Monique Judge: ‘Bring back personal blogging’

Monique Judge, writing for The Verge:

If what is happening on Twitter hasn’t demonstrated it, our relationship with these social media platforms is tenuous at best. The thing we are using to build our popularity today could very well be destroyed and disappear from the internet tomorrow, and then what?

What happens to all the content you have created? Where will the archive of all your funny memes and jokes be? What is going to happen to all those selfies you felt cute in but didn’t delete later?

The answer is we don’t know because we don’t control Twitter (or Facebook or Instagram or Snapchat or TikTok). If one of these companies decided to shut down their service permanently, there would be nothing we could do about it.

Owning your content and controlling your platform is essential, and having a personal blog is a great way to do that.

This blog started out on the managed platform Wordpress.com. Wanting to own my own content, I spun up a new self-hosted Wordpress.org site called The State of Gaming (tsogaming.com) which would eventually become Zero Counts. In 2020, I migrated from Wordpress to Gatsby due to (amongst other things) a strong desire to get my content out of a database, into Markdown files, and stored in remote and local repositories, thus backed up via Time Machine, Drobo, Backblaze, iCloud, etc. Zero Counts and my career as a writer may not go anywhere, but it’s important for me to own, catalog, and control my work.

I genuinely appreciate the sentiment of Judge’s piece — I want to invest much more time blogging on Zero Counts in 2023 — but I struggle to understand how personal blogging crosses the chasms of connection, discoverability, and elevation. Perhaps surfing the web is a muscle I haven’t exercised for over a decade thanks to Big Algorithm, but I’m not exactly sure where to start with finding new blogs and outlets. Twitter was my primary source for new and interesting voices through retweets from my favorite writers and outlets. I think Mastodon has become my go-to community, but I don’t find myself connected to the zeitgeist, finding new content, or even engaging with my favorite creators on the network due to the lack of an algorithm. And that’s OK. It’s actually nice! I just hope I can find a way to find and consume the work old favorites as well as new and diverse voices.

I found Judge’s post via my RSS reader Reeder, so that’s a start.

Marvel Snap's Bedlam Highlights Mario Kart's Balance

The Besties Podcast discussing Marvel Snap during their Game of the Year bracket:

Justin McElroy: Recently, I’ve found the Locations that will pop up are so wild and random and significant that it sort of makes all your deck building and even the playing of the match irrelevant. I’m running into more and more areas like that. I had the planet “Ego” Location pop-up and that just plays all your cards for you. Like, you don’t even play anymore. And there’s a lot of Locations like that, where it’s so wild that it doesn’t matter what I’ve got in my deck — the match is already over.

Griffin McElroy: There was a recent Location that had you draw three cards then it destroyed the rest of your hand. I run a deck based around a handful of cards that if I don’t draw them, that’s it. If that was the first Location on the very first round of the game, I would say, “welp, I’m gonna lose, so bye.” And the game’s not particularly fun when someone bails out after a round or two. It completely gets rid of the whole Snapping-wager mechanic, which is so brilliant because it forces you to slow-play and bluff sometimes, which are mechanics that haven’t really been featured in a trading card game before. But it’s rendered completely void by these Locations that pretty much turn it into a roll of the dice.

Marvel Snap was a saving grace when rocking my infant daughter back to sleep after middle-of-the-night feedings. I could squeeze in five or so games due to its quick-start gameplay, small playfield, six round limit, and low stakes. It’s the perfect pick-up and play mobile experience. (Honestly, the 10s splash screen is the most tedious part.)

When the game first launched, I felt like I was able to run quick math to strategize the most opportune plays, which led to informed Snaps, the wagering mechanic Griffin mentions above. But as time went on, the Locations that alter the playfield with unique rules became so batshit insane that I felt like I could no longer track how a particular play would net out. I might increase Iron Man’s power 20-fold and obliterate my enemy’s cards or somehow sabotage myself by accidentally negating my cards’ powers, destroying my cards, or sending my cards to my enemy. Sometimes, a combination of all of the above would be triggered.

Hearing The Besties discuss the chaotic turn Marvel Snap’s design has taken initially had me drawing parallels to Mario Kart’s “anyone’s game” design. But the more I think about it, the more I believe Marvel Snap’s wild and seemingly unpredictable behavior highlights the balance and restraint designed into Mario Kart.

