If I had a penny for every time I’ve been asked that question, I’d have around £1.13. What can I say, I’m a realist.
It’s completely understandable. Playing video games for a living? Who wouldn’t want a job like that? Of course, the real thing isn’t quite as straightforward and stress-free as that but let’s not bullshit: in the grand scheme of things, tight deadlines and low wages aside, it’s still great fun.
The short answer to this question is an annoying one: there is no answer. Pretty much everyone working on a games publication took a different route to get there, and no single method is better than the others in my opinion.
Therefore, I can only really tell you how I did it, and hope it gives you an idea of how much of it was down to ability and how much was down to sheer luck. Afterwards, I’ll give some advice on how you can give yourself the best possible chance to get your foot in the door.
Before I do though, here’s the most important tip: if you just want to do this so you can get free games, you might as well not bother now. The point of this job is to use your knowledge and expertise to advise readers on the best games they should be spending their hard-earned cash on, not to build your own Xbox One library on the cheap.
If you’re only in it for the freebies, get a different job that pays better (trust me, there are plenty) and use that extra money you make to buy all the games you like.
The fantabulous fact-filled fable of Chris Scullion and his path to writing about games and that
In order to become a games journalist, I decided it would be best to go down the academic route. After finishing high school I moved to Edinburgh and went to university, where I spent four years getting a degree in Journalism (a three-year BA degree followed by an Honours year).
During my Honours year I used my degree as leverage when seeking work experience at games magazines. Shortly before exam season began, I emailed every magazine I could think of and told them I was in the process of doing my Honours year and would be looking for work experience in a few months.
Most ignored me – trust me, you’ll need to get used to that – while my first reply was a little unrealistic: a publisher based in England emailed me on a Monday evening and told me to turn up on Tuesday morning for work experience, even though I’d told them I was living in Edinburgh and still sitting my Honours degree.
Frustrated, I had to turn that publication down. Even though there was no way I could have made it down there, I was sure I’d just chucked away my one opportunity.
Thankfully, I was wrong. A few days later, Nick Ellis at Xbox World magazine in Bath sent me an email offering me a fortnight of work experience during the summer.
I duly accepted and, in June 2005, headed to Future Publishing’s main office in Bath where I spent two weeks at Xbox World, learning more about games magazines in that short time than I did during my entire four years at university. When it was over, I was adamant: this was definitely what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
A few months later Nick informed me that a position for Editorial Assistant at GamesRadar was available. I travelled down to Bath to interview for it, but sadly didn’t get the job.
However, I was informed that since I had still impressed with my interview, and because Nick had written up a positive reference for me while I was doing my work experience, I might want to put my name forward for an interview with the Official Nintendo Magazine.
Future had only recently acquired the rights to Official Nintendo Magazine from EMAP, who had been publishing it for the last decade or so. As a result, when I was informed that they were hiring a staff writer, issue 1 had only just been released a couple of days prior.
I bought the magazine, had a look and thought it was fantastic. As a massive Nintendo fan I was going to love it anyway, but I adored its clean ‘mature’ look and felt that it was the sort of magazine a man in his mid-20s or 30s wouldn’t feel ashamed reading on a bus or train. I was well up for writing for it.
ONM was based in London, so off I popped for an interview, where I was put through a number of tasks alongside seven other chaps (some of whom got jobs elsewhere and I’m now friends with – one of them works for Nintendo UK now).
The tasks comprised of writing a news story from a press release (it was for Magical Starsign on DS), writing a brief review of a game we’d just been given (Bust-A-Move DS) and taking a Nintendo-themed quiz, before the obvious one-on-one interview process.
Eventually it was decided that I was the man for the job and I left Scotland behind to move to London, officially starting at Future Publishing on 2 May 2006 as the Staff Writer on Official Nintendo Magazine. Hooray!
Five tips for success
To recap then, my own personal process involved getting a journalism qualification to help me stand out among others seeking work experience. Then, when I got that experience, it helped me get my name known to Future so they remembered me when I applied for a full-time job.
