Warning. This post contains a lethal dose of navel-gazing.


Joe Martin, self-proclaimed ex-games journalist and creator of the Unlimited Hyperbole podcast, set himself a strange goal. Martin doesn’t like the Games Media Awards but he decided if he didn’t receive a GMA nomination for Best Podcast, he’d pull the plug on Unlimited Hyperbole. The GMAs came, Unlimited Hyperbole did not get nominated and Martin pulled the plug.

Why would anyone do this?     

Pet projects such as Electron Dance start out as an adventure but eventually the alchemy of attention will transform them. Transform them into something that looks like work. At the point when love becomes labour, either you accept change or you quit. Over the years I’ve seen sites die and seen sites survive. I remember Arcadian Rhythms going through a rough patch and was compelled to ask Shaun Green, who runs the site, whether its demise was imminent. The site is still with us.

Prior to Electron Dance, I maintained a creative fiction website for three years, updating every single week with only one reader. Sometimes personal obsessions will see you through, but that’s not the norm. At some point you need to be paid for all that time you pour into a passion project. Not necessarily with hard cash – but with attention or recognition. You might practice plenty of self-denial but the truth is once it becomes “work” then you need something to keep you going.

You look for sustenance in terms of cold metrics – hits, follows, subscribers – as well as personal recommendations or virtual high-fives. It gets rough when no one talks about you. It gets rough when you reach a new ceiling of growth. Electron Dance tends to spurt: the first half of the year was good to the site, with Superbrothers and Leigh Alexander recommending Electron Dance and countless articles have been featured on the Rock Paper Shotgun Sunday Papers (see the RPS category). But things have cooled off since and Twitter followers have held steady for a couple of months. The death of Google Reader also took away a lot of subscribers. It’s always difficult when the numbers freeze: suddenly all the same questions come back to haunt you. You wonder whether anyone cares, whether you’re actually in decline, whether you’ve done all your best work…

The ego gets hungry. The beast needs to be fed.

You never know what’s going to find an audience and I’ve been trying to get away from posts that require a lot of effort. High-effort posts are high-risk because the emotional crash if they fail can be devastating. I wrote about this happening to me in The Accidental ARG – ironically, itself a high-effort heavily-researched post that is the least read essay of the year. Both Where We Came From and The Academics Are Coming were failures despite being labour-intensive and brought the site perilously close to its end. All of this has happened before and all of this will happen again. That’s why videos don’t happen any more and I rarely dabble with a podcast outside of Counterweight.

On top of that, there’s also a vein of guilt running through Electron Dance because I’m not doing this for the money, whereas others are. I may not be an unpaid intern, but I’m still a contributor to the ever-expanding body of free writing available online. I am the flood.

This year it became increasingly difficult to summon the enthusiasm to write each week, even though I have no shortage of subjects. Only the Monday deadline was enough to break through the funk and that’s pretty late in the day to include enough time for polishing the words beyond basic edits. There were skipped weeks. There were late posts.

It doesn’t take much to coax me into whining about the impact of the site on my life (here it is important to apologise to Eric Brasure’s inbox) and I moan too much about it. The first time I met Joe Martin in the flesh, I divulged that I was on the verge of quitting every week. He didn’t understand why I didn’t space the posts out more, give myself some breathing room, but I retorted that I’d seen so many sites die that way. First, they post a little irregularly, then once a month and finally… they just never come back. Anyone remember Second Person Shooter? Where has Jordan Rivas been for two months?

But something had to happen and Martin’s suggestion lingered in mind. Unwilling to give up the weekly schedule, I chose instead to go on an Electron Dance sabbatical for August – no videogame writing for a month.

Thank you, Joe. I may be sad to see Unlimited Hyperbole walk off into the sunset, get shot in the head and buried in an unmarked grave in the Arizona desert, but I understand it.

If you missed it, Joe Martin recently wrote about the origins of Thief as a swordfighting game based in a zombie-overrun Soviet Union for Rock Paper Shotgun.

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17 thoughts on “The Labour of Love

  1. Ridiculously, of course, I have started working on a video that I’ve been dying to make for a year. It’ll be pretentious wank. The best kind of wank.

  2. Yours is a unique voice in the field of games writing HM. I can’t imagine it will ever go mainstream or become too popular, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As long as you find a way to monetize it of course!

    Enjoy your break.

  3. Beam, I think you enjoy yourself too much in the comments.

    Bluebogle, a voice from the past! I intended to put a bit in here about BnB Gaming so now I feel really bad =) From what I recall, BnB stopped because it reached a ceiling of attention and was unable to move forward?

  4. You know, I’m not entirely sure why BnB stopped. I’d already left the site for some months at the point I heard they were shutting it down, and I hadn’t been a part of the internal management level discussions in well over a year at that point. So any news I ever had about site decisions came from on high after they were already made, and I just had to go along with them.

    I personally quit in part because I got a paying job that took more of my time, but for the larger reason that it just stopped being fun. I never got into games writing for the sake of page hits or readership. Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy that aspect of it, and I say with pride that I was responsible for about half the page hits on that site while I was there, because I worked hard on my stuff and promoted it well. But the promotions were more to get people to the site in the hopes that they would stay.

