In 2006 the ABC, Australia’s public broadcaster, debuted Good Game, a brand new TV show about video games - for gamers, by gamers. The program came about at the perfect time; when people still watched appointment free-to-air television, and before the explosion of YouTube and Twitch. Remaining on air for 10 years, Good Game was a show beloved by gamers around the country, and in this episode we explore its life, death and legacy in Australia’s games community.
JAMES PARKINSON: When you want to check out a game review, to see if it’s worth playing, you’ll probably grab your phone and search YouTube, or look it up on Twitch to watch a playthrough. It’s easy to forget just how good we have it these days, in accessing a variety of gaming content. Not too long along though, it wasn’t as prevalent. You had magazines and a few major websites, but you still had to seek them out. However, in Australia in 2006, video games went mainstream with a national TV show.
JAMES PARKINSON: It was called Good Game, and it aired on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, or ABC, Australia’s public broadcaster. The ABC is primarily funded by the Australian Government, and it was modelled on the BBC.
JAMES PARKINSON: Good Game came about at the perfect time, when people still watched appointment television, but just before the real explosion of YouTube and social media. The programme brought coverage of video games to a national audience, driven by its motto, for gamers, by gamers. The show resonated with the Australian games community and gained a passionate following. But three years into its existence, Good Game went through a transition that much of its audience couldn’t understand.
JEREMY RAY: You know, people kind of, like, make it into their own thing. And then you look at what they're posting on the forums and stuff. And you're like, “not really”.
STEVEN O’DONNELL: So we tried to like, not ignore it, but kind of just move on. But our audience really wasn't ready to move on. And the more we kind of tried to make light of it or tried to acknowledge it, the harder it was for everybody.
STEPHANIE BENDIXSEN: They immediately went to task at trying to find out everything they could about me and, like, dox me, Photoshop my face onto porn. Yeah, just like every form of online harassment, and this is before I even started, like, I hadn't even filmed an episode at this point.
JAMES PARKINSON: I’m James Parkinson. From Lawson Media, this is Gameplay, stories about video games and the virtual worlds that power culture and community.
JAMES PARKINSON: In 2006, digital television was still in its early stages in Australia, and the ABC’s new digital channel, ABC2, was in need of fresh content.
JANET GAETA: So I felt, “well, here we are, I’m working for a digital channel” - you had to have a digital television, most people in the country weren't on digital television by then, they were still on analog. But this marriage of, you know, “who were its sort of digital-first adopters?” They were video gamers, like myself. And then the other side of video games that I loved was, you know, the fact that there is, there's so much more to it. There's art, storytelling, you know, history, deep engagement, it's a new form of storytelling that I found completely compelling. And I felt that the ABC should be in this space, that video games were a worthy form of contemporary content that were worthy of analysis, just like music and movies and other programmes that already existed on the ABC.
JAMES PARKINSON: This is Janet Gaeta, a TV producer at the ABC.
JANET GAETA: My name is Janet Gaeta. I've been making television for many, many years. And one of the shows, which I was responsible for, along with the team, was Good Game.
JANET GAETA: So I kind of thought, right, “I'm gonna pitch to them, that they should let us make this little show about video games”. But then of course, it was like, right, “who do I know?”.
JAMES PARKINSON: Janet was part of a competitive gaming clan, playing Age of Mythology, and reached out to one of her team-members about coming on board to help her make this new show, because she wanted people who were genuine gamers.
JEREMY RAY: Yeah, so we kind of met through that and just played a lot of Age Mythology, I don't know how she got into the game. She somehow found her way into that. For me, it was kind of like, just a natural progression of the ‘Age of...’ series. I think just through the voice chats and stuff playing Age of Mythology, Janet and I became quite good friends. And Janet was like, you know, "what if we made a show about games?".
JAMES PARKINSON: That’s Jeremy Ray.
JEREMY RAY: I'm Jeremy Ray, aka Junglist. And I was one of the creators of Good Game.
JEREMY RAY: And so, yeah, she floated the idea. And yeah, we thought, you know, there's no harm, sending through a one-pager and a proposal and all that. So we kind of sat together and came up with all the elements that we thought should be in the show, the format and the segments, and what sort of tone it would have, and all that kind of thing. We did all that in kind of a day. We kind of sat in her basement and just bashed it out in a day.
JAMES PARKINSON: Good Game was a mixture of news, reviews and feature stories, and an important aspect of the pitch to the ABC was selling the cultural importance of games.
JANET GAETA: You know, the ABC is a taxpayer funded organisation. And so, I've always felt that the show needed to have this element to it, that was more than just review, you know? Like, the easiest thing to do would have been, you know, four or five video game reviews in it. But I also wanted to have some analysis pieces. And I'd come from a news and current affairs background. So it wasn't journalism, but it was interest. This new form of engaging with each other, what did it mean for the way we talk, the way we socialise? All of these sort of, you know, society affecting aspects to video games that I wanted the show to cover. So it needed to have the ability to interest non-gamers as well. You know, whilst we wanted to talk in gamer lingo, and it definitely was, our core audience were gamers, you know, we always wanted to have that kind of aspect to our sort of thinking about it, when we first started up the show.
JAMES PARKINSON: That initial pitch was enough to get the green light for a pilot episode, and a very small budget to make it. Janet pulled in a few favours from friends within the ABC, and even things like the set were pieced together themselves.
JEREMY RAY: I think we had about $800 total. There were a lot of people who gave their time to the pilot, to just sort of make it happen, which is not really the done thing, like you should pay people for their work. But yeah, like there was no way we were going to pay, there's no way you're gonna get camerawork, sound, editing, mastering, like all that done for $800.
JANET GAETA: All my friends came and shot it for us, you know. We wrote it ourselves, they were our consoles, it was furniture from our houses, you know [laughs].
JEREMY RAY: The original idea for the show was very different to what happened. And it eventually became much better. Because originally, we had just kind of, it was just going to be me. And like, when we were first talking about making the pilot, we had originally envisioned me as kind of a researcher, just like a background, you know, writing for the show, and stuff like that. And the only reason I jumped in front of cameras is because we couldn't pay a presenter. But we originally envisioned it was just going to be me in front of the camera. And then we were just having a beer one day with my friend, Mike Makowski. And we were all just having a beer together, and he was like, “Hey, you should make a two-person show”. And, you know, he was right. The dynamic did work a lot better with two people. And he did it completely, like, self-servingly. Like, he suggested it with a view to him being the second person. But he was also 100% right. And you know, the two-person dynamic kind of allowed us to work off each other.
MICHAEL MAKOWSKI: So we all sat down, and that when I first met Janet, as well. And we're kind of, you know, jotting down ideas, and what the TV show could look like, or segments of that TV show. And I'll just the three of us, sitting around in the kitchen, essentially, writing notes, and I'm pretty sure there was some pizza and beer involved at that point as well. And then yeah, that's that's sort of how things kicked off.
MICHAEL MAKOWSKI: G’day, it's Michael Makowski. Also better known in Good Game, and on Good Game as ‘Kapowski’.
JAMES PARKINSON: Michael Makowski and Jeremy Ray used to work together in customer service, and having two passionate gamers and friends as the hosts, gave the show a good dynamic. Especially because Jeremy and Michael weren’t TV presenters, they were coming into this with no experience of the industry. But just being themselves added to the authenticity of the show. Here’s Janet.
JANET GAETA: It's always great fun, working with new people to the industry. You know, the guys, they trusted my point of view, they were both - it's very unusual to find people who can sit down, look down the barrel of a camera, feel comfortable and connect with the audience on the other side. That is actually a really rare thing, not everyone has it. You can tell when people don't have it, you often see people on television who, you know, look a bit awkward or whatever. And then there's those people that can just do it. And they both could, like, you know, they were, it was brilliant, they were brilliant.
MICHAEL MAKOWSKI: As far as adapting to TV world, I don't think it was a huge, like, too much of a learning curve. I think Jeremy and I were pretty fortunate in the fact that, you know, you've got the editing prowess, and some professionals there that can make you a lot better and sound a lot better than what you really are. And that was, I think, the stressful part for me, “oh, god, I wonder what this going to look like?”, because we might have had a few different takes or, I might have mumbled up or jumbled up my words. And that did happen more often than not. But, yeah, we were pretty fortunate in the fact that we had such a talented team working at the ABC that made us look really good, and probably a lot better than what I thought we were.
