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 Psu.com. 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 doing...news 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.

49 Comments:

Blogger James Fudge said...

It's pretty easy to get discouraged, but I encourage you to continue writing about games. The money and the fame and all those other things don't matter at the end of the day. You either love writing or you don't.

And if you don't then maybe it's time to put your creative energies to use doing something else.

I wish you luck.

6:59 AM  
Blogger Mitch Krpata said...

Can't disagree with any of your points. Writing about games is a terrific thing to do -- on the side. Trying to make a living off it sounds like the definition of insanity.

But like James said, if you do it for the love of the writing, then it's reward enough. Sometimes I feel that way. Sometimes I don't.

7:14 AM  
Blogger Etelmik said...

Mitch, perhaps if I had a gig like yours I'd be more...I don't know the word. Relaxed or chill, maybe? Then it would be something solid, simple.

As it is, I don't get a consistent stream or review copies of games that people are talking about, so I can't even participate or contribute to the "current conversation."

To know that this isn't a choice even after everything I've done really sours it all for me. In that sense I don't even feel free is an option anymore. Once you start getting paid it's hard to just forget about it and go back to how you were. Especially when you can't even afford new games.

The blogging position I got with PSU was on the side. It was part time. It was more than I could have hoped for at the time. As quickly as it came, it went. I think that's how most writing assignments in games end up feeling. It's not something I'm willing to put up with continuously. The love of writing did it for about two years for me. It has clearly carried you longer, and kudos to you for that.

8:10 AM  
Blogger Michael Abbott said...

I hate it that you've arrived at this conclusion, Mike, and I wish I could offer a rousing set of counterpoints to encourage you to reconsider your position. But I can't.

If the New York Times can't figure out how to make money publishing online, it's doubtful many of us who write about games will unlock the code either.

When 'enthusiasts' like me entered the space a few years ago, many of us did so to cover games more carefully, more critically, and with a higher quality of writing than we typically saw on the 'net at that time.

I think we've produced mixed results, but all those blogs and websites springing up resulted in far more destinations for readers looking for feature pieces, criticism, and other non-breaking-news writing about games.

And almost none of us did it for money. In fact, *not* running ads, *not* getting cozy with publishers, and *not* producing salacious content to pump up traffic - translates into credibility in a games media environment where money and deals for access have poisoned the water for lots of people.

Writing about games for the sheer love of it is a wonderful thing for a guy like me who's paid to do something else. But I worry that we've created a divide between sites that exist primarily to dish press releases and drive traffic, and sites that want to produce thoughtful writing about games. One side of that divide can make money, and the other, almost by definition, can't.

A handful of terrific freelance writers - e.g. Chris Dahlen, Tom Bissell, Heather Chaplin - have figured out how to make a living doing the very kind of writing you want to do, Mike. But it's notable that none of them focuses only on games.

I appreciate your candidness and your willingness to share your story here. I wish you all the best and hope you won't walk away forever.

9:35 AM  
Blogger Braden said...

I always enjoyed your articles. I'm sorry you couldn't make money out of them. (This post kind of reminds me of Thomas H. Benton's articles on humanities graduate work. Depressing, but very useful.)

11:00 AM  
Blogger SVGL said...

"Don't try to be a games writer. There is no more room."

Yeah. I hate that I have to tell people this when they ask me... for several years I wrote the "if you work hard and are kind" kind of mails back to everyone, before I realized what you've learned here.

However, I want to join Michael and James in hoping you're not discouraged from writing. Yeah, so maybe it's not going to be your living, but those who do it for fun are contributing something to the space that those who do it for a living kinda can't anymore. We need you.

7:51 AM  
OpenID noblemeninpyjamas said...

Try to realize how your story translates itself in a non-english environment. Where writers never ever have the opportunity to reach out to such a wide audience, even if you are good or when you focus on mainstream issues. I’m a Dutch writer in more or less the same position as yours. I’m doing gamejournalism since my fifteenth, now for eight years (3 of them as a paid freelancer). It is a very small language community (compared to English), so even very good writers get underpaid. Big Dutch publications have readership of 10.000 to 100.000, game mags maybe 30000 in their best month. So the commercial potential of writing online or offline is like nothing compared to the English media. If you want to get the picture: The core-team of the Dutch Official PlayStation Magazine consists of only 2 writers. The rest is outsourced to freelancers. So the competition for a few bucks is very hard over here.

But if you have a passion you have a passion. What I am considering right now is to deliberately take a step back. Not quitting, but doing something smaller, something without commercial potential. Back to amateurism. Just to give myself some space, to write about what I want to write. I don’t feel like the publishing world will give me a chance anyway. Perhaps you should do something like that. Maybe you feel more rewarded by writing good unique pieces for a smaller audience, rather than selling your soul to a world that pays but doesn’t care what you actually contribute.

