Writing Pandora


As we know, I was lucky enough to get to write a game, Pandora: First Contact. It launched last week and is doing relatively well, as I understand it. It’s unlikely this is its full audience either, given the parallel console nonsense. And, as I don’t want to steal Slitherine’s thunder I won’t go into detail, but there’s a lot more fun stuff coming.

I have to be careful, for fear of swelling their heads, but, honestly, working with the Proxy Studios guys has been stunningly good. I’ve worked in bars, restaurants, shops, journalism, PR and even politics over the ten years of my career, with a lot of different teams and types of people. But these three guys are the best team I’ve ever worked with.

(Now, that’s not to denigrate the individuals I’ve worked with before. They’ve always been fine human beings and, after we’ve stopped working together, I’ve become friends with most of them. But there’s almost something about the standard hierarchical system of every capitalist office job that turns men into monsters. For an old, old example, Adam Oxford is one of the gentlest human beings I’ve ever encountered and I’m myself hardly a model of o’erweening aggression and hubris – but there were times when his job as PCFormat’s Editor and mine as a writer, his inferior, made our relations have all the familial sweetness of jackals snarling over a carcass. And now we’re friends albeit, carefully separated by a continent or two.)

It’s true that I feel joy at doing every aspect of this job – writing science-fiction, sketching out ludicrous dialogue for our extremist faction-leaders, and writing a plausible future history of Earth – that might colour my appreciation for the three guys – Rok, Lorenz and Soheil – who are Proxy. Perhaps the problem for all these years has been me – perhaps, working in office environments is just wrong for me. But I doubt any of these is the key factor.


In my opinion, it’s just this Proxy team, and their long growth through the modding scene. For the guys have been super-respectful and gentle when directing me – maturely admonitory and forgiving when I make egregious mistakes, as is my wont – and when praise comes, they’ve been effusive. In such a small team, there’s no room for dead weight – and they’re all excellent at their multiple jobs, with the maturity of developers ten years more experienced. When under fire from exterior criticism they don’t jump at the first report, nor do they ignore a full barrage – they look at every problem, with an impartial eye, and make their own judgements. It’s been an absolute wonder to behold.

Anyway, writing a game has reminded me that I love the act of creation. The other things I do for money – ghostwriting, editing, copywriting, consultancy – are strictly financial transactions, which I don’t have to enjoy, theoretically to allow me to do the things Ido enjoy – writing, photography, art and journalism. The joy of creation is something else – the feeling I get when I’m lost in a canvas or bent with my macro lens over a scuttling beetle or parsing the thought process of an alien mind – that feeling is only replicated for me alone on mountaintops in the snow. Which is a harder spot to find.

(And, like many of my contemporaries, I wonder how much longer I can keep working on the journalism side of games and whether I still enjoy it. A lot of the games journalism I get to do has the whiff of formula about it – there are certain bounds within which it operates, even at the highest levels, which are unduly compromised, whether by linguistic expectations, consumer knowledge, the need to maintain relations with companies with aggressive marketing departments, and so on. Very few positions allow you the total freedom to write of RPS – and I do wonder if I’ve already written away a lot of the anger and love that is behind the best journalism. Even blogging, once the hobby of my idle hours, is slightly tiring to me these days.)

So, I guess what I’m saying is: thank you, Proxy, for giving me this chance to realise how good working in a team is and what I enjoy doing for a living. I’m looking forward to writing more for you in the future.

And if there’s anyone else out there that wants me to write their game? The answer is yes.

Journalism; when is it justified for a writer to work for free?

The Controversial Bit: yesterday morning, I posted on Twitter the following:

Hypothesis; people who write for free are using their secure financial situation as an unfair advantage. Any antitheses?

I got plenty.

To the tune of: Pete Seeger – Casey Jones

The Controversial Bit: yesterday morning, I posted on Twitter the following:

Hypothesis; people who write for free are using their secure financial situation as an unfair advantage. Any antitheses?

Notably, all the aspiring journalists I know were shocked that I asked this; most wannabe writers do work for free, as do most people in most fields that are difficult to get into but have (apparently) low skill criteria. Xero said “140 characters or less leaves no space for me to write why that’s so incredibly off the mark and kind of insulting… I’ve written for “experience” for 3 years and had a full time job so I can afford to. I’m not rich. I’m desperate to get in.”

I know of people who’ve worked for free for months to get into, say,  publishing, a median-wage profession with middling skill requirements. Notably, fields that need to find high-quality candidates amidst a sea of dross are more likely to support paid placements and internships (the law, say); those that have lots of suitable candidates can afford to exploit them (publishing, journalism).

However, writers writing for free to get into the industry aren’t the issue, though it’s interesting how this critique is applied to them.

The boring bit: Let’s think about journalism as a market, with a very few editors able to buy work. There are large numbers of writers supplying work, which would drive down the price of work to zero; this has been caused by a reduction of barriers to entry: networks, access, tools, literacy, relevant degrees, languages, etc. These barriers are going to decrease and  increase supply further, over time.

However, there are criteria that these editors need in their work which narrow the market; timeliness, quality, humour, analysis, reliability, accuracy; let’s refer to writers who fulfil these criteria as ‘talented’. If a publication had no criteria, the editor could literally employ anyone, though it’s unlikely he’d end with anything that was any good.

Now, it is likely, (as evinced by the huge number of acerbic wits on, say, RockPaperShotgun’s comments threads) that there’s a huge over-supply of potential talented writers. However, it’s a rare editor (normally an overworked writer himself) that has time to hunt down these writers and train away their flaws; so until someone comes up with an algorithm or crowd-sourcing solution that outperforms an editor in finding talent, they have to work with writers who have established their talent.

Erik Johnson argues that “Compensation brings about a type of consistency from a writing staff that a managing editor can trust much more than free help. As long as companies see the clear ROI when employing paid writers vs. unpaid, I doubt there will be a significant decline” (in paid writer’s rates).

So how do you prove talent?

Guild Wars 2 - Hamburg

Starting out:  To establish yourself in this market, you need to train on smaller sites or on your own blog, working for free, to improve your writing and profile, then submit your portfoilio to larger media; smaller websites are a good idea, as even if they don’t pay, you’re more likely to get noticed. As Debbie Timmins put it “People who write for free are honing their skills in the hopes that someone, someday will think it’s worth paying for.” Simple, right? No-one argues with their commitment to sacrificing time to establishing themselves. Martin Gaston agreed; “there is absolutely no chance I would have ever got a job without working for free.”

(If you want to know how to establish your talent, lots of people have written “How to get into journalism” pieces.”)

Who can write for free?  To write for free, you need some other means of supporting yourself. Often, for writers starting out, that means living at home with mum and dad, but the free time and state support of academia are also good; being independently wealthy is best of all. Those, like Xero, who work at a job as well as writing are somewhat rarer, if only because 9-5 jobs are excellent at leaving you unmotivated and jaded enough to put a severe cramp on your writing.

Basically, the larger your ability to subsidise yourself, the longer you can wait for success and the more time you’ll have to spend on honing your craft. As Benjamin White posited, “Rich people get experience for good jobs by virtue of being rich.” He’s missing out quite a lot of steps there, but we all understand the gist; basically, there isn’t equality of opportunity. When we talk about fairness here, then, we’re not talking about business being unfair; it’s about society having inequality built in from the start. Sad, but not much we can do it about it, and not particularly a problem of writing.

The established talent:  So, the writer has established his talent. The key follow-up question is; when do you stop working for free?

Regarding writing for free, Michael French, editor-in-chief of Develop and MCV thought that “there’s a big distinction between that ‘for the trade/community’ stuff and, say, doing the same thing on a national (newspaper).” Inventor of games journalism, Kieron Gillen gave me a good answer: “Generally speaking, the difference is between writing for free, and writing for free when someone’s making money from you… When I heard there’s a national paper who does it, it makes me want to drop napalm on everyone.”

“With an extra alarm for any use of the word ‘exposure’ in lieu of pay,” said freelance-hero Richard Cobbett. He told me “On PC Plus, I had several people offer free work. My reply was always ‘if it’s worth printing, it’s worth paying…’ The only time it makes sense if you’re directly pimping something else, like a book or some cause… I wouldn’t pay a press release writer for reprinting their words either.” Ben Furfie, who worked for free for two years to build up a portfolio, said “Offering paying publications free work is stupid. If I wasn’t good enough to be paid I found out why then went back and worked on it, until I was good enough. Didn’t take long.”

Richard also posited that working for free often doesn’t get the writer the advantage he imagines he’ll get. Kieron agreed: “And if they do, they’ve fucked over everyone else to get it. In which case, fuck ’em.” Price at this level is, after all, not dependent on the individual’s skills, but rather on how low they’re willing to go to get the work.

The Wii U in action.

The worst cut of all:  Undercutting, that is pitching a lower price than the competition, is a related thorny issue. When there is no established freelance rate, pitching a price is not a problem; but I know of at least two journalists who’ve successfully undercut an established price for work in order to ensure a proportion of a given freelance budget for themselves.

Again, to Ben Furfie: “Why people try to undercut people is beyond me. You get what you pay for. It’s the reason why I split my $1000 feature budget two ways rather than three. I’d spend more time editing the poorly written copy than it takes me to write the third feature myself.”

Like free work, if a person is undercutting the rate established by the editor, then the editor has to ask themselves; “Do I want this person writing for my media, yes or no? If yes, then I believe their work is of sufficient quality and I should pay them the rate I’ve set to attract that quality. If no and they’re not good enough, then I shouldn’t be influenced by their lower price.”

The free worker’s justification: Chris Schilling writes for the mainstream newspaper The Observer, for free, though he admits he’s not in a secure financial position. “Originally it was a profile-enhancer. Now it’s just about the only way I get to review games I really want to write about. I wrestle with the pros and cons every week. I realise working for free isn’t just doing me few favours but others, too. I do like the opportunity of having a platform to talk up smaller games I believe deserve the exposure.” However, he knows if he stops doing it, someone else will take it up and he’s happy sacrificing his free time to this, rather than trying to bolster his income.

The conclusion we can draw from this is that the onus is not on the writer; they’ve not set up the moral trap. It’s the editor or the business that is doing something wrong – like interns this is, after all, illegal. (I believe the precedent is London Dreams vs Nicola Vetta, though I’m no lawyer.) To employ someone, for piece-work, without paying them is illegal – but the law is very badly enforced.

Is there anything to be done? Is there any way of shaming the publications into conforming with the law? Probably not.

As the BBC’s Dan Emery said “’exposure’ – hah – it’s just another word for exploitation and usually when cost is more important than content. It’s been going on ever since I started at PC Zone 20 years ago and it’s in most industries in some form.”  Does he think we can shame publications into stopping? “In my humble opinion, when it comes to “shame” most business don’t care. Only when hit in their wallet do they change.” How about writers? “There’s no shortage of wannabe writers (or good writers needing a break) that think it’s their way in. For every one who wises up another three will fill his slot.”

Kieron agreed; “All you do is have the conversation. There’s a reason why I’ve said half the stuff I have in public. It’s just as much about shaming the writers who take it by saying; ‘You do know this is wrong, yeah?’”

Another vision: I asked Erlend Grefsrud of StrongMan Games whether the oversupply of writers was driving the unit cost of writing to zero. He replied: “Analysis is expensive, fandom is free. Enthusiast press is more vulnerable for that reason. You hire gushers willing to scribble for nothing, keeps everyone happy.” When I posited the unit cost of analysis also dropping to near-zero, along with all speed, quality, content, and assuming a huge over-supply of writers, he pointed out that advertising was the key shaper of writing style online. “Hm. I guess quality is less important than volume and speed. A function of the economics of advertising in transition phase.” So, fast, corpulent and overly positive coverage is the future of games sites?

The Playstation Stand, E3

Other countries: Dennis Kogel from Germany and Michael Tegos from Greece gave us their perspectives on other countries. Michael said “I can just add that I couldn’t have gotten my paid mag job if I hadn’t started off writing for free for a games site. Plus, things in Greece are such that it’s sadly all but impossible to write for a games site and get paid.”

Dennis added some perspective from being a freelancer for the German media. “As far as I can see, writers for “big” mags are paid well enough, small magazines…not so much (and they’re much smaller) but there’s a tendency to crowdsource news etc. on bigger sites and give readers a way to participate by blogging for free. There’s still a very palpable divide between reader-contributors and “proper”contributors which makes it weird in a way. However, online doesn’t seem to have a lot of respect in Germany generally. One major newspaper I wrote for doesn’t pay for online but promises carrot-on-a-stick paid print stuff. I stopped writing for them for that reason (though I’d love to find an outlet that pays for webcomic stuff).” Wouldn’t we all?

Rates: I’ll do a separate post later in the week with rates for various UK games media. Watch this space.

Stantonization: Richard Stanton of Edge said: “You know what happens when some fool asks me to write for free? This happens.”

Harlan Ellison – Pay The Writer


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"The Leech of Farringdon Road" Intro Draft

I was born, I suppose. I’m told most people were. Not that you would have known it from mother’s puckered mouth and youthful skin, of course, she was a model of chastity and virginity. From across the street, at least. Coming nearer, that marvellous plaster facade was marbled with blue and a little more rough than you first thought. Coming right up to us, dropping a penny in the cap on the stand and glancing up, as casually as you like, at her prim and silent in the shelter of the newspaper stand, and all the cracks becoming apparent, like crazy-paving, unpredictable lines fracturing that powder skin, showing something ruddier and more raw beneath the lead face paint. I’d watch the regulars who never tired of staring, smile and nod at her wondrous horror, and the new men who’d crossed the street to lech and flirt at the pretty young lady, reeling in their eyes as they smiled and nodded, shakily turning away. I could see their postures twisting, always wanting to glance back, to weigh what they’d seen against the reality they carried with them. I enjoyed my mother’s unsettling presence, and I’m fairly sure she did too.
I wasn’t born on the corner of course. Yet I spent years on it, and others like it. Finding the rough corners of the rough corners, watching the world go by. Spend your early lifetime on a street corner and the whole world passes by you eventually. Be garrulous enough, with your terrifying, silent mother as a lure, and people, any people, will stop and talk, their eyes slipping sideways in distraction at that ethereal disaster standing in the shadows. That distraction was useful, for all sorts of things. Stupid boys, the old dodgers would have attempted to become artful in the old ways, train long fingers to slip down gentlemen’s jackets and reach for wallets, long limber digits hummingbird’s tongues frantically maintaining poise and innocence, as that tongue strains for the nectar… and they would have been caught. Their lumpen mitts, untrained except in their imagination would have been grabbed. If not caught immediately, the hue and cry, the regularity of the faces would mean they never worked that corner again, and they would have had no opportunity to learn. A stupid, arrogant trick, to pick a man’s wallet.
I picked their minds.
Whilst they stared at mother, as subtle as iron railings, I’d probe gently, about their lives, their families, their jobs. I’d find out what they did, who they were, what they knew, draw gently at that silken purse heavy with golden ideas. There’s no laws against taking ideas that are freely given, and after years of endless, purposeful chatter I had a fairly good idea what the bits I should be reaching for were, and how to find my way there. There were currency these ideas, stuff I could swap with the other fine gentlemen who came that way, a bartering system of permanent inflation, where every transaction left me wealthier and them no poorer. It’s true what they say about information being power – but it’s also true that it’s power that when shared is utterly disippated, to the benefit of all. To keep any information in the head of one man is theft from all, so I guess you could call me a proto-communitarian, a modern day Robin Hood… ah, that might be stretching it. I’ve not told you what I did with the ideas, have I?
I got me an education.
Not much of one, mind, but enough to study and understand all the pettifogging nonsense that goes on in those big companies, the needless scurrying and balancing to frustrate theft, corruption, sloth, and defection. So inefficient, this system of stitching together a hundred unwilling men, to make one lazy staggering, swaggering giant. Once I’d understood that, it was fairly easy to pick apart those little threads and push these dear, befuddled suitors one way or another. Call me Telemachus, mother Syrene.
Say here comes the obnoxious Cyril. He’s not said as much, but he hates his wife. Doesn’t beat her, doesn’t shout, doesn’t threaten. Just abandons her at every opportunity, in the house, without a word. Wanders off and drinks, and gorges, whilst her dinner goes cold, then pleads “long hours at the office” and tuts at her quiet complaints. Late nights, he’ll wander past mother and I, pick up a copy of the Evening Rag, and have a quick gossip. Tells me about his cases, his techniques, reveals more than he means to, they all do.
He works as clerk at Legleman’s & Juniper, fine law firm. Not quite sure what the law is myself, though I’ve scraped enough of it together to make a fine advocate I’m sure. Now if I just bend old Legleman’s ear when he comes round one morning (and there’s a fine old gentleman, all yellow Pugin-print waistcoats and dusted hats fifty years out of date. Yes, a fine man, even if it was profit all from the misery of others), now if I whisper sweet somethings into his ear, nothing fantastical, nothing direct, he might go back to the office and have a think. All that talk of mine about ditchwater and clear ponds, getting your home warm for the winter, might make him take a quick gander at his clerk’s accounts. He won’t quite know why, and I’m not always sure of the workings myself, but you get a nose for the sort of language a man is hiding in conversation, the words not said. I just say ’em.
So old Legleman thought he’d get his house in order, way ahead of his usual Christmas accounts, which didn’t give the fragrant Cyril, time to correct his errors or hide any lazy shortcuts he’d taken early in the year. Or the money he’d taken for drink. And when he came in the following morning, bleary-eyed, Mr Legleman called him into the office, and the office thugs (Hurr, they call ’em) were waiting, and now Cyril doesn’t drink any more, and the books are clear, and it’s old lazy Legleman who’s working late over those books, and Cyril at home, sober and being forced to get to know the woman he married from love again. As I said, I’m bloody Robin of Loxley himself.

our villain, the blackguard of the economy. initial story to set up abilities. longer story, the quality of men changing, the greed and teeth sharp in every face. Wrongs to be righted, downtrodden to be uplifted. let’s knock the whole system down at once. Pull up the props under every man, nudge their ankles lightly, outward, so the whole cow sprawls on its inbred belly.