JEREMY RAY: Yeah, like a lot of that sort of came naturally. Because, you know, we were the genuine article, you know. We just kind of went home and that's how we spent our evenings was, like our entertainment preference was just video games, you know? So we trusted our intuition and our gut with stuff like that.
JAMES PARKINSON: With much of the team being passionate about games, it was important that the tone of the show reflected that, and appealed to its core target audience. This approach was also evident in the deliberate decision for Jeremy and Michael to use their gamertags on the show, Junglist and Kapowski, instead of their real names.
JEREMY RAY: Yeah, that was my Counter Strike name that I used. And it really just comes from my music tastes, like I really like drum and bass music, I love jungle music. And so anyone who likes jungle is a Junglist. So yeah, that's really all it is.
MICHAEL MAKOWSKI: I mean, it was just really a play on my surname. And "Kapow", as in what you'd see in a comic between superheroes. Yeah, I think it was just a play and all those sorts of things.
JAMES PARKINSON: In making the pilot, the team had a lot of creative freedom and just made the kind of show that they would want to watch. But there was still some convincing necessary, in communicating to the ABC what the programme was all about, right down to the name.
JANET GAETA: I know we had to fight for it, because I had to explain to the ABC Executives what it actually meant. And, you know, I said “this is like, a respectful handshake at the end of a game, you know, just to type ‘GG’ when you finish the game, with your opponent”. It's something that gamers universally would understand. And that the ‘good’ doesn't mean you're only going to be talking about “good” games. And, you know, we won.
JAMES PARKINSON: The pilot was shot in a couple of days, with Jeremy and Michael writing their own scripts and reviewing the games. Watching it back now, it has aged a little bit, in some of the jokes and quirky aspects. But you can clearly see the foundations of what the show would grow into.
Good Game Ep 1 audio clip:
Jeremy: Hello and welcome to the very first Good Game, the show for gamers, by gamers. I’m Junglist.
Michael: And I’m Kapowski. On tonight’s show, we talk to a master WOW player!
Jeremy: Doctor Deneal’s going to show you how easy it is to put together your own machine.
Michael: We take a look at a new Xbox 360 game, Saints Row! And talk to the game developer!
Jeremy: And Team Good Game steps up to the number one Counter Strike team in Australia, Team Immunity.
Michael: But first, let’s see what’s making gamers news.
JAMES PARKINSON: Visually, it’s clear to see the low budget production value. Jeremy and Michael are sitting on a small couch, in front of an old plasma TV, with game controllers in hand, and wearing matching Good Game t-shirts. The backdrop is just a black curtain behind a shelving unit, filled with game consoles, and a desk with a couple of PC monitors.
JEREMY RAY: Like, there was a lot of stuff in those days, like I remember sitting with the audio, music guy, and we were just trying to get the music right. And I'm really into drum and bass and jungle music. So I got him to stick in a jungle beat, like a little bit of jungle drums. And then we just had me on the mic going like, “good game”.
James Parkinson: So that’s you on the intro?
JEREMY RAY: Yeah, that was me, yeah. There was a lot of stuff like that, that we just kind of like, you know, it needs to be done, so just do it.
JAMES PARKINSON: From the pilot onwards, Jeremy and Michael didn’t have a lot of time to practice and ease into their roles. They just had to adjust to everything on the fly.
MICHAEL MAKOWSKI: When it came to the actual day of recording, you only had, you know, a small amount of time to quickly rehearse what you wanted to get out and say. You know, there wasn't any sort of autocue, or anything like that. We just had the notes and everything was, you know, as natural as could be. And I thought we did portray that quite well. And obviously Jeremy and I being good friends, and knowing each other, you know, that obviously, I thought that did come out on set as well, because, we were talking about things and I think we're pretty natural in that sense as well.
JEREMY RAY: There's a little bit of, like. background nervousness, that's hard to get rid of. Like, even if you shed yourself of the nervousness that you're conscious of, you can get over that. But like there's a sort of background nervousness that that comes across. I think the content was there, and the format was good and stuff like that. Like, it was promising, but yeah, I think it would take a little while for me to grow into a strong presenter and a strong games critic, like, both of those things came over time.
MICHAEL MAKOWSKI: At that point, there's still probably, it wasn't a case of, you know, there wasn't a feeling of excitement or anything like that. It was like, “oh yeah, we're putting something together that may or may not happen”. So there wasn't anything that was, you know, guaranteed, so to speak. But then yeah, I believe, you know, from my memory, and my recollection was that a few weeks after doing the pilot, it was literally a case of, “Hey, you know, congratulations, you guys are going to be on air. And, Mike, you need to quit your day job. And you know, we're going to start filming at Ultimo, and we're going to start building some content for this new TV show, known as Good Game, a show for gamers by gamers.”
JAMES PARKINSON: The first season of 13 episodes was commissioned by the ABC. The budget was still pretty small and the set remained largely unchanged. But the team quickly formed a good working relationship, with Janet taking on the role of Series Producer.
JANET GAETA: It was a bit of a magical time. Like, it's actually it's really hard to get new shows, made like, it just is. A new idea, a new concept, new people, not television presenters. You know, not people that anyone - I mean, normally if you're going to get a new show up, you attach “a name”, you know, someone that the audience already knows. You know, these guys were unknown. So it was a pretty brave thing. But it was also, it was a little bit of a sort of a wild west time, in the way that we had this new channel at the ABC with a very limited audience that were able to access it. And so there was a certain sort of freedom to that, and an ability or willingness to be a bit riskier. And to maybe think a little bit outside of the normal ABC programming.
JANET GAETA: But the studio as well was wonderful, because that was, again, ABC2 had built themselves a little, tiny, it was almost a cupboard, really. This little studio that had intentions of being able to do little interviews, and voiceovers and things in there. And so we saw this little space and we're like, “we could just make it in that”, which meant that we didn't have to take up big studio space. And it gave us a kind of flexibility, because we had our own little studio, very small, very cramped, but you know, we were kind of left alone in there to do our own thing. So it was really quite a magic time.
JAMES PARKINSON: Good Game initially aired on a Tuesday evening, which was deliberately chosen because it was a maintenance day for the World of Warcraft servers. The thinking was that while gamers weren’t playing games, the show could fill that gap. Playing and reviewing games for a living might sound like fun, and it is, but it’s also a lot of work, especially during a time when capturing hours of in-game footage was a lot more cumbersome than it is today. Here’s Jeremy.
JEREMY RAY: Yeah, well your recreational gaming just becomes gaming for the show. So any sort of ideas you have about getting on regularly to play the game that you love, go out the window, and instead, you go home and you play the game that you're reviewing that week. And that was cool. Like, I was totally cool with that, because I liked being exposed to new game design ideas.
JAMES PARKINSON: Producing a weekly TV programme requires a relentless, gruelling production schedule. And it’s even more challenging when you add playing and reviewing games to that process.
JEREMY RAY: You really had to be flexible. Some games, you know, they take a long time. And some games don't. So we never had a policy as strict as Game Informer, where we had to finish a game. My rule was kind of like, you must gain a deep understanding of the game’s systems. And if it's a story game, it's probably a really good idea to finish it. And yeah, you try to have some stuff in the old storage tank for when that happens, so that you can have something to put on the show, while you're doing your two week game, you know?
MICHAEL MAKOWSKI: We had a plan, we collated everything, everyone would work together, everyone knew their roles and jobs. And then scripting wise, a lot of the time, I think that would get written up the same day that we would shoot, because ultimately, you've got all these different pieces of information and content that you're trying to bring it all together. And ultimately, the dialogue between the presenters, myself and Jeremy, would have to coincide with what we're trying to aim for within the show and that particular episode structure. But at that time, you know, we were a small team. I think there were probably about seven or eight of us.
JEREMY RAY: There were certainly moments when the crunch levels were very unsustainable. Like, to get some episodes out the door, I would be in the office, you know, till 1am, 3am, one time even 5am. Yeah, it was kind of brutal. I mean, if you want to get it right, especially because it's my name on it, it's my face on it, everything that comes out of my mouth, it’s like, you kind of own it when you're the presenter.
