Interview with a reviewer-Justin Nation at NindieSpotlight
Juan
Hi Justin.  Thanks for joining us today to get a little insight into why you do what you do.I want to start with your Twitter bio which states “some old guy who wrote stuff about Nintendo in the stone age”.  How long have you been writing reviews?  How did it all start and why did you start writing reviews?  A brief history would be great!
Justin
Ha, a brief anything for me is tricky but I’ll give it a whirl. I actually began writing reviews in general in the early 90s, I had a site I called Demo Man’s Domain. I’d literally review PC demos since everyone had dial-up and to get some of these things would take leaving a connection open all night. After feeling like I’d wasted my time on some I decided I’d start reviewing the demos to warn people away from bad ones and help them find good ones. It was done on the cheap, required no resources other than my time, and I’d get periodic positive feedback and links on various pages so that was cool and it sort of gave me the bug.
A bit later the big start of things was with N64HQ.com, what I’d consider one of the best examples of talent meeting the right place and right time I’d seen. Loved their reviews and one day saw they were looking for new editors. Decided to throw my hat in the ring with an editorial (anyone who knows me would know I tend to have opinions on things) and got a gig. I wrote some reviews and several editorials for them over time and one editorial on the nature of writing reviews actually put me in contact with a few folks and opened the door to a few freelancing gigs. Really cool stuff. But then N64HQ.com hit the end of its road and that sucked.
Inspired by the experiences I’d had and what I’d learned, rather than let the ride end, I got together some of the HQ staff and found some new talent to start The 64 Source. Ran that for a while, and had some good times, but saw a new and different opportunity when the rumours of a new system started popping up. I then decided to start another site called OperatioN2000 that focused on a very different space, addressing the periodic rumour but then exploring Nintendo’s relationships with key developers or discussing new possibilities I’d like to see in games Nintendo had in their stable. That actually got me another freelance opportunity with Next Generation magazine which was great, still have the copy of my article and it was all very cool for a person finishing out college.
n64 source
So that all sort of rode on for a few years until my wife and I decided to have our first child and it seemed like it was time to change my focus so I shut it all down. I did pair up with another HQ writer, Billy Berghammer, and moved some of the old content over to hit the site, Planet N2000. Since I was learning Cold Fusion at the time for a grad class I also helped create the code for the front-end and back-end for Planet Gamecube with him. It’s now Nintendo World Report, and thankfully someone came in to make improvements, but it’s terrifying how clearly the bones of what I’d written are still present in places on the back-end in particular. So that’s the “short” history of what I’ve done. 🙂
Juan

I met you about 8 months ago when we started Switchwatch through Twitter. You also run a very successful Facebook community with over 14,000 members. What importance do you place on Social Media to get your name and brand out there?

social Media

Justin

As we speak, we’re only a handful of people shy of 15,000 now… it’s kind of scary.  Social Media is probably the biggest difference between the world now with running a site versus the world then.  Just the entire experience is different, and with there being so much out there, you really need to work on presentation and marketing yourself in a way that took getting used to.  If you’re not on Twitter and/or YouTube, essentially it’s hard to imagine how anyone could find you anymore.  Even when you’re on them and active, the struggle to get eyeballs is very real.  In many ways, I’d say a key piece of the puzzle is also having relationships with sites like yours.  People who can both help share the audience love and some honest feedback when necessary to stay grounded.

