Behind the Scenes of Chapter Select Season 3 – Banjo-Kazooie

It is time to pack away your backpack and order a large pizza to get fat and lazy because the Banjo-Kazooie season of Chapter Select is done! We just barely got one season done within the first six months of the year. It wasn’t my plan to cut it that close, but we have been busy with other seasons of the show. 👀 I know I have said it in both previous Looking Back posts, but Chapter Select remains to be my creative highlight. I suspect it will continue to be for years to come.

Season 3 – Banjo-Kazooie was our toughest season yet. There were creative hurdles. The show’s structure was tested. As is now tradition, I want to take time to pull back the curtain on the production of the show. I’ve got more data, insight, and pre-production assets than ever before. I think a lot of this was bore out of the challenges we faced this go around. I also think it has led to a better product – both this season and in future ones.

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Behind the Scenes of Chapter Select Season 2 – God of War

It’s time to put away the Blades of Chaos because Season 2 is done!

I am so proud of this season and the show on the whole. We successfully executed our vision of two seasons in one year. We were on time and had a great time creating the show. As I said in the Season 1: Paper Mario wrap-up, this show has been my creative highlight of the year.

With a second season under our belt and a total of six months of data, I wanted to pull back the curtain on the production and reception once again. I think this type of analysis and behind-the-scenes enriches the show’s own narrative and, personally, helps me learn how to make the show even better next time.

We slightly shook up the format this season. Instead of a true “first release to most recent” bouncing back and forth formula, we placed the most recent game (God of War, PS4) at the end of the season. This was Logan’s idea and I am immensely glad he convinced me to do so. At first, I was against the notion, insistent on adhering to the show’s purest structure. After thinking about it and listening to Logan’s reasoning, I agreed to make the change.

I could not be more happy that we did so. The show would have been worse off if I had vehemently stuck to my guns. It let us have a rich evolution of discussing the Greek games without being bogged down by a fresh play-through of the reimagined entry. It also gave listeners a little bait to stick around to the end of the season for what we imagine is the most desired game in the season. Plus, it leads perfectly into God of War: Ragnarök, which we plan on making an episode about once it releases sometime this year.

I recently was reminded of the saying “kill your darlings.” Chapter Select’s pure bouncing back and forth is my proverbial darling. It makes the show unique and leads to new conversations. Being convinced to tweak it slightly led to a better season. This doesn’t mean that the structure is being thrown out — far from it — but it does give me breathing room I didn’t think we had before.

Numbers and Performance

The show started well enough with a growing base, transitioning from Paper Mario to God of War. November had a sizable bump to 1,206 downloads. I pegged this to mostly SEO blessing us with “God of War 2” pulling up our show for those Ragnarök searches.

What neither of us expected was a surge nearly four times larger in December to a whopping 4,605 downloads. Even when signing up for the advanced stats from Libsyn, I couldn’t quite figure it out. The top download agent was Safari at the time I checked with over 3,000 downloads. The next closest was Chrome at 113. I find it hard to believe that so many Safari users are downloading the show. I’m certainly not opening the show that many times on my devices. Podcast numbers are tricky to be precise. I wish I could figure out a way to truly get actionable data.

Arguably the two largest providers of podcasts are Apple Podcasts and Spotify. Both provide numbers, but not terribly well. Apple Podcasts Connect doesn’t seem to update data too often, with some episodes not having any data. Apple reports the shows all time numbers at 426 plays with 13 listeners, as of this post.

Spotify reports 216 “starts,” 88 “streams,” 82 “listeners,” and 7 followers. I can assume the difference between “listener” and “follower” is a subscriber. That makes sense. I wonder what the threshold is for turning a “start” into a “stream” or a “listener.” How long into an episode is that cut off? Why are downloads not accounted for on Spotify? It seems packed with the wrong kind of terminology. I would prefer “downloads,” “streams,” and “subscribers.” If retention is going to be tracked, I’d prefer concrete numbers over popular terms. Spotify does share a “wrapped” summary for podcasters like they do for music. That seems trendy and I like it.

