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How to Become a Freelance Video Game Reviewer

By Silent Chris in Media
Wed Mar 06, 2002 at 10:51:56 AM EST
Tags: Technology (all tags)

A quick cheatsheet to the whys and wherefores of freelance video game reviewing, and how to get paid for your favorite hobby.

So, you want to review video games. It may seem like the ideal job for some (having fun while "wasting time", making money), but it can be hard work - particularly if you're new to the industry. Here are a couple of hints from my personal experience as a freelancer.

  • You have to be a good writer. It seems like a no-brainer, but you'd be amazed how many people try to write without putting effort into it. Video games seem like a relatively simple topic, but so are children's books, and both are edited. You also need a hard outer skin: you're articles are going to get changed, and sometimes the article you write won't exactly be the article that is printed. Be cool about it. Learn your editor's style, just like you would learn a professor's in college. Adapt to it.
  • You have to break in. This can be the hardest part. The simplest way is to work "pro bono": offer your services free to high-level gaming sites and magazines like GameSpot and GamePro.com. Contact the executive or reviews editor - not the director. Don't bother with smaller, "community-driven" game sites, unless you never want to get paid. They look bad on your resume and could come back to haunt you when your editor asks "Where have you been published?" Freelancers are expected to be some distance away from the publication, usually handing in articles through email. Pester, but don't be a pain. Above all else, don't let anyone treat you like a second-class writer.
  • Don't accept low pay, unless you have to. The gaming magazine payment scheme may seem strange to industry outsiders. Basically, you're going to get a lot of early jobs that simply offer the "game as payment": you get to keep the game you review. This may seem adequate for some of you (in many cases you can sell the game to make money if you don't like it) but once you start spending considerable amounts of time coming up with reviews, you're going to want that time compensated. Most magazines offer $100-200 per page for gaming reviews. Some magazines offer more (one magazine I worked for offered a $1 a word), but these are rare. Expect to be paid less for web sites.
  • Follow the Writer's Guidelines you're given, as stupid as they may seem. Nearly every magazine has a long list of guidelines they want to see in terms of grammar and section placement. Some can seem overly arduous (One editor I wrote for insisted on having game names correct, even in very early drafts. This meant recognizing the difference between Mortal Kombat II and Mortal Kombat 3 [Yes, the numbers are like this. Look it up.]) If an editor asks for screenshots, use a screenshot program. Don't pass off web site shots from the developer's site: that's the quickest way to make enemies. Keep to the list, but...
  • Despite the above, follow your own style. Hooks matter. Stick with the guidelines, but acquire a style early that you're comfortable with. Most magazines accept a conversational, almost humorous tone ("All of this comes at a price, as Shadows of Luclin has quite possibly the greatest system requirements in the history of gaming.") Don't be afraid to hand a relatively low-key review to an editor - it's like writing a humorous term paper in high school. In the best-case scenario, the editor will stay interested and keep your review relatively untouched. In the worst-case, the editor will hand it back with a smirk and say "stick to the guidelines".

As with any job, the cliché holds: have fun. At the same time, work hard: you can have your hobby and be paid for it, too.


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How to Become a Freelance Video Game Reviewer | 15 comments (9 topical, 6 editorial, 0 hidden)
Sense of history and industry (3.50 / 2) (#7)
by Torgos Pizza on Wed Mar 06, 2002 at 11:02:22 AM EST

One thing that I feel is a must as a game reviewer is that you need to have a knowledge of the history of the industry and know a little of how it works.

For example, nothing annoys me more every year when journalists make their "Top 150 Games of All-Time" list. You get a group of writers and they only put down the games they've played. Of course, most of these people only got into games maybe five years before, thereby skewing the list to modern games. Today's writers know little about how games were made ten even twenty years ago. While it is fair to compare games done a few years apart showing some technological advances, many writers forget that these games have already been done better mechanically years before.

I've seen some writers that think they know all about video games just because they've played them. Playing a game doesn't mean that you know how to make one, let alone how to write them. If you want to be a writer, learn a little about the industry. How publishers and developers interact. What roles do artists, programers and producers play in creating a game. If you spend time learning the history and how the industry works, your writing will stand out head and shoulders above the rest of the current hacks out there.

I intend to live forever, or die trying.

History does count, to a point (none / 0) (#10)
by Silent Chris on Wed Mar 06, 2002 at 11:46:44 AM EST

A lot of gaming writers come in during a certain time of the industry, whether they thought the original NES was the greatest system ever, or believe no game can be great without 3D graphics. For some it's a bit psychological: I've seen a lot of reviewers give the recent Super Mario World for Game Boy Advance very high reviews, on the basis that it's "as good as it always was". Yes, but would it be considered a classic game today?

A good reviewer can mesh the history with the present and give a score that make sense in both contexts. I definitely agree with you: it doesn't make sense to rate the "top 150 games of all time" when you've only played 10 of them.

As for the now defunct Next Generation magazine, with its notorious "Best Game Ever" rating for Super Mario 64 (making it sound like no game could ever beat it), well, now we know why writing like this goes bottoms up. :)

[ Parent ]

CGM, 15th aniversary issue (4.00 / 3) (#11)
by hardburn on Wed Mar 06, 2002 at 03:35:46 PM EST

It was a few years, but the only "Top 150 Games" I respected was in Computer Gaming World, 15th aniversary issue. The top listed game was Civilization, which was hardly top-of-the-line even at the time. They also had a "Worst 50" section, which had "Outpost" taking the Very Worst position and "Defcon 5" being next. It definatly wasn't a round-up of the latest-and-greatest. IIRC, some of the games listed went back to the DOS days, maybe even to Apple ][, C64, or like systems.

