What do you do now and who do you work for?
After five or six years working at the PC Zone (RIP) coalface I went freelance – my words now appear in various Future Publishing magazines (OXM, ONM, Gamesmaster, PSM3, XBW et al.) and for the occasional special guest appearance over with the lovely lot at Eurogamer.
Over the last few years I’ve also moved into the development side of things as well. On top of a fair amount of consultancy work for different developers and publishers I worked on the narrative for several behind-the-scenes projects for Slightly Mad Studios – and was also the studio writer on NFS: Shift 2 – Unleashed. I’m also a fifth of an Indie Studio called The Indie Stone who’re in the process of creating Project Zomboid – a ‘you pay, we develop’ Minecraft-esque affair that’s focussed on survival during a zombie apocalypse.
Tell us how you become a games journalist in the first place.
I always wanted to be a magazine journalist, but didn’t actually realise how much I wanted to be a games journalist until I found myself sitting in an interview in front of Jamie Sefton and Dave Woods for the role of Editorial Assistant at PC Zone. I had spent four or five month’s worth of the year 2003 sleeping on my friend Adam’s bedroom floor – doing unpaid work experience at places like Empire, Maxim and an embryonic form of a pre-release Zoo magazine – and fate had led me to PC Zone’s door.
I wrote in asking about work experience after a spot of reminiscing about the PCZ glory years (the days of Brooker, Mallo, Macca, Prezzer, Hill and all their kind) and happened to include an anecdote about dropping my mobile in a puddle to explain why no-one would be able to phone me. This amused Dave Woods no end, and it just so happened that they had an Editorial Assistant position open.
These were very, very different times to the way games journalism runs now. Dennis had six writers full-time on the magazine, and a horde of trusted freelancers. My initial job was primarily – I shit you not – making tea. To this day I can remember how many sugars everyone took, including Martin Korda’s freakish ‘three, no milk’.
What’s the best or most memorable job or assignment you’ve had since then?
I won’t go into details, for obvious reasons, but one of my first press trips was to an Eastern European city with a faintly dodgy small-scale publisher. The game presentation lasted all of five minutes before we were carted off to a house of ill-repute in a limo – bizarrely with two gigantic local minders. The night ended at 4AM on the return journey when one of said minders pulled out a loaded Beretta, gave me a smile and and placed it in my hands. It was so surreal, and I was so drunk, that I just didn’t know what to do. Instead I laughed until I cried, shouting, “Take it back! Take it back!” to my new Slavic friend’s clear amusement.
And the worst one?
Well, depending on how you look at it – the above was simultaneously best and worst. Best because it gave me a life experience I will never, ever forget – and worst because it was extremely depressing. In all honesty there is no such thing as a bad foreign trip, as you should never forget quite how lucky you are being sent all over the place to talk to passionate people about your shared love of gaming.
That’s not to say, however, that there aren’t some fairly tiresome games journalist office jobs out there too. Anyone who’s ever written a tips guide, constructed a magazine’s cover DVD or reviewed something that’s truly mind-deadening will agree that it’s not all beer, giggles and air-miles. There are plenty of people out there killing themselves to earn a crust while I’m pissing around talking about mythical-creature murder though, so you’ll rarely hear me complain.
How has the games industry changed since you started out?
Print has died, put simply. Magazines are on their uppers, so the way I found into the industry has all but disappeared. This means that there’s a much stronger focus on news sites, blogs, podcasts and funny videos on YouTube. Game journalism has been democratised.
Is this for the better or worse?
It’s not better or worse – it’s just different. The main issue is that there’s an awful lot more voices out there clamouring for attention, and not all of them know how to punctuate. It’s a lot harder to separate the wheat from the chaff and often the people with the loudest voices, and perhaps not the most considered voices, are the ones that get the attention. Any period in games journalism, however, that gives the world sites like Rock Paper Shotgun or the continued growth of Eurogamer can be considered a great one. Quality will always find an audience.
Who has had the most influence on your career so far?
Charlie Brooker – without him I wouldn’t be doing what I do, there’s no doubt about that. He’s bugger all to do with games, but I’d also say that my writing wouldn’t be the way it is without Bill Bryson – he’s another hero.
What is the best bit of advice about games journalism anyone’s ever given you ?
Steve Hill’s sage advice never to get out of bed unless there’s a trip to America involved or the opportunity to drive heavy machinery probably doesn’t ring true in this day and age does it?
Paul Presley and I were once, long ago, having a chat about whether or not a particularly arty/pretentious reference should go into a review. He just said, “Fuck it. We’re not dumbing down. If they don’t know it already, we can teach ‘em.” That’s always stuck with me – especially because PC Zone was always such a silly magazine. Clever and stupid can both live in the same piece of writing if you’re good enough.
Do you have any advice to others starting out/wanting to get into industry as a journalist?
There’s a real trend in new games journalist who like moaning. They moan, and gripe and groan as if games aren’t fun – and that really pisses me off. If you’re going to be a games journalist then you need passion: pure and simple. What’s more, this passion doesn’t necessarily mean dialling up the outrage on an out-of-context quote from a game’s spokeperson to guarantee your story a few more hits.
If you want to get me (or people like me, who might still be important) to pay attention then write as if you love games and gaming, not as if an entire entertainment medium owes you a favour. Games are about having fun, and many people want to read material that reflects that fun – no matter what the sourpuss comment thread beneath that material might otherwise suggest.
What is your dream job?
I think I have my dream job, although it’d be nice if I still did it in an office – and had a reason to wear trousers.
How do you find working with PRs and how has it changed since you started out?
Games PR never changes, the people involved just move to another publisher. Sometimes they are magificent and know their shit, sometimes they’re straight from a PR academy and a little clueless. What’s universal, however, is that if they don’t return your calls, seemingly never check their emails and appear entirely useless – it’s rarely the fault of the individual.
Many UK PRs, especially those working for vast international corporations, are under huge amounts of internal and external pressure – whether from wobbly management, buck-passing from the American office or the dreaded spectre of Metacritic. If there has been a change in PR since I started out then it’s this pressure being ramped up more and more. Traditionally a lot of games journalists have moved into games PR, but I’d never do it as I know I’d simply drown. (And tear out my own tongue, of course.)
A few quick questions
What’s your favourite?
Game: Deus Ex
Games writer: Christian Donlan
Gaming site (not your own): RPS
Games magazine (not your own): PC Gamer or Edge
Non-gaming magazine/website: www.b3ta.com
Who’s your games industry hero: Charlier Brooker or, gulp, Kieron Gillen