JEREMY RAY: It took a lot of work, but I was capable of it. So as long as I put the work in - which was not a problem, like I was always willing to put the work in - probably too much work. But it would happen, like the presenting would happen. With the writing, I kind of like naturally just wrote a conversation in my head. And then with the presenting, I wasn't completely new to it - I had done some theatre sports and some stage acting. So it was the on-camera stuff that I had to get used to. But that kind of came and I kinda approached that in a really authentic way. I was very much about trying to look through the camera, and form an authentic connection with the people at home and just just genuinely give my opinion like of what I thought about a game.
JAMES PARKINSON: Jeremy and Michael were putting a lot of time and energy into making the show, because in the world of TV, programmes typically get renewed on an annual basis. And there’s always the threat of a show getting cancelled. So there was an element of risk involved. Jeremy told me that prior to working on Good Game, he hadn’t had a job for a while and was behind on rent, during the creation of the pilot.
JEREMY RAY: And this was, I think, coming off a period of like, like a long period of me just playing Counter Strike every day. And like a lot of Counter Strike, like ten, twelve hours a day. And I was kind of taking it very seriously because my clan was, like, number one at the time. But as a result of that sort of period, I was not doing well financially.
JAMES PARKINSON: And for Michael, he had quit his job to work on the show. But he was also struggling during those 13 weeks of production.
MICHAEL MAKOWSKI: I literally quit my job - which, I had a full time job at that point - just to focus on doing Good Game. I wasn't an ABC employee, nor was Jeremy. So him and I were both contracting. And essentially, we would invoice the ABC for each episode, which you know, if anyone that's listening that's curious, or “how much were you guys getting paid?”. Well, $500 an episode was the amount.
MICHAEL MAKOWSKI: It was a bit of a culture shock for me, to be honest. Because I mean, and look, I was kind of accepting of the fact that, “hey, this is the first season”, that may not, you know, there was no guarantees, there wasn't any sort of inclination of, “hey, we're going to get, you know, more than one season”, it was it was, you know, in the back of the mind, it was like, “hey, we've got one shot at this, let's make it as good as possible”. And, you know, the dollars were for filming hours and being there. But there was quite a lot of time and effort. It was a full time job in itself. Being able to write the scripts, putting the scripts together, working with other team members on what the segment is going to look like, what are the other things that we're going to do? And it's not even just about that episode, you've got to be thinking about two or three episodes in advance as well. So it's quite extensive, in terms of what goes on. And that was a bit of a shock for me, actually. Yeah, I didn't, I didn't realise the extent of work that would have been involved. And there was quite a lot. Yeah, so there wasn't really an opportunity to have like, “hey, I'm going to go from my nice cushy job at Optus to TV, and then delivering pizzas on the side”. That wasn't even an option because there just wasn't enough time to have a second job.
MICHAEL MAKOWSKI: From a dollars point of view, it was definitely a struggle. And because I believed in it so much, you know, everything that I couldn't afford, went on the credit card. So I ended up getting, you know, racking up quite quite an immense and quite a substantial credit debt on my credit card, as a twenty-something year old at the time. But you know, that was my gamble. My gamble was well, “you know, whatever I've got in terms of debt, hopefully I can then repay that later down the track, if we do get commissioned for a second season or third season and so forth”. And I guess the expectation would have been that we're working on a shoestring budget, because the ABC is just giving us like a crack here. They're giving us an opportunity here. So the budget or the dollars allocated to individuals would have increased as seasons went on.
MICHAEL MAKOWSKI: For me, because I was in a bit of a rut, in terms of financially. And I always had this sort of perception of, I need to mask the fact that I literally have no energy because either I've been playing video games until two, three in the morning, or whatever it might be, and I'm tired. And now I've got to film at 9am the next day. And add to that, I'm probably not giving myself the necessary nutrition because I can't afford it. You know, so I had this little ritual, which, you know, it was obviously humorous at the time, but I don't think people understood the undertones of why I was feeding myself Red Bulls and Freons at the ABC cafe was because I was trying to energise myself and get that energy on TV. And there were a couple of moments I recall that there were comments like, “Hey, Mike, you seem a bit tired or a bit down today, what's going on?”. And it’s like, “there’s nothing going on”. I'm just like, you know, financially, a little bit pressed, and probably physiologically and mentally a bit stressed as well.
JAMES PARKINSON: On the surface, Good Game was performing incredibly well. It’s ratings were higher than expected and a real community was beginning to form around the programme. The show had its own forums where the team could interact directly with the audience and ABC executives were happy with the work the show was putting out. Here’s Janet again.
JANET GAETA: Within ABC2, we were respected and loved. And the majority of the people there were gamers, and they knew what we were doing. And we were making it in amongst them. I mean, most of the people on that floor, were working on the sort of the digital side of the ABC, ABC Online. So that was really good, so we were loved there. But in the main part of the ABC, like traditional television, I remember we got this lovely note which I’ve still got somewhere, which was from the Chair of the board, which said something along the lines of, “Oh, we have noticed on ABC2 that you've got this show about video games. And congratulations, this is exactly the kind of direction that the ABC should be going in, to work with younger audiences. And it’s lovely to see some innovative programming coming out”. So that was great. But our audience were digital natives, you know, they were downloading, they knew how to do that. And they were watching it when they liked. So it was like, these figures are amazing, you know, our audience is there, they are accessing it, they're just maybe not doing it through the traditional ways. And it's certainly not being measured in the normal way that the ABC would measure audiences.
JEREMY RAY: Yeah, ABC Online loved us. They really loved the numbers, they loved the community. They loved what we were doing. They had some people making the website for us and stuff. And that was really good. Yeah, I think ABC Online was incredibly supportive. And they were absolutely chuffed with all the downloads and the ratings and stuff.
JAMES PARKINSON: Season 1 of Good Game wrapped up in December 2006 with a special Christmas episode. Jeremy and Michael’s send off was left open ended, but it was soon clear that the show was going to be renewed for a second season of 15 episodes. It was a reward for all the hard work put in by the entire team. But for Michael, the decision of whether or not to continue with the show was a difficult one.
James Parkinson: I guess, how did you feel at the end of that, and where were you, personally, at the end of it?
MICHAEL MAKOWSKI: Well, you know, it was great from an accomplishment perspective. And yeah, obviously, we, you know, we found out that, “hey, we've got approval for a second season, well done, let's start getting ready”. So that was, you know, that was moving forward. And I guess then you have that awkward conversation. And it's never an easy one, right? When you talk to the big boss - and this was above Janet at the ABC - and they go, “hey, look, you know, great season and awesome”. And you get all the nice things said about how things were, and you feel great. And then you find out, “Okay, but just FYI, like we've just got the same budget to work with”. And you’re kind of scratching your head and go, “Okay, well, what does that mean?”. And it’s like, “well, that means you’re just going to get paid the same as what you did in season one”. And I think that's when probably, you know, that's when my heart dropped. I'm just like, “Oh, god, I don't know what I'm going to do now”, because I've got some crazy debt now, because I've been putting everything on the credit card, because - you know, I'm not a gambler, by any means. And I don't have any traits like that. But I was, in this sense, I was gambling, you know, saying, “Well, you know, I believe in this, and I'm sort of in control, to some extent of how this is going to pan out”. So I'm backing myself. And yeah, unfortunately, it didn't pan out that way. It was a case of, “no, it’s the same budget”.
