The State Of Games Journalism
IGN's Peer Schneider and Red Robot Lab's John Davison discuss paid content, video growth, tracking new audiences and the end of a generation
Last year saw some big changes in game journalism. Most of the remaining print magazines shuffled off this mortal coil, though the seemingly invincible Game Informer continued to post strong circulation numbers. Game journalism on the internet saw many changes, as sites conducted minor or major overhauls, merged with other sites, or experimented with new ways of presenting game information to consumers. The debut of Polygon.com heralded a well-funded attempt to capture a large audience of consumers, which so far seems to be going well.
All indications are that 2013 will continue to see upheavals in games journalism. New consoles are expected to arrive at some point during the year, smartphones and tablets continue to grow explosively, millions of new game players around the globe are spending significant money and time on games, and games are now being played by all sorts of people who would never before have thought of themselves as gamers. The potential audience is growing, and the existing audience is changing in the way they play and what they play. How will game journalism respond?
GamesIndustry International asked some of the most experienced game journalists about these changes, and their thoughts on game journalism and where it's headed. Today we speak with Peer Schneider from IGN and John Davison, formerly of CBS Interactive. In Part Two coming we talk with Adam Sessler, longtime host of G4TV and Dan Hsu, current editor-in-chief at GamesBeat and formerly editorial director at Ziff Davis Media.
Peer Schneider, executive VP, publisher and co-founder at IGN Entertainment, spoke from his perspective heading up IGN.com, one of the largest gaming sites in the world. Schneider is responsible for content strategy, editorial coverage, and marketing and product development for all of IGN's sites. John Davison, formerly executive vice president of content for GamePro, was VP of programming for CBS Interactive before moving on to become Director/GM of content and publishing for Red Robot Labs last year. At CBS Interactive, Davison was responsible for GameSpot and Metacritic, and engineered the acquisition of Giant Bomb.
Q: Has games journalism adapted fast enough to the changes in the game industry or is it still behind the times?
Peer Schneider: I think there's still a lot of work left to be done. For example, how to properly 'cover' mobile gaming or the free-to-play markets; not for the industry or super-users who follow business trends, but for the consumers that actually play them. Also, the reduction in overall title breadth in the console space in favor of even bigger AAA game player audiences has necessitated a shift in how we at IGN cover games. We've always dedicated time to create post-release content - but we've put more resources and emphasis on developing this part of our network in the last year than in the previous 10 years combined. Players keep on playing these big games and consume media around them for months if not years, something that used to be reserved to MMOs like World of Warcraft. It's not just limited to multiplayer games. Skyrim continues to be huge for us.
John Davison: The changes in the industry aren't as important as the changes in the audience. Things have evolved dramatically in the past few years, and a lot of media--not just games media, all media--has not been equipped to adapt to that quickly.
Tastes are specific, demands are great, and readers/viewers are consumers of the whole internet - not necessarily specific media brands. Social media alerts them to the existence of information, and they seek it out through referrals or through search. They grab the videos they need from YouTube and Twitch - they don't care what the original source is. The importance is that they get the content they want, and that it's validated as authentic by their peers.
Q: What changes do you see ahead for games journalism in 2013 and beyond?
Peer Schneider: For us, it's about building an even bigger video portfolio, figuring out how to pull off compelling news programming and discussions as videos, and making sure our content goes everywhere where gamers are - as compared to the old approach of 'driving traffic' to a single website. That means we have to adapt and define our content for each platform rather than apply the same approach to all. Enabling players to get help for games they're stuck in, building out a community that connects players, and creating entertainment content related to games is as important to us as improving the way we generate news or review games. IGN used to be a walled garden of IGN-created content. That's not where we're going.
"IGN used to be a walled garden of IGN-created content. That's not where we're going"
John Davison: Much as it pains me, I think we'll see fewer outlets. Print is dying, and that's not going to stop, but I think there'll be some online brands that struggle too. A few more print brands will successfully transition to digital - but all of this leads to a larger discussion that is going to keep coming up again and again; how content gets funded.
