Category Archives: Media

Vox Video Lab

Vox.com:

You know that feeling you get when you learn something that blows your mind, something new, something that perhaps you didn’t even think to ask about? That’s our goal with every Vox video: We want to help you understand the world in a visually clear, creative, and hopefully beautiful way.

If that sounds like a mission you support, and you love our videos, then we ask that you consider joining the Vox Video Lab, our brand-new membership program on YouTube that will help us give you even more ambitious explainer videos and series.

Why are we doing this? The core reason is pretty simple: Our videos take a ton of work.

Well, how about that. The day after divulging my affinity for Vox Media’s creators, they establish their first membership program.
Thrilled to be a Video Lab Advisory Board member.

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What’s in a Creator?

I visit Daring Fireball, Stratechery, Chorus.fm, and Polygon religiously. I support MacStories, Washed Up Emo, and Relay FM. Their content doesn’t always land for me and I’ve become increasingly less wild about their design. So why do I keep coming back? In a nutshell, it’s the relationship I have with their creators.

I have a background in the podcast industry. What drew me to it was not the business potential or the medium itself, but the intimacy of the format. I was able to develop a pseudo relationship with the voices at the other end. Only ever consuming podcasts in moments solace while commuting or on a jog, the intimacy intensified. I formed such a bond with the voices on the podcasts I listened to that I wanted to support them. In my mind there was no better way than to join the industry.

The same could be said for my want to join the ranks of the news industry — namely the gaming news industry. In 2013, I’d come across Polygon.com — namely their PS4 and Xbox One reviews. I fell in love with their design and the rich content they were producing. It was a stark contrast from my then favorite gaming site IGN.com. Less clutter. Sharper design. Higher quality writing and videos. I became so engaged with the site that I began deep diving into their creators. Allegra Frank, Ben Kuchera, Tracey Lien, Griffin and Justin McElroy, Ashley Oh, Chris Plante, Dave Tach — the list went on.

I began listening to Polygon’s Besties podcast, hosted by Russ Frushtick, Griffin and Justin McElroy, and Chris Plante. Hearing them speak at length, episode after episode, helped me build an intimate, albeit one-sided, relationship with these folks.

And the cherry on top: their custom “Polygon-ified” avatars used on both Polygon.com and Twitter. This made the staff feel like a unit; a family. Many voices that made up a larger whole. Their credit was not mired or obscured as a monolithic publication — one reason I cancelled my subscription to The Economist. Much of their team — and Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff — still use the avatars today.

Needless to say, I connect to outlets not for the outlet’s sake, but for the creators I enjoy. Mediums such as podcasts and Twitter bring the personality out of the individuals; and on occasion, the latter allows for actual interaction with these them.

Realizing Polygon was (then) one-third of the greater Vox Media, I took to learning about the creators of the other verticals. And as Vox Media grew, so did their rosters.

Dieter Bohn, Lauren Good, Nilay Petal of The Verge. Dan Frommer, Walt Mossberg, and Kara Swisher of Recode. Ezra Klein, Dylan Matthews, Libby Nelson, and Matthew Yglesias of Vox.

Over the weekend, after seeing a tweet and retweet by Vox Media COO Trei Brundrett and CEO Jim Bankoff respectively, I listened to Vox Media publisher Melissa Bell on CNN’s Reliable Sources Podcast with Brian Stelter:

Audiences love our work and they care deeply about our creators. Often times we see them asking our creators, “do have a Pateeon account? Is there a way we can donate money to continue to contribute to your sites? Can we participate in the journalism in some way?”

We want to explore those options for sure. We want to make sure we’re building a business that supports our creators. We’ll be looking at every business model as we grow.

I certainly don’t know how much of this is true while not working within the walls of the company, but it’s certainly something I’ve felt as an audience member and fan.

Since reading Polygon in 2013, I’ve been a fan and critic of Vox Media. They’ve made great technological choices, and some questionable ad and social integrations. But more than anything, they put a focus on their talent. Their creators aren’t just a byline — assuming those stick around. They are featured in their text, audio, and video. Their engaging — and often times incredibly long — features are showcased on other Vox Media verticals. And talent from one outlet will appear on another’s podcast.