MICHAEL MAKOWSKI: And, you know, there were suggestions like, “Hey, you know, like, why don't you just move back home? And, live off your parents and travel on a bus into Ultimo”. Probably would have added another hour or so of trip time. So I was looking at all of these aspects going, “Well, this isn't going to work. Yeah, this is going to be a big challenge for me to make it work”. So yeah, I kind of just said, “Look, guys..”, you know, and I kind of pressed on it a few times, “are you sure, not even $100 extra an episode? Literally, that's all I needed. And yeah, wasn't happening. So then I thought to myself, like, “Is this just a subtle way of them, you know, pushing me out?”. Are they just saying, “Hey, you know, great, great work on season one, but you're not really a fit for us, so see you later”. So that those sort of thoughts, you know, played on my mind. So obviously, you know, you start questioning yourself and questioning your performance and all the rest of it. Or is this - are they actually being genuine here that, “hey, this is the budget, the budgets a budget, and we've got to make it work, even at the expense of, you know, your financial situation, because of whatever. So yeah, it was a bit of a challenging time. And you know for me - this is probably news for a lot of people, and no one's heard this side of the story before. Because the reality is, you hide these sorts of things, and I was always about the greater good. Back at that point in time, I'm like, “Well, you know, I don't want to cause any trouble and cause any drama”, you know? I still believe in the show, even if I'm not going to be on it. So I said, “Look, I can't make it happen”. So they said, “Oh, no problem, see you later. We'll find a new presenter to replace you”. And, you know, when that all kind of unfolded, I jumped on the forums and said, you know, kind of just stuck with the ABC dialogue of, you know, “just say that...” - I think the PR team was kind of like, “just say that you're going back to the same industry that you were in”, you know, just not to cause a fuss, “and that would be that and we’ll hunt for a new presenter”.
JAMES PARKINSON: The first episode of Season 2 of Good Game, starting in 2007, was a clip show, with highlights of Season 1, presumably to buy some time. Then in episode 2, Steven O’Donnell was announced as the new host.
STEVEN O’DONNELL: My name is Steven O'Donnell, but most people know me as Bajo.
JAMES PARKINSON: While Steven’s personality brought a different energy to the show, he says the origin story of his gamertag isn’t as exciting.
STEVEN O’DONNELL: I went into my friend's room and I said, “hey, we've got to buy a bajo - I mean, banjo”, and I just mispronounced the word banjo. And we didn't end up buying a banjo in the end, which is a real shame. And he just called me Bajo for about a year.
JAMES PARKINSON: Steven had a background in acting, mostly in independent and student films, but his career wasn’t panning out as he’d hoped.
STEVEN O’DONNELL: The thing about trying to become an actor is you need to have a lot of talent, and a lot of training. And I didn't have any of that. I just thought, “hey, what if I just do like 40 short films? How will I go?”. And it did not go well [laughs].
JAMES PARKINSON: Eventually though, he did get a gig on TV - a late night call-in game show called Midnight Zoo, which was kind of “a thing” in the mid 2000s. And it proved to be a stepping stone to the Good Game job.
STEVEN O’DONNELL: Please don't blame me, it was a gig, and it led me to where I am today, for sure. It taught me how to talk, and I met some great friends. And if it wasn't that I might not have got Good Game. Because Good Game did an open call after that. And I submitted a video and did an audition and got the gig. So it happened very quickly after that - I was just about to give up, to be honest, you know. I'm a pretty determined guy, when it comes to career stuff. But six months after doing that show and getting nowhere and doing the rounds with all the networks and no gigs were available, I couldn't get anything, I was back to working in the cinema that I was working in at the time, before I started that late night TV show, and almost gave up. And then Good Game came up and I felt like everything I'd worked towards in my life was for that particular role. And I'm so happy that I got it.
JAMES PARKINSON: Good Game began to pick up steam with Season 3 being commissioned for a further 10 episodes in 2007, then 32 episodes for Season 4 in 2008. By 2009, Good Game had become a weeknight staple for the Australian games community, earning a 43-week run to fill out the calendar year. But it was also a huge turning point that would see the show go through its second hosting change. That’s after the break, on Gameplay.
[ AD BREAK ]
JAMES PARKINSON: Three years after its modest debut, Good Game was getting better and better each year. As the show’s budget increased, the set was progressively upgraded, the production team increased and the show was a little more polished. But it didn’t lose its conversational tone, like you were sitting in on a chat between two friends in your lounge room. And Jeremy Ray and Steven O’Donnell were settling into their roles as presenters and reviewers. Here’s Steven.
STEVEN O’DONNELL: I wanted to be in front of the camera, I wanted to jump around and be stupid and and try and make people laugh, you know, I liked that side of things. And I liked the film and TV side of things, you know, editing, putting stuff together. So I hadn't really done much writing before, besides the odd scripts here or there. So it was a real learning curve for me to learn how to write scripts. And eventually, I found kind of my style and my voice in those scripts as well. And it was a big learning curve, absolutely. And I think the hardest thing was, you know, there was a lot of game genres that I hadn't really played a lot of, you know? So I kind of filled some of the holes in Jeremy's repertoire of games he played, and he filled some of the holes in mine. So we all kind of and the whole team was a bit like that, actually, we were going to jigsaw together. [27:30] Making a TV show is you know, you're just a cog in this big machine. So while it was, you know, four of us in the room shooting at the time, the whole process is like 20 people from start to finish. I feel like I got to grips with all of the bits and bolts of stuff pretty quickly. I feel like I was pretty good at that - I don't know if others feel I wasn’t. But I feel like that was a strength of mine, knowing and understanding the process.
James Parkinson: How did you and Bajo get along, and having that change and having a new dynamic on the show?
JEREMY RAY: Yeah, I mean we got along well enough. Bajo was clearly very suited for the role. He’s very funny, very witty. So he was pleasant to have around the office, in terms of like, having a light-hearted atmosphere. It was fun, he made it very fun. But he was undeniably like, bringing a lot to the show, in terms of humour and stuff. I occasionally hear about stuff that happens in his life, and I'm happy for him, because it sounds like things are going well. I heard that he was getting married and stuff like that, and I was happy to hear it. And I was happy that he went on Twitch because I guess that's a chance for him to show that what you saw on Good Game with him, just being funny, naturally, that's just him in day to day life. You know anyone who might have thought that it was just when the cameras were on, it’s like, “go watch him on Twitch”, because you can’t just fake that for hours on end.
STEVEN O’DONNELL: Yeah, I think we got on pretty good. You know, obviously, we didn't end very well. But when we started, I think we got on good. We played a few games online, there was always, I feel, a little competitiveness between us. I'm not sure if he felt the same way. But I always felt a bit competitive when we were gaming. And yeah, I really enjoyed working with him. I think he was a really good presenter. And it's just such a shame that when he left the show, it was in such a rough way. I think it was handled badly in every single way, from all perspectives.
JAMES PARKINSON: In October 2009, it was announced that Jeremy Ray was being replaced on Good Game. The ABC released a statement at the time in which Amanda Duthie, Head of Arts and Entertainment said quote, “After three years, we felt Good Game needed a refresh to take the program into 2010 and beyond, and the decision was made to change the hosting team.”
STEVEN O’DONNELL: From my perspective, we were having some production problems. And it's probably - I think you'd probably have to ask Jeremy his opinion on what went down and how it went down from his perspective. It's probably different from my perspective, and different from others as well. But at the end of the day, you know, that year that he left - he was asked to leave a couple of episodes before we finished up for the year. And I think that's a sign of how badly it all was handled and how badly it was in the office. So I knew we were going to start up a new show, we're going to start up the kids show. And I knew that we were looking for another presenter, so we could have a third presenter, and then we're going to all rotate around the shows, that was kind of my understanding.
JAMES PARKINSON: Spawn Point, the kids version of Good Game, was due to start in 2010, which had been in the planning stages for about 6 months. Here’s Janet.
JANET GAETA: And that's when we went looking for another presenter to join our team. And the idea was, very much, that that was going to be for the children's show. But we knew we definitely wanted to have a girl gamer presence, like, you know, there were some of us, but we needed more. Now, that was really important. So that was that side of it. And then, you know, the other side of it, I guess, from my point of view, television is one of those things that requires deadlines. You know, it just does. And we were finding it harder to sort of meet the deadlines that were needed on the show. And then that was kind of like a bit of a cascading - it was just making things quite difficult. So there was that sort of thing happening as well. So it was like, “okay, we've got a bit of a solution here, maybe with bringing in some extra people”. But then, you know, I don't really want to go too much more into the short sort of explosion at the end of it, but it was horrific, and it was horrible.
STEVEN O’DONNELL: And it's hard to talk about because there's a lot of pain associated with it. A lot of pain associated for Jeremy, you know, when he was asked to leave, and a lot of pain for our audience because we couldn't really talk about it. I'm still hesitant to talk about it all today because I don't want to say something that might be taken the wrong way or, you know, defame his contribution to the show in some way. So I'm not really comfortable talking about you know, why I think he was asked to leave. I think that's really his prerogative to talk about. I don't think it's proper for me to. But certainly things had to change. I think because the ABC handled it so poorly, and Jeremy reacted to that the way he did, in a way that also was probably a retaliation to the way the ABC handled it, it was a nightmare.
