Very British Gamer: Cranky Gamers UK Interview

Being a very British gamer (the clue’s in the title), I’m always looking to celebrate things that have to do with gaming that are also very British. The Cranky Gamers UK podcast fits that bill wonderfully so it was a pleasure and a privilege when I got the chance to speak to its co-host Toz, the self-dubbed crankiest gamer in the UK.

If you’re not aware of the CG:UK podcast, it’s one of the most popular in the UK despite the fact that it’s not run by one of the professional gaming establishments like GameSpot or PC Gamer. It’s up there on merit, too, as its listeners will testify, thanks to the down-to-Earth views of the two hosts as well as the always enjoyable banter on offer between a Brit and a Yank. So, when I chatted with Toz, I asked him about the difficulties of running an ‘indie’ podcast, his views on the status of British gaming and what it’s like working with his American co-host, Fly.

Toz had an awful lot to say as you’ll discover, so we decided to feature a cut version of the interview here at TheGameReviews. However, the full, uncut version will be featured as part of Cranky Gamers UK Episode 56. Tune in and you’ll get the chance to hear Toz and I wax lyrical about prices in UK as well as the unique opportunity to hear how awful my voice sounds on radio. So, read the interview then check out Cranky Gamers UK for more views from a fellow very British gamer. Enjoy:

Cranky Gamers UK interview, January 7th 2009

VBG: So, it was October 2007 when you started up Cranky Gamers UK. What actually made you start a gaming podcast? What was your inspiration?

Toz: Strangely enough I get asked this question absolute loads, one of the first questions I get asked. To be honest, I didn’t get into podcasting until very, very late – I had not heard of it, didn’t know what it was. I think I didn’t listen to my first podcast until around August of that year and I immediately decided I liked it. I think everybody does as soon as they listen to a podcast, it’s one of the greatest things on the Internet! Obviously, I’ve been playing games for a long time now, 30-plus years… yes I am that old! I just put two and two together. Some people will know that I originally started it with Kid Dogg. I met Kid on the Achievement Junkie website playing Gears of War for a few nights. We spoke one night and that was it. Funny enough, Kid Dogg actually only lives five miles from my house, which is one of the craziest things. It was bizarre when I found out.

VBG: You started all the way back then and now it’s arguably the most popular UK gaming podcast. It’s always in the iTunes charts and it’s always doing really, really well. Did you expect it to really do that well or was it just a project that you thought would be fun to do?

Toz: I think it all starts as fun. It did get ridiculously popular very quickly. Looking back on it I think it was purely to do with very little UK gaming podcasts being about. There were always a lot of American podcasts and there still are. It must be 90% to 5%, if that. The popularity was amazing, took us all by surprise. In fact after only four shows we had to quickly look for better web hosting. The free ones on the web give you something like 20mb a month, and after the first four shows we were clearing that in a day. I think what did it though, again edging back to Achievement Junkiel – they’re one of the biggest in the world for games podcasting, and they, off the top of my head, used to get 15 to 20,000 hits per showl – was that they were really good to us and actually put some plugs for us on their website and asked us if we were interested in doing a mini, joint-thing with them, and that took our numbers sky-high.

VBG: It’s not really been plain sailing all the way because earlier this year Kid Dogg left to start up his own podcast. I remember that you and your current co-host Fly wanted to keep things hush-hush at the time. It must’ve been quite hard to keep the community on board with the split.

Toz: It was. It was a sticky period, and some saw it as a nasty break-up. I wouldn’t like to say it was a nasty break-up, it was just a case of things not working out at the right time and people pulling in the wrong directions. Fly’s now on board and the way he got on board was through the Gears/Achievement Junkie link. When we quickly used our bandwidth up, we simply had not got the funds. The money being quoted for webspace was way, way far and above what we had. As luck would have it, we met Fly and he had a few websites of his own that he ran. He kindly offered to host our website which was absolutely superb. The split was really that Kid wanted to go do his thing, and Fly, for all intents and purposes, was the sole funder of the website, and still is I may add. Due to my circumstances I simply don’t have the finances. It was just a case of things coming to a head and we decided to go our separate ways. In the end it’s all worked out well and I think both sites are doing okay.

