27/28 December 1997
|Hey DJ - I can't dance to that
music you're playing! ("Hello viewers!")
I hope you all got what you wanted for Christmas this year.
Now, here's my Christmas wish for the future. And it might just be yours too, so listen up.
Back in the old days when I used to work full-time on videogames magazines, there was one letter we'd get more often than any other.
It said: "You gave game X 81%, but I think it should have got 84%. You suck! I bet you won't print this."
However, that's not the letter I want to talk about now. (Or ever.) Instead, I'm going to talk about the SECOND most popular letter we'd get, which was this one: "How do I get a job working on a videogames magazine?"
This letter would crop up in our mailbag at least once a month without fail, and every games magazine can tell the same story, now more than ever.
And pretty much every games magazine prints the same reply, which is this:
"Go to university, get lots of qualifications in English, do work experience for free and work your way up from there."
This, however, like most advice given by games mags, is complete tosh.
So this month, as a constructive and helpful service to both you, the public, and the future world of games magazine publishing, I'm going to tell you how to REALLY do it.
There's no punchline at the end, so don't wait for one. This time, I'm serious. I'm fed up of just moaning about the terrible state of the nation's games mags - maybe this way, in five years' time, they just might be a tiny bit less awful.
After all, things can only get better.
First, though, let's weed out a few applicants. If you want a job on a games mag because you think it'll make your fortune, forget it right now.
As a staff writer, you can expect a starting wage of around £9000. Which doesn't sound too bad, until you realise you'll be expected to put in a minimum of 60 hours a week for it.
On the three big end-of-year issues, expect that to rise to 90 or more. (That's 15 hours a day, six days a week. No overtime.) Still keen?
So you still want a job on a games mag? Okay then. In just a moment I'm going to tell you the big secret. (Ooh, this is just like one of those 0898 phone lines. I imagine.)
But first, here's what it ISN'T. It ISN'T doing work experience - In eight years, I've only ever known one person graduate from doing work experience on mags to getting an actual job on one.
And it ISN'T qualifications - mags, in fact, generally prefer to employ non-graduates. They're cheaper.
Still, by all means go to college or university - nowhere will prepare you better for the type of working environment you'll experience on a mag. (And it'll also probably be the most fun you'll have had in your life.)
But the smart student will do a course completely unrelated to games or writing, because then if you find the games business to be a completely horrible place to work (as you might), you'll have something to fall back on.
And now you're ready for the secret.
Read. Did you miss it? I'll run it past you again. Here it comes:
That's it. That's all you need.
Because you wouldn't try to get a job as a footballer without watching a few games, would you? You wouldn't enter the Manx TT race without being able to ride a bicycle. But you'd be amazed at the number of people who try to write without ever bothering to read. What are they, stupid or something? Or what?
And the great thing is, that's all you have to do. You don't have to study what you're reading, you don't have to answer questions on it afterwards or work out the hidden subplots.
Just read. Read everything you can get your hands on. Read magazines, books, newspapers (grown-up AND tabloids), comics (you'd be surprised how much good writing is hidden behind those pretty pictures), adverts, anything.
It doesn't matter what it's about. It doesn't matter who it's by. Read it.
It doesn't even matter WHAT you read - you'll learn just as much, probably more, from bad writing as from good.
(In much the same way that the best way to learn how to ride a bike well is to fall off and hurt yourself few times.)
But, like riding a bike, you'll find, after a lot of trying, that you've learned how to do it without realising it. (And once you've learned, you'll never forget.) And from there, getting a job is the easy bit. Believe me, you'll have very little competition.
Because despite what you might think, the number of even semi-competent writers who apply for jobs on games mags can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
If you can string two vaguely funny/ interesting sentences together, you're already a giant leap ahead of the pack.
Being great at Tomb Raider 2 doesn't count for squit. Anyone can be good at games, and in any case you'll be sent all the cheats with your review copy.
But if you can write, you're gold dust.
And there it is. Twelve pages to reveal a one-word secret. But that really is all there is to it. Read.
As for specifics, well, that's up to you. It depends what kind of a writer you want to be.
(Myself, I'd recommend the weekly music papers - NME and Melody Maker - as a good starting point, because they have an incredibly diverse, always-changing pool of writers. And they're cheap.)
Whatever, the principle's the same.
So the job is in your grasp. Make your New Year resolution be to read at least 100 different publications in 1998. Don't try to learn anything from them or copy their style, just read them.
Then write a couple of sample pieces (about anything you like, it doesn't have to be game reviews - in fact, it's best if it isn't) and send them off to every publisher you can think of.
And if you haven't got a job on a videogames magazine by Easter 1999, then you can call me Pedro.
Just one last thing. With jobs come responsibility. Once you're in your reviewer's ivory tower, it's easy to be swayed by the glamour, the freebies and the fame, and forget why you're there.
So if you do land that dream job, try not to forget who you're ultimately responsible to (your readers, and no-one else). Try to remember why it's "bated breath", not "baited breath".
Try not to use exclamation marks, ever.
And try to remember to never, ever stop reading. Happy New Year, everyone.