Lectures
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WoW: The Magazine about more than the Future of Print

Last week’s announcement of World of Warcraft: The Magazine appears to have garnered interest and skepticism in equal regard. Not surprisingly, much of it centers around the ongoing “print vs online” / “print is dead” type debates but most commentators seem to miss a significant point.  That one of the largest magazine publishers in the world is actively pursuing this experiment is surely in itself a tacit admission that traditional gaming magazines do not have a rosy future. Arguing the toss over what this means for them could be said to be a bit redundant. The bigger picture here is a quest to find a way to pay good writers to write about games, in a world where the ability and even need to do so is diminishing. WoW: Magazine’s experiment along these lines has its arguments for success as well as failure.

For me, the decline of print media has been a question of “when, not if” ever since I read Clay Shirky’s excellent Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable. I can only encourage you to take the time to read and digest it yourselves as I couldn’t possibly hope to do it justice here. In short though, Shirky’s thrust is that upon accepting that print as an industry is visibly going to go away, the imperative is to preserve journalism, not the paper it’s written on.

It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem.

Clay Shirky – Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable

Whilst the focus is clearly on newspapers, the parallels for games journalism and traditional magazine publishing are obvious. Within that debate, many are keen to emphasis the “strengths of print” (termed by former OXM US editor Dan Amrich as “presentation, insight, access, tone“) but really these are irrelevant to the problem at hand. The quote above encapsulates a fundamental truth that will still apply even when the gaming magazine, as we know it, is executed to it’s maximum potential. It can be said that the publishers already realise this as they increasingly choose not to leverage these “strengths” or pursue this ideal in their products. For them it’s no longer about the quality, it’s about cutting costs in an attempt to garner a stay of execution. There are no signs either that the few who attempt to buck this trend are reaping any rewards. That Future declined the opportunity to reveal EDGE’s recent circulation numbers, apparently also because of cost cutting, is damning.

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.

As a growing and maturing industry, games need and deserve greater quality writing and more of it. Regardless of what you think about print, right now the prospects of it expanding to meet this need are unlikely. So where does it come from? The GameSpots, Kotakus and IGNs of this world, secure in the knowledge they are part of the future will naturally profess to have the answers. Certainly, the strengths of print are perfectly transferable to their online world. It is not the physical medium that gives words greater weight after all. However, despite the fact that some of these online properties are past or nearing their tenth birthday’s, they often choose not to live by these ideals either.

What struck me the most about Phaethon’s Rest in Print – Gaming Journalism op’ ed was how many of the same criticisms can be laid at the feet of some of the magazine’s online equivalents. Haughty, selfish, fearful, riddled with advertising? Print has exclusivity on none of these. The fundamental conflict of interest between the ad funded online games mega sites and game publishers was ruthlessly exposed by the GameSpot / Gerstmann fiasco and subsequently well articulated upon by N’Gai Croal. New media kids like Kotaku and Joystiq are more independent but they have their flaws, perhaps different ones, too. The relentless drive to be “first” and consume traffic often comes at the expense of depth, due diligence, substantive investigation or indeed, a pause for thought. The latter doesn’t prevent them from being tardy ether. If  these news aggregators consider letting the news come to them and regurgitating PR into news snippets as a primary function then they are already way behind Twitter.

If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” The answer is: Nothing will work, but everything might.

Online media has it’s place of course. In pointing out some of the flaws I don’t mean to detract from that or fail to acknowledge the many occasions where online really works to our benefit. That a journalist of the caliber of Stephen Totilo works for Kotaku is brilliant and it would be folly to tar his work with too broad a brush. If you want to read a sharp, to the point, catch-all news service you need look no further than Pat Garratt’s VG247. What is clear though, is that collectively online is not always offering the superior product or fully replacing what we are losing with print media, at least not yet. Until they do, every experiment is of interest, potentially viable and should be given a shot.

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On the face of things, the team behind World of Warcraft: The Magazine make a good case for its success, mostly because it’s sufficiently different from the traditional business model that came before it. There are no advertisements, the print-on-demand format reduces printing costs to a minimum. It’s editor-in-chief (the aforementioned Dan Amrich) may be an impassioned defender of print but he’s a smart guy who equally understands it’s strengths and weaknesses. No doubt, his experience at OXM, another official license, will stand him in good stead and allow them to leverage the exclusive access and content they will get to the fullest extent. Pleasingly, there seems to be a drive for quality and as an idea it isn’t even without precedent. CCP, of EVE Online fame produce a similar quarterly offering.

