Yesterday saw the release of the latest circulation figures for Future's videogame magazines. As audited by ABC, Sony titles were on the up, but Xbox, multiformat and PC magazines were down compared to the previous year.
Here, Future Publishing's James Binns discusses the results for all sectors, rival publishers, growing the business beyond magazines, and the evolution of Edge online.
Q: What's your overall assessment of the ABCs numbers for 2008?
James Binns: I promise not to use the term tough economic conditions, because it's boring. But I think to continue to sell that many magazines and show growth on a magazine like Official PlayStation Magazine, is a pretty good achievement in terms of the effort the editorial team have put it in.
There are markets where we're challenged, like PC, and I think there are challenges facing the PC market generally. We did number crunching for the PC market and we reckon boxed product sales are down by about 23 per cent year-on-year. Which puts PC Gamer and PC Zone's performance both in context.
But as a media owner what we recognise is that we're not just about magazines, we're trying to grow out pcgamer.co.uk, launch a live PC games event, and try to launch console editions on PlayStation for example. All that is how we have to grow a media business rather than just relying on print numbers.
Q: Were you disappointed with the slow down in sales for a lot of titles, or where you bracing for that and expecting a decline in circulations?
James Binns: Last year we grew by 23 per cent last time we declared ABC numbers, and it's pretty hard to maintain that level of growth. Some of the magazine's flattened a little bit. If Official Nintendo Magazine slows down a little bit, we've got to recognise the fact that it's bigger than it's been for about seven years.
If some of Nintendo's audience go somewhere else, and are something different – as in lots of young girls – we have to make media to engage with them, because we're not going to reposition Official Nintendo Magazine. Pictures of little girls playing pony games wouldn't look so good next to house of the Dead: Overkill. With Nintendo we've launched Girl Gamer, we distribute 350,000 of those, and it's the biggest games mag in the UK. It's given away with a couple of Panini magazines targeting young girls. So if the Nintendo hardcore consumer slows down, we have to reach other consumers.
With the Xbox magazines, the growth in share cheers us up. Xbox World 360 has got a decent consolidated lead now over its nearest rival. And with Nintendo, for Imagine to give up N Revolution, suggests that N Gamer got something right.
The biggest drop is GamesMaster, and if we're looking at why that happened, it's the problem that replacing the PlayStation 2 is hard. GamesMaster had a lot of readers who owned the PS2. The growth of PlayStation 3 hasn't been as fast, and that's probably reflected in web traffic too if you look at PS2 channels compared to PS3 channels.
I'm not defending print, I'm defending specialist media. The most interesting collapse is with men's lifestyle titles like Loaded and Maxim. Both us an our rivals are enjoying favourable comparisons to men's lifestyle titles.
Q: But men's lifestyle magazines are still bigger than games mags, and they still contain videogame content. It's not as in-depth, but it's reaching bigger audiences than the specialist magazines.
James Binns: Well Maxim is smaller now than our official titles. FHM is still clearly a big magazine. The question we always ask is how do you compare gross reach against net reach? They've done well out of console marketing. If you're trying to sell a Nintendo Wii, buying an ad in Coronation Street is a pretty good choice. But buying an ad for no More Heroes in Coronation Street doesn't necessarily reach the right kind of audience. All specialist media is about trying to find an engaged platform. If FHM could tell me that they had more PlayStation 3 owners [reading the magazine] than Official PlayStation Magazine, I'd be staggered.
All media has some videogame elements now, but it's lost amongst other stuff. An FHM reader will be looking at golf clubs, a car, European holidays and videogames. We've always got to keep an eye on our competitors but I would say that their collapse in sales suggest they have less engaged readers generally.
Q: You mentioned the big numbers on Girl Gamer – any plans to spin that off and get consumers paying for the magazine rather than giving it away free? Or would you lose the audience as they're not the consumers who buy magazines about games?
James Binns: The audience for Girl Gamer are less engaged. They own a DS and buy some games, but I don't think they would identify themselves as gamers and buy a title. It's a bit of a stretch. We have an online presence for Girl Gamer which reaches a slightly larger audience. Some might try it, but I'd stay well away from it.
Q: Sales for the PC magazines are down again – are there any plans to consolidate, close a title down, and offer only one or two titles in that market, rather than the three titles you already have?
James Binns: On those sales levels we still make a good profit. We're not vain about keeping them open. We put a new editor into PC Zone, and Zone has a large amount of subscribers and loyalty amongst readers. If you think about combined reach of those magazines, it's just under 70,000. If we thought that one magazine might sell that we'd be fooling ourselves. The crossover in readership is really low because these magazines have such legacies. PC Zone readers wouldn't like to read PC Gamer.
The big value is for us to collaborate on PC Gamer's across the world, particularly with PC Gamer US. They're going to be working much closer - historically they've had different scores, databases and different logos. But overtime you'll see more global collaborations, so we can talk about PC Gamer as the world's best-selling PC games mag. If you look at international magazines like The Economist or Vogue, they do a good job of collaborating globally.
What's interesting in the PC market is we had a competitor launch that hasn't revealed ABC's yet. Total PC Gaming has talked up quite a big talk and they're 16 issues in now and haven't owned up to their copy sales. If it was still 16 issues in and I was still hiding – it's weird for them to boast so much and then show so little. They've announced some ABCs, but not all of their magazines.
Q: You rebranded Next Gen last year – how's the integration of Edge print with Edge online coming along?
James Binns: Our ability to turn the brand into one is working really well. I think the balance of trade stories from Edge and trade online content is working really well. We're pretty pleased with the traffic levels. The team are doing a good job and I think the ability to have offline marketing for a website, and have integrated ad sales to our recruitment clients is something that's going down well.
Q: You're not worried about cannibalising print editorial content by putting it online at the same time, if not before, the magazine goes on sale?
James Binns: The point when the subscriber copies hit is when we tend to leverage content for the print products. At that point stuff goes up on other sites anyway, scans are clocking up on the internet already. I think 'cannibalisation' is a very legacy thought. You can't worry about that because we're not the gatekeepers to information, we're not arrogant enough to think we're the only people doing websites.
The Edge brand now is bigger than it's ever been because it's got a good website, more people are being exposed to the content, the authority of the brand is bigger. Edge copy sales will grow next period as some of the stronger covers come through around new hardware launches like the DSi. To be afraid of cannibalisation is to live in denial.
Q: And presumably the print editorial staff are happy to be reaching a much wider audience online...
James Binns: Well, don't all writers want fame? The two reading experiences are very different. Edge website is not that dissimilar to other websites in terms of look and feel. It's a nice experience, but the loveliness of Edge, and being able to read stuff in a truly compelling format, I don't think that's gong to go away too quickly. It's not like newspapers, which have really struggled with cannibalisation, because they are so focused on news. Our currency is features and authority and the tactile qualities of the title.
Q: So, print's not dead?
James Binns: Absolutely not. The genie of internet media, of live events, is not going to go back in the bottle. Creating rounded propositions is the way that will work. People are still launching magazines and if you look at what retailers are doing with in-store magazines, they think print is a good way to reach consumers.
Q: Is Future planning to launch any new print magazines this year?
James Binns: We have the full range of consoles covered adequately now. We never say never, and there's always a group of people working on some idea. We'll find new ways to engage with customers. Our biggest story this year is the launch of a digital edition of Official PlayStation Magazine on PSN. That will be an all-singing, all-dancing hi-def production, and that's where we're putting all our efforts.
James Binns is publishing director at Future Publishing. Interview by Matt Martin.