Gamerly Musings

Where failed pitches go to shine.

Month: March, 2012

Diversity Isn’t The Spice Of Life, It’s The Source

One of the more common, and more surprising, reactions I received to my little post on game writers as a “club” was regarding the idea of discovery. A shocking number of aspiring writers commented to me on twitter and via email that it never occurred to them to send out pitch emails to editors. Now, I can understand not knowing how to go about sending pitch emails, I still struggle with that every day, but to not think that it’s necessary? I’d like to address that.

Marco Polo wasn’t an editor for a gaming magazine or website. History buffs, quiet down, I’m trying to make a metaphor here. I love my editors, I really do, but seeking out and discovering new talent isn’t really in their job description. I’m not saying that as a “what’s wrong with games journalism” problem that needs to be solved, either. It’s simply a reality of time management that they can’t be expected to also peruse every blog out there to find the next great freelance writer. Editors are busy people, working long into the night on a fairly regular basis just to carry out their day-to-day tasks. To continue the Marco Polo metaphor, editors are in fact the various indigenous countries and nations. It’s not that they don’t like to travel, most editors are eager to get their hands on new writers that they can rely on. It’s just that obligations to their own publication limit their ability to actively seek writers out. Sure, there is the rare exception where an editor will discover a new writer from a personal blog post, but even in those cases it’s usually a result of the editor seeing a writer they trust linking to the post on twitter, rather than the editor discovering the post first-hand. It’s possible, and has happened, but it happens so infrequently that it’s a hard method to rely on.

Writers, on the other hand, are the explorers, and as freelance it is in our best interest to secure trade routes with as many nations (aka publications) as possible. Pitches are how those working relationships are established. There are tons of reason why pitches are the right way to go about approaching editors, but to me the most important one is simple respect for an editor’s time. Remember, you are providing a service to editors; they are helping you out by giving you work, but you are equally helping them by providing content. The ability to convey a 1000+ word feature article in a concise one-paragraph pitch shows that you respect an editor’s busy schedule, as well as showing you have the writing chops to express your ideas clearly. True, editors won’t always reply to your pitches, but think of it this way: do you always reply to PR emails that you aren’t interested in? No, I can pretty much guarantee that you don’t. Simply as a survival and self-defense mechanism, it doesn’t do anyone any good to take non-replies personally.

Now, I don’t know if this is mere coincidence, but all of the aspiring writers who expressed that pitches were a revelation came from Bitmob. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t really know the site and its internal writer culture very well, so I’ll try and avoid making sweeping generalizations as much as possible. I’m not blaming anyone, but when perusing the Bitmob mission statement I came accross this excerpt:

“Think of Bitmob as a blog network of sorts, so anyone can stop by and check out whatever it is you have to say. So you can see why we want you to register with your real name and email address! It would sure suck if we (or some other organization) were to recognize your awesomeness and wanted to hire you for some freelance or full-time work, only to not be able to get a hold of the real you.” (emphasis added is mine)

This was a view repeated by many, with one aspiring writer telling me after a long conversation on the subject, “I naively assumed I’d have editors knocking on my door for a while there.” When I see something like that, the only suitable response I can think of is to give the writer a hug and whisper “there, there, it’ll be all right.”

Don’t get me wrong, Bitmob is an amazing resource for an aspiring writer. It provides an outlet to get your writing published, which is no small thing. But there’s extra legwork involved to make that mean something if you hope to make writing a career. Find game journalists on twitter and link them to your articles when they contribute to a topic being discussed. Include 3-4 writing samples in your pitch emails to editors, giving them an indication of your abilities. But sitting and waiting for the benevolent editor fairy to come and grant you a job? Remember: you are Marco Polo, and he certainly didn’t become famous for what he did before his ship left the harbor.

To that end, the real point I want to address is that of diversifying. My first big break as a writer came in June 2011 when I was published by GamePro, and I began getting fairly regular assignments from them afterward. Naively, in my head this became dreams of a full-time editor job if I could only prove myself, and I put all of my freelance focus into my work for them. Then, in November, GamePro announced that it would shut down completely. Suddenly I was adrift, and forced to scramble madly for new work. It taught me a valuable lesson, though, that I am grateful to have learned so early in my career. Not that I’m worried now that every outlet is on the verge of closing. If I thought that then I would switch careers entirely. But it wasn’t enough for me to rely on a single publication. My future in freelance will depend on my ability to continue writing as much as possible for as many sites and magazines as possible.

