Few people can say they started a career when they were still in high school, but Geoff Keighley knew what he wanted to do well before he had his driver’s license. From tester to journalist, he’s worn many hats in his long video game career, and is now the host of the Game Awards. I talked to Keighley about his lucky breaks and his continued fascination with games.
Take me back to your first video game memory. Were you hooked immediately?
My first experiences with games started when I was a kid. I remember my mother, who ran the books for my dad’s business in Toronto, always had an IBM PC in the office. When I was five years old, instead of going to piano lessons or anything like that, I went to computer classes. I went to this lady’s house where I learned to type and used programs like Reader Rabbit and Turtle Tracks. The first skill I learned was working on a computer. This was the ’80s, and computers were just starting to get into homes. I was the right age at the right time to start learning about them, and it was through the prism of education software. From there it grew to playing some of the early adventure games. I remember playing Willow from Lucasfilm and early Sierra games on an IBM PC in the family room. My brother and I would sit there and play games. We then got consoles from Sega and Nintendo.
When did you learn you wanted to be involved in video games as a career?
It was a natural evolution from playing those adventure games. I got really into them. At the time, I was starting to get into [online bulletin-board systems] and CompuServe for hints in those games. Back then, I was effectively charged by the minute for activity because I was paying long distance from Toronto to California, so I would try to game the system and figure out how many minutes it would take me to get a hint to progress in my adventure game.
I was playing these adventure games during my school years, and found this community around them that fascinated me. I always wondered how games were made, so one day when I was 12 years old, I wrote to Sierra Online to see if they would tell me. I didn’t think I would hear anything, but maybe three or four weeks later I received a letter back from [Sierra’s] Gano Haine that said, “Geoff, we love your enthusiasm for Sierra and are so excited you are a big fan. You seem to really know our games. We’re wondering if you would like to beta test one of our upcoming titles.” Again, I was 12 at the time, so I was fascinated and wrote right back. They sent me the discs for EcoQuest 2 for MS DOS dated November 13, 1992. I still have those discs on my desk. I played through that game early and gave them feedback. There was a forum on CompuServe where all of the beta testers around the world would go to chat about what we thought and give feedback to designers. Between my math homework in high school, I was going onto that forum to talk to people like Roberta Williams, Jane Jensen, Al Lowe, and all of these folks that were making adventure games for Sierra.
I got to do that. It was all luck of the draw. I didn’t get paid anything. I just got early access to those games. When those titles were actually released, I knew how to get through them early, so [online] I became this sort of master of adventure games. One day, an editor from one of the gaming magazines started noticing all of my posts and thought, “This guy really knows his games, and writes well about them.” He sent me an email and asked me if I would like to write for the magazine. I then started previewing games. My path into games was a combination of having early access to them, an editor noticing my work, and being around those creators when I was a teenager. That led to me going to id Software in 1993 when they were finishing up Doom.
You were kind of the Doogie Howser of video games.
Yeah. It’s crazy. Doogie Howser or some people compare [my path] to Almost Famous. I just kind of fell into it at the time; I didn’t need to be making money. I was still going to school. I’ve never really had any other job in my life. There would be summers where I would just write for video game magazines, or travel to meet with developers. I got to go to the first E3 in 1995 when I was 15 or 16 years old, and had to have a special permission letter from Doug Lowenstein of the ESA saying I could get in because you had to be 18. I got special treatment.
Did you think of anything else for a possible career?
I never saw it as my career or calling. I went to college at USC in L.A., and I was toying with going to law school. I took my LSAT. Games just kind of naturally grew into a career. It was never my plan. Things just happened, and I just got busier and busier. After college, all of the television stuff started with G4 and Spike. All of these opportunities just came up. I deferred law school for two years, and never went back to it.
You’ve worn many hats in the industry, but I would say your most defined roles where when you were on GameTrailers and G4 TV. How did you realize you could make it in front of the camera?
