Should I Stay or Should I Go: How to Stay Afloat in the Games Media

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Jeff Green should be the most hireable man in videogame journalism.

The 54 year old got his start working for Ziff Davis’ MacWEEK as a reviews editor, and eventually joined the staff of Computer Gaming World as an associate editor in 1996. Five years later, in 2001, he was named editor-in-chief of CGW and remained in that position after the magazine was rebranded by Microsoft as Games For Windows: The Official Magazine in 2006. It was there where he became ringleader of “GFW Radio,” one of the greatest gaming podcasts of all time. Every week they served up equal doses of ultra-incisive commentary and, uhm, some other stuff too.

But then, in 2008, Games For Windows and its overarching brand 1Up.com were hit with company-wide layoffs. A few months later Jeff Green left Ziff Davis—which was then his home for over 15 years. Since then he’s bounced around a couple jobs in the games industry—he had an ill-fated stint as a developer at EA, before being named the “editor-in-chief” of EA.com in some sort of quasi-marketing position. Most recently he worked at Popcap as a social media manager, and now does consulting work at a company called Hit Detection.

Jeff Green seems mostly happy. He’s making money, he’s providing for his family. But this is still a man who’s always wanted to work in the media, who grew up with the dream of writing a backpage magazine column. He did, for nearly 20 years. Suddenly he’s not anymore. That must be disappointing.

“Obviously I’ve thought a lot about it, and in the last couple years I’ve stopped looking for jobs in the media,” says Green. “Right now [at Hit Detection] I’m working with all former game journalists who worked at Computer Gaming World, it’s like where old games journalists go to die or something. The biggest problem I had when 1Up and CGW shut down was that frankly I was too high up the ladder. If I was an associate editor or a senior editor I would’ve been more hireable. If you look around at the major videogame outlets in 2008—which was a different landscape—the guys at the top weren’t going anywhere. In fact, they still haven’t left. If CGW never shut down, I’m fairly convinced I’d still be there. It was the best job I ever had. Not to denigrate my current job, but that was a perfect fit.”

If Jeff Green was going to stick around he would’ve been forced to take a massive pay cut. For someone in his 40s, with a wife and a kid, living in San Francisco, those sorts of sacrifices aren’t viable. He was pushed out of the media, and he hasn’t been back since. This is not a particularly unique story, and is shared by many of his peers. 1Up’s Shane Bettenhausen now works for Playstation. CGW compatriot and one of the most vital voices in videogames Shawn Elliott is a level designer at Arkane Austin. Hilary Goldstein, a name people most associate with IGN’s mid-2000s heyday, now runs a tiny board game blog and works as a product manager for EA. 10 years ago every major hardware manufacturer in the industry had its own boutique magazine (remember those Official Xbox Magazine demo discs?). How many major, mainstream videogame websites exist anymore? There’s still Gamespot and IGN, but both those sites are long past their cultural moment and rely on ultra-broad content goals in order to keep up with new media demands. Kotaku does lots of great journalism, but publishes non-game-specific pieces removed from their nominal goals as a publication, and its identity tends to get subsumed underneath the larger Gawker brand. There are, of course, places like Unwinnable, Kill Screen and Rock Paper Shotgun—all great websites who stay to true to their identity—but few people are making a living off of those sites.

Simply put, this is a confusing era in games journalism, especially if you’re someone with roots in the media like Jeff Green. At one point in his life Green thought he’d be publishing his magazine until the day he retired. This would be his legacy. It was etched in stone. But then the world changed. Quickly, chaotically, leaving him out in the cold.

“I never wanted to make games, I wanted to write about them, but everybody I knew, every job lead [after 1Up folded] was in development. It wasn’t a great fit for me. I’ve never been great at corporate culture, and I had no idea what I was in for when I got to EA,” says Green. “That was rough for me, I went from the head of a magazine and part of this popular podcast—which I think was a career peak for me—and then I ended up in a job that I felt I didn’t know how to do, working for people way younger than me, and feeling like a moron every day. It was a real comeuppance for me. Like ‘whoa, what the hell happened to me?’”

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“We knew we had to do something different when we realized that we were appreciating this more than we were enjoying IGN,” says Greg Miller, one of the core personalities behind Kinda Funny Games. “I had always talked about how I wanted to be at IGN forever and if it ever got to the point where I didn’t want to come in everyday or that I wasn’t having the time of my life it was time to step aside.”

Miller, one of the bigger names in videogame journalism, decided to take matters into his own hands. He had eight great years at IGN, slowly but surely becoming the face of that publication, but then he took probably the biggest risk of his career. He took his social media followers and pooled them with other IGN employees Colin Moriarty, Tim Gettys and Nick Scarpino, and together they went fully independent. They had good jobs, and worked for a massive media company, but they still thought they’d be happier working out of a YouTube channel and a Twitch stream. Welcome to 2015.

“Look at the videogame industry, the middle-tier of developers fell away, so now you have triple-A developers and independent developers, and I honestly think that applies to videogame press too,” says Miller. “I think sites like IGN and Gamespot will be around forever, but any sites that aren’t on that level are doomed to fall away because readers are like ‘why would I go here if I can just go to IGN.’ On the other end of the spectrum you have the personalities. We weren’t the first people to leave a big group and we won’t be the last. I think people will look at what we do and realize that this is another way. That you don’t have to quit and do PR.”