The skeptics misgivings are not without foundation either mind. Many point to the high up-front price ($40 / €35 / £30 per annum for 4 issues) and lack of a news-stand presence as significant barriers to a substantial take up of the product. Whilst World of Warcraft might have a headline subscriber base of over 11m, over 50% of them are in Asia and for the time being, WoW: Magazine will only be produced in English, French, German and Spanish. Successful or not, it’s difficult to see it ever reaching the Far East so there is a much smaller potential target audience than it might initially appear.

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General opinion then on whether this is going to work would appear to be divided. Having only briefly flirted with World of Warcraft, I don’t know enough about this most online of communities to gauge it’s potential interest either way but one can be assured that it’s appeal to said community is exactly what it will live and die on. EVE Online is therefore an interesting comparison. Any game which can produce stories like this and essentially support an entire espionage industry outside of itself is ripe for the production of a large amount of quality in-depth material covering it. The difference with EVE however, is that their EON’s magazine is largely produced by it’s community and not published by a company who’s primary interest is selling magazines. This distinction may be key. EVE’s offering didn’t have to compete with and win over an incumbent community nor support a separate business paying it’s employees to produce the content. EON has a much lower number of potential subscribers (around 300,000 play EVE online) but arguably less constraints too.

Perhaps our opinion can be informed a little more if we consider whether this model is applicable to other games. It’s less helpful to everybody else if it turns out that WoW:Magazine is simply a special case. Future were quick to point out their focus was on making this experiment work first and subsequently almost as quick to reveal they are “open” to other opportunities should they exist, the very next day. Undeniably, it’s on their agenda so for arguments sake, lets suppose they have a short-list of viable IP’s to try this with. What would be the odds that Halo might be on it?

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With 10m or so copies of Halo 3 sold and still attracting over 1m unique players a day. A rich and deep universe, (maybe a much smaller scale than WoW but with no less a fanatical following). On the surface at least, is seems to fit. Would a Halo: Magazine venture succeed?

Knowing a bit more about Halo, than either of the two MMO’s,  I’m going to suggest that it would not. Like EVE, the definitive resource for the Halo community is…the Halo community itself. Bungie have supported and nurtured what they term as their “Seventh column” long before job titles like “Community manager” were common place in the gaming industry. Bungie.net is the bristling hub of it all that would never likely be undermined and the depth of content on fan sites such as Halo.Bungie.Org, Rampancy.Net and Ascendant Justice would be just as intimidating to anybody coming into this space, online or off. Even Microsoft’s forthcoming official Halo “destination”, Halo Waypoint will have work to do to establish itself in this environment.

It’s not just magazines that will face such problems either. By way of example, take the recent internet bluster about Gearbox supposedly making Halo 4. Halo fans at HBO or NeoGAF barely batted an eyelid, they had seen it before and worked it out already. Somewhat agitated by the games media continuing to recycle old information we even threw up a post ourselves, attempting to bring some reasonable analysis of the evidence to the party. A short while later, the speculation was officially debunked via Twitter. Community moves on, we updated our post accordingly and that you would think would be that but the games media carried on oblivious for a good few hours. When they did eventually catch up, some of them still couldn’t get their facts right even when it was corrected in their comments! (Bonus point if you can spot it).

This is a relatively small beans example but clearly demonstrates a community trumping the “professional” media. None of this is complicated, the conjecture we posted does not make us geniuses or “journalists” but hey, there was at least bit of research and thought put into it. More importantly though, paying attention to an official source you would think should just be basic stuff. Surely it’s the job of the Kotakus and Joystiqs to be absolutely all over it, why aren’t they?

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Stories like this for me, give a glimpse of where the future really lies. In a series of articles on MCV, Colin Campbell articulates it into words much better than I can. That his motivation is clearly his new business and the marketing opportunities it may create should not be ignored but it does not invalidate what he is saying when calling for more games websites;-

But I am not so sure we really need to pay hundreds of people to tell us if such-and-such a game is worth playing, or how development is going on project X or the ten best games featuring gardening implements. People can, and do offer up this service for free, and often, with every bit as much ability as the professionals.

The number of journalists being paid by large media organizations to write about games is going to drop significantly in the next few years, while the number of people writing about games – for free or under new revenue models – is going to explode.

More so than a magazine or a link blog that chases traffic, you and the network are the future and this applies to everyone; consumers, developers, publishers and the Major Nelson’s of this world equally. It’s about “people and voices” and the value comes from the conversations that arise. That some of the voices in the conversation are marketers or just plain noise is acknowledged and understood. The more voices that there are, the better we can filter it, the healthier things will be.

