Games media's big challenge: "It's hard to monetize all the content"
Veteran journalist Dan Hsu on shrinking IGN and the challenge of covering mobile
The last of our series on games journalism covers a wide range, from print journalism to the challenges of mobile games. The game industry has become increasingly complex, and game journalism has become more difficult, encompassing a wide range of platforms, media, and audience demographics. When something is this complicated, it takes an expert to help sort things out.
Dan "Shoe" Hsu is the editor-in-chief of GamesBeat, the game industry section of VentureBeat. Prior to that, Hsu co-founded Bitmob.com (now part of GamesBeat) after serving many years as the editor-in-chief at Electronic Gaming Monthly and as editorial director at 1UP Network. Hsu has seen many changes in the business, and started some of them; Bitmob is a crowdsourced game journalism site that mixes professionally produced articles with curated and edited content from anyone who cares to write about games. GamesIndustry International talked with Hsu about his perspective on the changes in the industry and where game journalism might be headed.
Q: Things in games journalism have changed quite a bit in 2012, with Future closing down print magazines, Polygon launching, many media web sites being revised, shut down, or launched. Are we going to be seeing a lot more changes in games journalism for 2013?
Dan Hsu: I'm actually surprised that print exists at all; it's kind of surprising to me that magazines are dying now. Not because they're dying, but because it hasn't happened sooner. It seems like such an archaic medium, and I don't know anyone who reads magazines nowadays to get their gaming information. Obviously there are customers out there, but the problem is it's a very expensive business. There are printing costs involved, advertising is very weak there because it's impossible to measure, or to have any kind of analytics running that advertisers want these days. It's difficult to gauge engagement. And you have to print more issues than you actually have customers, if you have a newsstand model.
For example, back in my EGM [Electronic Gaming Monthly] days, if we sold through 40 percent of the issues we printed for newsstands, that was considered a very good month. Sixty percent of the issues printed never reached consumer's hands on a good month; on a bad month that number could go up to 80, 85 percent.
Q: Do you think that game journalism has been slow to adapt to the changes in the game industry? Is it behind the times, in your view?
Dan Hsu: No, actually I think games journalism was one of the early ones to adapt. You look at web sites like Kotaku, IGN and GameSpot, those guys were on it pretty early. I think the perception of it being a little behind the times, I don't think that's really accurate for games journalism specifically. I think it applies to journalism at a whole. You're looking at companies that have a heavy background in print. If you're looking at the Time magazines of the world, the Newsweeks of the world - their business is all print.
Even Ziff-Davis media, they didn't do well because they were so focused on print, even when their online was becoming prevalent. They weren't as aggressive as a new company that was online-only would be in that space. Print was still making them money, these are brands they've invested heavily in, these are properties they've had for a long time. It's hard for these old-school companies to give that up really quickly, be very mobile about these decisions and move right into online. At Ziff-Davis, for example, we knew we had to get into online, we put money into 1Up, we built 1up.com. You could still tell we didn't want to give up on print, we just never gave online the same kind of chance as say a company like IGN did, which was 100 percent online. The IGNs and GameSpots of the world have no print properties to bog them down.
"It's hard for these old-school companies to be very mobile about these decisions and move right into online"
Q: The worry would be that if the online business did too well, it might take away from the print business and make that unprofitable?
Dan Hsu: Yes, that's definitely part of it, that's a very good point. You have a lot of sales people who have only sold in print; online was new to them. I'm comparing it to an all-online company, where right from the start your technology, your business development, your sales team are all focused online, That's what they know how to do, that's why they're there. As opposed to what we did at Ziff, where you had an all-print sales team, an all-print circulation team. Everything was print, and then you slowly introduce online to that sort of culture, it's different. Trying to get print salespeople to also sell online is maybe something they don't fully understand or they're just learning. They start behind the curve a little bit compared to pure online companies.
Q: There's been a reluctance among advertisers to go online, and now to go to mobile. That's part of what's made the transition to online difficult, and mobile even more difficult, isn't it?
Dan Hsu: That's a good point. Online isn't that old yet; it's still a relatively new business, but in a very short time it went from 'where are the hot web sites to advertise on' to now having various platforms to worry about. TV's still around, and then there's traditional web sites, there's mobile. Things haven't settled down yet in terms of how media and advertising work together, so I think a lot of people are still trying to figure all that stuff out.
Q: What changes do you see for games journalism this year? Will more sites be changing their approach or format?
Dan Hsu: Maybe, maybe not. Every company has their own philosophical ideas and mission statement; it's hard to say what everyone's thinking right now. I feel that trying to design a destination site is less important than it was five years ago. More and more, it's just about how you get traffic, period. I think it's a little bit more rare now to find consumers that are very dedicated to one specific web site. They're definitely important, but when you notice a big story - this can't be just my own observation - but when you have a story that gets really picked up and skyrockets, it's probably not because all of your existing readership are clicking on that story over and over or all of a sudden they woke up from a slumber. You probably draw a lot of traffic from the outside.
Things like social media have definitely impacted how we've done the business, so for example I just started at GamesBeat. What I would have done five years ago is build up a strong brand, design a really great web site; you would want people to come back over and over and start to check your web site every day. Now with RSS feeds, social media, Twitter and all of that stuff, it's more about just getting the attention of the general populace rather than counting 100 percent on your existing audience.
Q: Now the gamer demographic has expanded to include everybody, and it's global, too. That wasn't true ten years ago. Do you see game sites changing to start to cover mobile, online, and social games with their broad demographic, or do you think most of these sites are so used to appealing to teenage boys of all ages they'll have difficulty reaching a wider audience?