There are three fundamental problems around the business of games media - they are all intertwined, and they're not going to go away anytime soon, sadly.
First, readers and viewers are distrustful of sponsorships and advertising, and the impact that they have on the media that is being created. It's a valid concern, and requires more transparency from everyone concerned, but it's intrinsically linked to the second point - that the creation of content needs to be paid for, and sponsorships and advertising are currently the only reliable way to generate the necessary revenue. Meanwhile, the intrinsic value of the content - a video view, or a page view - is diminishing constantly because of the volume of media in play.
A solution is that we return to some form of paid content model, but that relies on loyalty - something that contradicts the behavior that is already predominant. Giant Bomb is an anomaly, not necessarily an example that everyone else can follow. Jeff [Gerstmann] and his team are spectacularly popular, and inspire their core audience in a way that few others can replicate. Loyal Giant Bomb users are buying into a relationship as much as they are a content model - but that loyal core is just a fraction of the overall audience. If people want to support and encourage change, they could do far worse than becoming a Giant Bomb premium member and encouraging others to do so too. Growth for them is a good indicator of the appetite for a paid approach.
Q: Do you see substantial market share changes ahead for games journalism sites? Which ones, and in which directions?
Peer Schneider: I think that depends entirely on what directions others will take. I feel really good about our future and our audience growth. We're at the end of a console cycle, and traditionally that's always been something of a low-traffic point for sites like ours that focus on product previews, reviews, and guides. If you looked at comScore, you'd see that most games media site growth is pretty flat. But that's just a slice of how users consume games media and gaming-related entertainment on IGN. Video views have remained strong on our desktop site, but they've been growing like crazy on mobile and off-network. You can now watch our videos, including live streams, on the Xbox 360 -- and our core YouTube channel recently crossed 2 million subscribers and 2 billion views, for example.
"Some of the bigger media brands are either up, or at the very least flat. 'Flat is the new up'"
John Davison: In the year ahead, the biggest challenge is going to come from tracking where the audience numbers are coming from - and we're going to see some false negatives if we only look at the Comscore numbers. Superficially, it looks like everyone is hemorrhaging audience right now, but that's not necessarily true. Media brands now have to service their core dot com destination, along with a YouTube channel, social media channels, platform-specific video delivery applications like Xbox Live apps, livestream audiences on multiple channels, and--arguably most significantly--their mobile audience. Add all that stuff up, and some of the bigger media brands are either up, or at the very least flat. 'Flat is the new up,' as they say.
Q: Are game sites that cover traditional console and PC games going to devote attention to mobile, online, and social games? Are they going to try and broaden their demographic to match the broadening of the game industry's demographic, or will they continue to appeal to a narrow segment?
Peer Schneider: I think sites that focus on the classic previews/news/reviews content set will continue to find success appealing to traditional console and PC players - especially when there's more product heading to shelves. In the past, the delivery mechanism - free/online, social, mobile - was definitely linked to both the quality of the games and the target demographic. But those notions are quickly disappearing. We will see free games like Hawken that look every bit as attractive to hardcore gamers as full-price PC and console games, but can also attract players who would've traditionally stayed away from a shrink-wrapped game.
But in many cases, reviews or behind-the-scenes info are not the right way to engage with audiences who spend most of their time with free-to-play or mobile games - and certainly not social games. We launched our eSports league, the IPL, to connect with players who weren't served by traditional games media content. League of Legends has more players every day than most console games in a year, but those players don't care about the same types of content and thus may not visit most gaming sites.
There are some exceptions to these rules, of course. I'm not expecting that all social games in the future are alike and appeal to the same, largely female, demographic - and there are already mobile game mega franchises that lend themselves to the same coverage as console games. One of our most-watched game reviews last year was for an Angry Birds game.
