Games journalism is an absolute dick of a profession. By reading this, you are essentially letting me know that you’re a crazy fool who doesn’t mind being trodden on and thrown about for long periods of time. You are up for the idea of working insane hours for very little payoff, all in the hope that, one day, your opinion on Deus Ex 4 or what have you will be noted around the world, and people will give a shit about what you have to say.
You’ve gotten to this second paragraph without being put off, because you know that there’s so much more to it, and that it’s actually a stupid amount of fun for the most part. Problem is, things have changed. Get this: you don’t need to be good with words anymore to make it in ‘the biz’. Day by day it becomes obvious that, for many sites, persistence and the ability to hammer out stories rapidly overshadow actual journalism. You know, wot with no speling mistakes and the like.
Fortunately, there are still plenty of sites that herald good games journalism. These are the sites you want to write for. If you know which ones I mean, then you’re already a step in the right direction. Lewie Procter asked if I’d write one of his ‘new’ set of rules for being a games journalist, so here goes. This is how I did it. Maybe it’ll work for you.
[Oh, and just before I start, I should tell you who I write for so that you can decide whether I'm worth listening to or not. I've freelanced for over a dozen different sites, but I'm currently UK editor at Gamasutra, Handheld Editor at Pocket Gamer and Editor-in-Chief at IndieGames.com.]
Find a niche and own it
Look around you. Everyone is writing about everything. It’s a bit of a mess. Over there you can see a guy who has never played an MMO in his life, and he’s writing a feature called ‘the top 10 MMOs for Mac’. Oh also, he doesn’t own a Mac.
And what about that person sat at his home personal computer. He has to interview the dev who created Final Fantasy some-teen, but he’s never liked the Final Fantasy games. In fact, he used to take the piss out of people who play them. Now he’s writing questions like ‘Do you think this Final Fantasy will be the best one?’ because he doesn’t know any better.
People who know specific genres, platforms, whatever inside out are useful. If you’ve been playing iPhone games for the last 2 years and you’ve got dozens of iPhone developers in your contact book, then you are incredibly useful to someone, somewhere. You build a name for yourself, and in doing so, people who don’t even need you right now will also remember your name. That’s when you do the branching out into everything else.
I’m not saying focus on one thing and ignore everything else. That would be silly. But if you’ve got this one good thing going for you that you really know your shit about, you’ve got more chance of going places. I really liked indie games, so I went for them in a big way, and that worked out pretty pleasantly for me.
In December 2008, I started an indie games blog. It was a sorry little WordPress site, for which I simply chose one of the default themes and then starting banging stories into. During the month of December, I put 6 or 7 stories into that blog daily, and made sure to follow up on every single thing that ever happened.
New game out? I emailed the dev to ask for a review copy + an interview. Game jam going on? I played every single game and reported on the ones I liked the most. For that whole month I did not stop searching for anything indie-related – and this was while working full-time in a convenience store on minimum wage at the same time.
At the start of January, I was contacted by the owners of IndieGames.com, who said they’d noticed my feverish newsing and wanted me over to write for them. In the space of just over 30 days, I had gone from writing my own blog to getting paid and writing for someone awesome.
I’m not telling you this to blow my own trumpet (I still spent the next 18 months in that crappy shop job!), but rather to show you that, if you go like the clappers and what you do is good quality, people will notice.
Know when to work for free
Ah, the dreaded ‘should I work for free’ part of the banter. The short answer is yes. The longer, more confusing answer is ‘yes, if you know it will benefit you’.
When you very first start out, you have no names on your portfolio. For this reason, no-one is going to hire you. You need names. You also need money. Money allows you to keep doing your thing, but names get you more money. It’s what I like to call the New New Games Journalism Getting Paid Conundrum. Until someone comes up with a better name.
I did an unpaid three-month long internship with Pocket Gamer during 2010. Whether you turned your nose up at the word ‘unpaid’ or not, I can’t deny that it helped me get places. Being able to put a big name on your portfolio helps a surprising amount, and people who were previously ignoring me were suddenly getting in contact with me to ask for freelance jobs to be done.
At this point, I decided to myself that, unless it was someone with a name that is respected, I would not work for free. For example, I did free reviews for Resolution, because there were some great people on that site and I knew that getting to know them would help me.
One argument that some people make is that, if a site is obviously in a position where they can afford to pay you, then it’s disgusting if they ask you to work for free. I see that argument – it makes sense to me. But at the same time, I go back to my original statement. You’re looking to get names on your portfolio. Once they are on, they’re there for good. Remember this when you’re balancing up the pros and cons.
Get on Twitter
Do you have a Twitter? No? Get one right this second. Now find every single games journalist on the whole of the internet and add them. Now listen to what they say, and take an interest in what is going on. Make a comment to someone now and again. Link them to someone that you’ve previously written that has something to do with what they’re talking about. Gain a voice and use it to make people know who you damn well are.
Twitter (and knowing how to use it properly) is now just as essential as everything else about your career. You need to make a presence for yourself- but don’t be careless about it. It will take a long time, but once you start to build up speed, it’ll make a huge difference.
What do you talk about? Well, you can use me as an example if you’d like (although I don’t know if it’s such a great idea – I’m pretty rambly):
- Link all your work
- Ask your followers questions and get them involved in your conversations
- Retweet anything interesting that potential bosses and future workmates say
- Be friendly and compliment people! (this is really, stupidly important)
Couple Twitter with the first three points on this list, and it should make a killer combo. You know, like a Super Shinkuu Hadoken or something.
Get lucky (and if that fails, cover all bases)
I’m sat here telling you how to get into games journalism, but let me be perfectly honest – I’m a seriously lucky bastard. I may have worked my arse off, but I also got incredibly lucky all over the place, whether it was the people who picked me up, the times I just so happened to be emailing people who needed someone, or the whole ‘right place, right time’ element.
Right now, someone somewhere on some random games site is considering taking on a new writer. Someone will email them randomly this week asking if they have any jobs going spare, and they’ll think ‘hey, I’ve actually been looking for someone, so why not!’ and hey presto – that person just got lucky.
The way I saw it, the best way to get lucky is to try every single person going and hope luck is shining on me. After my internship with Pocket Gamer, I emailed over 100 gaming sites. Seriously, that’s not an exaggeration. I scoured Google for gaming sites big and small, and applied, applied applied. I think on my first run, I got around 10 responses, and 3 jobs out of that.
That is, quite obviously, a miniscule payoff from such a huge undertaking, but it got me started on my way, and 3 months later when I did the rounds again, this time I had an extra 3 sites on my portfolio. This time, I got loads more responses, and I was away.
My advice is to simply keep trying. If you have good things to say, eventually someone will listen.
Don’t do it if gaming is your only hobby
Out of all of my points, this is the most important. Games journalism will change the way you play games. Eventually, if you’re anything like me or the numerous journalists I talk to, you will not enjoy playing games as much as you once did. Essentially, playing games for a living will take the fun out of playing games for fun.
When my work day ends, I do not go and turn my PS3 on, or boot up an Xbox Live Arcade game. I barely ever play games in the evening anymore. I’ve spent the day playing them, writing about them and analysing them, and the last thing I want to do is play even more of them.
You may be fine. Your love for the medium may extend outside of your box room, or office, or wherever you are. But if you do lose your favourite pastime, make sure you have a back-up. I love my TV shows, amongst other things (is drinking a hobby yet?), so losing video games wasn’t a huge deal for me. You know whether it will be a huge deal for you.
I think I’m done. Hopefully this was useful in some way, and of course, if you’d like to ask me anything, feel free to bang anything into the comments below.