Diversifying doesn’t just apply to writing for a large number of publications, but also topics. I’ve lately had to turn down assignments from editors for reviews and previews because I haven’t diversified enough. For example, having never played any MMO before, I was unable to review The Old Republic when the opportunity arose. I believe that turning the assignment down was the right decision, since my lack of familiarity with the genre would make it difficult to judge how successful the game is in its goals. The editor also seemed to respect me for my honesty, giving me a fairly major assignment shortly afterward. But “no” is never an easy thing to say as a freelance writer, and had I background experience in the genre I would have been able to take on that review as well as the big assignment that followed. The fact of the matter is that I missed out on work, and that is never a good thing. Fulfilling a niche can certainly be a good way to get in the door with a publication, that’s how I did it after all, but I’ve found that the more topics I am versed in the more likely I am to receive work.

I don’t really have a neat and tidy conclusion prepared with which to tie this all together, at least not one that I can write without sounding excessively preachy. I don’t want to turn into “that guy” who is telling people they have to do something a certain way in order to succeed, in large part because there is never a guarantee of success no matter how you go about it. This post is merely my observations and reactions, with my own experience to provide context as to why I see things the way I do. I’ll end by simply reiterating that editors are not Marco Polo, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to play “Marco Polo” with them via email.

The Game Writing Club

This is an incredibly sad thing to read: an aspiring writer is forced to reconsider their passion as a career. Though perhaps what is more sad is how often it happens without any blog post to mark the occasion. Having questioned the viability of writing as a career choice more times than I can count over the past 2 years (heck, I think just yesterday was the last time I did so), I feel for him. And considering the caliber of the average “help for aspiring writers” advice being offered, I feel for him even more.

This is difficult, because I want more than anything to respond to his piece, but I fear that any attempt to do so will be seen as arrogant, condescending, mean-spirited, and just downright rude. But he raises some interesting issues that I would at the very least like to provide a second perspective to. I have no illusions that anything I say will actually be useful advice to other aspiring writers, it’s just something to get off my chest. This is my personal blog after all.

Christian Higley called games writing a “club,” and perhaps there is some truth to that. However, I think the way I would define it as a club is quite different from how he does. His club definition is one of exclusion, which it can certainly seem to be when first starting out. I wrote for GayGamer.net for 2 and a half years on a volunteer basis, sending pitches out to the bigger sites almost every day in hopes of breaking in to writing as a career. It wasn’t until the ever-wonderful Kat Bailey at GamePro took a chance on me to write about homosexuality in Mass Effect 3 that things took off. And even then, it wasn’t as if editors were suddenly responding to my emails. It wasn’t until 2 months  after my first GamePro feature of constantly sending emails that their reviews editor gave me my first assignment. That was just within the same publication, it wasn’t until 2 more months after that that I landed an assignment for a feature with a new outlet, and yet another 2 months before writing my first review at another new one. I strongly believe that my ever-growing portfolio at that time helped, but it certainly wasn’t an instantanious “hey, you’re one of us now” across the whole industry. Even now that I’m fairly better established I’m still struggling with each pitch to a new outlet.

And yet, my “club” definition for games writers comes from a sense of inclusiveness. Somewhat surprisingly, that inclusiveness comes from other freelance writers, the people who should be my hated competition for each and every assignment. Instead I consider them my closest friends. They’d help steer me toward the right editors to contact at any given site, or give pointers on how to target pitches. And as I talked to them more and got to know them, the writers I once idolized became a whole lot more human.

Like Christian, I thought people who were writing freelance already had it all figured out. They were getting consistent work, so they must be successful in making a living as a writer! But that’s just not the truth. Many of them have second or third jobs aside from their writing (I recently started as second job of my own), and talk about, as Christian put it in his article, “drinking problems, crippling social anxieties, self-hatred, depression, or involuntary predilection towards general fuck-upery” on a fairly regular basis. Twitter for me, and it seems for many other freelance writers as well, is just as much a support group as it is a networking tool. When pitch #874 comes back with a series of not interesteds or no replies, it is vital to have those friends who have been there and can understand exactly what you are going through.  Maybe they’ll even know an editor you hadn’t thought of who would be more interested in your topic. From the sound of it, Christian didn’t have that, or at least enough of it.