John Davison: Segmentation of content the way you're describing can be a problem. Great ideas are ghettoized because of old-fashioned structures that segregate content and pigeonhole them in ways that make people just ignore them. A good game experience is a good game experience, much as a good story is a good story. Part of the problem is the way that many older sites are structured as a series of 'buckets' for content, and content discovery is harder than it should be. With cheaper, smaller experiences there's also less need for lengthy reviews or 'traditional' content. A recommendation from a trusted peer or online personality that you identify with and trust is all that's needed to encourage you to spend $1.99 on a download. Content needs to adapt to the way that people want to discuss their experiences. It's as much a community management challenge as it is a pure content challenge.
Q: Will we see more use of video? Does that mean fewer words being written about gaming?
Peer Schneider: At IGN, we've definitely shifted more and more resources to video production. For us, it doesn't necessarily mean fewer words being written about gaming - but we have to look toward some of the expert contributors in our community to help out. In some cases, we have certainly converted article content and shifted it to video. Our Rewind Theaters would have been trailer analysis articles in the past. Now, the text analysis is generated by our audience via comments and wikis. We also stopped doing text news wrap-ups after we launched the Daily Fix. In these cases, our users demonstrated that they prefer video. Our focus on video has also given us the chance to build out more entertainment content. We picked "inform and entertain" as our mantra back in the '90s. It's great to be able to experiment more with the latter and have the chance to run shows like Up at Noon or Game Shop on YouTube, for example.
Q: Is the nature of game journalism changing to be more inclusive of information and engagement with the community, in the same way that mainstream journalism has begun to be? Is this a good thing or a bad thing?
Peer Schneider: Last year, we took our strategy guides - content that we've generated in-house for more than a decade - and moved them to the wiki platform. We didn't reduce the number of IGN guide writers or cut resources; we simply removed the differentiator between what's IGN-created and what's community-generated. The guides are better. Over on YouTube, the gaming community has shown us all up on how to create engaging entertainment content around games via Let's Plays and commentaries. We've learned a ton from them. I think similar things are already happening when it comes to gaming news generation. We've got 30 pairs of eyes, but the gaming community has millions. Many stories break on Reddit or gaming forums, including our own. The challenge is how to discover and elevate the right stuff and the right contributors. Working on it.
John Davison: It should be, and the most successful brands will be those that embrace the concept fully.
Q: What's the biggest challenge in the year ahead for game journalism, and what's the biggest opportunity?
"Sticking to the same old structure (previews, reviews, whatever) because 'that's the way it's always been' is suicidal"
Peer Schneider: The biggest challenge is that we're at the end of a console generation - and many gaming enthusiasts, those that consume games media more than anyone else, are still very focused on console games. That may mean fewer game releases for the first quarter of the year, fewer surprises as publishers still rely on established franchises, and perhaps less excitement and motivation to learn about new things related to gaming. That said, it's also an opportunity for games journalists to dig deeper and go beyond the classic review/preview/news coverage, think about original features, and take a break from writing to spend more time on improving internal editorial processes and creating a more coherent voice.
John Davison: The biggest opportunities, as ever, come from really listening to the audience and adapting accordingly. Sticking to the same old structure (previews, reviews, whatever) because "that's the way it's always been" is suicidal. Gamers' tastes are more specific than ever, and only a small group really self-identifies as as being a "gamer" any more. People play specific games (Minecraft, Halo, Call of Duty, League of Legends) or are only interested in specific genres. More than ever, games media needs to be a well-curated conversation, and brands need to focus on tools to embrace that.
Doing that can be expensive, so one of the associated biggest challenges is finding ways to fund editorial development, video production, and multiple product development initiatives.
Q: What do you think of Polygon's website and approach to game journalism? Evolutionary, revolutionary, or same-old, same-old?
John Davison: They've done a great job of shaking up the approach to the presentation of online content. We're already seeing other brands accelerate the roll-out of redesigns in response to Polygon. Also, personally I appreciate the thoughtful, longer-form approach. But then I'm 40 years old, and still have a soft spot for magazine-style content, so I'm probably not really in the most important target-demographic anymore. I'll be interested to see how they grow over the next year. While there's an audience for their editorial approach, I think it's a potentially risky foundation to build a new large-scale games media brand on top of. From what I've seen over the past few years, the audience has changed considerably, and has very different demands of its content, and its relationship with its media.