It’s another milestone for me. Today, on NuAngel.net, I get to interview a legend. Activision’s own OneOfSwords! That’s right, it’s Dan Amrich, former Editor in Chief of World of Warcraft Magazine, Senior Editor for Official Xbox Magazine, and GamePro’s Dan Elektro & Bad Hare. This is a big deal for me because I can remember being a teenager in the late 90’s and reading Dan’s work in GamePro – then hearing him for the first time on the Official Xbox Magazine Podcast and following him on to his current project as OneOfSwords. You may have known him as a ‘writer’ but he’s officially the author of his second book, read on for the details of his brand new publication!
NuAngel: What’s your Gamertag, and what’s the story behind it?
OneOfSwords: When I took the job with Activision, I was asked to pick an identity along the lines of fourzerotwo or Major Nelson — a nickname that was unique, but didn’t have my real name in it or overt references to Activision in it. I thought back to when I used to try to read Tarot cards in college, and the Ace/One of Swords means “intellect over emotion; clarity.” I thought that was perfect for jumping into a role where I’d be dealing with angry gamers — I should be that source of clarity, that person who says “calm down and think about this, here’s some information that will help.” And even if you don’t know the story behind it, I figured being #1 was cool and swords are romantic weapons that you find in a lot of games. So nobody would laugh me out of a lobby. 🙂 I wanted a standard identity across everything, so OneOfSwords became not only my Gamertag but my Twitter, Facebook, Steam ID, PSN ID, everything!
NuAngel: Where are you from, how old are you, and what do you do (school, job, family, hobbies)?
OneOfSwords: I grew up in Trenton, moved to NYC then SF and now I’m kind of stuck in LA. I’m 40 (yes, I saw Star Wars in the theater when it was current, and I played Pac-Man in the arcades when it was new) and I’m the Social Media Manager for Activision, which is a fancy way of saying “blogger guy.” It’s community management with a fancy title.
NuAngel: You are a man of names, but currently, most know you as One Of Swords. As a history lesson for our readers, would you reveal some of your past personas (along with when and where you used them), as well as your real name?
OneOfSwords: When I was in high school I tried to cultivate Wolfgang as a nickname — it came to me in a dream and I still do not know why, as this predated Eddie Van Halen’s son and the movie Amadeus. So I was Wolfgang on several local BBS systems in the late 80s and early 90s. When I joined the staff of GamePro I was asked/told to pick a persona, since everybody wrote under cartoon characters. I chose Dan Elektro, because Danelectro was, at the time, a defunct brand of guitars, and I wanted something to tie back to my history as a music journalist. Then a few weeks later I fell in love with the bad pun of Bad Hare, an angry rabbit, so we created him as well. I wrote under both names as well as the hip-hop tech columnist, MC Squared. When I left GamePro in 2003, I had to leave those characters behind, but I was ready for a change. I went with Bunnyears as a reference to my headgear as a secret character in the arcade game NBA Hangtime. Bunnyears was actually my first Gamertag, and I changed it when I started up the OneOfSwords project.
NuAngel: So, are you living the way we all hope? Kicking your feet up on your desk and playing Call of Duty, right? I’m sure you’ve never put time in “after hours” or ever worked from home, right? So, what’s a day in the life of Dan Amrich like?
OneOfSwords: I think people would be shocked if not frightened to find out the kind of hours I put in at the office, as well as the time I spend at home working on stuff for the office. I am lucky that my boss doesn’t mind me keeping flexible hours, but that really means I wake up around 8, I immediately start answering Twitter comments — often before I get out of bed — then get into the office around 10:30 and stay until at least 7 every night. I usually bring lunch and eat at my desk. The problem is that the internet never sleeps and there is always something that needs maintenance — blog comments, Formspring, YouTube comments, Twitter, Facebook wall, emails from readers, emails at work, writing blog posts to hit at specific embargo times, lining up podcast guests…it’s kind of insane. I rarely play games at work. Even right now, I have an early build of Prototype 2 that was shown to the media recently running on a dev kit behind me, and it has been mocking me for hours — I simply have not had time to pick up the controller and check it out!