12:07 PM  
Blogger Basic Braining said...

Man, that was a downer. And just when I finally overcame my post-college, quarter-life malaise by deciding that I do, after all, want to be a writer...

4:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good post and this fill someone in on helped me alot in my college assignement. Thanks you as your information.

5:00 PM  
Blogger Scott said...

Glad to see an update-- sorry to hear things aren't working out. Hope things stay happy in your life.

I still think of you every time I see a game where Joe Buck is doing the commentary.

7:28 AM  
Blogger Anton Gully said...

Interesting article. Heartfelt, obviously.

I don't think it's just Games writing. Like Michael Abbott said, when even newspapers are having budget issues, games magazines or blogs don't stand a chance.

9:05 AM  
OpenID bowlbyspeaks said...

It's kind of heartbreaking to read this post, to see someone with such obvious talent and passion having to take this kind of decision after years of striving.

Really, best of luck, man, and I hope it all works out.

10:46 AM  
Blogger TJ said...

"Second was Eurogamer"

You don't actually say is that it was about a local (ie. Salt Lake City) developer who makes Hanna Montana games for Disney. While it may have proved you can write, what kind of reaction did you actually expect from Eurogamer readers/comments? Maybe if you did about four or five of these you'd 'graduate' up to something bigger, but expecting to make a big splash with something like that isn't realistic, however good a writer you are.

1:38 PM  
Blogger TJ said...

...Also saying that none of this will help you get another job doesn't make any sense.

People who can write well and have a proven track record are in demand in all sorts of areas.

2:08 PM  
Anonymous Nicholas Shurson said...

It saddens me to hear you say this. I recently started a games criticism website. You are one of the people who's work was an inspiration.

I certainly understand your discouragement. Even if you can't make it a career, I encourage you to continue writing, and take solace in the fact that your work has been influential and valued.

If this is it, thank you.

6:12 PM  
Blogger Jamez said...

You and I are in total agreement. I wrote something way back when along the same lines, though I'd never reached those heights (hardware reviews for Destructoid and Total PC Gaming Magazine are not quite features on Eurogamer and Gamasutra). But there is one thing I realized long ago: you don't have to like games to play them.

I like to think of my specialty as reviewing. I review games and hardware, say what's good and bad about them, and what it could've been. Sometimes I get paid well, and sometimes I don't. But I enjoy the thought process of "does it work right" and "can I do this?". I'm also a picky bastard, and as a freelancer, I pick and choose what I want to write about. So while most games (and hardware) suck(s), I have a pretty good idea of what I want to try out.

That said, I got over gaming maybe a year before I started writing about them. I was ready to throw away my Xbox, cut off my subscription to Live, and stop dreaming of finally buying a game-worthy PC. I got sucked back in and decided to make the best of it, professionally, and it has been a great experience. Whether I'm learning still today like I was when I first started, who knows. But I'm farther along now than I was then, so even if I don't do it as a full-time job (like most game journalists today), then there's no reason to get out of it.

But, by all means, spread the word! If more people get out of the industry, I can get a better, more stable job myself.

6:14 PM  
Anonymous D3stiny_Sm4sher said...

Thanks for sharing this article, I'm glad Croal stuck it up on his Twitter so I caught it.

That said, I think you're being a little bit too much of a downer. You just seem to be focusing on the $$$ end of it and not the passion. It's totally true, from what I hear, that money can make our passions sour.

That said, I have not been writing about games for 3 years now to get money. I actually DO get a little money for it now, which is a positive sign that I'm doing something right.

I do not expect to be paid to write about games for a full-time job. It would be damned awesome if I could, and I will try to get in there. The difference, I suppose, is that I know it is the TRYING that will get me SOMEWHERE as opposed to nowhere.

I write out of passion. I have some semblance of fans. How many I have no idea. Maybe more than I even know about. But I have impacted SOME amount of people's decisions to look into games they may not have heard about otherwise. I have contributed to SOMEONE'S experience in the artform, to experience new things. That makes it worth it to me.

But if I decided, last year, when the 1Up layoffs happened, "Well, crap, looks like I can't get into that field" I would've stopped and given up. I wouldn't be writing for GoNintendo, which has been a great opportunity. And if other people took that same stance there wouldn't be near as awesome a selection of content out there for people to enjoy.

Don't discourage people from writing about games. Just make sure they set their expectations accordingly. ;) Maybe that's really what you meant but after reading this I was left with the notion that writing about games is a waste of time because no one can be paid for it. And that's simply not true in this day and age.

