Tuesday, March 20, 2012

How I Made It As A Videogame Journalist

This post is kind of a response to this post by Christian Higley, where he decided to throw in the towel on videogame journalism. I don't intend to discredit anything Higley said. His experiences are his own, and I'm sad things didn't work out for him. Yet, I can't help but note that his own experience is precisely the opposite of my own experience of writing about games. Exactly the opposite. So I thought maybe I would write up my own story as a kind of counterpoint. Again, not to discredit his own experience, but maybe to offer some of the advice or support he seems to think he never got. Though, if you want such advise and haven't read Scott Nichol's response yet, I would recommend that post many times over this one.

Actually, change that. This isn't even a counterpoint. Clearly Higley didn't get the support or advice he needed. Maybe (probably) I was lucky and got it somewhere else. So this isn't a counterpoint. It's an answer to what Higley said is lacking in videogame journalism, at least to the extent that I can provide it.

But first, some caveats on my title. I don't normally consider myself a videogame "journalist" and I don't believe I've "made it", either. I freelance. I don't support myself solely off the money I make from the writing I do, and I don't believe I ever will. Maybe I could one day, but it's not my primary ambition. So maybe I have no right to write this post. Still, on the other hand, I love doing this and I devote a lot of time and effort to trying to do it well. So maybe I have something to say that's worth reading.

So where did I start? Well, right here. On this very blog. But let's go back a bit further. Crucially, crucially, I came to this as a writer, not a gamer. I love gaming; of course I love gaming, but that's not why I ever attempted to do this. I do this because I love writing.

When I first left high school I started a dual Multimedia/IT degree in 2005 with the hope of one day making games. This was back in the day when university's thought they still had to call it "Interactive Entertainment" just to be fancy. I quit that after 18 months. Partially because I thought the course was terrible, but mostly because I was terrible. In fact, I later found out the course wasn't terrible at all when a classmate and good friend got a job at Ubisoft Montreal.

So in late 2006 I changed universities and courses, and started an Arts bachelor with majors in Japanese and Writing. I chose Japanese because I needed two majors. I chose Writing because I like writing. I had aspirations, firstly, of being a poet (ha!), then of being a novelist (ahaha!), then of being--I don't know, maybe a graduated Arts students?

All this time, I played videogames. So in 2009, having failed to make any money from poetry or novel writing, I started a blog to write about games. I had no real plans on how or why I would write about games; I just would. So I started this very blog, Critical Damage, with such excellent, biting games criticism as this, or this, or this. It was, raw, rough, inconsistent, terrible, and I had no idea what I was doing. The important part is that I was doing it. And that's my first formal tip in this story: at first, worry about writing a lot. Worry about writing well later.

Slowly, very slowly, I found a voice and a style. At my height, I was blogging about one essay a week. I installed a hit-counter to see if anyone was actually reading. Sometimes I'd get five hits in a day. Sometimes from real people! Sometimes I would get a link-back directing people to my blog. This was the most exciting thing. Ultimately, knowing that some people--not a lot, but some--read what I was writing. This gave me just enough confidence to keep writing that little bit more.

Around the same time, I started using Twitter. I had no idea how to use Twitter; I thought people just used it to tell the world when they brushed their teeth. I had this weird idea that I could record my every gaming action. Kind of like Raptr, but more annoying. I wasn't sure to what end, but I thought that might be fun. So if I caught a new Pokemon, beat a level, found a hidden item, I'd tweet it.

Then I stumbled, completely by accident, onto this community of tweeters and bloggers already writing about games across a number of blogs many times more impressive than my little thing. Quickly enough, I abandoned my Twitter experiment and started conversing with these other bloggers. Well, the twelve or so I knew at the time. This would have been about the middle of 2009.

So I would talk to people on Twitter, and when I wrote a new blog post, I'd link it on Twitter. Then, in early 2010, the small community I had joined was just enough to get a few of those early blog posts on the weekly Critical Distance "This Week In Videogame Blogging" post. My first post was about (what Critical Distance called "That old bugbear") the narratology/ludology debate (feel free to remind me I wrote that next time I complain about new writers restarting the same dumb debate on Twitter). "This Week In Videogame Blogging" gets reposted on Gamasutra and GameSetWatch ever week. This gave me dozens of hits. Dozens! People added my blog to their RSS feeds. They clicked the link on the side to my Twitter profile and followed me.

