Rising Tides Sink Islands
It’s getting awful lonely out here. With the demise of Games For Windows magazine and the uncertain question of how their editorial voice will hold a beachhead against the churning swells of click counters and ad mongers, there aren’t many safe harbors left for our freelancers. As Gamers With Jobs plugs along, Julian Murdoch and Lara Crigger have both seen the passing of three magazines that featured a lot of their best work. Great articles - the kind of writing that didn’t join the water striders skimming across the surface, but dove deep and wrestled giant squids.
Over and over, industry publishers are passing along the same message. Your time has come, the sea levels are rising and your little island has little left to offer passing ships. We hear Cat Fancy is hiring.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile the growth of the gaming industry at large with the decline of gaming magazines. Obviously the Internet plays a big role in gobbling up exclusives and providing timely content, but recognizing that and reacting to it doesn’t seem to be paying off. Games For Windows in particular responded to the call after the untimely end of Computer Games Magazine by beefing up their editorial content and shooting for broader themes rather than rote previews and reviews. Their reward was the sudden, screeching end to an institution that started in 1981.
“Gut shot” was how Julian Murdoch described the feeling upon learning that Games For Windows magazine was done. Not just because it’s one less platform to peddle his literary wares, but that it may be the last one. Wired, Edge and Game Informer are some of the few left that might take an interest in the kind of articles he writes. That’s a small pond to swim in and there are dozens of good writers vying for those coveted spots. Why are they so prized when it’s much easier to write online? Because they pay more, and dammit, print is print. People still settle down and read those things, don’t they?
The assumption that the online audience wants fundamentally different things from their magazine reading compatriots is flawed. If they aren’t buying the magazines that take the time to dig deep, I can assure you they aren’t flocking in droves to fill the need on the Internet either. As much success as we’ve had here at Gamers With Jobs, it pales in comparison even to the most rudimentary gaming news and commentary blog. The difference between us and most media publishers is that we’re not really all that worried about making money. We count our success in audience participation rather than page views. A whopping 60% of our traffic comes from Google searches, after all. I doubt many of the people looking for “Lara Croft Yak Boobs” stick around long enough to see what else we have to offer.
For every Best Buy Bodhisattva we have dozens of excellent pieces that barely register as more than a blip on the radar. I’m not going to fault the readers; it would be disingenuous to suggest that the hard bitten Halo fan really cares about our thoughts on the social dynamics of online gaming groups. In fact, there’s no blame to be laid at all. We can’t turn those baseball caps forward and smooth down those polo shirt collars. People are who they are and like it or not, most of them are just fine with playing games with their friends and making buying decisions based on TV commercials. Even gamers who do join message boards and look at pictures of Mario cakes shouldn’t be expected to sip tea and read about how gaming is similar to meditation.
There’s still a healthy number of potential readers out there who want more from their gaming coverage. The problem right now is that publishers, the people who pay writers real money and put food on their tables, aren’t making the publishing platforms for them. Stardock’s Brad Wardell said it best when he talked about why his company makes games for customers, not pirates or mythical user bases. “When you develop for a market, you don't go by the user base. You go by the potential customer base. That's what most software companies do. They base what they want to create on the size of the market they're developing for.” In other words, you deliver what your target customers want, not what you think everybody wants.
We’re getting good content, but the budgets are still weighed down under the load of paying for fluff reviews, news and previews before we get to the good stuff. If you’re going to differentiate and try for more than the status quo, the expectation for audience size and budget needs to be adjusted. The problem isn’t that PC gaming is dying or that blogs rule the world - most publishers are just stuck screaming at a massive, uncaring reader base. Less bloat and a laser focus on who you’re writing for would be a good start.
Gamers With Jobs was formed because we wanted more content written for us. Its continued success is largely thanks to sticking to our guns and taking the time to go above and beyond what even the most professional of commercial sites do for quality control. By design, we’re not in a position to bring this special sauce to the masses. Well established retail channels need to be used to leverage something like what we do onto the market. This isn’t just because we’re selfish and we want more of what we like. There’s also a real danger of brain drain if there isn’t enough money in the system to support the kind of writers that elevate the discussion of the medium. What a shame it would be if the Lara Crigger’s of the world were forced to write for Washing Machines Weekly because we couldn’t change course and see what’s right under our noses.
As one of the few platforms left standing on the island, I hope someone sends a raft soon. It’s cold. It’s lonely and I don’t like the hungry gleam in Julian’s eye. No sir, I don’t like it one bit.
- Shawn Andrich