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Exclusive Dan Amrich interview

It’s your dream job: Playing video games. Writing about them. Getting paid. It will never happen, right?

Actually, it can. It’s definitely not easy to get this dream job—it requires a lot of perseverance, plenty of patience, a certain amount of skill, and a fair amount of luck. But with the right combination of elements, this job can be yours.

It is indeed everyone's dream job, but sadly, some do not know where to begin. We recently had the chance to sit down with Dan Amrich, the mastermind behind Critical Path: How to Review Videogames for a Living, and talk about the book and the business as a whole. Amrich, better known to some as "Activision's Major Nelson," has published pieces for the likes of The Official Xbox Magazine, GamesRadar, and GamePro - as you can imagine, he certainly knows the in-and-outs of videogame journalism. Critical Path not only shatters the myths behind the business, but offers tons of valuable information for young aspiring writers, along with worthwhile tidbits for those already "in." Enough talking, though, lets get straight to the interview! 

GameZone: For those who only know you as Activision's "Major Nelson," where did the influence come from for Critical Path? During your time as a videogame journalist, where you intentionally "taking notes" on how the business works?

Dan Amrich: I wasn't intentionally taking notes, no -- I was just doing my job as a game reviewer, and acquiring the knowledge and experience that came with it. Over 15 years you wind up learning a lot! It wasn't until I started seeing people ask questions about what I did that I even realized that I had detailed information -- I could articulate what I did for a living, how, and why. Around 2003 I got serious about writing the book, got my outline together and wrote a few sections. Over the next eight years or so I kept adding a little at a time, revising as I went, including new stuff I'd learned from recent situations. I tried to write in a very conversational tone -- the whole time, I was thinking, "What if someone asked me over lunch? What would I say if I were stuck on a long flight with someone?" I wanted that level of informality, but a lot of deep information to come up in that conversation. 

GZ: As you've stated in past interviews, Critical Path: How to Review Videogames for a Living went through quite the journey to its present day form. When did you begin writing the book, and at what point did you feel it was finally time to finish the project? 
 
DA: I had a few goals along the way that I didn't hit; it was hard to want to write the book instead of playing games. I decided I wanted the book out by the time I'm 40, so six months before my 41st birthday, I put together my first complete draft, sent it to some friends for their input, and started soliciting quotes for the back of the book about two months later. I remember putting some final polish on things during Halloween, because I was stuck in jury duty -- and I was the only idiot who showed up to the courthouse in costume. But that meant nobody bugged me so I could just sit there and focus on editing! As it was, I self-published the book about two weeks after my 41st birthday in February -- so I missed the target, but in this case I'll take a "close enough." 
 
GZ: Obviously the book targets aspiring young writers, filling them in on what to expect from the industry, but did you ever feel that the book could target those currently in the business? Would you say that the latter parts of the book addresses this audience? 
 
DA: The last two sections of the book are definitely there partially for that reason. I also did want to give those aspiring writers a very long-term view -- like, if you're serious about this, why not be prepared for the whole package? Once you get past the obvious establishing stuff like "who do I call at a game publisher" and "how do I get an editor's attention," your situation changes; you have different priorities as a staff member than you did when you were a freelancer. And I've seen some friends with several years of experience handle parts of that endgame poorly; once you've been doing it for a while, it's easy to get lazy or take your position for granted or simply fall out of love with your dream job. So it was partly to help young writers look far into their potential future, and partly to give folks who had done it for a while a fresh perspective if they were open to one. If nothing else, the latter sections are a good document of my experience that other writers can simply use for comparison. 
 
GZ: 320 pages covering the topic of reviewing videogames is impressive in and of itself. If you wanted your readers to come away with one thing, though, what would that be and why?
 
