Wednesday, February 10, 2010

My "so you want to be a games writer" post

I've been thinking about this for months. I could probably do a better job of this but I'm just going to do it now while I'm in a state of mind and action where I can do it--if I don't, I may never. I'm not as bitter as this is going to sound. It's been eight months since I wrote on this blog. About four since I last wrote something for which I was paid. No shame and no cares on that mark. Just a bit about why I've disappeared.

I'm never going to "succeed" at games writing and I've known this for a while. Recently Conan O' Brian said if one works really hard and is kind, amazing things will happen. They do. "It's just true."

It's not true. Another games/entertainment writer even explicitly said so soon after that quote. Not that I needed someone to tell me that.

Many game writers have written "so you want to be a game journalist" articles. Most of them talk about the parts of it that are not glamorous, the parts that suck. There is no money. PR people can be difficult. Most games are not fun. Sometimes you have to make it a score that it shouldn't be. And the consistency of the work is spotty as it gets, even spottier than it is for someone writes something that is in more demand, like regular news or features that have a broader appeal or fiction or poetry or articles about HOW TO TURN HIM ON WITHOUT FAIL! I have had experience with all of these except the pressure to change a score. I don't think there are many articles about the topic from people who have never made it, but still did something, who actually qualify as one of the ones who wanted and did not receive. So I'm here to say that if you want to write about games, you should give up. Immediately.

I'm going to list all the stuff I did. It amounted to little. Monetarily and accomplishment-wise. I enjoyed doing it while I did it, but now that it's done, all I've got are memories. I could have been using my time to get money, though, instead! Hmm. It's important when you're married.

So, stuff I've done! Let's review. I have been paid by three different outlets to write about games.

The first is GameSetWatch/Gamasutra. I have a warm relationship with Simon and he's always been patient with me and my wishy-washiness and self-consciousness. Simon, if you're reading this: hi.

Second was Eurogamer. I wrote one feature for them. Kieron Gillen gave me advice on how to appeal to Tom Bramwell. My first pitch immediately succeeded with them, which was a surprise and a delight. The thing only got 8 comments. For Eurogamer, that is very low. None of them based the article, though, at least. I tried a couple more ideas later but nothing really stuck, they had end of year budget issues, and they've already got a staff. I thought it would be my moment where I "made" it, but it was a dead end, an additional item to add to my little vita.

My third was as a blogger for The guy who owns this is in Britain. It was and probably still is struggling. They laid me off after a month. The guy who trained me there was polite and patient. He was 17 at the time. He had been there for about two years. He was convinced, and for good reason, that I was there to stay as long as I didn't bungle anything up. There were budget issues. I had to go. I believe the staff there is even smaller than when I joined.

And that is it. I have pitched to many, many different places. All want features. The best way to break in is to suggest something they know would sell and something that no one else would have suggested. This is not as easy as it sounds. If you want to "succeed" in games writing you need a consistent gig doing news or reviews, or you need to start your own website and have such an awesome and unique personality (and uber "web 2.0 skills" or whatever) that people will trust you as a personality and seek you out by name, even if they don't like you. This is still something you'd probably be better off doing only when you've had a regular gig and/or reviews. Names: Michael Abbott or N'Gai Croal or Dan Hsu or Shawn Elliott or Jeff Gerstmann. And not even all these people get paid. The ones that don't certainly have the potential to, I'd think, but maybe they know, like I do, that it's not worth it. They do what they do for its own sake.

I never got that big break. I got an actual response with explanation about rejection from Green Pixels, Gamespot, and Crispy Gamer (note: not that I'm happy about it, but I always wondered if/when it would crumble). Two of those mentioned their budget. I asked people connected to all of them how to approach, the way I did with Kieron and Eurogamer. When I interviewed all the game writers for my multipart piece on GSW, I felt on top of the world. I'd made connections, most or all of the people liked me. I got a lot of great advice, especially from Kieron.

Other stuff of note that helped me think I was going to make it: I got sought out independently by a PR guy to do an interview (by Facebook, no less, not via blast) and I still get press releases to the email on this blog every day (I check that email, but is it not my "personal" one).

I can write a review that entertains, informs, has a unique style and says something definitive. I think of all the reviews I ever wrote for Snackbar, that one is my favorite. I've also gotten awesome comments: "that is mighty fine article craftsmanship, Mr. Walbridge." Sometimes I get the traffic too. Look at the super-l33t links I received:

Newsweek's Level Up, AOL's Massively, Gawker's Kotaku, The Sci-Fi Channel's Fidgit, Wikipedia, and SlashDot.

I'm proud of what I've done. I drove up traffic at Snackbar by writing and editing in an intense burst, I learned how to help game writers write better reviews (to the point the other editor said as much), and I did all that crap I just mentioned.

It has led to a dead end. I have been paid $1,000-$1,500 when all is said and done. That is before the taxes. My experiences will not help me get a job anywhere else (it got me one interview, though). Remember how I said most of the games aren't fun? Why would you do and write boring crap and not get paid for it? I had to remember I love games. I couldn't let my attempt to turn it into money ruin them for me. What would I then enjoy?

Really enjoying video games is why I got to the top 50 and top 1,000 on two of the Street Fighter IV leaderboards. This is why I played about 2,000 Starcraft matches when I was in high school and college. This is why I've played hundreds of games of League of Legends and am about to play another. Games are entertainment and escapism. It is where failure is fun, at least ideally.

You take your gaming to the next level and try to make money from it? Especially while you don't have any ideal employment options, if any? The failure isn't so fun anymore in that context.

Don't try to be a games writer. There is no more room. There barely was then. There certainly isn't now. 1UP blew up. Crispy burned down. Are you going to compete with the leftovers? You going to accomplish a lot and then realize the field basically has no money for you, then think "well damn, what now?" Kyle Orland wrote Games for Lunch forever before it got picked up. I wrote over two dozen reviews and edited more than twice that many more. Thousands of views, most or all of them. Nothing. On his twitter Kyle links to something a former Crispy guy says, and it's not pretty. This guy, he's getting out. Kyle is sticking around, but he's got years. Probably not making quite as much as he used to. What do you have? What do I have? Nothing.

If you really have to, make sure you have something else that you enjoy a ton, in case your experience ruins games for you. It almost did for me. I'm pickier now but not completely ruined.

But really, don't take me lightly when I say don't do it. Get out or stay out while you still know how to enjoy video games. All this advice has already been given in one way or another about writing, acting, music or anything else that is fun and inspires passion from many. This isn't that new or even that pessimistic. I just wanted to throw in a good, concrete example for games writing. This is how much you can accomplish without succeeding. Don't do it unless you're willing to do that much for that little, and to do a lot for free.

But really, I'd say just don't do it. "So you want to be a games writer: don't." That's my advice.