I was urged by my editors to create a new vgt.com. I had already sold the domain so had to start with something new that I had on my mind for years. Thebitbag.com was born.
In part 2 of my article, I?ll tell you how I had to start at the bottom?the very bottom of the pile of gaming websites and slowly climb my way back up?which I?m still doing.