NuAngel: When did you start at Activision, and have you made moves within the company?
OneOfSwords: I officially came on board in January 2010, and I am not sure what you mean by “made moves.” This position was created for me, or someone like me — I was not the only candidate, but I was able to play to my strengths, so I haven’t needed to make any moves. I am sort of a one-man department so there’s nowhere to go…and no need to go. 🙂 If by “moves” you mean had an influence internally, yes, I’ve helped advise on decisions and stuff that I think have turned out better because of my ability to step in and say “Well, this is how gamers feel about that” or “I just had some feedback on that recently, I think what you’re planning would make things worse.” So I have “made moves” in that regard, but not in the corporate ladder sense. 🙂
NuAngel: When you first started in the industry, video games were unconditionally “for kids.” Did you ever think that what you were doing was risky, at least with regards to long term career choices?
OneOfSwords: My writing professor in college was one of those people who felt games were absolutely kid stuff — she was really afraid I would be wasting my career reviewing toys. But I did not feel it was a risk so much as a fantastic growth opportunity. I knew cartridges would not last forever; CD-ROM media was coming and fast, and PC had already begun to embrace it. I told her, whatever happens, whatever specific game machines come and go, people will use whatever tech at their disposal for entertainment. I could never have predicted the iPhone, but clearly, people like playing electronic games. I knew the hardware would continue to evolve but the desire to play would be constant. And I told her so, and some years later she admitted I was right!
NuAngel: What did you do before you worked at GamePro? Was there ever a time of your adult life that you weren’t working in the video games journalism industry?
OneOfSwords: I went to college to learn audio production; I had every intention of being a radio DJ, a record producer, or both. Writing was my minor and that’s what clicked for me, so I followed that muse. I hustled senior year and through that summer after graduation to get freelance work as a writer at guitar magazines, because I’m a big guitar nerd. I wound up catching the attention of the editor at Guitar World with my persistence, and I wound up working there full-time for three years. I started to get burned out on music and had started writing game stuff on the side. I did some game reviews and features for Slam in its earliest issues, plus I was on staff at Flux magazine, which was a lot of fun but not terribly successful. I also did a lot of work for an area on AOL called Critics Choice, which has since morphed into Critics.com. None of my game reviews are there any more, but I had written over 300 for them and that really helped me establish my voice and my reputation as a games writer.
NuAngel: What would you be doing if you weren’t at Activision?
OneOfSwords: Sleeping. Can I take a nap? Actually, I can’t think of a better career path than the one I’ve taken, and I am very grateful that so many things that I worked hard for actually came to fruition. But I do wonder what would have happened if I had never branched into gaming, and where I might be now as a music journalist. I also wonder what it would be like to do, say, community management for a guitar company. I like being a cheerleader for things I believe in, and CM is a great position for people with that inclination.
NuAngel: How long have you been gaming in general?
OneOfSwords: I grew up in the era of arcades, so I remember Midway’s Sea Wolf (1976) and Boot Hill (1977) as some of the first coin-ops I ever played. When Space Invaders hit in 1978, it was the most amazing thing you could possibly imagine. I have very strong memories of the classic coin-ops and I usually remember where I was when I played them.
NuAngel: How long have you been a 360 owner?
OneOfSwords: At launch. I camped out at Target and…well, it got terrifying. I kept a journal and it wound up being far more exciting and dangerous than I expected.
NuAngel: What was one of your favorite Xbox / Xbox Live moments?