So things snowballed. I wrote more articles, and deliberately posted them with the hope they would get on Critical Distance. If I wrote something on a Friday or Saturday (probably too late to make the Sunday roundup), I would hold off posting it until the next Wednesday or Thursday when I assumed the list was being compiled. I spent years trying to become a writer and this was the closest I had ever gotten to being published. For months, getting featured every week on Critical Distance was my sole ambition as a writer.

This paid off. In June 2010, I got an email from an intern at Kotaku asking if they could republish a post I wrote defending cut scenes. People complain at the way some sites leech content off the blogs so they don't have to pay for freelancers, but at the time I was so incredibly psyched that somewhere like Kotaku would want to repost me that I didn't care. The post got 25,000 eyeballs on a stack of my words and a link to my blog.

A month after that, I attended the Freeplay Independent Games Festival in Melbourne, Australia. I have no idea why I decided to go to Freeplay, but I'm glad I did. Running high on my Kotaku exposure, I had a crazy idea: why not pitch coverage of the event to a website? The festival was small, down in Australia; if I was lucky, no one else (read: no 'real' game journalists) would've pitched coverage. Adam Saltsman and Brandon Boyer were both presenting speeches so maybe a website would want coverage.

So I went straight to the only gaming news website I knew: GameSetWatch. I sent the email from my hotmail address direct to the generic email on the 'About Us' page. I said:

To The Editors,

My name is Brendan Keogh. Please find below a proposal for GameSetWatch.

As your site has already reported, the Australian indie games event Freeplay is happening in Melbourne next month. I am looking forward to attending Freeplay myself and plan to write up a multi-part report outlining the various seminars and workshops, as well as looking at the games exhibited. If you are interested and do not have anyone else already covering the festival, I would be keen to write this report for GameSetWatch. 

Although I do not have experience of reporting on an event, I have recently had growing success with game writing and am eager to get more involved with the scene/industry. My gaming weblog, Critical Damage can be found on multiple entries of Critical Distance’s weekly blogroll, “This Week in Videogame Blogging” that is reposted on both GameSetWatch and Gamasutra. My article “In Defense of the Cut-scene” has also been republished at Kotaku. At present, I have an article in the upcoming third issue (No. 2, that is) of Kill Screen Magazine. I currently reside in Brisbane, Australia. I have a Bachelor of Arts with majors in Writing and Japanese and am currently studying a Film and Media studies Major in preparation for a Communication & Cultural Studies Honours looking at videogames next year.

 I would be happy to accommodate any specific angles you would desire me to approach the festival from and to attend any specific seminars that you think your readership would be most interested in. I greatly enjoy the various festival reports posted on GameSetWatch and would approach the chance to cover one myself with much enthusiasm.

Thank you for your time. I look forward to your reply.


Brendan Keogh

Yep. I called it a weblog. Anyway, Simon Carless himself replied and asked for coverage for Gamasutra and, much to my surprise, offered me money for it. I flipped out. I spent the weekend at Freeplay hyperventilating. I stayed up until 4am writing my reports on the keynotes (something I'd now have done ten minutes after a talk finishes). I truly, honestly did not believe Gamasutra was going to run the stories. Why would they? But they did!

Also at Freeplay, I networked. I made a lot of connections with a variety of developers and bloggers. Most importantly, perhaps, I met James O'Connor, a freelance journalist who writes for a variety of outlets including Hyper ("Holy shit you write for Hyper?!" is how I believe I introduced myself to him). After the event, he put me touch with Dylan Burns, who was at that time running the ship at Hyper. James put in a good word, I gave the ever-growing spiel (been on Kotaku, featured in Critical Distance, wrote for Gamasutra) and pitched an article about this new game thing called Minecraft. And that was that.