VBG: You did have a bit of a highlight to make up for it later on in the year…

Toz: You’re talking about the iTunes charts…

VBG: Actually, I was referring to a certain gift…

Toz: Oh that, that was truly stunning, I thought we’d have to mention that! But actually, we did get to #1 in the iTunes charts as well…the iTunes charts are a giant anomaly for podcasts. I don’t think there’s anyone out there who can truly say how they work. You can be up one minute and down the next. Christmas last year we got to #2 just behind Major Nelson – I actually used to take screenshots when I saw our podcast appear in the charts because it still amazes me to this day that we’re still in there. Then we got a message on our forums early last year saying “Congratulations – you’re at number 1!”. Sadly, I never got a screenshot because we didn’t last there very long! But, I think [it’s amazing] for just two people just running a basic website to be up there at all. To be honest, if it was in the top 50 I would be happy.

VBG: When I was preparing this interview I was thinking about how to classify you guys. You’re kind of a like an ‘indie podcast’ compared to the more professional gaming establishments.

Toz: It might amaze a lot of people, but it’s really a ‘man in his basement’ kind of thing. We record the show on Skype. It’s edited on free software. It really is, as you say, indie stuff.

VBG: So, the highlight I was actually referring to was this thing that happened a couple of months ago where a few community members did something really special.

Toz: The thing that constantly surprises me is our community. Basically, my circumstances are that I’m actually disabled. I had a serious football injury many years back, so I do not work and obviously my funding is limited on all gaming. As we all know, gaming is one of the most expensive hobbies you can partake in. Running this podcast, I do try to cover all areas… but what happened was that I constantly got a ribbing about not having a PS3. The great thing our community did…we have on our website a funding button where we ask for donations to help pay for the site. Well, on this particular day the funding button literally lit up – I was getting e-mails with donation after donation. I was thinking, what’s happened (laughs)… something very strange. Fly then messaged me: “Have you been on the forums?”. One of our forum members had made a post with the words ‘Let’s get Toz a PS3!’. I think it all started as a joke but to cut a long story short within the space of about five and a half hours the entire amount for a PS3 had been donated into our account. It was truly, truly stunning and I was just lost for words.

VBG: One of the things I like about the show with you being from the UK and Fly being from the US is hearing your different stories about which games are coming out, what people are playing and what people’s perceptions of things are. There’s so much more exposure to gaming over there through things like G4 and Spike…

Toz: You’re right. Again, going back to the podcast you’ve only got to look on iTunes to see there are very few UK podcasts. It’s always been the same – we used to have to wait months for games to reach the UK. It’s gotten a lot better as gaming’s grown into a massive product. Personally, I think that’s what makes the show – the banter between us both. As you say, gaming differences between the UK and America are clearly shown and it’s a good mix, I think.

VBG: So, with the time difference and Fly’s job as a pilot, the recording times must get crazy. Surely it gets frustrating for your family at times?

Toz: There’s no doubt that my family – my wife and my 10 year old girl – are very, very patient. What makes it worse is that I actually record this in the middle room of our house with the kitchen to my left and the living quarters to the right…there’s many a time, obviously, when you do need silence and I do say to my family, "can you stay out as much as possible," so without their patience it wouldn’t be possible.

VBG: Minus getting a PS3 for free (Toz laughs) what’s the best moment you’ve had with the show?