OneOfSwords: Geez, I’ve been on Live since beta on the original Xbox, so there are many. But the most recent was an MW3match where my team got completely smoked — it was an embarrassing loss. We usually use party chat, so when I saw the top scorer from the other team’s mic icon flashing in the lobby, I switch over to hear him insulting us — “they’re probably talking about how bad they are and wondering why they even play this game.” “No,” I said, “actually, we usually just chat privately during games for strategy, but were just saying what a good team you guys were, and how impressive that win was. We were all cursing your name because you dominated so completely!” A few seconds of silence. “Oh,” he said. “Um, this is awkward, because I didn’t expect you to compliment me.” “Why not? You did great. We’ll try to do better next match.” I gotta tell you, I LOVE defying people’s expectations through simple good sportsmanship.
NuAngel: Kill’em with kindness! I actually find myself playing more single player titles because I can’t get a word in edge-wise with the grifers, and I’m usually on the losing end, anyway. Which Xbox 360 Achievement are you most proud of?
OneOfSwords: Probably Platinum Artist in Rock Band — finishing Endless Setlist on Expert. That was also my greatest shame, because it’s 57 songs long and I accidentally hit reset at 56, so we had to do it all over again. I was such an idiot.
NuAngel: Are you currently working toward any achievements?
OneOfSwords: I’m still trying to finish Need for Speed: Most Wanted’s single player campaign. I have three drivers left to take down, and since that was a launch game, there’s about 600 GS waiting for me if I can pull it off.
NuAngel: I admit, I finished off Most Wanted, but towards the end it became a little bit tedious. What game(s) are you playing the most now?
OneOfSwords: MW3MW3is in the tray most often because I am part of a clan (which includes my wife — the couple that plays together stays together), but also Pinball FX 2, because I have so many rivalries to manage on my leaderboards!
NuAngel: Do you change your avatar’s outfit frequently, or did you ‘set it and forget it’?
OneOfSwords: I’m always swapping. I’m always tempted by new outfits. Ghostbusters, TRON, and Robocop all get regular play, but so does the Scottish kilt!
NuAngel: Do you have a favorite site for Xbox or gaming news?
OneOfSwords: You mean other than oneofswords.com? I still check out OXMOnline on a regular basis, out of sheer loyalty.
NuAngel:=]-[p0op-=09890=-08What upcoming game are you looking most forward to?
OneOfSwords: Prototype 2is the official “I’m a good company man” answer. Non-Activision-wise, I’m still trying to catch up to last year’s biggies — I’ve just started Batman: Arkham City and I’m playing a lot of Zen Pinball on iOS and 3DS. I’m digging Triple Town on iOS too. Plus I preordered Twisted Metal for PS3. And I’m playing a lot of Star Wars: The Old Republic. When your wife plays games with you, MMOs are quality time! Beyond that… man, I don’t even know. I will keep my eyes open at E3.
NuAngel: What was your Game of the Year, favorite, or most played game last year?
OneOfSwords: Skylandersfor Activision titles, Portal 2 for non-Activision.
NuAngel: I hate to admit it, I’ve yet to play either of them! And I’m almost ashamed to admit – Skylanders is looking more and more interesting all the time! Do you have an all time favorite game, for any console or the PC?
OneOfSwords: My favorites are coin-ops. Robotron 2084 stands out as a game that still regularly kicks my ass. I am still learning how to play that game and I love it. Tempest is another all-time favorite.
NuAngel: You’re the first person to go the coin-op route on me! Do you have any gaming buddies you frequently play with / want to make almost as famous as you (shoutouts)?
OneOfSwords: I have a regular MW3crew — WillyFresh992, Rare Bishop, Pantless Steve, Kailon791, HallYourBase, BlytheRenay, and Celticat. Some of them are even girls!
NuAngel: How is your office decorated?
