Disclaimer: If I sound harsh or cynical in this blog, I apologize -- I certainly don't mean any disrespect towards my fellow colleagues. I am reporting based on my own observations and experiences of how the business works.
If you haven't heard by now: everybody's favorite enthusiast games publication 1UP is closing its doors (along with UGO and GameSpy). Before 1UP and co., it was Nintendo Power; before that it was GamePro. And with each closure, dozens of talented and industrious colleagues of mine are scattered to the wind -- most likely to compete for an ever-shrinking pool of freelance money, part-time contract gigs, and incredibly rare full-time editorial jobs. What's going on here? How could so many major sites and magazines be hitting hard times?
For starters, let's look at the way the journalism biz works. Compared to, say, selling cereal/hamburgers/cars/video games, journalism works on a different model--a strange kind of model ostensibly designed to produce something approximating a "public good" but produced through private enterprise.
Within a normal sales transaction, I make a product and sell it to you for money, and we both end up happy. Selling journalism, however, typically doesn't work this way. I don't know how much we'd have to price access to Gamasutra or GDMag in order to cover operating expenses (including salaries etc.), but it'd be well outside the rates you'd be willing to pay (I imagine it'd be something like $100/month, though that's some serious napkin math right there).
So, instead, we rely on advertisers to subsidize our costs so we can offer the publication for cheap or free. Essentially, we have two masters; the readers, who demand quality (and can take their eyeballs elsewhere if they're not getting it), and the advertisers, who demand reader eyeballs (so they can increase awareness of their product so that you will buy it). These are two separate but parallel transactions: The editors tell the readers, "Hey, you should come here and read all the awesome news reporting/in-depth features we have, for free" and the ad salespeople tell the advertisers, "Hey, you can get a picture of your product right next to an article that someone is reading!" For one transaction, the product is the publication; for the other transaction, the product is your eyeballs.
Ideally, sales and edit can coexist in peace, and their jobs should overlap ever-so-slightly. In practice, the two groups probably end up in a state of healthy tension: Salespeople would probably sell an entire book of ads with a table of contents if they could, and editorial staff would insist that their website could totally be a video game-focused competitor to The Atlantic, if only you'd stop tainting our precious words with money derived from soul-sucking capitalism.
How much is the reader worth?
One side of the building is selling something to you (the content); the other side is selling you to someone (the advertisers). How much are you worth? Well, that depends on who you are (your demographic information) and how many of you there are (the overall readership size).
For a general consumer-based publication (like 1UP), your readers aren't extraordinarily valuable; assuming your advertisers are game publishers, they're trying to sell games to people like you. Games can get pretty expensive ($50 is a lot, yo), but ultimately, the per-sale margins aren't so amazing, so in order for a publication to make money and sustain a decently-sized editorial staff, it needs to aim very general. For any given ad, the per-view rate (or, most likely, the ad cost per thousand views, or CPM) will be very low, so in order to meet expenses, the publication needs to attract a wide readership, which puts pressure on the editorial staff to turn out fairly general-interest, wide-reaching (read: trite, pandering, and dull) content.
At its worst, this can turn into lots of fluffy articles, tactics meant to game search engines/social media, clickbait-y headlines, and slide shows for everything. A writer/editor capable of pulling all these stops can be your best friend when you're running short on traffic goals or trying to justify your existing funding. However, I've found that while readers typically do respond to all these tricks (think about how often you click on dumb Top X lists), they hate you for it, so I consider it a short-term editorial strategy that borrows against the goodwill and reputation your publication has built up. And remember, that goodwill and reputation is what enables you to sell eyeballs in the first place, so it's not a good idea to borrow too heavily against it lest your eyeballs disappear.
A brief aside: Quality vs. mass appeal
Before I continue: It's about this time in the conversation that I hear this: "Quality and mass appeal don't have to conflict! If you just constantly made good things, then you'd get so many eyeballs you'd be fending off advertisers with a stick!" This is not true--or at least, it's not consistently true. The job of the editor and writer is to build stories that we believe our readers are interested in and will benefit from reading, but the work in making a "good" story -- the amount of hours invested in making a story comprehensive, attractive, well-written, and generally excellent -- does not always lead to increased eyeballs or reader engagement.
For example: At a previous job, I wrote a short article that talked in rather general terms about how much I liked mechanical keyboards. It blew up to the tune of 100,000+ hits for a few months or so, which consistently put it in the top 10 single articles for those months. Shortly afterwards, I wrote a followup with rather comprehensive testing for 10 different models, including an in-depth analysis of different switch types, dBm levels for different models (these keyboards are loud), etc.--all stuff which I would have wanted to know before buying said keyboards, mind you--and those articles got barely 1/10th the traffic in a single month.
So, no: Determining how much effort you ought to put into a given story before it's simply not worthwhile from an eyeball perspective is an inexact process. (I imagine it is similar to making games in that respect.)
Making money, making magazines (or websites)
As it turns out, the readers of consumer video games publications are not worth a whole heck of a lot. This is true for (at least) two reasons.
