Let’s Interview; Gaming’s Watchdog SidAlpha!

Over the last few years or so, we’ve seen a rise in questionable practices in the gaming industry. There’s the increase in microtransactions and real money spending, which often introduces a gambling element to the games it included in. There’s the situation on Steam and the app stores where quality has mostly fallen off a cliff and asset flips reign supreme.

Add people involved in making games either attacking their audience, suing critics or trying to take down videos about games featuring their music andyou’ve got a situation where consumer advocates are needed more than ever.

Which is where SidAlpha comes in. A YouTuber with a large following of 50,000 subscribers and growing, his channel basically exists to discuss both the admirable and sleazy tactics of game developers and industry folk alike, covering such topics as the recent Alex Mauer takedowns and the Shadow of War controversy with aplomb.

And we’ve gotten to speak to him for an exclusive interview! So, if you’re interested in his channel, video games on Steam or his opinion on games as a whole, keep reading!

Let’s start with the usual personal story first. Who are you as a person, outside of the world of video games?

Who I am is really no one special when it comes to “meatspace”. I’m a father of a 13-year-old girl, I work as a Project Lead for an IT Consulting Firm, and I live out in the boonies in the northwest. To be honest, I would probably be one of the more uninteresting people you might meet due to the work schedule I deal with. I typically work 12-14 hours per day plus being a single father on top of it. That doesn’t leave much time for excitement.

And how did you get started with them anyway? What was your first console generation?

My first console generation that I ever played on was actually the Atari 2600. Although even way back then I was still a PC Gamer at heart and I enjoyed playing games on our Commodore 64 much more. With games like Archon and Archon 2 being my favorites when my lifespan was still in the single-digits.

Archon 1

Archon 2

Were there any games then you thought were really amazing?

Well, I was between 4 and 9 years old, but probably the games I thought were the most “amazing” were Moon Patrol and Defender. I was also quite good at a game that was called “Asteroids”. Once, I ended up going on a tear and seemed like I just could not fail. My dad and his brothers were so excited watching me burn through the game that they kept me up so late so I could keep playing that I literally passed out mid-game. I used to find it hilarious to see 4 grown men shouting and cheering while watching a little kid destroy a video game and now I look on eSports and think there really wasn’t much difference.

Moon Patrol Screenshot

How about terrible ones that probably could have gotten a video about them had they been released on Steam?

All of them. You have to remember that games back then were actually exceptionally basic and were fairly terrible. Many people are nostalgic over them, but the vast majority of them would not hold water or even compare to today’s standards.

Either way, you’re most known for your YouTube channel and videos on Steam developers/games. How did you get started with that?

I’ve always been a person with strong opinions and I had actually planned on starting up a YouTube channel for a few years. After watching people like Angry Joe, Totalbiscuit, Nostalgia Critic, and a few others, I really resonated with the idea of consumer awareness and consumer protection. What with all of the excesses that we’ve seen within the Triple-A Games Industry, I really had a lot to say but usually I would just rant to my friends. They were the ones who told me that I should start a YouTube channel, but that could very well have been just so I would quit pestering them all the time about it all as I’m really the only core Gamer in my circle of friends.

How I got started was more on a whim. I had used my Christmas bonus to build myself an actual Gaming rig that January and I decided that, now that I was earning enough money from my day job, I could afford the equipment necessary. So, on a whim I ended up spending far more than I needed to on recording equipment to be able to get started. The decision to start my own channel to first video recorded took all of a week to complete once I started moving on it.

What about the name? Why SidAlpha?

The name SidAlpha was actually a combination of corniness and probably way too much Irish whiskey. Even though my legal first name is Sidney, I’ve been called Richie for longer than I can remember. The Sid part in SidAlpha actually isn’t a reference to me, but my father. His name is Sid as well, and with most children I’ve seen my dad as one of the strongest people I’ve ever known. I’ve also been a fan of history and from that I borrowed the idea of the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. And I’ve also ascribed to the idea of “Knowledge is power” and there is never a more effective consumer than one that is well informed. So, the SidAlpha name is essentially “Beginning of strength” within the context of consumer information and awareness.

I know, it is extremely corny, but like I said… Irish whiskey was involved.

Similarly, what about the music? Why did you choose that song for your video intros?

The intro was actually developed by a designer in Greenland that I purchased on Fiverr. The music came with it. I used it as I wanted my channel to have a bit more of a professional feel but every time I’d attempted to change it was met with resistance, so now it’s just become a part of my channel’s identity.

What about the general content? What made you want to create videos about dodgy Steam developers and ripoffs in gaming?

