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Pixel Poppers is dead, long live Pixel Poppers

I used to be an actor.

Back in high school, I loved drama club. I tried out for plays and had a blast becoming Wolf Ames (the beatnik equivalent of George McFly from a Back to the Future riff called Time and Time Again) and Simon Gascoyne (from the better-known The Real Inspector Hound) on stage for friends and family. I was never a lead - those roles always went to the same small handful of very dedicated, very skilled folks - but there were plenty of other parts to go around and even a small one like Paramedic #2 in Fahrenheit 451 was a good time.

When I got to college, I tried out for a play and found that the experience was very different. It seemed like everyone I was auditioning with was one of those dedicated-and-skilled folks who’d consistently landed lead roles at their old schools. Now, even they had to fight for a chance. There was no room left for hobbyists like me.

I was surprised by this, but upon reflection it was obviously inevitable. My old school had been relatively small with students from a local area. My university was huge, collecting people from across the state or even farther. The small percentage of my high school classmates who tried out for plays might have included, say, five top-tier actors. The smaller percentage at my college included dozens.

What’s more, the motivations were different. In high school, it’s acceptable and even encouraged to take extracurriculars you aren’t that serious about. You’re supposed to branch out and experiment, and anyway clubs and activities look good on your college applications. But in university, you’re supposed to be preparing for your chosen career. A lot of the people I was auditioning with were probably theater majors, honing their craft and building their networks for something they planned to do with their lives. They wanted and needed those roles far more than I did.

I can’t say that any of these dynamics are wrong or bad. I didn’t resent the more determined and straight-up better actors who were crowding me out - in fact, once I understood what was going on I would have felt guilty taking a spot from someone for whom this was so serious. But it did mean that drama wasn’t fun for me anymore. It was no longer rewarding to do drama a little and I didn’t want it to be the focus of my life. So I stopped trying out for plays.

I am no longer an actor.

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, television news and entertainment scrambled to adjust to not being able to film together in a studio. There was a brief but glorious period where national productions were being filmed by people from home or over Zoom using whatever equipment they had - in some cases, obviously just a laptop or phone. Watching Saturday Night Live at Home was surreal but oddly democratizing. Suddenly the big established players were on equal footing with amateurs. A lot of early pandemic TV had significantly worse production values than what you could find on YouTube.

It got me thinking about barriers to entry and the way they change over time. There must have been a period where small operations with tiny budgets could compete locally with established TV networks - just look at public-access television, not to mention UHF - but this became less and less viable as the networks grew, consolidated, increased their reach, and raised their production values.

Amateur video creators eventually shifted to the internet - and the same dynamic played out again. It used to be that you could have a successful YouTube channel with crappy equipment and barely any editing. These days, there’s a lot more people watching YouTube and thus a lot more “success” to go around - but that attracts people with higher budgets and the dynamics of the site mean that “success” gets pooled to a small number of top performers. Now to “succeed” on YouTube, you have to have a good camera, a good microphone, good lighting, good editing, good thumbnails and titles, videos of the right length and the right posting frequency, and on and on. These days, it’s virtually impossible for an individual to have a “successful” channel. Almost everyone with a significant audience has a team (or at least an editor).

As a watcher of YouTube, I can’t deny there are upsides to this. On many metrics, the average quality of the videos I watch has gone up a lot. But as a casual creator, it’s a blocker. As the pool of YouTubers increases and the motivations change, it’s again the case that the people who are just there to have fun are competing with those to whom things are far more serious.

I dabbled in video some years back, and I think it might be the case that if I’d pushed harder I would have had some modest success. Today, I think that would take a lot more time, effort, money, and luck. It doesn’t seem worth it to me. And I’ve noticed that most of the gaming YouTubers I follow have either made a full-time career out of it, have largely abandoned it, or are struggling to figure out how they fit in to the current landscape and giving up on popular conceptions of “success”. It’s no longer rewarding to do YouTube a little and it’s not wise for most people to make it the focus of their life.

I no longer make videos.

Recently I read a fascinating and tragic post titled Cottage Industry Life Cycles. I recommend reading it, but my takeaway is this: There is a frequently-repeated pattern of hobby scenes turning into cottage industries and then “real” industries. First you’ve got creative amateur weirdos experimenting for fun or art, and sometimes these folks strike gold. Once there’s a profitable audience, this draws in others who are less creatively-driven but more professional and who know how to grow and exploit the audience. As the audience grows, more creators are attracted and the ratio of creativity/passion to pragmatism/greed goes down. The audience eventually stops growing - any audience can only get so large - and competition among creators becomes fierce, often relying on credentialism and brand strength.

More creators. More profit motive. More competition. Having fun is less viable. It’s no longer rewarding to do the thing a little and most people can’t make it their main focus.

It is, I think, the observable effect of the phenomenon described in the essay Geeks, MOPs, and sociopaths in subculture evolution. I think these two write-ups are talking about the exact same thing (though the latter uses more inflammatory language - “sociopath” is not quite fair for this context). And it’s one of a few concepts that has changed how I see the world, because once I had it as a lens, a lot of things I saw in a lot of places in life made a lot more sense.

