The Death of Games Journalism Part 2: Business 101

Scrumpmonkey is here with part two of his multi-part series on The Death of Games Journalism. Today, Business 101

header business

Part Two of a multi‐part se­ries, read The Death of Games Journalism: Part 1‐  Journalism 101 here or vis­it the parts in­dex. 

In re­cent years games me­dia has gone into a de­cline. Some sec­tions seem to be in a tail­spin, with in­dus­try lay­offs hap­pen­ing en masse. It’s been writ­ten off as “the in­evitable de­cline of writ­ten jour­nal­ism,” but out­lets with a more niche ap­proach have been pos­i­tive­ly ef­fect­ed de­spite the storm. I want­ed to do a more busi­ness ori­en­tat­ed ex­am­i­na­tion of games jour­nal­ism, as it is use­ful to know how we got to where we are as we chart where to go in our fu­ture. The cir­cum­stances we find our­selves in didn’t creep up overnight.

Alexander Macris (or Archon as some have come to know him), Senior VP of Emerging Brands at Defy Media and co‐founder of The Escapist, gave a break­down on Twitter of the chal­lenges fac­ing gam­ing pub­li­ca­tions and some of the eco­nom­ic re­al­i­ties of pro­duc­ing con­tent about games.

We have a Senior Vice President of a me­dia com­pa­ny lay­ing it out bare. This one of the most en­light­en­ing and re­veal­ing ex­changes I’ve seen on the sub­ject, so I’m go­ing to go through it step by step and ex­pand on the most rel­e­vant parts.

side11Right out of the gate we hit on an im­por­tant point: no mat­ter how much their po­lit­i­cal sen­si­bil­i­ties would like to deny it, each site is sub­ject to the whims of the free mar­ket. A mar­ket needs a clear need for some­thing to have growth in any sec­tor. Someone makes an in­ter­est­ing point lat­er in the thread which is “Well have they even tried?” The an­swer, I think, is yes and no. Yes, some pub­li­ca­tions have tried to up­hold a very high lev­el of stan­dards and have dis­ap­peared. Also, no, I don’t think the cur­rent crop of sites sin­gled out as bad ac­tors by re­cent events have ex­per­i­ment­ed at all with the de­mand for jour­nal­ism that lines up with the SPJ Code of Ethics. It’s a risk they seem to not be will­ing to take.

Quality con­tent re­quires time and re­sources. This seems ob­vi­ous, but as the mar­ket shrinks and con­tent qual­i­ty is dri­ven down, it’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber qual­i­ty does not come from the ether. A busi­ness will not in­vest more into a mar­ket than they think they will get in re­turn. If we want to see more qual­i­ty con­tent, then some­one has to put their hand in their pock­ets and pay for it or a site has to be will­ing to take a big gam­ble and hope that go­ing above and be­yond will be re­ward­ed.

side22Now we get into the num­bers game, the sim­ple arith­metic any site needs to do to sur­vive: price per click vs. price per ar­ti­cle vs. num­ber of clicks vs. num­ber of ar­ti­cles you can put out over time. It’s the same sum as in any form of pro­duc­tion. I some­times com­pare pure­ly prof­it or­di­nat­ed prin­ci­ples in cre­ative are­nas as “box fac­to­ry log­ic,” part­ly due to the pub­lish­er Activision bring­ing in a host of pack­aged goods peo­ple to help cre­ate video games. Games me­dia is one are­na you do have to look at like a box fac­to­ry at times, though. Money in should yield more than mon­ey com­ing out, you can’t avoid that truth in any busi­ness. The ex­am­ple Alexander lays out is pret­ty close to re­al­i­ty. The prob­lem that much of the gam­ing press (and the games in­dus­try) has is this: they would run a lousy box fac­to­ry.

I did a fol­low up e‐mail with Macris where he stressed that the ex­am­ple of $2.50 per a thou­sand views was sim­ply that, an off the cuff ex­am­ple:

Just note that the com­ments were off‐the‐cuff and not pre­cise­ly cal­cu­lat­ed val­ues. E.g. I’m not stat­ing that $12.50 per hour or $2.50 CPM are the pre­cise av­er­ages of the in­dus­try as a whole or of any par­tic­u­lar sites. Those were mere­ly ap­prox­i­ma­tions rel­a­tive to each oth­er. The ex­act val­ues fluc­tu­ate wide­ly site by site and even month by month (more ads dur­ing Christmas sea­son, etc.), but the gen­er­al point is that wages and CPMs are tight­ly cor­re­lat­ed in chal­leng­ing ways.”