DA: Take responsibility for what you write. On the internet, a lot of people get into the habit of writing sarcastically, emotionally, and sometimes downright cruel in an attempt to look cool. You know, it's a nickname, it's online, it's fun to be vicious -- and who remembers anything on Twitter for longer than two minutes anyway? But when you write for a living, people will remember your name and your work -- readers, publishers, developers, potential employers, everybody. And snarky grandstanding can come back and bite you in the ass, hard. One day down the road, you will meet the designer of the game that you gave a 2 out of 10, and that designer will remember their name. When that moment comes, you have to be able to stand by what you've said in your reviews. You need to be accountable for what you write. I come back to this theme a few times in the book, and while other things like "it's a lot more work than you might think" and "the competition makes this a very risky job prospect," taking responsibility for what you write is honestly the very first thing that leaps to mind. 
 
GZ: Cliff Bleszinski, EPIC Games' CliffyB, gives an absolutely fantastic perspective of both the book and the industry as a whole in the foreword. What did it mean to have such a renowned director open up your book? 
 
DA: To me, it was the last piece of the puzzle. I had met and interviewed Cliff a few times over the years and it was always friendly, so I wrote to Epic's PR director with my pitch, and I was completely honest -- not only did I suspect Cliff had some strong opinions on the topic of game review, but it would also be a huge personal benefit to have Cliff's high-profile name on the cover. I'd asked Cliff to write columns for Official Xbox Magazine in the past but he was never interested, so I wasn't sure he'd be interested in this. But he was, and I was very grateful that I never had to look further than my first choice. The only thing that made me happier than him agreeing to write the foreword was reading what he actually wrote. As you can imagine he's wicked busy, and it came in at the wire, but it was brilliant and pretty moving -- worth the wait. I could not have asked for a better opener.
 
GZ: Critical Path could be described as a big "How-to" book, as you break down how to "develop writing fundamentals,"  how to enter into the business, and how to keep your job. What would you say is the biggest challenge facing someone reading this book interested in videogame journalism? 
 
DA: Surviving the attempt. You're going to go through a lot of rejection, wondering if it's worth it, wondering if anybody cares what you read, not getting any feedback good or bad on what you write, and not knowing if this is worth all the effort. I mean, this wandering-in-the-wilderness part can literally go on for years. This can take an incredible toll on your self-image, your confidence as a writer, and your faith in humanity. There are so few top-tier positions in games media and so many people who want them that simply wanting the job isn't enough, and that can be soul-crushingly discouraging. 

I tried very hard to balance the book between encouragement and reality checks; I neither want to be the guy who says "Stop right now, kid, you're destined to lose, we don't need another wannabe" and the guy who says "Golly, all you really need is gumption and moxie and all your dreams will come true!" Neither outlook strikes me as fair, so I tried very hard to temper both extremes into a rational course of action. 

 
GZ: Interestingly enough, you decided to publish the book independently instead of going through a named publication. How has that yielded positive results, and have their been any struggles with that decision? 
 
DA: I self-published for a few reasons. One, I was impatient; after chipping away for eight years, when it was finally done, I wanted it to be out in the wild. Two, I wrote PlayStation 2 for Dummies in 2001 and it was not a pleasant experience; the edit team didn't understand gaming, and they were led to believe the PlayStation 2 would be much more than a game console -- a video editor! a web server! -- so when I turned in my outline, they were mortified to learn it was "just" a games console with a DVD player riding shotgun. I had to fight some weird battles over the content of that book, and as soon as it was done, I swore that my next book would be a "real" book, one I controlled, one that was truly my statement. Friends who understood my voice and understood gaming helped edit it, and their advice led to a lot of really positive changes in the last few months of the project. But I still felt like I had final say, and my edit team was on the same wavelength this time, so I trusted them implicitly. So control over the content was my second reason for self-publishing, and that was actually the more important of the two. 
 
I didn't seriously consider self-publishing until the last few months. My friend and podcast co-host Hugh Sterbakov was writing his novel City Under the Moon while I was finishing up Critical Path, and he planned to self-publish; that inspired me to do some of my own research. As it was, I wound up putting my book out just about two weeks before he did! Self-publishing used to be an admission that your book sucked -- "Couldn't get a real publisher to pick it up, huh?" But the market has changed so much and my audience was such a specific niche that I decided it was worth the risk. Plus, a major publisher could still come knocking and ask for the rights -- it's happened to other indie authors -- and I would welcome that conversation. 