OneOfSwords: It’s less crazy than it used to be. When I was at GamePro, my office had about 100 action figures in it. It was part of the company culture at the time; we were all toy maniacs. My Activision office has some toys and some souvenirs of the past — I mean, I’m not giving up my Dan Elektro action figure, you know? — but I have Activision posters on the walls — GH Warriors of Rock, Call of the Dead, a Japanese poster for Blur, and some concept art for Dead Rush, a game that never came out but I really thought would be great when I saw it. I also have several GH controllers on the wall, a boxed copy of GHII for PS2, a foam blade-arm for Prototype 2, and a render of Tony Hawk that appeared on the cover of GamePro for one of my stories. Tony was nice enough to sign the artwork so I had it framed. Oh, and a stack of Atari 2600 cartridges — I have most of the Activision classics and I can play them at a moment’s notice, because my friend Jude modded a 2600 to run on my HDTV via S-video. So basically it looks like a 13-year-old gamer’s room, only his dad works at Activision and gave him all the crap he used for gaming when he was a kid!
NuAngel: Your long time co-worker is now your wife – you’ve both worked in the gaming industry for a long time. Your home is bound to be a treasure trove of video game goodness (and, I actually recall a story from your move from OXM to Activision involving your selling off a large stash of things you’d collected over the years) – what kinds of things currently decorate your house?
OneOfSwords: I did pass a lot of it on. It was time, and the people who bought the old stuff really appreciated the old games and systems as the treasures they are. I had been saving pretty much every game I’d ever gotten while reviewing them for 15 years, so it was significant. My wife Kat is a photographer so we have some of her work on the walls, but we have a fair amount of what we call upscale geek artwork — limited canvas prints of artists’ interpretations of Tron and Ghostbusters and things like that. I also do have two arcade machines (I had four, before the move to LA — I even sold some of those), and I do have a stash that I did not want to sell. I have a Virtual Boy, for instance, because I think it’s fascinating. Not really fun, but fascinating. I have a Vectrex, which was the game system I always wanted as a kid. I have a pretty good sized collection of Xbox, PS2, and Xbox 360 games. The one thing I know people would be all excited about is the complete boxed copy of Earthbound for SNES, including the strategy guide that came in the oversized box. I loved that game and could not part with it.
NuAngel: You’re a guitarist, and a semi-famous musician, from both an 80’s cover band and a little something called Palette-Swap Ninja. Palette-Swap Ninja’s website is clear about your plans for 2012 (see: top-secret), so I won’t ask about that, just a routine question of mine: (what music do you listen to when away from your Xbox or when listening to music ON your Xbox)?
OneOfSwords: I think semi-famous is pushing it by a LOT. 🙂 Our 2012 plans are good; I think what we are working on will be worth the wait. I don’t play music while I game, but I listen to a lot of power pop and guitar rock — Fountains of Wayne, No More Kings, Jonathan Coulton, Beatles…and lots of Van Halen. My Xbox 360 faceplace is custom painted with Van Halen stripes.
NuAngel: What have you learned about writing for the web that is different than writing in print media?
OneOfSwords: I had trouble at GamesRadar with the constant need to produce, immediately, 24/7. I am naturally in sync with print’s rhythms of creating content on a monthly basis, taking time to edit and sculpt and research and all that stuff. Writing the way I do now, I have the luxury of writing about what I want to write about, and in a way I personally want to write. So that makes it easier to handle the push to constantly generate content online. I often wind up posting two or three stories a day just because stuff is interesting or I find good content. I realized that I had written 1000 articles for oneofswords.com in the first 650 days on the job. And those were calendar days, not business days. So really, it’s the pacing of online that’s different; my voice is the same, maybe a little less polished than if I had the luxury of re-reading my words before they went to the printer.
NuAngel: After literally YEARS of listening to OXM, Talk Radar, and OneOfSwords, I feel like I know so much about all of these hosts and co-hosts, but I sometimes forget that you all don’t know me. If I were to meet you, YOU would be meeting a total stranger. Do people ever act like they know you, and perhaps even “cling” to you at conventions?
