Gearheads Interview: Luke Smith

I’m going to put aside the t-shirt discussion for a day or two, although MDK put together a concept last night that I think will be one of two tees offered when all is said and done (although I’d prefer the font be blood red on both the chainsaw and the back of the tee so it pops more). The other is looking like it will be “Got Gears?” if the vote continues the way it’s heading right now. We’ll get back to that soon.

Luke Smith is a controversial person in video gaming just simply because he says exactly what’s on his mind on one of the most popular podcasts around, 1up Yours. Smith is the news editor of 1up.com, so his job is to shape some of the news reports that are published on Electronic Gaming Monthly’s online sibling. He has a blogging background which probably often helps him feel free to say whatever he feels at the time and a great part of my favorite podcast. Smith agreed to do an interview with Gearheads to discuss the state of reporting in gaming, the 1up Yours podcast and how he really feels about Gears of War.

Here is my discussion with 1up news editor and 1up Yours host Luke Smith:

Gearheads of War: First of all, you are seriously blowin’ up. Bryan Intihar ain’t got nothing on you. Podtacular, Video Game Outsiders, now Gearheads of War. You’ve now hit the holy trinity. Are you considering a run for the White House with all this publicity? Obama, Hillary and now, Luke.

Luke Smith: Hahaha. I think this country would need a reliable third party before I’d ever consider running for office. I wonder if Bryan Intihar would let me be the Vice President on his own Presidential ticket, though. That could work, GAP or Express could sponsor our candidacy.

Gearheads: Contrary to my first question, I actually want to be serious because you do have a pretty high profile position at 1up being the news editor. How do you view gaming journalism as a craft?

Smith: As a craft? That paints “gaming journalism” in too rosy of a light, methinks. Not to decry any of my contemporaries or the work that has been done, but I think gaming journalism has a long way to go before it’s a craft. There’s a lot of things about this industry that are still roadblocks standing in the way of “journalism” — companies keep so many secrets and ultimately that information is pretty controlled by Public Relations. Investigating much of anything usually results in turning up “no comment” or dead-ends or off the record commentary. The latter of that trilogy, however, could be an integral part of pushing “game journalism” further ahead. I think the rise of New Media — shows like The 1UP Show and the 1UP Network’s podcasts — has the opportunity to reshape game journalism altogether. That’s not to say that it hasn’t been evolving, though, either. It has to continue to evolve into an area where information goes to and fro easier. But, I think that being a “news guy” probably skews my opinion on game journalism because information is like currency to me.

Gearheads: What is the purpose of gaming journalism?

Smith: Depends on who you ask, really and what side of the show they’re on. PR will tell you it’s to control and mitigate information in conjunction with a devised plan — some folks in PR, interestingly enough, have talked about how they look at their job as protecting the gamers, keeping some things a surprise for them when a title ships. I respect that, but it’s still in opposition to what I’m trying to do.

Ultimately, though? I’m not really sure what the purpose is. Sometimes I feel like it’s getting information out there that may seem unjust (in that ‘omg look how much X company is charging for DLC’ kind of way), sometimes I think it’s about telling the stories of the videogame industry’s people, the studios, the business. Unfortunately, it all reduces to making money, though. People want their product talked about in hopes that it will influence the consumer to purchase their product — that might be the “purpose” but I don’t think that journalists need to kowtow to that approach, necessarily.

Gearheads: How is it evolving especially when you realize that there are other publications and news outlets out there that will allegedly “bend” the rules of journalism to score an exclusive (Shoe has made mention of this very practice several times in his editorial in EGM)?

Smith: Not to sound too much like a shill for my company, but I think the Ziff Davis Game Group and the 1UP Network are the embodiment of how game journalism is evolving. It’s the synergizing (which isn’t actually a word, I don’t think) of existing print properties and online and new media to create what is essentially a single explosion for a title. What the network did with Halo 3 last fall via EGM, 1UP and Gamevideos, in my opinion, really set the standard for how a title can be treated under the right circumstances. I feel like the 1UP Network is creating those circumstances. Those circumstances, just to be clear, are completely the byproduct of my bosses and the EICs at the Network, I don’t want it to look like I’m trying to cop for their successes — I still feel like the new guy, somedays.

Gearheads: Did coming from a blogging background make it easier or harder for you to do your job?

Smith: Probably easier, mainly because I saw how Kotaku and the Gawker Network sites operated and pretty shamelessly cribbed some of the philosophies in terms of management and setting up a staff in order to build 1UP News. I have an idea of what I want 1UP News to provide and a lot of that idea or vision probably came from some of the blogging background, in addition to a lot of the community-type reporting (think arts/theatre and sigh) that I did after graduating from college.

Gearheads: Are the roadblocks to doing your job and reporting news becoming more challenging with all the huge public relations departments and roadblocks these companies throw in your way?

Smith: It’s gotten a lot easier to do my job effectively as I’ve met more and more people in the industry and for the most part, I feel like PR knows what they are getting into when I call them. That’s not to sound negative or threatening, I’m fair, but I can be pretty, uh, fussy sometimes when things aren’t going the “right way” — and by “right way” I mean the way I want them to.