I think there were a few newer games (for the time) in there somewhere. Some of the games that have come out since then certianly deserve a mention somewhere (Half-life, for one).

while($story = K5::Story->new()) { $story->vote(-1) if($story->section() == $POLITICS); }

[ Parent ]
Hard Work (4.40 / 5) (#8)
by Devil Ducky on Wed Mar 06, 2002 at 11:07:58 AM EST

Personally, I never thourght thrice about even trying to becaome a game reviewer.

I can be a pretty good writer when I want to be, but when I don't feel right about the subject it can take hours of work to hammer out an average paper. As I imagine that a freelancer, especially a new one, doesn't get too many choices in which game he is reviewing; this problem would surface frequently. I would expect to be able to write a clear cut, glowing review of a game like FFXI (sorry, must use real name: Final Fantasy XI) but I could not give a better review than "The graphics are nice, and there sure is a lot of blood in Mortal Combat 4(IV)." It comes down to the types of game I like, and the types I am good at playing.

And for a good review, it is expected that you get pretty far in the game. In arcade style games this is not a problem, it is quite easy to get a sample of almost everything the gsame has to offer. Once you've played Frogger for 10 minutes you've pretty much seen it (except for the new one, it may take 30 mins.). RPGs, RTSes, FPSs, and all of the other three-letter acronym games can take many hours to even see half of it. Imagine a review of Warcraft II where only 30 minutes was spent playing the game because the reviewer doesn't like RTSs. "Warcraft II allows you to choose either Human or Orc characters. Once the game has begun you tell your 'peasant'to build a town hall, and a farm. This game should be purchased by people who are fans of Sim City while they are waiting for the rumored Sim City 2 to be finished."

Now let's say I got lucky, I get to review Final Fantasy X; they give me a copy of the game, I already have a PS2 and a memory card (from my last review of GT3). Final Fantasy X already has a large following from a huge community of people who are guaranteed to love this game, and the Final Fantasy series is infamous for it's sudden changes of tempo and play. So I will not get away with only playing the first few hours, let alone the first ten minutes. To blow through it start to finish take a minimum of 40 hours, and that's with no mistakes and no side-quests. Writing a bare minimum review I spend 45 hours playing the game. I do not finish it, claiming that I don't want to ruin the game; but I do take a number of side-quests. I talk about Chocobo Racing (didn't every review?). I talk about Blitzball and how I have never won a game. I talk about the game itself, in very few details because I am still trying to not give away spoilers. I talk about the amazing graphics, the voiced characters (with a small complaint about the imperfect syncing). Now I have spent another 5 hours (this is real quick) typing up my thoughts into a 4 page, printed, review. The editor chops it down to 3, on an e-zine screen, and cuts a check for $300! Wow I have just invested 50 hours of my time to make $300, before taxes. I am getting paid more than that now, and look what I am doing with my time... typing this.

Devil Ducky

Immune to the Forces of Duct Tape
Day trading at it's Funnest
Good writing (4.50 / 6) (#9)
by ucblockhead on Wed Mar 06, 2002 at 11:25:11 AM EST

It seems like a no-brainer, but you'd be amazed how many people try to write without putting effort into it.
No, I wouldn't. I read the submission queue every day.

Your first bullet is good advice for any writer, even those submitting stories to user community websites.

Somehow I suspect that the job is not as enjoyable as people might think. All those games that hit the bin after an hour of playing, a reviewer would have to actually finish. Imagine having to actually complete Daikantana! Worse, unlike someone playing for fun, you can't just put it away for a few weeks when you hit a frustrating part.
This is k5. We're all tools - duxup

Review vs. test (4.00 / 3) (#12)
by msphil on Wed Mar 06, 2002 at 04:42:56 PM EST

Imagine having to actually complete Daikantana!

Reviewers can at least use the cheat codes to poke all the way through. Imagine being a tester -- you'd have to play the game all the way through without crutches. It's fine if you like the game, but what if you don't?

(Yes, I'm speaking from experience, but not for Daikatana, thankfully!)

[ Parent ]

Codes (3.00 / 1) (#13)
by Silent Chris on Wed Mar 06, 2002 at 07:18:02 PM EST

Actually, most reviewers (including myself) play the games the "hard way". Basically, you're supposed to play the game as it came in the package. If there are codes in the package (which is rare), you can use them. Otherwise, you review is supposed to be based solely on the merit of the title.

[ Parent ]
Pot, Kettle, Black (3.00 / 3) (#14)
by MikeyNg on Wed Mar 06, 2002 at 07:34:14 PM EST

You have to be a good writer... You also need a hard outer skin: you're articles are going to get changed...

As you may or may not know, that's probably the most common mistake in English - using "you're" instead of "your" or vice versa. Learn the difference, folks, especially if writing is going to be your bread and butter.

Where the wind blows, the tumbleweed goes.

Sentence was originally different (3.00 / 2) (#15)
by Silent Chris on Wed Mar 06, 2002 at 08:34:08 PM EST

Ouch. I can't believe I missed that. :) The original sentence was something to the effect of "You're going to find a lot of your reviews changed", but when I reworded it I left the wrong word. Where were you when this story was in the queue? :)

[ Parent ]
How to Become a Freelance Video Game Reviewer | 15 comments (9 topical, 6 editorial, 0 hidden)
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