That was a slow evolution and it mostly came from the fact that I can’t stand the idea of someone enriching themselves unjustly at the expense of others. I think part of that also spawns from my being so terrifically poor for most of my life, that I have an overinflated importance on how valuable money is.

Also, I’ve seen how hard some of these Indie Developers work and it frustrates me to no end to see an Indie game that I KNOW in my heart of hearts is a good game get lost in the shuffle in the midst of asset flips and shady devs posting garbage games that take attention away from those games that legitimately deserve to be seen and merely promoting those good games are not enough. Those others need to be drug out into the light to be shown for what they are so people don’t waste their money on them and instead are better able to go find a game worthy of their hard-earned money.

I knew it was a gamble to go that route. Many people said “Stick with the triple A’s. No one cares about the Indie games. They’re a dime a dozen.” But to my mind, a lot more good could be accomplished within the Indie scene and I didn’t care about how famous or not famous I got. It was about my passion for games and my desire to help inform those that would wish it. Even if I influenced 1 person, that would be enough for me.

Were there any influences there? People like Jim Sterling have made videos on similar topics before…

There are a LOT of influences there. Angry Joe, Totalbiscuit, Jim Sterling, and Nostalgia Critic would be the biggest ones. And while I know that there have been others to cover these topics before… and probably better… I still feel I have something to contribute to the conversation. While those others have been heavy influences on my own content and style, I have still maintained my own voice and method of relating things. From Angry Joe, I remember to not always take things too seriously, which is something I do tend to fall prey to. From TB, I learned that more often than not, the loudest voice in the room tends to be the calmest and most well-reasoned. If you have something important to say, you don’t need to shout. Because if you do, the ones you are shouting at most likely still won’t listen regardless. From Jim, I learned that it’s ok to have an ego from time to time. Just remember what you are doing and why you are doing it. And then from both Nostalgia critic and TB I learned what it was to break something down and analyze it effectively.

I try to learn something from other successful YouTubers in order to make myself and my content better, but at the end of the day it’s still about the message and the information. People cannot make informed decisions with an absence of information and we have learned we cannot trust the vast majority of traditional Games Journalists. I intend to set my own example in that regard.

Out of all the games and developers you covered, which ones were the worst/most sleazy and why?

Oh wow, there are so many. I would think Dokey and Dalas of Fur Fun to be the worst outside of Digital Homicide. They issued large numbers of spurious DMCA strikes, issued review code only to later revoke those keys when the reviewer said something they didn’t like, mass forum bans and thread deletions… not to mention that Dalas is himself a YouTuber who weaponized his audience in a variety of ways… To post positive reviews of a crap game in exchange for game keys, to downvote negative reviews, and to flood his game forums in order to further drown out fair critique.

How about the least? Which of your ‘Diamond Devs’ subjects were the best?

The one that stuck out in my mind was Stardrop. That one actually started because the developer himself emailed me to ask my advice and my opinion as he was mortally terrified that people would label his game an asset flip because he did make use of pre-bought assets. I found the game itself to be charming and the voice acting quite well done. I was excited to be able to present the game before it even went into Early Access and I look forward to the finished product. The fact of the matter is, he cared so much about his game that he sought out a random YouTuber because of the content they had discussed and he wanted to be certain people wouldn’t judge his game sight-unseen. That is the level of heart that I see in so many Indie Developers and it is those exact types of people, those that are invested in their project and talented enough to see it through, that brings me the greatest amount of pride in being able to raise awareness of.

Why do so many developers and companies respond so poorly to criticism anyway? Almost every few months we get another developer torpedoing their own reputation over a DMCA threat or review take down…

It really speaks to the type of personality of those that engage in those behaviors. It is ultimately born of a self-centered and selfish desire for profit above all else. You have to remember, the vast majority of those people never had a reputation to begin with and they rail against anything that will cost them money. They have no passion for gaming, they have no talent for it nor any desire to produce anything worthwhile. This isn’t about the game for them, it’s just a means towards easy money.

One of the trends you’ve been a vocal opponent of are ‘asset flip’ games on Steam. Why are these getting so much more common now?

Asset flips are growing more common on Steam because it has become easier and easier to get them onto the steam storefront and each one of them is nothing but a factory for Team Trading Cards and keys to sell on the grey market to other Steam Trading Card farmers. It very much is its own industry and as with any industry, the more people that get involved, the larger it gets.

What advice would you give people buying games on Steam so they don’t get ripped off by asset flips, poorly designed games and ripoffs? Any tell-tale ways to spot bad games before buying them?

