James Stephanie Sterling may not be the most well known YouTuber out there, but they may just be one of the most important.
Sterling has been taking the game industry to task since 2006, first working at Destructoid and The Escapist before deciding to go independent in 2014 after growing weary of the traditional games journalism industry and its reliance on obsolete business models and sponsorships. Their 800,000 subscribers-strong YouTube channel as well as everything else under their Jimquisition brand is now funded thanks to the kind donations of 6,307 people through Patreon.
Through their work, they has shone a spotlight on a company dedicated to exploiting players through microtransactions, covered the rise of online casinos and the undisclosed articles they pay writers to create, and helped expose games media publication Brash Games. Other times they is fighting against the use of manipulative free-to-play game tactics used to get people to spend money on microtransactions in games, many of which are sold at full price on top of it. For them, that’s all just business as usual.
Sterling was able to discuss with Heavy via email about their work, how they investigates companies, their thoughts on game industry trends, the future of their career, and, of course, the beloved 80’s toy Boglins. We also have exclusive info on Jim Sterling’s Licensed Game Experience, a game based on the Jimquisition brand which hasn’t received an update since June 2016.
Update: Sterling came out as “non-binary pansexual gendertrash” on August 25, 2020, so this article has been updated with their correct pronouns.
Your writing career began in 2006 but the Jimquisition, your video series which would become your main wheelhouse, began in 2010. How did the series get its start?
You can thank, of all things, the Kinect for that. I was working for Destructoid at the time, attending E3, and was on duty to report from Microsoft’s big fancy Project Natal reveal, where they would officially christen it the Kinect. The event was terrible. They made us wait in line for hours, and when we got there, they put stupid white vests on us and had Cirque du Soleil dancing around. At no point during the hours and hours of this nonsense was water available. So I’m stood there, dehydrating, men dressed as jungle cats roaming around, and I hear that MTV has an exclusive on the whole event. They show Kinect off, it looked rubbish, and then those white visits were being used to project light onto, presumably for some video package or other.
At this point, I decide I’ve had enough and go to look for a water fountain. Pissed off as I leave, the story at E3 the next day was “Jim Sterling stormed out of the Kinect show in disgust,” which was only half true. When I got back to the creepy motel Destructoid was operating out of, I was asked to give my thoughts on the presentation for our own video coverage. I’d already taken to wearing aviators to alleviate camera shyness, and by the time I yanked the microphone out of our interviewer’s hands and blasted Microsoft, I was halfway toward cutting a wrestling promo. The whole thing was such a blast in retrospect that I decided to try doing it some more. It was a long road from the rough start to the current show, but that was its birth. Birth by Natal.
Your investigative pieces like your dives into Scientific Revenue, Brash Games, and Online Casinos have been some of your most compelling work. How do you go about investigating game publishers and other companies? What’s the process like?
One thing to note is that a lot of this information is out there already. They’re brazen about it. It’s just that they’re not EA or Ubisoft, so there’s [no] scrutiny. This has made them rather confident and unwary about hiding what they are, so once I get a whiff of their existence, I am practically offered their ugliness on a plate. I also benefit a lot from contacts within the industry who are as sick of the state of things as I am, and their information (or sometimes just validating confirmation) is invaluable.
I reach out to companies themselve as and where I can, though few engage. Those that do are often very easy to wring useful information out of, since they are so desperate to make their sales pitch that I can use their nature against them. That’s how I found out about the depths of online casino sponsorship – all I had to do was feign interest, dangle a carrot, and they practically spewed information at me, some of which they weren’t even supposed to give out.
So, it’s a mix of looking at readily available info, catching tips from contacts, and directly talking to some of these people while handing them the rope they’ll hang themselves with.
Malyssious on Reddit asks how long do you spend researching before making a video?
That’s a question with much variability. For some topics, I just go on sheer impulse and intuition, using what I already know to hammer out a script swiftly. For some, like Scientific Revenue, I did a fair bit of digging, correlating, and conversing which took a while. A piece I’m working on at the moment could take a couple weeks as I await responses from developers.
Malyssious on Reddit also asks what does a typical day look like for you?
I wouldn’t call many days “typical” because I never know what the world’s going to give me to work with, but generally I wake up immediately fired up to do something, so I’ll wake up, go through my phone for the latest info, then let out the dog and put on some decaf coffee (I know, monstrous, but I hate migraines and love morning habits, so I do decaf), and get ready to put a video together. After that, I’m usually gearing toward a podcast, planning out Jimquisition related things, and going over plans with my art director Justin McDaniel.
Beyond mornings, it could be any number of things. I might be doing on-camera work with Justin, playing a game for coverage purposes, or eking out some time to watch WWE stuff. Or indeed a combination of all these things and more.
