Back in the middle of September or so Nukoda got a chance to chat up Dan Amrich from the Official Xbox Magazine (OXM) and discuss what it’s like to work as a journalist/writer for a gaming publication. The conversation kind of de-railed and became a fairly serious discussion on how to rate games, the real deal with the “Official” in the title and the absolute truth regarding Xbox bias.
Check out the first half of the interview below if you’d like to know what you can do to get a job at a game magazine/website and learn a little more than you thought you ever would about the ‘biz.
First things first, who are you and what do you do?
Sure. I’m Dan Amrich, and I’m one of the two Senior Editors at Official Xbox Magazine. The pithy job description is that I play games for a living, but it’s actually a lot more of organization, communication, and all that stuff they tell you to learn when you’re young because you’re going to need it later, but you shrug it off and say “Screw it, I just want to play video games.”
Most people probably look at you as a “Game Reviewer” but there’s a lot more to it. What do you do aside from writing reviews when working at a print magazine?
We all wear different hats here. I’m in charge of features and departments, so that means Xbox 365 and everything in it (2000 Pennies, Inbox, the lead story, Hard Stuff, 3X Power-Up, etc). I don’t write all of it but I have to make sure someone does. Same with the features; we aim for three to four features a month but have to be flexible based on how many pages we’re given and how much space reviews needs, etc.
There’s also lots of meetings—internal staff planning meetings, meeting with game developers and publishers, going to events to see new games, etc. There’s a fair amount of travel involved. Sometimes I am on a plane every two weeks.
Psychonauts, an OXM favorite. Only 2000 Pennies.
Being in charge of features, you can rely on the regular stuff you mentioned, but what about the unique features like “Seeing Red” or the XBox Live Police feature a while back – how do you guys come up with those and decide when they go in the magazine?
I have a list of potential topics. Some things just occur to me, some things are suggested by other staff members, some things come up in brainstorming sessions. It’s a cliché but we try to make features that we would want to read. We’re all big fans of Wired here, for instance; they do a fantastic job of doing high-end technology stories but always showing you the human angle. We don’t want to do purely “Look at this new game” stuff—preview features are great when we can do them but a steady diet of that makes it feel like you’re just someone’s cash cow.
The nice part about Xbox is that Live is all about the community, and things like Achievements suddenly open up a more human side of gaming that we can play around with. And even “Seeing Red”, yeah, it’s a technical issue, but it obviously evoked an emotional response. So rather than report it as “hey, the Xbox is breaking” it made more sense to say “we know everybody’s angry, here’s what’s being done to solve that.”
I am always looking for new topics, though. We don’t like to do the same feature over and over again, so the challenge comes from doing things like Achievement whoring, which is a fun topic and people either love it or hate it—it’s worth revisiting that, but you can’t do the same article twice, you know? We’ve talked about how to return to that topic from a different perspective and we’re cooking up ideas now.
When and why did OXM stop doing Review cover stories, or did they ever?
No, we still do them. Our next one is a review cover story. The main reason is a timing thing. So many of the big games come out in the fall that that’s when they all pile up. We still like to do review covers because we think the main moment of truth is when the game comes out. Pre-hype is nice and all, and a preview cover can show you what the game MIGHT be, but when it comes to spending the $60, most people want to do a reality check and see what someone who has played the real game has to say, then figure out how they feel.
[The next] cover is Halo 3, first exclusive review. It’ll be out September 25, by no coincidence.
But wasn’t the last cover a Halo 3 cover too?
Yes, funny that. Halo 3 was back to back, and if it weren’t Halo 3, it would never have happened, you know? With Halo 3, there was only so much info that Bungie wanted to release, and there were many people who wanted it. So if you look at when the other magazines’ stories came out, they’re carefully timed with things like the PS3 launch and other events that affect a multi-platform audience. So EGM and GamePro got good stories about an exclusive Xbox game, because it’s in Microsoft and Bungie’s best interest to play to those crowds, to give the gamer who hasn’t made up their mind yet a reason to swing to 360. Meanwhile, a lot of people thought OXM would have, like, everything Halo 3 all day long. But OXM readers already know what it is and why they want it—so our stories were more at the tail end. Mind you, we pitched for all those other stories too, but I understand the biz reason why they didn’t happen… the Halo 3 review cover [seen below] was one of those things that had to shift back an issue, but we’d already committed to doing a Halo 3 cover the month before, so Bungie helped us out with some interviews and we went with the “primer” strategy.