Do your research. Go watch a 5-minute review on YouTube. Better yet, watch 2 or 3. Never trust a single reviewer. Take a look at the reviews and pay attention to what you are seeing. If the game has an overall positive rating but all of the English reviews are negative, this is a dead giveaway that you are wasting your money. Also, if one of the “features” of the game is Steam Trading Cards or achievements, you know now what they honestly cared about… and it wasn’t the game.

And what can Valve do to moderate their platform better?

I think they have plenty of moderators, what they need is better curation. It would necessitate hiring 3 or 4 people practiced in how to spot these sort of things, which would cost approximately $250k per year which is something Valve would be extremely loathe to do.

Something that’s always confused us is how you choose games to cover. What’s your process here? How do you find so many terrible games to make videos about?

It varies and it is, of course, something that has changed and been refined over time. Lately I’ve been working much more closely with the Steam Group “Sentinels of the Store”. In that group, there are several people that are extremely well versed in how to locate what unity asset is being used and a wealth of other information.

As far as how so many terrible games are found? Well, Steam released over 200 games in the first week of August. There is definitely no shortage of asset flips and bad games making their way onto the Steam Storefront. The problem isn’t in finding them, it’s in deciding on which one to actually cover. It’s like a dog caught between 2 bones. It’s sometimes very hard to make a decision.

Unfortunately, it seems like quite a few game critics online have been sued by companies or developers they made videos about, like Jim Sterling and 0Bennyman by Digital Homicide and Matan Cohen Studios respectively. Have you ever seen an indie dev threaten to sue you over a video of their game?

Not yet and that is a worry of many critics. Even if we are 100% in the right, a lawsuit is still exceptionally expensive and not really one that I would be capable of affording in some circumstances. However, great care is taken in what is said and how so that if such a thing were to come to pass, it would not be a difficult thing to combat.

Either way, the recent Alex Mauer drama has probably brought you a large percentage of your recent subscriber base. Did you expect such a large response from this story?

I really didn’t and in retrospect, that was an underestimation of the general public on my part. Content creators are, for the most part, fairly well regarded and a directed attack and flagrant abuse of an already broken system is not something most people take lying down.

It’s actually been a very eye-opening experience to see so many people supporting these smaller channels that have been affected by Alex Mauer and those Games Developers harmed by those actions as well.

Do you ever wonder how the story got to this point? Because it seems like Mauer was fairly normal prior to the recent flip out and mass copyright striking stuff… What change led to this fiasco anyway?

Money. I wish it were something at least more noble or reasoned, but it comes down to money. Mauer attempted to get paid for work that was never completed and attempted to use the DMCA system in order to strong-arm YouTubers into being a weapon directed at Imagos in order to apply public pressure. The subsequent backlash and tidal wave of hatred that descended on Mauer would be difficult to handle by most people under the best of circumstances. In Mauer’s case, it has led to an ever-increasing escalation into a scorched-earth mentality. It’s really quite sad to see happen.

Moving on from Mauer now, another common subject of your videos seems to be YouTube’s terrible policies and how they screw over gaming channels. Is there any chance YouTube and Google might improve the situation soon?

None. You have to remember that the DMCA isn’t a system implemented by YouTube, it was a law enacted in the late 90’s in response to peer to peer file sharing and was instigated by the music and movie industries. YouTube is allowed to operate under Safe Harbor provisions and their practices when it comes to the DMCA are merely their following an outdated guilty until proven innocent law.

What advice would you give critics for avoiding YouTube’s insane content ID system and what not?

Don’t bother with covering Nintendo and if you use a piece of music, make sure it is under 20 seconds in length. Also, don’t be afraid to file counter-notifications if you are sure what you produced falls under fair use. Also, make sure you study the DMCA law and Fair Use doctrine. It’s a very dry read, but information is ammunition.

Have you ever considered alternative video hosting platforms like VidMe? Which of those could potentially be a good replacement for YouTube?

I did consider Vid.Me and I even have a channel there that I was uploading videos to for a time. However, for established channels, there ARE no replacements for YouTube and there won’t be for quite some time. The reason for that is that content creators would be loath to nuke their own viewer base to migrate platforms.

Still, regardless of the platform your channel seems to be growing surprisingly fast, getting nearly 60,000 subscribers in a matter of a year or two. Did you expect that? Are you surprised how popular your videos have become?

