Note: To be notified of more content like this (and more), subscribe to the email list. The emails will be infrequent but packed with goodies.
For the last four years, I’ve run the most popular blog about the Nintendo 3DS video game system. The blog is past its prime at this point — half-abandoning it for nine months while backpacking around the world isn’t a great marketing strategy — but it has been how I’ve primarily made a living since the age of 20.
If you want the vanity metrics, here’s a few of them:
- At its peak, the site averaged 27,214 visits per day.
- For a long time, the blog was ranked #3 in Google for “nintendo 3ds”.
- The associated YouTube channel has 31,323,239 views.
There’s other metrics I could share but that’s not the point of the post. We’re here to answer a simple question: how can you make a living by writing about video games?
Because while I’ve had a lovely time over the last few years, I’ll eventually move on and I figured it’d be useful to share some things I’ve learned along the way. I have no need to hold back so this is pretty much everything I know.
1. Prepare to work.
A lot of people who say they want to write about video games for a living really just want a professional excuse to play video games. But it’s not that simple.
If you write about video games for a living, you will spend most of your time writing rather than playing games. You do have a better excuse to play them — “Honey, the boss needs me to finish this level!” — but don’t get into this industry if that’s all you can grasp of it. Reality won’t be so kind.
There’s also a difference between having a passion for writing and video games, and having a passion for writing about video games. You can easily like the former without liking the latter. (It’s the same way that plenty of people like travel and like writing but can’t handle the work of travel writing.)
Get into this business with a practical amount of pessimism. Expect it to be imperfect, as is the case with any job, and you’ll be be satisfied. Expect it to be more than that though and you might find yourself struggling.
- Ask yourself, “Do I love to write?” It’s a tough gig and takes more effort than stringing sentences together. You need more grit than some people are willing to work for.
- Write every day. If you can’t manage this without getting paid, you can’t manage it while getting paid. This guy wrote a novel on on the subway, on his way to work, with a phone, so there’s no excuses.
- Consider alternatives. Maybe there’s an easy job that pays alright and gives you more time to play video games? If that sounds attractive, chase that dream. (Read: Lifestyle Design.)
2. Forget about the gatekeepers.
Writing about video games is a competitive field and, if you try to snag a job at IGN or GameSpot, it’s going to be tough. Simply being a great writer is often not enough and, as much as possible, we want to avoid situations where we rely on people in positions of power — the gatekeepers — to make decisions that fall in our favour. To me, that’s leaving too much up to chance and I don’t want the course of my life altered by someone saying, “No.”
Getting a job at a company will be less stressful than working for yourself but, early on, it’s not a good idea sit around and hope for this to happen. Instead:
- Actively publish writing as soon as possible.
- Treat your writing like an actual, every day job.
- Build up all the real-world experience you can.
You can turn this into self-employment if you like or use the results as your portfolio for employment. I just think starting independently allows you to transition into either in the long run, so that’s what we’ll focus on.
- Start a blog. It’s fine to use WordPress.com at first. Just start as soon as possible. You can switch to your own host later on if you want. (This blog is hosted with A Small Orange.)
- If someone says, “No,” find an alternative. There’s never one way to approach a situation. You can always take another route to cut ahead of the line. Don’t waste time by waiting.
- Think of yourself as an artist. You’re an independent, creative person who has a long battle ahead of them. Read books like The War of Art to help survive the coming months and years.
3. Learn to (actually) write.
In general, video game writing sucks isn’t very good. I like what Polygon‘s doing but most of what shows up on blogs is a combination of:
- Press releases that have been slightly rewritten.
- Click-bait that creates news out of thin air.
- Something obvious that is made to sound interesting.
This happens because the industry runs on revenue from page-views which means posting quickly and posting frequently is always more profitable than posting well. It’s the same problem as the 24-hour news cycle on television. The moment you write and revise with actual consideration, you fall behind. I don’t have a solution to this since my blog and I epitomise the problem but, in either case, study writing outside of the video game world. If you emulate what you see on blogs, everything you write will be terrible.
Here’s a few rules worth remembering:
- Good writing is free of clutter.
- Short words are better than long ones.
- Clarity is more important than being clever.
- Delete 10-20% of the words from your drafts.
- Daily practice solves most writing problems.