I didn’t have a lot of on-camera experience, but I did do talk shows and stuff like that. Strangely enough, I was also around the first video game awards show called Cybermania ’94, which was produced by a friend of my dad and aired on TBS. It was live from Universal Studios and hosted by Leslie Nielsen and Jonathan Taylor Thomas. I got to go to that show, and help write the narrative for the nominee packages that William Shatner read. I got to be around television stuff behind the scenes, and then Victor Lucas of Electric Playground came to me one day at a press event and said, “Hey, I think you might be good in front of a camera. Have you ever thought about hosting some stuff?” I said, “No, but I’d give it a try.” I was already at the press events at the time for Entertainment Weekly, so I started doing double duty with Electric Playground. That started in probably 2002 or 2003. It grew from there to G4 to Spike.
From your written Final Hours exploration of how games are created to other ventures like the Game Awards and E3 Coliseum, it seems like you are always on the cusp of changing your career focus. Is this just a continuation of the path you’ve had with opportunities coming to you?
I always say my career has this natural evolution from writing articles to doing video stuff to moving into streaming and digital. I’m grateful that I’ve been able to move between different mediums. I’m just fascinated by how games are covered in new ways. I’ve been lucky enough to have the support of game developers and publishers to navigate me to those new places. I don’t know what I’ll be doing 10 years from now, but I think the Game Awards will always be a part of it.
You chose to create the Game Awards on your own. Walk me through that decision.
It sort of came out of necessity because the Spike award show was sort of going in the wrong way. It took a lot of financial and personal risk to do that five years ago. Making that show has largely taken up the last five years of my life, and I would say I’m focused on it 70 percent of the year. It’s such a huge project. I’m happy to do it since it’s such a huge opportunity to represent the industry. It’s a unique phenomenon working on something like this. You work for a better part of a year on it and it gets boiled down to 120 minutes of time. There are always things you hope would have been better, but I think last year’s show was really special. We had big game reveals, the moment with Carol Shaw was really special, and with these shows you can’t really engineer them; they just have to sort of happen. Last year worked well and gave me great confidence. We got a great response from the audience, and I think we can push that a little bit further this year. I think you’ll see a show that is about awards and game announcements, but also celebrates what it means to play games. We’re going to recognize people who are doing great things in the community. I realize our opportunity is much greater than just handing out trophies for games. I want to make sure we celebrate what our industry means to everyone.
How did your relationship with Hideo Kojima begin? It seems like you guys are super tight. He’s been a part of the awards almost every year.
I think I first met him at an E3 one year. The first time I spent a significant amount of time with him was 2001 for Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. I was writing the Final Hours on that, and 9/11 had just happened. I flew from Los Angeles to Tokyo on a nearly empty 747. It was really weird to be on a plane a week or two after 9/11. I flew there to talk to him about the making of Metal Gear Solid 2. We had a really good time over there, and I wrote an article for GameSpot about the making of that game. We just really connected about the deeper meaning games can have for people, and the stories he wants to tell. He’s brilliant with the messages he imbues into the games about family and war and all of those deeper thoughts. He’s also fascinated with western culture. He spends a lot of time over here in the States, and I think a lot of our friendship comes from him appreciating what I am doing here, and me appreciating what he’s doing in Japan.
The first time we worked together on an award show was when we announced Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. That actually leaked the day of the show. The trailer was posted early. It was kind of a dramatic day. Ever since that he’s been a big supporter of what I’ve done. When I left Spike to start the Game Awards he was with me. It was right around when he was having trouble with Konami, and he was going to go off on his own. He was very supportive of me from the get-go, and was one of the first to sign up for the Game Awards.
There were two people who told me to do the Game Awards. The first was Sam Houser from Rockstar Games. He told me how important it was to have an award show like this. I remember talking to him at the after party for the VGX awards when Rockstar won Game of the Year for Grand Theft Auto IV. He came up to me there and said ‘Geoff, I know it’s been a tough year making this happen, but you did it, and I want you to know no matter what that it’s really important that our industry has this show. We’re here to back you any way I can.’ That stuck with me, and then when I talked to Kojima about my idea, he said he was with me too.
Houser and Kojima kind of convinced me to make that leap and do my own thing. My relationship with Kojima has just sort of grown from there. He’s one of the most loyal and caring people I’ve met in the industry. His word really is his bond.
[This article originally ran in Game Informer issue 308]