How I got to where I am today

I received an email the other day asking for advice regarding how someone can get into a paying position writing about games. Despite not getting paid much, really, I am a person in that position, hence this person asked.

I wrote them a long email that probably didn’t help them much, but it does go over how hard it was for me to get where I am today, so I thought it would be appropriate for this blog. I’ve covered up the person’s identity for their own sake. I’ve also edited what I wrote to them and added some extra bits in where I feel appropriate.

The main point I try to make is that there isn’t really any advice I can give that’s going to be that handy. It certainly isn’t healthy to follow what I did. I also acknowledge briefly, but want to emphasize it here, that not everyone has an equal chance at getting into these jobs. It’s long been known that being white and male gives you more of a chance of getting into these positions. Basically: I don’t mean to imply that anyone can do what I did and get a job.

I’d also love it if anyone actually had some good advice on the topic at hand (I certainly don’t have much) that they’d like to drop in the comments section. Even if no one else does, I’d like to read anything you’d have to suggest!

The email conversation I had with the person is below (as said, with some edits).

———————-
So…hi Chris!

We’ve talked a bit before, and I told you that you were one of the biggest inspirations for me working on my site.

How did you get started? How did you actually end up making it anywhere in this industry? I want more than anything to cover games (instead of continuing to work retail for the rest of my life), and I’m happiest when I’m discovering some awesome new thing and am able to spread the word. I even decided to pursue a journalism major in college, but I know that’s not guaranteeing me any spot in doing what I actually love.

I love talking to developers, listening to developers, and learning why people make the games they do. I’ve always loved games, but in the last five years or so I’ve dived deeper into learning about where they come from.

As happy as sites like Warp Door, Indie Statik, Indie Games.com, etc, make me, I can’t help but be frustrated about the way so many indie games aren’t covered on other major sites. Every year when it comes time for “Game of the Year” and all that nonsense, I’m grasping for people who even PLAYED the same games as me. At the end of the year when we’re hearing about Destiny on PS4, I’ll be in the background shouting into the ether about Mibibli’s Quest.

I feel like I do good work. The few people that read my site say they like what I do. I’m proud that I’m able to say that I built a thing, no matter how small it is. I get review code from several publishers and developers, and I never thought I would even make it that far. I was even able to write for [redacted] in the past, and I was super excited when they asked me to write for them once again last year.

I realize this is a loaded email, but how did you find your way into these relatively huge indie sites? I’m not sure if I should be trying to turn my site into something big, or if I should try to jump ship into something that’s already established. I know it’s a tough industry to break into, and I know there are lots of people in the same situation as I am. Do you have any advice for becoming that small percent of people who at least get noticed?

Thanks again Chris, I’ve always been a huge fan of your work. Whatever you have to say I’ll be happy to hear back from you. 🙂

—————–

It’s strange to have people asking me for this kind of advice as I used to be the one seeking it (and still am, really). That’s a good thing for you to hear, I guess, as it means that you could be doing this yourself for someone else in a few years time.

I really wanted to write about games and started out by writing for a small website for free. I was depressed at the time and it really cheered me up. It was from this that I decided I wanted to try and write about games full-time, getting paid for it. After looking around for advice myself, I found my initial motivation by reading this blog by Mike Rose (of Gamasutra): http://independently-speaking.com/2011/07/26/so-you-want-to-be-a-games-journalist/

His idea of “Find a niche and own it” was what drove me to cover indie games a few years ago – it was a topic with which I was familiar. I started putting this into motion on The Indie Game Magazine in 2011. My goal was to write about as many indie games as possible and, essentially, become the person that people came to in order to find out about indie games. God, that sounds so corny now. Anyway, it was hard work but I loved doing it. However, my writing was often rushed, very bad, and my health suffered. But that didn’t matter too much to me at the time – I only had this one goal in mind.

To my surprise, and after a lot of hard work, it actually seemed to be working. IGM shot up in popularity and soon there were other people wanting to join us. Mike Gnade, the owner of IGM, then decided to put me in the position of Editor-in-Chief (with some persuasion), just as we brought on someone to handle the business side. I still wasn’t getting paid at this point, so I only wrote for IGM during my free time. I earned money by working behind a bar and I hated it. Luckily, I didn’t have to pay rent as I was living with my parents, so I was able to get away with living like that. But, yeah, I had to work two other jobs to earn money while I was writing online, which I did for free.

Moving on, in 2012 I ended up quitting IGM as I wasn’t happy with the situation there. It was annoying because I got an offer to write for Indie Games(.com) a few months earlier, which would have paid me fairly decently, but I rejected it after being told I should stick with IGM after all the hard work I put into it by one of the people there. Somehow that persuaded me to stay on. Looking back at it, I made the wrong decision, but that doesn’t matter, as I found myself trotting down another, unexpected path. When I quit IGM, I was thinking I would stop writing about games online altogether. I had been doing it for about a year or more (maybe two?), I had made barely any money from it, written badly, and didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. I remember reading some reviews by Simon Parkin, his investigative journalism, and being blown away by it. His level of quality felt so far away, unobtainable (and let’s be fair, it still does), and I thought to myself I’d never be that good, so why carry on? In the meantime, I tried once again to find other jobs, discovering that I was better than the Job Centre at its job than it was. Countless rejections, lack of replies; I was slipping back into depression (which was what lit such a fire under my ass in the first place).

Obviously, I didn’t stop writing about games online. After a long sit on a beach, staring out to the sea, thinking about life things as if I was a wise old man, I decided to try it again. But I vowed to look after myself better this time around. In the last few months that I was working at IGM, we had brought on someone to collaborate with us – they did videos while we supplied codes for games so they could record them. That person was Josh Mattingly, and after quitting and deciding to start writing again, I spoke to him about starting up another website to cover indie games, one based on his YouTube channel, Indie Statik. That was July 2012, but the website didn’t launch until November that year as Josh was trying to get the funding we needed. I was sat around, itching to go, so I coded it up myself and off we went.