But these rules aren’t the answer to all of your writing woes. You need to need to unlearn everything you were taught in school and learn from actual sources of authority — books, mostly. On Writing Well is a must-read, The Elements of Style should sit on your desk at all times, and Bird by Bird will keep you sane.
And while video game writing is mostly junk, maybe that’s an opportunity? Maybe someone with the right “voice” will sweep in and collect a big audience with their mastery of language? Because I don’t think careful, revised writing is a bottomless pit of doom. It’s just floundering at the moment and will continue to do so until someone figures out how to make it profitable.
- Write at the same time every day. It doesn’t matter when you write. Just work hard to be consistent.
- Read your writing aloud. It’s when you speak what’s on the page in front of you that your mistakes become a lot clearer.
- Check out The Talent Code and The Little Book of Talent. Both are packed with insights into how skills develop with practice.
4. Pick a niche.
Most people assume it’s better to write about video games in general since you’re able to reach a larger pool of people. In reality though, it’s better to write for a smaller audience — a niche – since there’s much less competition.
It’s this line of thinking that’s left me labelled as a Nintendo “fanboy” since I mostly talk about the 3DS. But the reason I focus on the 3DS is because I knew it’d be easier to focus on one system and transform myself into the resource for it. As a result, I don’t have to “sell” my blog to potential readers and I don’t have to convince them to come back. The benefit of my blog is obvious: there isn’t a better source for 3DS news (or at least, there wasn’t).
Other advantages of writing within a niche include:
- Gaining a stronger understanding of a smaller topic.
- Having less competition (and less risk of future competition).
- Being considered an authority by default.
But writing a niche doesn’t have to relate to topic — 3DS, Vita, PS4, etc. Your niche can be the form of writing you focus on. Maybe you only want to write reviews or previews or event coverage. Be creative.
You don’t have to focus on a niche though. Some people will find this limiting. But if you feel obligated to target a bigger audience, don’t. You’ll always have an easier time being the bigger fish in a smaller pond.
- Brainstorm niche ideas. Scribble a mind map on a piece of paper and consider every precise topic you might want to focus on with your writing.
- Test the waters. Spend a few days writing within each niche, just in text files on your computer. See which niche feels the most natural.
- Start very small. You can expand later if you want. It’s better to start as precise as possible though. It’s harder to go the other way.
5. Target yourself.
When I started the blog, I didn’t consider what people wanted to read. That’s no different from guessing, I feel. Instead, I asked myself:
- What do I want to read?
- What do I want to work on?
Because while market research has its place, we live in a big world and our personal tastes are often shared by large amounts of people, so appealing to yourself can be the most effective way to appeal to others. When I thought about the blog I wanted to read, for instance, this is what mattered:
- It has to be fast. I don’t want to behind on the news.
- The articles don’t need to be long. I just want the details.
- Corporations are boring. I prefer blogs from real people.
- I’m fine with reading but a podcast or videos would be nice.
- I want the author to be as enthused about the 3DS as I am.
And nothing about that list is out of the ordinary. It was, however, motivating to build something so closely tied to my own preferences. I wasn’t labouring away to satisfy other people. I was happily working on something I wanted to exist.
There’s other advantages to working like this though:
- You’re able to do the best work you can manage.
- People sense that you’re enjoying yourself (and they like that).
- You attract like-minded people who are fun to spend time with.
- It’s easier to remain persistent during the more difficult times.
- You intuitively know how to appeal to your audience.
You do have to appeal to other people, which means you can’t be completely self-indulgent, but considering your own tastes is the best place to begin.
- Look at your Internet history. What are your browsing habits? These are usually a great suggestion of your tastes.
- Question convention. Just because other writers and blogs do something doesn’t mean it needs to be done. Don’t feel obligated to take any approach.
- Adapt your tastes along the way. You can always change how you work later on. You might lose some readers but never let yourself feel trapped.
6. Find your edge.
No one stands out by blending in. That’s a ridiculously redundant statement and yet, by default, a lot of people are scared to be different and they’re scared to suggest that they’re different. Neither habit is productive in this world.
Ask yourself, “What can I offer people that other people can’t?” And be as forgiving as possible. Write down every possible advantage you might have over someone else who wants to write about video games:
- Are you a computer wizard?
- Do you have money to invest?
- Have you been writing for a long while?
- Do you have lots of free time?
- Maybe you have connections in the industry?
