What the Escapist Editorial Exodus Means for Future Independent Publishers Holding on to Creative Integrity

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Rohan Elliott
| November 9, 2023
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Sigh

It’s with a weary sense of resignation that I pull out my dusty “games journalist” hat from the back of my closet and thrust it upon my head as I sit down to churn out another article that hardly anyone will read like the last time I tried to be serious on the internet (for reference see this article on CD Projekt Red, this one on Crunch in the Video Game Industry and this one on Marvel needing to take more chances)

For those of you not across this niche topic that I plan to get all serious about, The Escapist recently fired their editor-in-chief, Nick Calandra, as a result of (in the man’s own words) “not achieving goals that were never properly set out for us, and a lack of understanding of our audience and the team that built that audience.” As a result of this firing, Escapist staff members, contributors, and producers announced they were also leaving the site, with many indicating they would be working on new projects with Calandra directly.

One of the resignations that indicated the horses had bolted was that of one Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, one of the most well-known pundits in the video game industry through his long-running video game review series, Zero Punctuation. With the series beginning in 2007 and spanning close to 16 years, the series was adored by gamers and developers alike, with some of the most memorable reviews being the most cutting (see Ride to Hell Retribution) and the introduction of certain phrases into the gaming lexicon such as “spectacle fighter” and a personal favourite of mine “spunkgargleweewee.”

Animation was a cornerstone of the Zero Punctuation appeal for me.

Speaking personally, having followed the series for a decade or so, Yahtzee’s reviews helped me discover some of my favourite games, like the sublime Spec Ops: The Line and Disco Elysium. I’ve anticipated each new review, waiting to hear all the jabs and retorts delivered in his breathless manner. Now, the future of the series is in doubt, likely to be canceled as Yahtzee does not own the rights to the series, and it would be a brave move to try and continue the series without him.

As I’m writing this down, I feel like history is repeating itself. As all the same feelings return, I cast my mind back to 2018 when the online magazine Cracked.com announced the layoff of 25 key staff members, including the entire video team, in an effort to cut costs. This was after their parent company, E.W. Scripps, purchased the company in 2016, and the founding editor, Jack O’Brien, and senior staff, Soren Bowie and Michael Swaim, left the company in 2017. Much like with The Escapist, the announcements were sudden and left the audience shocked and in the dark about the future of the site.

Based on how Cracked is doing now, it certainly paints a grim picture for The Escapist, who at this moment appears to have no editor-in-chief, no video department, and a small team of contributors (whether freelance or contracted, it’s unknown). Calandra and Croshaw, for their part, have announced a new project where they have vowed to continue the work previously done on The Escapist. I’m excited to see what they do in the future and will definitely be keeping an eye on their new project.

After Hours was one of Cracked’s most popular series on the Youtube channel.

All of this has me in a frustrated and pessimistic mood. Time and time again, we’ve seen big corporate money jump into creative fields like YouTube comedy or entertainment that have built up a dedicated audience with consistently high-quality content and expect to be able to pump money into the investment and profit. The fact that money can’t buy quality content and imposing unrealistic standards on the trench level employees won’t lead to anything more than burnouts never seems to penetrate the hive mind of big corporate.

The one thing I keep asking myself over and over is, “When did this become the standard operating procedure?” Build up an audience, sell out to a big corporation, count your money, and start the cycle all over again. When did the potential to generate growth and revenue for a parent company become more important than developing quality content for your audience, however niche they may be. Can’t quality content be the goal to strive for in itself instead of as a metric for stakeholders?

How to profit brought to you by big corporate

What’s the natural endpoint for this sort of environment (is it now super capitalism or just plain vanilla capitalism?) where shows are being pulled from streaming after the first season because they didn’t smash expectations? Heaven forbid you let a show find its footing and build up an audience or let writers try new ideas instead of trying to guess what tropes will allow the algorithm gods to smile upon them. Heaven forbid creators are given the freedom to build out character arcs and leave threads dangling without being kicked to the curb because they didn’t make all the money in the world.

As we saw in the writers and actor strikes, big corporations have almost giggling contempt for the people making the entertainment they “earn” their ludicrous profits on. Their push to try and get AI to replace writers and extras shows the fundamental negligence or misunderstanding towards their audiences and creatives in general. Sure, this contempt is nothing new. Those of you who tried to save Firefly know that all too well, but it becomes clearer just how widespread this attitude is with each passing year.

Scenes like this were common during the Writers Strike in 2023.

This is unsustainable for any industry, be it entertainment, video game criticism, or pop culture musings. Time will tell if this is a bubble that will eventually burst and some sort of auteur renaissance is on the horizon or a great union revolution or if this is just the way things are going to be – sequels and prequels and spin-offs oh my, until the end of time!

Will this article ever see the light of day? Am I just a tired, bitter writer struggling to make a mark in an industry that chews up and spits out people like me every single day and is using the Escapist news as an excuse to rant? I don’t know on either of those counts, but I’m sure there’s something in these 1,000 words that someone with more clout or knowledge can make good use of.

The world continues to spin, and tomorrow is a new day. Let’s see where it takes us.

Did you watch Zero Punctuation back in the day? Are you going to check out the new project helmed by Nick Calandra and Yahtzee Croshaw? Let us know in the comments below.

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