Fit To Print
Corporate interests will change games media radically - and not for the better
The global economy is in recession, and depending on which group of experts you listen to, we could be facing a downturn lasting as little as a year or as much as three or four years. Most of these experts, it's worth noting, were confidently predicting a smooth road ahead until the car actually crashed, which places them somewhere below a fairground Mystic Meg on the credibility scale - so from all of their present prophecies, about the only message we can sensibly take is that there will be a recession (because it's already happening), and that it will last "a while".
I've talked before at some length about the potential impact of this recession on the videogames industry. In short, I think that the "recession-proof" line is a nice sound bite, and it's just true enough to be worth using.
The reality is that some sectors will probably shrink slightly in the coming years, especially the newfound casual gaming sector - since for many of those consumers, this is still a marginal activity and will be among the first expenditures to be dropped when belts are tightened. This may be cancelled out by continued demographic growth, but a conservative estimate suggests a small contraction in the burgeoning casual market (to be followed up by explosive growth once again when the economy picks up).
The hardcore market, on the other hand, will continue its growth apace - and will even enjoy something of a boost in revenues as strong underlying growth is compounded by an audience that's spending more time at home, avoiding expensive nights out, and seeking cost-effective entertainment options.
However, there's one sector of the games business - or rather, an ancillary sector related to the games business - for whom the recession is going to herald a vast change. That sector is videogames media, the magazines, TV shows, websites and related publications which report upon and review the industry's products - and the change may not, depending on your perspective, be a positive one.
In reality, videogames media has been in a state of transition since the turn of the millennium. Having thrived for two decades, print magazines have been gradually losing ground to online media since the late nineties, but it was in the early years of this decade that what began as a decline (with some pundits optimistically predicting that a balance would be found between online and print media) turned into a death-spiral.
As it stands as 2008 rolls over into 2009, the past ten years have seen a transition from a print media landscape dominated by a select few print publications - some boasting a six-figure circulation, and a few claiming a seven-figure readership - to one where, in the UK, no magazine is even close to troubling the 100,000 circulation figure. In the USA, the print situation is even more grim - the US Official PlayStation, by way of example, was shut down in 2006.
If the picture in print is one of decline, however, the picture online is one of radical growth and even more radical evolution. In the late nineties, various groups of small sites and the occasional network of related game sites, mostly heavily focused on hardcore PC games, constituted the majority of the online games media. Today, some of the familiar names from that era - such as GameSpy and IGN - remain in use, but the landscape they inhabit has changed beyond recognition.
Alongside towering giants like IGN (whose network of sites, combined, constitutes one of the most-read online publications in the world) and GameSpot, a small number of extremely large sites can easily boast millions of readers (or rather, unique visitors) each month. Among them are traditional news-and-review websites, such as GamesIndustry.biz' sister site, Eurogamer - but a variety of other, stranger beasts have also emerged as key players.
Joystiq and Engadget are at the forefront of the games blogs, short-form news outlets whose naked focus on speed and "hits" earns them both contempt and jealousy from more established journalists. Sites like YouTube teem with amateur game videos and video reviews, while other video-focused sites such as GameTrailers earn themselves huge audiences. Screenshots and information on new titles is distributed around networks like Flickr and Facebook; keynotes and game announcements are commented upon in realtime on Twitter. Meanwhile, sites such as GameFAQs (a GameSpot sister-site which is also among the world's most-read websites) thrive entirely on the basis of community-submitted content and discussion forums.
Even while online media has been developing new ways of delivering information which print simply can't match, the technology itself has been eroding any advantage print media could have boasted. Broadband meant that consumers no longer cared about cover CDs. Then laptops became so cheap and powerful that they started to replace desktops, and so light and portable that people (especially tech-savvy young people, exactly the audience who read games media) started carrying them almost everywhere.
Today, tiny netbooks and slimline notebooks are ubiquitous, while WiFi hotspots and ultra-fast 3G mobile connections mean that online content can be accessed from any laptop - or any modern mobile phone - no matter where you are. The era of buying a magazine to read on a journey is coming to a close - not today, and not tomorrow, but for videogame magazines, most certainly within the next few years.
So, why is the recession important to this? There are two reasons. Firstly, the recession - or rather, the credit crunch - is going to make life very hard for businesses which rely heavily on favourable relationships with their banks to survive and grow. It will also, of course, nix any plans for mergers and acquisitions to prop up declining businesses, since banks will be utterly unwilling to finance anything of that description in the present climate.