Juan
You concentrate a lot on Indie games, much like us.  What is it about these games that you enjoy so much?
Justin
While in terms of consoles I’ve always been a thoroughly Nintendo gamer, I’ve also never stopped playing games on my PC.  During the Wii years, while I had the system and would play major titles, the waggle-centric nature of so many titles wore on me, so I moved more of my time over to PC again.  Then through the Wii U era again I had the system and would play some of the major things that would come out, but it was a system that was hard to be passionate about.
Somewhere in there, I latched on to indie games and immediately got hooked. Between carefully looking around for things on Steam and then Humble Bundles, I was constantly playing far more affordable titles that plain did crazy and cool things, challenged me in new ways, and mixed up genres and styles in ways I’d never seen.  In particular, roguelikes were a freaking revelation. They had an essence that really took me back to arcade sensibilities where you just have to challenge yourself to get better as you play, die, and then “put in another quarter” and give it another shot.
enter the gingeon
Aside from the games themselves, I’m also very inspired by the passion and spirit in so many of the indie developers I’ve read articles from or had a chance to talk to in some way.  The risk they’re taking is often pretty substantial since even if they make a really great game if they can’t get the word out, it could all be a bust.  Worse, stack on a snobbery that still very much exists against indie games, and they’re a community with obstacles stacked against them… and I love a good underdog story.
Juan
Talk to me about your website Nindiespotlight.com.  You write an incredible amount of reviews. How did the site come about, and how many reviews have you now written?
nindiespotlight.com
Justin
The weird thing is I really didn’t have anything like this in mind at all.  It was just there was a series of things that happened where I saw an opportunity and decided to follow it.  That’s sort of an unofficial thread in my life; when you feel momentum taking you somewhere, you need to see what happens next, and crazy things happen.  That’s very much the case here.
It started out with me interested in the Switch in general.  I’ve always been a Nintendo-first-day kind of guy since the N64 days, so I joined a few Facebook groups here and there to get a flavor for things on top of opening conversations with some people I knew from my older days who were still with NWR.  I lucked into tickets to a Switch event in DC, took my oldest daughter with me, and had a great time.  Having the opportunity to play just that 15 minutes of Breath of the Wild was pretty incredible.  Immediately, I could see that waggle and all of the casual market coddling Nintendo had been doing were dead, and it made me very excited.
Justin Nation
On the Facebook front, as the system was edging closer and closer to launch, I was really getting fed up with the groups I was in.  Between people posting blatant misinformation that wasn’t being addressed, people concern trolling about various aspects of the Switch and how it could fail, and just generally people being absolute morons, I had it.  Decided that the only way I could be in a Nintendo Facebook group was to start my own, make it private, and then basically create a space where rather than have to sit and watch the slow motion train wreck that was the other groups, I’d have the power to delete posts and ban the idiots.  I expected to have and keep about 50 members, tops, but I had a few people follow me over, and it was a nicer place at least.
The seed for the site actually came from a pretty innocuous start and was actually tied to the group.  First, I’d seen the Nindie presentation Nintendo put out and was beyond stoked about it.  Suddenly, these games I’d fallen in love with were going to be on a system I could take anywhere.  Then, someone asked a question about Has-Been Heroes that nobody knew the answer to.  Figuring “nothing ventured, nothing gained”, I reached out to the devs with the question explaining I was an admin for the group and was hoping to get an answer.  That lead to some conversations, and I ended up with a code to check out the game as a result.  Unanticipated and cool.  But then something clicked, and it was sort of like I saw a way to “cross the streams”.
Maybe there was an opportunity to write again.  I could help people find games they’d like, and I could try to help out this community of terrific people whose passion and games I loved.  While it took a little longer before the site got formally created and locked in, I immediately began putting the pieces together.  And through an insane amount of time, love, perseverance, and a heaping helping of luck, now we’re in the current space where it’s insane playing and reviewing a good 5 or (many) more games per week.
Juan
You wrote a fantastic detailed article about how you review games.  What was your thought process on this piece of work?
Justin
Since the editorial that, I think, really started this whole journey for me has long been lost on the N64HQ, it was a way for me to revisit the topic and sort of “centre myself” once again.  How people write reviews, conceptually, is fascinating, and especially when reviewing independent games, I think big outlets simply get it wrong.  It’s hard to review a $5 game that’s sitting next to a $60 game and score them on the same point scale.  That said, it has to be possible for a $5 game to get a 10, and what that would take would rightfully look very different than what it took for the one that is $60.
I also wanted to try to come clean and try to explain what has become my process so if my scores weren’t in line with other outlets, people could try to trace why they could be higher or lower.  I’ve really rejected what I’d say are most traditional methods like breaking games down into pieces that you then rate and recombine, since I see them as being too constraining.  No doubt my method would have its own flaws and cracks with analysis, but I prefer to try to be very honest and up-front with people whenever possible.
Juan
The Switch seems like a great console for indies/nindies.  Why do you think it’s been such a success?
Justin
In part, I think that indie games themselves are managing to latch further into the mainstream space as a whole.  Though bias against them still very much exists, I’d say that’s on the decline.  From there on the Nintendo side, I’d say they seem to be very genuine in their attempts to get the indie games out there.  The few dedicated presentations and inclusion of indie titles in their bigger Directs is certainly a testament to that.  From talking to various Nindie devs, they also seem to be working to address the hurdles they’d put in place in the past.
What will be interesting will be to see if the other end of it is more just a matter of timing and lack of variety in the current eShop, or whether the Switch space has really dialled into something special.  I’d like to think that for indie games the Switch is pretty well the perfect console since so many indie titles are absolutely perfect for taking on the go.  It could be, however, that the market simply isn’t over-saturated with titles yet, and the attention is more tied to less competition.  I suppose we’ll find out over the course of this year, but I hope sales for great indies on Switch continue to be strong.
15 hard games
 Juan 

What’s your favourite Indie game and triple AAA title? Okay, and best game of all time?

Justin
Ugh, with the volume of games I go through it’s such an unfair question.  Right this second, my favourite is Night in the Woods.  A fascinating game with characters that feel more familiar and “real” to me than almost any game I can think of.  Pair that with it very accurately nailing life in a small town like I live near, and I’m hooked.
night in the woods
Chickening out and basing my favourite indie on sheer hours played the answer, by far, is Rocket League.  I’m now over 550 hours played on PC, and it is absolutely still my go-to game when I’m frustrated or just don’t know what else to play.  It continues to challenge me and entertain me in a way no other game has managed for such a long time.
Best AAA game is really tricky.  Recently, it would still be Breath of the Wild.  It’s amazing.  More broadly I tend to think in series, and I will always buy anything Mario, anything Diablo, anything GTA (well, or Rockstar in general), anything Far Cry, and anything Civilization.  I would have said before anything made by Valve, but they, unfortunately, seem to have stopped making games… I just hope they make something new again that they’ll share.
rocket league
All-time is a toughie since I’ve just played far too many games, but I’d probably go with a combo of Super Mario Bros 3 and Super Mario World.  They fight it out regularly for me at the top as they’ve both practically perfect games for me and have a ton of nostalgia and feelings tied to them.  Just masterpieces I’ll always cherish.
Juan

It’s tough running a website, and it’s a lot more work than people think.  What advice would you give anyone looking to start up?

Justin
Not to be mean but the first advice would almost be “Don’t”.  There are things that made this possible for me (history, some old contacts, general web/image/video skills, and most importantly an English degree) that most people wouldn’t have in their corner, so on top of the time spent simply trying to establish contacts, playing games, and trying to put together reviews, anyone trying to do the same would need to overcome those obstacles as well.
If the goal isn’t seen as a destination and more of a journey, then I’d say the best thing to do it be sure your writing is at least decent, and that you not only have something to say but something worth being read as well.  There are a lot of reviews out there, but I only care about the opinions of a few people I respect.  If you think you have that together, I’d say the next step is to apply to write for a site whose reviews and outlook you respect and try to cut your teeth there.  Have someone rip your writing apart with criticisms and ways to make it better, take that in, and improve your craft.  Once you’ve gotten all of that going, if you’re still sticking it out, you could then try to think bigger.  Just as much as it would seem this is all fun, reviewing 150+ games in a year is insanity, and it means you’re not playing what you necessarily want to play.  You’re playing a lot of what you’re obligated to play… and it can wear on you at times.
For some, the blank page is very intimidating as well, but that’s where my English degree helped me out greatly.  At the rate I was having to read and write analysis papers through the end of my college degree program, I couldn’t let anything slow me down.  So my review-writing process is unorthodox, but it works for me and allows me to keep pace.
Juan
What do you say to people who say we should have grown out of gaming long ago?
Justin
Ha, you mean people like my wife?!?  I think, finally, she’s accepted this isn’t only my hobby but it’s also my passion.  At least I had the sense when we got married to know to meet our goals for a family.  It wouldn’t have been practical to go after working in either the game-making or gaming-press industries, so instead it’s just something I can’t let go of.  Thankfully she’s passionate about knitting and crochet, so she has her own addiction to keep her occupied as well.  So, we’re able to make it work out.  For me, it’s just a replacement for consuming television or movies or doing things like going out to drink or watch sports.  How I spend my free time is my business.  You just always need to work hard to balance it with family and work. 🙂
Juan
Having a good relationship with publishers and being true to your readers is sometimes difficult especially when you have to deliver a bad review on a publishers game.  Your thoughts?
Justin
Especially since I appreciate the fact that most of the developers I deal with are small or even single-person teams, it can be tough.  I’ve never felt any pressure from any developer or publisher to do anything but be honest and truthful in my thoughts and scoring.  I can’t say I’ve even gotten back any negative feedback.  In general, when I get any comments back, they will say they appreciate honest and fair criticism.  If you can’t be honest and show integrity, to tell the truth, even when it is a bit painful, you shouldn’t be doing this as it harms your readers and the community as a whole.  Giving bad games even middling scores that are higher than they deserve then only serves to damage true middling games by association.  Scores matter and need to be accurate both up and down.
small dev team
That said I will always also try to find what is positive in a game no matter how flawed it may be and to identify an audience it may connect with.  My score shouldn’t ever be on whether I enjoyed the game purely.  Not all games are meant for all audiences, so you need to be able to see the game’s value even separated from your own opinion.  That gets into the heart of my manifesto and that original editorial: who is a review for, and how do you manage the various audiences who may read your review in a way that is fair to all parties involved?  That’s very important to me.  So even in games, I find flaws with, I’m still trying to determine who the game is for and to try to relate the game’s value to them so in some way I address everyone.
Juan
Is there any one writer you look up to for inspiration?
Justin
I wouldn’t so much say current writers as historic ones or people I’ve interacted with in some capacity that I respect.  I originally joined the N64HQ because of the terrific writing of the staff, but Scott McCall and Michael Hrusecky were a piece of that.  I also spent a lot of time working with Billy Berghammer on Planet Gamecube, and it is terrific to know that after so many years of working hard he’s finally joined the mothership at Nintendo.  Finally, though I’ve not interacted with him almost at all directly, I have always had a great deal of respect for Peer Schneider who is probably the ultimate example of how to turn amateur writing into something truly special with his high position at IGN.  The integrity and passion he’s shown over the years is inspiring, even if from afar.
Juan
How important is it to have a sounding board?
Justin

