Videogame Reviewer

Videogame Reviewer

Dan Amrich

Los Angeles, CA

Male, 41

I started reviewing videogames professionally in 1993, when Genesis and SNES roamed the earth. Over the next 15 years I worked for magazines and websites like GamePro, GamesRadar, Official Xbox Magazine, and World Of Warcraft Official Magazine, while freelancing for Wired, PC Gamer, and many others. In an attempt to guide the next generation of reviewers, I wrote and published Critical Path: How to Review Videogames For A Living in February. Ask away!

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Last Answer on June 13, 2013

Best Rated

Did you ever have a really bad first impression of a game, which ultimately won you over big-time?

Asked by o-doyle about 5 years ago

Sure, and the opposite is also true -- strong start, lousy finish. You have to stay open minded throughout the entire process; you have to allow yourself to be not only impartial but also impressed. That means that while my first impressions are usually indicative of where the review will go, they are just first impressions, and I have to let the game teach me about itself.

What's the process in reviewing a game? Do you go buy it like everyone else, or does the maker give you a guided walk through?

Asked by Tony about 5 years ago

Well, buying a game and being given a walkthrough document are not the same thing. Most of the time, the publisher would supply me with a copy of the game -- sometimes final retail boxed copies, but because I spent so much time on print magazines, it was more often pre-release 100% or "near 100%" versions of the game that would run on special development hardware (or in the case of the older cartridge-based games, an EPROM, which was a naked circuit board with interchangable chips). These pre-release versions were necessary in the days of print if you wanted to have the review appear in the magazine around the same time that it became available in stores, since print magazines had, on average, a six-week "lead time" between the time they'd need the game and the time the issues would appear in mailboxes. Pre-release games always had to be returned or, once we got into CD-ROM based games, destroyed after we were done reviewing them -- the choice was up to the game company as to whether they wanted it back or they trusted us to shatter the disc. A build that could not be accounted for when it was asked to be returned was (and still is!) a serious offense. On occasion I would receive retail games for review and then I'd be asked to return them or even pass them on to another reviewer who was next in line -- Working Designs requested that with a few of their Sega CD games. Often when the game was done, your media outlet would get a copy of the final game for their permanent reference library, and if the PR team had any to spare, they might send one or two extra copies for the editors to keep for themselves. But the first copy, if one was sent, always went to the archive, to be used for future research, sequel comparison, cheat code testing, strategy guide work, or whatever else you might need it for down the road. I have bought plenty of games that I reviewed simply because I wanted a personal copy; freebies were nice, but not something to be expected. Almost always, a review game came with a fact sheet, and sometimes those games came with a walkthrough document, which would actually offer instructions on exactly how to get through the first two or three levels. These were really for people who were not specialist reviewers in games -- they were really for the newspaper entertainment reporter whose natural field was movie or music reviews, but who had to cover games as part of their assignments, even if it wasn't really their area of expertise. For most enthusiast publications, a walkthrough wasn't needed, but the fact sheet made sure we got the spelling of the development studio's name right, the number of players in multiplayer, things like that. Every reviewer has a different process for reviewing a game; mine was to start playing and take notes as I played through. Most of the time, my first instincts were correct, so the phrases and descriptions that came to mind while the game was fresh usually wound up making it into the final review. As I played through the rest of the game, I was constantly taking more notes and refining my comments with specific examples. I set up my desk so my game machine and writing computer were at 90-degree or 180-degree angles, so I could easily swivel my chair, type out a phrase or sentence in full, then unpause the game and keep going. It's still the way I like to do it today. Then the actual writing is a series of self-edits, as you make a cohesive argument or take a position, then refine it and reduce the word count, making it more efficient with each edit. That part just takes practice.

Do you think gamers of today are missing out on the arcade experience that was more prevalent in the 80s and 90s? Obviously the current games & consoles of today are way more advanced, but the in-person, social experience is lost.

Asked by DigDoug about 5 years ago

The social experience has simply changed, I think. I could not have dreamed of a day when I'd have voice chat while playing something as sophisticated as we have now. My mom never liked it when I went into arcades because of all the unsavory elements you heard about -- people getting into fights, people dealing drugs, you name it. It's a dark room; bad things are invited by that, I guess. So while I never had any issues (one guy did try to hustle me out of money if I could beat him at NBA Jam, but I declined), the worst someone can do over Xbox Live is call me names. And they do, all the time -- but they can only *virtually* stab me, which is a rarely touted plus.. My social experience with gaming is now on a headset, hanging with friends as we play WoW or COD -- we talk about things other than the game, but game discussions like "OMG I aggroed the spiders HALP HALP HALP" takes priority. People still like playing games with people, but I no longer believe you need to be in the same room to have a quality interaction. I guess the big thing that's been lost is "good game." When you play someone in person, you have to acknowledge them, and there was often a begrudging sense of sportsmanship. Now we have people who instantly mute everybody else in a lobby, which means they don't hear compliments and they don't work as a team to win. Imagine playing football with earbuds in, intentionally blocking out all of your teammates -- then blaming everybody else for sucking. That's admittedly a situation I don't think I would find in arcades.