    I didn’t bother with any of that when it was just me and my blog. I did hardly any promotions then. And I had maybe a hundred hits a day on a good day, of which I figured the majority weren’t even actual readers of any sort. Just random blips you get from web crawlers or something. I don’t know.

    But I liked just writing about the things I was enjoying about gaming at the time. I didn’t have many friends who were interested in video games then, so it was an outlet for me to get excited about something I really enjoyed in the hopes that I might have some dialogue with people.

    When I started getting tired of BnB was when it stopped being about having a good time, and started being modeled after corporate sites who survive off of page hits. It seemed we had to update the look of things every few months lest the masses tire of the same-old-thing. Promote content with a zealous effort. Follow style guides and write in a professional manner, and only ever express opinions in editorial columns and so on. At some point, it became a job. One that paid squat and took up a lot of time.

    I quit when I realized I was starting to hate my favorite hobby.

    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t blame anyone at the site for their decisions, nor judge them in any way. We all wanted some degree of success and fame I suppose, myself included. It just wasn’t working for me.

    I can just enjoy gaming again these days though and not stress about what I have to say about it, or if I’m not playing enough games to keep generating fresh content. I don’t have to keep my eyes peeled for the freshest, artsiest indie game fresh from an ex-Soviet Eastern European country anymore. I can spend countless hours playing a big, dumb open world game like Skyrim, and have a blast because I don’t have to budget my “fun” gaming time against my “work” gaming time.

    Okay… I’m ranting. I’m sure you get it. How you keep up the pace and quality of your site I’ll never know. But I’ll tell you it’s nothing short of awe inspiring. And though I may not read every article on here, and maybe occasionally curse it for pretentious snobbery, I would be very sad if I were to learn it wasn’t going to be around anymore. And I think Gregg would be downright devastated.

  5. I’ve been enjoying quite a few of you posts, I appreciate all the attention you put into your pieces.

    I am still wondering why Joe Martin set the GMA’s as his goal if he hated them, I was hoping you’d come back round to that oxymoron.

  6. Well, I really liked the Accidental ARG [the article, not the actual ARG 🙂 ]. That aside, Where We Came From and The Academics Are Coming are both great references and will likely be the basis of quite a few articles in the future.

  7. One of the things I tinkered with in this short piece was whether to relate the insatiable need for more attention to capitalism.

    Companies see their goal as growth; without growth they are perceived to have stalled. This interpretation predicts contraction and eventual failure if growth is not put back on the agenda. The idea that a company can stabilize at a particular market saturation is not seriously considered. Grow or die. Sometimes growth can bring about death – with ill-conceived mergers and aquisitions, mutant products that should never have seen the light of the sun.

    There’s a similar thing with blogging and videogame sites. I’ve got around 550 followers right now on Twitter. Currently that’s more than Ted Lauterbach who wrote suteF. (I had more than Richard Hofmeier before he become a humble superstar.) Do I *need* more? Do I *need* to keep growing? I have the ear of several developers I respect already. What’s the big fuss? Then I see Chris Priestman of Indie Statik and Chris Franklin have over 2,000 and I decided to think bigger. When is it enough? What is the goal?

    I should come clean, here, and I don’t chase growth simply because I need something to egg me on. After Electron Dance started to gain traction in its first year, I began to have complicated dreams of something grander than a little blog – so when it took three years to get to the point of around 500 Twitter followers, I wonder whether those dreams were actually made of pipes.

    But there’s something about the numbers that compels you. The retweets are another way you gauge opinion. Sometimes you over-analyse and this is a common “problem” that small websites have, following up every scrap of traffic. Looking for patterns that do not exist. Becoming a slave of statistics.

    @Bluebogle/Armand – From what I remember your former editor-in-chief Martin Watts told me at the Eurogamer Expo that BnB was having trouble getting more followers. BnB probably came across as any other gaming site with press releases, small features, reviews etc. and finding a way to look like you were all that plus something special was going to be the big problem to solve. Then again, you got into BnB just because you enjoyed playing games and realised that writing to deadlines turned games into work. I think that’s a huge problem in writing for games, because they swallow far more time than, say, a film. Probably most books too. There have been many struggles in Electron Dance HQ trying to enjoy games as games instead of work.

    Haha, pretentious snobbery. I like it.

    @John – I didn’t want to address that head-on, because I can disagree for similar reasons why the GMA goal is weird. But I can see where it comes from. I’ve been on Joe Martin’s Twitter for awhile and I’ve had conversations; the same kind of problems affect us all. The podcast took up a lot of time and he probably needed to feel that he had broken down some doors to convince himself that the hours expended were worth it. It’s like being bipolar. One minute you’re riding high, the next, you’re slaving away in front of a heartless monitor with sore, red eyes and a jaw full of yawn. You want to throw it in the bin and stop having to care about it. You have followers but it’s *not where you want to be*. The ultimatum itself might not make sense, but the fact he concocted an ultimatum does. And that’s what I really wanted to touch on.

