INTERVIEW: John Wolfe, AKA YouTuber HarshlyCritical

Source: YouTube

It’s amazing what you can find when you follow the crazy breadcrumb trail that YouTube tries to take you along. From a video of a parrot singing Drowning Pool, you might expect to next randomly land on a video of how to give the perfect pedicure to your donkey, or a list of the best letters in the alphabet (it’s ‘C’, by the way).

Sometimes YouTube’s mad algorithms takes you to the good stuff, which is exactly how I came across the work of John Wolfe, also known by HarshlyCritical. Here was a Let’s Player who doesn’t resort to loud shrieking to entertain, instead choosing to actually talk about what goes into a game, what works and what doesn’t.

Intrigued, I reached out to him for quick interview. He came back to me with some of the most in-depth answers we have ever had.

Hey John, how are you?
Doing just fine, woke up this morning and thought to myself “Oh shit, I have to think of a video to make for today”, followed by a Red Bull and frantic google searches. My normal routine.

What was the last thing you ate? Arbitrary rating out of 10?
I had some chicken fried rice drowned in sriracha. I have it about once per week and I rate it 10/10, look forward to it every week. And yes, I’m that guy that goes to the Thai place down the street and orders chicken fried rice every single time.

For those who might be unfamiliar, tell us about your channel.
I talk to myself in an empty room while playing video games, record it, and post it on YouTube daily. For those unfamiliar, it’s a huge video category called “Let’s Play” and some of the most popular YouTube channels fit this description – been doing it for over 5 years now, but only full-time for about 1 year. Mainly play obscure horror games. Since I’ve been doing it for so long, they don’t usually scare me anymore, but people continue to ask for them so I keep at it.

What’s your day-to-day like? Being a YouTuber can’t be as easy as some people think.
Oh, don’t get me started on how easy some people think it is! I see comments all the time like “You play video games for a living” and create strawmen about how “easy” the job is. If I were to break down the time spent at this job into a pie chart, the smallest sliver would be the “playing video games” section.

Truth is, managing your own YouTube channel full-time means that you own your own business. And unless you treat it like a business, it’s not going to be one much longer. I’ve seen tons of mismanaged gaming channels fall over the years, and I live in constant fear of that. So to answer your question, most of my day is spent ensuring that I can do this as long as possible – I wake up around the same time I used to wake up for my office job before this, get some caffeine in me and get to work. Most of it is research.

I research potential games I could play. I research what channels similar to mine are playing and how well the games perform on their channel. I read the comments, reply to some, and try to gauge where their interests are for future content. I answer emails (like the one I received from you) and make sure I don’t miss anything from a developer or PR agency debuting a new game soon. I search around Steam,, GameJolt and other resources for new games uploaded that day – because on YouTube, if it was released yesterday, you’re already late. Once I’ve settled on something for that day, I usually actually play the game and record it around lunch time, edit and package it together with a thumbnail and get it out some time in the afternoon. I’ll record and edit two videos if I think the day calls for it. Then it’s more of the same until the next day.

In summary, probably 5% of my day-to-day is actually playing video games. The other 95% is spent running a business and trying to make sure it has the best chance possible of surviving the volatile, fickle YouTube algorithm/community.

How do you deal with hateful feedback? Your fanbase seems really friendly, but there’s always one or two…
The majority of the comments I get are great – I very rarely get hateful comments. It’s been really nice. Still, if you meet 100 people and 99 shake your hand but one slaps you in the face – you remember the slap!

Personally, I like confronting people who leave negative comments. Not because they hurt my feelings, but because I find their behavior fascinating. I’ve been watching YouTube videos for a decade, and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had the urge to tell an uploader off in the comments. It’s very interesting to me that some people have so little self-control that they just can’t handle how a stranger plays video games on the internet – and some of them do it multiple times per day, every day!

If you ask almost any YouTuber, they’ll tell you they just ignore negative feedback – good for them, but I like getting into squabbles. They’re harmless and usually pretty funny, and actually I’ve received a lot of apologies. A lot of people get into the habit of leaving hateful comments on a string of videos, just sort of zoned out in their own little world until they are jarringly ejected from it by the realization that they’re actually being read by a real person on the other end. There are plenty of unrepentant assholes too, of course – but my point is that by ignoring negative comments you are enabling some of them to continue doing it to others. Confrontation can have a positive effect.

How long roughly goes into each video?
It depends on the video, but I’d say 3-4 hours total is a good estimate. That’s time spent recording, editing, uploading, making the thumbnail, writing the description/tags, and all the little housekeeping things.