Stratechery: Consoles and Competition

Ben Thompson:

Forty years of context may seem like overkill when it comes to examining the FTC’s attempt to block Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision, but I think it is essential for multiple reasons.

First, the video game market has proven to be extremely dynamic, particularly in terms of 3rd-party developers:

  • Atari was vertically integrated
  • Nintendo grew the market with strict control of 3rd-party developers
  • Sony took over the market by catering to 3rd-party developers and differentiating on hardware
  • Xbox’s best generation leaned into increased commodification and ease-of-development
  • Sony retook the lead by leaning back into vertical integration

That is quite the round trip, and it’s worth pointing out that attempting to freeze the market in its current iteration at any point over the last forty years would have foreclosed future changes.

If I rely on Ben Thompson for one thing, it’s to distill core principles, milestones, and maneuvers from the complexities of business history into simple patterns and through lines. This piece is a shining example.

Thompson’s argument aside, “Consoles and Competition” serves as a succinct and beautiful history of the video game business.

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.

2012–2014

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.


INTERLUDE

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…


2014–2020

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.

Zero Counts

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.


INTERLUDE

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.


2020–Today

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.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder's Revenge Review

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge is tight. Both “tight” in the way Michelangelo would describe a new skateboard and “tight” in the way Leonardo leaves little room for anything other than his focus.

It’s Tight 🤙

It’s awesome! Righteous! Bossa nova… er… Chevy Nova? Excellent! In the words of the ’90s youth, it’s tight!

Many reviews have already pointed out how awesome Shredder’s Revenge is. It absolutely rules. It’s a must-play arcade throwback. It’s way more than retro-cool. It’s the best nostalgia trip you’ll ever have. It’s heckin’ dope.

The game overwhelming succeeds at recreating the ’80s/’90s TMNT arcade beat-em-up experiences. If you spent any time with the original TMNT arcade game (arcade/NES), Turtles in Time (arcade/SNES) or Hyperstone Heist (Sega Genesis), you’ll find the familiar variety of foot soldiers, patterns of obstacles to dodge while riding cheapskates and hoverboards, mutant (and robot) baddies from across the franchise, pizza boxes, and quotes likes, “Turtle Power!” and, “Ugh… shellshocked”.

In addition to the familiar, the level designs feature lovingly handcrafted pixel art by Juanito Medina that feels like it was ripped right out of the cartoon — colors pop, tiny details strewn about — with those aforementioned foot soldiers taking part in the scenes as office workers or checkout clerks. You’ll uncover cameos from the first two seasons of the original 1987 cartoon. The turtles themselves — voiced by the actors from the original cartoon series — feature their own unique stats and animations. And not only can you play as the four titular heroes, but you can also play as Splinter, April O’Neil, and Casey Jones. There are even clever nods to the legacy of TMNT video games: The overworld map resembles the overworld map from the original NES game, and — follow me here — a video game-based villain from the original cartoon summons other villains from an old TMNT video game who originally appeared in one of the films. (Spoiler: Tokka and Rahzar from the TMNT 2: The Secret of the Ooze film are villains in the arcarde/SNES game Turtles in Time. In Shredder’s Revenge, Tempestra — a villain who escapes a video game in the original cartoon — can summon the arcade versions of Tokka and Rahzar, seemingly from an in-game version of Turtles in Time. Radical!) It even plays homage to other classic fighting games:

https://twitter.com/ryugainai/status/1538086616258035713?s=21&t=3WJIA2YSi2IyfkB2Vk-7_A

https://twitter.com/ryugainai/status/1538311850630098944?s=21&t=3WJIA2YSi2IyfkB2Vk-7_A

Of course, just like a classic beat-em-up, Shredder’s Revenge is designed for co-op play. Unlike the TMNT beat-em-ups of yore, Shredder’s Revenge allows up to 6-player co-op. As of this review, I’ve only gone as far as to play 4-player co-op which was utter chaos (in the best possible sense). I cannot imagine what mayhem 6-player co-op brings.

https://twitter.com/genepark/status/1538281074865807360?s=21&t=3WJIA2YSi2IyfkB2Vk-7_A

Perhaps the best part of the Shredder’s Revenge experience is the ability to jump in to a random party’s game. During stage select, you can pull up a menu of other parties currently playing that level, which characters they’re playing as, and how far along they are in the level. At the press of a button, you can jump right into their game and fight alongside their party. The experience mimics the feeling of seeing an empty seat at an original 4-player TMNT arcade cabinet, dropping in a quarter, and joining the other three strangers players in their quest to best the Technodrome.