Like I say though, this is only one of a multitude of different routes you can take into the industry, especially now that it’s easier than ever to set up your own blog or YouTube channel and get noticed that way.
With that in mind, here are some tips that should increase your chances, regardless of what route you take. Be warned though, you won’t like the first one:
1) Make sure your expectations are realistic
Countless people want to be a games journalist but sadly, the reality is the vast, vast majority simply won’t. While it’s clear my degree got my foot in the door and my writing ability got me over the line, I fully accept that a lot of it was also down to luck and being in the right place at the right time.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that there are far fewer notable publications these days than there were back in 2006. The most obvious example is the continuous slow death of magazines.
Loads of mags have died over the years – in my time at Future alone I’ve witnessed the death of Xbox World, PSW, PSM3, PC Zone, Nintendo Gamer and, most recently, my beloved Official Nintendo Magazine.
And now even big websites are closing too. Naturally, the reason I’m writing this article in the first place is because the death of CVG and my subsequent redundancy led to me setting up this blog, and if reports are to be believed Joystiq is closing too. Meanwhile, sites like GameTrailers, GameFront and The Escapist have reportedly been laying off staff.
What this all means for you is that an industry that already doesn’t have a massive number of jobs worldwide is potentially getting even smaller. Chances are, then, that of all the people who want to be a professional games journalist, a tiny fraction of a percent will ever make it.
This is where you may expect me to advise “fuck it, do something else instead”, but I hate when people do that. By all means go for it and do your very best. My advice is instead to have a contingency plan sorted.
The reason I went down the academic route was because I knew there was a very good chance I’d never get my foot in the door. Had it all gone tits-up, I would at least have been left with a degree that would have helped me when going for other jobs.
It’s all well and good setting up a YouTube channel and devoting every waking minute to it, but if it never catches on and nothing comes of it, you’ll soon find you’ve got nothing that will land you a job anywhere else.
So no matter how adamant you are that you want to get into this business, be sure to have a backup plan.
2) Write constantly and share it with others
It’s very easy to fall for your own hype and believe you’re the next big thing in the writing world. After all, the stuff you write is coming from your own mind, so of course you like it.
However, and I mean this in the most respectful way possible, on a near-weekly basis I’ve received emails from different writers looking for work whose writing samples are terrible.
I know everything’s subjective, but there are some general rules to writing that most people agree lead to more entertaining, readable copy. The basic its versus it’s rule is a given, but there are other subtler things, like repetition of words or sentences that are too long.
The only way you can iron out these bad habits is to keep writing, as often as you can.
Crucially, though, you also need to let other people read what you’re writing. If you’ve got bad habits chances are you don’t realise it. Find someone you trust to be a harsh critic of your work and let them read your stuff. They’ll be able to tell you what they like and don’t like. Take their advice.
You might not like what they have to say, but I’ve been in that situation numerous times throughout my career where editors or other writers have pointed out things they didn’t like about my writing or annoying habits I kept dropping into every article I wrote.
I was pissed off when they told me. “Don’t tell me how to do my job,” I’d think. Then I’d try to take their suggestions on board and change my style accordingly so they’d get off my back, and I’d realise they were right. Every single time.
In fact, I’m offering my services here. Email me your reviews, features and what have you and, assuming they aren’t big 8000-word epics, I’ll reply with brutally honest feedback. Chances are you’ll think “fuck that guy”, but hopefully you’ll try out my suggestions and, fingers crossed, you’ll be happy with the results.
3) Read a wide variety of games coverage
You probably already know that game reviews read differently to, say, news articles. They each have their own language, their own flow, their own terminology.
It goes without saying then that successful games journalists are ones who are able to adapt to each style of writing when tackling a certain type of article.
However, it’s not as simple as that. Every publication has its own different house style, be it the general tone of their writing or the little subtle things, like whether they capitalise every word in a title (Lara Croft And The Temple Of Osiris) or only the important ones (Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris).
