I make it up as I go.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Adapt or Die: The Perilous, Uncertain Landscape of Current and Future Video-Game Magazines

So much for me reviving this blog. Super-quickfire update: I'm still freelancing full time, and it's going pretty well, but I'm now also doing a Master of Journalism. I wrote the essay below for one of my electives, The Contemporary Publishing Industry. It's roughly 4,000 words long, and it goes into detail on the current state of video-game magazine publishing.

It's not as thoroughly researched as I would have liked, since I had to put the whole thing together in a couple of weeks between (and during) big freelance feature assignments a couple of months back. But hopefully it'll provide some insights, and I'd love to see someone carry it on further. Game mags need to change, fast, but I believe they can survive, if only someone figures out a way to balance their commercial imperatives with an approach to content that just isn't possible on the web.

Magazines are changing, fading, transitioning — or rather more often being dragged kicking and screaming — into an interconnected world built on clicks and taps and share-ability, and in the video game media, especially, they must now grapple with the concept of irrelevancy. Readers, for the most part, have moved online, while advertisers grow reluctant to spend big on full-page ads, and there’s often little difference in the content published — online has now even adopted deeper analysis and long features to run alongside its usual quick-hit fare. Typical video-game players are in their 30s, with 59% of Americans and 65% of Australians — split equally between men and women — reported to engage in the hobby for at least an hour a week (“The ESA Industry Facts”, 2014); “Digital Australia”, 2013). And the games industry generates $66 billion a year worldwide (a billion of which is in Australia alone) (Nayak, 2013; “Digital Australia”, 2013). Yet despite this colossal interest in the medium, major video-game magazines are failing — or, in the case of now-defunct titles like GamePro and Nintendo Power, have already failed — to retain a viable audience either in print or digital form (or both together). This research paper will explore whether the fading fortunes of games magazines is a sign of their impending doom, or rather a wake up call that they must adapt — and fast — or face a grisly end. It will consider the current state of the English-language video-game magazine industry, in both print and digital forms and across commercial, independent, and hobbyist levels, as well as in contrast to web-based games media, then through this analysis chart a possible course for the future.

Games were far from a big thing when dedicated video-game magazines first emerged in the early 1980s with titles such as Computer and Video Games (UK), Crash (UK), Computer Gaming World (US), and Australian Commodore Review. Writing in these magazines was often amateurish, and it soon came to appraise games in a reductionist manner more befitting a household appliance than a piece of interactive entertainment. But, as veteran games journalist Paul Pressley points out, the approach was initially also one of community — whereby articles were written by people who love games for people who love games, and coverage had a tone of shared excitement about where the medium could go and how you could make your fun (replete with multiple pages of letters, tips, drawings, and even source code for homebrew games sent in by the community). “We lost our way when our primary focus became telling you what and what not to buy,” he commented in an interview for this paper. “Suddenly we journalists were somehow ‘above’ you readers, somehow more important because we knew Peter Molyneux [the famed designer of Populous, Black and White, and Fable].” As the web-based games media grew in the 2000s, the traditional approach to magazines — which focused on boilerplate news, reviews, and previews centred on new and upcoming titles — became obsolete. Readers could get the same information faster and more conveniently by visiting a website such as GameSpot or IGN, and they didn’t have to pay a cent for the privilege.

Yet magazines were slow to adapt their strategy, and even today these traditional content forms dominate. Of the couple of dozen surviving commercial publications in Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, only Edge, GamesTM, Hyper, and Retro Gamer deviate meaningfully from the norm — and all but the last of these retain sizeable review sections alongside their cultural coverage. Pressley learnt from his years at PC Zone — which closed in 2006 — and then at a small publishing company, which produced quarterly magazines aimed at specific massively-multiplayer-online (MMO) games, that the value and purpose of a games magazine today is “to celebrate the communities that emerge around different games.” But that is not possible when you cover only — or primarily — the latest releases, always moving on to the next thing the moment a title hits the shelf. Communities form after the fact. They grow and evolve for months and years, forging an identity all their own. There’s seldom much to write about them (or for them) before or at a game’s release, as this identity has yet to form.

