Ten Years of Zero Counts
Today, I stumbled upon the Rands in Repose 20th anniversary post. This struck a chord:
Sometime during 2022, this weblog turned twenty years old. No one noticed, including me. While I write for this place actively, other creative endeavors increasingly occupy my free time, including the aforementioned Slack community, the podcast, and the bikes. This means fewer articles per year, but the writing… never stops.
Sometime during 2022, this weblog turned ten years old. No one noticed, including me.
In an fit of self-preservation and soul searching, I doled out the history of Zero Counts below. It’s amazing to see what this blog has brought me. It was an effort to break into games journalism. Professionaly, that goal was never realized. But the blog exists, therefore my writings on the games industry also exist. So, in a way, the goal was realized from the start.
As I reflect, recognition might have been a more accurate goal. That sounds a bit shallow, but for an industry I’ve been wanting to break into since childhood, any semblence of affirmation from industy players or adjacent feels great. And by my own definition, I’d call myself successful. Through will and/or luck, my writing has been linked to by Daring Fireball, Stratechery, How Games are Changing the World, and Into the Aether. Some of my favorite writers, journalists, podcasters, and creators have become Twitter mutals. It’s a bit mystifying to me, and it wasn’t until I wrote out the history that I connected the dots.
An unintended side-effect of the blog has been professional success. Through Zero Counts, I’ve learned to write and edit better, kept my eye on the digital publishing landscape, and learned enough web dev to be dangerous. All of which have been applied to my career in tech. I’m doing things profressionally that I wouldn’t have dreamed of ten years ago, in large part because of blogging. Crazy.
Writing the history was cathartic for me. Maybe you’ll find some insipration in it too.
Thanks to anyone who’s ever read or shared a post. Retweeted, liked, or replied. Thanks to John Gruber, Ben Thompson, Zach Kahn, Brendon Bidgely, Stephen Hilger, Colin Campbell, Chris Plante, Pavan Rajam, and so many others. I’ve never received a penny for my thoughts on Zero Counts, but I’ll take a link or retweet any day.
Here’s to ten more years of writing, developing, and learning. 🥃
Somewhere around April 13, 2012, I simultaneously fell in love with running, podcasts, and blogging. I had relocated for an intra-company internship away from friends and family. I would bide my time between work and sleep with jogging. I had grown tired of listening to music and decided to give podcasts a fair shake. The Nerdist Network of shows all featured cohesive artwork which enticed me to subscribe to a handful. I immediately locked into the (now defunct and delisted) Indoor Kids, a video game podcast hosted by (then small-time comedian) Kumail Nanjiani, his wife Emily Gordon, and a rotating cast of comedy and industry guests. I was smitten. Their mature conversations about video games came off as novel and inspired me to explore my own thoughts on games.
During the internship, I’d purchased an Xbox 360 and Skyrim to pass the time. I quickly realized I was chasing more side-quests than focusing on the main objective. I drew a corollary to my own life, wrote my first post ”Finding the Rails”, and sent a copy to Kumail and Emily. And Emily wrote back! This was a powerful moment. My writing felt validated and these podcasters felt real.
My post to Kumail and Emily wasn’t my first writing. I had been writing music reviews, video game reviews, and musings at TheStarrList since 2011. But after Emily’s response and with the extra alone time during my internship, I challenged myself to write more often. And I found writing through the lens of video games eased the process.
In an effort to increase readership, I cross-posted my writing on an IGN blog figuring there would be overlap between IGN readers and my gaming focused pieces. On January 29, 2013, I was highlighted in the Community Spotlight on IGN’s homepage — “One of the best up and coming bloggers on IGN, Kylestarr writes some of the best non-gaming blogs in our community.” Like Emily’s response before it, and as a long time fan of IGN, this accolade made my head spin and sent me into overdrive.
I began writing multiple posts a week, squeezing the most fleeting thoughts for tiny morsels of content. I started pushing myself to research. I wanted to contribute back to the video game industry I so enjoyed reading about. Genre/Gender Breakdowns for 2013 and 2014 found traction with IGN reporters. John Gruber’s Daring Fireball appeared on my radar prompting me to write link blog style. Polygon.com also became a steady read for me and inspired my writing, design, and content platform curiosity (i.e. Chorus). TheStarrList was growing beyond musings and into an industry and culturally focused blog. It needed to evolve.