Dan Hsu: It's a little of both. You see everyone trying to do more mobile coverage, coverage of social gaming, more free-to-play, because it's important and it's impacting our business. It's a big market out there. At VentureBeat, we've probably been a little ahead of that curve; we've been covering that stuff like mobile and social long before it became trendy to do so. You'll see web sites with a dedicated mobile editor, or something like that. People are definitely putting time and resources into it.
The problem is we haven't really figured out as a whole how to monetize that yet. We know we need to cover mobile because it's important, but mobile rarely produces a lot of traffic. People would much rather read about what's going on with the Wii U or with Call of Duty than they would about what's going on with this new puzzle game you've never heard of on mobile. Mobile is a big business, there's a lot of money, a lot of consumers, but these kind of bite-size experiences, more casual experiences don't lend themselves well to traditional coverage. I think we're all trying to figure that out. How do we cover this business? We know it's the future of the business, but how do we cover that but still get the kind of traffic you're used to with Call of Duty and Halo?
Q: The games that attract a more fanatic audience are the games that people want to read every bit of text and see every screen shot about the game.
"A preview or a review of a new Angry Birds title never comes anywhere close to the traffic you would get for a Call of Duty story"
Dan Hsu: That doesn't happen with your typical mobile game. Take a look at Angry Birds, for example. There are few if any games bigger than that in the mobile space, and it produces interesting coverage, but a preview or a review of a new Angry Birds title never comes anywhere close to the traffic you would get for a Call of Duty story, for example. That's the kind of stuff we all want to figure out. It's a very common question. A lot of mobile and indie developers are always coming up to us and asking, 'How do I get coverage?' I'm like, 'I'd love to cover you guys, but no one really wants to read that stuff.' The other problem is the same problem that consumers have with app discovery, we have with the content side too. There's such a massive amount of mobile games it's really hard to cover it all, even if they did produce traffic. Even if we said 'These are all like Call of Duty, we've got to cover this stuff' there are so many products out there it's really hard to keep track of them.
Q: Video seems to be a more and more important part of a lot of sites; will that trend continue? If there's more video, does that mean fewer words written about games?
Dan Hsu: I think video is in addition to the content; video's becoming very popular. It's a great way for someone who maybe doesn't have time to read a story to get everything they need to know in two minutes. They can have the content fed right to their eyes and ears, see everything they need to see. Obviously it's good to have those visuals tied to whatever content we're trying to digest. That said, you still see a lot of people who are in situations where video doesn't make a lot of sense. If you're on a train, and you don't have Internet access and you can't stream something there, maybe you have an article already cached. Or you're at work and you can't play sound. There are so many situations where traditional reading is still useful, I don't think that's going to go away. I think the two will just live side by side in harmony.
Q: What do you think is going to happen with IGN going up for sale? Do you think there will be big changes in market share among the major sites this year?
Dan Hsu: I think it's really hard for a lot of people to compete with IGN. They have all the SEO juice, they've been doing a really good job of building that brand. When most people think of 'Where do I get the latest video or reviews?' that's one of the first places you think of because they're so comprehensive. If you're using Google at all you're probably going to find an IGN story before most others. It doesn't mean there's no room for other sites to come in and make some noise in that space, but it'll be really hard. How that situation might change might depend on their new owners. If you've noticed over the years, IGN has grown but they've also shrunk, in terms of their staff size. It feels like every year there's somebody getting laid off there, or groups of people getting laid off.
"Media is a very tough business; it's hard to monetize all the content you create"
Again, media is a very tough business; it's hard to monetize all the content you create. So IGN for example, someone might come in, look at the bottom line, and say 'You're spending x dollars with y heads to create all this content, but we feel we could cut a little bit here and there.' Sometimes you get bought out and there's an influx of cash and you get more resources, sometimes it's the opposite where they want to save money. The latter is probably more likely because IGN is such a big organization, and media in general does not make a ton of money; it's not a cash-rich industry. My gut would tell me that a company like IGN would probably have to get smaller in the future and not bigger.
Q: What's the biggest challenge for games journalism in 2013, and what's the biggest opportunity?
Dan Hsu: Stepping away from all the business talk for a moment, what I would love to see is finding a balance between getting out there first and doing good quality reporting. I know why the business is where it is now. You want to be the first one out there, you want the SEO juice, you want the virality from people passing around your story on Twitter, you want to get up there first on aggregate sites like n4g or reddit. That's all very important and it produces a lot of traffic, and we all live and die by traffic. Unfortunately what that leads to is rushed or shoddy reporting, and incomplete stories that need to be updated later. That's just the world we live in; we have to play by that game as well.
Some people will focus more on editorial quality than others; some sites don't care about the quality, they just say 'Hey, let's get it out first even if it's wrong, we'll fix it later.' That's very unfortunate. I come from a print background where we're used to poring over the stories, doing things right, everything lined up and in order before we publish something. I miss that sort of environment; it's hard to do that in an online world. So I think that that's a challenge for online moving forward. I hope that's a challenge, that maybe consumers don't just want that first hit news, they want quality reporting. I hope eventually the traffic will reward us accordingly and say 'Hey, you guys are doing good work, not the quick shoddy work, and that's going to be important to us.' Then the media sites will react accordingly. We're just going to do what the consumers want.
Q: What's the big opportunity?
Dan Hsu: Figuring out out how to cover the future of our business. Things are moving to mobile, to social, to free-to-play; a lot of these expanses are things the average consumer doesn't care to read about. They participate in, they're consumers of, but they don't necessarily read about this stuff. I think the opportunity is there for media to discover how we get eyeballs and traffic and clicks from this new age of gaming we're entering now.