Ask GR Anything is a weekly Q&A column that answers questions submitted by readers (as well as questions we're particularly curious about ourselves). Got a burning question about games or the industry? Ask us in the comments below and you may just get it answered!
Whether you're an aspiring young writer or one of the commenters raging against a critic for scoring your favorite game a 9.5 when you thought it deserved a 10, chances are you've wondered, at some point, "How much do these videogame 'journalist' clowns make, anyway?"
Two weeks ago, GR commenter Ravenbom asked that very question a bit more politely. We were a bit curious ourselves (it’s normally impolite to ask colleagues how much they make), so we checked it out. We contacted a wide variety of professionals working in the game journalism field, and rudely asked them to tell us their salary. After making lots of people uncomfortable, we eventually ended up with a healthy number of respondents. Some of them work in print magazines, others on websites, but all of them were full-time. We also managed to get results from across the country, and even a few from the UK (which have been filtered according to exchange rates and cost of living.)
The majority of the industry is made up of freelancers, who we found to have an extremely wide-ranging income variation. At the very highest end of the scale, the most experienced freelancers can make upwards of $60,000 a year. However, it's good to remember that freelancers pay harsher self-employment taxes than salaried employees. They also don't get benefits of any kind like health insurance.
Most freelance writers weren't anywhere close to the top income bracket, though. The average we found for full-time freelance writers (removing the highest and lowest figures to keep things more accurate) was $26,000 per year. From what we gathered, the biggest determining factor in income was experience level; the longer someone has been a writer, the more they generally make (not because they command better rates than other freelancers, but because they usually know more people in the business and are able to take on more assignments).
Access to debug consoles also plays a large role, though. Debugs (a special type of console, available only from the manufacturer and rigged to play pre-release games) allow freelancers access to previews and early reviews, which can lead to lucrative print magazine assignments. It can also open up opportunities to work on "pre-reviews" for publishers, in which reviewers evaluate incomplete games so that the developers know in advance what needs the most polish, and what reviewers’ complaints will be.
Debugs aren't generally given out to freelance writers, but they can make a huge impact on earning potential, so competition is fierce for the small handful of consoles available.
The earnings results are a bit skewed, though, as a large number of working game journalists are not full-time, but are rather part-time freelance writers who pick up a few assignments in addition to their day jobs. So while we have a pretty good idea of what a full-time writer or editor makes in this business, we can't account for the huge number of people for whom freelancing is a side gig.
Salaried income was much more stable. While freelance income was wildly unpredictable from person to person, salaried employees generally make about the same amount from company to company and around the country (and UK).
When working for a website, there seem to be three different income brackets. For starting employees on the lowest rung, the average is around $32,000 (associate editor, assistant editor). More senior employees (senior editor, managing editor) can later hope to move up to around $50,000. While we weren't able to get an online editor in chief to respond, we expect there’s a similar bump.
These numbers stayed relatively constant across the industry and across the country. The vast majority of jobs were located in the San Francisco Bay Area, as that is the established hub of the gaming industry. One important thing to note, however, is that the cost of living in San Francisco is sky-high. It’s consistently one of the most expensive places in the country to live (monthly rent for a studio apartment tends to be around $1,000-$2,000), so salaries in that part of the country tend to be quite a bit higher than other places. In less expensive cities, the going rate for entry-level employees drops to $28,000.
Magazine employees can hope to make a bit more, but not by too much. Entry-level positions like assistant/associate editor bring in $30K/$40K respectively. As editors climb the ladder, they'll reach the $50,000 range at senior editor, $75,000 as an executive editor, and $80-$100,000 as an experienced, seasoned editor in chief (the last two could only be confirmed by one well-placed, experienced source). The top tier are well-paid, but it's worth keeping in mind that the combination of skills necessary to run a gaming magazine are exceedingly rare. There aren't many people alive who can write well, design a magazine, manage a staff, have a library of contacts in the industry, have a passion for gaming and have 10-plus years’ experience in gaming magazines.
However, all of this comes with a caveat, since as a general practice game journalists don't report all of the income we receive in the form of bribes, cocaine, and hookers paid for by game publishers. (People who actually believe any of that drastically underestimate how little game publishers care about our existence.)
There are a number of perks that make the low salary more bearable, though. There’s a lot of travel involved, and many of us get to make multiple trips around the country and around the world to places like E3, PAX, TGS, and Gamescom. There are also publisher preview events that can involve traveling (though this is less common for Bay Area outlets like GR, since developers can drive down the street to show us the game rather than flying us out to their offices).
Free games can also be a perk, though publishers usually only send copies of their games to reviewers working on that game (and Ice-T). The idea that game journalists receive tons of free games is mostly a myth (for instance, I've received a total of one free game in the last two years: Dead Island. And that's only because I appeared on a Comic Con panel for the publisher.) However, publications sometimes have giant lending libraries of old review games that can help employees save on costly game purchases (as well as being useful for screenshot/video purposes).
Thanks again to Ravenbom for the question. Come back next week, as we talk to Naughty Dog's co-founders to answer a burning question of our own. And ask your own questions either in the comments below, or by hitting me up on Twitter (@sciencegroen).