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An Arrogant Open Letter

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I’ve been watching the GDC Critic Rants on Youtube, which seems to have got me all worked up and venomous.  So if you’d have crossed me today in the world of games or journalism, you probably would have got a bit of a mouthful.  Just ’cause I’m nowhere near being in the top X journalists invited to vent at GDC, doesn’t mean I don’t need my podium, damnit!

So over at GamesPress, myself, IGN/Gamer Node/soon-to-be-at-Resolution/elsewhere freelancer Christos Reid and others churn out advice to a budding games reviewer.  This poor guy is the one who got the mouthful.  I’m not going to link to his site, mention his name, or even discuss much about the quality of his work – one thing I probably failed to convey was that he’s actually not bad – but he unfortunately exemplified what’s going to become the target of this little rant.

As much as I try to push the image – it helps when getting people to pay you, y’know? – I’m no pro.  I’ve been writing about games for eight years, but five of those were from my room at my folks’ house.  In other words: I’m barely a grown-up, and though I’ve been published in the same sorts of places, I’ve certainly not been doing this at the higher levels for anywhere near long enough to consider myself alongside the proper journalists I read and aspire to.  What I would say is that I have aspirations that are directly measurable in relation to what I’m trying to achieve, particularly when it comes to Resolution.  We set up Reso for a reason: because we wanted to write about games in a particular way, and couldn’t find anywhere that would let a group of relative unknowns from North England do that.

So yes, of course, I hope Resolution becomes extremely successful among that little niche of games players who like to read more cultural-sociological-orientated features alongside reviews that don’t harp on about “gameplay” all the time.  I really, really do hope it does well, and the initial signs – 130% traffic increase since three months ago – are promising.  But, in accordance, we’re very clear about two things.  One: even though Reso makes us barely enough money to pay the hosting fees, it’s a fucking job, and we’re professional.  Two: if we are to become well-respected or successful as a critical hub, it will be because we’re good at that job, and if we’re not getting there it’s because we aren’t delivering an output of high enough quality, so we’ll improve it.  It’s that simple.

So.  Where’s this going?

A little while back, I called the PR department for a publisher I wanted to garner a bit of review code from.  I was told they had “no more code to supply fanzines.”

A fanzine.  Ouch.

Now, granted, Tim Edwards (PC Gamer UK dep-ed) referred to us as a “fan blog” on his podcast, and since he was being decidedly complimentary of our work it didn’t bother me so much (even if our traffic did impressively decrease the following day).  But something bugged me about the PR comment.  This sense of “we’re taking this seriously; why aren’t you?”  Of course, we’re not owed anything from the industry, and I’m sure a thousand even bigger and more professionally-minded sites than us have received the same stock response.  But what troubled me is, looking around and talking to people, how many of these “fanzines” were getting the code.  Sites that only update weekly with one new review of a game that’s already been out for a month.  Sites that only churn out the same old news, plagiarised from Kotaku.  Sites where 99% of the content is from a single writer, basically running a personal blog.  Sites with such hideously awful writing that it makes my eyes fall off.  Fanzines.

Now I want to make this very clear: I have nothing against these sites.  Fanzines, fan blogs, whatever – I’ve run them, I’ve read them, I’ve enjoyed them.  But, back when I was running Techstorm (shudder at the name, people) as a fifteen-year-old kid, I never for a second tried to be anything but a little boy, sat in his bedroom, talking about games for his own enjoyment.  I never pretended to be a serious journalist.  Hell, it took me ’til the age of twenty to become that delusional.

Those who run these sites: totally keep doing them.  I admire what you’re doing, you’re obviously enjoying yourselves, and you probably have the dedication to do really good things in the future.  But please, please don’t pretend to be bigger than your boots.  As arrogant as this may sound, I find it unfair.  There’s an unnecessarily huge sea of these places, more and more cropping up every day, but you have to understand that by involving yourself in the more serious circles of games journalism, you’re having the effect of tarring everyone with the same brush.  People won’t talk to us because we’re just another fanzine, and all you other fanzines churning out the same old stories, the same old reviews of ancient games, the same old news posts that everyone knew about days ago, the same old speculative previews based on another preview you just read: you have to understand that when you approach PRs, you’ll likely be attended to on a first-come-first-served basis, and if you’re quicker than me… well, I lose out.