Personally, my edge was speed. When I started the blog, even if I didn’t write about a story first, I’d write about it quick enough that I may as well have been first. The difference was minuscule. Other people tried to compete but no one sustained the pace for as long as I did. But speed is not a great edge. It’s like competing on price in the retail world — a quick race to the bottom. If I were to start over, I’d find an edge that’s more enjoyable for the long-haul.
- Read Strengths Finder 2.0. It’s more of a test than a book but it’ll give you a sense of your personal strengths and the information is surprisingly detailed. I still refer to my results regularly.
- Ask people. We tend to look at ourselves critically while our friends and family can often have a better understanding of our capabilities. Question them and listen closely to what they say.
- Consider the “cost” of your edge. Most upsides have downsides, so consider what the downside is and figure out how to mitigate it in advance. Don’t let it surprise you later down the line.
7. Don’t hide.
Again and again, I’ve seen bloggers attempt to appear more “legitimate” by branding themselves as a larger entity than they really are. They’re ashamed to be “just” a single person with a passion for writing about video games.
This probably stems from what we’re taught in school: never use the word “I” within an essay, never give an opinion, and detach yourself from your creation. But while this makes sense in some contexts — students would use “I'” as the easy way out and news about the world could do with less bias — it makes no sense if you want to brand yourself as a writer.
Being a real person with real opinions is a surefire way to attract real readers rather than having people pass by to check out your writing before fluttering off somewhere else. To be a real person:
- Write in first person. Stand behind your opinions.
- Attach your name to everything (even if it’s just your first name).
- Make it easy to get in touch. You’re not a celebrity.
- Share yourself outside of writing — Twitter, Facebook, etc.
- Appeal to yourself. Work in a way that makes your smile.
There’s a lot of words that marketers use to describe this approach to business and media — authenticity, transparency, personal branding — but don’t over-think it. Just don’t try to hide yourself. You can, of course, have whatever level of privacy you feel comfortable with, but don’t put up barriers just because you feel like you’re “supposed” to put them there.
People won’t look down at you if they learn that you’re a nerdy guy in your parent’s basement who loves to play and talk about video games. If anything, they’ll probably feel a stronger connection.
- Sign up for major social networks. This means Facebook, Google+, and Twitter. There’s no need to be on the obscure ones.
- Use tools to manage your online persona. I’m fond of Buffer but there’s a lot of tools that make it easier to handle the workload.
- Draw the line. What don’t you want to share with the world? Clarify it to yourself. I, for instance, leave my family out of my online world.
8. Connect with people.
Connecting with bloggers and other people in the industry is the fastest way to be noticed. It all comes back to that cliché: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” And it’s unfortunate that skill matters considerably less than knowing the right people but we can either lament over how the world could work or deal with how it does work. (The latter is a lot more productive.)
I’m an introvert though and never felt comfortable making a big effort to “network” with people. It never felt natural so my approach has been a lot more casual. I’ve always just found people I wanted to connect with and:
- Sent them news tips via email.
- Responded to their questions on Twitter.
- Left comments on their blogs.
And really found any way to connect with these people that didn’t involve me “selling” my blog to them. I never wanted to say, “Hey, check this out…” I only made myself known to them and let the blog and writing do most of the work. Once they were aware of it, they started linking to me, we’d chat over Twitter, and a connection was formed. No fuss, no muss.
I guess it comes down to offering something rather than asking for something. Because I’m turned off when someone contacts me out of nowhere and says, “Please promote this thing I made.” But I’ll definitely pay close attention if you’re able to introduce yourself by saying, “Here’s this thing that you’ll find interesting or useful…” This is all classic sales technique: make the person care about you before you try to sell them on anything.
(And of course, treat human beings like human beings. The goal here isn’t to use them as stepping stones.)
- Write a list of people you want to know. And don’t just pick the popular people. Many of the most interesting folks aren’t the ones with legions of adoring fans.
- Follow these people on Twitter, read their blogs, etc. Look for opportunities to help them. Answer their questions, offer advice if they ask for it, and be a friend before they know who you are.
- Take your time. You don’t get to know people by forcing it to happen. As long as you’re putting out good stuff and these people know you exist, you’re going in the right direction.
9. Be first.
When the 3DS was announced, I saw the news story on Engadget in the morning and launched the blog by lunch. My first competitor — 3DS Buzz — launched within a couple of weeks but, without a doubt, I was first.