JEREMY RAY: I mean, there's so much that happened around that time. Like, there were some very minor clashes between myself and the last Executive Producer, Kath Earle. And when I say minor, like, there were a couple of decisions she made that I didn’t like. But I kind of like went along with it. Like the whole thing revolving around my exit, and me sort of being loud about it and kind of fighting against it actually kind of goes against my personality type. Like I'm quite obliging and pretty chill most of the time. But there was a lot of stuff that I had dealt with in the lead up to that. And it took a while before I even questioned one of her decisions. But as soon as I did, like, the atmosphere got really tense. And it was, I believe it was about moving our office to the other side of the building. Because we had our office previously, like right next to the studio and the edit booth, which made it really easy to just like, pop into the studio, carry some gear, pop your head into the edit booth, see what's up. As opposed to doing this five minute walk across the ABC complex. So she moved us to the other side for, you know, reasons. So I kind of questioned that. And it only happened, I guess, two or three times where I was like, “So what's up with this choice?”. And she did not appreciate that at all, even though I was trying to be very diplomatic about it.
JEREMY RAY: Cool, so yeah, me leaving the show. Yeah, so I mean, I guess it was more a matter of me being forced to leave. But yeah, they - We had kind of gotten a third, or fourth, I guess, Executive Producer. And the third year was mainly that last Executive Producer Kath Earle. And there were many decisions that she made that I didn't agree with, but she kind of called me in a meeting one day and it was her and Amanda Duthie. And they kind of informed me that they wanted to change up the show and get a girl on the show. And they wanted to sort of have a “mass appeal”, and that I was the one to be going. And people kind of took that later to mean that they wanted a girl for TNA. Like, they wanted an attractive girl to appeal to men. But that's not really the case. The way they described it to me, like their sort of definition of mass appeal was more representation focused, it was more about having someone that little girls could look up to, to know that gaming was an activity for both, you know, girls and women as well as boys and men. But yeah, so that was their sort of reasoning. And yeah, so that was kind of the end of it for me. And I didn't love the decision. I wasn't really too quiet about that.
JAMES PARKINSON: Jeremy voiced his opinion on the Good Game forums, and some of his fans started online petitions to try and get him reinstated to the show. In response, the ABC issued another statement, denying his claims. Quote, "Jeremy Ray’s performance issues were severely impacting the quality and smooth-running of the show, as well as making life difficult for the rest of the team.”
James Parkinson: “You know, you've moved on, it's been several years. Do you still maintain the same stance? Or have you kind of evolved to see things from a different perspective over the years?
JEREMY RAY: Yeah, I mean, I maintain the same stance, you know, the ongoing behind the scenes performance issues, it's a bullshit line. And it's the fifth or so story that they settled on - they had about five different stories for what happened. You know, first they tried to say I was going overseas, or something like that, or I had different travel plans. And they cycled through a few different things. And with each one, I was like, “No, that's bullshit. Why don't you say what you said to me in the meeting?”. It's funny, they released a statement that had like, some people putting their name on it, to say that “this has to happen”, which could be interpreted in a whole bunch of different ways. Like, it's very vague, it could be interpreted as ‘the order came down from on high’. But half of the people who put their name on that, like, I didn't even recognise, like, I was like, “who the hell's this person talking about me and my work practices?”, like, I don't even recognise this person. I've never worked with them before. Yeah, so the whole thing was kind of a big joke. I was very disappointed to see some people who were my good friends, kind of folding like origami, trying to play the game, trying to keep up appearances. But it wasn't necessary, in my view, I think they took it a bit too far. And I am of course going to defend myself, like you can't just say that. Like, I was very secure in the fact that I was doing great work. The quality of my reviews was great, the quantity of my reviews was great. You know, all things considered, I was still doing a great job and I was very secure in that. So when I was in those meetings with her, I was like, I’m not accepting it, I’m doing great”. The way that I look back on it, I’m happy with the way I acted because my loyalty was to the fans and to the idea of the show. My loyalty was not to the ABC, my loyalty was not even to the people who work at the ABC. It was just to the fans and the show.
JANET GAETA: One of the things that I have sort of the deep regret over is the way that it was handled at the time. The way we spoke to our community, the way we interacted with our community was very specific and unique to Good Game. And the ABC didn't really have the mechanisms to understand it, didn't have the mechanisms to cope with the way that we and our audience expected us to be able to speak. So whereas, always, we have been so open and transparent and available, sort of suddenly, we weren't. We were sort of shut down, and it was done in a traditional media way, you know, press releases and managers of television saying this, that and whatever. None of it sounded like us, which really sort of played into the conspiracy theory, in a way of which there really wasn't. And that was so unfortunate. And I mean, obviously, I care deeply about everybody on the team, but I also care deeply about the audience. And you could see, they just don't understand this - “why, why, why? We love this person, why?”. And you go, “okay, you know, can we please try and explain?”, and we just didn't handle that at all well.
STEVEN O’DONNELL: And so it was hard. You know, here's a guy I'd worked with, for quite a while. And, you know, I thought we had a pretty good relationship, but certainly towards the end there, not at all. It was rough, it was like a divorce, you know? It was so controversial in the forums. And I really, I really wish that we had been able to resolve it differently. I really, truly wish that Jeremy had been able to stay with the show. And I wish we'd been able to sort through the issues that he was having with the team, and with the ABC, and the issues they were having with him. Because I think, you know, he's got a great voice in gaming, and I think he's a great presenter, but it didn't work out like that. And it was really, you know, I felt really hamstrung when it happened. I felt like I couldn't talk about what happened. And I still feel like I can't, you know? I feel like I can't talk about why it all went down the way it did. It's not my place to do that. It's not my responsibility to do that. It's the ABC’s responsibility to do that. And it was Jeremy's, you know, he had his own opinions, and he voiced them in the way he did. And, you know, we haven't really spoken since. And that breaks my heart a little bit. But also, I'm still a little bit like shitty about it, too. That I couldn't really defend the show and defend myself in my own way. So yeah, it's a real mix. It's a real mix of feelings. And it's just because it's a public thing. And it was so sudden and so abrupt, then I think, you know, we didn't handle it great, either, you know, we were trying to work within the realms of, “well, we can't really get into it in too much detail, because it's not right to do that in a public space”. You know, it's not fair to Jeremy who can't reply, and have his side of the story. So we tried to like, not ignore it, but kind of just move on. But our audience really wasn't ready to move on. And the more we kind of tried to make light of it or tried to acknowledge it, the harder it was for everybody. So I think I think we all fucked up. I think Jeremy fucked up. I think we fucked up. I think the ABC fucked up. I think everybody made a whole bunch of mistakes and it could have gone a lot better for everybody.
JAMES PARKINSON: And that included the show’s incoming host Stephanie Bendixsen, who had to deal with the side-effects.
STEPH BENDIXSEN: My name is Stephanie Bendixsen. Some people know me as Hex. I work in video games, pop culture, I'm an author and a content creator.
JAMES PARKINSON: Before Good Game, Steph was studying acting and theatre, and although she loved games, it wasn’t something she’d considered for a career.
STEPH BENDIXSEN: The ABC put a call out for television presenters and I thought that might be something that I might be able to do. And so the audition called for us to make a video that expressed who we were as people. And so I went to Supernova, which is like a pop culture convention, because I was like, “well, this kind of represents stuff that I'm into, and who I am”. I was poorly cosplayed as Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica, who was like my hero at the time, and I was just there filming some stuff to kind of make a montage reel of me just in my element. And I saw Bajo there, and I just approached him, just literally as a fan. And we got to talk about games and stuff, and he mentioned that they were looking for a third presenter to add to their show. And that was like, super exciting for me. [13:11] It was a strange time because I’d also applied to be a presenter on ABC3, for their main kids channel. That was what I was originally creating the audition tape for. And I’d got quite far in that process. And I went home, and I wrote a bunch of reviews in the style of the show that I was familiar with. And I sent them into the show's producer, and she had me come in and do a screen test. And suddenly I was leaving uni and starting at the ABC, it was really wild.
