Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

Reading the text: Adam Biessener

Posted by Randolph Carter on October 8, 2009

Adam Biessener is an Associate Editor for Game Informer Magazine. Quite the fan of MMOs he discusses his gaming background, what life as a video game journalist is like and offers some helpful advice to the aspiring journalists out there.

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game informerCould you explain what your involvement with Game Informer is and how you came to be working there?

I’ve been full-time editorial staff at GI since I started in September of ‘03. I had just finished my associate degree at a local community college as part of my second shot at the whole college thing when I saw the letter from the editor begging for someone, anyone, to come cover PC games for him. So I applied with a resumé and writing samples, got an interview, and got hired just like for any other job.

Since then, I’ve been covering PC games as best I can. The tasks of making a magazine — writing, researching editing, proofreading, etc. — are divided among the whole staff, so I’ve done a bit of pretty much everything in my time at GI. Previews, reviews, news, features, cover stories, we all kind of do it all. Things are moving in a good direction for us (c.f. the new website and the new hires, who are all fantastic), but until a few months ago I was the only person doing anything PC-related at GI. Obviously, there were some things that slipped through the cracks, and that’s always hard — I know it’s a video game magazine and all, but I take my job seriously and I hate it when I miss something, which is just about the worst way that you can fail as a journalist. At the same time, it’s really gratifying when I can take a smaller lower-profile title that I think is cool and interesting, like Majesty 2, and get it a little more exposure and coverage than it otherwise might get. Finding something new and cool and introducing readers to it is the best part of the job.

What would a typical work day for you look like?

First, it’s the news grind. Catching up on email, going through my RSS feed, trolling through news sites and all that gets me caught up to what’s going on in the morning. Depending on how interesting the morning’s news is and whether I have any other fires to put out, this takes anywhere from a half-hour to until lunch.

After that, it’s prioritizing tasks and jumping on them. I write a lot of emails and make a ton of phone calls to line up coverage for various things. Writing itself takes up a variable amount of time depending on…well, depending on whether it’s going quickly that day or not. Playing games for review. Playing preview builds if I can’t avoid it. Researching stories. If we’re in the last week before we send the book off to the printer, my day is pretty much wall-to-wall editing and proofreading.

Everybody thinks that the job is 90% playing games and 10% talking about them. It’s not; it’s a for-real job like anything else. A cool one, to be sure. But the vast majority of my time is spent making the magazine, not playing games.

Still, how many other professions get to have a bitchin’ SLI-enabled Alienware sitting at their desk so that they can make sure Aion can run at 1680×1050 with all the settings cranked?

How much interaction is there between the writers of the magazine?

Quite a lot, actually. We don’t use any freelancers or off-site staff, so we’re all in the office every day. We bounce ideas and copy off each other all the time before anything goes into editing. Everybody chats about what’s new and exciting in the worlds of gaming, sports, politics, and whatever else. It’s a fun place to work, and a great staff to work with.

Are you much of an MMO enthusiast?

Oh yeah, both personally and professionally. My job has moved more and more in an MMO-centric direction in the last few years, so I spend a ton of time reading, playing, and writing about MMOs. At home, no other MMO has taken me away from WoW for more than a few months at a time — I’ve got a great guild there, and we all know how hard it is to want to move away from your friends.

What was your introduction to MMOs and what was that experience like?

Sheesh, I guess it’d be Sierra On-Line at a friend’s house in elementary school years and years ago. It was obviously on his machine, though, so I didn’t get a ton of time with whatever that ancient MUD was. Also, I was into Star Control 2 at the time, which took all my attention by being TOTALLY AMAZING.

In college, I played a Wheel of Time MUD for a while. That was…interesting. Most of the users were more into RPing than playing the actual game, though, and that’s not my thing. I didn’t get well and truly sucked into an MMO until the WoW beta, which is kind of embarrassing when you think about it. Then again, my gaming resources were *extremely* limited prior to coming to work at GI in 2003, so the idea of paying a monthly subscription was a non-starter.

At your peak, how much time would you say you spent gaming? How about now?

My peak was probably high school, actually, pounding through every RPG I could get my hands on. Maybe when I was in one of my hardcore raiding phases in WoW, though. I’d say I spent at least 40 hours a week in-game during either of those.

Today I’ve got a lot more adult responsibilities, which cut into game time. If I can count time at the office, though, I’m probably still at at least 20 hours a week gaming.

Considering how many games you must play for review, are you still able to find enjoyment in gaming?

game informer2Absolutely. If I didn’t, I’d respec to a job with better income potential 😉 But no, I still find games to lose myself in on a regular basis. I just spent nearly all of last weekend immersed in Final Fantasy XII (no internet at the new house yet), and it was an absolute blast. I’ve spent big stints in WoW, Aion, Champions, Majesty 2, Half-Life 2 Ep 2, Plants Vs. Zombies, and Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri recently. There are way too many great games out there to be bored.