In the grand scheme of things, this might seem like a small detail, but I’ve always found that being first is one of the biggest advantages available:
- Readers are willing to give you a shot since there’s no alternative.
- Google will consider you an authority by default and rank you well.
- You’ll have more time to build momentum over competitors.
There’s even a law within The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing known as The Law of Leadership, which states: “It’s better to be first than it is to be better.”
The most effective time to be first is the start of a gaming generation. It’s the people who started blogs about the Xbox One and PS4 as soon as they were announced that have since reached a critical mass of readership. There’s other chances to be first though. You don’t have to sit and wait. You can also:
- Be the first to break any sort of news story.
- Be the first to start a blog about an anticipated game.
- Be the first to offer an interesting opinion on a topic.
And even if you’re not monitoring the blogosphere at every second of the day, at least be ready to jump at the first sign of something new. This doesn’t always work — I also started a blog about the failed OUYA system – but it doesn’t cost much money to start something and, when it pays off, it pays off in a big way.
- Read sites like Hacker News and Tech Crunch. These will have you covered for the most interesting opportunities. The front page of Reddit is also useful (but maybe hide the less useful sub-reddits).
- Figure out a game plan. What will you do if an interesting opportunity comes along? Imagine it happens and prepare for that moment. (I was always at the ready to register domain names, start a blog, etc.)
- Get started now. Being first is an advantage but it’s not a prerequisite. Your best bet remains to start as soon as possible, even if it’s just to prepare for being first in some other way later down the line.
10. Rank well in Google.
Google remains one of the best sources of traffic and therefore one of the best sources of readership — if you know how to improve your ranking. You’re probably wanting to become more of a writer than a marketer though so, don’t worry, we’re going to keep this simple.
The technical term for improving your search rankings is search engine optimisation (or “SEO” for short) and, since the folks at Buffer have already written The Complete Beginner’s Guide to SEO, I’m not going to regurgitate every point they covered. I just want to focus on three things:
First, I don’t take SEO as seriously as other people. It’s a big, profitable industry, but my approach is to:
- Get the basics right.
- Nudge my rankings in the right direction.
- Not worry about it too much after that.
I don’t want such details to distract me from making stuff.
Second, WordPress has a free plugin that’ll cover a lot of groundwork for you, but if you want to take a step further, read this guide to WordPress SEO.
Third, you need links from other sites pointing toward your blog. Google treats links as “votes” and they’re a critical component if you hope to get seen. Following the other points in this article will result in natural links but, to give yourself a nudge, write for other sites in exchange for a link to your blog. This is known as guest blogging and there are lots of resources to get you started:
- The Ultimate Guide to Guest Blogging
- Guest Blogging Guide from ViperChill.com
- How Guest Posting Propelled One Site From 0 to 100,000 Customers
After a while, SEO can take care of itself as a snowball effect begins to build but, early on, giving it attention can be the greatest boon to your writing career.
It’s not sexy but it works.
11. Cover events.
There’s a lot of events used by the video game industry — the Electronic Entertainment Expo, GamesCom, Nintendo Direct, press conferences from other major companies, the release of anticipated games, and the broader events like Black Friday and Christmas.
Anyone who writes about video games will prepare for these events but people don’t prepare enough and, as such, they miss out on huge opportunities to reach a lot of people. Because while I’ve promoted my blogs in a bunch of different ways, I can trace the bulk of my audience to events. Here’s how:
- Months before E3, I create a page for the event. This allows me to rank well in Google for relevant phrases and my “E3 2010″ page resulted in the first time my site reached more than 1500 people in one day. In 2011, that number jumped significantly and the strategy continues to work.
- We had two months notice for a press event where Nintendo would announce the release date for the 3DS. I created a mini-site for the event, did some basic SEO work, and within seconds of that event starting, my server crashed from too much traffic.
- When Nintendo hosted Nintendo World 2011 — the first event where the public could play the 3DS — I created another mini-site which attracted thousands of people because I live blogged the event from the show floor and published videos every evening when I returned to the hotel.
And I did all of these things within the first 9 months of the blog existing. There’s been many more events since then — the launch of the 3DS, every E3, etc — and the strategy continues to work because:
- There’s a huge influx of people searching for content.
- Most writers don’t accommodate for these people in a big way.
- If you prepare, you can outrank bigger sites in search engines.