Halo 3 did score a 10 in November’s OXM. Do you agree?
As the “Official” XBox Magazine, you guys like, totally have to give it a ten right? If Microsoft runs you guys, you definitely have to score their games higher, right?
[Sigh] I know you’re kidding but it does kill me that some people really think that way. They see “official” and they go “biased.” No. We don’t work for Microsoft. We don’t work at Microsoft. We are not paid by Microsoft. We pay Microsoft a licensing fee, which gives us the opportunity to make the game disc that comes with the issue (Microsoft controls Xbox software, so they have to approve the disc) and we get to put the real logo on the cover for recognition factor.
Other than that…you’d be amazed at how little MS is involved. They help us fact check sometimes, but they don’t kill stories. You think they particularly liked us doing six pages on the red ring of death?
I think a lot of people who go “OXM, they’re biased” are not even reading the magazine. We’re seeing the classic knee-jerk reaction of people who don’t have information but want to sound smart. Welcome to the internet. It’s really nothing more than “good games get good reviews, bad games get bad reviews.” Some of those games are published by Microsoft.
MS was not happy with Crackdown‘s 7, even though that’s not a BAD score. It just says “We think it could be even better.” But we heard about that one. Fuzion Frenzy 2 got a 4 out of 10. We didn’t hear about that one.
Crackdown scored a respectable 7 in the magazine… Which wasn’t good enough for Microsoft.
OXM’s scale explicitly states that a 7 out of 10 is “Good”.
Everybody is [looking for a higher score] when their game is on the line. Some developers have been upset with me for giving 8s.
I won’t name the developer, but yeah, some guys are perfectionists, which makes them good at making games but not always good about accepting feedback about them. This was before I worked at OXM, mind you. But still, it happens.
Crackdown was an important title for Microsoft at a key moment, the first big first-party title after Gears owned the holiday. So they really wanted to see it shine as a one-two punch, and a 7 lessened the impact of that punch.
I liked [Crackdown] more than a 7, but we come to a consensus as a staff, we meet about every score, and we all weigh in. 7 is not unfair, I don’t think, but as always, each gamer’s mileage will vary. I totally understand. Every game is a labor of the love for the creators. It takes months if not years to bring a project together.
A 7.0 is a “Good” score. A “2.0/10” is a “Broken” score, which you honored Space Giraffe (seen below) the title of having. People haven’t responded so well to your low score of the game. Is dealing with backlash like this and from developers the most difficult part of the job?
It’s tough, yeah. I have kind of said all I want to say about SG on my blog, but the ferocity of the reaction from Jeff Minter was surprising. We exchanged e-mails privately and didn’t really come to a resolution. I was actually hoping to go on a podcast with him to talk it out, but he didn’t want to come on ours, and apparently I was invited to go on Major Nelson’s podcast but never got the invite. It’s a little late now, but yeah, I was seeking more communication pretty early on.
Space Giraffe earned a 2 in Official Xbox Magazine. “Technoslop” said Dan
I was disappointed in SG. It’s not for me, clearly—I don’t like the graphics, audio, or presentation—but I asked other people too and they had much the same reaction. So it wasn’t me just choosing a game to assassinate.
I was really hoping that game would rock my socks, and it didn’t, and I could identify why. So at that point, I have to say “this is not worth your time or money.” It’s what my actual role is. It’s why people read reviews—they want advice, they want an opinion, and that opinion has to be backed up. If someone doesn’t agree with that backing up part, well, you have to factor in your own tastes every time anyway. I’m not here to tell people what to think, only what they can use to think for themselves.
That’s it for Part I of our interview with Dan Amrich from OXM. Look forward to Part II within the next week or so. We’ll chat up Dan about how being a game journalist can ruin playing games casually. If you’re a gaming industry super-star who just can’t get his or her ego fed enough or simply want some light focused on you, please feel free to contact us!