What do our industry’s leading journalists think is the best and worst parts of their job? What’s the best ‘jolly’ they’ve been on? And how do they cope with pressures from publishers? To kick-start our bi-annual media special, MCV surveyed over 50 games media stars with anonymity promised to them in a bid to get the full story...
What advice would you give someone looking to become a games journalist?
“You don’t need a salary to write – send completed work to publications for free to boost your CV, possibly get a job.”
“Don’t. Terrible pay, long hours, ridiculous deadlines.”
“Play games. Play non-triple-A games. Study house style of the publication you target. Write a straightforward (500 word) review of a game you know well in house style. Send this to the relevant editor (e.g. Reviews Editor) as a plain text document. Wait. Follow up. Then accept criticism and employ it. Follow-up. Develop a thick skin.”
“Do it because you love games and really want to write about them, not because you want a career. Be prepared to write for free initially but know your own worth. Embrace the industry and it will embrace you back. Find new stories to tell as they’re popping up every day.”
Do you personally buy games anymore?
“I haven’t bought a game since the 1980s.”
“Yes, but usually old ones that I’m collecting. I spent a bloody fortune on old C64 games a few years back, then went on a demented Dreamcast spree, buying quirky import titles that never made it to Europe.”
“Yes I do. If you don’t, then stop reviewing and covering games.”
“Sometimes – this job doesn’t pay the big bucks so you have to watch how much you spend, but we also get a lot of games for review purposes.”
“Honestly, barely ever – but why would I do that when I’ve been sent one? What I do realise however, is that £50 is a lot of money, and I rarely spend that much on anything for myself ever. I’d probably only buy three to five games a year with my own money if I was thrown out of the industry – and market reality shows a lot of folk think the same.”
“I do. There’s nothing quite like the sting of parting with £40 to remind you why not every game should score over 70 per cent.”
What’s the best thing about working in games media?
“Other games writers. They’re 90 per cent lovely and in a job that doesn’t pay that well, so you know that they’re in it for the passion.”
“Apart from all the free booze? I guess it’s being able to turn one of your passions into a career. Also the people in this business help a lot. It can be terribly bitchy at times, sure, but mostly it’s a lot of fun.”
“Games. They’ve still got the capacity to shock and surprise, and the medium’s progressive nature is as thrilling as the pace of change. Also, it’s great to work with genuinely smart, passionate people in an industry with relatively few idiots or scum bags.”
“You know, I still get a thrill from seeing the latest, bestest new games before anyone else. Also: booze.”
…and what’s the worst thing about working in the games media?
“Finding the space to store the several Bentleys and yachts I have purchased with my vast income. You can put the Bentleys on the yachts but that’s only half a solution.”
“Sometimes it’s a bit like working in a cake shop when you don’t feel like eating cake.”
“Having to write a preview about Modern Warfare 3 for the thirteen millionth time.”
“People outside of the industry believing I don’t have a real job.”
“The (lack of) money. Too many (and not just specialist) titles seem to believe that because games are fun, games writing is something anyone can do (and will do for free games).”
“The way that out-of-ten ratings have lost all value and meaning. It seems that any game that gets below a seven is just plain bad, which is of course ridiculous.”
“The feeling of being beaten to a big exclusive.”
“Writing about games is demanding, specialised and time-consuming, but for the most part it’s not well paid. (I’m one of the lucky ones.) So the most talented inevitably end up drifting away into other disciplines, and standards are consequently not as high as they could be. We won’t get where we need to be on youth and enthusiasm alone.”
What’s the best ‘jolly’ you’ve ever been on?
“Tricky to choose one: snowboarding at Whistler on the first ever Microsoft trip, a ten-day tour of the Far East with Sports Interactive, a party in the Dubai desert with Konami, numerous E3 trips including flying a plane over Arnie’s house, Eminem and Jay-Z headlining a party, and a couple of visits to the Playboy Mansion. All in a blur of alcohol and increasingly hard drugs – as outlined in my forthcoming book…”
“There was a run of X0 events in the early noughties which made every attendee feel like a bit of a rock star. Swanning about Pierre Cardin’s house in Nice was insane for X02. Microsoft really was into pissing away money in 2002 – I recall being flown down the Grand Canyon in a helicopter and stopping for a picnic before being flown back. Ridiculous.”
“In the few years I’ve been involved in the industry I’ve been on plenty of amazing trips, but my trip to Los Angeles in the run up to Modern Warfare 2’s launch in 2009 still stands out as my favourite. As well as being one of the first to check out what was the most anticipated game of all time, having Activision splash the cash on VIP tickets to Universal Studios and dinner at one of the most expensive restaurants in town is an experience I’ll never forget. After all, you’ve not been on the Jurassic Park ride until you’ve been on it with Jon Blyth and half of Zoo magazine.”
”A five-day trip to San Francisco to spend a single afternoon looking at the Scarface game at Skywalker Ranch.”
“Origin in Austin, Texas for Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss. Richard Garriott at the height of his confidence, powers and military hardware.”
Do games reviewers have to take ‘commercial relationships’ with publishers into consideration more these days?
“I think some writers impose this on themselves for fear of upsetting PRs, but if a game is terrible, you can’t skirt around the fact.”
“I suppose that depends. If you’re a freelancer, or lowly staff writer, you can afford to write what you like, but for the more senior staff who have to deal with the very people who’ve just spunked thousands of pounds on advertising, it can be very testing. The best publications are the ones who don’t cave into pressure, and call their bluff. If the publication has a good reputation, they’ll be back.”
“It’s never a nice feeling when you pan a game that people are excited about. But a scoring scale exists for a purpose, and so a ‘commercial relationship’ should never stand in the way of honest opinions.”
“Yes, but readers are your ultimate judge, if you lie to them they’ll never trust you again.”
“They shouldn’t have to, but there is an inevitability about the structure unfortunately. As magazine readerships fall, they are increasingly reliant on advertising spend, just as free websites have always been, and pressure comes from above. It is the management of this pressure that is the modern journalism conundrum.”
“I don’t think so. It will always be an issue in the background, of course, and in theory online media is more dependent on advertising for revenue than print, but I don’t feel the pressures have increased. Good managers and editors insulate their reviewers from those concerns, and good PRs and marketers understand the value in us being left to say what we think. What’s a good review worth if they’re all good?”
How is the balance between print and online shifting?
“It’s in flux – but it will settle. I strongly believe that there will remain a place for mags. But I also strongly believe that most games mags and websites are still far from as good as they should be. I’m a mountain biker as well as a gamer. And I await the kind of quality big read features and rigorous testing, as well as focus on readers, in the games media that I see in titles like Singletrack, Privateer and What Mountain Bike.”
“Now that you can look at the internet on the toilet, we can’t use the ‘you can’t look at the internet on a toilet’ argument. That was our favourite. So now, when defending print, I say some clever-sounding stuff about feature design and magazine craft. Print’s just a bit more romantic. I’d like to think it’s still revered in some small way, and that the internet is secretly jealous of magazines.”
“Print is clearly on borrowed time, which is a shame as at least there was a semblance of quality control in writing for a magazine. Online, any acne-ridden chimp with opposable thumbs and a GCSE can churn out joyless content for a pittance or, as is becoming widespread, for free. Wankers.”
“It is shifting from print to online, yes. That’s not a great insight on my part, it’s more of a thing that is said a lot and appears to be true. I am ambivalent. News isn’t my strength, neither is goading people into saying that Bobby Kotick is a sex criminal for the sake of a headline. Also, I really like killing trees.”