JAMES PARKINSON: Of course, Steph was excited about joining the show, a programme she had watched as a fan. But as soon as it was made public, the online harassment started.
STEPH BENDIXSEN: It was pretty upsetting, I think, because on one hand, I had, you know, got this job of a lifetime that was going to change my whole life, and I was really excited about it. And at that time, I think not a lot of people realised that I had been hired to join both Bajo and Junglist, it was going to be the three of us on the show, because they were starting up Spawn Point in 2010. They wanted to add third host to the lineup so that we could kind of mix and match all three of us across those two shows. And also, maybe if I started out on Spawn Point, it would be an easier transition for people to add a new host to the rotation. You know, because we had that conversation, I would say, so partway through 2009, and I wasn't starting until the end of 2009, there was a period where I knew that I had the job, but I was still just kind of working and doing my own thing before I started. And there was something that happened between Junglist and the ABC. And then he was very public about the fact that he was leaving the show and that it wasn't his choice. And he then told everyone that they had hired a woman to replace him. And he obviously had a very passionate fan base. And so they immediately went to task at trying to find out everything they could about me and, like, dox me, Photoshop my face onto porn. Yeah, just like every form of online harassment, and this is before I even had started, like, I hadn't even filmed an episode at this point. So that was really scary. And I remember talking to Janet and I was like, “What's going on, like, what's gonna happen””, and she was like, “It's fine. Like, you're just going to host the show with Bajo now, we'll handle all this other stuff, the ABC will manage Jeremy”, and I was like, “Okay”. But it just got worse and worse. And by the time I started, it was just like, it was so upsetting. I remember, I was like, you start to get emails of people trying to access your accounts, you know how scary that is? When it's just, like, “someone tried to change your password or requested to change your password”, of all these old LiveJournal’s that I'd had and things like that, really personal things as a teenager that I'd, you know, I was going through and trying to delete everything, because I was so scared people were trying to find out things about my past, and I could see that they were doing it, and it was just really awful. And just the things that they were saying online was really horrible. And I just, I couldn't believe that that was happening before I had even filmed anything.
STEVEN O’DONNELL: It was really hard on Stephanie coming in with such unwarranted abuse from people who thought she was a replacement for the wrong reasons. So yeah, it was a total mess. And it took a long time to get over it - and still, every couple of streams, someone comes in and asks, “Where's Junglist?! And it's like, “Come on, guys. Get the fuck over it! [laughs]. But they don't know, you know, the audience still don't know what happened and what happened behind the scenes. And you know, I’m so sorry that our audience couldn’t get more information - and probably still don’t have all the information they want. But it’s, yeah, it's not my place to talk about the ins and outs of his conversations with the ABC.
JANET GAETA: There was room for three of them. So it's inaccurate to - it wasn't that one had to go so that Steph could come in, that was inaccurate, not true. You know, absolutely not true. And, you know, there was the space for the three of them. So there were other things going down.
JAMES PARKINSON: Again, this is Series Producer, Janet Gaeta.
JANET GAETA: So, you know, hats off to Steph, can you imagine? Can you imagine what that was like, for her? Like, coming into this show, where, you know, this huge shit-storm had gone down. That audience couldn't comprehend it, really. And now suddenly, you've got this, you know, new presenter. And I remember talking to her a lot about it and going, “You know, the only way we're going to get through this, the only way you are going to get people backing you is if you are yourself, and the work will speak for itself. So head down, let's just get on with making the show. You do your best work, you be authentic, you be truthful. And then let's let the audience make up their own mind”.
JAMES PARKINSON: While some people sought to attack Steph, Jeremy says they took it the wrong way.
JEREMY RAY: It was an emotional time, it was rough. It was also rough because, like, everyone takes a situation like that and they look at it through the lens of their own life. And they project their own situations onto it. Like, a lot of people were trying to make it a thing about me versus Steph. And that’s not what it was at any point. Like, Steph and I were always pretty cool. Like, we saw each other at gaming events and at parties. And we would chat and we were always pretty cool. So you know, it's people, people kind of, like, make it into their own thing. And then that you look at what they're posting on the forums and stuff. And you're like, “not really”.
STEPHANIE BENDIXSEN: And I totally understand that from his perspective, and I know that he and Janet were really close at the start. So he was there at the formation of this show. And I can understand that he would feel that sense of ownership over it, and how that would have been really difficult. And like, I made an effort to go - as soon as I saw him out at an event, because I knew we were bound to cross paths pretty quickly. As soon as I saw him I remember going up to him and being like, “Hey, I just thought I should introduce myself and just let you know that I'm really sorry how everything happened”. I was like, “For what it's worth, I was really looking forward to working with you”. And, you know, he was pretty civil to me after that. So we never really had any real beef with each other. I think I just was frustrated by the stuff that he was saying that made my life very difficult.
JAMES PARKINSON: Heading into 2010, the new year provided a fresh start for Good Game. And the break, how the show evolved over the following seven years, and its final days on the air.
JAMES PARKINSON: As Good Game moved forward, Stephanie - otherwise known as Hex on the show, due to her love of fantasy - won the audience over. While those who were upset about the hosting change were a minority anyway, a new host is always an adjustment for viewers. But with Steph and Bajo at the helm, Good Game continued its trend of high ratings and strong community engagement.
STEPHANIE BENDIXSEN: Before Good Game, I played a certain type of game that I really enjoyed. It tended to be fantasy focused. It tended to be adventure and RPG focused, but through Good Game, I was exposed to a hugely broad range of genres that was really exciting. So I think I just wanted to bring my perspective, as someone coming to genres of games that I'd potentially never played before. And for that to be okay. And I think, again, that really added to the dynamic between us because it created a broader sort of understanding of what video games can be to people.
STEVEN O’DONNELL: I feel like Steph brought a lot of perspectives that I hadn't thought about. And a big part of that, I think is simply because she plays different games to me and she's a woman. And there are perspectives there that I didn't always see. She brought a new flavour to the show, and especially the kids show. I think it's so important. It was so important to have a female perspective, in both shows, but especially in the kids show. You know, you've got this army of younger gamers growing up. So Stephanie's voice in the show was so important for us to learn about new ways of presenting content, and also to have a new type of voice in the show. And also for people watching the show, and as a role model for young and old. You know, it added an acceptance, it added a thing about - we always wanted to be like gaming is for everyone. And I think the fact that we never had a female host was letting us, you know, pulling us back and holding us back on that. And on top of that, we became friends. And I don't think I'll ever have a working relationship like that with anyone again, you know? It's just such a rare thing to do a show with my friend. And the fact that we're still friends and still hanging out, playing games together, it's been a real joy, from start to finish with her. And she brought so much to the show, you know, so much to the show, and wasn't afraid to get really silly, you know, and jump on my stupid ideas - most of the time [laughs].
STEPHANIE BENDIXSEN: I think we just created a really good balance for each other. I think when everything was going down, he was like, he was really supportive without, you know, ever being kind of patronising or anything, he was always really helpful with everything. Bajo was really, really passionate about games, and his passion is infectious. And he's also just very, like, he's a very larger-than-life character. And I think that I'm a little bit different in that respect, but as a partnership, it became this really wonderful thing to kind of fall into a rhythm, because he was just so larger-than-life. And I would kind of be there to bring him down to a reasonable, understandable level. But then also provide the sort of, I think, passion and emotional depth that I had, from my experience of video games. So I think, coming at it from two different sides created this really wonderful partnership between us and the way that we approach games. And when we get feedback from people, it was cool to have that feedback coming from people who were just really invested in our relationship, as much as our relationship with games.
JAMES PARKINSON: When Good Game: Spawn Point was introduced in 2010, the team went from producing half an hour of TV a week to one hour, across both shows. It meant a bigger production crew, including field reporters, and a lot more work. But there was clearly a need to serve younger gamers, and it allowed Bajo and Hex to branch out creatively.
