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Interview: Croal Talks Newsweek Departure, Consulting Plans

Interview: Croal Talks Newsweek Departure, Consulting Plans Exclusive

March 4, 2009 | By Leigh Alexander

High-profile Newsweek game journalist and Level Up blogger N'Gai Croal is leaving his job to pursue a career as a creative consultant to game developers, after 13 years with the magazine and three years focusing on the video game industry.

Though long a consumer technology writer at Newsweek, Croal is best known to the game world for his Newsweek-associated Level Up weblog.

On it, he combined editorials with news interviews and discussions with both high-profile execs and frequent collaborator Stephen Totilo of MTV.

In his new role, though he has no specific partnerships yet announced, Croal hopes to offer developers a new, outside perspective on addressing increasingly complex target audiences -- and Gamasutra had a chance to talk to him about his plans.

Reaching The 'Hard Casual'

"In addition to new gamers coming to the table, I think there's a stratification starting to go on in the gaming audience, and I'm not sure that a lot of the front-line titles are really fully grasping that," he suggests.

For example, as recently back as fifteen years ago, adults commonly grew out of gaming when they reached the end of their teenage years, but in the current environment, many adults continue playing as they age.

Croal coined the term "hard casual" to refer to these adults with different gaming needs than they had when they were young, but just as much interest -- a separate audience from the adult recently introduced to the video game space by casual games or the Wii.

"How games teach players to play, I think, is also something really important," he continues. Given that every game is teaching its player, he hopes to help developers re-think their approaches to difficulty in games.

Well-known among his friends as an early adopter and heavy user of new web tools like Twitter and Tumblr, Croal is also interested in ways social media can help create extensible communities for games and redefine the way players relate to them.

"Different developers will want different things," he explains of how he plans to work with studios. "Some games, I'll come in very early, and in other cases, much further along. In the ideal situation... I would come in once there's enough of a concept to really test, and at the same time, have a lot of room to provide food for thought."

"At the end of the day, the consultant isn't designing the game. I'm providing an outside perspective, a broader range of possibilities than they could have elsewhere."

Reflecting On Games Journalism

When asked about what he remembers most about his journalism work, Croal says his Level Up post on the widely-controversial firing of veteran Jeff Gerstmann from GameSpot over his review of Eidos' Kane and Lynch stands out.

In that discussion, Croal sought to identify the broader issues challenging the ecosystem of game publishers and the online enthusiast press. "There was a way in which the lines were blurring," he says.

His observations, he says, struck a nerve with many and provoked a widespread response, and he calls it "one of the posts I'm proudest of."

Croal has been one of game journalism's most visible figures, frequently making television appearances on Geoff Keighley's Bonus Round on -- and recognizable by fellow GameStop shoppers in his home city of New York thanks to his signature dreadlocks.

When asked what legacy he hopes to leave behind, he finds it a hard question to answer, thanks to the community of online writers who all influence one another.

"I was really inspired by the work you're doing," he says. [Gamasutra news director Leigh Alexander frequently engaged Croal in dialogue via her workblog, Sexy Videogameland]. "And the work that someone like [Brainy Gamer blogger] Michael Abbott does, and obviously [MTV Multiplayer's Stephen] Totilo," he says. Croal also cites Dubious Quality's Bill Harris as one of his favorite writers on games.

"I guess if there was a legacy I would want to have left, it would just be that there are even more ways to approach writing about games than we think they are, and we should explore all of them," he says.

Collaborative Community

For example, he cites the exchanges he did with Totilo on Level Up's Vs. Mode, where the two would post in full their long back-and-forth exchanges on various games and issues.

"You can say what you will about them, that they're too long, self-indulgent and blah blah blah," Croal says, responding to some of his critics, "but I think the thing that worked about that for me was that Stephen's writing, and responding to Stephen, forced me to up my game. It made me have to be really precise in trying to understand the experience I was having."

As opposed to the competitive, magazine-dominant era, Croal feels that the idea of a genuine writers' community is a healthy thing for games journalism.

And he sees more challenges ahead for the discipline, as new modes of marketing bring publishers ever closer to directly communicating with the audiences they aim to reach. He gives an example as when gamers and press received access to Killzone 2's demo at the same time, meaning that writers' take is subject to more questioning from readers.

Croal won't wholly be walking away from writing about games. "I'll still be doing my Edge [print magazine] column, offering up some observations and thoughts about the things I'm passionate about on the [soon to go live]," he says.

However, he will be ceasing pre-release coverage of games to avoid conflicts on all sides. Nonetheless, as his role in the game space evolves, does he have any parting advice for his fellow writers?

"Take advantage of the hive mind," he says. "If you look at any subject in the world... good ideas can come from anywhere. For what I'm doing next, I'm hoping people believe that's true!"

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