Gearheads: Name a company that does a good job of handling both good and bad news. And what makes them good at it?

Smith: I think Microsoft has done a really good job handling both the good news and the bad news. Everyone handles good news well, it’s easy to pat yourselves on the back for Gears of War shipping 3M copies in a couple of months. But during that whole Lumines microtransaction fiasco from last year, I was so disappointed with the direction that the game industry was going and I made sure to let Microsoft know how upset decisions like that made me, and hell, if you watched message boards, gamers were pissed.

Instead of simply saying “we’ll take it under advisement,” or “we’ll make a note” Microsoft served up one of the guys behind the decision to us for an interview. I thought that was a pretty impressive move on their part.

Gearheads: You’re in a very interesting situation in that many gamers have gotten to know your, uh, colorful personality via the 1up Yours podcast. Are there times when you feel like doing the podcast is a mistake for you given that being involved in “news”, at least in the past, meant that you were supposed to retain objectivity? For example, if people hear that you’re not so fond of a certain console, game or publisher, they automatically assume every news story out of 1up is tainted with that bias and might trivialize the impact of a news story from 1up.

Smith: No. I’ve never felt that way doing the podcast, and I’ve never felt that way writing a news story. Thankfully, John and Sam have been really supportive and encouraging of “my way” of doing things at 1UP News. I don’t think of objectivity as something necessary to News. I think that the climate is changing with how people want their information and I don’t think presenting it objectively is necessarily the future. Now, before that gets taken wildly out of context, I don’t mean “I present News with a bias,” because I do not care which platform plays my games. I care about consumers and gamers not getting the short end of the stick by overly aggressive business models. I care about games being built the right way with sufficient functionality. That’s starting to sound a bit self-righteous, I’m going to stop.

Over at C-Lo.net there’s an entry (hyperlinked) called “Journalism is Broken” that talks about some of the problems with journalism. One of the things the author talks about is how objectivity doesn’t really exist — we all have opinions, being honest and transparent about them is important.

Gearheads: People have accused you of being an Xbox fanboy in the past, despite how much you’ve ripped that company for the microtransaction fiascos and other things. How do you react to those criticisms?

Smith: I think they are laughable, but people are entitled to their opinions. I don’t think I’m any harsher or softer with Microsoft than I am with anyone else. The reality, however, is that while 1UP Yours was gaining momentum and people were getting familiar with my opinions, the only platform holder with a next-gen product to talk about was Microsoft — a lot of those accusations seem to have been pre-launch for Nintendo and Sony.

Gearheads: On the other hand, you’ve been pretty hard on Nintendo’s Wii for being a “Zelda player” and the five-year old technology that beats at the heart of that machine. Do you view it as your responsibility to the reader to take all these companies to task for what you view as their missteps?

Smith: It’s a bit presumptuous on my part, but I suppose I do think of myself as a watchdog or a consumer advocate for gamers. That’s how I want to be thought of. In a perfect world, I want gamers to feel like I am bridging a gap between them and publishers, developers and PR asking the questions they want to know. That wish could be completely delusional and I might be completely failing at it, who knows.

Gearheads: How much of the banter between you and Shane Bettenhausen on 1up Yours is contrived? And do you think that’s part of the reason that 1up Yours is one of the most popular if not THE most popular video game podcast around?

Smith: I can say that there is no contrived banter between Shane and I. We don’t sit around and figure out how to lob verbal grenades at one another — he and I just naturally tend to disagree on a lot of things.

I think that Shane and I are every bit a part of why 1UP Yours is popular, in the same way that John, Garnett and Andrew (who really is the brains behind the whole thing) are. I don’t think Shane and I are a “draw” anymore than Garnett or John is. I think the show feels different if any of the regulars miss it (yes, I’m included Mark MacDonald as one of the regulars — he’s our Detlef Schrempf coming in off the bench).

Gearheads: How much shit do you guys give him off the air for being such a Sony fanboy? You give it to him on the air pretty good, albeit deservedly so.

Smith: Well, we all give each other a pretty hard time on and off the air. Shane might get a little more than his fair share just because he leaves himself open to it, sometimes.

Gearheads: Do you view yourself as a jaded gamer? And if you do, does that make it more appropriate that you’re covering the news for 1up? In other words, does someone who reports the news from gaming companies need to be a natural skeptic?

Smith: I don’t know that I’d say “jaded.” I think I’m pretty discerning and I am very hard to please, but the handful of titles each year that do click for me — I’ll treasure those games forever. I think being a natural skeptic orients me very well for writing about News, there’s a lot of mucky muck to wade through on a daily basis to try and put together a section that I think is worth reading. We’re not an “everything site” like GameSpot or IGN (see, I’m not afraid to mention them, either) — 1UP News just doesn’t have an army of full-time news writers like those guys do, we have to pick and choose what we’re going to write about.

