June 26, 2008 12:00 PM |
A couple weeks back I was laid off from my lavish high-roller job (no, really, I mean it) at PiQ, an entertainment and media magazine I helped found and run for the past four issues.
It wasn't a wholly unexpected closure -- the parent company is more-or-less run by the creditors at the bank, my 401(k) got cut off a couple weeks earlier and health insurance was undoubtedly following soon after, and the office was more empty and barren than most of New Mexico -- and I'm already just as busy with assorted freelance work.
(To get an idea of the state my old company is in, notice how they still haven't taken down our web page, with the final entry from the creative director placing all the blame for the closure on mismanagement up above. Ooooh burn.)
Going through the experience of launching and maintaining a brand-new, nerd-oriented print magazine in this modern era has taught me a great deal about how to survive in that marketplace. To be more exact, you can't.
Forget about the return of GameFan or Next Generation or anything else you may've liked in the past -- the video-game realm will be lucky if it sees any sort of new magazine launch in America at any time in our lives.
Why? The usual suspects:
Advertisers are not interested. Magazines rely primarily on advertising to survive, but advertisers in all fields are rapidly abandoning print media in all fields. Most print-mag ads are targeted towards core users, but even the companies putting out these sorts of core games (like Atlus and NIS) are concentrating more on online these days.
This is the main reason why 100 pages is the normal book size for game mags right now instead of 120. Nearly all the real innovation in print game mags (such as EGM's experimentation with themed issues) is there because editors have to do more with fewer pages, not because things are expanding.
Readers are not interested. It's easy to rattle off the advantages online has over print -- timeliness, user participation, more quantity -- that I won't dwell on them for long. Circulation is largely down for every game mag.
More to the point, reader interaction is practically zero on a lot of publications. At PiQ we got two kinds of mail: readers bitching at us for the failure of Newtype USA, and readers gloating at us after the failure of PiQ.
Even the publishers don't care anymore. Print media requires a serious investment to succeed. It can take a good year before most magazines start to see a profit (PiQ was nearly there in four months, but the bank couldn't wait any longer), and companies aren't interested in investing that much and waiting that long anymore.
Costs are skyrocketing. To produce a magazine, you need to pay postage, shipping, and distribution costs that an online site doesn't. These costs never ever go down, and recent economy problems have made them go up alarmingly fast.
Do the writers/designers care anymore? A lot of them do, but if I see another boring preview-roundup feature where the only advantage over online is that there are slightly different screenshots of space marines and concept art of machine guns than what I can find online, I'm going to get all huffy and go to bed.
It's a common mantra, but print editors have to constantly remember that they are expecting readers to actively pay for their content, not passively (via advertising and the ISP bill) as with online.
Put all this together, and you can see why nearly all publishers in this and other nerd-oriented fields are in "I hope I can keep my job just a few months longer" mode for the foreseeable future.
I've been subscribing to the local newspaper for the past few months, but not long after I got laid off, I realized that I read the newspaper's website far more often than the paper itself, which (I wish I was making this up) I use mainly for ferret litterbox liner. Why don't I read the print version?
Because it's got a noticeably thinner pagecount, there's nothing being done with it that online can't do, and I can't shake the feeling that I'm doing something which "dates" me whenever I pick it up, like the old lady who still writes out checks at the grocery-store checkout line. It's really the same thing with game magazines, isn't it? What's making me pick them up these days, apart from habit and the collecting bug? I'm not sure.
I still believe that a new game magazine that's perfectly targeted, perfectly distributed, and perfectly written can succeed in the marketplace. (I still think that a game-oriented ripoff of Make, where the print mag is only half the story, would work great.) But it's not going to happen, because the enthusiasm and investment money has now well and truly skipped town for greener online pastures. Hey, that's progress.
Categories: Column: Game Mag Weaseling