"Bloody forests" : An interview with Digitiser's Mr Biffo
In the 1990s, under the guise of Mr Biffo, writer Paul Rose co-founded Digitiser – a daily video games magazine published via teletext. Its irreverent take on gaming would be resurrected on the web in 2014 in the shape of Digitser 2000. Written by Rose alongside a successful career writing for TV, it further established him as one of the most distinct voices in gaming. Now, after a successful crowdfunding campaign, he's launching Digitiser as a YouTube panel show. Founded upon Rose's love of retro games and eccentric British humor, Digitiser hopes to do what few have managed: put gaming on TV successfully. We took to email to talk to Rose about his show and what's wrong with games and games media today.
Note: The interview appears in its entirety, amended only for US spelling in Rose's responses.
What is Digitiser (the show)?
It's an attempt to make a TV-quality show about old video games, in a way that's accessible, but doesn't ignore a core gaming audience. Also, I think it's really funny. People who've seen it have described it like a retro gaming Celebrity Juice or Tiswas (I grew up with the latter, but never saw the former, so no idea how accurate that is). I told the gang we were making Loose Women for games fans!
Retro gaming is a thing now, and it's hugely popular. More than that, there's a huge audience crying out for something like this. Retro gaming has been covered well by lots of YouTubers, but there's never been a magazine and entertainment series using it as a starting point.
TV seems to all-but ignore gaming. Go 8-Bit has been cancelled, the BBC only ever cover it in the most tangential way, and Channel 4's recent Playing For Time was just horrifically misguided. We got tired of waiting for them to make the show we want to see.
Is it a games show or a comedy show first?
It's definitely a show about games in the first instance, but at the same time the games and the comedy go hand-in-hand. Each is a sort of delivery method to get to the other. The goal was to make it entertaining, and never boring, but also informative. You never quite know what's coming next, and no one element is more important than the others.
The humor isn't going to be for everyone, probably, but because of the lovely warmth and chemistry of the team involved, I don't think it goes too far to be too excluding of anyone. Not everyone is going to like it – that was never the intention – but I reckon we've found a nice balance.
Why is gaming TV so hard to get right?
I dunno, really, because to me it seems obvious. For me, most attempts have either been too geeky, or not geeky enough. There's never been one which has tried to appeal equally to gamers and non-gamers.
Comedy is universal – even if we don't all agree on what is and isn't funny. It brings people together. Plus, for me, it was about getting the right people on there, the right balance of personalities. You want people who are likable, but also knowledgeable. That was the thing I actually gave the most thought to, in terms of who to approach about hosting it with me. I think we got that right. There's something, and someone, for everyone.
Also, in terms of an actual TV show, I think you kill it the second you have people playing video games. It makes for very dull TV. I write kids TV as my day job, and I'd never put a sequence in a script where people sit down to just play games. It kills drama and story, and even in an entertainment magazine show like Digi, you still need to be telling a story from moment to moment, even if the audience aren't aware of it.
Obviously, we do have people playing games, but we try to make it more interesting, fun, informative, and televisual when it happens.
You've been very successful with crowdfunding for this, and previously Found Footage. What's the secret to a successful campaign?
I've been lucky in that I wasn't starting from scratch – there are people who like my work, who had already said they'd support me with Found Footage. Digitiser is different, in that the appeal went beyond the core Mr Biffo crowd, I think.
It was just identifying that people are crying out for a really good gaming TV show, because I know I was, which isn't just aimed at kids who like Fortnite. People don't just stop playing games the minute they hit their 30s and 40s anymore. So, find a thing that people want. Or, at least, don't yet know they want.
Also, just respect your backers. They're giving you money for something which doesn't exist yet. That's an incredible gesture of support. Keep them informed, and make them feel part of the process.
That said, I don't try to make stuff to try and crowd-please. I trust that they're supporting me to follow my own creative whims, for better or worse, and gambling that it'll be something they enjoy. That's part of the key to making something that's good – it being more authored – than something that's more homogenized and trying to be all things to all people.
Does exceeding goals come with a weight of responsibility?