Of course, that’s not fair.  I have no business telling you what you can and can’t do.  And like I said earlier, I’m no real pro myself.  But it does trouble me.  When talking to this budding writer and webmaster on GamesPress earlier, he told us that, because of his school work, he could only dedicate a minimal amount of time to his site, which is why he could only publish one article a week.  When I asked him why he ran his own site, he told me “I just enjoy writing reviews.”  He was asking us for tips on how to increase his web presence so that PRs would start talking to him.  He was asking us for our tips, methods we’ve worked so long and hard to perfect, so he could apply them with minimal effort for his own gain.  That’s not fair either.

The responsibility isn’t just on the fanzine writers.  The professional networks need to remain supportive, but to some extent insular.  When I applied to join GamesPress last year (that’s relevant: I joined last year. Not when I was fifteen), I was initially rejected because I’d registered with a Gmail address.  I contacted them to explain that, as a freelancer, I didn’t have an address associated with a particular publication; they did, of course, reconsider their decision.  The result was that I always assumed there was some pretty serious vetting going on.  So why, then, are the amateurs getting so much access to the industry?  Truth is, anyone can buy a domain and set up an email account, so if that’s the tactic they’re using, they’re going to get nowhere.  Is no one sitting down and actually reading these sites?  Does no one care?

It’s certainly somewhat offputting that, accross each gaming press network I use, there is almost always a “how to become a games journalist” thread active on the forums.  By extension of us being here, aren’t we supposed to be journalists already?  It’s called GamesPress for a reason.

I’m aware that this all sounds arrogant, elitest and hypocritical.  But it’s important to understand, if you’re one of the unfortunate targets of my diatribe, that every time I give you advice – which I do, as I’m a nice guy – I’m giving you instant access to the techniques and tips of the trade that I’ve worked for years to establish.  And by using this new information, you’re gaining access to limited information resources that I need to do what I consider a job, to ensure Resolution fulfils the promise it was founded on.  And when you get the PR links and I don’t, and I see you using it for nothing other than the same old generic, badly written news-previews-reviews coverage, it’s incredibly demoralising.

It’s all about respect.

I’ve been told to fuck off by journalists higher up the ladder than me countless times over the years.  Some of them I’m quite friendly with now, but you must understand that came with patience, hard work and self-criticism.  They were totally right to put me in my place.  They were totally right to exclude me.  I was not “one of them.”  I’m still not, probably.  And if I want to stand a chance of getting any closer to that goal, continuing down this road of tolerating the pretenders isn’t going to get me anywhere.  It’s business, man.  It’s a ruthless old world.  But I’m always going to look out for my own interests.  I’ll always support people – but there’s a line.

If you have a great idea for a website, something outside the box or a little away from the norm, something that’s going to potentially be rather valuable to the gaming press and the industry as a whole, then by all means go for it.  I’ve infinite respect for that, as it’s what I’m trying to do myself.  But if your aims lie no higher than badly mimicking the stuff that’s already out there for your own enjoyment, you need to understand that, while that’s absolutely fine, you cannot demand the same rights.

So, in summary: writers – understand who you are and your place in the industry; press networks – be sure to stay exclusive to the press.

Phew.  Of course, I’m maybe still on the periphery because I’m babbling for 1600 words about WHAT NOT TO DO, instead of spending the time writing something that might not make me sound like a horrible bastard.  Sorry about all that.  I love you really.

3 responses »

  1. *cracks typing knuckles*

    I’m on a roll thousands of words long tonight, so I’ll make this part of the wave of verbose logorrhea.

    I completely and utterly agree with you on every single point you’ve made. The people on the GP forum who run fansites should, in my honest opinion, not actually be allowed to post, for the most part. I joined earlier this year, and already I’m tens of thousands of words into posting because I think it’s worth making the effort for the little guy, the person who, sometimes, can’t be arsed to make the effort simply because they don’t know how and it’s too demotivating.

    And what happens?

    “Yeah, I’ll think about it.”

