i’ve been reviewing video games for many years now. i’ve written the Holy Trinity of Ews – reviews, news and previews – for print magazines, websites, and TV commercials. My side gig as a game reviewer has taken me to E3 in Los Angeles, to a swanky highrise in NYC’s warehouse district, and to the passenger seat of a souped-up street racer on Toronto’s exhibition grounds. And through all of this, i’m compelled to draw one final conclusion: being a game journalist is not worth the effort.
Roger Ebert, fighting a public battle against thyroid cancer
This Movie has 42 Hours
When uber-famous and once-chubby film critic Roger Ebert claimed that video games will never be viewed as art, he was only defending his best interests. If games were considered art, as movies are, then maybe he’d be asked to review them. And if Ebert reviewed games, he could no longer spend a simple hour and a half with the source material. No, Ebert would be like the rest of the schlubs in game journalism, sweating his way through a 40-hour first-person shooter in his rec room, while throngs of drunk Southerners on XBox live hurled racial slurs at him.
Not only is the rec room a far cry from an empty theatre, but the time Ebert puts into his job makes economic sense. i myself make $75 for a one-page magazine article. i used to write online reviews in exchange for used copies of review games at a rate of about 3 reviews per “free” game. Your average (new) video game in Canada costs $70. That works out to $23 per review.
Let’s look at what went into writing that review:
It’s All About the (Absence of) Benjamins
The writing itself took about an hour. So far so good – $23 per hour is a fair wage for a freelance writer.
Now let’s factor in the time it took to view the source material. Today’s console games clock in at 20-40 hours. We’ll take the minimum – 20 hours. $23/20 hours works out to $1.15 an hour. A buck fifteen? Uh-oh. Suddenly, this is turning into a losing game.
At this rate, the freelance reviewer can’t afford to finish a game before submitting his review. And here’s my dark secret: i never did finish the games i reviewed. The game companies would send review copies one week before street date at the very earliest. With a full-time job, it was next to impossible to beat these games in that time limit. And as we’ve seen, it didn’t make economical sense to do so anyway.
So what’s fair? Let’s say a stingy reviewer spends 2 hours playing the game. 2 hours to play + 1 hour to write = 3 hours. $23/3 is 7 bucks an hour, which you could also earn slinging hash at the local burger joint.
Sounds grim? A colleague of mine revealed that his magazine paid him $2 for a capsule review. Two dollars. Mind you, capsule reviews go something like this:
Make it quick
Metroid Prime 3: Corruption
Shoot bugs and space pirates with a cool gadget arm. i liked the explosions, but some parts were short. In summary, gimme mah two dollars, bitch.
They’re a lot less effort to write. But if you sip a three-dollar Starbucks while writing them, you’re basically paying for the privilege of being a game reviewer.
When i first got into game journalism, i couldn’t understand why all the local game reviewers were dicks. They’d either try to sell me on their experience and ask if they could write for “my” publications, or they’d openly ridicule me. After a few years, i now understand why. It’s hard to be friendly when you’re competing tooth and nail for $7/hr freelance work.
The industry is very competetive, but it’s more a battle of personalities than anything else. A reviewer won’t excel because his writing is better; he’ll get work because he has work. Success begets more success. The ability to schmooze with the PR agencies representing the big game companies is paramount. Without that, you’d better see that your homeless shelter offers free wi-fi.
There’s a particular Toronto reviewer who writes for every publication in town because he writes for every publication in town. He’s universally despised by the other journalists for being slim on talent and guaranteed regular work. And he’s also a dick. Like any other industry, it’s not what you know. It’s who you know. But in the microscopic Canadian game journalism racket, it’s an all-or-nothing game. Knowing someone means the difference between getting all of the work, like that guy, or getting none of the work.
By far the worst part of the business is attending the press junkets. The big game companies pay their PR agencies to throw lavish parties to preview their products. If you hope to get anywhere in the industry, you have to attend all of them, from the fancy Gears of War launch party to the Hannah Montana Adventures karaoke night. Many of these events drag on for hours as you shuffle from game console to game console, straining to hear the audio, trying to get a good sense of the gameplay while roving waiters constantly foist cheesyweeners on you, and PR people whisper Satanically into your ear.