Microtransactions, especially those in $60 games, are one of the most controversial parts of the game industry right now yet there are people who defend practices like the loot boxes in Overwatch. Why do you think people are so adamant about defending these practices? Is it brand loyalty or something else?
I can only theorize, but there are a number of potential reasons. Overwatch, I think, speaks for itself. People love Blizzard, they adore Overwatch, they don’t want to hear somebody telling them a thing they love is doing something uncool. Brand loyalty is definitely part of it, and I think loyalty to microtransactions themselves plays a factor for some – nobody ever wants to feel like they bought a lemon, and nobody wants to feel like they’re being called out. Some people misinterpret my industry criticisms as a condemnation of their behavior as customers, which they don’t take kindly to.
Other times, it comes down to what I call “aggressive apathy.” The industry, and some media, have done a good job fostering this attitude where if a slimy business move is around long enough, it’s become too banal to care about. And people are viciously invested in their lack of investment. They don’t care, but they care enough to let you know SO HARD that they don’t care. This may speak to some insecurities, and also perhaps boredom, since the Internet has trained us to consider anything more than a day old as ancient.
More and more big games media outlets are calling out the practice of microtransactions in full priced games. Do you think this is a sign of the gaming public at large finally starting to have enough of them? Or will people eventually move on from covering them?
While it’s nice to see some outlets finally catching up to what I and others have said for years, I think most of the increased coverage has scaled with the increased audacity of game publishers. Loot boxes are big news now because companies have pushed the envelope to extreme degrees. Sadly, this makes their former transgressions look less transgressive, and eventually I feel a lot of media will grow bored of loot boxes as they did with fee-to-pay games, season passes, and other things. Most media has to move on to the next big thing. I, fortunately for those that still care, do not.
It was discovered that through cheating you could have infinite loot boxes in the PC version of Shadow of War. Helmic on Reddit asks should we worry that publishers could see this as exploiting the game and use it to justify banning players? What does this say about the function of microtransactions?
Bans in videogames are always a perpetual worry, and there have been plenty of documented instances of mass bannings that have gone wrong. I don’t think Shadow of War moves the needle on that concern one way or another. As far as what it says about microtransactions, I’m not sure. I didn’t get to use the exploit so I never tried it, but I’d be interested to see what happens when you have the unlimited resources of what the industry calls a “whale” – an individual player who’ll spend thousands of dollars in games. I have a feeling they’d completely demolish the game.
As it is, the loot boxes you can buy with in-game currency already fundamentally undermine Shadow of War’s gameplay by letting you field an army of orcs without putting in any effort. The only dissuasion is the terribly implemented market which constantly interfaces with servers and takes forever to do anything.
In your video on Scientific Revenue, you said that you’ve given up on mobile gaming due to the overbearing and manipulative nature of microtransactions and uninvolving, copycat gameplay. What needs to change in the market for you to come back?
The oversaturation of games that play themselves and all seem to have the same overwhelming tutorials and multiple currencies need to go away, along with the various “Conquest” games and Clash of Clans ripoffs. The market is so oversaturated that every time I’ve tried browsing the App store, I’ve closed it feeling completely underwhelmed and unable to find any potential quality among the trash. Sadly, the situation is only getting worse, as any breakout success that deviates from the norm will instantly be copied and flood the market, while monetization has gotten so ridiculous that many games now have multiple marketplaces selling different things for different premium cash substitutes.
In short, I don’t know if the mobile industry could ever begin the clean itself up enough.
At times the gaming industry can look absolutely dire. What gives you hope, if any, that the industry will improve?
There’s a reason I separate the “AAA” game industry from the game industry as a whole. There’s also a reason I’ve stopped using “AAA” to simply refer to big budget games, but prefer presenting it to my audience as a culture. The independent scene has proven, time and again, that it will fill the gaps left by the “AAA” market, like how Amnesia brought horror games back into the public eye after major publishers arbitrarily decided they were dead. As we’re seeing with the grassroots success of Hellblade, there still exist studios that want to deliver high quality games that simply sell you a rich experience in exchange for money, and plenty of customers who want it too. An honest, simple transaction.
The “AAA” industry is looking like complete dogshit right now, potentially great games dragged into the slime by executives who have no restraint. But even among them, games such as Wolfenstein II and Super Mario Odyssey are showing that single-player games with more honest economies aren’t dead yet. They may have been decimated, but not destroyed.
Torgoatwork on Reddit asks what will the industry look like in 10 years?
I honestly can’t answer that. I have a pretty keen insight for certain trends, but to try and assume anything about this industry, or even if it’ll exist in a recognizable form, would be arrogance. Even for me.
Many argue that publishers do things such as integrating loot boxes because they’re companies and making money is what companies are meant to do. But what is the difference between how companies make their money now and how companies make money in a more idealistic setting?