I have asked several Vox Media staff if I can somehow, someway contribute — donate through their sites or via Patreon; hell, publish print and take a margin. I want these creators to succeed! And I want the platform that gives them such a voice to be bolstered. I haven’t seen anything concrete yet, but I did buy Polygon’s 500 Years Later: An Oral History of Final Fantasy VII by Matt Leone as soon as it went up for pre-order.

I feel I have a connection and loyalty to Vox Media’s creators first, their sites second; much like I do for independents John Gruber (Daring Fireball), Ben Thompson (Stratechery), Jason Tate (Chorus.fm), Tom Mullen (Washed Up Emo), and others. It’s the talent that always brings me back. And I’ll continue to do everything in my power to support the creators.

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Washed Up Emo: ‘It felt like you were turning a page of a book that you’d never opened before’

Tom Mullen, host of the Washed Up Emo podcast, interviewing Justin Courtney Pierre of Motion City Soundtrack fame:

JCP: Now we’re all on Twitter and Instagram. We can see at least a version of ourselves that we want to put out to the world, which is still more than when you had to find that one article of the band where they had a few paragraphs. You had to read it. You didn’t get to see video of the person that’s speaking.

It’s just so much easier to connect to people now. There less mystery involved. I think back then, everyone just seemed way cooler than they probably were.

TM: This is brought up a bunch because of the time period of some of these bands and their age. You knew it before [the internet/connectivity], and now you have it. You have this context of being able to know when you didn’t have it and that feeling, versus someone today who’s younger doesn’t. They’ve only always had a phone. They’ve always had Wikipedia.

You talked about that feeling, but it’s also that sense of discovery. It felt like you were turning a page of a book that you’d never opened before. That feeling I try and replicate as much as I can today.

More and more I realize how detached I am from new music. As much as I looked forward to the new Cursive, Minus the Bear, Saves the Day, and Thrice records, they are new records from old bands. Plus, there was little for me to chew on aside from the music itself. Little in the way of liner-notes, thank yous, etc. Or maybe it’s just my lack of focus, time, and energy.

Even more is that my pendulum of consumption has swung far in the opposite direction of video games to books this year. I don’t think I’ve finished a single game I’ve purchased in 2018.

Together, I now get the sense of discovery I used to have with music intertwined with the insatiable appetite I had for video games rolled into reading. I’m on pace to read more than I ever have in a single year.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, books are my new albums.

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Hunch: Nintendo Revives “Super” Branding

Moments ago, WSJ broke news that WSJ breaking Nintendo news.

Earlier this evening, after seeing reviews for Super Mario Party emerge, it dawned on me the appropriateness of the “super” brand in an era of mid-cycle console refreshes. The Super Nintendo Entertainment System was a next-gen console at the time, but “Super” now feels like a supreme version of an existing console.

My crack-pot hunch is that this new Switch will be named the “Super Switch” (as opposed to “Switch XL”) and will feature a larger display (smaller bezel), richer speakers, better kickstand placement, and Bluetooth headphone support at a minimum. Just a hunch.

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Books Are My New Albums

The perfect song is “Have You Forgotten” by The Red House Painters.

Not the official album version on “Songs for a Blue Guitar”, but the version that only appears on the soundtrack for Cameron Crowe’s 2001 film Vanilla Sky, of which the song only appears for a brief moment during the film: six minutes in, lasting only 20 seconds, and tucked into the background under banter between Cameron Diaz and Tom Cruise. Easily missed if you’re not paying attention.

So, how did I find it?

Some time around 2003, I was on a family trip to Oregon. My brother and I were driving through Oregon’s lush mountains, trailing my parents and grandparents who were navigating. It was a beautiful day in a beautiful space. Tired of the CDs we had been spinning, I decided to pop in the Vanilla Sky soundtrack. It was my favorite film at the time.

I came to own the CD after hearing a song at the end of the film that moved me profoundly. The lyrics were foreign and I never heard sonics like it. Certain it must be on the soundtrack, I tracked a copy down and scoured. Not Radiohead. Not Peter Gabriel. Not Afrika Bambaataa. Of those artists I’d never heard of: not two seconds into the Red House Painters track it sounded too structured — skip — but Sigur Rós sounded close. It was not quite right, but I was tracking the right scent.

