In September, I gave a talk at EGX in UKIE’s career area about how to get into games journalism. After many months – and a bit of editing – I’ve finally gotten round to putting the text online.
A couple of things to note. First, this is adapted from a talk and should (hopefully) read like it. That means it is a little more throwaway and a little less detailed than a fully structured piece, so please treat it accordingly.
Second, the talk was intended as a personal account of how to get into the industry. While I hope this is useful, it is also worth remembering this is just my opinion and that it will undoubtedly be deficient in a number of ways.
And third, I’ve cut the bit introducing me to save time. So you should go straight into the article around about…now.
In this talk I’ll try to explain to you whether or not its worth being a games journalist, give you a look over the landscape to help you understand where you might fit in if you do go into it, and finish off by giving you advice on how to get into the industry.
1) Is it worth becoming a games journalist?
So the first thing that I’m going to deal with and tackle head on is a question that quite a few people already in the industry asked me to cover: is it actually worth getting into games journalism?
There are plenty of people who respond to this question with “no”, “don’t bother” or something similarly negative. And rather than ignore it, I thought I’d meet that negativity head on.
So if you were asking me now whether or not I’d recommend getting into games journalism, my answer is an absolutely resounding “of course it is”.
It’s a fun sector to work in, where you can find an interesting and rewarding job role that your friends will literally be jealous of. But there are undoubtedly challenges which you will have to overcome and some negative things to consider before you commit to it wholeheartedly.
So before going to the trickier things, I’d first like to point out the positives of being a games journalist.
The big plus is that it’s just down right fun. Games journalism is great as both an avenue of expression and as a space in which to make a living as a writer or producer.
This collage shows a number of things important to me: reviewing games like FM 16 and Rocket League, which are firm favourites of mine now. Dicking around in Malmo in the video in the top right for a funny ident for a biz channel. Doing some actual explorative business journalism about Vainglory and (shock horror) Brexit. There’s even space for my first piece in print in The Blizzard and my random appearance on BBC Trending due to my funny name.
But beyond the simple fact that doing stuff about games is jolly good fun, there are other reasons why you should think about going into games journalism.
From a purely mechanical perspective, if you love creating videos, recording podcasts or writing then you’ll be able to do something that you love every day. Even if you have to knock something up about a game you don’t like or a topic you don’t enjoy, I always find that I can get enjoyment out of the creation process irrespective of the topic.
Second, games journalism gives you chances to travel abroad and meet new people. This is a photo of me in Finland at the offices of Rovio when I got to do a half hour sit down with the company’s CMO, but honestly, you’ll get loads of cool chances to head into the world.
If you’re a games journalist, you’ll almost certainly find yourself on trips to places like Berlin, Cologne, Paris, Stockholm, San Francisco and more at some point. So if you enjoy seeing the world and find meeting new people fascinating, then games journalism is fantastic on the front.
And finally, when looking at the pros of going into games journalism, you do get to enjoy a certain level of influence. In the short term it means people listen to what you say on Twitter about games, but in the long term it helps you to establish expertise that will be considered valuable in the broader industry.
This is great for you in the long run, particularly if you believe that you want to also have the chance one day to work in a studio or for a company in the sector when you’re done with walking the journalism beat.
But equally, though there are definitely positives to being a games journalist, I’d be lying if I said that it was an industry that was entirely paved with gold, milk and honey.
You can get that feeling when reading Alice Bell’s comments about working in the games press for Videogamer, where she is now Editor. Although you might be attracted by the lure of playing games, she correctly points out that is not really your job. Instead:
“If you want to go into video you should love making video. If you want to be a long form writer fucking love writing. Because that’s what you’ll be doing”
And the reason why it is important to know that is because games journalism can be one hell of a slog. To make a living in it, you’re going to have to be comfortable with producing lots of content very quickly and consistently to stay afloat.
That’s because of the first major problem with games journalism as it stands today – the economics of the industry mean you’re not going to earn much money at all for working your arse off.
As with all jobs in the age of online media, where drying up ad revenues have hit businesses hard, frontline pay has been hit pretty hard.
MCV’s games industry pay survey found that games journalists earn an average of £22,000 a year, with staff writers at a lowly £18,500 and Editors at £27,500. To put that into context, the average UK salary was £27,600 for the tax year ending April 2015 – suggesting it’s tough to get ahead in the sector.
Second, games journalism (as with all parts of the games industry) suffers from a representation problem.
Only 18% of people working in the games industry are women and they earn on average £3500 less than their male counterparts, Furthermore, representation of individuals who are from black and ethnic minority background in the industry remains unhappily low
And while there are positive signs on that front – with IGN, GameSpot, VideoGamer, Sky, The BBC, The Guardian and Pocket Gamer diversifying the make up of their editorial staff – it is understandable if you do look at the industry and wonder how you’ll get into it.
Finally, there are so few full time jobs to go around that it feels like a punch up trying to get one.
