Gina Tost, videogame journalist: “If you want to engage people you have to find what makes you different”

September 25, 2018

How does a design student end up as a journalist specializing in videogames? Well, according to Gina Tost, by pure chance. “Even before starting my degree I was already contributing to some publications. Initially I spoke about cultural things like books, music, and even apps and videogames”, she says. That’s how she got into the Catalunya Radio programme Generació Digital and made the permanent move to videogame journalism. 

Since then more than 10 years have passed, during which she has contributed to dozens of media outlets, from generalist ones such as Televisión Española (TVE) to industry-related press such as IGN. Today she works for IGG, one of the leading developers and publishers of free-to-play for mobile, where she is in charge of communication. 

That’s why we couldn’t miss the opportunity to ask her a few questions during her stay as a mentor at the F2P Campus in Vitoria-Gasteiz.

F2P Campus (F): Why choose free-to-play as a business model?

Gina Tost (G): In a lot of countries people aren’t used to paying for digital content. I don’t just mean games and apps; also books, films, music. So, what free-to-play allows creators and users is to pay as much as you want. 

I mean, if I go to a shop to buy myself a game I’ll pay between €20 and €60 or, if I buy it secondhand, much less. And there the creator is left without the possibility to earn anything else; that is the limit. 

Whereas if I really like a free-to-play game, I have the freedom to decide how far I want to go. If I want to spend €20 I spend it, and if I want to spend zero, I can do that too. But if I love the game, and I remortgage my house and want to spend €10,000, I can. I, as a player, decide. The creator has a fair amount of freedom to make money from users. 

Gina Tost interviewF: As someone who works in communication I really liked the little exercise you gave us in your conference about which three topics we would choose for our publication specializing in videogames. How can a small studio that has just launched its first game be interesting enough for an editor to consider writing about it instead of publishing another article about Fortnite?

G: To start with, I always say that the best thing is to ask for help, because you can be really, really good at making videogames and not have the faintest idea how to talk to the press. A lot of students or people starting out in the industry have come to me saying, ‘But my game is made with this really powerful engine’, or ‘We have our own engine’, and I tell them OK, but you can’t tell ordinary people that because it’s really specialized and only developers know how to value it. 

You have to explain really basic things to people. I think that the trick, as well as having someone in your team who knows how to do that, is to straightaway look for what sets you apart. If you google ‘students release videogame’ there are 250,000 results, it’s not special. On the other hand, if for example you’ve released a videogame and suddenly you’re number one in South Korea because one weekend you absolutely killed it, that really could be something relevant and special that makes you unique. The same if it’s a videogame that’s successful amongst YouTubers… It’s a way of being relevant. 

Imagine, I spend my day reading press releases and they’re almost all the same: ‘Videogame released on such-and-such a day for these platforms’. When I’ve seen 100 of those what I need is something meaty, because if not the publication turns into a magazine full of promotions and coupons. It’s always the same and there are no stories. 

We need the element of storytelling. 

F: During your career you’ve had the opportunity to work in the media as much as in companies that make games. What have you learnt in each camp that helps you to be better in the other?

G: Every day I learn new things, to be honest. There are very different ways of working. For instance, now I’m working for IGG, a massive, wonderful Asian games company; having worked in the press has helped me to know how to talk to the press. It’s something very basic or very silly but in a big company, obviously, there are people who are very good at some things and others who are very good at others. 

On the other hand, having experience in companies that make games often helps me, when a developer comes and tells me very specialized things, to know how to put it into language that everyone can understand. 

For example, when someone comes to you and says, ‘The sprites in this game are like such-and-such’, well, let’s think about how you would tell your mother what a sprite is. 

Gina Tost interviewF: In the last few years the industry in general seems to have raised awareness and is working towards being more inclusive; even so, we still find ourselves with cases of discrimination and harassment. How do you see the current situation? Do you think that sooner or later these attitudes will become a thing of the past?

G: Hopefully. The truth is that now many things are becoming more visible and I think that this is the first step towards putting an end to it. Until you realize that you have a problem it’s impossible to fix it. That said, I would love to go to an event where I’m not invited just because I’m the female quota. Or for the ‘round table of girls and videogames’.  

I always say it, but it would really be a bit wrong to have a round table of ‘black people and videogames’. It would be like, ‘Shit, how derogatory, how tactless’, because it’s something normal. Anyone can play videogames. So, I would love to see the normalization of something that’s already normal. I think we’ve still got a few years to go, but thanks to everything that’s happening lately we’re speeding up the process. 

F: What advice would you give to someone making their first game?

G: Run away! No, I’m kidding. Basically I’d recommend that they play everything. I tend to come across a lot of young people who want to work in videogames because they’ve played one specific title. For instance, they’ve played a lot of Pokémon and they want to be the creator of the next Pokémon.

It’s fine to have those kinds of aspirations but being a really good Pokémon trainer is nothing like being the best creator of that type of game. You can love tortillas but that doesn’t mean you know how to make a perfect one. 

Playing a lot of different things opens your mind to the ‘why’ and the ‘why not’. If I only play what I like, my radius of influence is going to be much smaller than if I also play things I don’t like so much. This way you have arguments. ‘I don’t like it because I don’t like it’ is not a valid argument for a strong creator. 

You have to find the exact reason. ‘I don’t like the menus because they make you waste a lot of time’: that’s an argument, for example, of why I don’t like Skyrim. Playing a lot of things gives you a different vision and can help you to find things that you do like and can be implemented in your project. 

Lastly, the inspiration for a game doesn’t just come from other games. You can find it in cinema, series, an escape room, books, exhibitions, travel… It’s important to try new things. 

Many thanks to Gina Tost for coming to Vitoria-Gasteiz to answer our questions and advise the F2P Campus teams.

Until next time!