Gearheads: A regular listener to the 1up Yours podcast could get the impression that you actually don’t like playing games anymore (or at least games that aren’t Halo, WoW or Elite Beat Agents). Is that the case?

Smith: I love the videogame industry, I just don’t like a lot of software. And I can be pretty dismissive sometimes and then I’ll go back quietly and play a game and think “Oh shit, did I say this was bad?” And for anyone wondering, that didn’t happen with Lost Planet, I still feel the same way about that game as I’ve felt since late last year.

Gearheads: Are you ever afraid of how you’re coming off to some listeners? Meaning that even if your message is the right one, it might be getting lost in translation because many people view your personality as abrasive on the show.

Smith: I’ve never really thought about it that way. I’m sure the message gets lost because people will see me as a fanboy of X or someone who doesn’t like anything, or someone who is totally unpredictable — and aside from the latter, which I like, the two previous statements are things I’ll probably rectify this year. The abrasive personality, though? That won’t go away, period.

Gearheads: Other than calling my brother a dick (just kidding, I’m older than him so I’m naturally protective), is there anything you regret saying on 1up Yours?

Smith: Absolutely. Pretty much every week, I say something that as I’m listening to the show or a friend will be listening to the show they’ll IM me a quote and I’ll see it and go “My God, did I really say that?” A girlfriend of mine listened to the show and couldn’t believe some of the things that came out of my mouth on the show — my mother tends to feel the same way. I think sometimes I’m a bit misogynistic and a bit of a chauvinist pig, but that part of the show is really just “entertainment” — I have two younger sisters and always treat women with the utmost of respect, even though I’ve made mountains of sexist jokes on the show. (Hell, I almost made one just now)

Gearheads: Did you ever think that a podcast could wind up making you a bit of a celebrity (at least in the gaming world)?

Smith: Not for a second. I didn’t join 1UP to “be a star” like the 1UP Show jingle goes. I didn’t really even know what a podcast was until my first day at Ziff I sat in on a 1UP Yours recording and afterwards told Andrew Pfister, the show’s producer, that “I wanted to do something to be a part of that show.” I don’t think of myself as a “celebrity” — I think I have a little different approach and that my bosses have been really supportive (and tolerant of grief I’ve no doubt caused along the way) of that approach and my vision for the section. It’s really by their grace that I can do the things I do (does that ruin the whole ‘rogue with an edge’ angle?).

Gearheads: Obviously this is a Gears of War site, so I want to ask you about Gears. You didn’t seem very fond of Gears of War despite how it’s really taken a hold as a huge seller and on Xbox Live. You made it clear on 1up Yours that you can’t stand not being able to have clan support in ranked matches and you didn’t think it had a story, but what else did you or didn’t you like about Gears?

Smith: Hmm, I don’t know that I’ve been “not very fond” of Gears of War. I think I’ve been cooler toward it than maybe some others have but I wrote a blog shortly after the game shipped declaring it the game that you had to play from 2006. I don’t know that I can say much else about a game other than “you have to play it.” Do I think it has problems? Absolutely. Do I wonder why the multiplayer is the way it is? Every day. I think the “story” in Gears is secondary, I think that it has an opportunity to flesh out a lot in the sequel.

Gearheads: What could Gears do better that could suck you into the game more in the sequel?

Smith: Well, I think Gears is in a similar position now that Halo: Combat Evolved was in after it shipped and sold well. I don’t remember much of Halo’s story, and the Gears premise is really just a snapshot in a greater war. I think the Locusts will be fleshed out in the sequel, not to the degree that Bungie fleshed out the Covenant in Halo 2, but there will be some depth added to these foes that come from below — that will be a good hook in the sequel. Cliff has talked a lot about the button-time events that he wanted in the game, ultimately those got cut — I’d like to see those mechanics return, too.

Gearheads: Have you played it a lot on Live?

Smith: Not really. The no-team play in ranked games is really frustrating. Plus, the lobby system and the way you find a game, after the game shipped so many of those things were frustrating to me that if I look at my friend’s list on Xbox Live and don’t see seven people on playing Gears (presumably together) my likelihood of logging in diminishes even further.

Gearheads: Do you think that going to Bungie and getting a taste of Halo 3 right before you got your hands on Gears altered your opinion of the game at all?

Smith: No, the two are very different experiences and we played Halo 3 pretty much right after we got back from X06. I think I flew in on a Monday or Tuesday from X06 and left on a Thursday or Friday to go up to Bungie for the weekend. After that it was another three or four weeks before I sat down and played through Gears of War at the review event. I think you are underestimating some of my Gears-love. I don’t dislike it at all, I’d give it a fine score if I had been on the review.

Gearheads: Finally, I just wanted to let you know that you’re welcome to play with us any Friday night. Gearheads features Friday Night FragFest every week. It’s some of the most fun I’ve ever had on XBL and I’m pretty sure you’d have a good time too away from the prepubescent folks you run into out there on Live. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with Gearheads about your job and Gears of War. Keep fighting the good fight.

Smith: Thanks, I’ll probably take you up on that some night.

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