    Bullshit you’ll think about it. We wrote, what, probably two thousand words collectively trying to help a brother out, and this kind sir turns around and tells us he can’t be bothered to learn how to write because he’s at school. He’s at school, and can’t be bothered to learn new information and technique. I see many, many F grades in this child’s immediate future.

    The majority of them are children, fansite-wise. I actually bristled when I saw Resolution referred to as a fansite. Not out of loyalty, but out of personal opinion. ffshrine.org is a fansite. Zeldaroolz.com is a fansite. Resolution is a site that would have content eponymous if it exchanged its letter S for a letter V. I wouldn’t call Res a fansite for the same reasons I wouldn’t call The Escapist one, either.

    What bugged me most about that boy’s response on the forum (I know my vernacular is leaning towards child-addressing, but if the shoe fits…) was that he simply did not care as much as we do. I’d give anything (save my loved ones) to have a job at a big publication that would pay me a salary. In fact, I spent last week at the EG offices trying to do just that. But one look at some sites sets a lot of the major press against us.

    Gamers With Jobs is my best example. I wasn’t just schooled whenever I posted my work in their private “Writers’ Guild” forum for critique before CMS submission. I was practically raped verbally by one writer in particular, who went out of his way to criticise and tear apart every line in a thousand words of content. It was ridiculous, and by the time he finished, I’d ended up with an article that wasn’t even about the same god-damn topic anymore. But it taught me one thing: this industry needs you to be a harsh, high-standards person in order to get anywhere. Run your content through MS Word. Do it TEN TIMES A DAY. Because otherwise, you spell wrong, I read it, and you’re wasting time I could be reading because I’m mentally chiding myself for trusting said journalist to type properly.

    Argh. Some people are ungrateful. We’re not, though. I want to work in PR, sometimes, if only to nail fansites to the cross every time they try and nick review code out from under the nose of a site that actually writes journalism.

    Reply
  2. The site I ran began as a Geocities site, back in 1999. To my credit, things were still in a state of complete flux back then. Most sites we know today hadn’t been started yet or they were weak compared to the stuff that starts up every day now.

    Still, I was a total amateur. I was just out of high school and I thought I was a good writer, but I wasn’t really. That didn’t stop me from asking for games. If you had responded to me with your question about why I was in the business of making a fan site and writing reviews, my answer wouldn’t likely have been any different–at least, not substantially so–from what this guy on the GamesPress forums said.

    Over the years, I’ve come a long way and so has my site. Now when I ask for games, I usually get them. When they show up at my door, though, I’m not doing what I once did (dancing a little jig, playing the thing and then posting a poorly-written review a few days later). Now I’m sending games out to freelancers or I’m agonizing over each review I write because I want it to be the best that I can make it between all of the other PR work and database work… and whatever else that I’m doing.

    In short, even though it doesn’t pay me enough to be worthwhile, my site has become a job for me. What I found as I reached that point, which is something that only really happened a few years back and is continuing to evolve, is that most PR companies actually are reasonably good at sniffing out the pretenders. They look at things like the reach of your traffic, the number of sites that link to you, the frequency with which your stories are updated. The really good ones do, at any rate.

    So just keep doing what you’re doing. Write the great content and make people know that it exists so that they come to your site. Keep doing it–and with volume–and make sure that you spend a lot of time doing the things that you don’t enjoy, as well. You pointed to one of the obvious negatives that exist because of the abundance of fan sites, but there’s a positive that you didnt’ mention: they keep us on our toes, driving to improve and to get more efficient at what we do. I may not like the other fan sites that give me a bad name, but I do owe them my thanks for that much, at least.

    Reply
  3. I could read this and reply that your being harsh – but I can’t because everything your saying is the truth.

    I’m young and hope to one day be a games journalist. But I’m not. I know that and don’t try to be anything otherwise. I understand I have a lot of work to do, everyday it becomes more apparent; often, it’s overwhelming and frustrating. But I want it, badly, and that sense of progression and improvement keeps me going.

    I know my place, I’m a nobody, I’m no journalist, yet – but it only pushes me to be better.

    And by all means if there’s any grammar or spelling errors in this comment – tell me!

    Also: Great read. I was hooked all the way through.

    Reply

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