The writing was on the wall for traditional games magazines over a decade ago. Even before Web 2.0 ushered in a new era of social engagement in the mid-2000s, industry commentators and insiders surmised that magazines had no hope of keeping pace with online. Magazines (including, albeit to a lesser extent, those that are available in digital form only) operate on a different timescale — one that requires content be locked down and completed weeks before it reaches its audience — while the (game) publisher-driven news and reviews cycle moves at break-neck speed. Online could be faster and cheaper, removing barriers like postage and cover price and in the process providing a good enough informational service to readers. Magazines needed to overhaul their business and content models, to become more than mere buyers’ guides, but publishers resisted change and year by year the Internet chipped away at their circulation. Instead, they doubled down on consumer advocacy, staunchly refusing to admit that the hundred-plus pages of reviews and hype attached to a demo disk on the newsstand was fast becoming redundant (playable demos of upcoming and recently-released games, it should be clarified, were hard to come by in the 1990s without the disks/discs attached to magazines, but increasingly through the 2000s they could just as easily be downloaded for free as people signed up for broadband Internet and bought Internet-connected games consoles).

Magazines across the board saw both subscribers and print ad values diminish with the rise of the web (Ives, 2011; Tomas, 2013), and games proved no exception. Writing for trade website GamesIndustry.biz in August 2006, longtime journalist and then-Eurogamer Network business development manager (more recently known for founding video-game news site VG247) Patrick Garratt scathingly criticised major magazine publishers for failing to heed the warning signs and ignoring or underestimating the threat of the Internet. “The average circulation of a games mag in the UK is now almost certainly well under 35,000, compared to just over 50,000 a year ago,” he reasoned, before eloquently stating a case for why that was no anomaly. Online had sucked the life out of print, Garratt insisted, and high overheads and momentous blind optimism would see magazines fall further while online — and particularly digital multimedia, mixing audio and video with text and static images — would dominate. The numbers have indeed played out largely in support of Garratt’s thesis.

While games websites have struggled to grow their revenue against lethargic advertiser spending, online audience numbers have gone through the roof, and video — whether streamed live via Twitch.tv or pre-recorded on YouTube — is taking over as the dominant form for games-related media consumption (“Twitch.tv Traffic”, 2014; “Rise of Twitch”, 2014). It seems just a matter of time before online media figures out how to open advertiser and/or sponsor wallets. Magazines, however, are shedding both readers and advertisers at an alarming rate. Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) figures for monthly sales of international publishing giant Future’s UK games magazines alone stood at 687,978 in the first half of 2002 (Future PLC, 2002). By the first half of 2006, that number had fallen to 507,966 — an average of 42,330 across its 12 publications (GamesIndustry International, 2006). At the end of 2011, it was down to 249,775 (plus a few thousand in digital sales) — or 27,753 on average for each of its nine remaining publications (Batchelor, 2012). Only six Future UK games titles still stand today (which, incidentally, is more than any other publishing company), with the latest ABC figures indicating combined print and digital circulation of 146,266 — equivalent to 24,378 average sales per publication — with digital sales up but both print and overall sales down year-on-year (Weber 2014; Future 2014). They may have stemmed the bleeding, but on games figures alone the future of Future’s magazines looks bleak.
All signs point to pain at Future far beyond its games portfolio, too. At the time of writing, the international publishing giant is in the midst of a 45-day consultation period that is expected to precede 170 job cuts and the closure of multiple publications, including well-trafficked games website CVG (Ridley, 2014; Dring, 2014). This comes after the company’s US headcount was cut by a third earlier this year in a move that saw operations for all US print brands shifted to the UK (Dring, 2014), and in response to a pre-tax loss of £30.6 million for the first half of the fiscal year (Handrahan, 2014). Short-term pain will be softened by the imminent sale of its sports and craft titles for £22 million (Dring, 2014; Future, 2014), while the company plans to revise its business model in terms of two core content areas: reviews and ‘how-to’ opportunities — essentially putting Future’s games magazines (but perhaps not whichever of its games websites survive the cuts) at odds with the community-first, features-led approach that Pressley argues is necessary to differentiate them from the web (Future, 2014).

It is hard to find any trailblazing examples of video-game magazines ‘doing it right.’ Game Informer is the third-most circulated magazine in the United States, but only thanks to an arrangement with the multi-national retail chain owned by its parent company, GameStop Corporation, whereby issues are sold in retail stores and subscriptions come with a reward card offering benefits and discounts on game purchases. Game Informer’s circulation is around 7.6 million, roughly 3 million of which is in digital subscriptions (which, incidentally, means that Game Informer accounts for nearly a third of the 10.2 million digital magazine sales reported by the Alliance for Audited Media in mid-2013) (Sebastian, 2013). An Australian edition licensed through Citrus Media, which takes advantage of the same business model, had circulation of 40,926 during the second half of 2013 (Serrels, 2014) (compared to 17,000 for leading “100% Australian” multi-format games magazine Hyper (“Hyper Media Kit”, 2014)).