Would you say there is grind in your profession? If so, please explain.

Not in the sense of grinding out a repetitive task day after day, no. One of the great things about this line of work is that you’re always moving on to something new and shiny.

Two things sort of tangentially qualify, though. At times, learning new game systems does get tiresome, especially in MMOs and strategy games. You don’t realize how much work it is to grok all of the interrelations between all the numbers behind the scenes until you have to do it twice a week. It can get mentally exhausting. It’s easy enough to pick up the next Call of Duty and know which end of the gun to point at the bad guy. Figuring out how to keep your economy running in Tropico or your downtime low in Aion is a different beast. Under normal circumstances, decoding systems is very much part of the fun of any complex game. When a run of strategy, simulation, or MMOs comes out and I have to do a ton of it in a relatively short timeframe, though, it can be rough.

Second, watching developers make the same mistakes (or just stupid decisions) over and over again and having to play through them can be pretty brutal. One major offender here is UI. For god’s sake, don’t make me redo keybindings for every damn character I make (I’m looking at you, Aion).

On the other side, what do you find to be most rewarding about your job?

Definitely finding an underappreciated or low-profile game and introducing my audience to it. No question. I love being able to shine a light on some developer’s good work and help them find an audience and get the credit they deserve.

Sure, there are some geek-gasm moments like interviewing Gabe Newell or Rob Pardo or Chris Taylor or whatever, but that’s just personal “squeeee!” stuff. Professional pride is a lot longer-lasting.

Are you pleased with how your contribution to the magazine has been received?

I guess I’m not really sure what this means. Do I feel that my audience is generally happy with the job I do? Based on the feedback I get from readers, yeah, folks seem to have a positive opinion on my work. Like anyone else in a consumer-facing role, I’ve had both very complementary things said about my work as well as some terribly bitchy things. Everybody loves to take shots at GI; it’s just the nature of the beast. When you are in the criticism business, though, you have to develop a thick skin for your sanity’s sake. If I took every mean thing anyone has said about my writing to heart, I’d be a wreck. Most of the negative feedback I get is of the “lol game informer is owned by gamestop ur just tryin to sell games” type, though, which is easy enough to ignore.

If you had a chance to do it all over again, would you do anything different?

That’s a tough question. I’d be lying if I said there weren’t some moments here and there where I wanted out, but who doesn’t have those? Come on, though. I’ve got a pretty cool job that pays the bills and lets me be immersed in something I love. How many people get to say that?

What advice would you have for someone wanting to get into game journalism?

You have no idea how often I get this question. The answer is the same every time: Do it in your spare time, and go to school. Like any other profession, a college degree is a huge help in getting your resumé out of the pile and under someone’s eyes. And go start a blog or freelance and write about stuff. For one thing, it’ll make you better at writing. For another, you’ll have a body of work to show editors a) how well you write and b) that you love the subject matter enough to do it in your free time.

You wake up to a world where you are the head of a company developing an MMO. You have unlimited funds and resources available to you. Please describe the kind of game you would make.

Everyone should have it so easy! I’d stick to fantasy, since that’s what I love. I’d make the end-user interface and good netcode my absolute first priority, since EVERYONE BUT BLIZZARD DOES IT WRONG and it pisses me off (Aion is close, but still has some stupidities in there). I’d make art and “feel” my next priority, because your players are going to be spending a lot of time in your world and so you’d better make it somewhere that they want to be (WAR utterly failed at this, and it really hurt that game). I’d ignore PvP altogether, because I don’t love it and therefore wouldn’t make a good PvP game. I’d focus the vast majority of my design on creating small-group cooperative play (2-5 players) that feeds into a larger goal that guilds or alliances or factions or whatever are racing to complete (think opening the gates of Ahn’Qiraj, but not TERRIBLE IN EVERY WAY like that was. The concept is interesting though). I’d make dynamic invasion events that groups of players would have to band together to fight off (think the battle at Minas Tirith), which those previous goals feed into and help in the eventual battle. These battles would be the closest thing to raiding in my omega MMO.

Basically, I want a game where players compete indirectly instead of directly — think of it like European-style boardgames like Puerto Rico instead of American-style boardgames like Risk. At the same time, I want the playerbase to not be so segregated from each other that they may as well not be playing a large-scale MMO (This is my biggest beef with WoW-style raiding). I want there to be scheduled events that players can look forward to, and work toward preparing for — like raiding, but more inclusive. I want an evolving — not necessarily dynamic in the style of EVE, but definitely not static — world that I want to spend time in. Above all, I want a game that has meaningful small-group cooperative content that feels like it progresses some larger goal. That way I get the Pavlovian achievement satisfaction that WoW is so good at, I get to hang out with my friends and have some fun, and I get the sense of being part of a grand fantasy plot.

Is that too much to ask?

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