"We had our marketing strategy meeting last week and the decision's been made to pull all print advertising for fiscal 2006." The European marketing director cast an eye over the rim of his glasses. "In the current climate, print advertising is no longer an effective form of communication for us."
The words of a senior executive at one of Britain's top five games publishers in a meeting earlier this year. Even I was shocked. I'm Eurogamer's business development manager so the news was sweet, but my background has seen me work at EMAP, Dennis, Computec and Future, and even though I was involved in Internet projects at two of these companies, there was never a time where print publishing wasn't the primary revenue focus for any of them. That the situation will shift isn't debatable any more: it's screamingly obvious.
You have to feel sorry for paper publishers. Well, you don't really, but there's no harm in showing a little emotion on occasion. The British videogames media is on the verge of sea change, and yet the biggest players in the print business are powerless to adapt. ABC released its six-monthly data update yesterday, showing yet again that my decision to leave print publishers completely behind over two years ago was well-judged.
Can't stop the rot
According to the previous ABC results, an average of 689,327 copies of videogames magazines were sold in the UK per month in the last six months of 2005. This is the total figure for multi-format, Xbox, Sony, Nintendo and PC games titles. Imagine Publishing, for an as yet undisclosed reason, failed to audit three of its magazines yesterday - GamesTM, PowerStation and Play - so it's impossible to calculate accurately just how the sector's faired in the last half a year.
Even assuming Imagine's AWOL triumvirate hasn't fallen in circulation at all, and that's a massive assumption, that figure stands at 646,892 today. The average circulation of a games mag in the UK is now almost certainly well under 35,000, compared to just over 50,000 a year ago. As one top UK PR put it today, "Jesus Christ. No one used to get out of bed for less than 80k."
On an individual level, the downside is even more obvious. The benchmark of the British market in recent years is the Official PlayStation 2 Magazine, which has suffered substantially in the 12 months - falling to 100,117 compared to its last audit of 132,069. Unfortunately for the execs in Bath, the number for the same period last year was 133,242; that's a 24 per cent decrease year-on-year. When looking at those figures, it's worth bearing in mind that Sony's sold more than 7 million PS2s in the UK.
But PlayStation 2's on the decline, right? We're in a console transition, yes? We are, but that's only half the story. Take PC Gamer, for years the most respected magazine of its ilk in the UK. In the same period last year, the title showed monthly sales of 48,326: today, that figure stands at 45,295. PC Zone, moved from Dennis to Future a couple of years ago, has dropped from 32,636 to 30,022 in the past 12 months, and from 51,088 in the past three years. There's no transition in PC gaming, chaps. It's unlikely even Peter Mandelson could worm his way out of this, and the spin doctors fronting Britain's games mag publishers are significantly less adept than Tony's sentinel pet.
Spin me right round, baby
Future issued a statement yesterday blaming the console transition and summer results for the slump. Never saw that coming. "These ABC results are a testament to the hard work put in by our editorial, circulation and marketing teams," said James Ashton, group publisher of the company's entertainment portfolio.
"Many of these ABC figures are encouraging, even in a transition year where gamers are waiting for an influx of new consoles and games. The first half of the year is traditionally quieter for sales of games magazines, so itâs pleasing that we are seeing plenty of encouraging signs across our next-generation focused titles and we have clear plans for other areas of the games portfolio."
And James is right, in a way. Assuming you're an eternal optimist, the news isn't all bad. Xbox 360 magazine sales have risen slightly, but they still account for a tiny portion of the market. The Official Xbox 360 Magazine issued its first set of results at 42,680, and Xbox World actually rose from 19,048 to 23,183. Conversely, the Official Xbox Magazine saw its circulation more than halve yesterday compared to a year ago, down to 40,497 from 85,072. For every silver lining there's a cloud.
Optimism or not, these numbers are far distant from the halcyon days of the original official PlayStation mag, where PS-fever forced circulations of nearly 500,000. Individual title sales in that area are unthinkable now, and the rot hasn't just set in for the games market. Men's mags are a classic example of how falling circulations are blighting paper publishing's fortunes across the board. FHM leads the sector and has done for years. Yesterday's figures showed an average circulation of 420,688 per month, down from 573,713 two years ago.
So what's going on? If you work in the media and you don't know the answer, quite frankly you deserve everything you get. The Internet isn't on the rise. It's risen. People still needing to buy discs with Xbox 360 demos on them are a dwindling resource (great online content delivery service by the way, Microsoft), and to say FHM's stranglehold on mass market tits has been thwarted by the web is something of an understatement.
