Joseph Garrett isn’t famous. He’s a gamer and video producer in his mid twenties, who leads a quiet life well away from the tabloid spotlight.
His alter-ego, though, is a superstar. Albeit one more likely to be spotted falling off a physically-impossible tower of beds in Minecraft than papped falling out of a nightclub.
Garrett’s alter-ego is Stampy, a cat character whose YouTube channel has more than 5.6 million subscribers and nearly 3.4bn video views. In 2014, it was the fourth biggest channel on YouTube, sandwiched between Katy Perry and Shakira.
Also, Stampy is a superstar for a specific group of viewers: children. His videos are aimed at young Minecraft (and sometimes The Sims or Skylanders) players, with no swearing and an emphasis on humour and creativity.
Now Garrett is branching out with a second channel called Wonder Quest, and a 12-episode show of the same name that aims to blend education, entertainment and – while still shot within Minecraft – higher production values.
“It’s different to my normal videos just playing and talking about Minecraft. It’s a completely scripted show, and the production values are much higher: there’s an original score and lots of sound effects and overlays,” Garrett tells the Guardian.
“The process of recording is very different: we’re acting out a show in Minecraft. It was different for me, as I’ve not really done much stuff reading from a script before. It’s still my character Stampy, so it’s weird having someone writing lines for what you should say!”
Wonder Quest is actually three new shows at once. The main show will have 12 scripted episodes each ranging from 12-20 minutes in length, and a quest to find a broken-up “Wondergem” with the help of a friendly wizard named Keen.
Each episode has an educational angle. “I might be estimating the size of trees or learning about the water cycle. There’s always something Stampy needs to learn in order to get past the challenge,” says Garrett.
There’s also an accompanying I Wonder series of cartoons – traditional animation, not filmed in Minecraft – which will provide three-minute “deep dives” into the educational topic for each Wonder Quest episode.
Finally, a companion series called Side Quest will live on the main Stampy channel, and take the form of more familiar Let’s Play videos where Stampy and friends explore the Minecraft maps created for Wonder Quest.
It’s fascinating because in 2015, this is children’s television: Wonder Quest is as important a launch for its audience as any new show from a traditional children’s broadcaster. It’s just that it has happened entirely outside that world.
The main show is a bold move for a creator like Garrett to take, since it swaps the spontaneity of his main channel’s videos for scripted dialogue. That, plus working in the educational material, could risk losing what made Stampy so popular in the first place.
Garrett is aware of the danger. “From the outset we knew it was going to be educational, but entertainment has to come first. There’s no point having an educational show if nobody’s going to watch it,” he says.
“The style is similar to my content, including the style of humour and the age group that we’re targeting. But I think the production values are going to surprise people.”
Collaboration is also key: Wonder Quest will feature other YouTubers including ShayCarl, iBallisticSquid, CaptainSparklez, AmyLee33 and EvanTubeHD. More creators who may be unfamiliar to the average adult, but who are big draws for Stampy’s audience.
“It’s all my friends. People on the street might not know who they are, but if you ask a fan of YouTube or Minecraft, these are superstars!” says Garrett, who says he relishes the fact that this group of creators have managed to become big stars for their viewers while remaining under the radar in the wider media world.
“It’s fun being in that position of not being completely mainstream. I can come up with an idea for a video, and I don’t need to pitch it to anyone or get approval. If I’m tweeting or replying to someone, it’s me: there’s no PR company talking about what I should say,” says Garrett. “Mainstream approval is something I’m not interested in.”
He’s thus well aware of the pressure of expectation from his fans, especially as they’re often watching on tablets and smartphones rather than televisions: something that Garrett says feels “more real and personal”, but which also means they have strong views on what he should be doing next.
“There’s a good balance between listening to fans and being able to still do your own thing. When creating videos, a lot of people just look at what the fans are suggesting, and in that way you can just end up doing the same thing over and over again. I can do new things, and the fans are generally going to at least give it a chance,” he says.
Garrett joined YouTube in 2011, although his earliest videos weren’t aimed at children. The first Stampy video was published in May 2012, although it’s notable that the tone isn’t quite as excitable as later videos.
“I never set out to make child-friendly content. I was doing very serious, boring game reviews! It was only when Minecraft came out that I realised children were watching, and reacted to that,” says Garrett.
He doesn’t hide behind Stampy now: Garrett tweets photos of himself meeting fans, for example. But the character has enabled him to keep a certain distance between his private and public lives that some YouTube stars – vloggers in particular – don’t have.
