Saturday, August 27, 2005

breaking through the establishment

Starting up your own game website with the aim to make money is probably one of the hardest things you can do. Just like any website I guess - making money off the internet is a little confusing, simply because most people haven't worked out how to do it just yet.

In the UK, there is a tier 1 of game websites that exist, make money, and are considered attractive enough by game PRs to be sent preview and review code and to be invited to trade shows and press events. They make money off of advertising, syndicating their words to other mainstream websites and other media avenues and so can pay a staff of writers.

So you can include Eurogamer, GamesRadar, TotalVideoGames, Computer and Video Games and a select few others as being in tier 1. All others are on the scrap heap, so PRs don't really listen to them when they beg for recognition and precious preview and review code.

The problem here is that the current set-up is self fulfilling. The established websites only work because of the resources at their disposal - most are feeder webistes from Future Publishing, like Edge-Online, CVG and GamesRadar. They employ paid up writers and already have access to a network of contacts. Some webistes, like Eurogamer and TVG, were born from fan sites and start-ups outside the normal publishing landscape. But it seems the market is saturated.

So when a group of people get together to launch a videogame website and hopefully make money off of it, it is extremely difficult to compete with what is already there. You can't afford to pay writers, so often the editorial content appears amateurish (which it is, inevitably) and news is always very much fed off of press releases, rather than generated from investigative work. The resources are not there to pay people to do this.

This is an extremely rare thing indeed - to be paid to write about videogames on the Internet is a blessing. Of the millioins of game fans with the amateur websites, fan sites and blogs, only about 0.1% of those who write about videogames earn a living from it. So how do you go about challenging the big boys and making a living out of writing on games?

First off, you have to be prepared to work extremely hard and for little reward. You also have to be prepared to lose lots of money before you ever have the chance to make some. You have to be persisitent, determined and single-minded, and never stop bugging publishers for assets. You have to act professional, even when you feel as if you've had enough. You have to have passion for games, and always write as if you are celebrating the form, whether reviewing Miyamoto's latest masterpiece of another movie-tie in. Above all, you need to be good.

In the beginning, when it's unlikely that you will be given preview and review code to get exclusive reviews, concentrate on features and opinion pieces. Keep the copy lively, controversial and thought-provoking. Think about writing things that no-one else covers. Top-tens, What Ifs?, Expopses, Who's That Developer, 10 Questions You Were Always Wondering About games but were Afraid to Ask? That kind of thing. There are a million different reviews of the latest GTA on the web, but they'll only be one feature from you.

Always approach others, never wait for them to approach you. If you can slowly build up a fan base of loyal readers on the web (providing a forum for your readers to vent their feelings is key), you can approach advertisers with hits and clicks and offer them space. Then the money starts to come in. Slowly but surely, if you're good enough, the editorial content is compelling enough and the website is accessible, you can justify PR attention, code and invites. It will all come slowly, but will, eventually, come.

Problem is, most people don't put the time and energy required to succeed, and give up after a while. They then go back to whatever job they had and write for nothing in their spare time. Nobody said it would be easy, but it is possible. Don't give up. One day, if you're very lucky, the PRs will approach you, and you'll know you've finally made a living out of game journalism.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

back to basics . . .

Fine, if you say I can't write, I'll learn. Ha.

Wynford Hicks' wonderfully enlightening book 'Writing for Journalists' is just the kind of thing I wish my tutors had insisted we all read during my degree. Everything is explained with such ease, from drop-down intros to feature structure, to the use of anecdotes to variations in style, that I can't believe it's not required reading for trainee journalists everywhere. Hooray for Hicks.

As I caressed each of the 150 or so pages while commuting this week, I got to thinking. The techniques explained, using examples from nationals, regionals and trade periodicals (just to show you need to work extra hard to make B2Bs interesting) aren't employed in game journalism.

They just aren't.

Things like what I just did there. Hicks advises against such posturing. I agree. And yet game journalism is over populated with this very same technique, as if making a statement of defiance that's simply not required. It's as if game journalism is sticking two fingers up at mainstream writing when they would be better employed turning the pages of Hicks' tome.

Simple things like employing narrative or anecdotes in feature intros. Hicks provides an example:

'According to a Chinese legend, a rich man commissions an artist to draw him a picture of a fish. Years pass by and the rich man grows impatient. He visits the artist and demands the picture or else he will cancel the deal.

The artist then proceeds to draw the most exquisite fish of all time, in a mere 30 seconds. The rich man is well pleased but intensely puzzled. 'If you can produce something so beautiful in 30 seconds, how come I had to wait seven years?'

The artist does not reply but instead leads the man over to a large cabinet which he opens to reveal several thousands of practice skethces of fishes.

The Boat Race is similar to this . . .'

Daily Telegraph

I've never seen an oblique intro, using a story, as well as this in game journalism. While it slightly concerns me, I understand it. Most game writing is for male gamers, who don't care about journalistic techniques when they read the latest GTA preview. Why make the effort?

And it certainly takes a particular skill to write entertaining and compelling reviews and previews for teenage boys, especially when you only have 250 words to play with. I don't even think I can do it brilliantly myself. But I'm not interested in that kind of game writing. I'm interested in game features, and from what I've seen, professional techniques, hell, even the lateral thought that goes into mainstream feature writing, just isn't there on the web or in print.

So, I reckon, wide-eyed game journos-to-be should learn from people like Hicks and employ these amazing techniques in their game writing. You'll stand out from the millions of other prospects and really set yourself high standards.

I see a future when game writing is of a standard of the Guardian's best feature writers, or the quality of the Independent's columnists. Game features, perhaps discussing the latest online commmunity phenomenon, or an interview with the latest up and coming developer, will have intros to die for, will have a structure than inspires and an ending that sticks in the memory like a fond childhood smell. I can already see these techniques slipping into some game writing outlets. The beginnings of this future is already upon us.

If you read the nationals, even words from Big Issue, NME or Maxim, you notice something. If you deeply analyse them, work out why you enjoy a particular sentence, why certain words make you smile, or other phrases roll of your minds tongue like a child sliding down a water shute, you'll understand what I'm talking about. As far as I can tell, it's not a problem doing it, it's just realising why you're doing what you're doing. Hell, if I can do it, anyone can.

I can't think of a good enough pay-off. Check back later after I've looked it up in Hicks.