Some of the voice acting feels like a miss, and the final bosses aren’t particularly challengeing. But overall, the game rips!

It’s Tight 🪢

TMNT: Shredder’s Revenge is billed as a throwback/sequel to the original TMNT beat-em-up games. And that’s exactly what it is. Full stop. Even with all that’s new, the game is extremely focused. While it’s jam-packed full of character(s), there isn’t an ounce of fat on the game. It sets out to recreate the experience shared by many a ’90s mall rat and sticks the landing. 10/10. A perfect video game ass video game. Playing it at age 36 sent me back to playing Hyperstone Heist on my family’s 13-channel TV on loop. Scrolling through Twitter, I’ve come across well over a dozen tweets about parents playing through with their children, sharing an arcade experience from a bygone era.

A Little Too Tight?

Immediately after my first playthrough (as Donatello, of course), I was left wanting, and I felt extremely conflicted by this. I’d gotten what I wanted of the game, but I didn’t feel wholly satisfied. I didn’t want my time as Donatello to be over. It felt like the game was missing something. Side quests. Time trials. More Easter eggs to uncover. But that’s not the point of this game.

It’s probably not a shock to anyone reading this that video games are packed with optional tasks and mini-games. I’d be quick to point to the recently released Kirby and the Forgotten Land as an example of a game that tactfully blends the critical path with side-missions/time-trials, town restoration, power ups, and collectables, but this isn’t a new concept. Super Mario Bros. 3 was full of little mini-games, alternative paths, and secrets. Perhaps it’s the overworld map in Shredder’s Revenge that led my imagination to wonder if there was more to this game than its 16 levels. The routes off of the critical path tease, only leading to fetch-quest status screens from the extra characters discovered during the game’s story. There’s a list of achievements to complete, but I had tackled 70% of those after my first story run and one online level. Essentially, once you’ve completed the story, all that’s left to do is to play the game again.

It’s completely unfair to ask of more from this masterpiece, but nonetheless, here I am wanting. This feeling must be akin to seeing Star Wars (A New Hope) in theaters in 1977. Audiences had just experienced something special, but what next? Surely there’s more magic in that galaxy, but the the only way to feel it was to watch the film again.

Turtle Power

Amongst friends and family, I’m considered “The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Guy”. Whenever someone is watching one of the movies, stumbles upon an old toy, or catches the annual float during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, I’m notified… and I love it! I own the original set of action figures in their boxes, have the entire 1987 cartoon series, rewatch the original movie annually, own movie and video game soundtracks on vinyl, and used to run a TMNT blog.

But truthfully, my fandom only runs as deep as the ink of my (bad) TMNT tattoo. I hadn’t rewatched any of the original cartoons since elementary school, rarely if ever dabbled in any new video game releases, and ceased following the franchise once I started investing more time in Zero Counts (and, you know, my career). Yet, I still appreciate every text message and memento sent my way. And I actually do see the turtles as a part of my identity; personas I often reflect upon. But I’d begun to feel detached from the franchise. A lapsed “fan for life”.

When Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge was announced, I felt an excitement for the franchise I hadn’t felt in a decade. The game looked like everything I’d remembered of those classic games with additional fidelity that brought the art direction to closer parody with the original cartoon. When I learned that the original voice cast of the turtles would be reprising their roles and Splinter, April O’Neil, and Casey Jones would be playable characters, my excitement went through the roof. The mention that there would be plenty of nods to the franchise and Easter eggs from the original cartoon prompted me to begin rewatching the show while feeding my newborn daughter during the middle-of-the-night. (We’re through the first two seasons and it holds up!) All this is to say that this game has rekindled my affection for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Not only is it true to the arcade games my nostalgia so deperately yearns to relive, but I can feel the care, craft, and love that went into the game. All at once, I felt like I was back in the arcade, watching Saturday morning cartoons, and having an overnight pizza party with my best friends. It’s one of the most wonderful nostalgia trips I’ve experienced and it only makes me want more.

Tight 🤙