Critical Path: How to Review Videogames for a Living Review

Posted by Apathylad (3066 posts) -

If you’re viewing this blog post, there’s a good chance you enjoy reading and writing about video games. Some among you may even want to pursue a career in video game journalism. However, reviewing video games isn’t an easy job. Sure, you will have access to the latest titles, but you’ll also write a lot, make very little money, and always be under the scrutiny of readers on the internet. On top of all that, it’s a very competitive field, and when you miss a deadline, there will be another eager writer waiting to take your spot. If you have no experience in the industry, you’re bound to have lots of questions, which is where Critical Path: How to Review Videogames for a Living comes in. Dan Amrich, coming from a background of over 15 years of working in the press (Official Xbox Magazine, GamePro, and GamesRadar), addresses all of these concerns, from how to write appealing reviews, how to attain a position as a game reviewer, and how to keep that dream job. It is both informative and engaging, and will appeal to both aspiring writers, and faithful readers who want to learn more about video game criticism and reporting.

To call Critical Path a “how to” book is simplifying what Amrich accomplishes. The lessons, which are divided into six sections, are the primary focus, but Dan’s personality comes across really well, and prevents the chapters from becoming a collection of dry instructions. He adds humorous experiences that are both insightful and entertaining, such as when a reader challenges a magazine by sending a resume that only mentions the games that he was able to beat quickly. This brief story emphasizes one of Amrich’s main arguments, “We need more writers who cover games and less gamers who think writing is a pretty cool job.” Game reviewers have to be writers first, and gamers second, because the former is what you’ll be doing most of the time. Writing is not a skill that everyone has. We, the audience, read to be informed, and the reviewer’s job is to inform us, which is why the person’s thoughts and feelings need to be made clearly. Dan Amrich shows his audience why these skills are important, and structures the book in such a way that is not overwhelming to the uninitiated.

If there’s one aspect of the book I felt could have been developed further, it’s the first chapter of the “Learning It” section. The “Test your Might” chapter provides a sample of a poorly written review. Dan Amrich analyses the flaws, and demonstrates how the review can be fixed, such as pointing out structural issues and implementing an active voice. It’s a helpful exercise, but I was disappointed that no example of a good review was provided. It’s true that the audience of Critical Path may have some exposure to professional reviews, but a few pages analyzing the positive components of a good review would have been enlightening to new writers. This omission felt particularly distracting in a later chapter, when Amrich shows several screenshots, and writes descriptions on why certain screens succeed and others fail. A similar “compare and contrast” explanation between sample reviews would have made the chapter stronger. However, should you have interest in purchasing Critical Path, do not let this one complaint deter you from doing so.

Before you ask, yes, Dan Amrich briefly mentions the “GerstmannGate” incident, but the book was published before Jeff revealed what really happened. The Kane & Lynch controversy isn’t discussed until much later in the book, where Amrich mentions his ambivalent thoughts on what may have occurred. It paints a complicated relationship between game reviewers, game publishers, and the audience. “You’re only as good as your last review,” Dan writes, and repeats throughout Critical Path. A game reviewer must be professional and consistent, because it is a career where you build and maintain relationships between the industry and with your audience. As readers, we see that dynamic from the perspective of the journalist, granting us a different point a view we may usually not consider.

Even if you don't want a job as a video game reviewer, the subject matter that surrounds the career is still captivating. The role of the media is something we readers often take for granted. It's too easy to jump on a forum and complain about a game's score being too low, but it's not easy to articulate whether or not a huge work is worth your money in a review (yes, including this review). So, yeah, I do recommend picking up Critical Path. I grew up reading Dan's work at GamePro, and the book alluded to a few of those issues, which I still have access to. And sure, while I may not have agreed with every review in the magazine, the amount of effort showed how much the staff cared about video games, just like in Dan Amrich's Critical Path.

Critical Path: How to Review Videogames for a Living is available digitally for $10 on both Kindle and iBooks, and in paperback for about $18. Dan Amrich is currently the Social Media Manager for Activision over at OneOfSwords.com, where you can see find his recent articles and weekly podcast.

Have any of you read the Critical Path?