In 2009, I wrote an article advocating for making games more approachable via things like easy modes. In that article, I repeatedly claimed “More gamers is better.” At the time, I felt so strongly about this claim that I considered it a sort of unofficial slogan of the blog and considered putting it on a shirt.

This was before I understood about geeks, mops, and sociopaths and what happens to cottage industries that grow.

I’ve considered writing a follow-up article adding some nuance to the “More gamers is better” claim (like the clarifying follow-up I wrote for another 2009 article claiming punishment is always bad). I still think it’s mostly true? Just as the world is mostly better when more skilled and dedicated actors get all the parts and when YouTube and television production values are high, I think the world is mostly better with more gamers. But it’s clear to me that a lot of things I enjoyed about gaming culture and discourse in 2009 have all but disappeared, and that this has been an indirect result of gaming getting bigger. (My specific complaints would be long, ranty, and far outside the scope of this post, but I’ve brushed up against a few of them before.) Even industry higher-ups can see that games development is hitting the same things every other post-cottage industry hits when the audience stops growing and budgets keep increasing to fight for shares of a pie that isn’t getting any bigger.

When I started Pixel Poppers, I dreamed of raising the level of discourse among gamers. In the current environment, I think this is not feasible. I dreamed of making a living talking about games. In the current environment, I think this can’t be done without working much harder than I do at my “real” job and would result in lower pay and less security.

More recently, I wrote that Pixel Poppers was unlikely to succeed with my reduced interest in games and the fact that the community has largely moved to YouTube. But even if I overcame these hurdles, I don’t think the kind of success I used to dream of with Pixel Poppers is attainable anymore.

I can’t even think of anyone who has the kind of success I want. I used to have heroes, people who had carved internet-based careers for themselves whose path I wanted to emulate. I don’t anymore. They’ve professionalized to the point where it no longer looks fun, or they’ve given up, or they are clearly constantly struggling to stay above water. It’s no longer rewarding to do game blogging a little and making it a full-time job would destroy what I enjoy about it.

I no longer have any dreams for Pixel Poppers.

With the dream abandoned, is there anything left?

Writing is still important to me. It’s how I untangle complex concepts and emotions. It’s how I figure out what I think, feel, and believe. And even though I don’t play games the same way I used to and it’s less often that something game-related gets stuck in my head and demands that I write through it to figure it out and get closure on it, it does happen. Pixel Poppers might as well be where I put that writing. But there’s still one more hurdle I need to get past.

A couple years ago, I heard that a friend of a friend was confused about the direction I was taking Pixel Poppers and had asked “Why is he reviewing weird old games?” This infuriated me. The answer was that I reviewed what I played. I enjoyed the analytical exercise and once I’d created the content I might as well share it. I played games that I found interesting, and the increasingly-homogenized mainstream tent-pole releases were generally not that. I didn’t buy and play every new high-profile $60 AAA release and I wasn’t going to start doing so just to get clicks. To imply that my gaming habits were insincere in that way felt like a huge insult.

But after I cooled down, I realized the question was legitimate. I was clearly trying to find some measure of success with Pixel Poppers, and to do that with a gaming blog today you have to be topical and write about things that a mainstream-adjacent audience cares about. Hopefully it overlaps with what you care about, but that’s not the point. This friend was simply asking why I was acting as though it were still 2009 if I wanted my gaming blog to succeed in 2019.

I didn’t stop reviewing weird old games, but I was a lot more conscious of it after that conversation. I tried to space those reviews out and make sure there was other content between them. I tried to avoid going more than a week or two with only reviews getting published. Heck, I still take similar notes on the games that I play - I just don’t polish and publish them anymore because there aren’t other posts going up to space them out.

I can’t think like this anymore. I can’t second-guess what I publish based on how it will affect my audience or my brand when I’m not even trying to do anything with them in the first place. It’s far more friction than I’m willing to put up with at my current interest level and it just means I’ll never publish anything. So to get in the right headspace, I have to take the symbolic actions required to give up on Pixel Poppers ever being “successful.” It needs to just be for me.

I already took out Google Analytics months ago, because fuck Google Analytics, but now I’m killing my Patreon too (I’ve already removed it from pixelpoppers.com and made the previously-exclusive content freely available). I’ve deleted my Discord server (which I never got around to advertising anyway so it didn’t have anyone in it). You can’t delete subreddits, but I’ll probably deprecate mine. Everything that only exists because once upon a time I thought it might help Pixel Poppers “succeed” is on the chopping block, because I no longer want it to “succeed.” I want to feel free to do things like review eight weird old games in a row, think through obscure game design questions nobody else cares about, and disappear for months at a time - all to tickle my own fancy and with no apologies whatsoever.

Pixel Poppers is my blog. I write it to think through things and have an archive of thoughts I can easily revisit. You can read it too; I don’t mind. But I also don’t really mind whether or not you like it. It isn’t for you. It’s for me.

That’s the only way it can be anything at all.