Toz: I think one of the highlights was early – we got AceyBongos for an interview. He’s the Xbox UK Community Manager – all gamers out there will have heard of Major Nelson who’s the big cheese for Microsoft’s gaming but AceyBongos has literally got the same job for the UK. That was a real good coo at the beginning. He was a very nice fella as well and he’s helped me in the past with a few things so that would be one highlight. The other highlight was in an early show which some readers might not know about – and this might surprise you as well – I had my Xbox 360 fail with a graphics card error which actually isn’t covered in any warranty and you have to pay the money. At the time I was literally sitting there with six or seven top games ready for review. So, AceyBongos gave me a contact – the contacts for Microsoft are really hard to get – and they actually sent me a 360 the following morning. Fly and I could not believe it. We had not heard of that anywhere. We got the console within a day!

VBG: Talking of which, we should get a plug in for the show and the website it’s on.

Toz: If anybody doesn’t know yet, our main website is www.crankygamersuk.com – the forum link is there and the podcast is there. Come and check us out. The forum is the best section – it’s probably 70% of our site really. Strangely enough, the download of the podcast in relation to the forum members works out to only around 18% of listeners actually going to the forums…

VBG: So if you’re reading this and you listen to the show – get on there!

Toz: We have gamer nights every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, every single week. There are competitions too. There’s no language, no backbiting, all ages welcome.

VBG: So now that you’ve got a Wii, and all of the three home consoles – let’s get this out in the open. Which one is your favourite?

Toz: I have to say the 360. If people want to narrow it down to why, there’s one thing that a lot of people may well agree with: you can’t get away from how much achievements have made a difference to that console. I have games on the PS3 that I sit down and play and I cannot tell you the amount of times I’ve sat there waiting for an achievement! Also, I think the 360’s got a better catalogue of games.

VBG: We’ve got people like John Davison at WhatTheyPlay talking about games for kids. I don’t know that many people in the gaming media who consider themselves family people. Does being a family man in the gaming media with a wife and daughter give you a different perspective?

Toz: One of our biggest, most popular shows back in the early days was when we did a big piece on family gaming. I think it’s changed, the Wii’s changed it completely. We hate saying it but I think the Wii is needed in the current market. Some people might say it’s not, that it’s not doing its job right. I think that it now makes gaming a complete and utter balance – I think you’ve got the two real next-gen consoles that are taking it to a new height and then you’ve got the Wii that’s got people playing games that never would’ve even dreamed of doing it two or three years ago.

VBG: You and Fly have a lot of good banter on the show. One of my favourite moments was when he told us all your Christian name (Toz laughs)… we don’t have to repeat it today if you don’t want to…

Toz: It doesn’t bother me – my Christian name is Julian and it was the bane of my school career! Yes, he did find out and he did air it on the show and it caused a bit of fun and laughter.

VBG: Well, I’m giving you the opportunity to get some revenge if you want to. Have you got anything embarrassing about him that you would like to exclusively reveal for us?

Toz: You know what, the bad thing is that I haven’t got anything! The only thing – he does moan a helluva lot. What is he… he’ll probably kill me for this – he’s very OCD. He needs everything done to a T and it has to be spot on and it drives me crazy. So much so even when I’m writing e-mails to him I’m checking my full stops are in order – it’s like writing to my teacher! It’s crazy that we are really good friends and that it’s all just through the Internet. Maybe one day we’ll meet face to face but without him we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing now.

VBG: Friends or not… who’s got the better gaming skills?

Toz: Do you know what – this is the most weird thing that happened last night. Over the festive period I’ve not talked to Fly much and last night we were chatting. So, obviously in the past we used to have real big GamerScore battles and then I really flew ahead, got way ahead – I think four or five thousand. So, unbelievably, last night we were looking and he’s been playing his Xbox over the festive period and our Gamerscore last night was identical! 28,750! It just blew my mind – he’s clearly been cheating somewhere along the line.

VBG: Proof then that you’re exactly the same.

Toz: It is. That’s all I can say. We’ll probably have a war to 30,000 – luckily I’ve just got hold of Gears 2 and Nuts & Bolts so I should be able to get there pretty quick!

VBG: Toz, thank you for talking to TheGameReviews and best of luck with Cranky Gamers UK in 2009.

Toz: Thank you very much. Anytime.

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