#1 Edited by Apathylad (3066 posts) -

If you’re viewing this blog post, there’s a good chance you enjoy reading and writing about video games. Some among you may even want to pursue a career in video game journalism. However, reviewing video games isn’t an easy job. Sure, you will have access to the latest titles, but you’ll also write a lot, make very little money, and always be under the scrutiny of readers on the internet. On top of all that, it’s a very competitive field, and when you miss a deadline, there will be another eager writer waiting to take your spot. If you have no experience in the industry, you’re bound to have lots of questions, which is where Critical Path: How to Review Videogames for a Living comes in. Dan Amrich, coming from a background of over 15 years of working in the press (Official Xbox Magazine, GamePro, and GamesRadar), addresses all of these concerns, from how to write appealing reviews, how to attain a position as a game reviewer, and how to keep that dream job. It is both informative and engaging, and will appeal to both aspiring writers, and faithful readers who want to learn more about video game criticism and reporting.

To call Critical Path a “how to” book is simplifying what Amrich accomplishes. The lessons, which are divided into six sections, are the primary focus, but Dan’s personality comes across really well, and prevents the chapters from becoming a collection of dry instructions. He adds humorous experiences that are both insightful and entertaining, such as when a reader challenges a magazine by sending a resume that only mentions the games that he was able to beat quickly. This brief story emphasizes one of Amrich’s main arguments, “We need more writers who cover games and less gamers who think writing is a pretty cool job.” Game reviewers have to be writers first, and gamers second, because the former is what you’ll be doing most of the time. Writing is not a skill that everyone has. We, the audience, read to be informed, and the reviewer’s job is to inform us, which is why the person’s thoughts and feelings need to be made clearly. Dan Amrich shows his audience why these skills are important, and structures the book in such a way that is not overwhelming to the uninitiated.

If there’s one aspect of the book I felt could have been developed further, it’s the first chapter of the “Learning It” section. The “Test your Might” chapter provides a sample of a poorly written review. Dan Amrich analyses the flaws, and demonstrates how the review can be fixed, such as pointing out structural issues and implementing an active voice. It’s a helpful exercise, but I was disappointed that no example of a good review was provided. It’s true that the audience of Critical Path may have some exposure to professional reviews, but a few pages analyzing the positive components of a good review would have been enlightening to new writers. This omission felt particularly distracting in a later chapter, when Amrich shows several screenshots, and writes descriptions on why certain screens succeed and others fail. A similar “compare and contrast” explanation between sample reviews would have made the chapter stronger. However, should you have interest in purchasing Critical Path, do not let this one complaint deter you from doing so.

Before you ask, yes, Dan Amrich briefly mentions the “GerstmannGate” incident, but the book was published before Jeff revealed what really happened. The Kane & Lynch controversy isn’t discussed until much later in the book, where Amrich mentions his ambivalent thoughts on what may have occurred. It paints a complicated relationship between game reviewers, game publishers, and the audience. “You’re only as good as your last review,” Dan writes, and repeats throughout Critical Path. A game reviewer must be professional and consistent, because it is a career where you build and maintain relationships between the industry and with your audience. As readers, we see that dynamic from the perspective of the journalist, granting us a different point a view we may usually not consider.

Even if you don't want a job as a video game reviewer, the subject matter that surrounds the career is still captivating. The role of the media is something we readers often take for granted. It's too easy to jump on a forum and complain about a game's score being too low, but it's not easy to articulate whether or not a huge work is worth your money in a review (yes, including this review). So, yeah, I do recommend picking up Critical Path. I grew up reading Dan's work at GamePro, and the book alluded to a few of those issues, which I still have access to. And sure, while I may not have agreed with every review in the magazine, the amount of effort showed how much the staff cared about video games, just like in Dan Amrich's Critical Path.

Critical Path: How to Review Videogames for a Living is available digitally for $10 on both Kindle and iBooks, and in paperback for about $18. Dan Amrich is currently the Social Media Manager for Activision over at OneOfSwords.com, where you can see find his recent articles and weekly podcast.

Have any of you read the Critical Path?

#2 Posted by Brendan (7687 posts) -

Interesting, thanks for pointing that out.

#3 Posted by PixelPrinny (1030 posts) -

So the real question is, now that you have read it do you think you are one step closer to getting a job in the review industry?