Sometimes. It has been unsettling at a few conventions. I had one person meet up with me at a video shoot and as we went around to tape our bits, they were sort of lingering there the whole time. It was distracting and awkward. But at the same time, I get it; they listen to the show and I am a voice in their head for an hour or so a week. You build up a relationship with that voice so you want to meet the rest of the person, and you know, it’s a big country. How often are we going to be in the same place?
When I first started to get recognized, I was not really ready for it and I didn’t know how to react. When a fan I hadn’t met in real life before would come up to me, I would often say “Who are you?” which was exactly what I was thinking, but I should have said something more polite. Kat helped me refine that to “Nice to see you; do I know you from Twitter?” or something a little more proactive so I can actually pick up the conversation with this person wherever we left it off. I really do like putting Twitter names to faces and I can often jump right back in. I don’t want to be a dick, and I don’t consider myself or feel like a celebrity — but I have come to realize that, to some people, I’m internet-famous to them, and so I take that as the compliment it’s intended to be. Doesn’t mean I agree with them. 🙂
NuAngel: In your personal blog, you recently posted credits for the first issue of the short lived World of Warcraft Magazine. I envy your chutzpah. Do you feel your years in the business have given you the authoritativeness to “get away with it” – or did you simply feel it would’ve been the right thing to do, even if you had been younger, say only doing your first or second writing gig.
Actually, I don’t think I got away with in that instance; I think I pissed some people off. But I still stand by it; it’s ultimately just a difference of opinion, two ways of doing something, so it’s not the end of the world. It made me very upset at the time and it was still enough of a sticking point to me that I found it annoying two years later! But if I have a memory that long, you know other people do as well. So I posted it because I personally felt it was the right thing to do, and I did so accepting that I might burn bridges with Blizzard. Had I been younger, it might have been even more damaging, but even now, I don’t think I am immune from what I write. I still have to back up what I say and I have to accept the consequences if people do not like how I say it. For a writer, that never changes.
NuAngel: What are you working on in addition to everything else OneOfSwords.com has been up to? Do you have any additional parting words?
OneOfSwords: Can I do a totally selfish plug? This week I released a book based on my experiences as a game reviewer for all those years — and it’s a how-to guide for anybody who wants to make a serious run at that career themselves. It’s called Critical Path: How to Review Videogames for a Livingand it’s $10 on Kindle or iBook [editor’s note: also on nook and in print]. Full info is available at CriticalPathBook.com.
NuAngel: I am very excited for the book, and was already fascinated by the pieces I’ve read. Will the book include a good mix of personal stories, almost like StepTo’s My Microsoft Life? Or will it have a few personal gems but, be more centered around a lot of ‘how to break in to the industry’ tips like Paid to Play: An Insider’s Guide to Video Game Careers– the book from Penny Arcade?
It’s mostly practical advice on how to prepare for a career, but I used personal examples to illustrate my points. For instance, when I talk about mistakes not to make, I offer some of the specific mistakes I’ve made as a freelancer, or mistakes people have made when trying to get work from me. There’s a decent focus on accountability in the book — taking responsibility for what you say in your reviews — and that naturally led to mentioning my Space Giraffe review and the resulting reactions of its creator, Jeff Minter. So it’s not gossipy, all the personal anecdotes are in context — but there are definitely stories that I think people will enjoy hearing.
Incidentally, Paid to Play was my original title for Critical Path. The PA book was not out yet when I started writing, and when I saw that book, I was crushed. It took me forever to find another title I thought would work. Paid to Play was later reprinted as simply Video Game Careers, but it will always be Paid to Play to me!
NuAngel: I had no idea, I hope I didn’t bring up a sore subject! 😉 That’s all I have to ask, and I want to thank Dan Amrich for participating and taking a generous amount of time to answer my questions. I’m excited about the new book, and I was able to ascertain that his new book, Critical Path, is available in print (or, as Dan calls it, “dead tree edition”)! Buy your copy and have him sign it next time you see him at a convention! If it isn’t out at the time you’re reading this, get the e-book now, then the paperback later! Tell’im NuAngel sent you!