Fumbling around the early-‘00s internet, Sigur Rós’s website listed a slew of live recordings, one of which was the track used for Vanilla Sky’s finale; what would become known as “Untitled 4” or “Njósnavélin” or “The Nothing Song”.

Needless to say, I had never listened to the full Vanilla Sky soundtrack before. I had only purchased it on the chance of obtaining “The Nothing Song”.

So, a time came during our trek to Oregon that I was sick of the other albums I’d brought, and decided to give the Vanilla Sky soundtrack a spin.

“Have You Forgotten” came on and the world became a painting. After the first listen, I listened again. And again. And again. It was perfect. Lyrically, sonically perfect.

This version is not available via traditional streaming services like Apple Music or Spotify. I could — maybe should — encourage you to purchase the Vanilla Sky soundtrack, but I’ve done the leg work to discover this gem, so I’ll save you the trouble. Just this once:

The perfect song. Full stop.

Music discovery as we knew it is a thing of the past. Radio is still a powerful tool to promote Top 40 and the latest singles. Deep cuts are just a click away. A playlist will introduce you to bands and tracks of particular themes or influence. But the archeological process of obtaining limited releases, a band’s first EP, or a compilation for a single track have been fast removed in the day and age of streaming. Albums can be thrown away after a track or two in instead of considered an investment; not pilfered or appreciated for their concept or the one magic gem hidden before Track 1, tucked away at Track 7, or 10 minutes after the last song. It‘s free to listen and time is money.

That’s not to say it’s a bad thing. Quite the contrary. I would have killed to have all of this music at my disposal as a teenager. Money was tight but my craving for new music was not. $5 would score me a new Punk-O-Rama compilation with 20 tracks. $10 would buy an album at Best Buy — maybe not the one I was looking for, but anything was better than nothing. $20 for something more desirable but a little harder to find at Tower Records. I recall finding The Appleseed Cast’s Low Level Owl: Vols 1 and 2 at two different stores in Berkeley — my crowning music discovery bounty.

For better or worse, those days are long gone. Even a local punk band can release music on Apple Music for $20 and a few clicks. It’s (virtually) all there.

If the music discovery itch has been scratched, what is the next frontier? Truth be told, it’s quite possibly the oldest form of media discovery out there: Books.

Amongst the centuries of tomes, the mountains of paper and ink, books are ripe with treasure. One that speaks to me may not speak to you. Chapter 4 is not Track 4. Jumping to the good part is not an option. Short of a collection, books must be taken in as a whole. And that whole is an investment up front. Choose wisely. And if you’re short on dough, hopefully your choice nets out a sentence or two that you can hang your hat on. Something meaty. A compass. An inspiration. A goal.

It’s all very obvious, but for someone who lived and breathed music and didn’t take up reading until age 29, it feels like rediscovering an old me. I’ve read 16 books this year. 12 in 2017 and 24 in 2016. Some are good. Some are bad. I finish all of them. Even a bad book hones my hunt for something perfect. All wash over you. All are an experience. All cost money and time and patience.

I’m still searching for the perfect book; the perfect passage; the perfect sentence. Hear you me, it will be done. (It won’t.) But until then, discovery is back in my life. The hunt is on. Thankful, I have not forgotten.

Oh, and the perfect album is Elliott’s “Song in the Air”.

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The television equivalent of the novel

Wonderland by Steven Johnson

Art is the aftershock of technological plates shifting. Sometimes the aftershock is slow in arriving. It took the novel about three hundred years to evolve into its modern form after the invention of the printing press. The television equivalent of the novel—the complex serialized drama of The Wire or Breaking Bad—took as long as seventy years to develop, depending on where you date its origins.

I’ve often thought about today’s serialized, bingeable, Golden Age of Television as the visual equivalent of the novel. Rich worlds. Deep investment in characters. Time to marinate with relationships and stakes.

Before the Golden Age of Television, I was captivated by trilogies — hell, I still am — namely Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (Extended Editions!) I hadn’t read the books, but I felt an attachment to the characters. Its cohesive production, year-over-year release schedule, and follow-through of Tolkien’s parallel stories and stakes built a world I was able to immerse myself in.

Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings runs 9 hours in total, the extended editions running 11 hours — not dissimilar from a Golden Age television series.

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Griffin and Justin McElroy Depart Polygon

Griffin McElroy, Polygon:

With that sage wisdom in mind, it’s time for us — Griffin and Justin, who have, for the purposes of this introduction, fused into a singular, fraternal hivemind — to announce some big and bittersweet news: This Friday will be our last day as full-time employees at Polygon.

We’ve written our own individual letters below, but understand that everyone’s attention span might not sustain them through both; especially now that you know we’re leaving, and our relevance to you slips away like so many grains of sand through the hourglass. So, here’s a TL;DR, as the kids say: We’re leaving to focus on our other projects, and to have more time to live functional human lives. We’re gonna keep doing Monster Factory on some kind of recurring basis, as well as a couple other of our pre-existing Polygon projects. Our departure is completely amicable — so, SORRY, beef-hunters. No beef to be found here. This exit is strictly vegetarian.

Now that we’ve spoiled all the big surprises, here’s our individual takes. Thank you all so much.

This one hurts.

When my wife and I moved to San Francisco for my job, I felt alone when outside of her company. On my commute or wandering the city, I’d listen to Polygon’s The Besties with Griffin and Justin McElroy, Russ Frushtick, and Chris Plante. Their humor and camaraderie comforted me. On one episode, I caught wind that Griffin and Justin had another podcast: My Brother, My Brother, and Me. It was a treasure trove of wit and goofs; things that helped me through my days.

Even with their plethora of amazing and innovative endeavors outside of games journalism, I will always associate Griffin and Justin with Polygon. They’re perspectives and writing are exceptional. I always looked forward to their articles.

But the writing was on the wall. Their bylines on Polygon.com appeared with decreasing frequency, while their amount of “side-projects” began to seemingly multiply.

In their departure letters, they both reflect on Polygon’s editor-in-chief Chris Grant’s friendship — how he helped kick off their games journalism journey. It’s amazing to see how much adoration is paid to Grant for his support and willingness to allow them to balance their dream job while pursuing other endeavors.

The piece of this news that hits the hardest comes from Justin’s letter. It speaks to the heart and humanity I believe the folks behind Polygon harbor. It also speaks to why I write Zero Counts and the countless other blogs I left in its wake:

So for years, I wrote for myself. I created and maintained no fewer than three different blogs with a readership of, statistically speaking, nobody. I pitched myself to every major gaming site and magazine and was ignored by all of them. But I kept applying, kept pitching, and was eventually ignored by almost all of them. After a few years, I was able to cobble something that looked like a resume in dim light, and things got a bit easier.

The call that changed my life though came from Chris Grant, the EIC of Joystiq who remembered liking my submissions when I had applied for a job (six months prior, didn’t get it, natch). He was reminded of my existence after I emailed him trying to get Joystiq to post about some videos I had made about a laserdisc lightgun game featuring prop comedian Gallagher. I owe Gallagher so much that I’ll never be able to repay.

I’m happy for Griffin and Justin and look forward to supporting their other adventures. But this one hurts.

Godspeed, boys.

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Traditional Games

Walt Williams in his book ‘Significant Zero’:

A traditional game is a challenge in which a player’s skill comes up again a rigid set of rules. Turn-based strategy, multiplayer death match, platformers—these are traditional. The modern, high-end, blockbuster AAA game is not a skill challenge. If it were, the player might fail and be disappointed, and then we wouldn’t sell as many copies. The rules are fluid. We change them to create tension, surprise, or excitement. Saying yes to the player only goes so far, and that distance is the exact length required to make you feel in control.

Last week, a colleague of mine asked how far I was into Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle. I told him that I was in the middle of the fourth (and possibly last) stage — Lava Pit. (For what it’s worth, I had recommended the game to him.) I also told him that playing Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle was the most fun I’d had with a video game in a long time. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was great, but the aesthetic doesn’t draw me back. Likewise, Splatoon 2 is lots of fun, but only in casual, Mario Kart-style doses. Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battlle has me not only progressing through the main campaign, but backtracking to achieve better, cleaner results in previous battles and optional challenges.