#4 Posted by Ramone (2959 posts) -

I don't think the 'your only as good as your last review' statement holds up in all honesty, at least not on the audience side of things. When I read a review the first thing I do is look for the author as this allows gives me a better impression of whether the game will suit my tastes. However I use my impression of the author as a whole to judge that not just what they last wrote. If I disagree with a reviewer who I normally agree with I usually just count that as an anomaly and move on I don't go back to that review when they next review a game and think 'Well he gave game X a 4 but I thought it was a 2 and he also gave Game Y a 4 so I'll just not play it'. However I can see how more fickle readers would perhaps focus on a review they did not agree on and base their opinion of the reviewer on that e.g the infamous 8.8. I might give this a read if I can get a old of it in the U.K though, thanks for the tip.

#5 Posted by Apathylad (3066 posts) -

@PixelPrinny:

I feel like I have a better understanding of what it's like to be a game reviewer, but to make that step I'd have to go out and apply to those positions, which I haven't really done. Furthermore, I'm not sure if I'd like a job like that, because I don't know how I'd handle the criticism from a broad audience.

@Ramone:

I looked up one of the pages where Amrich writes that phrase, and he's speaking more in terms of whether the critic is supporting his or her argument effectively. You're bound to not agree with a person's every opinion, but whether or not they can support that opinion is a different matter. Dan writes the following after that statement: "If you want to be trusted as a source of information, you'll have to earn it with every article. A lazy critic is a critic who doesn't deserve to be turned to as an expert source anyway."

#6 Edited by SeriouslyNow (8534 posts) -

If you want to do something like this, just do it.  Don't read someone else's guide.  This isn't like programming or sound design or theatre.  It's writing and writers all write differently and readers all read different writers for different reasons. Very few writers actually ever know why they succeeded in gaining an audience.  Sure, they might be able to tell you what they did right in some ways and what they did wrong, but that's hindsight mixed with ego-stroking.  The real answer is this; if you write in a certain way which appeals to enough people you will stay employed, despite what you review and how you review, not because of it.

#7 Posted by SethPhotopoulos (5109 posts) -

Pascal. It took me a minute to figure that out.

#8 Posted by N7 (3573 posts) -
@SeriouslyNow: The problem most people have is they don't know where to begin. A lot of people are under the idea that you can write this awesome review one day and immediately get a job somewhere reviewing the latest and greatest, when in fact it's going to always end up going to a career writer who has done it for years.
 
People always flock to these types of books because we're under the impression that they know easy ways to get in. Problem is, they almost always end up being a "who you know" type situation where they only got in by having a buddy on the inside.
 
The real way to get into reviewing games is simple: Start writing, get serious about it, don't fuck around, all while trying to turn it into a career. You can certainly have fun working, but writing for video games isn't some sort of fantasy world where everything is magical and fun. It's the same as writing for your favorite football team. It's going to seem great get invited to these big wig private events, but it's a job first and foremost, and should always be treated as such. The guys here at Giant Bomb didn't get to where they were by going "AW SHIT YEA WE GON PARTAY WOOHOO". They got to where they were by putting their nose to the grindstone and working their asses off, and they managed to luck out and get with a crew that understood them and shared their sense of humor to the extent that allowed Giant Bomb to be what it is.
 
This will not happen to you overnight. Make a name for yourself. Go out and get all the attention you know you deserve and bring it home. You can make it happen as long as you work hard and stay true to your beliefs.
#9 Edited by Mento (2441 posts) -

Sounds like the most cogent point the book was making, if only inadvertently, was that you need to inject personality into your writing. Joke around a bit, have unusual turns of phrases, that sort of thing. Obviously by no means should you be artificial or create some sort of SNL character, but I'd imagine it's having a unique voice that'll help you stand out in that competitive industry more than anything else. You did say the book became easier to read due to the author's humorous interjections.

I can't help but feel I read something of Dan Amrich's recently. Like an online FAQ on writing about games. Clearly he feels he has a lot to offer, or perhaps it's just that he's a chief editor who has long since grown tired of bad submissions from hopefuls.

