Interview with Dan Amrich (Senior Editor at OXM)

We recently were given the opportunity ask a few questions to Dan Amrich, Senior Editor for Official Xbox Magazine (OXM). He was more than apt to the questions we threw his way, whether it was about journalism or gaming. Please welcome Dan Amrich.

Can you fill in our users on exactly what OXM is?

Dan Amrich: Sure. OXM is the Official Xbox Magazine. It’s not owned or published by Microsoft, though, and a lot of people think or assume that it is. OXM is actually published by Future US, the same publishing company that puts out PC Gamer, PSM, and GamesRadar.com. We are editorially independent; Microsoft doesn’t dictate our content, change our reviews, or anything like that. But if you want that 360 logo on your game box or your magazine, you have to work out a business deal with Microsoft. We pay Microsoft a licensing fee like any software company would. One of the perks of that business deal is that we get to do the OXM game disc, which Microsoft has to approve and certify like any other game. It’s gone through some changes with the advent of 360 and Marketplace, but we’re trying some new ideas in an attempt to give people more than “just demos.”

How did you become involved with OXM?

Dan Amrich: I’ve been writing about video games since 1993, so I’ve been on staff or freelanced for a lot of different publications, both print and online. Last year Tom Price, OXM’s senior editor, took a job at G4 to work on X-Play, so there was an opening. I’d been freelancing for OXM, writing features and reviews whenever I could, for about two years, and I had just helped launch GamesRadar.com in the US. I really missed working in print mags and I saw some cool challenges ahead — like, how does a print magazine not just survive but thrive in an increasingly online world? — so I applied for the position and crossed my fingers. But I think having a deep resume and a lot of experience helped.

What exactly does your job entail?

Dan Amrich: My main responsibilities are features and departments. The cover feature is usually some sort of exclusive coverage of a piece of software — our editor-in-chief Francesca went to Japan to see Beautiful Katamari for the June issue, for instance, and I went to Raliegh to see Unreal Tournament III on 360 for July — but everything else, well, it has to come from somewhere! I’m always looking for interesting ideas and the writers to make them reality; sometimes those writers are on staff and sometimes they’re freelancers who have good connections and good journalistic backgrounds.

Departments is a little more scattershot. I generally comb through the reader mail (with the help of a few other folks here – yes, we really do read all the reader mail) and put together Message Center toward the beginning of a magazine’s four-week work cycle. All the stuff in Xbox 365 — news recaps, HDTV reviews, guest columns, technical advice, and oddball stuff like cheap games we recommend picking up — falls on my desk, and it’s forced me to be a lot more organized than I used to be!
This doesn’t include all the stuff that every editor on staff does — maintaining contacts with representatives at the game companies, going to demos and events to see new stuff, editing each other’s articles, and writing previews and reviews of software. There’s distressingly little “sitting around playing games” and an awful lot of…well, work.

What’s the best part about your job?

Dan Amrich: Sitting around playing games. :) I won’t deny that it’s fun to dig into software a little earlier than everybody else, and get to meet some of the people who make the stuff that we all spend hundreds of hours playing. The designers and programmers always have interesting ideas on a lot of topics and nobody asks them for those opinions; it’s always “how many levels will this game have” and “does it have a rocket launcher?” We have some of the most talented and amazing people on the planet in the industry; we should not take them for granted. So any chance I get to show the world what they’re really like as people, I get a great feeling. I love that part of my job.

I also get immense satisfaction out of finding exactly the right words and the right screenshots to convey an opinion. That’s all a review is, just one person’s opinion, so taking the effort to back up that opinion with the most efficient and accurate examples is the challenge every time I sit down at the keyboard. This might sound corny, but that sense of telling the truth in a way that really helps gamers decide whether or not a game is worth their money…that drives me, and I think that drives a lot of other writers too.

What should a gamer do to get a position such as yours?

Dan Amrich: Part of the trick is knowing what the job really is; being a great gamer won’t necessarily help you (but it won’t hurt). Being a great communicator is the skill you actually need. Be a writer first and a gamer second; the skills needed to put together a 2500-word feature are more valuable than being able to save the proverbial princess. So before you even ask yourself how to get the job…do you really know what it is, and do you still want it?

That said, the best way to get noticed at a big magazine is to freelance for other outlets first. I don’t think OXM has ever printed the work of a first-time writer with the exception of our interns — and those are young writers that we can stand directly over their shoulder and give them on-the-job training. The web has really opened up a lot of avenues that weren’t there even ten years ago. My first game reviews were printed online, in an AOL area called Critics’ Choice — this was when AOL had 300,000 subscribers and Mosaic had not been released. There was no “World Wide Web.” Now you have zillions of independent outlets that give writers a chance to step up and show their stuff.