The executive summary? For the few remaining print-heavy companies, the credit crunch is going to mean the difference between a slow, drawn-out death punctuated with some acquisitions and mergers to keep the figures looking decent - and a quick, messy death, followed by a fire-sale of magazine brands which will be snapped up by web entrepreneurs hoping to use them for new online ventures.
Secondly, that implosion - along with the halo effect the videogames industry will inevitably receive in the business community from its "recession-proof" nature - is going to drive a brand new wave of attempts to acquire, pool, control and capitalise upon online videogames media.
This has already been happening, slowly but surely. Few online game media brands are independent firms. IGN and GameSpy belong to the vast News Corporation, whose other assets include Sky television, the FOX networks (and movie studios), The Sun, The Times, MySpace, and so on. GameSpot and GameFAQs belong, ultimately, to CBS - or, by extension, to CBS' majority shareholder, National Amusements, which owns the likes of MTV, Paramount Pictures and Dreamworks. Only this week, another major site, 1up, was acquired by Hearst Corporation - a media conglomerate which owns dozens of newspapers in America, along with magazines like Marie Claire and Esquire, and the ESPN sports TV network.
Even some of the new kids on the block are owned, ultimately, by men in very, very expensive suits. Joystiq belongs to Time Warner, the world's biggest media conglomerate, whose stable includes New Line Cinema, Warner Bros, HBO, CNN and DC Comics. Video site GameTrailers belongs to MTV - and thus, ultimately, to parent company Viacom's majority shareholder National Amusements, mentioned above as the ultimate owner of GameSpot and GameFAQs.
So who's actually independent? A handful of major media outlets remain outside these corporate networks. Kotaku, the largest blog competitor to Joystiq, is owned by Gawker Media, a small private company. In Britain, Future Publishing is stock market listed and has no parent company, but despite recent solid growth, its online properties lag behind the competition and it remains heavily invested in its print portfolio. British firm Eurogamer Network, too, is privately owned. (Here's as good a point as any for the required full disclosure - GamesIndustry.biz is a publication of Eurogamer Network, and I personally am employed by both Eurogamer Network and News Corporation.)
Within a few years, however, it's hard to see almost anything independent being left on the market. Print publishers in their death throes (or their assets in liquidation auctions) will be snapped up and combined with burgeoning online sites to add to the portfolios of media conglomerates. Successful private firms, perhaps feeling a little nervous about the recession environment, will be happy to sell out to those same conglomerates - who will be delighted to have them as centrepieces for their new online game media networks.
The landscape which emerges at the end of this process is one that's radically different from the old print magazine business, and not just because of the radical range of different content types and distribution methods which online affords. Print magazines may have had, at times, a deeply questionable and incestuous relationships with the game publishers whose products they reported upon and whose advertising revenue they needed to survive. That, however, pales in comparison to the situation which we face with these integrated corporate networks.
The problem is already apparent from the short lists above. Almost every single major videogames media outlet already belongs to a company which also owns either a game publisher, a game developer or a range of intellectual property commonly used in videogames. IGN, for instance, is part of a corporation which also holds the rights to franchises ranging from Alien and Predator to The Simpsons - not to mention videogame movies such as Max Payne.
GameSpot and GameTrailers belong to the same company which, ultimately, owns music game developer Harmonix, along with Dreamworks and Paramount, whose movies are commonly turned into videogames. Joystiq is part of a corporate family which includes videogame license owners Cartoon Network, DC Comics and New Line Cinema, and which may well soon include publisher Eidos.
Does this mean that these sites are being unduly influenced by their corporate partners? Right now, almost certainly not. It's difficult to imagine anyone at GameSpot being told to be nice to Harmonix since they're part of the same very, very extended family. However, as more game companies join these networks, the clear reality is that they will end up cultivating relationships with their game media "siblings". It won't be a case of "bump the score up a notch, they're part of the same company"; rather, it'll be a case of "they're part of the company, so they're giving us loads of exclusives - be nice".
Cynical? Not at all. One needs only look at existing relationships in a company like News Corporation, where regular and blatant cross-promotion and favouritism exists between The Sun, Sky TV and 20th Century Fox movie and TV properties, to see how games media is going to look in the near future. The recession will hasten this process, and citizen journalism and the rise of social networking may soften its impact - but the reality is that just as this big-corporation culture is affecting media in every other sector, it will most certainly change the way videogames media works forever.