Occasionally I get asked about how I wound up doing what I primarily do for a living, which is working as a freelance games journalist at GameFront.com, as well as how others might make their way into the industry. I know quite a few people who’d like to find a way to do what I do, so I figured a series of posts to that end would be useful. Here’s the first.
Mine’s not a particularly inspiring story, except perhaps for how mundane it is — it carries an air of “I’m a games journalist, and so can you!” So I mean to impart the tale and a few tips along the way maybe, though it’s probably not an experiment that can be replicated.
We should start this whole noise out by mentioning that I’ve been hugely, incredibly, astonishingly lucky. Games journalism has always been interesting to me, but I’ve never seriously pursued it before I wound up a part of the industry.
My current job at Game Front came by way of two other jobs. Back in the summer of 2008, I was pursuing freelance work across the Internet after having moved to Chicago. My primary occupation at that time was some freelance copy editing for a real estate website based in the city (found via the Chicago Craigslist), and I caught sight of some supplementary work after co-writer best friend Nick Hurwitch tossed me a link from the Los Angeles Craigslist. (Important tip: Craigslist can be worth a damn. Be careful of scams and people willing to let you work for free, though.)
The gig I caught was as a walkthrough writer with a content farm. It didn’t pay too terribly well, looking back. There was strategy to it, really — write walkthroughs for shooters, turn a profit. Write walkthroughs for Zelda games (my first title was The Wind Waker because I’m a jackass), make pennies on the hour. Then again, it was kind of fun, so I didn’t mind terribly.
The trouble with content farms (well, one of them) is that they aren’t especially pro-writer. Walkthroughs there weren’t my primary income, which meant I worked at whatever pace with which I was comfortable. But after Mark, the editor who’d hired me, jumped ship for a new job, things went from just fine to somewhat deplorable in the space of two months, when the content farm site decided to start paying its writers in its own internal currency. (This stuff they developed as a means of trying to grow their Yahoo Answers competitor by allowing people to “tip” community members for good answers. The tip “bucks” you purchased were worth less than the money you put into the system.) It was possible to trade this Monopoly money for real U.S. currency at a rate of 75 actual cents to every fake dollar — so it was basically a massive pay cut (not to mention a deplorable way to treat the people who were making the site all its money). I cut loose.
About a year passed, and this is where it gets lucky. I moved to Los Angeles and happened to get a call from Mark, my former editor at the content farm. He was looking for walkthrough writers for FileFront.com, his new digs. He thought of me.
A big lesson to be learned from this anecdote is that working hard gets you remembered. Busting ass and doing a good job are powerful. Mark mentioned on more than one occasion that I turned in strong walkthroughs. They were extremely thorough (that I can vouch for) and the writing was apparently pretty solid (he muttered through a humble half-smile). When Mark needed walkthrough writers, I got a call, and a new job.
Here’s where it stops being about luck. Getting an opportunity to work for a games site, even in the walkthrough department, is a cracked-open door, and I started kicking at it.
First, that meant doing my best to distinguishing myself among the walkthrough staff as best I could. I grabbed whatever projects were available whenever they were available, making an attempt to get the most important stuff and do the best job on it. This sometimes meant giving myself more work than was probably prudent for me to take on, and sometimes meant going for walkthrough projects that ended up requiring more work than one would probably want to devote.
So. Plugging away at walkthroughs. All well and good and probably would never have amounted to much, which is why I started asking for additional assignments. I knew I wanted to migrate into the greater editorial area; the way to do that was to be useful. Asking for more work was a way to start. Before long, I was filling in for guys on the editorial side in the news cycle (which, as at most games sites like ours, amounts to a lot of reposting of news stories that show up on other sites). Then I was grabbing reviews for games I was walking through anyway, and pitching original features and editorials.
The key, however, was pushing open the door once I had found it, and that was about working. Working a lot. Working hard. Asking for opportunities. Breaking into editorial from walkthroughs took a long time, but from my perspective, it was possible only through proving myself in whatever ways I could manage. Demonstrating a strong work ethic will take you places at any publication, because editors like people they can rely on. (There’s a fine line between people relying on you and people taking advantage of you, though, and on the Internet, it can get hazy. I’ve been lucky to have avoided that pitfall most of the time, but I’ll do a post on that topic sometime soon.)
I’m intending to put together another post in the very near future running down some tips for working as a freelancer, but here are some quick hits:
- Work hard. Do not allow people to take advantage of you; do demonstrate that you’re worth having around.
- Remind people you’re there and that you’re hungry. Hassle them to give you a chance.
- Keep an eye open for opportunities.
- Start small. Climb the ladder.
Also worth noting: I know quite a bit about journalism. I studied it in college and high school, and have worked as a professional journalist in some capacity since roughly the 10th grade. I consider myself pretty damn good at it, or at least pretty damn knowledgeable about it. I wouldn’t recommend anyone setting out to start working in games journalism with just the qualifications of being a “gamer” or even being especially knowledgeable about games. You need to know this business.
There aren’t as many actual journalists working in games journalism as you might think, but there’s no end to hobbyists, fan-boys and -girls and people who cruise reddit and IGN every day and consider themselves experts. Information can be found, knowledge bases can be built, but an understanding of journalism and a willingness to do the hard work will take you a lot farther than being able to pick Cliff Bleszinski out of a lineup. Knowing how to be a good journalist is a lot better than liking video games, if you ask me, and being good at journalism immediately puts you ahead of waaay more than half the people who are struggling to get jobs in this industry. If there’s one piece of advice I’d give you, it’s learn your craft. It ain’t easy.
More to come on this topic, I assure you.