Longer online version

Can games writers still make money?

Emma Boyes introduces Game Over?; photo © Matt Salusbury
LFB's own Emma Boyes, who writes on computer games, introduces the Game Over? event.

MAKING a living writing about computer games, and scriptwriting for computer games, was the focus of The NUJ Presents: Game Over? (Twitter #goNUJ), an event organised by the NUJ New Media Industrial Council (NMIC) in London in April. Even for a writer like myself, who last played a computer game on his mum's Amstrad in 1988, there were fascinating insights into the struggle for survival of writers in and on the games industry. Many of the challenges they described are familiar to all freelances.

LFB's own Emma Boyes, instigator of the event, opened by describing the "depressing number of games websites closing: most national newspapers don't pay games journalists, even though they have paid staff". Some only pay $10 a review. In an "industry we love," says Emma, "many of us almost feel we don't deserve to be making money." But she points out that "far from every game we have to play is fun."

Emma appealed to journalism students to ask computer games titles "what they give you instead of cash - will they mentor you, take them along with you as a 'plus one' to industry events?" There are many vague promises to unpaid games writers of "high rates in the future, the promise of a staff job", but such outlets should at least have some kind of business plan in place for how they will pay writers in the future. She ended by saying games writers "should start to value" themselves, urging games writers to "challenge people, say that not being paid is unacceptable."

Sinan Kubba; photo © Matt Salusbury
Sinan Kubba, editor of video games blog Joystiq

There followed a session entitled "Can games writers still make money," on writing about video games, compered by Sinan Kubba, editor of video games blog Joystiq. This was followed by a spot on writing for games - writing the narrative element of games, somewhat akin to scriptwriting for film and TV, but with challenges all of its own. (The writing for games session is written up here.)

Sinan observed that "opportunities to get paid job are dwindling." Will Porter freelances for PC Zone and Project Zomboid, and co-founded Hookshot. He says paid writing for the sector "is viable", but it's "a shrinking pool, the work's got a lot more piecemeal". Long cover features that used to command £300 now earn you £100-120. Will points out that £120 for a review of a long computer game, "for which you definitely have to complete the game," works out at around £3 every four hours. [That's 75p an hour, the same as minimum wage in Albania.]

Dan Griliopoulos; photo © Matt Salusbury
Freelance games writer (and photographer) Dan Griliopoulos

Freelance games writer Dan Griliopoulos (Twitter name @GriddleOctopus) points out the manufacturers are increasingly able to reach the consumers directly via the internet, without going through "you" (reviews writers). Or as veteran freelance games writer Steve Boxer put it, "these days I get paid word for word what I got paid by the papers in the ninties, it's the worst time to be a journalist since William Caxton set up shop on Fleet Street." (We've added some rates for games writing to the Rate for the Job: please submit more, in confidence, via that page.)

Dan says the newsstands are down from 20 games magazine last year to around ten now, with the websites that have replaced them paying flat rates of £120, regardless of length. He reminded us that the games writer's kit - games consoles, a state-of-the-art PC with all the add-ons - is expensive too, while your electricity bills will be higher than average.

You need "something unique these days," in Dan's opinion, because there's a "huge supply of people who can do this job and the demand isn't huge." Games reviewers are "up against people with writing ability, people with skill in front of a camera" (increasingly doing their own YouTube "pressy" - presentation, as "kids don't read nowadays"). So you "need an area of expertise - mine was mods (modifications: that is, add-ons to someone else's existing games) and free games, just when magazines were starting to take this seriously."

Will Porter, left, Lewis Denby; photo © Matt Salusbury
Games writers Will Porter of Project Zomboid (left) and Lewis Denby of BeefJack (right)

Will agrees, "Get a hobby horse - with me it was mainstream games" - those at £40 and up, whose launch is an event, like Tomb Raider or Call of Duty. Will feels particularly "passionate about" the latter. But, he says, the peculiarities of the games "scene" culture mean many journos feel they have to not deal with establishment giants like CoD. The result is an an opportunity to alert editors to that fact that they're not covering a mainstream game enough. "Don't be afraid to say, I've noticed that you're not covering this game, advises Will, who got "three features off a new version of CoD."

