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Inside The Video Game Review Process

Diddy Kong plays Game BoyAs I've mentioned previously, I review video games professionally.  It's a wonderful job to have, giving me a chance to do some creative writing and give a little back to an industry that I've taken so much from over the years.  Plus there's the variety of games that I get to play in the name of business.  I've worked hard to reach this point in my journalism career and I hope that I have much farther to go and much more to do before I set down my controller.

Many people seem to think that reviewing a video game professionally is all fun and games.  After all, there are an uncountable number of fan-based websites out there where folks post up a paragraph or two regarding what they think of a game.  That's easy enough, right?  Why should people outside of GameFAQs and Geocities have it any differently?  If you want to move up past the unpaid reader review level and get to the professional level where things are different thanks to standards and scheduling, it takes practice and commitment.  There's plenty of fun to go around, but there's also some serious work that needs to be done that requires self-motivation and dedication.  If you're aiming for a job reviewing video games professionally, here's a little taste of how I go about doing the job. 

I'm one of the product analysts / editors at the GameCube arm of the Advanced Media Network.  Currently there are four of us in the company that focus on reviewing new games for the Nintendo GameCube.  At the beginning of each financial quarter we meet to discuss who will be reviewing which new games.  Each of us, for the most part, has a preferred genre.  I love the platform adventure games, another of us likes first-person shooters, another likes RPGs, and so on.  For example, next quarter I'm scheduled to review Sonic Gems Collection, Mario Baseball, and The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction.  This will be a busy quarter for me; in the first half of the year the only games I reviewed were Star Fox: Assault and Donkey Konga 2.

If the game is a joy to play then reviewing it is much more fun than just work.  On the other hand, if a game is an absolute clunker then reviewing it can become an arduous task.  After all, if you were an amateur reviewer commenting on games for your own enjoyment, why would you spend time and money on a horrid or just plain boring game?  People seem to forget that for every Metroid Prime 2: Echoes or Mario Power Tennis that a reviewer receives early there is also a Goldeneye: Rogue Agent or a Mario Party 6 that someone has to deal with.

Approximately one week before a game is released for sale I receive a review copy via FedEx or USPS.  The goal is to have the finished two-thousand word review ready to go on the game's release date.  This gives me less than one week to not only play through enough of the game to review it, but also to actually write and revise the review itself.  The closer the game reaches me to its release date, the more likely a review will not be finished until after that release date.  While we aim for punctual reviews at AMN, we also never review a game based on only a few minutes of actual gameplay time just to meet a deadline.

Typically I set aside two or three weekday evenings, an entire Saturday, and a Sunday morning for playing the game.  If I need more time I take it, but for the most part this is how I schedule things; it does sound like a lot of time (and it is), but keep in mind that this is not a weekly occurrence.  While playing the game I take notes on what I like and do not like about what I experience, both in large gameplay elements and small details.  If the publisher sends along a press release with the game that hypes certain elements, I keep the release nearby while playing so I can check their claims against what's actually in the game.

Once I've completed the game or spent enough time with it to qualify for reviewing (for example, Midway Arcade Treasures 2 really cannot be completed like Mega Man X: Command Mission can) I take my notes, game instruction manual, and the press release to the computer and start writing.  This usually happens on Sunday afternoon.  My first drafts usually end up at one thousand words and discuss gameplay & control elements, a little of the storyline, and details on one or two objectives followed by a cursory look at the visuals and audio.  While reviewing this draft I double-check to be sure that I've spelled the names of characters, items, and locations correctly.  This is where the press release and game's instruction manual comes into play.  The second draft beefs up the visual and audio text, focusing on critiquing sharp visual details and little musical moments that especially shine or suffer.  After a third revision to ensure I have touched on every detail I want to include, I add some closing comments and reach the two-thousand word mark.  As a final step I assign the numerical ratings and write the brief comments for the pro and con summary.

It is Sunday evening when I file the review in AMN's database, format it with a little HTML, and add screenshots to the text.  By Monday morning on release day the senior editor for the GameCube division has read it over and e-mailed me with concerns, if any.  If there are corrections to be made those are done on Monday morning and by midday the review is ready to be posted to GameCube Advanced's front page with a nifty feature image that is cooked up by our graphics department.

I said at the opening of this piece that reviewing is a lot of fun and a lot of work.  I consider myself lucky to be a part of this industry, as for me the work is part of the fun.  I love playing the games and I love writing about them, and people seem to forget that second half of the job when they dream of a career in game journalism.  It's not enough to enjoy the games, you also have to love the writing process.  It is my love of both aspects of the job that keeps me moving forward with it, anticipating the next game on my schedule and the opportunity to share my thoughts on it with AMN's audience.

If after reading all of this the job still sounds attractive to you, then you should try and make a go of it.  Start building a portfolio of reviews and previews of new games and seek out companies that are hiring reviewers.  Don't expect to be hired right away and don't expect free goodies and glory right out of the gate.  Like any other career, plan to start at the bottom and work your way up.  Take my word for it; if you're truly dedicated to the work as well as the fun, it will be the best job you'll ever have.  And that's before you experience E3, too.