Q&A With Dennis Scimeca

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Freelance writer Dennis Scimeca – From his website, punchingsnakes.com

By Travis Loose

This is an edited email interview with Dennis Scimeca, a video game journalism freelance writer from Boston, Mass. He has been published by KotakuG4The Escapist and Ars Technica. His compiled works can be found on his blog, punchingsnakes.com.

What is the most important thing an aspiring writer should know about breaking into the industry? 

Some general advice:

– Forget the idea of there being some magic formula for breaking into the industry. It is different for everyone. Blind, stupid luck always seems to play a factor. The best you can do is work your ass off to get recognized, and then hope you are in the right place, at the right time.

– Successful networking is the key to finding mentors and creating opportunities for yourself. You are trying to learn a craft, and a specific business. Approach the task accordingly, and learn from the experts. If you learn well, and they like what you’re doing, they’ll be the first people to give you a shot.

– Everything flows from your first, paid, published clip. If other editors see that one editor valued your work enough to pay for it, and that you were capable of working professionally with one of their colleagues, they are more likely to also give you a shot.

How does one most effectively make a name for himself as a freelancer?

Write features from angles that no one else is writing. Tap into what you find interesting, and don’t see being written elsewhere. Learn all the different outlets and what their voices are, and the kind of work they publish, so that you target your pitches appropriately. Never fail to pitch a story that you honestly think you could write, and never stop pitching the story until you’ve honestly run out of appropriate outlets to pitch it to. Then, if you have no other assignments, i.e. free time, write the piece for free somewhere so people can see the work. Figure out which of the places for whom you may write for free are getting attention, so that you can pull some of that attention to your own work if you publish at that outlet.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a freelancer?

Advantages: freedom to write what you want, when you want, for whom you want.

Disadvantages: you make terrible money, probably have no health insurance, and may have to sacrifice the freelancer’s freedom to write what you want, when you want, and for whom you want to take whatever gigs you can get to make the money you need to pay the bills, if you can even manage to do that depending on what your expenses are.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to be successful in video game journalism, specifically?

Play everything. All platforms. Follow the video game press and be aware of the big conversations taking place, and have something to add to them. Try writing for GamesBeat Unfiltered. You have a chance there to get your work shown off in front of a sizeable audience, if you’re good enough.

Make sure you value the craft of writing for its own sake. The biggest mistake I see aspiring game journos make is thinking that the job is just playing video games. Being a game journo means being able to write previews, and reviews, and daily news posts, and to provide live event coverage, and conduct interviews, and to write op-eds and features. If your writing skills aren’t up to par you’re never going to be able to adapt to all the different kinds of work you will need to do, adapting all those different kinds of work to all the different voices of the various outlets you may be writing for, and to do all of this by deadline and without requiring too much editing because your copy is solid.

The freelancer who can do that is the freelancer who might be successful at this and hopefully earn a staff gig someday. If your lack of writing ability gets in the way, you’re dead in the water, unless you get so very lucky as to land specifically at an outlet which doesn’t really care about the craft of their writing, and there aren’t many of those who are also going to pay your bills.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

Contributing to the larger conversations. Trying to educate people. I like to write about first person shooters because I take them seriously as artistic endeavor. Not many people seem to agree with me that they are. That means there’s a niche I get to fill. I can, hopefully, get readers to think differently about first person shooters with some of the work I do.

Getting to know game developers, and understanding their craft. It’s been amazing how my perspectives as a player have changed the more I’ve learned about how video games are actually made. The shallow, consumer-facing complaints start to melt away when you learn how petty so many of those complaints are, or how predicated they are on unrealistic expectations, compared to the logistical realities of making a video game. And you get to understand why what’s good, is good.

Case in point: I interviewed the creative director of Wolfenstein: The New Order. I said, after the interview, that the transitions between cutscenes and in-engine content were amazingly smooth. He explained how they did that: Each cutscene begins and ends with BJ Blazcowicz doing something with his hand. You cut into and out of the cutscenes on that motion, which came from or continues into the in-engine content. I never would have noticed that, had the creative director not pointed it out to me. Now I see it every time, and I understand why what works so well, works.

What’s the greatest perk of being a writer in the video game industry? 

The job IS the perk. You love video games, you love writing, and you’re getting paid to combine the two.

What game(s) are you currently playing?

I had been playing Grand Theft Auto Online a lot, but it needs something more structured than short missions, and causing mayhem on other players, to hold my attention at this point. When they finally patch in heists I’ll get back into it for a while, I’m sure.

I play NHL 14 with the guys sometimes. I’ve been playing Gears of War 3 with a buddy as a “tweener game” (our term for a game we play to kill time before the next major release we both get into), and he and I play Diablo 3, but only on the weekends when we can really crack out on long sessions because we don’t have work the next day.

I played a ton of Wolfenstein: The New Order, but it was for a review assignment, so now not so much.

I WANT to be getting back to Starcraft II, playing The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, getting some time in with The Elder Scrolls Online, and I have a slate of PlayStation 3 games I really ought to play so I can put the system into my legacy system archives. There’s not enough time to play everything I want, and I tend to own more games, now, than I ever did before I was writing about them professionally. Ironic, huh? Also very common, from what I’m made to understand from colleagues.

What is your all-time favorite video game?

I’d have to say Fallout 3. It’s the game that drew the most out of me, the game that I wish I could still be playing, the most enthralled I’ve ever been by a game world. When I heard that Fallout 4 might be set in Boston, my home town, I had to put the dampers on any excitement until the rumor was confirmed, because if it turns out to be bullshit I don’t want to be bummed out.

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