Ol’ Luce could learn a few tricks from PR reps
The events’ raison d’etre is for PR reps to spew a string of positive game buzz into your ear in the hopes that some of their phrases will wind up in your review. They’ll blab on endlessly about the very worst back-of-the-box blither you’ve ever heard. Regard:
You: (trying to figure out how to control your character)
Rep: Crash Bandicoot: Smashypants is the latest in a long, proud series of games starring the loveable daredevil marsupial.
Rep: You can see that the developers spent most of their time really livening up the spectrum of colours in this game, and ensuring that the gameplay appeals to fans of squad-based go-kart party shooter titles.
You: Right. It’s uh … it kind of sucks.
Rep: (face falling for an almost imperceptible moment) Well, the developers really listened to fan feedback and wanted the control scheme to be challenging enough for some players, but not so challenging that it was too difficult to play.
You: No – it really sucks. It sucks worse than Crash Team Cook-off. It’s not even as good as Crash Bandicoot’s Brain Blenders. It’s really, really bad.
Rep: Well, it supports 4-players in a local splitscreen match, and you can choose the colour of your character’s hat.
You: Why doesn’t it support no players? Cuz that’s how many people are going to enjoy this thing. Can you tell me why i have to press START to see my health metre? Or why my character only moves forward when i eat a berry? Or why the problems with the last Crash game haven’t been addressed at all in this piece of nonsense?
You: Do you have any developers here? Is there an artist here who can defend the decision to make my character look like a warmed-over salami? Is there an animation director here who can talk about why these characters have three frames of animation in their run cycles?
Rep: Uh … no. But we have the producer here.
You: Okay … send him over.
Producer: Hi! Crash Bandicoot: Smashypants is the latest in a long, proud series of games starring the loveable daredevil marsupial.
Producer: And you can change the colour of your character’s hat!
Waiter: Would you like to try a cheesyweener, sir?
You’ve essentially spent hours at this junket – and there are multiple junkets every week – so that you can write a $2 preview piece on a game you barely played. That’s what i was always doing at the junkets – asking to speak to a member of the production team. But the junkets are never stocked with people responsible for building the game – only people responsible for spinning the game. i really wondered who would fall for these transparent tactics.
The year that Nintendo debuted their DS system at E3, they made a few points clear in their presentation: “it’s all about the power of two. You have two screens. Two media slots. Two ways to connect.” Et cetera. Fine.
A day later, as i was wandering around the show floor when i overheard a couple of exciteable young bloggers (due to the likes of whom E3 was eventually cancelled). One blogger was enthusiastically telling the other blogger “it’s all about the power of two. You have two screens. Two media slots. Two ways to connect.”
A big part of the job is building up relationships with the game companies. The current Big Three – Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo – should be your first stop. The goal is to convince them to send you a steady stream of review copies ahead of the street date so that by the time you post a “news” item, it’s actually news.
How hard is it to convince a PR company to send you games? Well, i wrote reviews for the website of a national kids’ teevee station. A third-party metrics company tracks the site at around 1 million unique visitors per month – mostly kids, one would presume. i had to pound the pavement and build the relationship with one of the Big Three, the one who launches a lot of family-friendly entertainment – for over two years before they’d send us review copies. A game in Canada costs around $70 – considerably less if you’re the company pressing the discs – yet they didn’t consider a game review promoted to 1 million viewers a month to be a viable exchange. Not to divulge my former employer’s precious secrets, but an ad banner on their site goes for a price tag considerably North of 70 bucks.
You don’t actually have to sleep with these people, but i’m sure it would help
Even after you’ve convinced the Big Three that you’re worth the effort, you have to chase down all of the third parties. Activision, Ubi Soft, Namco, Atlus, Konami, Koei … you fight tooth and nail to find the contact people for these places. Maintaining that many separate relationships for your $7/hr is like working the counter at McDonald’s and having to call up all of the farmers who supply the various types of food to the supply distributor. And then you have to convince Farmer Tucker to send you a Chicken McNugget.
But You Get Free Games, Right?