6:31 PM  
Blogger Chris Dahlen said...

Mike, really sorry to hear this. And for what it's worth, I second everyone who said that the market today is miserable. The people I know who write for A-list magazines are having just as much trouble finding work and paying the bills. Some of my favorite writers and columnists have gotten cut or seen their publications go out of business on them.

Also, just to clarify for Michael, I don't write full-time - I have a full-time day job and I write on top of that. So in many ways, I share your pessimism about the biz.

But I also have to second everybody who said that you should find a way to keep writing. You're good at it, and I enjoy your stuff. The market will get better, and the more you write the more you'll achieve. Maybe you need the break to figure out what kind of stuff is most rewarding to you; maybe when you get away from the pressure, you'll come back to it with new ideas and more enthusiasm. Writing is incredibly discouraging, but I hope you find a way to make it rewarding again.

6:50 PM  
Anonymous d+pad said...

When most kids or parents buy games based on how big the Gamestop standee is, there is very little you can do. It can be difficult to know how small your market really is when you are saturated in it. Premium written content is probably a very tiny niche of games media- itself a niche of the gaming public. I now perceive (good) games writing as value-add content and treat it much the same way myself; offer something of value and sweeten the deal with written content.

If you can, figure out how to package your writing together with something valuable. Maybe an iPhone app for on the spot game reviews (like RedLaser)? However you land, good luck.

7:14 PM  
Anonymous Ben Fritz said...

As the "games/entertainment writer" cited as evidence for this post, I do feel like I should weigh in. I'm certainly going to agree with Michael, Chris, etc. that you're a good writer and if you have the desire, you should keep doing it because readers will value it.

I will also say this: Things are worse than ever to get paid to write and better than ever to get read. Yes more people used to make a living. But before blogs, if you didn't get paid, you didn't get read. Which meant you had to be a certain kind of writer who had the right connections and luck to get onto the staff of a magazine (or website).

We're not richer for all the 1UPers who got laid off. But we are richer for Brainy Gamer and SexyVideogameLand and your site existing, which wasn't possible 10 years ago. There was no way Michael Abbot was going to get paid to write a column for GameInformer a decade ago (or even today, but that's a separate matter) and thus none of us would have known who he was.

The reason most game writers can't make money is because, frankly, game writing is a commodity. Supply far outstrips demand. Ten years ago, there were few outlets gamers could access and thus limited supply. Today, anyone who's a good writer can play a game or attend a stupid preview event (if they are allowed in) or get a developer on the phone (if s/he calls back) and write about it on a blog.

And that's just talking about the kind of mainstream game writing for which there is high demand. If you're doing something alternative (like Brainy Gamer) there's not even enough demand to generate income for a single supplier (I trust Michael and other thoughtful, mature game writers won't be offended by that).

If you can do a job without spending years developing a talent, you're probably not going to get paid for it. And if that talent is an artistic one, even after many years it's tough. The idea that a writer as experienced and talented as Chris Dahlen doesn't make a full time living is staggering, but true.

I'm personally an advocate of cold hard realism when approaching both career and passion. A realistic look at writing about video games in 2010 tells you that your odds of making much money are about the same as those of a sculpter.

Most of the time, you'll do it just because you love it, because you need to. And whenever you do get paid to write about games, you consider it a blessing. I know I consider it a blessing that in my guise as an entertainment business reporter I occassionally get paid to write feature pieces about video games.

I imagine other (semi-)pro writers on this thread feel the same.

8:51 PM  
Anonymous Chris Remo said...

It's true. It's not something worth pursuing.

A number of people have replied saying, "Do it because you love to do it." That's fine, but people don't really need to be told that. It's like saying, "Play video games because you love to play video games." If it's something you want to do anyway, and don't plan on making a living out of it, you don't need somebody to tell you so.

The reason I make this distinction is because the kind of writing you do because you love it, and the kind of writing you want to do because you want to be able to make a living out of it, are two entirely different things. You can, on balance, love the ability to make a living out of writing about games, but you sure aren't going to be writing the same stuff you'd be writing if you were doing it for the love of the craft itself.

And I imagine that most people on the internet looking for advice about writing for games are looking for advice about how to turn it into something self-sustaining, or at least partially self-sustaining. If they aren't looking for that, there isn't really a need to seek out advice; they can write whatever they want, to the audience they organically find.

So, although I'm not overjoyed that I've become cynical enough to espouse this view, Michael's advice of "Just don't do it" is unfortunately far more useful than "Do it because you love it."

9:24 PM  
Blogger Julian said...