Also (the story is getting a bit frayed here, sorry) around the same time as Freeplay, I pitched the stupidest idea for an article ever to the relatively new Kill Screen magazine. The theme for the issue was "Back to School". I pitched an article called "Capture the School" about going to a school to play a real-life game of CTF in the middle of the night. It was the most literal interpretation of the theme ever. Yet, somehow, Chris Dahlen saw something in it, took a gamble on a random blogger, and accepted the pitch.

When I made my first pitches, I highlighted I was a blogger and had been republished on Kotaku. Then I could say I had been on Gamasutra. Then in Kill Screen. Then in Hyper. The hardest part of being a writer--any kind of writer--is it feels like in order to get published, you need to already be published. Finally, I was already in that closed-off loop. Before that, I just made myself a published writer through my blog.

Then I paid my way to GDC at the beginning of 2011 (well, with some financial support from my amazing girlfriend that I can never truly repay her for). I scored a press pass by offering to cover the event for free for IndustryGamer. They got content they couldn't afford to pay for; I got a pass to a conference I couldn't afford to pay for. Everybody won. There I made more contacts (including Edge Magazine's feature editor) and so the snowball continued. Sometimes it is okay to work for no money.

So, really, I was lucky. That's not to say I didn't make the right decisions or that I didn't earn this. But I was so lucky that the decisions I made, the way I acted, was the right way. This year I returned to GDC with "Edge Magazine" printed on my press pass, freaking out and feeling like a complete fraud even as I interviewed phenomenal developers and did "real journalism", whatever that is.

There is no tried-and-tested way to break into videogame journalism. There is no tried-and-tested way to break into any kind of writing. This is why you will find hardly any "this is how to be a games journalist" posts and plenty of "This is how I became a games journalist" posts. Truly, you fake it until you make it. While trying my hand at poetry and story writing, I hated all the "just keep writing until you make it! Don't give up!" crap pep talks. But I'm sorry to say, that is exactly how it works.

Still, based solely on my own personal story and experience, these are the tips I would give you:

1. Write a lot. Then, once you've got that down, focus on writing well. It is okay to write crap, especially if:
2. You are okay with people reading and critiquing your crap writing. Letting others edit your crap writing and being able to acknowledge when they are right is a crucial step to becoming a better writer. Know another writer with a blog also trying to make it? Get together and rip each other's writing to shreds. Constructive shreds.
3. Don't write for nothing; but that doesn't mean you have to write for money.
4. Network. For christ's sake, network!
5. Get on Twitter. Engage with Twitter. Don't just post links to your stories. Give people a reason to want to follow you so that when you do link to your articles, they will be watching and ready to click.
6. Be honest with how people work. Look at your Twitter profile page and ask yourself if someone who didn't know you would follow you from five seconds of looking at it. Your follower/following ratio does matter. How you've worded your Twitter profile matters. If it includes either the facts "I'm a gamer!" or "I hate the word gamer!", you are probably doing it wrong.
7. Have enough confidence to actually write terrible pitches and enough humility to never think you're good yet. Well, think you're good. Don't think you're great. The moment you think you're great you'll stop trying to get better.
8. Read a lot across a lot of websites. If you can't think of any other websites where your writing might fit, you don't know of enough websites.
10. Do it because you love writing first and because you love gaming second.
11. Write a lot.
12. Network
13. Wear sunscreen.

And one final point: Videogame journalism does have inclusion problems. There are not nearly enough of the amazing non-cis, non-white, non-male writers being given a voice beyond their own blogs. But that said, the community of writers I've stumbled into has been the friendliest, most inclusive, most welcoming and eager group of people I have ever had the honour of knowing. Maybe it isn't indicative of all of games journalism, but it is indicative of the only games journalists I've ever met. If you want to write about videogames well, talk to these people. Write response to their pieces on Twitter. Email them your own writing and ask them for advice. Maybe they won't respond. Maybe they will. If they don't, it will be because they are busy, not because they don't want to. There is indeed a club among game writers, and they are pretty excited for anyone else who wants to write (and write well) about games to join them. I know this because I never intended to join any such group, yet here I am. The door was open for me to stumble into.