As fate would have it, it was also around this time that I found myself joining the podcasts industry. After my internship, I’d struggled for more than a year to find the next step in my career journey. However, the inspiration I’d had from The Indoor Kids never left. I’d launched my own podcast focused on my friends’ journeys into their dream jobs. Creating a podcast was harder than I thought it ought to be. I happened upon a job listening as a podcast content producer and landed the gig on my background in customer service, my experience launching a podcast, and my misgivings about the barrier to entry. This will serve me in the future…
In a desire to own my content, I took blogging beyond the writing itself and decided to learn the basics of web development. While TheStarrList lived on Wordpress.com, I wanted push beyond its templated limits. With Wordpress.org, I was able to customize the HTML, CSS, and PHP. This allowed me to format my link blogs in a way I found intuitive and attractive.
Seeing as my content was moving in an industry and culture focused direction, I felt a rebrand was also in order. I chose “The State of Gaming”. “State” was play on “government”, meant to focus on aspects outside of the games themselves — culture, social, education, health, business… government. This was the lens that Kumail and Emily used for Indoor Kids and inspired me to write in the first place.
With this new format, I felt like I was making active contributions to video game journalism. In doing so, I began analyzing video game companies’ business tactics. In ”Hail Mario”, I took a stab at understanding Nintendo’s Mario Kart 8 release strategy. To my shock, the post was picked up by Daring Fireball. Views on this post shot through the roof. It was also with the Daring Fireball link that I began to meet new acquaintances on Twitter. Folks like Zach Kahn (then at Vox Media), Into the Aether’s Brendon Bigley, Stratechery’s Ben Thompson. There was a sense that connecting with the media world could become a reality.
But with all of this, I immediately hated the name and look of “The State of Gaming”. I needed something fresh, personal, and unique. Not a month later, I rebranded again.
I still have no idea what “Daring Fireball” means, but it seems personal and is certainly unique. I landed on Zero Counts as a homage to a phrase my step-brother and I would use to describe video games that used x0 to signify “zero lives left”. In the early days of gaming, and probably still today, there was a discrepancy between “x1”, meaning you’re on your last life, and “x0”. Finding out a game allowed one more chance at victory when you reached x0 was pure elation. “Zero counts!” we would exclaim.
As for the design, I used blue, white, and black as an homage to Mega Man. My first memory was of Mega Man 2, so it felt appropriate. Personal.
Relaunching The State of Gaming as Zero Counts felt like a sea change in the blog. I would become less prolific, but more comfortable.
Work also began to heat up. My passion for online journalism and web development that Zero Counts enabled helped find me on the launch team of a major news aggregation service. This allowed me to peek behind the curtain of web development and CMSes as well as traveling the globe assisting various partners and heroes. Meeting folks like Polygon’s then Editor-in-chief Chris Grant (thanks Zach!), Rene Ritchie, Steven Aquino, and Federico Viticci was a dream come true.
The last big change to Zero Counts came slowly. After a few years of working on the news aggregation service, I jumped to managing a team of content producers, editors, and web developers. Professionally, I not only grew my skills in people management, but furthered my web development skills. I applied things I’d learned from Zero Counts like SEO, CI/CD platforms, and front-end dev to my day-to-day.
It was in this role that I came across GatsbyJS. I won’t rehash my ”From Wordpress to Gatsby” post, but the short of it is that I learned a bit of React and transitioned this blog to a static-site. It was a huge performance win and allows me to manage the content via GitHub from any of my devices, free of a CMS.
All this is to say that while my blogging has cooled down, Zero Counts itself has been a transformative vehicle. It’s a hobby that has acted as a platform for my career. I was inspired to create it from a podcast. I then took a job in the podcast industry. I became intrigued by digital publications, began to understand web development, moved into self-hosting, and eventually took a job in the online news media space. I’ve taken my experience running this blog into my current role where I can speak to web standards and best practices. When I was writing more often, I became a better writer and editor. I’ve met a good handful of idols and created some lasting friendships. And while I’ve always had a desire to work professionally in the video games industry, Zero Counts has helped me learn more about it — highlighting its strengths and calling out its shortcomings. It’s made me feel like I’ve made meaningful contributions to the space.