The two things I felt a major publisher could offer most authors -- help with marketing and professional design -- I felt prepared to do myself. Marketing was not too bad because I knew my target market and a good chunk of my target market knew me; I wrote directly to friends at magazines and websites and said "Wanna do an interview?" Not a ton of them said yes, but that seemed more efficient than waiting for a publisher's PR team to assemble the same list I already had in my head. As for design, my wife is a graphic designer and professional photographer with close to 20 years experience; we worked side-by-side at GamePro for several years. She laid out the book, designed the cover, took the author photo, converted it all to multiple ebook formats, and even built criticalpathbook.com. For an encore she created promotional postcards and buttons that I'll be giving out at gaming conventions this year. I mean, why go to a major publisher if I can get all that without leaving the house? Besides, she's clearly getting in on a good profit-sharing deal! 

I'm encouraged by the reactions from the first month of sales. I'm not gettin' rich by any stretch of the imagination, but the word is getting out and people seem to like what they're reading. I won't deny that I check Amazon every few days to see if there are new user reviews, and I have a Google Alert to let me know when people are talking about Critical Path -- it's exciting and nerve-wracking to watch. Self-publishing a book is like recording an EP with your local band and selling it out of the trunk of your car. Only people who already know and like your music are interested, and you can count on your friends to give you a few bucks. Beyond that, you have to work to get any attention at all. I am fortunate in that my boss at Activision has been very supportive of the book and doesn't mind that I talk about it through One of Swords. I promised not to abuse that permission, but it's inevitable that the two worlds will collide here and there. But having that pulpit definitely helps me get the word out to a wider audience, and a lot of self-published authors don't have that luxury. 
 
GZ: From your perspective, where do you see the business heading in ten years? Does the resurgence of "print" magazines through digital media hint at a positive future? 
 
DA: The problem with magazines isn't the content or the experience of reading one, but the business of the delivery method: Dead trees are expensive and slow. Digital mags sidestep both of those problems. People still like getting that "curated content" -- a packet of relevant tinformation that is researched, organized, and delivered in a format that's enjoyable to read. That experience and content is still desired; how we consume that content (and how this new format can improve that experience) is what changes. My favorite magazine is Guitarist, published in the UK, so as a US reader, I got a digital subscription as soon as I could. I no longer have to wait months to get an issue, and now I pay half what I used to pay per issue. The layout is rich and the content is as compelling as ever (and now the audio files that used to come on a CD with each issue are baked into the reader app). I like the romance of paper, but I'll trade it for the efficiency, environmental benefits, and affordability of digital magazines. Tablet computers are only going to get cheaper, lighter, and more ubiquitous -- now's the time to switch. And as new game magazines like PXL and Continue define themselves through digital distribution, this just means fresh opportunities for writers who understand the strengths of the new medium. 
 
GZ: Dan, before we close this interview, we'd like you to tell our readers where they can purchase your book, and how fans can keep up with you from day to day.
 
DA: Everything is up to date at criticalpathbook.com; there is a sample chapter, some glowing praise from industry folks, and of course, links to buy the book on Kindle, iBook, Nook, Google eBooks, and good ol' paperback. I try to keep my book chatter contained to @DanAmrich on Twitter, but it finds its way to @OneOfSwords too. 
 
We would like to thank Dan Amrich for taking time out of his busy schedule to sit down and answer some of our questions regarding his book and the business. Critical Path: How to Review Videogames for a Living is an outstanding book filled with worthwhile information for anyone interested in the videogame journalism. We hoped you enjoyed this interview; stay tuned to future interviews with some of the industry's most beloved faces.
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Tate Steinlage I write words about video games and sports. Hope you like them.
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