One other avenue of performance to look at is YouTube. I’ll touch on the video production process below, but bringing the show to YouTube seemed like another popular and accessible avenue for listeners. Currently, all the episodes for this season total 283 views. By far the most popular episode is S2E7 – God of War (2018) with 168 of those views. That’s no surprise considering it is the most popular entry and the PC release is this Friday.

Guests

Our guest plans for this season didn’t go quite like I hoped. We were only able to get one person to join along with us this time, which somewhat surprised me. I totally thought people would be more willing to play these short action platformers over 30~ hour RPGs. Grant Huff joining us for God of War II was a treat, especially for one of the best games in the series.

For these first two seasons, we recruited guests with a cold call-to-action tweet so we could preserve the surprise of the season’s focus for launch. We’ll continue to do that for now, but I also plan to politely reach out to friends I feel could be interested in certain seasons/games. This may help us expand the range of voices you’ll hear alongside Logan and myself.

Audio

The show’s primary medium is still an audio podcast. Delivering a high-quality sounding podcast with chapters, art, and show notes is the driving force behind production. I make all decisions for delivering the show through this lens (or rather through this filter? Speaker? Insert your sound analogy of choice here). I tried something new by pre-recording show credits. I like the idea of it as padding between the show and any easter eggs. It also can let us put Twitter handles and sites in credits to not clutter the natural end of the show. I’m still feeling this idea out and will experiment more in season 3.

I invested in some new audio software to help clean up rougher audio. I bought iZotope RX 8 Essentials on sale to help remove clicks, hums, and pops. I am certainly unqualified to use this software, but it has definitely helped make some audio better. I’ve even used it to clean up six year old episodes of Millennial Gaming Speak to use as clips.

Video Production

The biggest addition to the show’s production this season was video versions of the episodes. As I said above, the focus is audio, which is why you don’t see our faces in the video versions. This allows me to make the cuts and edits I want without it looking weird with so many jump cuts. This also allows for parity between chapters and show notes

Since I have to play the games for the podcast, I figure I could easily record the gameplay and splice together video versions to make the show accessible on YouTube. This process has been a great opportunity to flex some creativity. I take notes while editing the audio to know what clips or scenes to layer over when I make the video version.

It has been so much fun. In S2E4 – God of War: Ghost of Sparta, Logan offhandedly mentioned how the plot was “Mortal Kombat levels of ridiculousness.” Listening to the show, that carries its own weight in humor. But while researching for an episode, I stumbled across the announcement that Kratos was added to Mortal Kombat (2011). Remembering this in the editing process, I included that trailer over Logan’s joke to amp it up, to great effect I think. This editing process lead to plenty of easter eggs that, at the very least, made me chuckle.

Another angle of the video version was the visual quality. I made the decision early on to not stretch or scale footage beyond its original resolution. This resulted in three different resolutions used; 720p60, 1080p60, and 4K60. While this definitely impacted file size, I enjoyed working in the native resolutions. I’m a stickler for quality and trying to have the best in whatever medium I’m working in. I didn’t want to stretch footage without a proper way to upscale footage to 4K across the board. Maybe in the future it should all be the same resolution and framerate for consistency, but I like the range as an accurate representation of the gameplay when we did these episodes.

Originally, I wanted the God of War (2018) to be presented in HDR alongside the 4K60. I edited the entire episode in that 10-bit color space. Unfortunately, pushing the M1 processor to export nearly 2 hours of 4K60 HDR proved to take too long: After nearly two hours, the export was only at 2%. I couldn’t wait (theoretically) three days just to export the footage, especially when YouTube takes over four days to process 4K60 HDR footage in my testing.

Art

Once a season’s focus is locked in, I spend the early weeks planning the look for the art. I want unified styles that tie together the franchise and the individual game being discussed. Paper Mario was easy with the crumpled paper background and textures. For God of War, my mind immediately went to the Greek gods and statues. There are plenty surviving pieces of art from ancient Greece. I thought having a statue of the game’s main god would be a neat way to showcase the games while unifying the season visually.

I liked the idea, but high quality and royalty free images of these statues proved to be not as accessible as I expected. So I pivoted to real images of objects or places that tie into the games’ themes.