You also need to get feedback on your work. It’s not enough to just dump some copy into a web page; is it any good? What can you do better? What does the reader need, as opposed to what you want to write? Work with an editor to improve your writing, because you will never stop working with editors your entire career. We all read, rework, and suggest changes on each other’s articles here. And the sooner you can get used to that natural back-and-forth improvement cycle with an editor, the better equipped you’ll be to go pro and write about games full-time.

Has the so called “console war” affected your job at OXM?

Dan Amrich: To an extent, because whenever the hardware shifts and new consoles come out, you have a lot of consumers looking for advice. Suddenly the magazines and websites that can offer real, actionable advice and the kind of data that helps people decide how to spend their money are very valuable. We take this dead serious when we score things, for instance; yeah, it’s a good game, but is it $60 of value? We’ve graded a few games lower than people expected because we felt the asking price didn’t match the game’s offerings. But that’s what you need to do; you need to be a trusted source, even more so when every reader is thinking “Should I buy this game or should I save this money and get a PS3 instead? Or maybe I should just throw everything away but my DS?” Games are fun, but figuring out how to survive a console war is serious business.

What’s your favorite aspect to the Xbox 360?

Dan Amrich: I think the online nature and how many things Xbox Live has gotten right is quite impressive. I don’t play a lot online, even; when I do, it’s generally just with the folks on my friends list. But to watch Live Arcade go from a boot disc on Xbox 1 to integrated with the dashboard, and knowing that I can play with any of my friends whenever I see them online even if I choose not to…I mean, what other console has ever offered what 360 does when it comes to putting gamers in touch with other gamers? They got it right, and they got it right before anybody else did. Before 360 launched, someone at Microsoft told me that they saw Live as the big product; 360 was merely the way to use it. They didn’t want people to fetishize the hardware; they wanted to show, hey, look, there are human beings out there and you can connect with them. When I thought about it from that perspective, Xbox suddenly felt very different. In a good way.

Are there any games that you have you eye on?

Dan Amrich: I’m an old-school arcade gamer so I am always interested to see what coin-ops get resurrected on XBLA. I have heard Puzzle Quest is coming to XBLA so I’m stoked to see how that translates, because I love the DS edition. For the heavier hitters, BioShock is really my cup of tea; I loved System Shock 2 and I like everything I’ve seen on the game so far, from the art direction to the mythology behind the game. And as a musician and a big guitar geek, I’m extremely interested to see how Guitar Hero III vs Rock Band plays out. Both have a lot going for them and really talented teams building them, so in a best case, we’ll get two incredibly awesome games. But if we do, I’m afraid music/rhythm games are going to be the new WWII shooter, where everybody else jumps on the bandwagon after one or two people take some really good ideas and make a ton of money. And then the entire genre gets burned out, the way snowboarding and even platform games eventually did. I hope I’m wrong.

What do you expect to be the next big innovation in gaming?

Dan Amrich: I think the Wii has tapped into something really important; they’ve made gaming accessible by not making a controller with 12 buttons on it. That’s imposing to anybody who isn’t already a gamer. So I think the Wii remote’s success is going to lead a lot of people to go “How can we make gesture-based games for everybody on our hardware?” I’ll be very surprised if Microsoft doesn’t come up with something; they’ve already got the Vision camera and you can play Pinball FX by waving your hands to flip the flippers. I don’t recommend it, but it’s clear that people are starting to think along those lines. In my mind, DDR gets credit for the whole concept; “look, you don’t need to have a gamepad to have fun.” It just took everybody else a long time to come around to that way of thinking. And now, Guitar Hero, Wii Sports…we’re seeing more and more people consider alternate input methods. I think it’s just the start, though.

And honestly, we’ve got HD visuals and surround sound; input devices have not dramatically changed since the arcade days. In fact, I’d argue that there was more innovation in coin-op controls than there has been in home consoles. The joysticks have gone analog and the buttons have multiplied, but we’re still using joysticks and buttons, not dramatically different from the ones you’ll find on Galaga…and that’s 26 years old. I think input has to be the next big innovation; it’s time to evolve.
But evolution doesn’t mean that you have to throw out the old; I really do think they can coexist, and there are some games when a control pad is going to be the best possible form of input. Case in point: if someone doesn’t make a quality arcade-style, old-school joystick for the 360, I’m going to develop one myself. I want that product so bad, and I know I’m not alone. I had a friend hack into a Mad Catz controller pad for me and we wired it into a Nuby Street Fighter joystick, following some instructions from gamersreports.com. So I have one, but why did I have to make it myself? If I can do it…why can’t a company?

Well, on behalf of www.myarcadeplanet.com I would like to thank you for taking the time to talk with us. I know I have learned something. And who doesn’t miss old arcade style joysticks.

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