So I'm sorry Higley didn't have a good experience, and I wish him the best of luck in his future endeavors. And maybe he had some good points. The more I think about it as I write this post, the more I realise that I actually learned most of this in my undergrad Writing major and very little of it from anyone in games journalism. But at the same time, there was always another freelancer or editor I could email when I had no idea how to write an invoice or how much I should get paid or who the editor was of a certain outlet.

At the end of the day, only one thing is true: to make it as a videogame journalist, you need to write a post about how to become a videogame journalist on your personal blog. So there you go. I made it. And you can too!


Nolan McBride said...

I really enjoyed this. It definitely helps to know that posting half-baked articles on your personal blog can eventually lead to somewhere (assuming you improve), especially when the hits are few and acknowledgement is absent. I come from a similar background (BA in English Lit) and it gets pretty hopeless sometimes, but it looks like you made it through just fine. I'm still pretty early on in trying this path out (just started the blog last July), but it's tiring when you consider all the time that goes into your writing for such little praise/consideration. But I love writing and I love games and I really don't see any other option but to just keep trying. I'm glad things turned out since you're a pretty great writer. Keep it up.

Brendan said...

Thanks Nolan! Glad you got something out of it!

Yeah, 8 months into this blog I was probably still posting apologies for not updating once a fortnight and not much else. So there's plenty of time!

And I guess I see it is a kind of a trial by fire. If you can still enjoy writing about games when only five people are reading your stuff a month and you aren't earning a cent from it, you are probably in this for the right reasons. I guess!

6malesandme said...

Great to get an inside perspective on how you felt whilst on your journey Brendan. I'm sure this post will ring true with so many young writers who feel that 'no one is listening'to them. Your suggestions hold true to so many areas of writing,not just in the gaming industry. I'll certainly be sharing this post around. Well written, mate.

Videlais said...

It's funny you list "Write a lot" twice because, as someone who decided to follow that same advice about a year ago, I totally agree.

If you will pardon a quick story, I wrote on my own blog for four years before finally deciding, in March 2011, that I was going to get serious about writing and began to write 3-4K words a week on it. Sure enough, once I made the writing a priority, I began to get noticed.

It seems ridiculous that I didn't follow it before, but the "secret" is exactly what you said and I try to tell other people: write about your passion. Do it often. And then network.

Thanks for reminding us of that.

Kayos90 said...

Very insightful and great post. I currently have a blog going and just write as much as I can on it. Hopefully this will take me somewhere. I think the hardest part is developing connections and finding that break. It's something I'm struggling with. If you have any tips other than what you mentioned in the post I would gladly take them If you also would like to hear a pitch for Kill Screen that'd be great too! I had the awesome opportunity to talk to Jamin Warren at SXSW a while back! Thank you!

Nick Whiting said...

Just what I need to inspire me to make a blog.
I too just started making a blog about video games, and I hope to become what you are Breandan. One day....

Nick Jewell said...

Even though this comment is about five months late to the party, I wanted to stop by and say how much I truly appreciated the sentiment here. Honestly, I think getting an inside perspective on how you are working in the industry has really given me some more inspiration and hope about where things can go from where I'm at currently.

Last year I started actively working on my blog and had some truly great success fairly quickly: I threw a couple of pitches to The Escapist that actually got published and got a place on the team for Digitally Downloaded, a burgeoning game blog. I did some reviews, had some consistent content coming out over the course of 2011 and was generally doing well for myself.

But things sort of fell apart for me; I lost interest in what I was doing and had some issues being creative. In short, I was starting to dislike what I was writing -- even as I was writing it -- and let things slip away. I regret that decision (or, more accurately, the lack of a decision to stick with it) but I've resolved to turn things around.

Here I am, almost a year later, and I've decided to give it another shot. I won't say that this post was the reason I've changed my mind -- I decided yesterday that I should get back into the swing of things and start reading my blogroll more consistently, which brought me here -- but I will admit that it has given me some extra hope that I didn't have before. So thank you, Brendan, for always being so profound and intelligent with your writing.

Even if I do have to look up the words you use from time to time. Hah!

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