Once again, I pursued the whole “Find a niche and own it” mentality. By this time I had left home and was now living with friends in Southampton, meaning I was paying rent and in dire need of money. So, instead of my motivation being coming out of depression, it was the need to make money and pay rent. This went alright for a while, although I wasn’t paid until January 2013, but Indie Statik – like IGM before it – had rapidly shot up in popularity. Unfortunately, just after I had launched Indie Statik, Josh’s brother committed suicide, and after that happened Josh changed in a way that deeply worried me. He went from being on the ball to being absent for weeks at a time. A lot of things that needed doing didn’t get done. I wasn’t going to say anything so as to avoid upsetting him further, so just had to keep working away, hoping that Josh could get through it (with our encouragement), and would eventually sort out the business side of the site. In the meantime, his video output crashed and it hasn’t returned since… HE hasn’t returned since.

Despite Indie Statik becoming quite popular, we never made much money from ad revenue (that’s the same for most sites), so we launched a Kickstarter to fund the website, which mostly went towards paying staff. After months of difficulties with my personal life (not being able to find a job in Southampton), and Josh’s problems affecting the site, as well as countless technical issues that went unfixed, I was at breaking point. I moved back home completely broke and thankful I wasn’t on the streets. I was getting paid for my work at Indie Statik, but it wasn’t much still (not enough to cover my rent), so I had to work doing PR jobs and whatever else I could find.

Things started to change for me in August 2013 as that’s when I started working at Pocket Gamer. I got that job surprisingly easily, I thought (maybe that proves that you should just go for things rather than doubting yourself?). I just applied for it, showed that I was very capable of finding obscure games and news during my interview, and voila – I had a part-time job writing about games. So, now I was making some dosh from Indie Statik and Pocket Gamer. Predictably, things turned for the worse earlier this year due to an incident with Josh that was spread all over the net, and that was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. I left Indie Statik.

Not long after this I started writing for Kill Screen (they found me), and I also founded Warp Door with Tim, which is supported through Patreon. Now I’m able to take my time and write much better about small games, and I love it. So that’s where I am now. That’s mostly everything up until now.

So what was the point of telling you all that?

It’s to hopefully illustrate to you that I sacrificed a lot to get into the position I am now. And even now I’m barely able to pay rent for a small flat in the UK. Obviously, I’m not in it for the money, nor is any writer, but I’d like to be able to move out properly while continuing to write one day. I’m prepared to wait it out and see what happens. Well, actually, I never see what happens – I try to work myself to a point so that something DOES happen. I’ve learned not to rely on luck, or any other person when it comes to getting things done, or reaching a certain position I’m after. I’ve always been told to put my head down and get on with it.

I guess my other point is that I wouldn’t recommend doing what I’ve done – it hasn’t been healthy for me, at all. But if you want something that badly then you do these things, apparently. It wasn’t luck that enabled me to get into my position, it was a ridiculous amount of work and persistence over the course of about three or four years. Getting a job writing about games is tough, and for some it might even be impossible – I also acknowledge that being white and male opens up more doors for me than others. There are plenty of people looking for those full-time staff positions and I certainly can’t help you out there – I haven’t even had one of those myself.

So that has been my experience of getting the job I wanted. I don’t wish to imply that it can be replicated, though. Especially as “indie games” (I don’t even use that term any more) isn’t really a niche these days (not like it was), so it can’t be “owned” to the same degree. Anyway, I’ve learned a hell of a lot in the process so I don’t regret any of it, but I wish I had looked after myself better, is all.

To finish off, I may have some actual advice you can use.

I’d imagine that your best bet when it comes to writing about games is doing it often and writing well. But more than that, and this sounds gross and horrible, it might be handy to consider what your “brand” is – what do you want people to come to you for? What should they expect from an article with [YOUR NAME] on it? Maybe you have really good, original perspectives on games. Maybe you do really good interviews with creators. Perhaps you find games that no one else does. Maybe you know everything there is to know about strategy games.

If you want to get paid for your writing, it’s usually best to have deep knowledge of a specific topic (a game genre), or a skill that not many others do (finding cool games). In my experience, that’s what people tend to notice, especially if you turn yourself into an expert, and that may make it more likely that a site will pay for your work. This is veering towards doing freelance work, which is too hard for me to cope with, but I have done it in the past. It can pay well, and having an editor review your writing is often invaluable in terms of becoming better. It’s so unstable and stressful, though.

If anything, what you should take away from this is that it’s probably best to find something that works for you, and be prepared to stick at it, sacrificing a hell of a lot, even for a slim chance of getting anywhere. Don’t be afraid to talk to people, like you have to me, either. Don’t pester them, of course, but people who write about games may have some advice for you. For instance, I’ve written all of this because I know how much I would have appreciated it a few years ago – the same might go for others.

Other than all of that, I’d also add that you should read a lot (not just games writing, but art, music, novels, newspapers, menus, anything and everything) as that helps you come up with good angles, and generally enriches you as a writer, as well. It might also be a good idea to read Mike’s more recent article on getting into “games journalism”, or whatever you want to call it: http://independently-speaking.com/2012/03/23/starting-or-kickstarting-a-career-in-video-games-journalism/

I don’t know if any of this will help. But do know that you’re a good writer – BELIEVE THAT WITH ALL YOUR HEART – and by keeping on you’ll only get better. Over time, you’ll also get more contacts, and more paths towards the position you’re after will hopefully open up for you if you keep on keeping on. Or maybe you’ll just get lucky.

Chris

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