I knew Episode 1 – God of War had to be burning coals or ash. The curse placed on Kratos defines his character, design, and motivations. For Episode 2 – God of War: Ascension, I wanted to find something to convey the multiplayer aspect. Thankfully, I found this wonderful picture of toy Spartans charging into battle. It was a dream come true.

Episode 3 – God of War II uses a statue of a winged man holding an hourglass. It totally captures Icarus and the time travel introduced with the Sisters of Fate.

The picture I chose for the Ghost of Sparta episode is not actually from Unsplashed. It’s a screensaver on the Apple TV. Being underwater captures both Atlantis and the pressure Kratos was under to save his brother.

The other PSP game, on the other hand, is an open field bathed in golden light (or as my wife calls it, “golden hour”). It reminded me of Elysium, which was essentially all I remembered from Chains of Olympus before we played it for the show.

I don’t think Episode 6 – God of War III could have had better art.

The finale’s art was the episode that I designed the most. I found the picture of a boat in Hardangerfjord, Norway. The body of water looks surrounded by mountains reminded me of the Lake of Nine. The boat is shaped similarly to what Kratos and Atreus use. Knowing the picture was taken in Norway made me feel a level of “authentic-ness.” I added the reflection of the logo in the ripples on the water to give it just a smidge more omph than the others.

The Future

Season 2 has an interesting cloud looming over it in the form of God of War: Ragnarök, set to release this year. Our plan from the beginning was to make an episode when that game is released and to add it to this season. In fact, that was an element that led to us shaking up the recording formula a bit and placing God of War (2018) at the end.

As for Season 3, the series was decided quite a bit ago. Just like between Seasons 1 & 2, we’ll have a few months off here to work, play other games, and then jump into full production for the next season. This one will be a shorter season, like I’ve previously discussed.

We realized that we ought to work on longer games and/or series throughout the year, banking episodes and keeping that season for the back half of the year. As for the front half of a year, that can be a season focusing on a shorter series, whether in game quantity or actual game length. You will definitely see that approach taken for seasons 3 and 4.

Looking Back on Chapter Select Season 1

Season 4 has a few ideas, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there. I’ll announce Season 3 shortly before it makes its own debut.

God of War has been a blast of a season to tackle. I haven’t played some of these games in a decade, while others I’ve replayed a few times. Revisiting the entire series with the current context of the franchise and PlayStation has opened my eyes to the lasting legacy that has had to evolve to survive.

Plus, getting the Platinum trophy is every game back-to-back was oh so satisfying. Now, I only need to play God of War 1 & 2 on Vita for all the Platinum trophies…

Each season we’ve done so far continues to prove to myself this is the right type of show to be making right now. I’m proud of the improvements we’ve been able to make in just one season and am looking forward to what we release here in 2022!

Behind the Scenes of Chapter Select Season 1 – Paper Mario

And that’s a wrap on Season 1 of Chapter Select!

It feels great to finish one season of this idea I’ve had for over three years. Playing the games and making the podcast has been my creative highlight of the year so far. I haven’t been this excited about podcasting before and I am really looking forward to the future of the show.

Here at the end of Season 1, I wanted to share my thoughts about how the season went, some behind-the-scenes, as well as some insight to the show’s future.

The format of the show was, I think, a great success. While I can’t speak to the audience’s reaction beyond sheer numbers, I can attest to how it influenced discussion. The best example I can point to is Episodes 4-6 (Color Splash, Super Paper Mario, and Sticker Star). Talk with any Paper Mario fan and it won’t take long to learn that Super is different/weird and that Sticker Star and Color Splash are a real similar pair of frowned upon games.

Playing Super after Color Splash gave me appreciation for the whacky Wii game I don’t think I would have gotten playing in release order. It felt truly refreshing after two classic games and two modern incarnations. Then whipping back around to play Sticker Star gave me the context for why Nintendo pivoted so hard into the no fluff narrative and sticker-based gameplay. It also made me appreciate what worked in Sticker Star and wonder how Color Splash took, what I consider, wrong turns in its design.