Read one of Kate Gray’s reviews in Official Xbox Magazine and you’ll find it’s a lot more light-hearted, funny and enthusiastic than Polygon’s more serious, po-faced take on the same game. Neither is right or wrong (though I personally prefer Kate’s), they’re just each written in the style that best suits their publication.
At CVG we’d cover news stories straight: we’d report the facts and nothing else, letting the readers discuss the implications in the comments. Meanwhile, VG247 may cover the same story in a different way, giving the facts along with the writer’s personal opinion. Again, neither is right or wrong, they’re just different ways of presenting the same information.
My point is this: chances are you have one or two websites or magazines that you consider your favourites, but if you want to get into this industry you shouldn’t solely focus on reading them alone.
Get into the habit of reading as many different publications as possible: established ones, mind, not amateur blogs. There’s nothing wrong with the latter but if the point of doing this is to study writing technique it’s best to focus on articles that have passed through an editor so you don’t inadvertently pick up someone else’s bad habits.
It’s all well and good being a big fan of Kotaku, but if (hypothetically speaking) the only job made available to you is Gamasutra and the only type of writing you’re familiar with is Kotaku’s more laid-back, bloggy style, you might be a tiny bit fucked.
4) Get your name known
By this I don’t mean hassling editors with emails on a daily basis saying “please read my Night Trap review”. It’s only going to annoy them and, besides, chances are you’re wrong: Night Trap is brilliant and screw the haters.
All I mean is that your chances of standing out from a sea of possible games journalists will greatly increase if you’re already known to the staff of the publication you’re interested in.
Post comments regularly in the articles, using your real name as your username if possible. Make sure the comments are well thought-out and articulate: don’t get into fights with anyone, troll anyone, get involved in fanboy shit or just reply with “lol” or what have you.
If the site you like has a forum, join it and become a regular part of the community. If they have a podcast that lets you get in touch with the team to ask questions or make points, do so. In short, you want to get to the stage where when a staff member sees your name they think “I know that guy/girl”.
This may sound like bullshit, but I’m telling you it’s true, and Official Nintendo Magazine was a perfect example of this. In March 2011, we launched the new-look ONM website, part of which included a new team of guest bloggers.
These bloggers – Marti, Colette, Chris and John – were chosen because they were notable, friendly, articulate members of the ONM reader community. We already knew them from their participation in the forums and article comments, and so when it came to choosing people to write for us it was clear they knew what they were talking about.
Other ONM forum members even ended up becoming journalists themselves: one lovely chap in particular has worked his way up to an editor role, all of which partly came about when he first got his foot in the door due to his status as a well-respected member of the ONM reader community.
5) Start up your own blog
If you don’t already have a blog then remedy that, pronto. Even if nobody reads it, you really should get into the habit of committing your work to ‘print’ (even though it’s virtual).
Fun fact: your first load of articles will be shite. I look back on my first gaming blog from the early 2000s (maybe I’ll share stuff from it one day, it’s well-hidden) and I properly cringe. But it’s all part of improving.
Keep adding articles to your blog as often as you can. When you buy a new game, review it. When you hear about a new game being announced, write a news story about it. If something’s pissing you off (hang your head, Assassin’s Creed Unity microtransactions) then write an opinion piece on it.
Write some articles with a serious tone. Make some jokey. Try to limit yourself to short sentences for some, and allow flowing prose in others. Experiment and find the tone that suits you best.
Then, in time, you’ll be able to narrow it down to a writing style that you feel most comfortable with. Start writing more and more articles in that way. Experiment less and concentrate on nailing that particular style.
Then, when it comes to applying for a job, you’ll have a blog full of articles in your perfectly-honed style that you can present in your application.
BOOM – PLANTASTIC.
Sorry that was a bit of a lengthy article, but now if anyone ever tells you they’re thinking of becoming a games journalist, hopefully you’ll point them in the direction of this article and they’ll be able to take something from it.
In the next part of my games industry feature I’ll focus on a touchy subject: game reviews. How they work, my views on embargoes and the truth about the typical “cash for scores” accusations that crop up regularly. Oooooh.