What I’ve shared is only the tip of the iceberg though. For a more in-depth look at this process, read: How a 3 Month Old Website Received 958,373 Visits from Google. (And, seriously, do not underestimate the power of events. If anything this is the secret to the blog’s success.)
- Write down the major events coming in the next year. General ones like Valentine’s Day and Christmas are fine but it helps to be specific. Know what’s on the horizon.
- Look at last year’s coverage. What popular content came out of previous events? You don’t have to shoot in the dark. See what’s worked and model your content off of it.
- Start preparing now. If an event is months or even years away, that’s great. Get to work. As long as you have patience, you’ll be rewarded. Don’t let your future self look back with regret.
12. Find a better way to make money.
The bane of video game journalism is that money comes from advertising. Even if you’re working for a company, your salary is ultimately derived from how many people see ads. This causes a few problems:
- Writers are encourages to publish click-bait that can easily mislead readers or result in fake outrage.
- Websites are designed to increase page views and ad impressions rather than improve the user experience.
- The entire industry becomes a race to the bottom since everyone’s aiming for the same metric.
Since I’m a part of the problem though, I don’t have a direct solution. I haven’t been able to fix my blog, let alone the industry. I will, however, say that:
- Patreon is an interesting platform that allows consumers to regularly donate to their favourite creators.
- The folks at NF magazine have been successfully using to Kickstarter to fund their publication.
- Daring Fireball is my favourite model of tech journalism and there’s room for a video game equivalent.
So I think there is hope but page-view journalism is a downward spiral that’s difficult to escape. The amount of money that a page view is worth continues to fall so the attempts to grab attention by any means necessary become more ludicrous and, as a result, the amount of money that a page view is worth continues to fall. It’s a silly game but, at the moment, that’s how it’s played.
- Read Trust Me, I’m Lying. This book from Ryan Holiday provides an in-depth explanation of page-view journalism and may give you ideas on how to avoid it.
- Waste less money. The less you’re at risk of falling into debt, the less chance you have of doing anything you’ll regret. Consider how to reduce expenses before adding income.
- Believe there’s a solution. I know this sounds cheesy but the moment it starts to feel hopeless — as I’ve felt before — is the same moment you enter the downward spiral.
13. Don’t die wondering.
Earlier, I mentioned that I went to Japan to pick up the 3DS on the day it came out. I had been wanting to travel for a while and the 3DS stuff was more an excuse to leave in the country but I still considered it an investment and was lucky enough that the investment paid off (the trip paid for itself).
Before leaving Australia though, I was terrified. I was putting years of my savings into this trip and, while I’d reached a decent amount of people with the blog, I wasn’t earning more than $10 per day, so it was a big move.
But, of course, I did go to Japan, and it was mostly because of something my dad told me. “David,” he said, “you don’t want to die wondering.” And that thought, subconsciously at least, has always pushed me to do the things I’ve done — the thought that, one of these days, time will run out. I won’t exist forever so, when I come to a crossroads between doing something and not doing something, the former is almost always the better bet.
A similar thought is posed by Tim Ferriss in The 4-Hour Workweek — one of the most influential books in my life. Within its pages, Ferriss says to approach every big decision — or every decision that feels big — with two questions:
- On a scale of 1-10, what’s the worst that can happen?
- On a scale of 1-10, what’s the best that can happen?
So whether you’re hesitating about publishing your writing online, ambivalent about what it’ll take to make a name for yourself, or scared to take an important leap of faith, ask yourself these questions. Usually, the answer’s going to come back as, “Yes, you should absolutely do that thing you want to do.” Then it’s just a matter of actually doing the work (and that’s where the real fun begins).
The last thing I want is for anyone to thing what I’ve written here is the final word on becoming a video gamer writer. This is just my experience and my observations. I do feel like I’ve covered the big points though and that’s usually the best place to start. Beyond that, read books, learn from people you want to be like, and test assumptions with your own experience. There’s no set way of making it. You ultimately have to find what works for you.
Also know that, if I were to start over, I’d do a lot of things differently. I wouldn’t start a blog that trapped me in a 24-hour news cycle. I’d find a way where I could actually spend time writing rather than rushing around to gather the latest news. I’d try harder to survive without ads and push for an amazing user experience over everything else.
But for those things to work, it would have to be a complete overhaul rather than a gradual shift, and I’m not sure I’m ready for such a reinvention.
If you have any questions, leave them in the comments below. I’ll continue to check back and answer as many as possible.