Can you make a living from writing about video games?

Well, can you? Someone asked me this the other day because their son wanted to get into games journalism, and I wasn’t sure what to say. Sort of? I guess?

The trouble is that EVERYONE wants to write about video games, because, well, it’s fun. A lot of people will happily do it for free in their spare time, like the folks here on A Most Agreeable Pastime. But that also means that the rates of pay for ‘proper’ games writing are – in general – horrendously low. That’s supply and demand for you. An unending stream of keen writers equals low pay across the board.

This is also coupled to the slow decline of print media and the rise of internet journalism, which has depressed fees for writers in almost every industry. Internet sites might get millions of views, but generally they’re making no money from readers and are instead relying solely on cash from advertising.

As a freelancer, I’ve found the rates for video game articles vary enormously depending on the publication. The lowest I’ve been paid is £60 for a feature, which was especially low. The highest is £480, which was a rare exception. Generally, you’re probably looking at about £200 for a long internet feature, possibly £300 if it’s in print. This might sound like a lot, but it really isn’t when you factor in the time it takes to write a well-researched piece. As well as the hours and hours spent fact-checking and researching details, there’s the time spent organising and conducting interviews (sometimes with several people for one article), and then transcribing those interviews before finally turning the resulting splurge of disparate information into something readable. Plus most publications will ask you to supply photos, screenshots and other images to accompany the feature, along with captions for all of them, which can take quite a bit of time to organise. All in all, you might be looking at up to around three days of work to turn out a polished 2,000-word article – and suddenly that £200 doesn’t look so generous.

Then there’s the fact that actually getting the work is far from easy. Pitching to publications can be a long, drawn-out affair, with far more misses than hits. Even though I’ve been a freelance games writer for about seven years now, I still get far more rejections than accepted pitches. The ratio has improved slightly as I’ve got better and gained a good reputation, but there can be all sorts of reasons why even a strong pitch gets rejected, from a lack of budget to a similar piece already being worked on by another freelancer.

And then there’s the sheer amount of time it takes to generate pitch ideas and send them out. Coming up with original ideas is tough, and quite often the things you might personally want to write about won’t be the things that websites and magazines want to publish. If a site is relying on revenue from advertising, then they need to deliver articles on the most popular, click-worthy games, and that means they might not be interested in your niche article on Japanese visual novels or a quirky indie game from some studio no one has heard of.

Away from features, writing guides is becoming increasingly important for websites, since walkthroughs for a popular title can generate lots of clicks for years and years after the game’s release. I haven’t done any guides myself, so I’m not sure of the rates for this, but I do know that the hours are punishing – imagine having to race through a pre-release copy of the latest Final Fantasy game before it’s launched, making sure to explore every single part, and take screenshots and video while you’re doing it.

Reviews can be similarly punishing, with tight deadlines. And bear in mind that when you’re reviewing a game, you’re only being paid for the word count, not for the time spent playing. You might end up playing a game for three solid days to finish it in time for the deadline, but only end up being paid something like £100 for 1,000 words. Sure, the game might be fun (if you’re lucky), but unless you’re playing it exclusively in your leisure time, you’re taking away valuable hours from your working life.

Things are slightly less precarious when it comes to full-time jobs in games journalism – but even here, the money isn’t exactly brilliant. I remember applying for a staff writer position at the now-defunct CVG back in the early 2000s, when the salary was around £25,000. That wasn’t too bad for a starting position at the time, but pretty low considering it was in hyper-expensive London. And if anything, salaries seem to have stayed the same or even gone down since then. Not long before it closed, the Official Nintendo Magazine was advertising for a staff writer on a salary of £16,000.

I have no idea what the current pay rate is for internet and print games journalists in the UK, but you can bet it isn’t great. It seems things are slightly better in the US – Jason Schreier has mentioned Kotaku has a starting salary of $50,000 – but clearly no one is getting into games journalism for the money. And many publications will also expect you to play the games you’re reviewing or talking about in your spare time, too. (Although Kotaku bucked this trend earlier in the year by pledging to give time off to staff who end up playing games they’re reviewing outside working hours.)

So, CAN you make a living from writing about video games? Well, just about, if you’re lucky enough to land a reasonably paid job at a publication and you don’t have too many outgoings. As a freelancer I think it would be a struggle to bring in enough cash every month to get by based solely on video-game articles. I do various other freelance work, from copy-editing to content marketing, which is far more lucrative than games writing – and I wouldn’t be able to cover my monthly expenses if all I did was write about video games, even with a steady stream of work. In fact, I’m planning to reduce the overall amount of games writing I do over the coming months.

The other thing is that when your hobby ends up becoming your work, often it sucks all the joy out of it. As I’ve said before, a sure way to ruin something you enjoy is by doing it for a living. I still love putting together a well-crafted feature, like the ones I write for Retro Gamer, but there are far easier ways to make a crust.

Still, if you’re determined to get into games journalism, may I refer you to this excellent article on Good luck.

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