DREAM JOB. How does a devout gamer, especially an articulate one, get into the business of writing video game reviews?

Asked by Jason_BKNY about 5 years ago

The short and unpopular answer: First, polish your writing skills so they are worthy of a publication, then approach outlets and ask them if they use freelance writers. Nobody will approach you; you really have to take the initiative and inquire at editorial outlets if you want to write for them. Many will say no; some may say yes. If they do, you have to be ready to accept all the responsibilities that go with it. They do not want to teach you as you figure it all out. I know this sounds like a bad plug, but answering this question is why I wrote Critical Path. This was the top question I got over those 15 years, so I wanted answer it in detail for people who were truly serious about chasing this as a career (not just looking for free games). If you are serious, the 320-page answer to this question is for you.

What's the most frustrating or difficult part about reviewing games professionally?

Asked by Tara about 5 years ago

The top frustration is the assumption that all reviewers are on being paid by publishers for their postiive reviews. I have seen so many allegations of corruption that stem not from evidence but from differences of opinion. If I give a game a 9 but you were expecting a 7, then I'm on the take -- "obviously." If I give it a 7 but you were expecting it to get a 9, suddenly that means I'm taking money from a rival publisher to keep its score low. To be accused of a crime like that and assumed guilty is the single most frustrating and difficult part of reviewing games professionally. Worse than any deadline, any unstable early build, or any inconvenience the game or the job's real responsibilities might offer. And that people feel it's okay to smear your professional reptuation with an unfounded allegation like that -- and others blindly agree "yeah, you're probably right" without a shred of evidence -- is absolutely infuriating to those of us who take great pride in being the reader's most trusted resource. I spent 15 years reviewing games and I still drive the car I owned when I moved to California in 1996. I was never approached with a bribe or some sort of compensation for my positive opinion. Maybe I was simply not important enough -- or maybe it's a myth that gamers like to perpetuate because it makes them feel better about whatever emotions they have already invested in a game they've never played.

How much can a really good or bad review affect game sales?

Asked by Lazlo Hollyfeld about 5 years ago

Depends on the situation. Consider how many times you've heard someone say "I was looking forward to this game but it's only getting a 78 on Metacritic, so I think I might skip it." I hear it a lot, and I've let other people's reviews affect my buying decisions myself, so I think it's pretty common that a review can change people's minds from undecided to either yes or no -- but I am less sure that you can change someone from no to yes or yes to no if they started at either extreme, just from a really strong review. If it's one really good or really bad review -- say, everybody hates it except that one reviewer -- it probably won't move the needle. But a strong endorsement from a major outlet, or a particularly compelling assessment of a game can shift people's perspective...assuming they want it shifted. That's part of the key -- many people look to reviews not for buying advice but for confirmation that the decision they have already made (skip it, buy it, rent it) is "the right one." If they are not there to receive the advice in the way it's intended, you're not going to change their mind. In the press or in the audience, nobody likes to be that one lone dissenting opinion, for sure. I used to get nasty mails for reviews that simply didn't match what the reader wanted them to say -- my assessment didn't affect their buying decision because they'd already made that decision, but it might have made them look like "they bought the wrong game" if they were insecure about it in the first place. If preordering that game made them look uncool, then it's the negative reviewer's fault for calling that mistake to light. And then they tear me a new one. We actually got a really nasty, insulting complaint at GamePro for giving Metroid Prime a 4.5 out of 5 instead of the top score of 5 out of 5. This was someone who was not looking for a review to inform their buying decision, you know? On the publisher side, being able to say you got a high Metacritic ranking or a 10 out of 10 from a major outlet does give you serious buzz and a weapon for your marketing arsenal; it can put a game into someone's awareness where it wasn't before. So yes, there, good reviews can affect sales if properly amplified. But more organically, a good review can also create great word of mouth. Gamers trust their friends more than they usually trust an editorial outlet, because those friends are having the same gaming experiences as they are, in real time; they are going through these games together. The press is already a lap ahead of them so it's not a shared experience, and they're not facing the same purchasing decision as the audience either. But if a writer you trust says "really, give this a shot," and you mention that to your friends, that could be a tipping point for your entire peer group, and then that can spread. A lot of indie games find success with larger audiences this way, and reviews can be part of what helps make a louder noise for them.

Why did games in the 80s and 90s have such terrible English? I get that they were made in Japan, but surely they knew that a good game could bring in millions; why not pay a native English speaker a few bucks to just eyeball the language?

Asked by AllYourBase about 5 years ago

Depends on the game, but all games work with a budget. Do you spend money on an actor (or a consultant) or do you give the team that money so they can hire another texture artist or lighting specialist? Go easy on 'em; they all had multiple priorities to deal with, and nobody's success was guaranteed.