Recently, something popped up on Twitter where a writer – I guess a former writer? – brought up the topic of discussion that it was very, very hard to make ends meet in the industry. The centre of the argument she made was honestly so bad I won’t link to it, or her, but many of the responses coming in that were worthy of merit were those of people noting that they had to either take a day job, or give up their dreams of writing in the industry professionally.
As someone who was making many of those same statements – largely in my head – years ago, I sympathize. Only to an extent, however. Because for all of the issues people have making it in the industry, part of it is because many people trying to break in – myself included, all those years back – wouldn’t have made it as far as we have before the internet came along. We have met the enemy, and it is us.
Like most writers, I started out writing things for my own use. I wrote video game reviews on small sites for nothing, until I was recruited to write for other sites, still making nothing. Back then, it was literally for the fun of it; I would email reviews to the site owner in the UK while floating on a deployment. Eventually, I joined Alex Lucard, someone I was a huge fan of for years, first at Not a True Ending and then at Diehard GameFAN. It’s during the latter years that I had an inkling that I could at least attempt to make a go of it for money, something that became more palatable when I lost my job in the IT industry. If it was a choice between sitting on my ass collecting unemployment or breaking into something I loved and doing that for a living, it was an easy choice, so I went freelance, and as far as games writing went, tried to concentrate on news over reviews and features, partly because I was better at news than most (not just coughing up rewritten press releases, but analyzing financials), but also because they were faster and paid better on bulk.
I learned a few things along the way:
* Writing is the easy part – Any aspiring games writers: can you do a pitch? That’s where you give an idea to an editor in chief who has heard a billion of them, convince that person to get your writing in, and pay you more than he wants to pay you. Does that make you comfortable? If it doesn’t – and I’m not a self-salesman – then this isn’t the business for you. Pitches are critical if you want to make real money off of this and not just spending money earned in your free time.
* This is much harder work than you think – Before the years where I was taking care of my mother, we had a kind of co-op roommate situation. Laugh all you want at someone in his late 20s/early 30s living “at home”, but it allowed me to actually kind of break in a bit. Unfortunately, what I was doing wasn’t considered “real” work, so I was expected to be around in case errands needed to be done. When I told people that I was putting in 12 hour days, often more, they usually snickered, as if it was cute. If you’re not putting out quality work, in quantity, every day, you will not make it.
* My actual bills-paying work wasn’t in video games – Video games writing made me money, don’t get me wrong. But the stuff that was actually paying my bills was the stuff that didn’t make it up on a games site. Technical writing, writing up brochures, advertising hooks, these were soul-crushing pieces of work that did their one job: keep food on my table and gas in my stove to cook it. I wasn’t making money in games writing, not the kind that would enable me to freelance and live 100% independently, because…
* Games writers are dime-a-dozen – This is the most important part. Simply put, anything involving money for work involves a free market where people are paid based on the value of their skills, and the rarity in which those skills are available. This is why someone putting hash browns in McDonalds’ frier is paid the bare minimum wage, while doctors make well into six figures. Simply put, the latter provides more, and has rarer skills, than the person doing something that practically anyone can do.
That important part is the most important when put against the test of the games journalist, because while the internet has broken down the barriers to being read as a games writer, that means that anyone with a keyboard and a computer is able to write about games. Furthermore, this is not a business where there is a definitive test of quality, partly because that’s subjective, and partly because the things that make the most money via clicks and advertising revenue vs. cost often aren’t anything close to the best. There’s a reason click aggregators and “viral” content management sites are popping up like zits on a 13 year old; they’re making money on impulse clicks. Someone is much more likely to watch a 10 second video than read a 4,000 word article, no matter how good the latter is.
Effectually, there are very few jobs in the industry that someone can go into and be able to effectively pay their bills. That requires either freelancing – see the points above – or doing enough to get picked up by a larger site. That brings its own issues, including the fact that there is a huge lack of job security. Why would the job be secure? Someone who doesn’t play nice with corporate – and with maybe one exception, everyone is owned by major corporations – is easily replaceable, and likely for far less money than the person they’re replacing. I’d say only five people are serious, big-name writers or media personalities, and none of them rely on their writing exclusively. Jim Sterling and Ben Croshaw rely on their videos, and the former became famous largely due to his ability to cause controversy. Jeff Gerstmann and Greg Miller rely on their podcasts. Felix Kjellberg – AKA PewDiePie – relies on YouTube. It should also be noted that none of those five were made famous by games writing alone. Croshaw has novels and games. Sterling is famous for his ability to court controversy. Gerstmann’s notoriety came mostly from his original firing by CBS Interactive. If you want to hear an hour of curses and screaming, ask someone who considers themselves a journalist about PewDiePie. Greg Miller is arguably the best case of someone who made it on his merits as a writer, and even then, most of that comes from highly contentious reviews of AAA games.
I also need to say that this very site was no exception to this. My writers were not paid, unless video games and trips to events counts1. I only had two paid staff members, and they weren’t paid anywhere even approaching a living wage in America, even though they made more money than I ever did doing Gaming Bus. Even now, one of those staff members tells me that it was the best pay – by far – they’ve seen. That’s very sad, but a reality of the industry.
Even a writer who has all of the advantages, all of the ability, and who has developed a way to be seen that stands out beyond the written word needs a combination of luck and a completely arbitrary, capricious “it” factor that makes him or her stand out from the pack. Jim Sterling has that “it” factor, where you know, via his words and his mannerisms, he will stand out from the crowd. Even someone who works their ass off, puts in 16 hour days, goes to all of the trade shows, makes all of the contacts and does everything right might *still* not make it, either due to running out of time, running out of money, or running out of hope. None of this stated is news, which is why it hurts to hear so many people saying the same things with the same level of naivety. Those wanting to chase this dream should go for it, but they need to understand there’s a strong chance of failure.
1 – I never got compensated to go to events, but as an EIC, I paid food and any gas/bus/train fare within reason.