So, I do, truly, feel your pain, but part of me can't help but wonder what you expected? I'm a commercial writer. Not a games writer, not a critic, not an author, not an artist. I get paid by the word to deliver a product. Consider it milk. I get paid to deliver milk. I like to think it's pretty good milk, and occasionally it's milk I really, really dig, but really, I'm just a tradesman delivering product.

If you've decided that your career as a commercial writer is going to be limited to JUST writing about games, or worse, JUST writing about games in a certain way (only reviews, not features, or only features, not previews, or whatever), then the idea that you'd make a living doing JUST THAT seems frankly ludicrous.

No, writing about games doesn't pay well. No surprise there -- NO niche press pays well. What pays well is marketing materials, speechwriting, general-interest writing, or niche-writing for expensive fields (finance, hard science, etc.) What pays well is doing the jobs that there aren't thousands of college kids dying to do.

Saying "don't" seems maudlin and self absorbed (sorry, not trying to be a douchebag). The real advice should simply be letting folks know what the market is like, and it was never, ever pretty. Being a freelance writer is first and foremost a BUSINESS proposition, and I cannot tell you how many aspiring writers I've talked to who who cannot, or will not deliver the milk on time, EXACTLY as ordered, on word count, on topic, flawless and in house-style. If you CAN, then there is work in 100 different fields, including game writing.

If you can't, well, then you can't.

9:55 PM  
Blogger Jared said...

Writing for a broader beat that overlaps with games, such as business, technology or the arts in general, is the way to go. Even the game journalists who have a real knack for coming up with pitches and sending them out relentlessly aren't getting a ton of bites these days.

Game journalism needs more people who are most passionate about writing, anyway -- people who'd still work in journalism if they couldn't write about games. We've got enough raving enthusiasts. Thus, my answer to "so you want to be a games writer" wouldn't be "don't," but "don't limit yourself."

10:16 PM  
Anonymous D3stiny_Sm4sher said...

Yea, I think the notion of turning writing into a career really needs to be grounded in the expectation that you will not always get to write about what you love.

As stated before, I don't care if I'm getting paid or not so long as it's something I am able to do.

Actually, the main reason I'd want to be a "pro" has less to do with the writing and more to do with being part of the community, having consistent people who are also passionate about the same subject material to interact with on a day-to-day basis. Something beyond message boards and tweets and IM and chatrooms.

That's what I really care about, and I don't necessarily need to be a "gaming journalist" to find that.

11:12 PM  
Anonymous Chris Remo said...

Julian,

I think it's disingenuous to claim that things have "never ever been pretty," with the implication that they aren't any less pretty now than they were in the past. It is clearly, by absolutely any conceivable measure, a much, MUCH smaller market than it used to be. I've only been doing this professionally for five years or so and it's sure a lot tougher now than it was then. And I know that at our publications, our freelance budget is shrinking all the time.

It's just plain wrong and misleading to claim there's just as much of a place for dedicated, competent people as there ever has been. Full-length articles are paying less than ever, and an increasing proportion of opportunities are going to those who are willing to work for almost nothing. This business is changing massively. It simply not the same, period.

12:36 AM  
Blogger Tom Endo said...

Money should be the very last reason you should stop writing about games. Spiritual and moral crisis - maybe. But money? Never.

So you find a career that actually pays the bills, but you keep writing. You keep writing because, to quote every other famous writer out there, you can't not write. Because not writing would be anathema to your very being.

Yeah, it's great to be a magazine editor, a fancy columnist or any of those other amazing publishing industry jobs that require the perfect confluence of talent, networking and luck to land. But, so what if you can't land one of those jobs. You still write.

Having a soul sucking "pay the bills" job never stopped people like William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon from throwing down and creating mind bogglingly great works of art. Art! Pynchon worked at Boeing as a technical writer, which fueled his " a screaming comes across the sky" fire. Gaddis was like a television producer or something, and in his spare time he spit out JR, a 700 page national book award winner.

You took Conan's statement the wrong way. He didn't say if you work hard you will make lots of money. He said amazing things will happen. And you know what? He's right. Amazing things will happen. Like maybe your writing will influence the next great gaming designer. Maybe you'll be recognized, twenty years from now, as the Clement Greenberg of video game critics. Or maybe you'll just write something that nobody sees, and yet the process of doing so deepens your appreciation for the medium. In any case, that's fucking amazing.

Writing about games has never, in my opinion, been about making money. It's about providing insights and perspectives that rumble and ultimately lift the very foundations of gaming itself. There's no guarantee of money when you're on a mission like that. In the end, the best you can hope for is a quiet glory and understated pride. It's reward enough for me. What about you?

12:37 AM  
Anonymous Tom Bissell said...

