We’ve just published the 300th episode of Three Moves Ahead. Rob Zacny, Bruce Geryk, Tom Chick and I take a look at a cool little Vietnam war themed game. It’s not your typical wargame; it heavily abstracts the important political stuff that you need to pay attention to, and the map is random. You are not pushing counters. Anyway, we liked it. (Tom and Bruce loved it.)
But I’m not here to talk about Vietnam ’65. I’m here to talk a bit about the podcast and how it has grown and changed.
We don’t publicly release precise numbers, but to give you an idea of how big the show has grown from its start, the earliest shows have total lifetime downloads that new shows more than double on release day. Our top show in March has five times the downloads of our oldest podcasts that have been available for six years now – that March episode will continue to be downloaded for many more months.
Rob and Sean Sands talking about Europa Univeraslis IV in 2015 is now our third most downloaded show ever. It came out in January.
So, I can confidently say that our audience has never been larger, our preparation has never been better, and our growth seems to be steady after a real explosion in the 2013-2014 period. And, no, we still don’t make any money doing it, though Idle Thumbs paying for our hosting and our forum is a huge thing.
300 shows is a lot, and I probably never expected it to go on this long. Rob has now been lead chair twice as long as I ever was (I ceded the seat to him in Episode 100) and under his direction we’ve had a lot of great panelist and discussions.
A bit of history here. When I started 3MA in 2009, I invited two friends that had similar interests (Bruce and Tom) and an experienced podcaster that I greatly respected (Julian Murdoch). We were the starting panel, and Tom was good enough to let me use the forum at Quarter to Three to promote the show while we were getting things sorted. We eventually stopped doing that, but it gave us an audience foundation to work with. We invited Rob on some time in 2010 because scheduling issues meant we needed another body on the show, stat, and though he wasn’t someone I would have even called an acquaintance at that point (just a young writer I really, really liked), we grabbed him and he was excellent. That gave Tom some freedom to leave the show and start his own game podcast, yada yada yada. Anyway, the point is, the way the show looks now is very different from how it was conceived.
If you look at those early shows, for example, we did more thematic stuff. It’s been long enough that we might want to revisit those themes. Now that Steam makes it so much easier to get codes for almost every major PC strategy game, though, we can focus on games like, say Grey Goo, which has also been an oddly popular show.
So a few things I have learned in creating and advising on Three Moves Ahead. The caveat, of course, is that Rob really runs things, but I still have ideas. Warning – this is a long post with no pictures.
And we’re not even the only strategy genre podcast. There’s one that focuses on 4X type games.
We sometimes like to joke on the show about how anything can be a strategy game if you look at it in a certain way, but for six years I think we’ve done a great job in sticking to our bread and butter of grand strategy games, wargames, RTSes, tactical RPGs, oddities that fall through the cracks, etc. This has enabled us to build, as panelists, reputations for liking certain things about games. We can do shows on games that other people might ignore (like the Hegemony RTS games) because we’ve talked about them before; we have a history and we have time. The disappointment of Total War Rome 2 is all the sharper because listeners have heard us rave about Shogun 2 Total War.
And strategy is a special genre in many ways – explicitly tied to board games (which we have included under our mandate) and often history, so we can talk about books we’ve read and connect what we are playing to other attempts to understand political, cultural and historical issues. I could never do a show much more focused than general “strategy” because god, the wealth of riches in that term. There are certainly good podcasts that focus on just Civilization, or just Starcraft. Not for us. We need room to grow.
2) People Need Breaks: It’s a little known fact, but podcasting is tiring work. I’ve always loved doing it, but I also like it when Rob can go without me for a month. (Usually when I am super busy at work, or the topics are ones I have to recuse myself from.) Rob also needs weeks off.
I said earlier that many strategy games take a long time to play. Of all the regular panelists, only Rob and Fraser are fulltime games media. The rest of us are under no obligation to play strategy games, so I often won’t get around to one unless it’s for a show, or it has Romans. The time to play a game and be up on it enough to talk about it for an hour eats into other things if you have no pay coming for playing it. And since we try to keep to a roughly weekly schedule, it means a night people have to book days in advance. Scheduling with grownups is not easy.
Podcasting looks easy, but it really isn’t. We don’t want to devolve into one of those shows that is nothing but people trying and failing to be funny because they have nothing interesting to say. We are not big on digressions, diversions or tomfoolery – though we do try to make it sound like we’re having fun because we are. But it is very important to keep the brain fresh. So I advise people to take breaks.
3) Record Ahead: This is something we’re trying to do more often, and will certainly do for next year’s Winter of Wargaming because holy crap are those games hard. If the stars align, and there is an evergreen topic you can cover quickly while everyone is around, record it and put it in the can for when weeks get out of control. It’s a relief to have a show in reserve that can be uploaded.
4) Hire Michael Hermes: I can’t believe we went over two years without him. We still have sound issues from time to time when one of us screws up, but Michael is patient and clear, and he writes some pretty decent summaries of our shows. He is worth every cent we don’t quite have yet. The show’s sound quality is better, sometimes he surprises us with musical outros and when he comes on the show, Michael is really, really good.
5) The Rolodex is Real: Last year, Jenn Frank wrote a great essay for Gamasutra in an effort to explain how many corporate and creative cultures subtly discriminate against new voices. Everyone builds a rolodex out of people they know and can trust, and, in many industries as they are now structured, that will work against things that you should honestly believe in – like diversity of opinion, diversity of voices, diversity of experiences. You don’t mean to discriminate, but you have this rolodex of reliable names, so…
Strategy games take a lot of time to play. We have an audience that expects us to talk about strategy games with years of experience and depth. And, for most of its history (The Sims and some city-builders aside) strategy games have been very male dominated, both in commentariat and audience. This is changing – at Paradox, we’ve discovered that about 40% of Crusader Kings II players are women.
But even leaving aside the diversity aspect, we tend to go to the well of trust because our show is specialized and weird. We avoid taking chances on people that haven’t done podcasts before, or who we don’t really know since these can lead to shows we’re not very happy with. (And really, there are a good twenty shows I would like to erase and do-over.) This is how we get Fraser Brown and Rowan Kaiser as regulars. This is how Jenn Cutter is someone we can build a show around if we need a change of pace. This is why Soren Johnson and Paul Dean and Rob Daviau and Jon Shafer keep popping up. There could be other voices that are just as good, just as insightful, just as smart. But we have our team.
On the plus side, this means a strong community connection, both on the show and with our listeners. On the minus side, we’re probably missing a huge range of stories and experiences with strategy games that would be really great to hear.
The show started with a few friends, but we’ve made lots of new friends. We should try to keep doing that.