A few months ago, I made a post about the ‘New Age Of Curation’, and followed it up with a series of interview with weblog curators I particularly dug, including folks from film (Twitch) and from music (The Quietus).
However, there was one leftover interview which, regrettably, I’ve been sitting on for a bit (since late 2011 – sorry, interviewees!) And it’s with the creators of probably my favorite video game weblog in terms of curation – the Nintendo DS and 3DS-centric niche blog Tiny Cartridge.
Eric Caoili and JC Fletcher – contributors to sites like Joystiq and Gamasutra for their dayjobs – have been running the site since August 2008. To my mind, it continues to sparkle by featuring the underdiscussed and under-reported on Nintendo’s increasingly niche (sorry, Nintendo!) handheld platform.
Here’s what happened when I asked them a few questions about how they curate, and how they think about content when trying to showcase themselves out there on the wild, wild Internet:
Simon: What was the original reason and context for setting up Tiny Cartridge, and how would you describe the blog?
Eric Caoili: Since the early years of the Nintendo DS, we’ve had an interest, maybe even a talent, in finding obscure things about the system. For me, it started with participating in these massive forum threads for the portable at the Penny Arcade forums, seeing a stream of strange, exciting developments for what was at the the time a very unconventional and largely unloved console.
JC and I eventually connected at Joystiq’s former satellite site, DS Fanboy, where we mostly focused on more mainstream DS news, but we knew we wanted to build something dedicated to the odd projects and items that bigger sites might not be actively looking for but, to me, as a handheld admirer, are absolutely fascinating. It was always just wanting to share the fun stuff we dug up with other people online.
The corny way I think of Tiny Cartridge is the result of JC and I talking every day on AOL Instant Messenger as we go about our separate daily online writing duties, finding and exchanging links with each other throughout the afternoon (“Can you believe this?” “I can’t wait for this to come out.”), and then sharing the most entertaining items with othes who have similar interests.
Simon: Is your love of all things DS defined by the Japanese games that appear on it, or is there some DS ‘flavor’ for all games that you feel like you don’t see on other platforms like smartphones?
JC Fletcher: My appreciation of the DS did stem from its early status as the last refuge of “traditional” Japanese game design, especially in terms of 2D games. But since then, a lot of Western companies like 5th Cell and Capy have been doing brilliant, unusual things on the system, which feel uniquely “DS” even though a lot of them have been ported to other systems.
What I don’t see enough of on smartphones is buttons.
Eric: Early on, it was platform like no other, not something you could get on home consoles, and with a strange feature set that encouraged developers to create games you couldn’t find elsewhere. It also welcomed the return of many genres that were mostly ignored for years on consoles but people still want to play — adventure games, turn-based strategy, roguelikes, 2D platformers/action titles, etc.
Smartphones, as they’ve become more popular and received more support from developers, now have a lot of that same appeal — portability and touch — with the added benefit dirt-cheap prices. Like JC, though, I believe there are still some experiences that play best with both traditional and touch controls.
And developers, especially Nintendo’s internal studios, are still putting out games with that “DS” flavor, Solatorobo, Aliens Infestation, Kirby Mass Attack, and Freakyforms: Your Creations, Alive! being great examples from just the last part of 2011.
Simon: How have your readers of Tiny Cartridge grown in size and demographics over time (have they? :P), and do you feel like your message and goal for the site changed over time as you reached a larger audience?
Eric: In the past three years, I think we’ve slowly grown our audience through word of mouth on forums, as well as via links on bigger sites that watch us and appreciate the weird stuff we cover.
Our site is hosted on Tumblr, and as that platform’s userbase has exploded in the last year, it’s really expanded and diversified our readership. Having Tumblr spotlight us, and the ease with which readers can share our posts with other users, has helped us bring in so many new handheld fans to Tiny Cartridge, “hardcore” and “casual”. We get hundreds of new followers a week, which is great for a niche site two guys run in their spare time.
I don’t think our goal for the site — serving handheld gamers with a variety of posts they won’t find anywhere else, at least with our tone — has changed. Though we’re attracting more readers every day who maybe haven’t played much outside of big titles like Mario or Pokemon or Professor Layton, many of them see the stuff we post about, and they’re like, “I have no idea what this is, but it looks awesome”. That’s what we see when a lot of Tumblr users “reblog” our posts, at least.