I was pointed to this, read it, read some of your older stuff, and thought, "This guy is very talented. And this is a shame." Why exactly it's a shame I'm not sure I can tell you. Right now I teach for a living, after having written for a living for about ten years, and day after day I read student stuff and look out into my classes and think, "Maybe the top 3 percent of writers in this country can live off their writing alone. How the heck can I tell these people in good conscience that this is a thing worth dedicating their lives to, given that harsh economic reality?" I'm not sure I can. So I try to teach them about other things: beauty for its own sake, hard work for its own sake, beautiful sentences not because of how much you're paid by the word but because the world feels different and better when you're writing about your reactions to it. That has to mean something--and it will mean however much you're able to make it mean. Not every talented person can make it mean. That's tragic, but it's not a failure.

I get paid mostly for my nonfiction, some of which has been about games. But I still write fiction, which takes much longer, and is much harder, and which has earned me probably 1 percent as much as my nonfiction. My continuing to write fiction makes no economic sense, but I do it because I love to write fiction and can't imagine my life if I were not a fiction writer. This is another thing I tell my students: If you can not write, don't. From what I've read of yours, that doesn't seem like it's an option. You're announcing your frustration with writing, after all, by *writing.*

Like many of the other esteemed commenters here (Hey, Leigh; hey, Michael; hey, Chris; hey, Mitch), I don't have many positive things to say about the [ironic throat clearing] marketplace of ideas when it comes to games writing. Or writing in general, for that matter. I got into games writing sideways, after writing about a lot of other stuff, which, come to think of it, might be my best advice. In writing about any subject, love #1 has to be the writing. There may not be much hope for "games writing," but there is plenty of hope for good writing about games. It may be that those are two vastly different things, and you've seen the end of the tunnel with regard to the former. It may be that the key to good writing about games is writing that is able to interest even those who do not play games. And it may be a long while before people are willing to pay for that. It may never happen. Many of the most talented novelists I know can't support themselves with their novels. Why should it be any different for games writing?

If I had to guess, I don't think you're going to stop writing about games. The conclusions you come to here are mostly economically correct. But so what? I ask this not out of dickishness. The next great piece of writing about games is not likely to come from someone presently cooking up their latest review for GamePro. It's likely to come from a writer who cares about games. If I may be so bold, you're already that. So maybe the question you should be asking yourself is not, "Why did I bother?" but, "Is there another way to think about this?"

1:05 AM  
Blogger Mr Durand Pierre said...

Hey Mike. Don't know if you remember me, but we chatted briefly over a year ago when I'd just decided to follow this whole game journalism dream. I was struggling with a review of Midnight Club: LA as it was the first time I'd had to review a racing game. You pointed me in the direction of Variety's review of the same game by some "Leigh Alexander" person. Yes, I thought it was a guy. I've since learned my mistake about that as well as a lot else in that time.

I'm still largely in the same boat as yourself, though I think I've been at least slightly more fortunate. I've gotten some freelance gigs for some major pubs, but they're few and far between. In essence, my game writing pays for my groceries, not my rent.

It's funny, but there days, sometimes weeks, where I don't feel like a game journalist. I'll go to the dayjob, hang out with my girlfriend, play games for fun, and basically live the life of a directionless 26 yr old college grad. Then there are times where I'm inundated with assignments, at a convention, or in one case, on a paid business trip where I really feel like I'm THIS close to "making it." (by which I mean making a living at it). I'm still not sure if and when that's going to happen, but I feel like my resume is only getting thicker, my connections vaster, my skills honed, and my confidence rising. In a sense, I'm far more optimistic about where this career path is taking me.

I think the key is not to expect too much too soon. If you do, no matter how much you work, you're just going to burn out and get frustrated and angry. I feel a tortoise and hare metaphor coming on. The "trick," if one can call it that, is to prioritize your home life first. If worst comes to worst, take a short break from game writing and enjoy yourself. Nothing wrong with that. You can always come back and it's a good thing to do on the side while your resume slowly but surely gets larger.

1:11 AM  
Blogger Julian said...

Chris (and others),

I wasn't suggesting it was puppies and roses, and my comment about "it's never been easy" was about "making a living as a writer," not specifically about the micro-niche of game journo. Sure, a bunch of outlets have closed and freelance budgets are down. But new outlets also open out there, if you hunt them down and kill them.

Since I'm already backing myself into a corner, I'll go on to say this: if the ONLY thing you want to write is long form critical stuff suitable for Gamasutra or Escapist, really, you get what you ask for. But if what you want to do is EAT, there is work out there. Nobody will seek you out to hand it to you on a silver platter, but the work is there. You may end up writing about kids games, or facebook games, or grinding out news.