Even though major brands like IGN, Gamespot, Vice and Kotaku have UK gaming offshoots, it’s rare to have a team of more than 5-10 journalists for any given publication.
Extrapolate this across the country to take into account journalism hubs like Bath and Bristol – as well as accounting for full time staffers working remotely – there can’t be much more than a few hundred full time roles as a games journalist in the UK.
In short then, the industry is super competitive. And when you add it all together, it’s hard to argue with the assertion that games journalism is economically unviable for the majority in the long term. It’s common to see journalists cross the boundary to 30 and decide that the long hours, relatively low pay and competitive career environment isn’t worth fighting for.
But during your 20s, when you’re young and energetic, games journalism has a weird glamour attached to it. It’s fun to do, people will actually be really interested in what you’re doing and getting into video/podcasting or into a major publication for the first time gives you a kick.
And if you maintain a career in there for longer, it acts as a stepping stone for all sorts of other work. You might become a corporate suit like me, writing words for hire for businesses.
But you might also set up a Youtube channel and use a Patreon to support yourself. You might move into PR, where there are more jobs and genuine gratitude for anyone offering top quality advice on how to reach journalists. Or you might move into a role at a company where you get to create content every day, such as community management or writing.
And if you hang around for long enough and have the skills to pay the bills, you’ll end up as head honcho of a major publication eventually. It’ll be difficult to get there, but if you do at some point then the pay, conditions and sheer respect from across the business will make up for the struggle. You might even get to write a book off the back of it.
Viewed in full, it can seem mad to get into games journalism. But it’s definitely something I’ve enjoyed doing and I highly recommend doing it – especially if you’re from a background under represented in the industry.We need your voices more than ever in these tough times and I think the industry really does want to hear them.
2) Looking at the landscape
So when you get started in the industry, I recommend taking a look at the landscape and doing two things.
First, you want to have a look at how the industry is shaped generally before you try to find a place in it.
For the most part, I think it’s split into three parts:
• Specialist Gaming press, which cater to a niche – but dedicated – audience.
• General gaming press, which reaches beyond the niche to a wider gaming audience (whether in business or consumer press)
• General press, which reaches the widest audience possible but has gaming content competing side by side with other work.
And in terms of where you should start out in relation to the diagram I’ve just put up, I’d say you’re most likely to start at the bottom of the pyramid and climb up rather than vice versa.
While you can certainly jump ahead a bit by getting a good entry level job or making the right pitch, publications higher up the pyramid want the experts writing for them. So you’ll want to prove yourself in a publication that I’m somewhat unfairly describing as slightly ‘lower’ down the pecking order to help project yourself upwards.
Second, once you’ve looked at the pyramid, you’ll want to decide between getting a job in games journalism or being a freelancer when you start out. Each has their pros and cons.
Getting a job will get you a secure role in a company and plenty of support at the start of your career. You will have your work edited, you will get valuable feedback and you’ll be exposed to all the major stories in your sector. You’ll also get monthly pay, holidays and other benefits that jobs give you.
But you will, in most circumstances, be tied to one employer and you might struggle to expand your profile beyond them if they don’t actively promote you personally. So you sacrifice some freedom in return for support.
On the other hand, freelancing offers flexibility and freedom but you’re relying on the strength of your own name and your own hard work to get pitches accepted.
It’s liberating to be able to (theoretically) write whatever you want and pitch whoever you want. You can also write for lots of publications at one particular time, because editors will often have a bit of extra cash in their budget to commission freelancers to expand the scope of their site. You can even freelance in a way similar to a hobbyist, picking up a bit of extra cash for work you might have done anyway for your own site.
But in practice, freelancing is about finding the compromise between what you dream of doing and what is financially rewarding. With no paid holiday, little support network and few excuses accepted if you cock things up, freelancing can be brutal – especially for someone with few contacts, little opportunity to shape the industry or lack of business experience.
But if you can do it on the side of working a full time job or are able to grow it out of doing your own thing when you start out in your career, all power to you.
3) Getting on the ladder
So, how do you actually go about getting a job in games journalism? First the good news; you don’t actually need any specific qualifications to do so. It is obviously important that you can create engaging work, form ideas cogently and pump work out with minimal fuss, but it isn’t necessary to be well qualified to demonstrate that.
Of course, it definitely helps if you can write and do have a qualification to back yourself up. Having a directly related degree or one that can be applied laterally (such as an arts subject) will help you to stand out to many publications – so don’t forget to keep that near the top of your CV if you do have one.
But there are people working in games journalism who have no formal qualifications and rose to the top.
Kirk Mckeand, who won the GMA Rising Star Award in 2014, also entered the industry without a traditional writing background. As he told me.
“Four years ago I couldn’t even use a comma properly, but now I’m writing for some of my favourite outlets in the games industry and I’m constantly busy.”
So it’s definitely possible to get into the sector if you’ve not got an ‘academic’ background. But according to Jim Trinca, now of Jim, Burns and Dave but formerly of Videogamer, it’s really important to be able to demonstrate your talent to get a foot in the door.