You can make money and not be a complete shithead about it. Enough companies exist and thrive today that demonstrate it. I’m buying the Wolfenstein II deluxe edition because I understand that games are expensive to make but I don’t like feeling fleeced, manipulated, or taken advantage of while attempting to support said games. As a result, the lack of microtransactions and glorified gambling in Wolfenstein II is enough to earn my advanced support. And that’s not even an idealistic setting – it’s a reality.
And ultimately, even if you subscribe to the theory that corporations exist to make as much money no matter the consequence, well I exist to call them complete slimebags for doing it.
IronyGiant on Reddit asks how do you see independent video game reporting and commentary evolving in the next few years as the game industry continues to push the boundaries on what it can get away with?
More and more the line between indie and more mainstream games are being blurred, and like I say, I consider “AAA” to be cultural more than financial so I try and judge every game as just a game doing what it does with whatever it has. I think the trend will continue with that dissolving line. We already see certain titles become famous enough to outlast its indie distinction – Undertale being one notable example.
Cloud6556 on Reddit said you have stated that you are both the Number One Boglin Boy and the Number One Kiss Boy. Which title are you the most proud of?
Ultimately, it always comes down to Boglins. Boglins are important. The most important.
Over the years, you have created a menagerie of bizarre characters from the Cornflake Homunculus to Duke Amiel du H’ardcore. How do you come up with these characters?
So far they’ve mostly been made in response to things. The Homunculus was a result of me parodying the Schick Hydrobot. Amiel du H’ardcore was inspired by smarmy comments I’d receive, Sterdust was a response to WWE hitting my videos with copyright claims. Usually an event will make me ruminate on how best to respond, and as I think, a character will form in my head.
You have made several big changes this year, from rebranding the Jimquisition to new shows like Commentocracy. 2piRsquare on Reddit asks are there any other things you what to improve on for the brand?
I know the upgrade to 4K is something that I’ll have to jump on soon. I need a new camera anyway. Audio remains a constant issue for me, and I’m always looking to improve the audio, though sadly right now much of the problem is location and will need a move to fix. Other than that, I continually want to try and branch out what The Jimquisition as a show can be, which I’ve tried with post-mortems of certain games, more investigative pieces, and post-credits mini shows.
I’m sometimes mocked for covering only three topics (despite how many ways I’ve found to discuss what are more complex topics than are given credit), but the sad thing is I have a document filled with more evergreen subjects I plan to get around to – I just keep waiting for a week when the industry isn’t doing something immediately egregious again.
There’s also the first Jimquisition mini-series I want to start, a run of shows with a unique theme outside of the usual weekly episode. That’s something for next year perhaps.
When you announced that you weren’t going to write game reviews anymore, you said that one concern from people was that you were “the only reviewer [they] trusted.” Do you feel that the public have lost their trust in traditional games media, and if so where does this distrust come from?
People get tribalistic, and they mistrust those outside of the clan. Some people became huge fans of YouTubers and exalted them as the only honest people in the room, despite the fact YouTube’s gaming scene has had plenty of scandals, certainly enough to at least rival traditional media. Some of the mistrust becomes political, where traditional media is the “establishment” while edgier alternatives are seen as subversive and rebellious. Fact is, every industry has its shits.
I don’t know if “the public” has lost trust, or just a vocal percentage. It’s not something I think about a lot. The “us versus them” shit in games media is a low stakes fight that I’m not particularly invested in.
With the implementation of user review systems such as Steam Reviews as well as independently produced videos such as your Jimpressions series, do you see a point in the future where publication reviews will become obsolete?
Potentially. There is is potential for anything to fall out of fashion and become unwanted. Right now, game reviews still get a lot of interest, a lot of attention, and people cling to Metacritic even though game reviews aren’t said to have much of an impact on sales at all. So long as the audience remains hungry for game reviews, they’ll have a place, and despite how many people loudly proclaim not to care about reviews, they still seem to cause a heck of a whirlwind.
Netgem21 on Reddit asks any future plans for trips or Jimquisition Live?
I still intend to do Jimquisition Takes London when I’ve got all my ducks in a row and can make the trip out there. I was hoping to do something at PAX West this year but the confirmation came in far too late for me to make arrangements. That’s still something I’d like to do.
I probably already know the answer to this, but are there any updates for Jim Sterling’s Licensed Game Experience?
Fact is, the people working on the project were taking too long. No hard feelings from me, but it reached a point where I couldn’t justify waiting on them anymore for what the game was going to be. Instead, it just so happens the aforementioned Justin is a budding game designer and wants to use the time spent not actively working on projects developing something. He’s hit me with some pitches I find delightful.
Also, I hadn’t gotten around to announcing that yet, so there’s something XXXCLUSIVE OH MY GOD!
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, if you could be any Boglin, which one would you be?
Blobkin. He’s a Boglin and he’s a pumpkin. It doesn’t get better than that.