Besides Game Informer, the video-game magazine market looks bleak. Both circulation and the somewhat murky “readership” fell across all games magazines in Australia during 2013 (including the localised Game Informer Australia) (Serrels, 2014), as they did in the UK, while in the US I was not able to find circulation figures for EGM Now or irregularly-published journal Kill Screen — but American editions of Future-owned PC Gamer and Official Xbox Magazine had 2013 circulation of 84,072 and 75,919, respectively, with PC Gamer having trended down progressively from 300,271 in 2003 (“PC Gamer Media Kit”, 2014; “Official Xbox Media Kit”, 2014; Carless, 2006).

Yet little has been done to break the free fall of commercial games magazines. Future’s specially-designed iPad edition of Edge has been gaining readers, though not at a fast enough rate to stay overall declines, and the likes of PC Gamer and Imagine Publishing’s Play and X-ONE still resemble the form of a decade ago. That is not to say nobody has been trying new models and approaches. Independent and hobbyist publishers have taken advantage of cheaper distribution through direct-to-order print and of more affordable publishing tools to carve out a future they want to see.

Cutting out the middlemen

Paul Pressley tried his luck in late 2011 with Continue Magazine, a digital-only (PDF) features-led publication dedicated to “gaming culture and all that that entails.” Priced at $2.99 (later increased to $4.99), it aimed to capture the latent market for considered, in-depth coverage of all kinds of games — not just video games, but also tabletop games and augmented reality games and so on — and to pay writers at well above the “ridiculously low” market rate for freelance work (something to which I can attest personally, as a full-time freelance writer who derives the bulk of his income from games journalism). Continue lasted only three quarterly issues, however, before a £50,000 Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign for a second year of production failed to reach even a tenth of its goal (the final tally was £4,143, and under the rules of Kickstarter that means all backers were refunded and Continue received nothing). Reflecting on the initial three-issue run, Pressley is “inordinately proud” of what Continue achieved. “At the time it came out, even [websites like Polygon, Eurogamer, The Escapist, and Kotaku] weren’t really doing the in-depth feature style of writing that I wanted to try and explore,” he says. But he feels it was too ambitious. “My own desire to produce something big and bold got the better of me and we had easily enough content to produce six or seven smaller issues in the end.” Continue currently lives on as a podcast, with plans for an eventual return in a revised magazine form that plays more heavily into the themes of community.

The future, Pressley believes, is all about tablet-based reading — and the data for reading habits and phone and tablet use detailed by Tomas (2013) seem to support this view. Pressley bemoans the conservative move many publishers have made to produce ‘digital replicas’ of their print editions. He cites veteran journalist Geoff Keighley’s Final Hours series of iPad apps as an example of games journalism “that understands the nature of the delivery medium it’s being produced on.” These combine long-form feature writing with behind-the-scenes photography, screenshots, video interviews, and interactive elements — all designed for a multi-touch interface.

It is adapt or die time in the magazine world, and Future’s recent upheavals point to just how critical the situation has become, but Pressley believes this also means that the landscape is open for newcomers to try new things. “It’s not really something ever said,” he quipped, “but the truth of digital publishing is that nobody knows what they’re doing, what will and won’t work.” Indeed, even the illustrious and hugely-successful New York Times finds itself caught lagging behind new media upstarts Upworthy, Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post, and Vox in many areas key to its business. The news megalith produced a 90-page internal document earlier this year (which was subsequently leaked online) that frankly describes where The Times has consistently failed to understand the digital medium and identifies how they should rectify it. They have underutilised social networks and community engagement, the report argues, and the total separation between reporting and product, development, and design teams is now proving counterproductive. Adapting to audience habits is particularly important now, as more Times revenue from subscriptions has surpassed that from advertising. As in the new-look newspaper world, magazines must think about strategies to bring their writers and editors closer to their audience and to react to the needs, habits, and wants of readers — experimenting iteratively and scientifically on content and design approaches. Advertisers will continue to abandon ship if falling readership trends cannot be halted, and existing business models may well prove unviable regardless.

