IGN's acquisition of GIGA is unusual in an otherwise cautious market - but this is merely the calm before the storm.
Although it has hardly been the most high-profile news story of the week, IGN's acquisition of German website GIGA.DE is perhaps one of the most surprising. After a period of intense consolidation and acquisition, the credit crunch has seen the games media slowing down and taking stock of where it stands - but IGN, at least, doesn't seem willing to sit still and wait for the storm to pass.
Of course, like the other big games media deal of recent months - the acquisition of 1UP.com by Hearst subsidiary UGO - the chances are that the negotiations which led to IGN's purchase of GIGA predate the credit crunch. Even taking that into consideration, however, there's no doubt that this kind of acquisition runs contrary to the general air of caution which has permeated the market's business dealings in the past year.
There is, however, a strong argument in favour of IGN's move. By acquiring GIGA, it is beginning to plug up one of the most significant holes in the business models of the major US games media networks - namely their general lack of attention to the foreign language markets. Despite their enormous size, networks like IGN have remained resolutely US-centric, with the heavily colloquial American English content even presenting barriers to achieving similar levels of market penetration in other English-speaking markets like the UK.
Local content in local languages is an even bigger challenge, and one which these firms have, for the most part, chosen to ignore up to this point. IGN's acquisition of GIGA is a major step, leading me to wonder if it's an opportunistic buyout, or whether the company actually has a strategy for building out into additional major languages through an aggressive program of local acquisitions throughout Europe and Asia. If the latter is true, how rivals such as GameSpot respond could be the deciding factor in the future shape of the games media.
My gut feeling in this, however, is that although IGN would like to move towards establishing a global, multi-lingual brand, it doesn't have a clear roadmap of acquisitions and expansions to take it to that goal. GIGA represents an opportunistic expansion and a testing of the waters; with a reasonably large audience, it's essentially an effortless way for IGN to add a new language and audience to its portfolio. Even in this credit-constrained time, it was simply too good a deal for the company to leave on the table.
This atmosphere of caution, however, will not last. Games media has become big business, providing as it does some of the most popular online destinations for the extraordinarily valuable Male 15-35 demographic. This year is likely to be one of cautious expectation, as the industry waits to see how advertising revenues move throughout 2009 - but if the figures aren't excessively negative (my expectation is that we'll see a decline in growth rates rather than a contraction in the market), 2010 will see a return to expansion and acquisition at an even faster rate than previously.
The challenge for games media, once we emerge from the present tough market, will be to stay ahead of the curve - socially, demographically and technologically. It seems strange, but established sites like GameSpot and IGN are actually the veterans of the games media now. Just as surely as they killed magazines off, other forms of media are snapping at their heels. Blogs such as Joystiq and Kotaku are reaching ever-growing audiences, while new technologies ranging from podcasts and vodcasts (the hideous concatenation of "video podcast", for the uninitiated) through to Twitter are all providing new ways of discovering, accessing and interacting with information.
If the technological challenge is tricky to hit, not least because it's a constantly moving target, the social and demographic challenges are even greater. Non-English languages are becoming increasingly important, not only because of the industry's growing global reach but also because of their increasing usage in English-speaking territories. English alone doesn't even reach the entire potential audience in the USA, where Spanish speakers are becoming more and more demographically significant. Local language content isn't just for local audiences - it can also address a diaspora population that may be even more significant.
Socially, the concept of a single "enthusiast" website for videogames may be set to reach its logical conclusion in the coming years. As the new audiences which gaming is reaching - casual gamers, women, older people, bored office workers and everything in between - seek out information about their new hobby, sites like IGN, Gamespot and their ilk simply won't provide the content they seek. There will always be a market for hardcore game enthusiast content, but the new market for segmented content for specific demographics will become increasingly difficult to ignore.
Even now, smaller players in the market are carving out significant businesses for themselves by appealing to older gamers, rather than teenagers, or by focusing in on casual titles for bored office workers. The reality is that the market for games media as it stands today is only one demographic segment out of many - and the biggest challenge facing games media in the next five years is to expand their efforts to appeal to the new segments which are gradually coming online. This is a huge task, involving vast work on both content and branding, but it is absolutely vital - for two reasons.
The first reason, simply, is that having spent countless millions on building games media empires, none of the major players wants to turn around in five years to discover that they are simply one fish in a big pond. Worse, they could find that a majority of consumers are turning to traditional media outlets - newspapers and lifestyle magazines, or their eventual digital replacements - for their games information, leaving sites like IGN to cater for the same kind of niche audience which is today enjoyed by specialist film magazines like Empire.
The second reason, however, is more immediate and pressing - and unsurprisingly, has to do with advertisers. Ever since the online advertising market started to recover in the wake of the dot.com bust, it has been resolutely focused on one figure - unique users. As long as this headline figure grew each reporting period, online media sites were convinced that they were on the right track.
Increasingly, however, advertisers want more than just big numbers - they want to know exactly who they're talking to, not just how many anonymous faces there are in the crowd. The quality of the audience, not just the quantity, is becoming vital. The kind of targeting which is used at the moment - only putting ads for Wii products on the Nintendo "channel", for example - is a crude, blunt tool, which is being replaced with much more precise targeting. Turning "readers" into "registered users", with tracked histories and preferences, is an increasingly vital push - but it's only one of a large number of strategies which are likely to result in a fragmenting of monolithic games media sources into demographically targeted brands and online destinations.
At the moment, despite the GIGA acquisition, 2009 is looking like a relatively quiet year. The big players and the smaller firms hoping to attract their acquisition dollars are likely to spend much of the year consolidating their positions, building their audiences and their reputations - with a view to explosive acquisition-driven growth at some point in 2010, or 2011 if revenues are weaker than expected this year.
This is calm before the storm. The next five years will see huge growth in games media, accompanied by absolute turmoil as the "empires" fight for market share across more territories and demographics than ever before. The battle to establish the web's dominance over other media types has been won - but the struggle to turn narrowly focused American English content networks into global media brands may be even more important.