Simon: I see you’re starting to get a bit of advertising from companies like Gaijin Games – is that something you think you’d like to expand in the future, and do you think people could/should advertise on such relatively microfocused blogs such as yours?
Eric: We’re experimenting with inexpensive sponsorships, working with companies whose projects we’re already interested in.
With the Aksys/Gaijin Games sponsorship, we know a lot of our readers have been following the Bit.Trip series, so we partnered with them to publish “Sponsored” posts debuting videos, music, and a Q&A on Tiny Cartridge. It’s a model I’ve seen and really liked on respectable sites like Daring Fireball and Gamasutra — it’s much more effective and informative than traditional online ads.
I’m not exactly the most objective person to ask, but yes, I think companies have much to gain from advertising on focused blogs, as it’s a chance to reach an engaged audience that is looking for an excuse to spend their money on what you have to sell, as our readers want to be excited about new games. It doesn’t hurt to support the existence of sites that build interest in the exact group of people you’re looking to target, too.
Simon: Have there been particular favorite ‘success stories’ on Tiny Cartridge in terms of games you feel you championed or otherwise covered to the extent that they got quite a lot better known?
JC: I don’t know if I’d call it a “success,” since it didn’t sell that well, but I think we raised the awareness of the delightful Retro Game Challenge somewhat. If even one person bought that game because of our coverage, then all our work is totally worth it!
Another specific example I can think of is Maestro: Jump in Music, a European exclusive that got some well-deserved attention thanks to Eric’s enthusiasm. That one’s out on iPhone and DSiWare/eShop in some form or another now.
Eric: There have been thousands of games released for the system in the past seven years; it’s easy for most people to overlook a lot of them while trying to play the best of the catalog. If anything, I think we’ve been able to increase interest in many medium-budget titles and imports that might have otherwise been forgotten.
I think we have helped raise the profile for a few niche games that need all the love they can get, like Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars (fabulous turn-based strategy game produced by X-Com creator Julian Gollop), Pictobits/Picopict, Shiren the Wanderer, and several homebrew projects.
Simon: How has the rise of iOS and Android affected the Nintendo DS market, which you guys cover so extensively?
JC: People are much more timid about making weird, experimental DS projects now, as well they should be — in 2008, it made a lot of sense to put your crazy idea on DS; in 2011, it makes more sense to rapidly prototype said crazy idea and sell it for a dollar on the App Store.
Eric: JC sums it up well — the DS used to be _the_ platform for offbeat games, but a lot of that seems to have moved on on to mobile/digital platforms like iOS and XBLA/XBLIG that are more approachable to not just small developers, but indies who can’t afford to pay thousands on dev kits, ESRB listings, and other costs (and indies who Nintendo hasn’t done much to cater to).
That said, I don’t see dedicated gaming handhelds like the DS/3DS and PSP/Vita dying, as some have predicted. Compelling titles continue to release on these platforms for the people that have loved playing portable games for decades now — just like the compelling games that continue to release on home consoles/PCs, despite the huge popularity of Facebook and social games. I don’t believe it’s a zero sum market.
Who knows, though, maybe the convenience of smartphone gaming will someday obliterate dedicated handhelds. If that’s the case, I can only see Tiny Cartridge becoming an even more interesting blog, more dark, desperate, and delusional.
Simon: Why do you two curate? What’s in it for you? Were you born to do it? Why do you enjoy it?
JC: As a natural result of our jobs, we see a lot of game-related stuff on the internet every day — more than most people, who don’t spend their entire days scouring RSS feeds. It’s really nice to have somewhere to talk about the stuff that interests us, but isn’t appropriate for our respective jobs.
I enjoy that there’s one site out there that talks exclusively about stuff I want to see, even if it is a site I write myself. Though, honestly, even if I had nothing to do with TC, I’d be reading every day for Eric’s wonderful posts.
We’ve got one of the nicest audiences on the internet, and I’m proud to have somehow had a part in cultivating that community. It’s easy to want to continue posting things when we have genuinely nice people reading and commenting. How do you even build a site that attracts non-jerk commenters? I can’t explain it.
Eric: I genuinely think we have a unique voice in this very crowded space of video game blogging. It’s been a tremendously rewarding experience building it up to this point, creating the exact site we’d want to visit if we were just normal guys looking for a DS/3DS site to visit every day. If not us, then who else would post rad pet wigglepics?