The most surprising part of Dan Amrich's new book, Critical Path: How to Write About Video Games For a Living, isn't the advice on cracking a difficult industry. It's not the guidance on navigating PR or knowing when to stay sober at press events. It's a chapter called "How It All Falls Apart — And Why That Might Be Good."
In this chapter, the Activision Social Media Manager and 15-year game criticism vet reminds his neophyte readers that no matter how long they've worked for their dream job, it may not be their final destination.
The work may become rote. Or boring. Or more habit than inspiration. The trick, he explains, isn't in skirting the final bow, but in knowing how to take it gracefully.
"You're not doing the audience any good, you're not doing your editor any good, and you're certainly not doing your reputation any good," he writes. "It's better to be remembered as a quality writer than currently known as a once-great writer.
"When it's your time to go, leave."
BEFORE THE INTERNET BOOM
In the mid 90s, NYC-based Harris Publications printed magazines on every topic from bow hunting to the best hairstyles in the world of country music.
"The cover line, and I'm not making this up, was once 'Achy, Breaky Hair," Amrich laughed. "They had Country Wood Projects and Quilter Magazine, which would give you patterns or wood project plans. Every three years they would just reprint the same articles, and because new people were always doing these crafts they would constantly sell. They didn't promote them at all! They put them on really cheap paper — that was their bedrock."
Amrich filled his own allotment of cheap paper at Country Guitar, a sort of sister publication to the much more successful Guitar World. He had no real expertise in the genre, but did possess a lifelong love of music (not to mention an affinity for food and shelter) and so went where he could find work.
He pursued his passions in his off hours, creating a video game section of the early America Online page "Critic's Choice." There, a still-struggling Amrich relied on touting AOL's burgeoning subscriber count to secure copies of games for review.
"A PR person would call me and would say, 'So, what's your circulation, how many people are reading your articles on this Critic's Choice thing?' and I would say, 'Well, we can't exactly track how many people are reading the articles but AOL currently has 300,000 subscribers so it is reasonable that any one of them could click on this review at any given time,' and they'd go, 'Wow, 300,000, that's pretty good!'"
In reality, the site — which has morphed into Critics.com — was far less grandiose, little more than the pet project of a kindly married couple from Cincinnati.
Though it provided a supportive venue for Amrich to practice writing about games, it made for an awkward conversation when he finally got his break in the industry.
"It worked out fine for like three years — and then I went to GamePro. And [the couple behind Critic's Choice were] really sad. Actually, the one guy has never spoken to me again and I feel really bad about that. He really thought that I was just going to move in with them. Like, literally, into their apartment complex and my pay was going to be that they would make me gourmet lunch everyday."
"I WANTED TO STAY RELEVANT AS THE GUY WHO HAD JUST SPENT SEVEN YEARS AT GAMEPRO AND THREE YEARS BEFORE THAT BUSTING MY ASS."
You'd be forgiven for not recognizing Amrich from his GamePro days, when he was more likely to be credited as Dan Elektro (a bastardization of a low-rent brand of guitar) or Bad Hare (a nod to his ... bad hair). It was at GamePro that Amrich transitioned from a gun for hire, writing wherever the work was, into being able to call himself a "professional videogame critic" with a straight face.
It was at the now-defunct magazine that Amrich became an action figure based on his alter ego. It was where he was inserted into NBA Hangtime (N64 and PSX players, try code: AMRICH, PIN: 2020). More importantly, it was he could team up with his wife, designer Katrin Auch.
"Our favorite stuff at GamePro was when I would write the article and she would design it, basically nobody else would be part of the discussion," Amrich said. "And they would go 'That looks great!' because we know how to work with each other."
After seven years, the two left the site as a team, but not without serious reservations.
"When I left GamePro ... I didn't want to. Future made us a really good offer, and GamePro didn't really give us a good enough reason to stay," he said. "My parents both spent decades in their jobs, and that sort of instilled a work ethic of 'get in there and do it right.'
"I never wanted to be flighty and I never - I always felt that was a point of shame. When I worked at Gamepro, I was there for 7 years I had every, every intention that I was still going to be there today. I really believed that I was going to spend the rest of my career at GamePro."
Amrich had ignored his own rule — he left before his time — and it wouldn't take him long to recognize the misstep.
The year following Amrich and Auch's departure from GamePro was not a happy time. They were working in Future's custom publishing branch, making what was tantamout to advertorial content. It was good money, but a bad fit. Amrich missed writing for the public and about a subject he was passionate about.
It was in this dark period that the idea for Critical Path started to take root.