The communities of Halo and EVE are finding less of a need for the traditional games media, online or off with every passing day. How much of what continued interest there is can be pinned down to content still being kept embargoed under an ‘exclusive’ lock and key? What would happen if all that went away? A real example of this exists right now, the iPhone;-

My favourite games machine right now is my iPhone. The three games I’ve played the most this year have been Rolando, FlightControl and Drop7.

I found out about all three via iTunes or from social media; blogs, Twitter, Facebook. Not one of the recommendations came from some third-party dude being paid to communicate with me; some fellow I had paid, via a magazine subscription, for their pearls of advice.

iPhone games, like all games of the near-future, are distributed digitally. There is no iPhone games magazine nor, so far as I know, any commercial websites making vast profits from iPhone game advertising.

Of course, Campbell isn’t suggesting that we don’t need a games media or games journalists at all, just that in the future, we’ll need less of them and should think what we actually need them to write about and how we’re going to enable that. Unless the publishers of WoW: Magazine are purely concerned with making it a physical thing, whether it’s on print or not is a side issue. Perhaps what they really need to be asking themselves is what role will it play that could not be fulfilled by the community itself? Where are they adding something that could not be produced as a result of a conversation between Blizzard and it’s users?

Questions left that do not yet have definitive answers, Shirky offers the best we have right now “We don’t know, nobody knows.” Maybe that’s what experiments like World of Warcraft: The Magazine are destined to find out.

5 comments
Nicholas Lovell
Nicholas Lovell

You make some interesting points. There is definitely value in material being "canonic" rather than "community created", since communities go off in so many different directions. And I certainly find it easier to imagine someone paying for a high-quality WoW magazine than I can, in the long run, imagining someone paying for a review magazine.In the end, it will be about "shared experiences". So perhaps when we discover that the WoW magazine carries fiction, teasers of new content or new ways to play, that will reinvigorate the "water-cooler moments" that the games industry so badly needs.

The Dark Power
The Dark Power

Cool article. I wonder if you're aware of White Dwarf? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Dwarf_%28mag...There are quite a few parallels with the WoW mag. It's a mag produced about the Warhammer table top game series created by Games Workshop. It's aimed purely at Games Workshop customers and features only Games Workshop products and Games Workshop events. It generally covers activities associated with the hobby too (painting miniatures, model making etc) using only Games Workshop products of course ;0)It's been going for almost 30 years and I would imagine it's the ready made audience that keep it in business, perhaps also with a subsidy from the sales of the companies other products.The WoW community seem pretty fanatical - I remember a DVD was released a while back featuring a WoW convention and even a WoW band! So you never know this may well take off.On the issue of online only - I dunno I think there is a tendency to value print journalism more so than online only articles. The physical product does somehow give it a degree of gravitas beyond what the online space can deliver. I'm sure that will change over time....

deftangel
deftangel

Those of us who have grown up with magazines probably appreciate their worth a lot more. The generations after us, perhaps not so much. My 14yr old cousin doesn't buy mags and wasn't interested in them when I asked. He watches Inside Xbox & Sent U A Message on his Xbox dashboard instead and he'll engage with @SuperKaylo & @MrPointyHead on Twitter instead.So whilst a printed version of content we can get online might have some intangible worth to us, it's not necessarily going to be true for others. If the *only* selling point of WoW: Magazine is that it's physical, then I think that's a lot more risky. Not that I'm saying that is the case. I'm interested to hear what WoW fans themselves make of it.

deftangel
deftangel

Ok, I changed the title from "Video Games need journalists" so people have a better sense of what this is about. Also made some brief tidy up changes to one or two sentences. It was late when I finished this last night :)

Phaethon
Phaethon

Just for the record, I've never disagreed that online sites don't have similar problems to my issues with print. My point is that I can more easily forgive them because they're free and readily available. But I think that might be the argument's one crux. Given how much time we spend on the internet, sometimes its just nice to sit back, open a magazine with lot of content in one readily available package and unwind. I might not get as much out of it, but sometimes I just don't care. My current favorite printed magazine right now is Wired. I love that publication to death. Variety of complex topics, really profound articles, and it's really filled with useful information. And then I pull out the note card and see $10 subscription and I say to myself "Wow, how can they do this?" It might have a lot to do with their context and field, but some magazines are just worth more. Video game magazines are just worth less to me.