It is just as well that some are testing out new business models, then. Alan Williamson started Five out of Ten magazine because he thought the standard of writing in the blogs he loved reading was just as good as at high-end magazines and websites, and he wanted to give those hobbyist writers a platform to make money. Williamson leveraged the design talents of a friend and invited four writers to collaborate with him on the first issue, with no promise they would earn a cent. His novel idea was to split revenue equally between himself and his contributors. “If you buy a copy of Five out of Ten it costs five pounds,” he explains. “Roughly four-and-a-half pounds of that goes to the people who have contributed to that issue of the magazine — so they only get about 80 pence each.” That is not much at all, but it means Five out of Ten only has to build up an audience of a couple of hundred readers in order to pay its writers competitively for the two approximately feature-length stories they produce. Williamson is playing to a different economy to the websites that now dominate the games media, and to the magazines that used to. Both of those need large readership — in the hundreds of thousands or millions for online and in the tens of thousands for print — in order to attract high advertising rates that can in turn pay staff, contributors, and other running costs.

But the proliferation of high-speed Internet has made it possible for anybody to start a magazine at minimal out-of-pocket expense. Five out of Ten is a perfect example. Its extremely modest returns — Williamson resists sharing precise numbers, but he’s been disappointed with sales so far — would have sent any traditionally-funded publication bankrupt long ago, but Five out of Ten is eight bi-monthly issues into its life and he can continue exploring ways to build a sustainable audience. Former Game Informer Australia Editor-in-Chief and now Grab It Magazine founder and editor Chris Stead wrote in May about the costs of publishing an iPad-only magazine as an independent creator. At $30 a month, he could produce an iPad magazine app created and published with Adobe’s Digital Publishing Suite. It is a cheap and easy way to experiment with form and to test the waters to get a feel for the audience. Only when Stead considered scaling up his experiment did the numbers turn against him — jumping from $30 to $650 a month for the ability to add subscriptions, analytics, push notifications, and an iPhone version, amongst other things, while still benefiting from the authoring tools in Digital Publishing Suite. This difficulty to build sustainable audiences amidst mounting costs is perhaps why multiple iPad-only games magazines have come and gone in recent years. The Industry, Atomix, App Gamer, and PXL were all created by games media veterans, each promised to reimagine games magazines for tablets, and none survived for long.

The only iPad games magazines that have survived, in fact, appear to be those fronted by big publishing companies. Steel Media repurposes content from the Pocket Gamer and 148Apps websites for Swipe Magazine, to great praise and even the Technology and Gadget Magazine of the Year prize from the Digital Magazine Awards. Future publishes an iPad-native version of Edge every month, and several other print games magazines are available as digital replicas (essentially just page scans that you can swipe through). Others no doubt resist the lure of iPad-native interactive magazines because of the double whammy from high research and development costs and the poor support that Apple has given to the Newsstand platform.

For now, then, the small-scale experimentation with the future of games magazines may be left in the hands of tiny operations able to run with zero sunk costs and published as PDF downloads, like Five out of Ten and the soon-to-be launched 151, crowdfunded independent publications such as the new Unwinnable Weekly, and hobbyist efforts that are created solely for love and made freely available. Of publications in this last category, Zoya Street’s Memory Insufficient e-zine leads the way. Street advises that each issue of Memory Insufficient gets downloaded around 1500 times within a month of publication, with a mailing list of just over 200 subscribers. He has calculated that these numbers would have to increase by an order of magnitude in order to transition into a business plan that would allow writers to be “adequately supported.” But many of those who do read Memory Insufficient are extremely supportive, praising its deep analysis of oft-ignored games-history themes — and in one case even point to it as a stellar example of ‘middle-state publishing’, which occupies the middle ground between academic rigour and the kind of broader, more timely but less carefully edited critical writing that appears on blogs and games websites (Hawreliak, 2013). And for Street it is important that Memory Insufficient keeps the digital magazine format rather than converting to a normal website — “for me it's about having something that you can read at a leisurely pace, offline, and something that will expose you to things you wouldn't normally read,” he wrote over email. “I don't want someone to make the decision whether or not to click through to an article; I want it to be right there with them already.” When it comes to discovery of new concepts, arguments, and ideas, it is still hard to beat magazines and their propensity to direct readers to content they would not otherwise pursue.