First off, as mentioned earlier: Selling video game players' eyeballs just doesn't make a great per-sale profit margin, at least compared to, say, consumer tech readers (who buy smartphones with really great profit margins, especially with those juicy service contracts). Since selling games is a volume business, for the most part, it follows that selling advertisements for games is also a volume business.
Second, the job of the consumer games journalism outlet isn't really that different from the advertisers'. Let's think about exactly what you expect a consumer games journalism outlet to provide: The basic value proposition that a consumer pub offers the reader is "Read me, and you'll never waste your money or time on a game you don't like ever again." It's sort of like advertising, but only if you advertise games that you think don't suck. Essentially, advertisers say, "Hey you, buy our game," and consumer writers say, "Hey you, buy this game over here." When the writer and the advertiser agree, there's no reason for the advertiser to actually pay for anything, because the writer will do it without costing the advertiser a dime.
I've never worked on the PR side of a game publisher before, but I imagine I'd think something like this: A full-page ad in a magazine costs me $10,000. A four-page "sneak preview" costs me nothing by comparison, gets me an extra three pages, and is probably more effective than the ad since the readers know that the writer isn't being paid to tell you that the game is good.
But what if my game sucks? Well, that's okay. I can just make sure that the preview build is not offensively bad, for starters. I can choose to only invite press outlets with whom I have a good rapport (and possibly an existing advertising relationship), and I can make sure that embargoed review copies show up earlier for outlets that seem receptive to the game.
Really, though, I would feel confident that anyone who spends their time writing a story about a preview is probably going to either skew positive (because, for whatever reason, they liked what they saw/played) or just "report the facts" in the interest of not appearing heavily critical of an as-yet-unfinished build (which is perceived as unfair to developers). Few outlets are willing to spend two workdays traveling to cover a preview of a game and come back empty-handed, so the poor writer will churn something out and make an effort to sound enthusiastic, and voila, I have me some free advertising.
From what I can tell, if you're a major publisher, the worst consumer outlets will do is ignore you and your game unless everything about your game is just objectively bad (think Aliens: Colonial Marines-esque catastrophe, though I might be being unfair here as I haven't played it). If you're the only outlet that dislikes a game, you're criticized for seeking controversy to drive traffic.
Whither consumer games journalism?
To recap: As far as I can tell, mass-market game publications of the GamePro and 1UP generation are dying because A) they need lots of eyeballs, which creates incentives for editorial to produce high-volume, lower-quality content and B) when they do their jobs well (highlight noteworthy games for readers to buy), advertisers don't have to advertise at all, which actually deprives the publication of the money it needs to continue.
In this model, the smart young writers/editors either burn out because they are doing too much high-volume boring stuff and don't get to do the work they actually want to do, or stick around and become really, really good at churning out the high-volume boring stuff because they like the job for its own sake (free games, I guess--goodness knows the money isn't great).
Of course, as the readership for consumer games content grows older (think the NES generation, now), they're less likely to read the high-volume low-quality stuff, and they're less likely to be loyal to your high-volume low-quality stuff, especially when there are publications out there with even slimmer margins than yours ("Hey kid, wanna write about video games?"), and loads of hobbyists out there capable of producing content as good or better for their blogs/YouTube channels just for the heck of it (remember when that was you?).
(Again, my intention is not to disrespect the quality of the people who worked at 1UP/GamePro etc.; in my experience with consumer journalism, I found that the assignments a writer wanted to write (or read themselves) were rarely the assignments they actually got. I'm not saying "You did bad work", I'm saying "In my experience, the work I was told to do was not as good as I would have liked it to be.")
So what's a games journalist to do?
Given an ever-shrinking pool of consumer games publications, what's a newly-unemployed writer/editor to do?
One option would be to leave the consumer side of things entirely (which is how pretty much everyone in the GDMag/Gamasutra family found ourselves here) . Business-to-business pubs demand higher-quality content because we have more specific audiences. You, dear reader, are more valuable than the average consumer site reader because you're probably in charge of buying software licenses for your dev studio, or making hiring/contracting decisions, or something -- transactions with far more at stake than the margins of a $50 game. That's the way the B2B model works; a publication with fewer-but-more-valuable readers can make money (which makes salespeople happy) without sacrificing editorial quality (which makes editors happy). Of course, this means leaving behind writing about games in favor of writing about the industry. I personally find it far more satisfying, but I reckon it's not for everyone. Also, there are very few B2B games pubs out there, so it's not like there are a whole heck of a lot of jobs over here, either.
Others have found success building publications around their "personal brand." Giant Bomb and the Penny Arcade Report are two very lean publications that rely on a small but highly talented team with devoted followings; I'd also add perma-freelancers like Leigh Alexander, and nontraditional media folks like TotalBiscuit (who doesn't call what he does "journalism" but nonetheless manages to inform people about games) to this list because she basically has her own built-in, portable audience that will follow her wherever she goes. You've also got a few tech pubs with pet games writers, like Kyle Orland at Ars Technica and Chris Kohler at Wired.com. Not sure about their specific situations, but when I've seen this arrangement in the past, it typically boils down to "[Tech pub] knows we're supposed to cover games because our readers bitch if we don't, but we know that advertising rates are ass for games so we're just going to pay you, and only you, to cover games so the rest of us don't have to worry about it."