Moderator
#10 Posted by SeriouslyNow (8534 posts) -
@N7 said:
@SeriouslyNow: The problem most people have is they don't know where to begin.
With so many examples to hand and so many resources available I can't believe that's true.  In '91 when I started there was nothing like Giantbomb or Reddit or Wordpress existed whereas these days people have so many options by which they can reach an audience, even multiple audiences really because your words can be easily and even cheaply professionally translated into foreign languages.  On a site like Giantbomb you have the staff using the exact same posting infrastructure which their audience can too; the playing field isn't just leveled, it's utterly busrsting with examples and lessons of game journalism in a wide variety of styles and contexts.  Frankly, there's a lot more value in a GB subscription than in a reading one book where a person gives you his personal recipe for success.
#11 Posted by Tim_the_Corsair (3065 posts) -

Nicely written review mate

#12 Posted by AdzPearson (201 posts) -

Interesting write-up. I'm looking at writing about games for a living myself. I was interested in being involved in the development of them (hence why I took a university course in it), but it turns out I only enjoy the design aspect of it (documentation, especially). As you may know, there isn't normally a straight route into the industry for that job role (unless you're the new Miyamoto or an indie guy). However, I did learn than I enjoy writing and I can still get a career that involves games in that capacity. I realise it won't be easy, but I'm willing to give it a shot. I really enjoy talking about games and everything to do with them.

#13 Posted by DanAmrich (8 posts) -

Hi all. I'm late to this discussion but there's a few things I'd like to chime in on.

I hope that you have read some of the book now (even the free preview from Amazon) because I think you are discussing it not based on what it actually says but what you think it might or might not say. For instance, the book is not my personal recipe for success; I had no interest in writing Here's How To Be Me by Me nor have I ever tried to position it that way. There is very little ego stroking; there are personal anecdotes but only in the service of actionable advice or warnings. This is book is absolutely not about me. It is a suggestion of best practices for people looking to get hired, from someone who has both been the hirer and the hiree (assuming those words exist).

Also, I agree that there are many examples of quality writing out there, but none tell you how to approach an editor for work, or which editor, or what they expect from you, or how you move from freelancer to full-timer, and so on. A lot of the book is about the career path itself, and what to be aware of in the world you're trying to enter. Emulating someone's writing style and starting your own WordPress site will get you a personal voice; I am hoping my book can offer advice on how to go further once you want that voice to reach more people and pay the rent.

Correct me if I'm reading it wrong, but I do not believe you had actually read the book when you made these posts back in April, and it concerns me to see you dismissing its value without having evaluated it yourself.

I agree, and the book is also a strong proponent of "just do it," nose to the grindstone, and the commitment required to make this work -- I'm very clear that it does not come easy or fast. I wanted this book to be encouraging to people who are serious about it, but also sober and realistic, if not discouraging to the people who think it's a great way to get free games and oh yeah I have to write articles or something? :)

#14 Posted by WMWA (1160 posts) -
@DanAmrich

Hi all. I'm late to this discussion but there's a few things I'd like to chime in on.

I hope that you have read some of the book now (even the free preview from Amazon) because I think you are discussing it not based on what it actually says but what you think it might or might not say. For instance, the book is not my personal recipe for success; I had no interest in writing Here's How To Be Me by Me nor have I ever tried to position it that way. There is very little ego stroking; there are personal anecdotes but only in the service of actionable advice or warnings. This is book is absolutely not about me. It is a suggestion of best practices for people looking to get hired, from someone who has both been the hirer and the hiree (assuming those words exist).

Also, I agree that there are many examples of quality writing out there, but none tell you how to approach an editor for work, or which editor, or what they expect from you, or how you move from freelancer to full-timer, and so on. A lot of the book is about the career path itself, and what to be aware of in the world you're trying to enter. Emulating someone's writing style and starting your own WordPress site will get you a personal voice; I am hoping my book can offer advice on how to go further once you want that voice to reach more people and pay the rent.

Correct me if I'm reading it wrong, but I do not believe you had actually read the book when you made these posts back in April, and it concerns me to see you dismissing its value without having evaluated it yourself.

I agree, and the book is also a strong proponent of "just do it," nose to the grindstone, and the commitment required to make this work -- I'm very clear that it does not come easy or fast. I wanted this book to be encouraging to people who are serious about it, but also sober and realistic, if not discouraging to the people who think it's a great way to get free games and oh yeah I have to write articles or something? :)

Whoa. Shit just got real meta
#15 Posted by SeriouslyNow (8534 posts) -

@DanAmrich: OK Dan. I will take you up on your offer. I'll read the book and get back to you.

#16 Posted by Sploder (917 posts) -

Thanks for the recommendation. I'm sure the book will come in handy as I'm pursuing a career in that field.

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