I was thinking about and engaging in these games in a way I never would have previously. And I think it was for the better of myself, the games, and the show over all.

Speaking of numbers, over the course of two months and some change, Chapter Select had over 393 unique downloads and stream when looking across Libsyn, Spotify, and Apple Podcasts. I am super happy with that! This was also before Episode 6: Paper Mario: Sticker Star was even published. That was all with promotion on our Twitter accounts and occasionally sharing in the Relay FM Discord channel.

The craziest (and most confounding number) was the downloads on the cross-promotional episode I put in the Chasing the Stick: The History of Naughty Dog podcast feed. As of this writing, that episode is over 20,000 downloads. I wish that translated to the Chapter Select feed! Logan and I have no idea why the downloads are so high.

Having guests join us for individual games rather than one guest for a whole season was a real treat as well. While Logan and myself could keep the through line theme and focus all season long, our guests enriched the individual discussions. They also helped keep me grounded to the individual game rather than trailing off. Everyone’s story and experience with Paper Mario was unique, adding that personal touch I was hoping for to the show. I cannot thank them enough for playing through these games with us (especially Tomas, who bought Color Splash digitally in the year 2021 at the full price of $59.99). I am excited to start booking guests for Season 2! If you are interested, send me a message on Twitter.

A big lesson we learned was the types of games we choose for each season. Our current goal is two seasons a year: That feels like like an achievable goal. Properly kicking it all off with a series of 20~ hour RPGs probably wasn’t the best idea. Our next season has been planned to focus on a shorter game series, in regards to play time. We realized that we ought to work on longer games and/or series throughout the year, banking episodes and keeping that season for the back half of the year. As for the front half of a year, that can be a season focusing on a shorter series, whether in game quantity or actual game length. You will definitely see that approach taken for seasons 3 and 4.

Speaking of which, we do have season 2 and 3 picked out already! I am quite eager to get to playing them. Especially Season 2 after 145+ hours with Paper Mario; the pivot in gameplay is gonna be great. We have a loose schedule in place for all of this. We will announce Season 2 when it is a bit closer, which should hopefully be in the coming months. We do plan on taking at least August and September off from releasing anything new.

As far as releasing the episodes in Season 1, I have to admit that I didn’t think we could keep the two week release schedule up for the whole season. When we started publishing Season 1 on June 2, 2021, we only had three episodes in the bag. We were in the middle of playing Color Splash! Logan definitely encouraged these last three games to stick to the calendar. The two weeks gave us enough cushion to finish out the season while the episodes were being released.

The wider window also gave me plenty of time to edit the show and really give it my best. I wanted to really leverage the audio podcast medium with a tight edit and rich audio. I put Easter Eggs in the episodes, whether it was clips or secret chapter art (if your podcast player supports it). Episodes 3 and 5 have my favorites.

The show was remarkably consistent as well. Over half the episodes sit right in between 70 and 80 minutes, giving listeners a consistent length that, I think, is quite listenable/achievable to finish. I am curious how that window of time will hold up in the coming seasons.

I throughly enjoyed making the art for each episode. I really pushed my design chops to try and capture the vibe of each game and the paper aesthetic. The toughest by far was Episode 5: Super Paper Mario. I wanted to play with perspective in the art, but just couldn’t find a way to make the logos legible and the art not look sloppy. For Episode 3: Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, I scanned the cover of my Japanese copy of the game for the art, which lends itself even more so the paper aesthetic, since the cover is cardboard. I love the little Shy Guy slurping the color out of the letter “P” in the art for Episode 4: Paper Mario: Color Splash. By far, the easiest to design was Episode 6: Paper Mario: Sticker Star.

I’ve said it before, but I truly have not had this much fun creating a podcast before. From playing the games to recording the show to writing show notes, I have had a blast. This project feels focused and sustainable. I am really trying to keep ambitions in check. Thankfully, Logan helps with that. I couldn’t (as always) ask for a better partner in all this. I cannot wait to announce and share Season 2. If you listened, I hope you enjoyed Season 1 – Paper Mario!