“I got into it by making good stuff and doing good stuff. Eventually someone gave me a job, even though all my experience in the field was as an amateur”
As for what you end up creating, it obviously depends on your personal preference. But whatever you end up musing about, the key thing is to create a variety of content where possible. This can mean doing work across content types (e.g. video work, podcasting and writing), but it can equally mean showing you’re capable of writing pithy news, fair reviews and thought out features.
And at this point, you’ll be asking where to put all this work that you’ll be doing. This leads us into the question of whether or not you should work for free, either for a company offering an unpaid internship or creating your own content.
In general, the advice from the internet for budding writers is never work for free. My advice is similar, but a bit different: understand that you never work for free.
What I mean by that I mean is that everything you do comes attached with a cost. So rather than thinking about whether you should work for free or not, instead spend time calculating the value of what you’re doing to decide whether to invest in the opportunity.
For example, if you’re based outside London and are asked to do a five day unpaid internship at a company then your costs might break down to:
• 5 days of travel in and out of the city (£150)
• Lunches (£20-£50)
• Lost opportunities to make money (7 hours a day at £8 a throw, £280)
• Grand total of £450-500
You then need to ask a) whether there are any ways you can recoup the amount you need to invest (say by asking for expenses to be covered, which is reasonable), b) whether you believe you could produce £500 of value by doing something else (such as running your own blog or channel professionally) and ultimately c) whether you believe the internship is worth investing £500 of actual and opportunity cost.
As a rule of thumb, don’t work for free for small publications unless you benefit in kind and only work for big companies if they reimburse your costs. The smaller sites don’t offer enough value to make it worth your while, but the bigger sites should know better than taking you for a ride and not (at least) contributing to your costs.
But many of you might decide it’s better to focus time and resource into your own project – something I definitely commend and in some instances outright recommend.
It might seem small fry or inconsequential, but setting up your own thing can give you real brownie points with future employers. Showing you can get your content online using video streaming channels like Twitch, CMS’s like WordPress and audio sites like Soundcloud is a big plus, as is being able to promote them using social media and mailing services like Mailchimp.
Furthermore, owning something and building it up will teach you how to construct something bigger than yourself. This is both a valuable skill to show to employers and a way of carving out your own niche to profit on, which means it is definitely worth considering doing it.
Whichever route you take, the key thing is to make sure that you get a body of work out of it that shows you’re flexible and able to create a variety of content. Once you’ve got that, you can begin applying for work.
When it comes to applying for jobs, it’s important to know where companies are most likely to hire you. Roles where staff are expected to produce a lot of content quickly, such as News Writer, Staff Writer or Production Assistant, are the best places for entry level candidates to apply to because those roles will see you creating a lot of content but usually with support of a superior (e.g. a News Editor).
When it comes to the written application itself, it’s really important to show potential employers the quality of your work. So make sure that editors can easily see your work in the form of an online portfolio and try to find relevant professional references to help you get through the door.
Crucially, you’ll also want to make sure that your pitch really sparkles. Alysia Judge, video host at IGN, recommends using humour to get an edge.
“If you’re applying for a staff writer position at a publication, make them laugh in your cover letter. Some of the best video games writers carve their copy with a sharp wit. Showcase that in your cover letter.”
But whatever approach you take with your cover letter, make sure it is well written, to the point and that it clearly outlines how you’ll be able to fulfil the job at hand. A letter like that supported with a smart CV will help you get to the interview where, to be honest, you’ll have to take it from there.
As for freelancing, the key thing you’ll need to do to get things started is to make the right sorts of contacts in the industry. You’ll need to meet and greet editors and feature editors, the people who hold the purse strings, as well as getting hold of their contact details so that you can actually pitch them.
You’ll also need to hone up your pitching skills to pin sharp accuracy. Rather than repeat out loud everything I’ve thought about pitching, here’s advice from Phil Savage that was posted on social media earlier this year and remains excellent.
Finally, and particularly for freelancers, you’ll need to worry about how to get paid. Unlike people aiming for a staff role, freelancers must never compromise on being paid. You may compromise on the amount you’re paid, but being paid is the essence of successful freelance life and is an irrefutable objective.
So to do that, make sure you try to calculate a rough day rate to work towards, set up some basic business banking to help you manage where your money flows in and out of and carefully curate an air of a person who will explode if an invoice doesn’t get paid on time. It might be boring and pretty unglamorous stuff, but it’s important to get this right.
And that’s basically it in terms of getting started. As for building your career, it depends on what you’re doing.
But whether you’re a freelancer or employed in a company, always set yourself some personal goals to keep yourself going. Saying that you want to write for x publication, want to achieve y role or do something larger about z topic will give you something to aim for and help you to keep advancing in your career – even without a boss to tell you what to do.
Ultimately, I still believe that you can make a great career as a games journalist. It won’t be easy and you’ll have to work hard to make your own path. But if you are committed, then there’s no reason why you can’t go on and have a decent career in this highly entertaining industry.