STEPHANIE BENDIXSEN: I think we really loved having the two shows, because it gave us the opportunity to be really creative and silly on the kids show, and then be kind of really serious and nerdy on the adult show. So it kind of was like, it fulfilled two aspects of our personalities, I think. Spawn Point always involved some sort of costume and you know, silly skits and stuff like that, which we genuinely loved doing. And Bajo has such a strange comedic presence. I think that was where he kind of got all that out of his system. And then on the main show was kind of where we got more serious with it. So yeah, it was really wonderful having that duality each week, in the shows that we would make.
STEVEN O’DONNELL: It was certainly a more exhausting show to do, with Spawn Point as well. But what the show brought was just huge. I don't think I realised at the time, how much that show would matter. And how much that show could - how much joy that show could bring us and you know, our viewers, hopefully as well. Because, personally for me, what it allowed me to do is separate my silly a bit, you know, so in the adult show, I get to get to be, “Hi I’m Bajo and I'd like to talk about this serious issue in gaming” - and have a little bit of fun as well. But in Spawn Point it was like, “I’m Bajo and I'm stupid, I'm gonna make fart jokes, let's go!”, you know? So it was a real chance for me to split my personality a little bit. And I think for all the hosts that worked on that show over the years, a real way to just let loose a little bit and improvise more, and just get to be silly. And you know, costumes. I really enjoy costumes [laughs].
JAMES PARKINSON: Since the very first episode, Good Game always had a fun and silly aspect to it, with each host given the freedom to express their own personality. While the skits and jokes never entirely left the main show, it did gradually mature, alongside the hosts as well. In 2014, the show was given a refresh, with a remixed theme song and gone were the matching Good Game t-shirts.
STEVEN O’DONNELL: Oh yeah, that was a big controversy! [laughs]. I'd like to thank Stephanie for that one. I think she really led the charge on, “let's just wear normal clothes” [laughs].
JAMES PARKINSON: Good Game came about before the maturity of YouTube and other digital media, and well before the rise of Twitch and streaming. Today, there is no shortage of quality games content at your fingertips. But as a product of its time, Good Game filled a gap in mainstream coverage of games in Australia, where serious issues could be discussed and games were treated like the art form they are, worthy of smart analysis and criticism. The media landscape did begin to change during the programme’s time on air though, and Good Game adapted accordingly. A daily YouTube show, Good Game Pocket, focused on gaming news was introduced in 2015, alongside Good Game: Well Played, which covered esports. The team also began doing live shows and events around the country.
STEVEN O’DONNELL: So we did quite a lot of live shows, especially in the later years. And we saw a lot of our fans the first time when we did that. And that really shocked us. It was very exciting. It was very, very, very exciting. We always wanted to make the show for gamers, so we were always very active in the forums. We tried really hard to listen to feedback on the show - I mean you can only listen to so much, you know, because you can't please everyone all the time. But it was always a big part of the show, we always wanted to involve our audience, old and young, make it inclusive, and involve them as much as possible, as much as we could. But certainly, once we started doing those live shows, something in my brain kind of changed for that, just getting to meet those people and see so many of our audience you know, in one place at the one time, all just happy and enjoying it. I actually didn't think our live shows would go really well, I didn't think they'd be very good at all. I was like, “why would people want to come watch us, you know, muck about onstage?”. But the response was just so lovely, so joyous and just so warm. I think it really touched all of our hearts and especially after making the show for so many years without seeing anyone. Yeah that was really special. I think some of my favourite memories of the show are definitely, definitely those live shows.
STEPHANIE BENDIXSEN: I mean, that was really cool. I feel like I feel like I wasn't expecting, like my presence on the show to resonate so much with kids, particularly young girls, but it was really kind of thrilling to get letters every week that was sent in by kids, people who’d drawn pictures of me and things like that, you know, it was just really exciting. I didn't realise that girls felt like they needed permission to like video games, but they were writing to me saying, “I feel like it's okay for me to say that I'm a gamer, because I see you on Good Game”. And that's really cool. And all that kind of stuff was just, like, super thrilling. I think the crux of it was probably when we started doing public events. We had people lining up to see us and the event managers were coming and getting frustrated with us, because we had so many people, the queue was snaking around the entire Convention Centre and blocking access to all of the other booths. And it was just wild. Like, it was a show that reached such a broad spectrum of ages and types of people. But it felt just really inclusive and cool. And everyone had stories that they wanted to share with us. And some people who were like, “I don't even play video games, but I just love watching the show. And I love watching the two of you talk about games. And it all seems so interesting”. They'd be people who are like, “I've watched the show, like, you know, everyday and I've seen this episode like 1000 times”. And you don't realise how much it resonates with people. Because I think for them, finding it as a reflection of the things that they're passionate about is what's really important. So that was really cool. And I think what was really cool as well was that the kids show in particular had a near 50/50 gender split, which was really exciting.
James Parkinson: Can you recall any particular interactions with fans that made an impact on you?
STEPHANIE BENDIXSEN: Yes. Probably one in particular, that will stay with me forever. There was one kid who wasn't able to visit the set because he was terminal. So they asked if Bajo and I could go and visit him there. And we were like, “of course, of course, just tell us the time and we'll be there”. And Bajo and I went and he was waiting for us, and he was just so excited that we were there, and we were just going to hang out with him for the day and play Minecraft and stuff. And he was just beside himself. Like, it was just, he was like, “I never thought anything like this would happen, I can't believe you guys are here, this is like the best day of my life”. And, you know, he needed an oxygen tank to help him breathe, and the nurses were laughing and saying they had to keep replacing the oxygen tank because he was using so much extra air, because he was so excited and talking so much and stuff, while we were there. And we just hung out with him and played Minecraft and he just kept repeating, he's like, “I can't believe you guys are here”, Like, “I watch your show every day, like multiple times a day”, and all this kind of stuff. And, you know, we were just telling him just how happy we were, just to be there with him and have fun playing Minecraft and just being silly. And at the end of the day, as we were going to leave, he was just like, he's like, “you guys are just like, you know, I watch you every day, and this has just been the happiest day of my life”. And it was just a really special day. And I think after I left with Bajo, we sort of said our goodbyes to him. And he was just like, “I don't want this day to end”. And it was really special that day. And as soon as we left, Bajo and I were just in tears on the street, just holding each other, because it was just like, it was so sad. And he was so sweet, and such an intelligent, lively, smart boy who would have grown up to do amazing things, if he’d had the chance. And it was one of those occasions that I thought, you know, we make this dumb show, it has no real consequences on the world. It's just a dumb show about video games, but like, to some people, you know, for that kid, it was every single day of his life. It was just the highlight of his day, and it meant everything to him. So, you know, that just reminded me that even though it's dumb show, it's more than that to some people and that was really important to remember.
JAMES PARKINSON: In 2016, Good Game would see another host departure, but it was a very different scenario this time around. After 7 years on the show, Stephanie was looking for a change, but it wasn’t an easy decision.
STEPHANIE BENDIXSEN: Oh my god, yes, it was awful. It was awful. I feel like I didn't necessarily want to leave the show. But I was afraid that if I stayed, the show would get cancelled, and I would have nowhere to go. Because it was all I'd ever done. And no one had ever seen me do anything else. And if I didn't leave on my own terms, and prove that I could do other things, and work at other networks, and exist outside of “Hex from Good Game”, then I would be trapping myself in a place of unemployment, and I'd be really stuck. At the same time, we’d just had our 10 year anniversary of Good Game. We’d done a really big special live episode celebrating 10 years of Good Game. And so it was really weighing on my mind that - I mean, I hadn't been there for ten years, but I've been there for seven, and the show had been on the air for ten years. And I was like, “that's a long time for anyone to be on any one show”. I was like, “maybe now is the time to start thinking about something else”. And then at the same time, we started to get - I think it might have been the Head of Television, or it was the Head of Entertainment - I'm sorry, I'm terrible with those people and knowing who did what. But he had come to us and said - and sort of asked us some questions about Good Game and the future of Good Game, and where we saw the show going. Which was weird in itself, because we'd never had any meeting like that before. But he was sort of talking about the fact that they were sort of thinking about making a nightly news show. And they were thinking about how Good Game could incorporate some other elements of, like, media and stuff in there. And we were like, “What are you talking about?”. Like, “this is a show for gamers, by gamers, and we talk about video games”. And he was like, “Sure, sure. I'm just kind of spitballing ideas”. And we were like, “Okay”. And then that meeting was kind of left open-ended. But it was the first kind of seed of doubt that I had, implanted in me, that was like, “Good Game isn't going to be safe forever”. Like, people are already thinking about it being something else or turning into something else, or...do you know what I mean? So I was worried. Then when Channel Seven approached me and Nich, and were like, “We want to start a video game show on our network. And we have some ideas with esports and things like that”, I was like, “maybe this is the time to do it”.