A shaky present and an uncertain future

In exploring where games magazines could go, it is first essential to consider what their strengths are. As this paper has discussed, the days of buyers’ guides and consumer advocacy are over. The value of a magazine is in its longevity — as a physical artefact that you can place on a shelf and return to months or years later, still able to appreciate the stories within. With the traditional games writing model, Williamson says, “by the time you print the magazine, the content is essentially out of date.” It is feature-driven content that holds value, as exemplified by the collections of Rolling Stone, Time and National Geographic, among others, that sit proudly on bookshelves around the world. As in Rosemary Williamson’s case study of Australian quilting magazines (2014), games magazines can do that by doubling down on their community — to share the stories of the people who play games and to go in depth on what makes each game special. “Readers want to feel part of something bigger,” Pressley says. “One of the reasons PC Zone hung on as long as it did was that it wasn’t solely a reviews/previews mag but had its own sense of community. Magazines are in a unique position to provide that.” Games magazines can provide a kind of ‘rhetorical environment’ that explores what it means to love a video game, both reinforcing and extending identities through the content on the page and the discussions that carry over to social media (R. Williamson, 2014). Games magazines should not focus on reviews, then — as most do now — but on the merits and life of a game post-purchase, to, in Pressley’s words, “foster a sense of value in a reader’s chosen activity.” And best of all, their editorial makeup is ideally suited to the practice, given the interplay between a writer, their editor, and the magazine’s designer(s) and sub-editor. Considered, deep writing and reporting takes time, and magazines allow for lots of it.

There are certainly some efforts to take this kind of approach in the commercial sector; Edge and GamesTM both publish multiple long-form features on the culture and mechanics of games each month, while several others dedicate either their front-of-book or back section to culture and community, but none have abandoned consumer advocacy as a core tenet except for the decidedly niche Retro Gamer — which deals only with old games and thus naturally gravitates towards nostalgia-laden discussion of how games are played and created. Stepping down to the smaller money-making operations, Kill Screen runs only essays and first-person reporting, usually on the long side, while Ray Barnholt’s SCROLL dives deep into a different theme of video-game history every few months, Nintendo Force tries to carry the much-loved but out-of-print Nintendo Power into the modern era, RETRO nostalgically throws back to the games magazines of 20 years ago, and the new Unwinnable Weekly acts as an extension of the Unwinnable website where writers can flex their creative muscles. (And interestingly, all of these smaller operations are supported solely by readers — no doubt in part due to their lower readership being unappetising to would-be publishers, but perhaps more owing to a conscious decision to entirely avoid the conflict of interest that comes from meeting advertiser demands while staying true to your audience.)

Commercial games magazines in their current form are redundant, and their slow and painful fall over the past decade is perhaps evidence a sad realisation of this fact among their readers. Williamson summed up much of the dilemma: “There’s a difference between what I want the future to be and what I think it holds.” Big, more mainstream games magazines — whether print or digital or both — will struggle to survive in a world where web, and particularly video, dominates. Print will not die, because there is still an audience that likes its tangibility and because, as Williamson argues, “if they all died out then you could just release one and probably pick up a decent segment of the market.” But the video-game magazine cannot survive by competing directly with the convenience of the web. As Pressley argues, websites can do consumer advocacy and news far better than magazines. Rather, “magazines will survive if they realise that the way to go is not to compete with them, not to try and hold on to glories of the past, but to explore what it is that really sets them apart, where their true strengths are and then play to them.” If the monolithic, deeply-established New York Times can do it, then surely other publishing companies can too.

Game Informer excepted, the age of the mass market video-game magazine appears to be over; the future is in reaching the audiences that want something more than online can give them — a sense that their hobby means something and that they are part of something big, and in holding a conversation with them that is sophisticated enough to still be interesting to read 10 or 20 years later. The games media — like all media around it — has changed, and the dinosaurs of magazine publishing must rapidly and fundamentally refigure their brands and their business. Subscriber numbers cannot fall much further. Games magazines can and probably will survive at the lower levels of the business, but for behemoths like Future time is running out.

Word count: 4296


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1 comment:

  1. An excellent article... I tried something different too once (http://prankster101.com/re-play/re-play-issue-1-test-issue/), and got burnt (http://prankster101.com/articles/the-death-of-re-play/).

    Here's an article that I wrote on Future's situation: