Home / Featured / Insider Interview: Dan Amrich, Official Xbox Magazine – Part II


dan_ghero2xbox.jpgA few weeks ago, we published an interview with Official Xbox Magazine Senior Editor, Dan Amrich that took place in September. We yapped-up reviews, bias (or not) at OXM and dealing with the heat of rating a game poorly.

Check out Part II of the interview where you can learn how to become a writer for a video game magazine or something similar. If you think it’s all glamor and gloss, be prepared: video game jobs aren’t all they seem.

Read or Rock on for an in-depth look at real gaming versus gaming for work, what a 10/10 really means and how Mr. Amrich wound up working where he does.


Most people would kill to be a “games journalist”. You elaborated earlier on what it is you actually do, though. Does all of this hamper your “casual/regular” gaming at home?


All the time. There are games you have to play, and there are games you want to play, and it’s great when they coincide — like Gears of War, I was thrilled to be able to review that one for the magazine. Ditto skate, I was really stoked because I wanted to dig into that. And even Space Giraffe — I asked to review that because I was really looking forward to seeing what it was all about, and I knew Minter’s earlier work. But there are many weekends that you can’t spend time on the games you want to play, or the games that all your friends are playing. So we all talk about our “piles” — the stacks of games that we want to play for fun but never seem to have the time to play.


Does This Stack Look Familiar?

But wouldn’t that sully the game for you? You’re on a deadline to rush through it all the time. Can you really enjoy those games as much as you might have without the pressure?


It’s what I call an occupational hazard. You want get lost in these games that you’ve been waiting to play, but yeah, you don’t get to immerse yourself as a fan. For Gears, I went to Microsoft to review it, and they had a nice room set up for me, and Cliffy was there to play multiplayer with me…but the clock was always ticking, and it was two days. The first day, finish the single-player game. The second day, multiplayer. That’s not a normal way that people play, so you are balancing the experience that you know it will deliver for everyone else with the experience you wind up getting. So…the short version is, it feels like work more than play.


The occupational hazard sometimes includes major spoilers, too. Can’t help it; sometimes you need to know things for a preview, if they show you a level in the middle of the game. Ken Levine was very polite about spoilers when I went to see BioShock and do that interview; he really didn’t want to tell me anything I shouldn’t know as a player, but we both realized that I can only interpret some of his comments and put them in context if I understood more about the narrative. So I take the spoiler so I know what not to print, and thereby avoid spoilers for everyone else.


The “review on site” thing is becoming more common — BioShock, Halo 3, and Orange Box all did it this year — and it makes the review process even less organic and “normal.” I don’t feel like a gamer when I go there and do these things, and even though the companies are very accommodating and let us play the game in private, it is a different feeling from flopping on the couch with a controller in hand, or even playing at my desk at work, where I can turn to Corey or Fran or Ryan or Paul and say “Do you see this? What do you think?” Many reviews are written with one person’s name on it, but many opinions factored in. That way it’s not just one nut-job going “I hate RPGs so…”. It comes down to understanding where your hobby ends and your job begins, and also trusting your instincts/being well informed enough to go on location and do what needs doing.


You guys have a fairly explicit scale defining what ratings mean what – a lot of people associate certain numbers with certain assumptions. Is there a specific process to reviewing games, more specifically, does FutureUS do it differently than maybe Ziff Davis (1up, EGM, GFW) or Gamespot?

I haven’t worked at Ziff or GameSpot, but I have worked at GamePro, Flux, and freelanced for a lot of other publications. The templates change, but I think the process is pretty similar. I take notes as I play, and sometimes paragraphs pop out fully formed. So the individual mechanics are all pretty similar; I sit there with a laptop and take notes, but other people just play and then start organizing their thoughts. As for scores, there is some variation there — I know that GamesRadar’s score scale is stricter, to the point where their 6 might be everybody else’s 7 — and there’s a big difference in the mind of the reader between those scores. But every publication is looking for internal consistency, so you just have to be in sync with the publication, its history, and its values to make sense of a review, or understand what its value will be to you.


Aggregate sites like Metacritic and GameRankings sort of force everybody’s 7 to be the same 7, and I don’t think that’s bad, but I also think that makes the score mean more than the review. And I’m a writer, not a mathematician, so what I write to support that 6 or 7 is, to me, the point. That’s where the value comes in, where you understand what that number really means. If you just read the number, you’re cheating yourself and making assumptions without information…and then the publication often gets held accountable for those assumptions!


Perfection? Not really, but damn close.

It’s often rough to see people say “OXM gave Fight Night Round 3 a 10, so that’s perfect.” No, that’s not. We don’t define it that way, and it’s not fair for the reader to take that and run with it… At least, not if we’re giving them an explicit list that says “This number means this opinion” and showing them that we don’t define 10 as perfect, simply un-missable and awesome.


Sorry to do it to you Dan – How did you land your gig at GamePro, and eventually at OXM?


My story is a little unusual, because of when I came up through the ranks. I graduated college in 1993 and started looking for freelance work as a music reviewer. I got hooked up with an area on America Online called Critics’ Choice, which reviewed all forms of media, and after I did some music reviews for them, they said “Hey, do you like video games?” So I eventually got to call all the game companies directly and introduce myself and represent that publication, ask for review copies of games, etc. I had to explain what AOL was, because at the time, if you weren’t GamePro or EGM or Diehard Gamefan, nobody knew what an online publication was. “What’s your circulation?” Well, online didn’t have its metrics together, so I would say “There are currently 300,000 AOL subscribers, and our content is available to any of them.” It’s funny to think of AOL as having a lower “circulation” than OXM does, but there you have it.


So I made good contacts in the industry and I was very responsible about letting a game company know when I’d written and published a review, good or bad, and that got me a good name when I went sniffing around for full-time work. The publisher of GamePro actually said to me on my first day, in a public meeting, “I’ve heard good things about you, so I’m looking forward to this.” That was a little intimidating… But most of the time, when I was freelancing, I was always looking for another gig, and kept contacting the editorial teams at the magazines looking for work.


Here’s a better story about this:


I was in New York City working for Guitar World magazine by day and writing game reviews at night for Critics’ Choice and Flux magazine, which was published by the same company that owned GW. I wanted to pitch Wired — I regularly set little goals for myself and writing for Wired was, like, the best mag I could think of for what I was into. I still read Wired today, I think it’s a great mag. So I wrote to a friend, Zach Meston — who was something of a child prodigy, writing strategy guides at age 17 and basically going pro at a really early age — and asked for his contact at Wired, since I knew he’d written for them. I wrote to the wrong person — I wrote to a total stranger, because I got Zach’s email address mixed up with Andy Eddy, who was at the time the guy who had been editor in chief of Video Games and Computer Entertainment magazine, which was one of the mags I saw that I felt was doing it “right,” that had a mature tone and took the games seriously but not in a pompous way. So I wound up writing my Zach mail to Andy, and Andy, who I’d never met, wrote back and said “Any friend of Zach is a friend of mine, here’s the Wired contact you need!”


Remember GamePro’s Dan Elektro? I Wonder Where He Wound Up…

Three months later I got published in Wired, and Andy saw it, said “Hey, this guy must be pretty good!” and called me for a full-time job on a startup magazine called Digital Diner. It didn’t last but Andy and I did; we’re very very good friends, brothers from another mother kind of geeks of a feather. And when Diner went south and I realized I had to go, it was Andy who put in a good word for me at GamePro, where he’d worked a few years before. He knew I was applying so he called to endorse me completely out of the goodness of his heart — which was extra awesome since he was basically putting my career ahead of his own magazine.


So should people be e-mailing OXM or other places if they want to get something published?


The breaking into the biz thing is always hard to explain, because I have now been on both sides — I’ve been the guy who’s hungry for work and wants to make a contact, and I’ve been the guy who doesn’t want to be bothered by someone who can’t really get it done. So the best thing to do is to start locally and small. Go to your local paper, go to a website that’s looking for help, and start getting published. You can get your polish before you even make a dime.


I worked at Critics’ Choice for free for three years, but I wrote over 300 articles in that time, and that was the true value. I understood how to work with an editor and how to take screenshots and even how to program AOL a little bit. So having a polished voice and understanding the review process is what really got me work, and not necessarily who I was or who I’d written for in the past. Many magazines and websites use freelancers, so it’s a matter of being added to that freelance pool.


