Devinn Winklemann is Mad as Hell

First off, how did you get involved with game writing?

I got involved with game writing about a year and a half ago. After doing extensive research and finding out that video game journalism was nothing more than rewriting press releases, asking soft ball questions to the people behind the companies as to not burn any bridges and writing exclusive reviews to games that were buggy, or some incomplete games that had the words “FOR REVIEW” labeled on the discs, I wanted to try to correct everything that I saw and that I was taught from my journalism professors and tried to make game writing into a legitimate type of journalism.

Questions like, “why is EA buying up so much and how will it hurt the games, the gamers and the competition in the long run?” or “Why did Nintendo’s President, Satoru Iwata say that ‘…customers do not want online games.’ when, according to the ESA, ‘Forty-three percent of game players say they play games online one or more hours per week, up from thirty-seven percent in 2003 and thirty-one percent in 2002.’? Real journalistic questions like this will never be asked, because each party (the gaming media and the companies) wants to keep a tight relationship with the other so that the companies can get their games promoted by the gaming media and the gaming media can get all kinds of freebies, PR reports and exclusives in. (And there’s the fact that both parties have made person friendships with each other, which is called a conflict of interest. You’d never see a mayor of a town, city, etc. and a newspaper journalist go to a social event together as friends.)

You refuse to call most writing about video games journalism. Do you think there is _any_ actual game journalism going on out there?

Honestly, I think GameSpot.com is the only gaming media that I would call having any journalistic skills and are producing real gaming journalism. They act in a professional manner and they keep their ears to the ground and update their news maybe 5 -7 times a day. Also, some may call their reviews harsh just because they don’t cater to a specific person, group or fan base, but I feel that most of the time, that their spot on. While I see some sites or magazines give a hyped up game 10’s across the board, or really inflated scores, GameSpot throws down a score that the average player can agree with. So, yeah. Since GameSpot.com treats games seriously as a business that deserves to be written about instead of as a personal past time, then they’re probably the only ones out of all of the gaming outlets that I would call a real gaming journalism outlet.

You say on your 1up blog that there is no job stability in game journalism. Can you expand on that a little?

I’ve been studying the game media for years (and I can’t really recall how many years though) or so and it goes through different waves. Back in the days of when the internet first dropped into everyone’s house, IGN and GameSpot were still owned by Ziff Davis and Imagine Media and Next Generation, Ultra Game Players, EGM, and Official U.S. Playstation Magazine was known as P.S.X. (as well as other game magazines) were being delivered to hundreds of thousands of mailboxes across the nation, a lot has happened in the past 8 – 10 years.

Ultra Game Players (which was owned by Imagine Media) and Next Generation are gone, Ziff Davis released GameSpot and then went to Gamers.com, then went to 1up.com (and with each release, changes were made and some people moved in different directions, or worse came to worse, got laid off.) Imagine Media let IGN go (where IGN was called Imagine Games Network, where now it’s called IGN Entertainment). Imagine got the exclusive rights for an Official Dreamcast Magazine, but after 12 issues, it was forced to fold after the March/April 2001 issue was released. Sony gave Ziff the exclusive rights to let them create the Official U.S. Playstation Magazine. It’s an interesting magazine (and Ziff is an interesting corporation) because from when the magazine was created in October 1997, the magazine’s been through a lot of changes, a lot of layoffs and through about three different waves of faces (with Dana Jongewaard, Thierry Nguyen and Giancarlo Varanin being part of the fourth wave of the OPM team). Their reasons for quitting would be either because they wanted to choose a different path for their careers, got better offers, or simply got laid off, and Ziff Davis has been through two major layoffs in the past year.

One, from what I hear, and I could be wrong, was to get rid of all of the associate editors in the Ziff Davis Gaming Group (it’s the specific group of magazines and websites that concentrates specifically on games), and so there were layoffs all around the ZD gaming magazines. This happened in August or September 2004. Layoffs occurred yet again, after EB Games decided to make their discount cards separate from the GMR magazine subscriptions, GMR faced the axe and everyone was gone. Xbox Nation felt GMR’s pain since it was being laid off at the exact same time, too. I think these layoffs occurred in November or December of 2004. Only a few people were saved by the hand of 1up.com as a few from XBN and GMR are now working on ZD’s gaming site. But this past year wasn’t the first or second time ZD’s had to lay off people because of bad financial times.

ZD had a magazine called EGM2. Why a second EGM magazine? I don’t know, but after so many issues, it was forced to change its name (and god knows what else) to Xpert Gamer and then it was forced to change its name again to GameNOW. After so many issues of the magazine not being profitable enough, it was forced to close down and everyone working at the magazine was gone, and I’m not sure if any of them found jobs back in the ZD offices.

Finally, the last incident I can think of if when Imagine Media was bought out by Future Network USA (an England based magazine company that produces entertainment magazines). When Imagine was bought up by Future Network USA, OXM’s (and I don’t know anything about PSM, since I don’t subscribe to it) staff was slowly changing. There were only surface reasons given like Mike Salmon (who was the EIC of OXM) wanted to start up his own business, Frank O’Conner was going to work for Bungie, Sarah Ellerman’s gone, Dan Egger’s gone and Mike Wilmoth is gone from the OXM team. The reasons why the rest left, I have no clue, but I do suspect it was the Imagine buy out. Finally, has anyone heard of GameStar? Nope. It fell after two issues.

There are a bunch more incidents that I don’t know about, but the point of reciting all of the history is that the game magazine/website business is never stable. There are always elements outside of the magazine employees control that can determine if they have a job or not tomorrow. Profits, buy outs, financial losses, contracts being made or broken, better opportunities for the magazine workers that include maybe better benefits or bigger raises mismanagement, etc. To me, it is one of the riskiest but more rewarding careers anyone can get their hands into.