Right now, it seems the “traditional” game is where I find fulfillment. When life feels like a maze, solving simple, zero-stakes problems — in a world you adore — is unbelievably gratifying.

If platformers fit into this bucket, then boy, oh boy am I looking forward to Super Mario Odyssey.

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Why I love video games

Chris Plante in his first piece since returning to Polygon:

I love video games, but what I might love more is the opportunity I’ve had over the last decade to share the imperfect games with other people, people who might have otherwise passed them on their occasional visit to GameStop in search of Madden or Destiny, Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty. I like finding greatness in the world’s biggest games, too, but I recognize they set an expectation of polish and scope that so many games can’t match. When I criticize a game, I do so to set expectations, to provide context, to interrogate what doesn’t work and to shine a light on what does.

This is exactly how I used to approach music and how I currently approach books. With music, it used to be a mainstream vs. indie thing, but I’ve learned to appreciate the big budget works for what they’re worth as well. With books, it’s less about popularity and more about topics—granularity.

In any case, it’s great to see Plante back at it. A stellar writer and critic. We’re lucky to read his work.

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The Cubs Way, Music, and Management

“Is that Tom Waits?”

“Yeah. Do you like Tom Waits?”

“I love Tom Waits.”


I am haunted by a childhood memory. Around age 13, my Little League coach and assistant coach had a falling out. Team practices were put on hold. For a kid unenthused about sports, you’d think this was a blessing. But the team was working well together and… winning!

We had a fantastic cast of characters resembling The Sandlot. There were Bennys, Hams, and Yeah-Yeahs. Maybe a Squints here and there. I myself felt like Smalls. We were a mixed bag, some with little to no skill, but we bonded. We helped each other. The loss of practice was arresting. Devastating.

Mike called me up. He was one of the leaders — very much a Benny type. He was organizing a practice and called me up to summon others. After we got off the phone, I had a thought: we should bring music. I loved doing any activity to music. I called Mike back.

He didn’t call it a stupid idea, but he suggest that we didn’t need it. I hung up and felt silly for the idea. I’ve never forgotten how embarrassed I felt for suggesting the idea.

In his fantastic book “The Cubs Way”, author Tom Verducci notes an immediate tactic new Chicago Cubs coach Joe Maddon took with his team at the opening of the 2015 spring training — his first spring training with the team:

After Maddon’s opening speech as Chicago manager, the Cubs took the field—actually, a wide swath of grass out in back of their training center—looking like a different team. The best way to measure the immediate change in the Cubs under Maddon was in decibels. As the team began its morning stretch, a huge speaker blasted “Voodoo Child” by Jimi Hendrix. What followed were more tunes from among Maddon’s rock-and-roll favorites, including “Brown Sugar” by the Rolling Stones, “Gimme Three Steps” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, and “Tom Sawyer” by Rush.

“I’m a product of the ’60s and ’70s,” he told his new team. “You’ll have to put up with that.”

After reading this passage, I felt vindicated. My 13-year-old self’s idea was not stupid. Joe Maddon plays music. It’s not that big of a deal. Scaling back a bit of focus for a bit of fun encourages free thinking and flow. (A big reminder that my 13-year-old self had shit for brains.)

I’ve recently taken on a new management role. It is challenging beyond belief. With these challenges, I’ve put lots of attention into how my manager runs his team. One of the simplest and subtlest tricks he uses is playing music during one-on-ones and meetings. At times, it can feel distracting, but more often than not, it lightens the mood and opens up conversations outside of work. In a recent case, we hit on our shared love of Tom Waits. (What’s he building in there? A team. I’ll stop.)

I’ve now applied music to my one-on-ones. Nothing too distracting. No early-’00s post-hardcore, ’80s pop, or ’70s prog rock. Mellow electronic, jazz, or my Apple Music Chill Mix do the trick. I think it’s helping. It’s lightened the mood. And — for me at least — makes me feel a bit more connected to my team.

Music can be an equalizer. Embrace it. There shouldn’t be rules to how you manage or run your team meetings. Find energy. Find flow. Find commonality. And while you’re at it, find a copy of “The Cubs Way”.

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