    @mwm: Yes I should add that numbers on some articles pick up after much time has elapsed. And occasionally, a dead post will find its audience after it supposedly sunk without trace (the entire Xmaspiration was later redeemed). The problem is at the time, when you’re reeling from the impacts of writing yourself to destruction, and the numbers are just not showing up – people are reading the opening paragraphs and not clicking Read More, no one is retweeting – it’s the worst feeling in the world. Big series are horrific for this, because you realise halfway through it’s not working out, yet you’re in for the long haul.

    This article wasn’t really meant to go “poor me” because, Hell, I do enough of that in the comments here =) I just wanted to describe the internal struggle that writers (or podcasters) of small sites grapple with. Joe Martin has stopped doing his podcast as a result. And I’m on sabbatical for the same reason.

    That does not mean I do not appreciate the nice comments here =) Thank you, all.

    Here’s a tweet I did today.

  8. Looking forward to more wank! I loved “where we come from” and “the academics are coming”. For what it’s worth. Electrondance is still on my nowadays very limited blog list (post google reader!).

  9. Well, I’m hugely late responding to this, but I for one am a big wank fan. Bring on the wank. I count myself among those who feel that Harbour Master is an indispensable voice for gaming, and one I value. Please carry on with the wanking.

    As for sites, deadlines, self-pressure, and the like… I know all about that. Like you, HM, this year has been hard for me, in the sense that I’ve had difficulty coming up with good ideas to write about, and when I have a good idea I’ve had difficulty putting good words on paper. My own site has suffered for it, which makes me feel guilty. Like you, theoretically I do this because I want to; like you sometimes it gets hard to remember that. Sometimes I wish there’d never been such a thing as Google Analytics, because not knowing can make it easier. Those numbers, man, you speak the truth. They compel you. Even the best intentions can be wrecked by looking at those numbers. Hell, there may be a couple visitors to this site who remember my occasional bad behavior fueled by those numbers, which I still regret and (thankfully) have been able to stop doing. But the numbers, they watch you just as you watch them. I know I don’t want to turn the place off (or even turn it over to someone else), but at times I feel like I’m personally failing it. But all that’s internal and unguided by anything outside my own mind.

    Personally, I think your idea of a planned, self-enforced monthlong sabbatical is a great idea. Recharge the batteries. There’s a huge difference between doing it that way and looking up one morning to realize you haven’t written anything in a month. It’s structure, it’s got method, it’s designed with a beginning and end that you can get your head around. It should be good. Plus, it gives us all something to look forward to!

    This year I’ll be at Eurogamer Expo myself. Let’s commiserate!

  10. Ava, thanks! I’ve been working on the video every day recently – nice to do something different to writing and I’m sure it’s going to rock the pretentious wank meter. I still have to write the series it accompanies, however, small flaw in my plan.

    Steerpike, I thought you’d appreciate the sentiments =) I’m going to try out a new approach in September as well. I’m going to make Tuesday night my big writing night – make that an official thing where I try to get the bulk of an article done. Hopefully it will prevent article-writing-guilt bleeding across the week and also make me feel “more free”. We’ll see…

    A good thing since I got my smartphone– I’m not as obsessive about checking mail or stats because it’s actually readily available. It’s a strange paradox, but the smartphone has made my life better. This was not what I was expected. I look forward to meeting you in person at last Lord Steerpike. You’ll have to tell me about this “bad behaviour” of yours because I don’t think I have any idea what it is.

    As some of you are not on Twitter, I’ve been putting out teaser tweets relating to the video. There are two with screenshots. The first one. The second one which has actually been switched for a different scene.

  11. I love this article because it grapples with the question that so many creatives face: why do this? What’s the point? And doesn’t really have an answer. Because I don’t think there is one.

    By the way, check out my new blog on homosexuality in Star Trek! trekkinout.wordpress.com

  12. Sometimes you just have to take breaks. With my day job, I sometimes have a week or two where blogging isn’t even an option. I get where you are coming from about the need for validation after a lot of investment. I’ve had several projects that were a fairly successful after many hours invested, and various others that have been a flop. I try to not beat myself up too much about the failures, and instead just try and learn from them. Sometimes easier said than done though.

    For what it’s worth, I think your site has some excellent content, and a significant contributing factor is your excellent writing style. Do you what you have to so that you don’t burn out. I hear playing video games can be great stress reliever. 🙂

  13. AR may go through more such periods in the future, but it has always been a matter of the availability of time rather than a lack of desire to continue. I am tenacious.

    I understand your position, though, and as I’ve said before I’ll be following everything you do for as long as it keeps coming. Wank hat on: Electron Dance may be part of the flood, but it’s the crest of a wave.

  14. Thanks Ebongo. I’m not done with videogame writing just yet, so I’ll try anything to stave off the burn out a few years longer. I was deep in Miasmata a couple of weeks back but now I’m hooked on building this video night after night.

    Shaun – we welcome wank here. And I say we in the sense of a royal we.

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