In the last few days, GameSpot has published what vice president John Davison calls a "manifesto of sorts", musing on the future direction of GameSpot and consumer games media in general. There are some interesting points in there, reflecting general trends in the way media is changing to handle assets and, more importantly, serve its readers.
As Davison points out, the role of handing assets to readers is beyond tired. It's not just assets either, information that masquerades as news can be found anywhere. Frankly, the games business doesn't need the specialist or trade press for any of that. In fact, I'd go a step further and argue that the games business barely needs the consumer press for reviews any more in some senses. Sales of the big mainstream console releases are not affected by review scores, nor the yearly sports updates. Mobile games continue to spew forth, but does a review by Pocket Gamer matter? And what of social gaming? Games journalists don't understand that one at all, and the players couldn't tell you what an IGN is anyway, so there's a complete disconnect. Reviews for entertainment and insight are still valuable for the website but maybe not for the publisher beyond validation of a good idea well executed.
But I digress. As sites attempt to evolve with the reader, they're experimenting more and more, and this is a very good thing. The joke amongst games journalists is that no one knows that they're doing any more, and I like that as a chaotic jumping off point - rip it up and start again. Don't get me wrong, I'm not the journo police and if I ever turn into that editor on Twitter who rants about other games sites without watching his own staff and content then by all means line me up for a headshot. The media community is doing well to acknowledge and attempt change, but it also needs to be honest about the environment it's competing in. Your website is not the only destination, far from it, and you have competitors that would see you dead for a few ad dollars. It's not all cut-throat and I'm sure there's mutual respect, but baby needs new shoes. And by 'baby' I mean me, and by 'shoes' I mean shoes.
News is dead
Change may be coming. Some sites are already evolving. Venture Beat's games spin-off used to be about money in the games sector and new disruptive technology, but now it's adding reviews and games guides which seems like a side-step to the consumer market where those are already well taken care of. Vox Games is going to do something later this year, but all we know for sure at the minute is there's a lot of money being paid to 'named' writers who are working behind the scenes. I like the fact that US media has big personalities like that, and Europe should take note, but is the Vox project going to be hampered by competing egos?
As a senior editor on one of the big US games sites said to me last week, "News is dead. All our readers care about is video," and that's evidenced by the amount of staff these sites are dedicating to video programming versus more traditional editorial content. Video is popular, sure, but I hope that doesn't come at the cost of journalism. And if all sites decide to focus on a piece to camera, then all sites effectively become the same again, replacing screenshots and trailers with the semi-balding man-rant - although I agree opinion is more important and interesting at this stage than pretty pictures.
News isn't dead, but news doesn't come from press releases. There's plenty of room for journalism, for credible original news stories and in-depth features, interviews, facts, stats and opinions. Some sites are doing this better than others, and there's absolutely no reason to abandon those in favour of something new. If you see a gap, then fill it, but don't cram resources into it at the cost of your regular output.
The message isn't so much confused as undefined at this point, when a site like Kotaku posts 1300 words about its upcoming programming schedule and readers are left wondering, "how the hell is that going to work?" If you can't communicate your own intentions to begin with, you're going to struggle to reach the readers that care. It's a Wii U-like level of miscommunication.
There's always been a focus on SEO keywords and optimising headlines for easy search engine referrals, with some sites doing it better than others. This is where Davison and GameSpot has taken a bit of a pasting from rival IGN. But those that are still clinging to high traffic as their only metric are behind the times. Readers don't stick around for long. You can shout about your high monthly page views as much as you like but if readers are clicking on one story for the sensational headline and pissing off elsewhere you're building nothing for the future.
Sharing is caring
What I'm getting to, once I've eventually stopped taking pot shots at anyone with a games blog, is that social media may be the key to differentiation. That's not a new assessment by any means, the media has been equally trumpeting and troubled by social media in the hands of the everyday user since we all got a camera phone, but still no one has figured out how to use it. Apart from the readers of course. Social media is replacing search as the dominant means of discovery. Blind inquires are pushed to landing pages and indexes, but original content is shared by caring readers who want to pass it on to their peers.
Unique content sounds obvious, but in the bid to be everything to everyone, unique content is swamped by everything else - whether that's news, video or infographics. It's hard work finding the original content across the web, and you'll need to deliver it constantly and consistently if you expect readers to come to you. Because those are the people who will use Twitter and friends to evangelise your content and take it beyond the loyal reader. Neither can you just pledge to do whatever the reader wants from your site, it's a cop out to say you will, because by the time you've figured that out and you think you've refined it, the reader will have moved on. React to the readers, but don't hang on their every word.
I don't have any answers. You know by now we're changing GamesIndustry.biz dramatically in the coming months, more than we've ever done before. We're dropping the registration wall, we're merging with our American brothers over on IndustryGamers.com, we're redesigning and then relaunching the whole site. It's a big jump. Some of what we do will work, some of it might not. This is a bit rich, but it's time to shut up about what we hope to do and how we all want to change in the face of a media-saturated audience, we need to get on with it and deliver. I'm partly the audience for games media, whether consumer or trade, and I'm partly a million miles away from it. I love the games media, whether hard facts or comic lulz, but it's at risk of stagnating. Give up on the agendas and the mission statements, seriously, it's time to show and prove. At the moment, I'm not seeing a lot of proving.