As for the particular advice that Christian says he received, that’s actually some of the best advice out there for an aspiring writer. “Don’t even try” is the barometer of advice. Writing about games is hard, inconsistent work that pays like shit, and someone thinking sanely about their career should avoid it. It’s self-selecting advice that weeds out those merely interested in it and those who will endure the numerous hardships involved to succeed. It should be noted that success does not mean the end of hardships. More important, though, there’s the business-minded advice. There is a very good reason he received mostly business advice rather than writing advice: few writers took business classes or consider themselves as a business. At least starting out. This was a mistake I made getting started, and got paid less than I probably should have for some assignments or wasted money on attending events without thinking whether it was financially viable. It is a point that recently is being driven home quite clearly as I fill out my taxes and owe more than I was expecting because I’m considered self-employed. If it’s not something you’re aware of as a writer, it’s an area of advice you should get immediately acquainted with. And if you’re starting out and passionate about writing, there’s a good chance it’s not an area you know very well yet.

But even with the importance of business advice, he also received no actual writing advice. There is, as I see it, a very good reason for that too. An aspiring writer won’t receive writing advice because the assumption is you already know how to write. That’s why you want to be a writer, right? Writing is the easy part. It’s the business of it – pitching, networking, building relationships with editors, knowing the right editors, and just maintaining yourself as a business – that most beginning writers struggle with.

There is also the fact that, for professional writing, I’ve found it’s a far more valuable skill to be a versatile writer than a good one (though admittedly to be versatile you must first be good). Each site that I write for has it’s own style guide, so even the sentence structure I use tends to change from site to site. The idea of general writing advice simply doesn’t work, since that advice won’t apply to every site. Hell, sites can’t even build a consensus on whether they’re writing about videogames or video games. The only piece of writing advice I could offer that would apply universally is to single-space after periods. Editors hate double spacing after a period.

The last point I want to say is the elephant in the room: how hard was he trying? Now, I don’t mean to question his passion or work ethic, or anything of the sort. I’m just noticing that the immediate response to that article on twitter was for several editors, some of whom I have worked with for freelance assignments, was: “who is this person? He’s never sent me a pitch email.” I admit it irks me a little when someone considers gaming writers to be an exclusive “club” without actually talking to the people who could grant membership.

Games writers most certainly can be a club, it’s just a matter of knowing what that club means. Being a “member” doesn’t mean you’ve made it. Hell, I still don’t consider myself to have “made it” yet. The club’s entry fee is simply a twitter account and contributing to the various conversations games writers have on a daily basis.  There are no guarantees beyond that, but there are also no limits to who can join.

To end this on a positive note, I would like to give a special thanks to Michael Rose, Brad Gallaway, Rowan Kaiser, Kat Bailey, Jason Wilson, Matthew Reynolds, Phil Kollar, Susan Arendt, Taylor Cocke, Mitch Dyer, Francesca Reyes, Brittany Vincent, Mattie Brice, Nathan Meunier, Kevin VanOrd, and countless other writers and editors who have been the friends and support I have grown to rely on in my own writing endeavors. This is just a small fraction of the list of people I owe tremendous thanks to, so if you aren’t on it please don’t be angry with me. If we know each other and you’re a writer, you belong on this list as well.

GDC 2012 – “How Games Get Reviewed” panel: Review

At GDC 2012, former IGN Executive Editor Erik Brudvig gave a talk on “How Games Get Reviewed.” To be honest, I expected it to be a bit silly, so I attended in hopes of writing a satirical “review” of the review panel. However, instead I’m shifting gears to do something a little more… shall we say, productive.

The talk was geared primarily toward people in PR, as a means to illuminate what goes on behind the scenes when a game review is written from which writer is assigned a review to playing the game and the process of writing a review. I can certainly see why someone in PR would be curious about that process, much like how I would be curious to hear about the process of which freelance pitches are approved by various outlets. In both cases there is a sense of sending a piece of yourself into the ether, waiting for a mysterious “black box” to produce something in response. So it was a bit sad to sit in the audience and listen to Erik expound on a process that, as a reviewer myself, sounded entirely foreign to me.

Despite both working in games media and writing game reviews, Erik and I both obviously have very different perspectives – him being an executive editor for 6 years at IGN whereas I have been a freelance writer for half that time. So I would never presume to say that his talk on reviewing games was incorrect; it was merely hyper-specific to IGN.

Some parts of his talk did ring true to my experience. For example, when discussing which games get reviewed by outlets and who reviews them. Every outlet that I write reviews for has first asked me which game genres I’m best versed in and which I’m not, which reinforces his point that sites try to fit game reviews with someone familiar with the genre. I have also had editors tell me they were not interested in reviewing certain games that I have pitched, which goes to a point Erik made about sites curating which games to review based on time limitations and audience interest.

However, one point Erik made in particular irked me. In his talk, Erik discussed several “sticking points” that may influence reviews. One of those points was that games are reviewed in a busy office cubicle versus a natural gaming environment. This was made into a fairly major point, emphasized with a picture of Erik with his cat at home on his couch and controller in hand next to a picture of a cluttered IGN desk with three monitors, only one of which was for playing a game. I stared at the slide and simply though, “what?” This seemed utterly bizarre to me, since my own reviewing is done on the same couch as any game I would play for fun. Yes, I’ll have a notepad on hand for review notes, but even when playing a game for fun I am never far from twitter’s reach for a quick quip on something I just experienced.

In general, scanning the bylines on nearly any gaming publication (with the exception of Game Informer) more and more you will see freelance writers showing up for reviews. So it seemed a bit disingenuous to speak on behalf of “how games get reviewed” without mentioning the freelance factor. I’ll admit that the behind-the-scenes discussions about who reviews what and a site’s target audience may take place, but as a freelancer I am not part of those conversations. The only hint I get that those conversations exist is when an editor approaches me asking my familiarity with a franchise before a review. But even then I do not know how my experience stacks up to other writing candidates, having never spoken to them on the subject and usually not even knowing who I would be potentially speaking to. There is an aspect of team collaboration in reviews that Erik alluded to that as a freelancer I have yet to experience.

Never once has an editor asked me to review a game in a certain way for their site’s audience, at least not beyond the standard style guide of the site which is really more instructive on how to format a review and things like whether to use first, second, or third person voice. Erik suggested something of this nature happens in reviews, using the example that IGN and USA Today would review Gears of War 3 and Just Dance 3 very differently; overall making it sound like the reviews and accompanying scores would be more reflective of their audience than the individual reviewer. That may be the case as a staff writer for either publication, but freelance provides a different perspective.

While my reviews are seen as the expressed opinion of whichever outlet publishes them, they are also first and foremost my own opinion. They are my portfolio, used as examples of my expertise in this field when I approach new outlets for written work. The wording and style may differ from site to site, but the overall review and sentiment I write for one outlet will be the same as what I would submit to any other. Maybe that makes me a bad reviewer, but editors seem to have been pretty happy with it so far. Some good information can be gleaned from Erik’s GDC talk, but the message is far from complete. Freelance writers have become an integral part of the industry, so to ignore their impact in a talk about how games get reviewed is a failure of its stated goal.

I rate “How Games Get Reviewed” from GDC 2012 a 3 out of 10.

How To Write About How To “Break In” To Games Writing

There has been much discussion among games writers as of late regarding how aspiring writers can best pursue this wonderful career. With so many voices already lending advice to aspiring writers, it has come to my attention that some may need guidance in how to best give that advice. To that end, I have compiled a few helpful tips for writers on how to best advise and inspire new voices into the industry.

Develop an opinion on paid vs volunteer writing. It doesn’t matter which side of this debate you fall on, really, but you must know in your heart that only one of these options is a viable career choice. If you favor volunteer writing, remember that all paid games writers and journalists are elitist sellouts and hacks lacking in even the slightest shred of decency or integrity. If you favor the paid path, keep in mind that volunteer writers are a blight that is destroying the value and credibility of all writers, everywhere, forever.

You know best. The most valuable advice you can provide to aspiring writers is your own experience as a road map for them to follow. What was it that was the key to your success? Persistence? Networking? Building a portfolio? Filling a niche? Pure writing talent? Luck? Whatever it was, drill that point into every aspiring writer’s head. As a bonus, belittle whatever efforts the aspiring writer has already made. Clearly whatever they’re doing isn’t working, otherwise they wouldn’t be reading your advice in the first place. If they say they’re already doing what you advise, they’re just not doing it hard enough, so belittle them for that instead.

Pick fights with your peers. Remember, giving advice is a competition. If a new writer breaks into the industry it only counts if they did so using the exact method you prescribed, so argue with any writer offering advice that differs even slightly from your own. Picking fights is also an important career move, as it will show the other professionals you argue with that your opinions and experience are better than theirs, leading to valuable new writing opportunities. If, by some freak chance you manage to anger another writer, just remember that the pool of writers in this industry is huge, so there’s very little chance of ever encountering them again, and certainly no chance of them some day becoming an editor to whom you need to send article pitches.

Be dogmatic. Regardless of what advice you give, stick to it. Flexibility of ideas is a weakness for any writer, and others in the industry will tear you apart for showing even the slightest willingness to compromise. This point ties back into the previous three, but really deserves special mention; it’s that important to giving advice about writing.