Tremendously.  Though choosing the people you bounce ideas off of is also a critical skill.  There are simply too many people out there who are dead weight either determined to pull you down or who are looking for a one-sided relationship.  The sounding board needs to be a reciprocal relationship where both people can benefit, and it can be tough to find that match.  Over time I’ve thankfully had many people I’ve been able to talk to by chance who have been great to talk to.  It has to start with respect and some common goals though.  Otherwise, you’re better off without the noise honestly.

Juan
What do you see as the future for your site?
Justin
It would be great if I could tell you, but honestly, at less than a year in I’ve already far surpassed anything I could have imagined for the site, so I have no idea at all.  Legitimacy and being able to finally go to a press event were always a goal.  And in April, I’ll be attending my first event at PAX East, so perhaps then new opportunities and thoughts will crop up to show me where I want to go next.  Aside from that the hope would just be that I’m able to keep slowly growing readership and to be able to continue to serve both my readers/followers and the indie developers/publishers that I’ve had the pleasure to help get the word out for.  All I know is that it should be interesting if the first year is any indicator.  Things can happen quickly, and you need to grab opportunities when you see them.
Juan

Lastly what message would you like to give to our readers and yours?

Justin
To anyone not familiar with me I’d say, “Hey, be sure to check out the site to see if my style and breadth of coverage works for you.  While I don’t do video reviews, I do post gameplay footage for just about anything I review.  And I also periodically have gameplay video from upcoming games or indies I’m hoping will make their way to Switch. The easiest way to keep up is always Twitter, where I will post about anything going on.”
For anyone who is already familiar, I hope you enjoy it and find it informative.  I don’t tend to spend a lot of words covering what is common knowledge or you can find anywhere instead just generally getting down into what works and what doesn’t.  It’s both my general style, but it is also a bit part of what helps make covering so many games so quickly possible.
Just on a general note, I’d say to everyone that they should follow their passion even if you can’t make a living at it.  Sometimes you need to make your own path that’s a bit non-traditional, but if you’re passionate and are willing to throw yourself into it, you never know what may come of it.  That said, understand that the world doesn’t owe you anything, so rather than seek what it will give to you, give it all you can and then be grateful for what you get back even if it is small.  I don’t know, I try to pass that on to my kids, but it is a huge part of what makes me sane.  Being grateful for what you have rather than bent out of shape by what you don’t tends to make for a happier existence. 🙂
Juan

Thanks for your time today, Justin! It has been absolutely fascinating.