Even more likely, you'll end up writing about stuff where there's money. Go grab a copy of writers market and start making queries. If you're a working writer and you're not pitching 5 pieces a week, it's a hobby, and you should expect it to pay like one. If it's taking you more than 3 days to research, interview, draft and edit 1500 words, it's a hobby and you should expect it to pay like one.

This isn't rocket science. It's not art. Of course it can be both of those things, but all the talk of talent and passion and following your dreams completely ignores the fact that commercial writing is a JOB, not some kind of patron-supported, ivory-tower salon where we get to sound erudite while sitting in our pajamas.

Let me ask one question (for all the folks dragging their tongues in the sand) -- how many actual phone calls are you making a week. Not emails into black holes, or furtive instant messages. How many times did you pick up the actual phone and call a potential interviewee, PR person or editor and work a pitch?

99 times out of a 100 when I ask that question of a new writer, the answer is "none." That means you're not taking it seriously.

Off my soapbox now.

8:28 AM  
Blogger Andrew Webster said...

As Julian said, you have to diversify. I've been doing this for a little over two years and, while I love writing cool features for The Escapist or Gamasutra, they represent a small fraction of the actual money I make. I write about Facebook and casual games. Review any crappy game that crosses my desk. And hustle a steady stream of features for anyone who bites. It's rarely glamorous, but it funds the semi-glamorous stuff.

It's a job. Not always fun and a lot of hard work. You have to be willing to do things that not every writer is willing to do. And do it well. Otherwise, why would someone pay you for it?

10:22 AM  
Blogger Etelmik said...

"You may end up writing about kids games, or facebook games, or grinding out news."

You implying I'm not willing to do that? I've done all of that. And I've pitched other places than the Escapist or Gamasutra and I'm willing to work at other kinds of outlets, believe me.

As has been brought up by many, diversification and different kinds of writing are also options. I'm aware of that and there is non-game stuff I'm considering. The post is about being a "games writer." Other stuff that applies to simply being a writer period has also been said. I just don't feel I can add anything to these topics, or need to. The many comments say plenty.

10:48 AM  
Blogger Julian said...

I guess it comes down to your intent. I know a *lot* of commercial writers. Very few of them do only one thing. If you're point is "you can't write just about games and make a living," I guess I agree with you, but I fail to see the surprise. I don't know more than a handful of writers who do JUST ONE THING and survive, certainly not freelance. And once you're NOT freelance, you're doing a LOT more than just writing, you're part of a business, worrying just as much about scheduling, advertisers, marketing, distribution, art and editorial as you are the actual words on page.

Being freelance is awesome precisely because it gives you flexibility, and allows you to spend most of your time just writing and selling your work.

But I stand by my point. If you're not making 5 well constructed pitches a week, churning out 500 solid words a day, and spending a few hours on the actual telephone a week, you're approaching it as a hobby, not a profession.

11:58 AM  
Blogger TJ said...

How about putting all this effort into writing games rather than writing 'about' games?

12:09 PM  
Blogger David J. Lennon said...

TJ,

Game Journalists (or "writers about games" if that is more inclusive) don't make games for the same reason most film critics don't make movies. They require different skill sets. Game Journalism and Game Development are very different, though it's of course possible to have both skill sets. I could be a capable chef and musician, but I will probably only make my career out of one of the two(*).

This is where comments from folks like Michael Zenke and Shawn Elliot would be very instructive.

Personal Disclosure: I'm not a writer, just a game dev. I write because I've always found the "if you don't like it just make your own" response to be unhelpful. Usually it is a dismissive comment made by a defensive game developer responding to criticism. That doesn't appear to be the case in your comment, but it has become a a cliché that stands out to me.

(*) I now need to pitch the concept to FOX for reality TV: "The Singing Chef."

12:37 PM  
Blogger Susan said...

Making a living as a freelance anything - writer, interior designer, personal trainer - is incredibly difficult. And if you're not willing to put up with the constant disappointment and utter unfairness of it all, that's a completely valid reaction. But to tell people not to even bother trying? Shame on you.

I don't blame you for not wanting to continue beating your head against the wall, but to suggest that because it didn't happen for you it won't happen for anyone is simply not true.

12:56 PM  
OpenID noblemeninpyjamas said...

Julian,

Nice and clever but what you say is exactly why we should worry about the route that journalism is taking. If all the writing is done by people that either are doing it blindly because they want to make as much money as possible or because it is just a ‘hobby’, than I think we will end up in a very bad situation. It is true that we have to realize the economical value of our writings. But on the other hand good journalism needs people who get paid to take their time, to think, to debate, to investigate the subject that they are dealing with. Yes good journalism sometimes needs to let somebody work fulltime on one feature for days (even weeks). Journalism is expensive, but it is worth it. I am of course talking about journalism in general. But it is the same for game journalism as it is for any other form. I feel that professional game journalism is slipping more and more into the field of blank template writing. And I, speaking as a reader, don’t need it. If the gap between journalism and advertising is so small, why… should people pay for it?