Easily the biggest perk for a game journalist is getting games before anyone else does. But that sneak preview comes at a dire price: you have to play the game like a maniac, plowing through it as fast as possible to get that review ready for launch day.
From October to December, which i’ve dubbed Video Game Season, you have to make bitter sacrifices or risk burning out completely. You’ve got Mass Effect, a 40-hour game, in one hand, and The Orange Box, containing five separate games, in the other. Do you kill yourself playing and reviewing both of them to keep up your PR relationship to continue receiving games? Do you play one in its entirety and do a review, hoping you’ve earned enough cred with the other company to let one slide? Or do you take the time to enjoy Thanksgiving with your family?
One of my most eye-opening experiences was in New York City, at the pre-release press junket for the Nintendo Wii. Sitting in the front row was a young guy hunched over his laptop, madly pecking away at 80 words a minute before the event even began. His face was ghostly pale, might not have shaved for weeks, and his hair was like straw. When the Nintendo reps took the stage and started the presentation, his fingers flew faster than ever. He was live-blogging the event, posting a live online play-by-play of everything the reps were saying.
That young man was Matt Cassamassina, a prominent game journalist at IGN. Matt, if you’re reading this, listen to me: you need to eat some broccolis. You need to go outside, peel off all your clothes, and let the sunshine hug you. i feel badly for you.
Matt, seriously. At this point, Ebert’s looking better.
Matt is clearly earning more than the $7/hr scraps we Canucks are scrounging for, but at what cost? He asked his questions, and he got nonsense political PR doublespeak back. i don’t know how he does it. He must really enjoy it. Me? PR doublespeak just makes me angry.
Here’s the kind of PR idiocy you can look forward to as a games journalist. Back when Phantasy Star Online was being launched for the Nintendo GameCube, there had been no other online games for the system. i wondered how Nintendo was going to enable the online functionality. Here’s how the conversation went:
Me: So, Phantasy Star Online is launching soon. How’s that gonna work? Is Nintendo releasing a modem adapter for the system?
Me: “No”, or “you can’t say”?
Rep: Nothing’s been said, and we’re not supporting online capabilities with the system.
Me: But you have a game launching on it called “Phantasy Star Online,” right?
Rep: That has been announced, yes.
Me: But there will be no online capabilities for the system when it launches?
Rep: That’s correct.
Me: … So uh … let me get this straight. You’re telling me that Phantasy Star Online, released exclusively for the GameCube, AND TITLED PHANTASY STAR ONLINE, will be … offline?
Rep: That’s correct.
Phantasy Star You-Know-What
Matt, i don’t know how you do it. You may look like an underfed scarecrow, but you’re a stronger man than i.
See, Roger Ebert’s a clever cat. He puts in his hour and a half (sometimes three hours – damn you, Peter Jackson!), and saunters out of the theatre, dusts the popcorn from his silk ascot, and wonders what he’s going to say about it. It’s in his best interest to slag video games til he’s blue in the face – God forbid he’d ever have to sit through one to write a review.
“Game journalist” is one of about three game industry jobs that outsiders think are awesome: game journalist, game tester, and game designer. The layperson thinks “aw, sweet – you get to sit around and play games all day!”
The game journalist gets to sit around and play games all day. Spending time with the family or earning money for rent? As far as Canada’s concerned, it’s a dicey proposition.
The game tester gets to sit around and play game all day. One game. Singular. And he has to play it for months on end, taking notes as it constantly breaks. But at least he gets to pay his dues and move up in the industry, perhaps being promoted to:
Game designer. This guy has to play the same game over and over again too, but he’s got the added burden of fixing all the problems himself. Still, if he’s an independent, he can license his titles to a casual games portal and go home to sleep on a pile of money-coated money.
“How callous”, you say. i often warn people about turning their hobby into their career. All too often, you’ll end up hating both. But if your hobby/career brings in enough money to buy the games you want to play, instead of forcing you to play That’s So Raven 3, so much the better. If your job, be it testing toys or shovelling goose poop off the parliament lawn, funds a trip to the zoo with your daughter, and the occasional escape to the Caribbean with your family, i’d say you’re doing alright.
… provided we’re talking about the real zoo, and not Microsoft’s Zoo Tycoon 2: Marine Mania.