Having to stop to troubleshoot problems can set you back hours and hours, though – I remember trying to record the PS4 game “Until Dawn” with Open Broadcaster Software, my capture card, an HDMI splitter, a second monitor and my webcam + green screen. Ended up taking about 5-6 hours to set up/troubleshoot and I almost ran out of wall outlets.

Is it sometimes difficult to just keep on consistently making content? I can feel a little jaded with writing articles every day.
Yes, the hardest part of a Let’s Play channel is creating daily content, every day, all year long. Taking even one day off is a risk – YouTube’s algorithm is ruthless.

I stay motivated by the idea that somewhere out there, there are thousands of people doing exactly what I do on YouTube, and they all want to kick my ass. They are all working around the clock to kick my channel’s ass into next week with better content, more frequent content, more on-brand content, etc.

Do I want to get my ass kicked? Do I want this channel that I’ve worked on for the past 5 years to go down the drain just because I didn’t put in the effort necessary to keep up with everyone else? There’s someone out there who wants it more than you do, and you have to match their drive to survive.

What’s been the best game of 2016 so far?
I really enjoyed “Unravel” and “Firewatch” – I’d probably go with “Firewatch” for now. I haven’t played “Inside” yet though, and I’ve heard great things about that one.

Really looking forward to “No Man’s Sky”, that’s my early call for Game of the Year if it’s as good as it looks. Very optimistic about that one.

And the worst?
I play a lot of bad games on my channel. Probably the worst I’ve played this year have been some Steam indie horror games – “Satanist” and “The Janitor”. They’re both unplayable messes. Some of the worst games released are indie horror games for PC, and sadly I play them all for my channel.

Any advice for aspiring YouTubers?
I have a lot of advice I wish I could give. In fact, I’m hoping to make an “advice” series on my channel soon – there’s just so much misinformation out there about what it takes to build a YouTube channel and a lot of infuriating myths. Like that your “views-to-subs” ratio should be a certain percentage, a notion that becomes more irrelevant by the day.

Anyway, probably my first piece of advice would be to know what you want to do on YouTube and learn how to brand your channel for it. Branding is by far the most important aspect of a YouTube channel. It’s honestly more important than your actual content. A lot of people are under the impression that if they work hard enough and make great content, they’ll go places on YouTube – and that is the biggest lie currently being peddled to content creators on the site. Hard work and great content might net you a few hundred subs. Nothing matters unless you brand your channel and videos correctly. You can make incredible videos, but no one will watch them if they can’t find them or aren’t attracted to them by the thumbnail/title.

The problem with relying on just your content is that people have to watch it first to become interested. Most people who come across your content on YouTube won’t actually watch it – they’ll see your thumbnail, if you’re lucky they’ll read your title, and if you’re REALLY lucky they will click it and watch more than the first five seconds. You have to get them interested before they even watch it.

If you make a channel with the name “Slaughtermelon” (already taken by the way) and put up a channel banner that says “#1 Watermelon Smasher On YouTube” with thumbnails of smashing watermelons, visitors will know exactly what they’re going to get out of your channel right away. They don’t even have to watch any videos to “get it”, and that’s key. On the other hand, if you make a channel called “RandomGamer13” and your channel banner just says “A Very Average Gamer With Average Commentary” and thumbnails of just random games, of course no one’s going to give a shit about you. Why would they? You’re not selling them on anything.

I’ve done a piss-poor job of branding my channel over the years, believing that content would carry me. It’s a mistake, and it’s one I still find myself making to this day. It’s a cliche, but you have to work smarter – not harder.

Where do you see the channel in a year?
Assuming I haven’t peaked on YouTube yet, I’m hoping to be sitting around 400,000 subscribers and making enough money from this to not need Patreon anymore – to just be completely independent.

That’s what I’m trying to work towards in 2016. I’ve been very fortunate to have great subscribers that were willing to help me out financially around this time last year when I was having trouble paying all my bills. I still feel a little bad every month receiving a crowdfunded paycheck from Patreon though, and I’d like to move past the need for it.

Why should our readers subscribe to you?
If you like horror, adventure, or just story-driven games in general and don’t mind watching/seeing someone drown them out in deadpan, sarcastic comments, then you might enjoy my channel. If you like riffing on bad games, then that’s even better, because I play a lot of bad games.

I don’t screech at jump scares, I don’t talk over cutscenes, and I don’t clickbait every video. I would suggest looking at the most recent videos to get a good idea of what the channel’s all about. Going back in the catalog is a dangerous idea.

And finally, who would win in a boxing match: a kangaroo with one leg or a baby gorilla with vertigo?
I’d put my money on the adult kangaroo, even with one leg. Have you seen those things kick? They stand up on their tail! One leg is more than enough to kick a baby gorilla’s ass. Baby gorilla would straight-up get punted hundreds of feet in a matter of seconds, no contest.

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