On the other hand it is also true, like some people said here before, that the sideline kind of journalism of blogs and other websites is giving us a game criticism that was unseen before. There are so many smart people who are writing thoughtful things about videogames. But if this blog posts go unnoticed, than what is the point. I think every game writers writes out of passion. Because they need it. In my case I need it more than gaming itself. But I understand how frustrating it can feel to realize that your talent has no real advantage. If you don’t get paid, and your writings get no following, it can start to really weigh down. You can say, “most people don’t care about this kind of writing, so it is your own fault”. But the reactions on my monthly column for a mag give me the idea that a lot of readers can really appreciate it when writers take the time to dig deeper. I believe in a better journalism than we are dealing with today, but if the budgets keep on shrinking people will have none of it eventually… and probably without realizing what a valuable thing they have lost.

1:06 PM  
Blogger Etelmik said...

Seems people think I'm being really...mean, I guess.

As Aaron Simmer pointed out two days after me (and by coincidence!), the old advice doesn't work anymore.
I read about half-a-dozen of those pieces on what to do; including some from 2004-2006. They are dated.

As strange as it sounds, I'm simply saying what I wish someone had told me. I am confident that there are other would-be game writers that would have appreciated a dose of reality. Most advice basically sounds like "it's hard, but it's TOTALLY POSSIBLE! Seriously. Just be patient."

Being positive is good. I can admit there is negativity in the world than we need and not enough positivity. Still, I wish I had known that there are people who might take 5 (or 10, for Simmer!) years and still not accomplish any of their goals. Or write 500 reviews for free before getting paid.

For some people, sure, it's worth it. I know I'm not going to stop those people so I didn't think it would be so offensive. This is just my blog. This wasn't posted on a games site where tons of people who know nothing about the topic might read it. This was originally written with a small audience in mind, those who have also spent time trying, basically those few people who know about this blog, know me, and have it on their feeds (look at the date of the last post).

That it got to where it did is pretty much 100% traceable to N'Gai, and had I known it would be as big as this I'd have been less personal and more generic. If I'd done that, ironically fewer people would have found this.

I reiterate: I sincerely, truly wish I'd read something a bit more harsh back in 2007, when I started. I'm trying to give what I wish I had been given. Those who are writing their disagreement in comments, tweets, or blog posts of their own are simply doing the same.

1:52 PM  
Blogger Julian said...

noblemeninpyjamas,

Sorry, but I call BS. There's GREAT work being done, it's just not necessarily being done by young upstarts writing for niche publications. The kind of "big" journo your talking about is showing up constantly in all sorts of places. Virtually every "big" magazine I read has done something interesting on games in the last year -- take Fagone's piece on Rohrer in Esquire, or the Wired magazine piece this month on the impact of video games on professional sports, the Atlantic's piece on game preservation, or the consistently good work being done by NYT staff writers.

Sure, we hardcore game writing wonks have lost a few paying outlets, and budgets are down everywhere, not just in game mags, but at every venue I write for. Freelancing is hard -- that's the secret here. It's very hard. It's hard to break into ANY field from freelancing: making movies, graphic design, music, cooking French cuisine, whatever.

Ultimately, those who are successful are those who are both good at the core job, treat it like a profession, and keep delivering the milk. That's true if you write 4 investigative journalism pieces a year at $4 a word, or 500 news items at $10 a piece.

Perhaps that's the real message -- understand whether or not your good enough, early. Not just good at crafting clever sentences, but at tracking down sources, conducting fast, professional, provocative interviews, writing to a style guide, managing your books, transcribing, editing, and coming up with unique ideas that get editors to say yes. These things are all skills and to be honest, many, many, many people SUCK at at least a few of them, and will thus never be successful.

3:34 PM  
Blogger Mormonrage said...

I'm not trying to be a dick (because, really, I don't have to try), but a writer botching your/you're twice in a single post doesn't exactly leave me with a milk mustache.

4:17 PM  
Blogger Julian said...

Dude, typing on an iPhone, cut me some slack.

4:35 PM  
Blogger Etelmik said...

MR, I know you agree with me and everything. And probably don't care, but Julian is not exactly a nobody in the world of games writers. Just FYI.

4:38 PM  
Blogger Mormonrage said...