Online advertising in the UK is now in excess of that spent on national newspapers and is predicted to rise 39 per cent this year. Online readership is rising at a dramatic rate, not just in the UK, but globally. These are well documented facts. And yet the paper majors soldier on, launching half-arsed websites with a blatant lack of knowledge of what makes for a successful online presence and never fully addressing the issue. Why?
A rock and a hard place
I'll never forget a conversation with a prominent games magazine journalist last year, during which they said they simply couldn't fathom where their readers were going. I'm still baffled that this normally highly astute individual could be so short-sighted. The fact that so senior people in the UK paper publishing industry have been so slow to get to grips with the situation provides some of the answer, but the real reason is far more obvious. Blaming incompetence at board level would be cheap. Ish.
The reality is that print publishers have found themselves between a rock and a hard place, and mostly impotent in the face of circumstance. The only way companies like Future, Ziff Davis (although as we'll see in a second, Ziff is something of an exception), Computec and the rest of the established paper operations can survive is to essentially ditch the business model that made them successful in the first place and force attentions online.
In other words, the only realistic course of action to ensure long-term survival is to cannibalise their print business by attracting marketing spend away from magazines by investing in websites. To say the least, that's a difficult proposition to take to shareholders, even though it's absolutely the right thing to do, and hence we see lacklustre sites launched from major print publishers unable or unwilling to make the required investment in Internet publishing.
What's happening throughout Europe (all the other major European markets, such as France and Germany, are mirroring the UK) is simply a reliving of the situation facing the American magazine outfits years ago. For publishers like Future, it's a real DEFCON, adapt or die situation. Just in case you didn't get that, it said "adapt or die."
Some have made the transition. For example, 1up.com - published by Ziff Davies - is hugely successful in America, and competes solidly with both the IGN behemoth and US number two, Gamespot. Ziff is traditionally a magazine publisher, and utilises its mag content online while playing to the Internet's strengths with extensive community features. Very smart, and one of the few examples of a paper publisher truly getting to grips with the Internet and making a real success of print and online publishing in tandem.
"All the graphs go up, so I'm happy."
Others were simply savvy enough to spot the trend before it even happened. Companies like Eurogamer are adaptable, aggressive and carry no baggage that can't be dumped in a second. It's a publisher that can immediately move into new areas - such as video production and foreign languages - with virtually no restrictions.
Our overheads are low compared to the astronomical cost of print publishing which means we can hire the best people, produce the best content and work on a technical level that's practically futuristic compared to offerings supplied by publisher committee. In the lightning speed world of next-gen media publishing, it's the only way to fly. You can see how easy it would be for a lumbering games magazine publisher to get caught out.
Let's look at Eurogamer.net's ABCE results. We can't compare them to anyone else's, unfortunately, because our UK competitors haven't taken the plunge and signed up for official auditing (the reasons for this are complex and aren't especially relevant here). In October last year, Eurogamer was read by 977,349 unique users and served 6,793,607 page impressions. The next audit, performed in May, showed those figures had risen to 1,239,476 and 9,894,919 respectively.
Yes, E3 was in May, and yes, the last quarter is obviously the busiest time of the year for us, but the trend's undeniable. We've already eclipsed figures from the last audit in the "traditionally quieter" summer months. As a very wise man once said, "All the graphs go up, so I'm happy." The creaking sound you can hear is me actually smiling.
Future's happy too. "Our portfolio of games media continues to evolve," said Ashton summing up his statement today. "Add more than a million unique users who use our websites, gamesradar.com and computerandvideogames.com, to these ABC figures and youâll see why Future remains the only media owner that can offer true multi-channel web and print gaming solutions."
Looking forward to seeing an audit certificate proving those web figures, James. Any time you're ready.
Will the meteoric fortunes of the larger websites last? The simple answer is "No." Nothing does in this game. Delivery methods constantly mutate and you either conform to public tastes or you fail. As home ADSL speeds go through the roof and hooking up TV displays to Internet connections becomes the norm, the entire face of publishing text, video and audio media in developed countries - and the marketing that sustains it - will change beyond recognition.
All media will soon be on-demand, especially and painfully obviously in the technology space, and multimedia digital content will be king. Are you a multimedia digital content publisher, or are you still spinning crashing figures for circulations of bits of dead tree smeared with ink? Adapt or die, people. Adapt or die.
Whatever. One thing's for sure: the era of videogames magazines' dominance as the main source of information for consumers is well over. Even a fool could work that one out.