August 19, 2009 10:00 PM |
At BlizzCon 2009 -- taking place this weekend in Anaheim -- Future is doing a big advertising push for World of Warcraft: The Magazine, its latest project and one of the bigger game-media launches of the year in any territory.
The magazine, which is slated to debut later this year (editor-in-chief Dan Amrich told me they're aiming for WOW's fifth anniversary in November), will have a fairly big presence at BlizzCon, where Future will front a booth, give out mini-mags in attendees' goodie bags, sell subscriptions complete with free murloc plush, all that sort of thing.
The basic stats on WOW: The Magazine --
- It'll be launching simultaneously with editions in America, the UK, Germany, France, and Spain and is subscription-only, with zero newsstand distribution. The price: $39.95 (or £29.95 or €34.95) for four seasonal issues. There's a bit of a discount if you commit to two years.
- It's run by Amrich -- who left Official Xbox Magazine US to take up the EIC job -- with Tim Edwards (who also continues to edit PC Gamer's UK edition) serving as the European editor. Art design is led by Ryan Vulk, who worked on Ziff Davis's Official PlayStation Magazine long ago (more recently he's been designing Wired), and Julian Rignall, a man who needs no introduction among British gamers of a certain era, is editorial director.
- It'll use the same wide-body dimensions as Future's Edge, with similar paper quality and so forth, and every issue is set to be 148 pages long, with no third-party advertising. Being official, there are promises of all kinds of exclusive content from Blizzard's designers and art guys. The editors I talked to assured me that WOW will be the main thrust of the mag throughout; there will be very little coverage of other PC games, or other MMOs, or even Blizzard's other franchises. Pure WOW.
- Since there's no newsstand presence, Future will mainly advertise the mag through worldofwarcraft.com and the Blizzard Launcher. (Worldofwarcraftthemagazine.com will go live on noon Eastern time/5pm GMT Friday.)
I have a feeling many people will ask why anyone would dare to make a print mag devoted to a nearly five-year-old game, in 2009, and charge ten bucks an issue. But although I've never really played WOW, I'm excited for this project -- in fact, if it succeeds (and I hope it does), I think "boutique" titles like these are going to mark the future of print-based game media, or the part of it that survives.
We all know the common complaints about print game mags by this point. They're too out-of-date. They're razor-thin. They look cheap. There's too little real content. They don't offer anything you can't get online for free.
These accusations constantly pop up in any online debate over media because, well, they're true more often than not. And with print advertising at an all-time low, distribution costs sky-high and rising, and US publishers cheapening the quality of their own magazines with loss-leader subscription rates, the outlook for traditional mags is bleak even before you factor in the economy.
Everyone in game media knows what's wrong with the print business. So why isn't anyone doing anything about it?
Over the years I've written frequently about where magazines need to go if they want to survive. I've talked about how they have to try something truly new and unique, how they have to use print media's advantages and avoid the disadvantages, and how this new thing has to be so awesome and so high-quality that it's worth paying a premium for. At this point in time, WOW: The Magazine -- as it's been laid out so far -- is the closest thing I've seen to my own vision. I wouldn't have launched a WOW mag, but that's quibbling.
Let's go over the main factors that'll judge the mag's future. First off, no newsstand distribution. I couldn't say how much this alone would cut the cost of producing the mag, but it's certainly a very substantial percentage when you're dealing with a country the size of the United States. This alone may ensure that Future can make a profit off WOW: The Magazine on circulation levels that would spell other magazines' doom.
Second, content. I think Future's rolling the dice here, focusing so intently on the WOW audience, but at the same time I concede that there are very few gamer subgroups that have more time and money wrapped up in their hobby. (Flight sim fans exhibit similar behavior, and there're two print mags devoted exclusively to them.) For this audience, Future is producing what promises to be a beautiful piece of work -- high-quality package, high-quality art design, (hopefully) a lot of articles that rely less on timeliness and more on mature depth and quality. A magazine you'd be proud to display in your living room, in other words, not stack on top of your toilet tank. I have very high expectations.
Third, price. Forty bucks ain't cheap. Blog commenters will dismiss the magazine for that alone. The success or failure of WOW: The Magazine, in my eyes, largely rides on how readily customers accept this price point.
But maybe the fact this is WOW we're talking about here gives Future more than even odds. When I was at QuakeCon last week, I had an interesting conversation with Rage creative director Tim Willets about the PC and console audiences. He said, with a laugh, that while he sees the two bases as large the same these days, "the people that play WOW are the only ones who don't play games on consoles." They really are their own market, and as lots of would-be MMO competitors have learned, they've been fiercely loyal over the past half-decade.
I can't help but be reminded of a similarly hardcore audience that, in the beginning, only had a couple of obscure media outlets supporting it. Suddenly, that audience's main benefactor debuted its own official magazine, a high-quality effort with tons of exclusive content, and it sold in the millions, spawning all kinds of imitators. What am I hinting at? You guessed it, maybe: I'm talking here about NES owners in 1988, and I'm talking about Nintendo Power.
Too much hype? Yeah, maybe. Future isn't sending millions of free copies of WOW: The Magazine's first issue out to Blizzard's mailing list the way Nintendo did, after all. But there's something similarly ingenious to Future's plan here -- something that could redefine print video-game media's, er, future if it works out for them. Now it just comes down to whether the audience really is there. I think it is -- and even if it isn't there in the millions, the mag can survive on far fewer readers than the GIs and OXMs of the world.