I know who Julian is. I'd recognize that tone anywhere. I'm just a fan of irony. Nothing to see here--move along.

~posted from my iPhone.

5:55 PM  
OpenID noblemeninpyjamas said...

Julian,

I totally agree that there are still good pieces done by big mags. But I stay with my believe that those magazines at some point became what they are because people had the time/resources to do it well. For how long will these publications keep up with this kind of quality if they do not longer invest in good journalism? Today a lot of journalists are hanging on, out of passion. But at some point we all need to go and earn a living. The longer one works as a journalist, the more expertise is build up. Some here say that there is to much supply compared to demand. Well, I do not agree. Yes there are a lot of good writers. But game journalism is not 'good writing'. It is a field of expertise, it is seeing things others don't, it is surprising your audience with fresh thought. And yes, eventually, putting this all in a good text. But you don't find good game journalism on every street courner. Yes, magazines publishers believe they can replace one journalist by the other but they are wrong. Maybe in their small economical logic, but not in mine.

Second thought: I don't believe that the chances of 'making it' have always something to do with what you refer to as talent. I have less talent than a lot of people who did not get where I got. And I see a lot of people getting even further without any talent.

2:55 AM  
Blogger Ben Abraham said...

Hey Michael, Rock Paper Shotgun's Sunday Papers was where I initially came across your post, and I somehow seeded it to N'Gai via the magic of the intertweets. RPS is pretty big bikkies in terms of pageviews, etc, so that's probably a bigger impact than N'Gai...

ANYWAY... just wanted to pipe up and add my voice in support of your piece. For too long the prevailing narrative of games journalism/blogging has been that anyone can do it if they try hard enough, blah, blah.

I think that's always been a little suspect, but there we are. Please don't feel bad about the tone - it's perfect as-is. There's still room to read into it some very good and valid reasons why someone would start a videogame blog, and it's been mentioned in the comments plenty. But... games journalism as a smart career move for kids straight out of college? For anyone?Yeah, right, pull the other one...

In future I'll be pointing people in the direction of this post if anyone ever asks me about getting into games journalism. Blogging is great and all but it aint gonna land you a career.

4:55 AM  
Blogger Chris Rasco said...

Mike,

I started Snackbar Games back in the summer of 2002 with 2 of my college roommates and here we are nearly 8 years later and I've got nothing to show for it other than memories and the pride.

I bet you less than .0001% of the readers at your mainstream sites have ever even heard the name Snackbar Games, but that has never mattered. What drives me to run this site is the same thing that drove me back in 2002 and that was the desire to produce content with integrity.

To know that even 1 person comes to our site to read what we have to say is enough to keep me going. Sure, it's a sobering thought to realize that this will always be a side gig and we will always struggle with having a volunteer staff but we've made it this far and you should be glad to know that you played an immense role in that.

Having never been paid to write anything, I don't know what it's like to be in your situation but I do know that you left Snackbar Games better off than when you found it.

Good luck and you know the door is always open if you find yourself with something to say and nowhere to put it.

9:37 PM  
Anonymous akbunnell said...

This post reminded me of a class I took in college titled "Contemporary Entrepreneurship." My fellow classmates and I crowded into the dim lecture hall, at least a hundred of us all interested in someday owning our very own businesses, and sat before a bespectacled, grim-faced man with a wisp of grey goatee. He turned to us as we shifted uncomfortably in our seats, and the whole room grew quiet with expectation. He tilted his chin to his collar, looked up at us over his horn-rimmed glasses with something like superiority and something like pity and he said...

"Mary loved to bake pies. She loved kneading the dough. She loved making the filling. She loved preheating the oven. She loved the smell. She loved the way the pies looked. All her friends told her that her pies were the best they'd ever tasted. So Mary opened a pie shop. She hired a staff. She hired an assistant manager. She spent hours on scheduling. She spent hours on payroll. She spent hours managing resources. She worked 14 hours a day. After a year, her business failed. She lost everything. Do you want to know why? Because Mary loved to bake pies. She didn't love selling them. If you make good pies, then make them. But don't believe that you can make a living off of it."

We sat there, completely stunned. Since, I have never conceived of opening my own business.

I love games. I love to write. I would never, ever want to write about games professionally. I imagine it is, like Julian said, an entirely different skill set.

Sometimes it's better just to sit back, relax, and bake your own pies.

1:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not bad article, but I really miss that you didn't express your opinion, but ok you just have different approach

10:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of my friends already told me about this place and I do not regret that I found this article.

1:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i very enjoy your own posting way, very attractive,
don't give up and also keep writing as a result it just simply well worth to look through it.
impatient to look over a whole lot more of your current stories, cheers ;)

8:07 AM  

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