What are the video game reviews of one obscure, foul-mouthed Brit worth nowadays? How does several million views and a four hundred percent jump in traffic sound?
The site is The Escapist, a smart online game magazine that launched in 2005 to generally tepid page views. The Brit is Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, an indie game designer who was until very recently (by his own description) “bored, unemployed, alone.” (His “Yahtzee” nickname was taken from a character in an adventure game he made.) Last summer, Croshaw created a couple of crudely animated game reviews with nothing more than Photoshop, Windows Movie Maker, and his uniquely deranged wit. They garnered him a large YouTube viewership, which subsequently earned Croshaw the attention of Escapist Executive Editor Julianne Greer and her video proprietor, Russell Pitts. At the time, they were looking to re-brand the site away from its feature-heavy format.
“The strategy was to go short, go funny,” she explained. When they saw Croshaw’s videos, “We instantly knew we wanted him, his genius, for The Escapist — it was a ‘blink’ decision.” Pitts contacted him, and within a couple weeks, the first installment of Croshaw’s video column, dubbed Zero Punctuation, was live on the site.
A surreal rollercoaster of sight gags, grotesque metaphor and surprisingly literate insight, a Zero Punctuation review is unlike anything currently available in the timid, obsequious gaming press. While fanboy sites were uniformly over-praising Xbox 360 flagship game Halo 3, for example, Croshaw pronounced the title “run of the mill” — and vividly explained why. (Airborne poo is invoked.) Unsurprisingly, Croshaw’s takedown of Microsoft’s bloated darling remains his most popular review to date, attracting 1.15 million views on Escapist’s site alone, according to Russ Pitts. “I’d suspect Zero Punctuation is the second most popular video game review source in the world,” he added. “Second only to Penny Arcade.” The video reviews now include an advertising strip that easily covers the costs of streaming it, according to Escapist publisher Alexander Macris; in any case, says Macris, “The cost of hosting the videos is far less than the value of building an audience.”
The boost in the site’s overall traffic in the Zero Punctuation era has been enormous. “Since July 2007, our traffic on The Escapist outside of video content increased 394 percent,” said Pitts. “Our conversion rate of new visitors to regular visitors is very high, higher than some religions.” According to Greer, that puts them on track to have 1.5 million visitors this month — competitive with much older, established game sites. “If you believe Alexa numbers,” she said, “that makes us bigger than Gamasutra and Next Gen, and running just behind GameDaily.”
Croshaw won’t say how much he’s making with Zero Punctuation, only that it’s “Enough to keep me in rent and food and leave way too much left over than I know what to do with. I get a bonus based on traffic figures, you see, and it’s nearly always stupid big.” It’s also led to speaking and writing gigs, and most importantly, “I’ve been offered the chance to do some professional game design work, which is useful, because that’s really what I want to get into.”
In recent months, gamers have been buzzing over the controversial firing of longtime Gamespot editor Jeff Gerstmann after he dismissively panned Kane & Lynch, from Eidos Interactive — a major advertiser with CNET’s game site. Thing is, a Croshaw review makes Gerstmann seem like Mr. Rogers on Ecstasy. Aren’t The Escapist’s managers worried he’ll alienate potential advertisers — or for that matter, isn’t Crowshaw worried about suffering Gerstmann’s fate?
“I’m pretty sure I’m not in much danger of being sacked for disliking a game since the venom is what I think The Escapist found most adorable about me,” he shrugged. He also said he’s refused to review Kane & Lynch, “as a show of solidarity.”
If anything, Croshaw’s employer is even more indifferent: “Yahtzee is popular because he says exactly what gamers are actually thinking about the games they play,” Escapist publisher Macris told me. “This isn’t the 1950s. Today’s advertisers can’t control what their audience thinks. They have to embrace what’s real and take a stance that’s authentic. The savvy marketers understand that, and they will be our clients.
“The other advertisers can go to…other sites,” Macris suggested tactfully.
Update, 2/12: Yahtzee goes bigtime— read the latest news about Zero Punctuation here.