If you're both good at your job and good at communicating to others that you are good at your job, you might be able to pull this off. I think this is rare, though, and very hard to do. Perhaps this might be different at other outlets, but in my experience, it's hard to do work at a mainstream consumer press outlet that builds your own voice and brand, because you won't often land assignments that encourage the reader to form a connection with you. That said, there are more outlets than ever to start doing this kind of thing; start your own series on YouTube or stream on Twitch.TV, and you can put yourself out there in front of everyone right now, though it's a crap shoot as to whether you'll ever be able to subsist off of your earnings there. If you can pay bills with other gigs, though, this might not be a bad way to invest in your career for the long-term.
The rise of hyperspecialization?
One thing that each of these dying publications had in common was a rather general take on video games. They were all tasked with covering the entire breadth of the medium (well, except Nintendo Power, I suppose). But as the industry continues to expand, I wouldn't be surprised if taking a highly-specialized tack proves to be a way for a certain group of games writers to survive and thrive in the new media landscape.
I'm paraphrasing here: A while back, Penny Arcade Report's Ben Kuchera tweeted something about how hard it was to write about eSports. It's not actually that hard! (Sorry, bud.) But in order to write about it, you need to understand readership's needs. You need to understand what it's like to play a game with a seriously competitive mindset, how to dissect a game to determine optimal strategies, how to understand the game at a deep enough level to write about it competently. Then you need to refine the craft of the sportswriter; a near-obsessive attention to each player and game's detail and nuance, the ability to put words to situations that don't already have them, like describing a particularly crucial moment in a Street Fighter match or the emotional tone of a drawn-out Starcraft 2 battle.
It's not the kind of thing you can just jump right into any more than we could throw a games journalist into boxing or football reporting. But the audience for eSports/competitive games content is growing by leaps and bounds--you just have to look for them at their homes (Team Liquid, for example) instead of generalist publications.
A note on Polygon
I feel compelled to mention Polygon here, as it's the Big New Thing in games media, but I'm not quite sure exactly what lesson we ought to take away from it quite yet. Yes, its design is attractive (if somewhat garish; I hate the pullquotes). It's got a solid staff pulled from many excellent publications. It also has, from all accounts, lots of money invested in making it the best damn consumer game site out there. I have no idea what the editorial vision is behind the site, or how their ad sales/editorial relationship works; from my perspective, it looks kind of like SBNation rounded up a whole bunch of good games writers/editors and said, "Hey guys, we have a whole bunch of money--now make the site you always wanted to make."
This sounds great. It also sounds a bit dangerous (remember what I said earlier about an unchecked editorial department that thinks they can be The Atlantic of video games?). Maybe they can be The VideogAtlantic! I suspect, though, that much of Polygon is the best possible version of Business As Usual money can buy, with a bunch of 6500-word features that serve as tentpoles the sales team can point to and say "Look--we're doing real journalism here, so buy ads." (Which doesn't say anything about the quality of the features themselves, mind you; from what I've read, some are good reads and some are less good reads, though I think they're all a bit too long, myself.) That is to say, the buzz about how everything they do is new and different doesn't yet seem to translate to what I've actually read there thus far.
Though maybe that's just me. Polygon (and sister site The Verge) appear to be getting All The Hot Exclusives, so the buzz is working there, but only time will tell whether that will translate to better ad buy rates or obscenely high page views -- in other words, whether it will solve The 1UP/GamePro etc. problem.
Last year at GDC, I joked to Russ Pitts (Polygon Features Editor) that he better not fuck it up, because I might be gunning for his job some day. I kid, of course (I like my job just fine, thank you), but the point is that the promise of all the hype behind Polygon is that you can run a major consumer games publication without having to feel like you're writing for a 7th grade audience or run yet another Best Booth Babes Ever slide show. It's nice to feel that our experience and education is valuable, and there is a market for writers and editors beyond hastily-written reviews and pageview-grubbing, and that writing about games is a career and not something you age out of at 28 for a PR gig. I hope they succeed, if only so smart, motivated, skilled people can do work worthy of them in this business.
Journalism: The Videogame
So where does this leave us? In a brave new world, I suppose. I think that the changes we've seen in the games publishing business are actually a sign of games maturing as a medium; we no longer live in the world where "people who like video games" is seen as a meaningful demographic any more than "people who are okay with the prospect of watching a movie every now and then" is. I like the idea of "people who write about games for a living" including industry analysts and dev-oriented specialist and critics and academics and sportswriters and activists and so on. But the ride from now until then promises to be a rough one paved with layoffs and lost careers, and it's in our best interests to future-proof our skillsets as best we can.