“In the videos I don’t talk about any real-life things: specific brands or anything that’s going on in my real life. I’ve become a character: when I make a video I’m in the head of Stampy, and the world I’m in at that point is the Minecraft world. It’s more fun! The real world isn’t as fun as Minecraft!” he says.
“But it is good to have that distance, and to live a very normal life which I live. My personal life I keep very secret. For lots of YouTubers, part of their appeal is that they are so real: they share literally everything. I could never do that, and would never want to do that. I still consider myself a video producer at heart, not necessarily a YouTube personality.”
Plans for a second, educational Stampy channel were announced in April 2014 at the MIPTV television industry conference. Wonder Quest is a partnership with Maker Studios, the online network whose roster of YouTube gamers also includes The Diamond Minecart, PewDiePie, Markiplier and Vegetta.
YouTube is the show’s exclusive distributor though, having “acquired” – in Maker’s words, indicating money changing hands – the rights for Wonder Quest’s first series. Expect prominent placement in the recently-launched YouTube Kids app alongside traditional children’s brands like Sesame Street and Thomas and Friends.
“They’re definitely understanding that the younger audience is coming into YouTube, and now they have the YouTube Kids app, where Wonder Quest is hopefully going to have a big presence. Google saw potential in the show,” says Garrett.
He admits that YouTube’s huge audience of kids – nine of the top 20 YouTube channels in February 2015 were specifically aimed at children while others, from Taylor Swift, WWE and PewDiePie, are likely benefitting from a youthful audience – has been a surprising phenomenon.
“I don’t think anyone could have really predicted the way it’s gone, and I don’t think anyone can predict even now the way it’s going,” he says. “It’s early days for this type of online content, but every year it gets more understood by the mainstream, with bigger and bigger shows – and more options becoming available to the people in that space.”
Garrett has made his own steps into mainstream TV, for example judging a recent game-design contest run by British children’s channel CBBC, and appearing on-screen to promote it.
“It’s fun, although it’s never been my goal. It’s exciting because if there’s a TV thing, my parents can get excited: it seems like a bigger thing for them! People do get excited if I do a TV interview, but I’m more excited about what I’ve done on YouTube because that was all me: starting from scratch and building an audience,” says Garrett.
“Some people look at YouTube as a stepping stone to move over to traditional media, but for me, the more fun and exciting stuff is staying in the online space. I’m not saying I would never consider doing things in traditional media, but this is what I enjoy doing.”
Garrett is also keeping a keen eye on how Minecraft develops, with the upcoming Minecon show likely to provide some news on how the game’s new owner Microsoft plans to develop the game it paid $2.5bn for in 2014.
As one of its most high-profile players, what’s on Garrett’s wishlist? “I only make videos for the console version of Minecraft, which is already quite behind what the PC version can do,” he says.
“What I would really like is all the different platforms – console, mobile and PC – to become closer so that you could easily share levels between them and play cross-platform. So rather than having these three pretty-different versions of one game, just to have a base level of Minecraft that is the same on all platforms is something that I’d love.”
The final question in the interview came from my eight year-old son, who’s just reaching the age where Stampy is as big an interest as his current obsession with Star Wars. Hence him telling me to ask whether Stampy will be in the next Star Wars movie.
It’s actually a smart question, because Maker Studios is now owned by Disney, as is Star Wars. While there’s unlikely to be a role for a blocky orange cat in Episode VII – The Force Awakens, it’s quite possible that Garrett could make some videos set on, say, Stampy’s Lovely Death Star and not get sued for it.
In fact, this would be a brilliant spin-off for Star Wars. Which is perhaps why Garrett pauses before answering, and chooses his words carefully.
“I guess it’s easier to start those conversations, but it’s not like we suddenly have open access to all of Disney’s properties. It’s not like suddenly Stampy and Mickey Mouse are going to team up in a cartoon episode. I’m looking to make my own brand, and Stampy my own character,” he says.
“There is an opportunity for more collaborations with Disney, and it’s nice to be in the Disney family, but as of now the content I’m creating for my channel is still made by me in exactly the same way, even if down the line there are more options for some select content to be made.”
The creative control over his own channel is important to Garrett, even as he explores new ideas like Wonder Quest, with its special effects, animated spin-off and professional writers.
“My own channel is still just me and my personality. That’s what I’m offering. If I hired a team of writers for that, it would be much easier for me – I could probably make more videos – but I’d lose something in that process,” he says.
“But I can go off and do other projects: Wonder Quest or other things, and make something bigger than I could otherwise do. It will completely depend on what the project is, and what talents we need. It’s just doing what needs to be done to make the best videos for the fans.”
This article was written by Stuart Dredge, for theguardian.com on Monday 27th April 2015 10.37 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010