A Black Xbox 360 Debug. Looks familiar, no?


Here’s the bigger problem: To review 360 games, you need the infamous debug hardware, which looks like a normal 360 but is actually a development kit… And they are only given out by Microsoft to “approved” people. So the hardest thing to do is get that hardware. Hell, when I was at GamesRadar and we were in setup mode, we needed PS2 hardware, and Sony wouldn’t even return my calls. We were legit but we weren’t launched, so they didn’t even answer. It’s even tougher if you’re independent.


So you will probably need to do some reviews for boxed games (because some game publishers do not send their games early, they send you a boxed copy…and that’s usually not a good sign in terms of quality) and then, once you have a few of those that go well, then you can ask the magazine about helping you secure a debug, but don’t even attempt to get a debug on your own, as a new freelancer. Focus on other platforms — PSP early copies run on regular PSP hardware. DS too, and of course, PC.

Snooping around, I found out you’re in a band – Fast Times, hosting 80’s parties… What?!


Yeah, I used to be in musical theater as a kid — I actually used to be a child actor, did a few commercials and stuff, nothing major — and I got out of singing because I just didn’t enjoy it, and I fell into that trap where kids in high school tell you “you can’t sing” because they can’t sing, and I believed them, so I stopped. Then I picked up guitar and Andy got the karaoke bug, so I went with him and got my confidence back. An 80’s cover band was looking for a vocalist in 2003 and I thought, maybe I’m good enough? Five years later I’m singing and playing a little guitar in tribal casinos wearing sunglasses and Miami Vice suits.


Amrich’s Um Jammer Lammy Axe. Badass.


In the band, when I play guitar, I play Um Jammer Lammy’s yellow electric. Turns out Fernandes made it in Japan, so after years of trying to find it, I finally tracked it down, imported it, had it totally overhauled with new pickups and parts and everything, and it’s my main stage guitar. So far no gamers have come to a show and gone “Is that Lammy’s guitar!?” but I am ever hopeful that someone will get the in-joke. You can find photos of it on my site, and my MySpace portrait is me jumping with Lammy.

Do you have any free time left?!


My wife and I play World of Warcraft. That actually affects my Gamerscore, but it’s quality family time, so I won’t argue. It’s great to be with someone who respects and understands your need to own every video game system and four arcade machines.


Guitar is a big hobby; I collect ’em, I play ’em, but honestly, the band is taking up a lot more time (we are getting really good gigs all of a sudden) so I don’t have a ton of time for much else at the moment.


Last one: What are 3 Xbox/360 games you feel gamers NEED to play?


I think Condemned is one of the best first-person experiences you’re going to find. That’s tough to say with BioShock out now, but Condemned was really well executed, maybe not as a “next gen experience” but as a truly unsettling and scary one.


Oh, God! Just give him some change!


I want to say Geometry Wars, but I think I’ll go with Carcassonne, because that game proves that slow-paced board games can be so well done digitally. That’s a fantastic translation. Carcassonne just proves that there is a lot more than just shooters and racers out there, and it’s fun, too.


I’m going to cheat a little and make my third pick Rock Band. It’s something truly special. I tend to go for the games that offer experiences that other games don’t give you, or give you experiences you never thought you’d have in a video game. Condemned and Carcassonne both fit that bill. And Rock Band is next.



There you have it… Dan Amrich in a 2 part interview extravaganza. We hope that you enjoyed our epic interview and who knows, maybe you learned something. We’d like to deeply thank Mr. Dan Amrich for his time, it was a feat and a half finally finding the time in his busy schedule and we are eternally grateful for his effort. If you want to learn how more OXMers got in to the gaming business, they did a really detailed show on their podcast last year. Check it out here.

OXM also had a recent website launch that features content you might not see in the magazine. It’s worth reading as well.

Are you part of the video game industry and want to totally pimp yourself? We won’t tell anyone, really! Contact us and let us know if you’d like to be interviewed on Nukoda.


About the author: Mitchell Dyer


Mitchell Dyer is an Alberta, Canada-based Reviews and Previews Editor for Nukoda.com, as well as a freelance videogame word typer with Official Xbox Magazine and OXMOnline.com where he writes reviews, features and more nonsense.


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