Extremely surprised. I never expected to even get a thousand viewers, let alone breaking 50 and approaching the possibility of breaking 100 by the end of the year or early to mid-next year. I never went into this to become famous, as I’ve said in the past. In fact, I actually went into this fully expecting NOT to “make it big”. I’m older. I just turned 38 this year and I am a product of the stigma in the 90’s of Gaming being “Nerdy” and Gamers were socially awkward. But now it’s a different time. Gaming is the largest entertainment industry on the face of the planet and I decided that I wanted to put my voice out there. Of course, I see my current success as nothing more than a wild series of lucky breaks masked in extremely troubling moments. But I’m extremely grateful that I’ve been given the opportunity to reach more people than I had ever dreamed possible.

You also have to remember, that I LIVE in a town of less than 10 thousand. To look at this town and realize I have more than 5 followers to each man, woman, and child in my whole TOWN is humbling, exciting, and a little terrifying at times.

Like quite a few channels, you’ve gone through a fair few types of content before hitting on the successful formula you use today. When did you realize that videos about the games industry and terrible Steam games were your key to success?

Honestly, I didn’t. I was seeing that not very many content creators out there were covering Indie Games and really getting in and getting their hands dirty. I realized that there was a lot of things going on there that people needed to be made aware of and I was in a position to start doing that.

Have you ever considered making any other types of videos now you’ve got a larger fanbase? Like reviews, Lets Plays, podcasts, etc?

I still do post reviews and first impressions, but not nearly with the frequency that I would like. Frankly, those don’t get the numbers of views as my other videos, but it’s important to still get the information out there so I don’t really see myself ever stopping from doing those types of videos. As for Let’s Plays, they’re just not really my style. I might do them occasionally as some people find it quite funny to subject me to something truly awful and forcing me to suffer through it, there’s no design to make something like that a regular feature.

As for Podcasts, I did post the Procedurally Opinionated Podcast with IamPattyJack and BigfryTV but, due to the current climate on YouTube, Bigfry was forced to concentrate more on growing his own Twitch channel so he was unable to continue. It will return in some form or another at some point, so that IS something that will come back.

What plans do you have for the future of your channel in general?

I’ve seen so many other channels that, at the first sign of success, start throwing around all of these “new ideas” and while it’s fine to get excited and wanting to branch out, I try to remember that people have followed my channel for a reason and changing things would mean to change the content that they followed me for to begin with. My plans are to continue on as best I can to do what I’ve done that so many people have resonated with: Raising consumer awareness, showcasing games, and continue to tackle the troubles within the Games Industry.

Finally, what advice would you give budding YouTube creators wanting to run a successful channel?

I’ve heard this asked of other channels and it’s still a little weird for me to be described as having a “successful channel”. You have to remember though that there is no magic bullet. No surefire way to becoming successful. I see other channels that are just as good as mine, if not better, that might never become successful. It’s a complete crap-shoot and that really is a shame.

Still, you do want to try and stack the deck in your favor as much as possible and unfortunately that means learning a lot. Sound quality is key, as is visual quality. So, make sure you have gear that is effective for what you are trying to do and part of that is learning audio and video editing techniques. Also, be honest. Your channel is an extension of you and that means that you want to present yourself in the best light possible. Lies and duplicity only serve to undermine that.

Also, don’t be afraid to fail. It is a learning experience and it takes time. Case in point, my early videos make me wince in pain after seeing the 720p video, horrendous audio quality, and a painful delivery of the information. It takes practice and learning to become effective at what you are trying to do and so you WILL fail. A lot. And that’s ok as long as you learn a little more each day.

Probably the most important thing would be don’t do it to become famous or successful. Most channels will never grow to become large, so don’t set yourself up for disappointment. Do it because you have a passion for something that you want to share with people. Do it because you have something to say. Basically, do it for any number of a thousand reasons EXCEPT becoming famous. That is the wrong reason and if that is your goal, you WILL lose sight of what is actually important and that will end up hurting you.

And you know what?

I don’t think anyone can disagree with that. YouTube (like life in general) isn’t fair. You’ve got people with a huge amount of talent making millions, and you’ve people with no talent whatsoever raking it in alongside them. Success on the platform is at least as much decided by timing and pure chance as it is talent and skill.

But in this case at least, fairness won out. SidAlpha is a great video creator, and a shining example of what a gaming channel should strive to be. To see him blast past 50,000 subscribers in a matter or a year or two is amazing, and he deserves every bit of it.

So, congrats SidAlpha. You’ve created a great channel and this time at least you’ve seen your hard work pay off. Thanks for all you’ve done, as well as your fantastic answers in the interview. It was a pleasure talking with you about everything here.

As for everyone else… well go and check out his channel on YouTube, or follow him on social media today. In this modern world of lazy asset flips, poorly done Steam games and almost random YouTube channel success, we need people like SidAlpha. And they need us too.

Thanks for reading!