Super corporation Ziff Davis has seen better days. Both Electronic Gaming Monthly and 1Up are being sold because they have been losing money, which the ZD accountants claim is bad for business. Forget that 1Up is also failing for a moment and think about the printed gaming magazine. Has the internet replaced the need for EGM and Game Informer much like literacy replaced the need for PSM?
Once upon a time, game mags were the only place to get video game news. The concept of waiting for your mailman to bring you breaking news is comical today; speed of communication is the internet’s forte. Similarly, attempting to contact a writer or respond to an article by writing a letter is almost silly, especially for tech savvy gamers. Gaming sites and blogs allow readers to email writers instantly, and many let readers post comments directly under articles. Not only does this drastically cut down on reply time, it allows readers to become part of the overall dialog. Every time someone reads an article you commented on, your words will be there as part of the overall piece.
Preview pictures of games make more sense on the internet than in print. Forty seconds after a company releases pictures of its game, they are plastered on a thousand websites for anyone with an internet connection to see. And magazines are not just limited by how infrequently they come out, but by physical pages.
Finally, most web pages are free to visit. Some gaming sites attempt to charge readers for “premium” content, but the vast majority of information can be found at no cost. Compound a print magazine’s lack of interaction, news stories delayed by up to a month, and the fact that it must be paid for and it is no surprise that Ziff Davis is not making a profit with EGM.
But all is not lost. There are a few things magazines have that the internet sites and blogs don’t. First and foremost is talented industry vets. While there are some extremely talented bloggers (cough) and writers on major sites, the majority of internet game journalism is not very…good. The fact is, Ziff Davis pays the 1Up staff far less than their print people and goes through them like my mom through rubbers. Every untalented writer in the world, and many talented ones, would give up a testicle for the chance to write for 1Up (cough) and Ziff knows this. They keep their real talent working in ink.
My brother is a programmer and my father is nearly computer illiterate but they both agree that anything more than a page or two, whether it’s an article or email, needs to be printed out onto paper. Ironically, despite text’s being more or less free on the internet, users have incredibly short attention spans and will rarely tolerate anything over a few thousand words. Magazines benefit from being both easy on the eye and portable. Only the most addicted World of Warcraft players take a laptop with them when they crap. Conversely, magazines litter my bathroom floor.
If gaming mags want to stay viable, they need to shift focus. Industry vets working in print must use their contacts and insider information to its fullest. Being able to get an interview with a big developer is something most blogs can’t do. Some magazines have done features on gaming jobs (“Take This Job”) and this example should be followed by more. Interviews, game job information, and other insider stuff like hands on previews should fill a magazines pages. Large pictures should not. We know what Final Fantasy XII looks like, and if we don’t we can find out in 30 seconds.
Reserving your top writers for print magazines works better if they don’t just write well, but write about interesting topics. These guys should have the insight that bloggers and dime a dozen 1Up staff lack. Thoughtful articles on creative topics may mean fewer pages to mock readers in response to their letters, but it could also save a magazine from obsolescence. This means no more top ten lists.
The kind of stories I’d immediately click away from are the same I’d gladly read on the bus or train and publishers must realize this if they want to stay competitive. Pie charts, cartoons and fillers need to die a painful death. The internet is better with this nontent (that’s a word I just coined) and so print journalism needs to focus on longer, deeper articles. A magazine only has 50 or so pages a month and it should not be littered with nearly useless material simply because the graphic design guy saw a spot to fill.
Gaming magazines are still focused on what makes them different from books so they are image heavy and offer short bursts of content. But this focus is misplaced; no one is going to read a book on games in place of an issue of EGM. For gaming magazines to co-exist with gaming sites, publishers need to focus on what makes them different from the internet.
Even if these suggestions do nothing to improve sales, they will at least give serious gamers a few more worthwhile magazines. It’s not a coincidence that Edge and Play are the two best gaming magazines in print and they focus both on in depth articles and are chock full of interviews.
*Update 1.16.07 – Since posting this article I have done some research on Ziff Davis. In other words, I told Pat to do some research on Ziff Davis. These are his findings:
In the interest of full disclosure, and perhaps responsible journalism, I looked into recent SEC filings for Ziff Davis Media, the company that owns 1Up and EGM (along with several other publications, in the games and other industries). The numbers are, needless to say, complicated, and it is clearly impossible to state definitively why the executives are selling their operating units. However there has been rampant speculation on these here internets that the reason they have chosen to sell 1up and EGM (along with just about everything else) is that they lose money.
Most claims seem to state that the games unit has lost something like $500k, without providing any context. As of ZD’s third quarter 2006 financial filings (the most recent available), this is true, but obviously does not tell the whole story. In 2004 and 2005 the company had also lost money over this period and turned a profit (both times about $3 million) by the end of the year. However the fact that they turned a profit of $5.5 million in 2003 and profits of $3.2 and $3.0 million in 2004 and 2005 respectively does imply that profits are down. The reports go on to indicate that that they have made substantial investment in online that should pay off in the future (its possible it already has begun to do so).
So where does that leave us? Are the claims that ZD’s gaming group has lost some money wrong or lies? Not really, but they are at least misleading. Furthermore, it is unlikely most video game bloggers (this one included) are equipped to speculate on why corporate executives are exploring “strategic alternatives.” Only time will tell whether ZD’s investments will pay off, but for now red-faced screaming that ZD is in trouble and abandoning ship on their gaming mags is a bit premature. Of course this has nothing to do with the fact that print magazines will have to adapt in order to keep pace in the lightning-fast paced world of the internet.