Advice on pitching to games titles or sites? Dave says you absolutely have to read the website or magazine you're submitting to, and spellcheck! Sinan advises: "know the specific editor you're pitching to, too. Some editors on Twitter rant for ages and ages about the terrible pitches they get."

Will said "there's writing for free and writing for free" - a writer entering the field should ask themselves "Are they taking the piss?" Dan reminded us to ask: "Are they making money out of you?" and that "million-pound websites" should be paying. Or as Lewis Derby - operations manager at BeefJack - put it, "if the publication is paying loads of other people and they're not paying you" there's "something wrong with that."

The nationals can find enthusiasts from among their salaried staffers to write about ccomputer games for free - the executive chef writes games reviews for the Sun. They're salaried staffers, so it's legal, but getting anyone not already a paid employee of the organisation to work for no pay is, Dan reminds us, illegal". There's a minimum wage" and in the UK it is currently £6.19 an hour for adults. Rather than admonishing aspiring games writers against taking on work for free, says Dan, "it's the employers, they are the people we should be remonstrating with."

All panelists emphasised - as did those who work in games development - the importance of good old-fashioned human contact, face-to-face in the actual physical universe, and in getting your face known by reliably turning up to all the industry events. (Game Over? began with beer and pizza, and ended with an NMIC tab behind the bar for networking purposes in the pub afterwards.) .

The email inboxes of the industry's PRs are filled with the "white noise" of people trying to "blag games for free", says Will, so your pitch is easy to overlook. "Show up to stuff, get your face known, (become) a trusted face." The people with whom the panellists were socialising a decade ago are the commissioning editors of today

Having "several strings to your bow" is a advisable for games writers says Sinan. All the speakers are involved in games development too in some way. Dan does photography and other things to supplement income. Several panellists have had sidelines such as PR copywriting for games companies or writing mock reviews - reviews of games in development for a games company's internal use, to highlight "how shit" their game is and to point out what needs improving. They all found that the money they made from this wasn't worth it; and conflicts of interest closed other avenues of writing to them.

The future? The games consumer demographic is changing. Older people are playing games more, but these tend to be mobile games so cheap there's less need to review them than there is for a console game that consumers need to check out before spending £40-60 on it. While the young seem to have time to sit around playing endless video games, Dan notes that games writers' "time shrinks when you get older".

The birth of Will's baby this year prompted him to think, "Oh my God this is a little bit transitory... When I'm 50 do I want to be reviewing another Call of Duty map pack?" (That'd be a money-spinning extra level add-on to an existing game, it seems.) "Why the fuck should a 15-year-old care what a 50-year-old thinks about their games?" Games writers should also have a long-term exit strategy.

Steven Boxer; photo © Matt Salusbury
Veteran freelance games writer Steven Boxer

We also heard from freelance Guardian games writer Steve Boxer: he did his first game review in 1990, and he's been around long enough to have a dial.pipex.com email address. After a misspent youth playing arcade games, he came straight out of university and got a sub's job on Personal Computer World. Within months he was out on an "all-out" NUJ strike at publishers VNU. His career has included work with Emap (in "the golden days of games journalism", when its writers were "iconoclasts"); a "disastrous spell" on Desmond's nationals; briefly the Mail; and the Sunday Telegraph's "fantastic" Connected multimedia column. Then the "transient nature of newspaper games coverage" killed that off and replaced with the "Dotcom Telegraph", weeks before the dotcom bubble burst.

Print is "not entirely dead" says Steve: he's part of a team behind Games 24/7 - last autumn saw its first loose insert in Shortlist, the "most successful mag in the country". "I'm a dinosaur," he says: "I'm a print fan... the internet lacks that collective feel of a magazine."

Ending the meeting, NMIC chair Donnacha DeLong said of his own field, "you think being a computer games journalist is hard, try being a music journalist!" He listed the numerous benefits of NUJ Joinmembership to games writers, including support for members from the Freelance Office in extracting from clients money that is owed to them.

"'Ang on," thinks the other editor: "I'm subbing a written report of people talking about writing about computer games (including writing about writing computer games). Is that octenary industry? I think I should fell some trees now."
Last modified: 06 May 2013 - © 2013 contributors
The Freelance editor is elected by London Freelance Branch and responsibility for content lies solely with the editor of the time
Send comments to the editor: editor@londonfreelance.org