JAMES PARKINSON: Nich Richardson had joined the team in 2015 to host Good Game Pocket. Commercial station Channel 7 were developing a show called screenPLAY, which Stephanie and Nich would go on to host in 2017.
STEPHANIE BENDIXSEN: But I didn't want to say, “yes”, until I had heard that Good Game had been commissioned for 2017, because I didn't want to give them a reason to cancel the show. And I was worried that - even though I of course knew the show could exist without me, you know, I replaced a very beloved host. It's not like the show hinges on the people that host it, or any one person. But I didn't want to - after that meeting, I was nervous and I didn't want to give them a reason. So we waited until the end of the year, the show got recommissioned for 2017. Over Christmas, we kept talking with Channel Seven, and finally, that was sort of finalised. And in early 2017, we went to the ABC and sort of announced that we were leaving. At that point, I was like, “the show is at least safe for another year”, because I naively thought that's how show commissioning works. And I was like, “if it's commissioned, then it's...they're making it”. But they didn't. They used that as an excuse to cancel it, and they used that budget to create Tonightly.
JAMES PARKINSON: Series Producer, Janet Gaeta also left the show at the end of 2016, assuming it would continue. But she says when established presenters leave a long-running programme, it’s an easy decision for the public broadcaster to cancel it.
JANET GAETA: It is very difficult when long, established hosts leave. Especially if they're going to go and do a rival show. And you know, so then you weigh up, you know, “are people only watching because of them? Are people only watching because it's about video games?” And the truth is probably in the middle, somewhere in the middle. Could you bring new people into the show? I mean, of course, I believe and I've told the ABC this, I'm not talking out of school. But yes, I think of course they could have brought new people into the show. We would have transitioned through this, like we've transitioned through other things in the show's history. Is the audience still there? Is there still an appetite for this information, in the way it's delivered? You know, that was the question for the ABC. And I think they would argue, I think they would say, “yes, there is an appetite for that, but we have other ways of doing it”, and that maybe now that was a good opportunity to use those funds to try new things. You know, that's okay, I respect that. But yeah, it was really devastating, really devastating.
STEVEN O’DONNELL: It was hard. You know, like, the whole show had been commissioned, so everyone had contracts. I understand why Steph felt like that, because we felt like people were watching us, you know. We felt a bit of pressure to make the show something different, or something new, you know, we’d been around a long time. And we hadn't evolved that much, I think in the last couple of years of the show, because I don't know what we could have evolved into. We kind of were doing the same thing, and I thought we were doing it really well. But the next phase for us, you know, was online, and we didn't have the resources to push into there. We just didn't have them. I think we were four days before we were about to go into production, when Steph told me she was leaving. And my initial reaction was, “holy shit, this is a big deal, this is huge, I don't know what we're going to do”, to a mix of being really happy for her because, you know, I think I got the sense that she maybe wanted to leave, or maybe she wanted to do something else. I think I was sensing that, because you know, like I said I knew her so well. But I didn't think she was going to do it then. I thought we had a whole year to try and make something different. And I thought “Okay, if Steph is leaving, well, we need to find new hosts. And we have time”, you know, because the show is not going to be on air for a month or something. We’ve got pre-production, we've got time to do that. So my brain was like, “I can mourn this later, this loss of working so closely with my friend. And I can mourn that later”. Right now I can focus on “Okay, how do we fix this? How do we move forward as a show?”. And while a lot of that is out of my hands, certainly I wanted to be a part of those conversations. And I don't think I really was, at all, over the next few days, I think the decision was made pretty quickly that the show was going to be canceled. And it was just so sad that we didn't get to say goodbye properly.
STEPHANIE BENDIXSEN: I don't know. I mean, I feel like it could have kind of gone through enough of a change to keep existing in a different form. And, of course, obviously, I was worried that that was a potential outcome of my leaving, but I didn't, I really didn't believe that that was that that was going to happen, once the show was recommissioned. And I was really, I was really upset when it didn't. And I guess my greatest regret is that we never got to film any sort of farewell episode. You know, the last episode of Good Game was us saying, like, “see you next year”.
JAMES PARKINSON: With Good Game off the air, Bajo remained on Spawn Point for the remainder of his contract, before transitioning to streaming full time on Twitch, with the help of his fans. Steph and Nich Richardson moved on to screenPLAY, which lasted 10 months before it too was cancelled. These days you can find them, and their former Good Game team members on Twitch with their online show Back Pocket. But the legacy of Good Game lives on at the ABC with Spawn Point still on the air. While games media now looks very different to when the show first started, the team is well aware of just how special the programme was for its time, and how fortunate they were to be a part of it.
JANET GAETA: I loved every second of it. I love the family that we built up around it. So proud of it. Love the community, love the viewers, love the industry. Still love playing video games. You know, like, what an absolute gift and privilege it has been to make that show, really, an absolute privilege.
STEPHANIE BENDIXSEN: I think I was really fortunate to discover my passions and how I want to pursue work, creatively, in an industry that I think, has traditionally been mis-represented by a lot of mainstream media. So I think I've kind of made it my mission, at least via work that I do at conferences and stuff, to educate people on what video games actually are. Because so many people still don't know. It's really shaped how I have formed friendships in online communities, and in real life. I met my husband on Good Game, and that was really pivotal to my experience, because we work together now, and we're both involved in games. And it's really, you know, one of the cornerstones of our relationship is how we both work creatively in this industry. And I think as a medium, I never saw myself really championing it above the other forms of medium that I'd previously sort of held above it, you know, theatre and film and stuff like that, when I was much younger, and I wanted to be an actor, and I was so excited by those mediums, and video games felt like a bit of a guilty pleasure and a time waster, because everything I'd been taught growing up from my parents was that it was just, “this evil thing that you shouldn't be doing, because it's a waste of your time". And now, you know, I think the way video games have evolved and matured and the kinds of stories that are told through interactive mediums, like it is the most exciting industry to be working in. And I wouldn't change it for the world, because it's always changing, it's never stagnant to me. And I've met the best people through it. It has the most wonderful community, so I feel really lucky.
STEVEN O’DONNELL: I just feel pride. You know? I just feel lucky. I somehow won some sort of cosmic competition to be in that show. I feel proud of the work we did, I feel joy of the friendships I made on that show. And it was just such a lucky thing to be a part of, and such a lucky thing to be involved in. And I’m so grateful to Janet for giving me the job, and giving me a chance. And I'm so grateful to all of our team who worked so hard. And like I said, to make me look good every week, you know. We got all the - Steph and I, and our other hosts, you know, we got all the attention, but they're the ones doing so much of the work. So it was just - I'm glad it was a show that meant a lot to people and it meant so much to me. And I’m just grateful and proud.
JAMES PARKINSON: Many thanks to everyone I spoke to for this story; Janet Gaeta, Stephanie Bendixsen, Jeremy Ray, Michael Makowski and Steven O’Donnell. If this is your first time hearing about Good Game, every episode is archived on YouTube, if you want to take a look. There’s a direct link in the episode description and on our website, gameplay.co. And I encourage you to check out Steph and Bajo’s work on Twitch. And we have links to those as well.
JAMES PARKINSON: Gameplay is a production of Lawson Media. This episode was written and produced by me, James Parkinson.
JAMES PARKINSON: The Gameplay theme was composed by Breakmaster Cylinder, our artwork is by Keegan Sanford, and additional music from Epidemic Sound, Blue Dot Sessions and Breakmaster Cylinder.
JAMES PARKINSON: You can follow the show on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook at ‘gameplaypodcast’. We also have a Discord as well, so come and join the community. And if you’d like an ad-free feed of the show, become a Gameplay Member and help us to make the podcast sustainable. You’ll find all the links, plus transcripts, further reading and so much more on our website, gameplay.co. Thanks for listening.