Completely. The thing that most weighs me down with crowdfunding is feeling I have to go above and beyond by rewarding the backers with something that I feel repays their faith. With both my projects I've spent more than we've raised and worked harder than I probably needed to.
Maybe next time I'll get the balance right and not work myself to the point of physical and financial exhaustion!
Not that the two are mutually exclusive, but have you been tempted to pitch to TV channels or does YouTube give you more creative freedom?
We've talked about it for series 2. I am nervous about losing that freedom, and producers imposing stuff on us. Creative freedom is the reason I wanted to try crowd-funding, because it gives me an outlet away from writing for other people.
The trade-off is obviously a much bigger budget, and it'd be nice if we could all get paid. But at the same time, on YouTube… nobody can cancel us. We can just keep going as long as we want, even if we just end up making a stripped-down version with a much lower budget. Whatever happens, I'd want to keep the same team.
I think more likely, depending on how well series 1 is received, we'd either do another Kickstarter, or we'd try to approach somebody for proper sponsorship. I'm more comfortable being creative than being a businessman, so if anybody can help with that…!
What did teletext Digitiser get so right that you can launch a TV program off the back of it decades later?
I'm probably the wrong person to ask really. I guess we were always honest, we knew our stuff, and people seemed to respond to the stupid humor. We always tried to have integrity, but never at the expense of not taking it too seriously.
What could you get away with then that games journalists couldn't get away with now?
Obviously, we're living in more politically correct times – which, broadly, I'm all for. There are a few things we wrote which I look back on and cringe at. We were also incredibly rude to the people who wrote into us, so god knows why they kept doing so! I'm a much gentler and kinder person these days. Much more about spreading the love than making fun of people's names!
Let's not forget that plenty of people despised Digi back in the day. Especially Amiga owners!
Do you miss teletext?
Not really. I miss the creative freedom we were given, for the most part, and having a day job which always had me excited over the possibilities. If I could make a career out of the side-projects I'm doing, then I would.
What's been your favorite game of recent years?
That's tricky to say. I can't think back very far, but my two favorites this year have been Assassin's Creed Odyssey and Mr Shifty – a great little indie game.
You review a lot of the A-list releases – would you be playing those same games if not for the reviews?
Oh totally! I've got very mainstream tastes, in general. And I'm a sucker for great graphics.
What's big-budget gaming getting wrong these days? Or, what could it do better
I think there needs to some evolution of the open world model. I get why they're all doing it, but it is starting to feel stagnant to me. I also wish there was more risk-taking, in terms of mixing up genres, and settings. I'm so sick of wandering around bloody forests and mountains, and all those repetitive side-quests. For me, they can make a game lose focus.
I think it's fair to say your games writing seeks to entertain first and foremost – is that broadly missing from journalism and games journalism, do you think?
Yeah, I do think it is. I'll be honest, I don't read much games writing these days, but when I do it really seems to lack fun. The games mags I grew up with, and were around when I was a journo, all felt like the readers were part of a club; they had their own language, their own personalities… I loved that.
I guess it's YouTubers now who offer that, but most of the big games sites just blur into one for me. It's like games journalism felt it had to grow up, when I don't think it ever did.
Back to the show: is there a moment or two that you're particularly excited to put out there?
Oh yes indeed. Ep 1 is a little shaky in parts, because it's where I was doing my figuring out with the editing, but we have a big sort of physical game at the end of every episode. In episode 1 it's Duck Hunt For Real, and later in the series we have Crane Grabber For Real – inspired by arcade claw machines.
I don't know how it happened, but it starts out as a particularly bizarre segment in the first place, and then somehow descends into this escalating series of near-disasters. It was the very last thing we shot, and all of us were stumbling around afterwards in utter shock. I'm just glad they kept the cameras rolling.
Also, the last part of episode six is one of my favorite segments. Again, it was quite late in the shoot, and I was just spent, and all over the place, but it makes for good telly! Paul Gannon, one of my co-hosts, describes it as "Like a game show version of Falling Down"…
The bit at the bottom
Thanks to Paul Rose for taking the time to talk to us. Digitiser is co-hosted by Larry Bundy Jr, Paul Gannon and YouTubers Gameplay Jenny and Octav1us. The first episode was released Sunday. See it below.