A lot of the inspiration for what Miller is doing with Kinda Funny Games comes from Giant Bomb. They have similar origin stories. Giant Bomb was formed after ex-Gamespot employees Jeff Gerstmann, Ryan Davis, Brad Shoemaker and Vinny Caravella struck out to build their own editorial presence on the fundamental faith that the podcasts and videos they did at their former place of employment were popular enough to translate into a brand new website. It worked. Now Giant Bomb owns one of the most enviable spots in games media—tight-knit, uncompromising, but still rich with corporate money.

“Giant Bomb were the trailblazers,” says Miller. “Tim [Gettys] and I had a handle on YouTube, but the more you learn and study YouTube you realize that that’s what Giant Bomb was doing from the beginning. I was talking to Jeff [Gerstmann] back when we were just toying with the idea [of going independent] and he was like ‘yeah you guys got the right idea.’ It was what we needed to hear, that we were building and doing something that he saw himself in.”

What’s impressive about Giant Bomb is that they rose before the validation of Twitter or the Let’s Play scene. It was 2008. The precedent hadn’t been set. These were four men who were probably doomed to settle into the periphery of the games industry if they hadn’t stepped out to build their own thing.

“We were talking about the importance of engagement and the death of banner ads in, like, 2009. We certainly found a way to build something people would want to use that, at the time, felt more forward-thinking than building Yet Another Videogame Review Site, but it’s obviously not the only way,” says Jeff Gerstmann, founding editor of Giant Bomb. “If I were doing it all over again in 2016, I’d probably be building something a little more like Greg’s infrastructure rather than trying to develop and maintain a full site in-house.”

Giant Bomb’s theory paid off beautifully. They’re a videogame site, a humor site, a journalism site, all wrapped up in a single package through the authentic personalities they’ve developed organically. Gerstmann has been working in games writing since he was a teenager, and tells me he finds the way other videogame sites lean into off-topic content to be “sort of depressing.” It’s sobering to hear a man with so much experience offer a gloomy take on the industry.

“When I look at what the big sites are doing to stay afloat these days, I’m not sure if I’d still be in this line of work or not. I probably would have given up and taken a job on the publisher side or something by now. That side of things certainly pays better,” he says. “There are plenty of people in management positions who don’t see long-term value in experienced staff. If your primary output is rewriting stories that appeared on other sites and people standing in front of a camera, reading lightly rewritten press releases, there are thousands of people out there who want those positions and are willing to do it for next to nothing. That’s a hard thing to compete with. There are sites out there getting people to write news stories for them for zero dollars. How is anyone supposed to compete with that?”

Naturally, this doesn’t give much hope to people interested in games journalism as a serious, full-time career path. Giant Bomb was a natural extension of the exposure Gerstmann and his co-workers received working at Gamespot. Greg Miller cultivated a following on one of the biggest gaming publications on the internet, and had plenty of people ready to follow him when he went independent. The rise of YouTube and Twitch provides more avenues than ever to get your voice out in public, but being a streamer is much, much different than being a journalist. Jeff Green has spent years trying to edge his way back into an editorial role with no dice. He’s at peace, but also wishes that maybe he tried to take the Giant Bomb route back in 2008—long before he realized how drastically the industry would change.

“It was just something that didn’t exist back in the day, but we knew we had a fanbase and we were grateful for it. None of us wanted to quit, we left the building pretty unwillingly. If someone had pointed us to Patreon or Kickstarter, or if models like Giant Bomb had existed, I think we would’ve gone that route,” says Green. “The timing was off for us. But I’m glad the legacy is there, and I’m glad that other people were able to take that ball and run with it.”

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Games writing is more interesting and incisive than it’s ever been. Nobody should have rose-colored glasses for the era of the objective preview, or completionist, obsessive-compulsive review coverage, or the humorless tone, or the uncritical, unconscious, one-dimensional attention given to a game’s social resonance. Once upon a time Gamespot used a scale that factored categories like “sound,” and “graphics” into an algorithmic, mathematical score. In some respects, the era of the mega-publication were the dark ages. The current scrappy moment of loud voices in small places is preferable to the gelatinous monoculture of big-business games writing.

But it’s still troubling how so many people can’t make real money in games journalism. The jobs aren’t there, the rates aren’t great, and if you’re not a Greg Miller or a Jeff Gerstmann, and you don’t have an established following willing to pay you directly for your personality, it’s hard to know where to turn. It’s not to say it’s impossible—frequent Paste contributor Austin Walker recently turned his freelance momentum into a full-time job at Giant Bomb, and Paste regular Javy Gwaltney is now at Game Informer, but those stories are scarce.

Towards the end of our conversation I ask Jeff Green the simplest question I can think of. How healthy is games journalism right now?

“In some ways it’s super healthy,” says Green. “You have all of these voices from everywhere, you’ve got greater diversity of people, all genders represented, that’s all healthy. What’s less healthy is the long-term financial viability of the old traditional one. If I was still in the magazines and I was getting pressure to increase my subscriber numbers, I’d probably be freaking out.”

Maybe we’ll all live in a world where the games media as a whole is run by people who are passionate enough to make it just one of the many things they’re doing to stay afloat. Whether that’s exciting or disappointing probably depends on your perspective.

Luke Winkie is a writer living in Austin, TX. Follow him on Twitter at @luke_winkie.

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