"I wanted to stay relevant as the guy who had just spent seven years at GamePro and three years before that busting my ass. I wanted to be legitimate again," he said. "I just thought about all the questions that I got at GamePro of people asking "How do I get your job? I want to do your job someday" and I thought, 'Well, maybe that's what I can offer, maybe I can offer some of that advice.'"
But just as quickly as the idea sprouted, it retreated to the ground as Amrich finally muscled his way back into game writing at Future. In 2005, he was the second employee hired to create Games Radar and in 2006, he took up residence as a senior editor with Official Xbox Magazine.Then, after three years, Amrich, ascended to the top job in editorial: Editor-in-chief. It was announced that Amrich would lead the newly formed Future/Blizzard co-venture, World of Warcraft: The Official Magazine.
This, to crib a line from Amrich, is how it all falls apart.
HE GOT THE CALL ON HIS FIRST DAY
He was still finding just the right placement for his toys and office tchotchkes when he got the note of a missed call from Activision. It was missed, in fact, because he had not yet been in the job long enough to have a working phone.
"It was the guys from the PR team who said 'we're building a new position over here and we're kinda wondering if it's something you would be interested in,'" Amrich recalled. "And I said 'You do realize that I — just now — after 15 years in the industry got the editor-in-chief title that I have been looking for on my resume forever?'"
Amrich's first instinct may have been to cling to his new captain's chair, but he was already stifling niggling doubts about his new gig, which — ironically — was in the same custom publishing department he'd worked so hard to get out of.
"Blizzard is extremely specific about what it wants, and rightfully so, they have huge IPs. They're very protective, and that's cool, but it also causes a lot of tension," he said. "It became pretty clear that I was trying to fight for things that were simply not going to happen. The magazine wound up looking gorgeous though, so I suppose that it's all for the best."
So, at the beginning of 2010, the writer formerly known as Dan Elektro and Bad Hare was reforged as One of Swords and began serving as a conduit between Activision and its community. Though the megapublisher is obviously signing his checks, Amrich said he strives to be as impartial as he can in his writing.
"I'm covering Activision as a beat, obviously I'm going to be a cheerleader, but I can say it my way, and I still have that freedom of expression," he said. "Nobody edits me, I post what I want, when I want. I fact-check with people, but I don't show anybody my copy, I write it my way. They see it when it goes live."
Amrich may do the occasional bit of pining for the editorial world he left behind, but there's little doubt in his mind he left at the right moment.
"I still wrestle with it," Amrich said. "But I always quote the great David St. Hubbins from Spinal Tap: 'The time to sell out is when you have found a buyer.'"
IS AMRICH HAPPY? YES. COMPLACENT? NOT QUITE
His own journalism story had found its coda, but he saw others struggling to get past the prelude. And now he had even more to offer: Not just the years of sticking it to the The Man in the press, but learning how The Man takes his tea at Activision.
"I see how the press is seen from the other side," Amrich said. "So it has given me a better appreciation what lines not to cross, and I know what gets press people in the dog house more now than I did before. I know how Activision wants to work with the press and how they chose to do that."
Now that he's given up his press badge, Amrich admits to a little bit of nostalgia for his editorial days, and that's obvious throughout Critical Path (available on Kindle and for pre-order in paperback). The book's a respectful exploration of the industry, never shying away from the reality that reviewing games is — to the shock of grandparents worldwide — an actual job, with work and everything.
Critical Path covers the basics: how to get feature pitches heard, how to write reviews when you don't have access to early games and the like. He even touches on thorny issues like review scores. But it's also a guide to how young writers can conduct themselves with dignity, the "Dan Amrich guide to journalism," as he jokingly refers to it.
Maybe this is to be expected from anyone in any field for 15 years, but Amrich has clearly made peace with what many consider a trivial job. He's maybe even found the nobility in it.
"I hope that other people in my position think that what we do is, if not one of the Things That Matter, at least something Vaguely Important To Certain People Out There," he writes. "Ultimately, I realized that anything worth doing is worth doing well enough that you'd be proud to tell someone in casual conversation.".
Amrich jokes about selling out — and sure, the money's better once you give up muckraking — but there's something he seems to be chasing that runs deeper.
He holds his parents and their long, steady careers up as examples of tenacity, of dedication. But there's also something that terrifies Amrich about an invariable path, one that doesn't let everything fall apart in pursuit of a deeper joy.
"My mom was a bookkeeper for 35 years, and she was unhappy for most of that time. So I grew up in a house where my mom didn't like her job, but she did it because she had a family and she was good at it.
"I just made it my life's work to not be my mom. She was so unhappy with her job I said early on: Whatever I do, I gotta be happy."