Ben Croshaw, a Brit living in Brisbane, has a second life. He’s ‘Yahtzee’, the motormouth brains behind Zero Punctuation, The Escapist’s cartoon games review show. Every week for four years, he’s been turning in animated verdicts on the latest releases as funny as they are bitter: think PowerPoint meets Bill Hicks- on caffeine.
Like esports commentator Day, he's an internet celebrity. His shows clock up more than 200,000 views every single week, but he doesn’t just spend his whole time hunched over Photoshop, dreaming up new insults: he’s an indie game developer and novelist too. Here he tell us how he got started, and how he still manages to find the time for it all.
I made the first Zero Punctuation when I was between jobs, recently broken up, and feeling very bitter about everything around me, including video games. I was of a mind to make internet videos but didn't have any technical equipment or expertise. So I embraced those limitations and made some video reviews by recording a narration with a five dollar headset mic and setting it against a slideshow of illustrations I made in Photoshop, all stitched together in Windows Movie Maker. That method hasn't really changed over the years.
It went viral fast: it hit 100,000 views in a couple of days. But I really got a feel that things were getting pretty big when the developers of the two games I reviewed on YouTube - The Darkness and Fable - both sent me an email saying how much they enjoyed the videos and what good sports they were about it all. Things just kept going from there.
Over time, Zero Punctuation become part of my weekly routine. Write it, animate it, stitch it all together over the weekend, and make sure to play a game for next week's video. The simplicity of the production made it fairly easy to put together, and the fact that I no longer had to take temporary office jobs to survive freed my time up.
I devote the first two days of the week to writing. I write half one day and half the other, and on average a review will come to about 1,200 to 1,400 words. I like to set aside a couple of days for it just because you don't want to try to hammer it out too fast, or you'll burn out. And some weeks it comes out quicker than others. A game that I really like or really hate can fire the creative muscles a lot more than something mediocre I can't get passionate about.
I like to think I've never consciously phoned one in. I think Zero Punctuation would get tired a lot faster if it relied more on in-jokes, characters, or any kind of continuity or story of its own. I try to keep it about the games, so there's always something new to talk about. It's a visual essay, and the concept of an essay is never going to get tired. If I'm ever really, really at a loss for something interesting to say I might fall back on something like the Wolfenstein review where I wrote the entire thing in limericks.
I was into Charlie Brooker before he was popular. I used to read [British gaming mag] PC Zone back in the 90s when he was a struggling video games journalist, and his voice influenced my style even then. I'd always make a point of reading the reviews he did with really low scores - they'd always be the funniest. I've been influenced by a lot of sources, including Douglas Adams, who was the first writer to inspire me when I read The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy as a kid.
Internet fame is a strange kind of fame, but I do get recognised around Brisbane. People often need to hear my voice before they make the connection, because after 250 videos the voice is a lot better known than the face. I was asked to sign something on the flight back from the Escapist Expo fairly recently, and got some very funny looks from nearby older passengers to whom I'm sure the internet is just something that happens to other people.
Somehow I find the time to write books and make games too. Telling my own stories and making my own creative endeavours has been my driving motivation for as long as I can remember. If I didn't have the time for it I'd probably have to drown myself. Zero Punctuation is the day job now and it does take up a lot of my week, but I can keep my interest in the world alive by concentrating on one hobby project at a time. My second novel is coming out soon and I'm going back and forth between a third book idea and a horror adventure game concept for tablet devices right now.
I've always gotten along very well with developers. When there's something wrong with the game they made then they're usually the first people to know. More than once I've spoken to developers about a game of theirs that I panned, and they've told me that every point I raised they themselves raised with their publishers, but they weren't given enough time to fix it.
The prize for worst game I've reviewed goes to Kane & Lynch 2. It’s a game that's not just criminally short, uninspired and mediocre, but in several ways makes me genuinely physically ill to play. Partly from the characters being disgusting sweaty monsters making stupid decisions and partly from the arty screen filters and shaky camera giving me a headache.