What percentage of game writers would you say have experience or education in real journalism? Why is this a good or a bad thing?

I believe it’s less than 10 percent. And here’s one of the best examples that I can give out as to why I say this. Chris “CJ” Johnston used to write for EGM, and now from what I know, he’s at NewType Magazine (which is a magazine specializing in everything anime). Here’s a little from a blog entry he wrote titled “My First Job at EGM.” You can check the rest of the entry at
http://homepage.mac.com/chris_johnston/C860821992/E1744742677/

“When I was originally hired at Electronic Gaming Monthly (EGM) I had just turned 17, and it was the summer of 1994, between my junior and senior years of high school. I’d been doing a fanzine called Paradox for about three-four yea
rs before that and had sent copies of it to EGM in the hopes that one day, they’d give me a job. During the ‘zine days, I’d talked on and off with Sendai’s then-grand pooba Steve Harris about the magazine and the game industry — though really, I was a wide-eyed kid with a passion for games and mediocre writing ability that wanted a job. So when he offered me one, I was ecstatic. All that blood, sweat, and tears doing a ‘zine with some friends at my own expense had finally paid off. My starting “Associate Editor” salary was $16,000/year — not bad for a high-schooler still living with his parents.”

A lot of the people that write about the games have no experience in real journalism because they fall under two categories: 1. They are hired directly out of high school (former EGM writer Greg Sewart and former OPM writer Sam Kennedy, who is now 1up.com’s editor-in-chief, was hired out of high school after writing for an extensive period at Gaming-Age.com) or they get a generalized degree or a degree they can’t do anything with and are hired out of college. Some of these people have philosophy degrees, advertisement degrees, English degrees, etc. But hardly any have a journalism degree, only a very, very small few percent do. Even Senior Editor of OXM, Tom Price said the same thing when asked in the Feb. 2005 issue of OXM what
was the “Best piece of advice for aspiring game writers.”

His response was, “Sell your soul. Or better yet, take some real journalism classes. There’re too many English majors (including this one) in the gaming media, and the industry could use a dose of professional journos.”

Now, you asked if this is good or bath and it’s a little good and a lot of bad. The reason why it’s a little good is because these people love their games, they enjoy what they’re doing and they know the industry inside and out. The really bad part about this is that first of all, most of them are fan boys writing for professional publications. They inflate the scores to their reviews, give hyped up previews to
games that they know that will be bad (Driv3r was on the cover of EGM and it’s a horrible, horrible game), ask soft ball questions and let the industry get away
with murder (the whole EA thing could have been stopped if the right questions were asked), and produce throw away articles that really has no real meaning or value except for entertainment purposes.

If more college graduates with bona fide journalism degrees stepped into the gaming media circuit, we’d see a whole different take on the kinds of articles,
previews and reviews that are being published in magazines and on websites. I mean, if you look at JournalismJobs.com, most of the newspaper and magazines that are posting job openings want someone to work on their print and online publications with at least a minimum of a four-year journalism degree or an equivalent. If they’re asking for a four-year, then why isn’t the gaming media asking for the same thing?

What has been the worst example of questionable ethics you’ve seen in your time as a game writer? The best example of good writing?

There are many that I see as questionable, like reviewing incomplete copies of games, the companies setting up exclusive reviews to X Magazine and the reviewable copy contains a lot of bugs (see Chris Johnston’s blog titled, “When Bug Lists Meet Exclusive Reviews”: http://homepage.mac.com/chris_johnston/C1175490331/E1447279093/index.html), but probably the most type of questionable ethics that I’ve read about some (some but not all) of these people from the game media develop friendships with the gaming industry. This is a huge conflict of interest because it clouds their judgment when they write their previews and reviews since they don’t want to step on any of their friends toes that work for that company their writing about. For instance, in a review, they may put an honest score down when creating the review, but with some of the writers out there today, much of their writing doesn’t reflect those scores. Sometimes it gets to be too positive or too negative and actually conflicts with the score itself. But I’m not sure if that’s just bad writing, or if there’s something more to that than just what is on the surface.

In the terms of good game writing, the best example of good game writing is GameSpot’s updated news page. It’s understandable, gets to the point and is written up in the manner that can be compared to some of the writing that the major news network websites produce. Also, I like EGM’s three-person review system. It shows that everyone has a different opinion and sometimes not everyone can agree on whether a particular game is good or bad, but that’s the only thing I can come up with. Those are the only two that I can come up with.

Do you think things are getting better or worse for game writing, in general? If worse, what do you think it will take to reverse this trend. If better, how and why?

I’d say that’s its gotten worse. Pretty much most everything is fan-ridden now. All of the writing still seems like its being developed for 13 – 15-year-olds when in fact, the average age of the gaming population is 29. Clichéd cover lines such as “Nine things you didn’t know about so-and-so game,” or “Our official word on…,” or “We get giddy with games for grown-ups” still populate most of the game magazines found on news stands and that last line makes me shake my head in embarrassment. The thing that will change this is to make the writing more sophisticated. I’m not talking about sophisticated to where it’s mimicking Time or Life Magazine, but where it’s more like People or Entertainment Weekly. The writing has grown up, but it’s still smart and entertaining to read. Also, as I mentioned above, we need more real journalists, the ones with the experience and the journalism degrees. That’ll solve a lot of the problems.

When do you plan on graduating college? What do you plan on doing after that?

I’m graduating this May with a journalism degree and after that, the sky’s the limit, or in other words, I really don’t have a clue at this point in time.

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