Ben Hanson eagerly got his basement studio ready for one of his weekly gaming podcasts with his friends.
He checked the microphones and the lights, switched on the retro Nintendo 64 so Pokémon battle scenes could play in the background, and made sure the fake fireplace was ablaze to look like some sort of PlayStation shrine complete with a golden controller and mini cartoon figurines along its mantle.
Hanson, along with other former employees who recently left the popular Game Informer magazine, have recently launched their own website, MinnMax. The website, which is completely crowdfunded, offers weekly video podcasts on game industry news, reviews and guest interviews providing an entertaining outlet for serious — and sometimes not so serious — discussion of the gaming industry.
"We love games," Hanson said simply, last week after MinnMax hosted its first community meetup.
Hanson, 32, had worked at Game Informer since 2010 as a video producer and helped create videos and podcasts including "The Game Informer Show," for which Hanson was able to travel the world to interview game developers and report on other industry news.
Game Informer, which launched in 1991, has more than 6.5 million paid monthly subscribers and has grown to become the fifth largest consumer print publication in the United States and the largest digital publication in the world, according to its official website. In comparison, the New York Times recently reached paid digital and print subscriptions of 4.7 million.
But in August, as part of parent company GameStop's restructuring, 120 employees across the video game retailer's offices were laid off, including seven of the 38 employed at Minneapolis-based Game Informer. Dallas-area-based GameStop, which has seen its stock drop nearly 70% this year, said in a statement that the changes "were necessary to reduce costs and better align the organization with our efforts to optimize the business."
Andy McNamara, the Game Informer editor-in-chief who has been with the magazine since it launched, wrote in an online post, "I'm saddened by yesterday's news; the Game Informer team means the world to me. You, our readers who have supported us over the years — mean the world to us. I can't thank them or you enough."
While Hanson avoided the ax, some of his friends and co-workers, including Kyle Hilliard, Jeff Marchiafava, and Suriel Vazquez, weren't as lucky.
"It was very abrupt," Hanson said. "It was a lighting strike out of the blue. … I left because of the manner of which they were laid off."
Hanson, who had helped build Game Informer's studio, said he thought he could build a similar studio on a budget in the basement of the duplex he rents in northeast Minneapolis. He spent the last few months slowly buying microphones, cameras and other technology he needed to equip a spare room in his basement.
He officially left Game Informer and launched MinnMax in late October.
To finance MinnMax, a reference to the gaming term "Min Max" that means to optimize your improvement and get better in the most efficient way possible, Hanson went straight to the gaming community and asked for support on the crowdfunding site Patreon.
Hanson said he estimated that if MinnMax could earn about $4,000 a month it would be sustainable and he could work as the website's full-time video producer and pay his former co-workers and other contributors as contractors.
After launching Oct. 24, MinnMax has attracted more than 1,800 patrons or monthly paid subscribers who contribute close to $10,500 total per month. Donor tiers range from $2 a month — to be able to submit questions to the MinnMax Show podcast and get access to other exclusives — to $750 a month for plugs of the donor's or company's name with a message. There's even a tier to allow for an hour of online game play with a MinnMax contributor.
"The community just blew me away with the level of support," Hanson said.
"Thanks for taking the courage to quit Game Informer and start this thing, Ben! I'm sure it's scary, but it's awesome. To hear the four of y'all again is the best," one supporter posted on one of Hanson's Patreon posts. "This feels like being reunited with old friends," another commenter said. "I was shocked to hear that Hanson was leaving the [Game Informer] Show but this is probably the best outcome I could imagine," another wrote.
In the future, MinnMax could consider having corporate sponsors, though the funding being decentralized has allowed MinnMax contributors to enjoy a lot of freedom in what they create, Hanson said. More money would allow Hanson to travel to interview game developers and improve the studio.
MinnMax has a regular weekly lineup of videos including Q&As with interesting figures throughout the gaming industry, gameplay streams and walk-throughs, the flagship MinnMax Show, bonus videos such as reactions to games and, recently launched as an idea from members, MinnSnax, a food review show that will include discussions on Twin Cities eateries. Besides video games, contributors also have begun to discuss traditional board games.
MinnMax helps showcase the gaming industry that exists in Minnesota, which is home to several video and tabletop gaming companies and professional e-sports teams and is the birthplace of one of the most well-known computer games, Oregon Trail, Hanson said.
"There's a lot of really talented voices in the area; we just need somebody to pull them in," Hanson said.
Emily Reese, who has her own podcast about video game music and also hosts a morning show on Jazz 88 FM, has been a guest on MinnMax.
"It's just nice to have that highlight here [in Minnesota]," Reese said. "I think it's cool. Super cool."
Vazquez said he is happy to be involved in MinnMax after he lost his job at Game Informer.
"It's nice to have that outlet to be able to have a voice in the conversation about games and stuff. … It was inspiring to have people say, 'Hey, we miss you on the show,' " he said.
Since being let go, Vazquez, 27, has been doing contract work as well as writing reviews and features and search-engine optimization consultation.
Last week, MinnMax had its first event, a Super Smash Bros. tournament it hosted at Minneapolis brewery Bauhaus Brew Labs. MinnMax also collected toys for children hospitalized at HCMC. About 70 people attended and MinnMax was also able to collect about $3,400 online so far for toys.
To Hanson, the support of the community and the freedom to lead his own website has been amazing.
Hanson, who grew up in New London, Minn., graduated in 2009 from the University of Minnesota with a double major in cinema and media culture and cultural studies and comparative literature with a minor in art before he worked for a community television station and Game Informer.
"Having complete freedom … being able to steer this ship is so refreshing," he said.
Nicole Norfleet • 612-673-4495 Twitter: @nicolenorfleet