Clickbait tries to tip the scales; it tries to get the ab­solute min­i­mum ex­pen­di­ture to pro­duce the ab­solute max­i­mum num­ber of clicks per page. That’s why we see click­bait of­ten spread across 10 – 12 pages; it yields more raw page views and you can serve more ads that way. Given that time is a pre­mi­um, there is go­ing to be a nar­row mar­gin be­tween prof­it and loss for an or­ga­ni­za­tion. So there are large in­cen­tives to tempt a site to re­claim cash wher­ev­er pos­si­ble and those meth­ods won’t al­ways be eth­i­cal or pro‐consumer.

side33I do it for free. I’m a hob­by­ist writer and in a sense I sup­pose I am part of the prob­lem for writ­ten con­tent. A se­ries like this would be dif­fi­cult to do on a com­mer­cial ba­sis. It is long, it needs a lot of edit­ing and it isn’t about a spe­cif­ic hot but­ton cur­rent event. Just to give you a glimpse be­hind the scenes here at SuperNerdLand, the ar­ti­cles we get the most traf­fic for are those that cov­er events still ac­tive in the “News Cycle,” as it were [Publisher Note: Truth. Editorials on cur­rent events re­ceive far more traf­fic than oth­er con­tent by a large mar­gin]. That’s why you see many sites make re­al­ly dumb click­bait out of sto­ries that are cur­rent­ly pop­u­lar. It’s done quick and dirty and isn’t meant to hold up in a month, or even a week.

Going back to my (very brief) ex­change, Alexander Macris ex­pands upon this when I asked him if the eco­nom­ic re­al­i­ties had shift­ed since he made these com­ments:

The eco­nom­ic re­al­i­ty con­tin­ues to be a case of too much sup­ply rel­a­tive to de­mand. There is far more con­tent be­ing cre­at­ed to­day than any au­di­ence is ca­pa­ble of con­sum­ing. In a typ­i­cal in­dus­try, this would not oc­cur, be­cause the sup­pli­ers would be un­able to make a prof­it and would leave the in­dus­try. But sup­ply­ing con­tent is no longer, strict­ly speak­ing, be­ing done for prof­it. Many peo­ple cre­ate con­tent with­out ex­pect­ing to make mon­ey from it. They may do so to con­tribute to a gift econ­o­my, or to pro­mote them­selves, or to share with friends, or as a means of self‐expression, or out of bore­dom, nar­cis­sism, or oth­er mo­tives. But their ac­tions, re­gard­less of mo­tive, im­pacts those who are cre­at­ing con­tent for prof­it by in­creas­ing the sup­ply of con­tent. If a con­sumer is us­ing his time to read a great blog writ­ten for free by a col­lege pro­fes­sor, then the con­sumer is not us­ing that time to read the con­tent writ­ten by the ed­i­tors of the NY Times. From the point of view of the NY Times as a busi­ness, the col­lege pro­fes­sor is a now its com­peti­tor.

Now, in any in­dus­try, un­der high­ly com­pet­i­tive con­di­tions, prices for its goods will tend to fall to­wards their mar­gin­al cost. The mar­gin­al cost of web con­tent is vir­tu­al­ly zero – the cost of serv­ing a piece of con­tent to 100K peo­ple and 10M peo­ple is triv­ial (rel­a­tive­ly speak­ing). And so we see con­stant down­ward pres­sure on the ‘price’ of con­tent, whether that price be ex­pressed as a sub­scrip­tion fee (or lack there­of) or as a price to ad­ver­tise around the con­tent.”

Alexander is some­one I would love to have a full con­ver­sa­tion with, I’ve reached out with more ques­tions as I hope to con­tin­ue writ­ing about the eco­nom­ic and prac­ti­cal sides of games jour­nal­ism since there seems to be an al­most rav­en­ous hunger to know more about how the games writ­ing sausage gets made. But I am grate­ful to him for giv­ing us this pret­ty rare and can­did win­dow into an area many jour­nal­ists and ed­i­tors seem un­com­fort­able talk­ing about.

side44One of the big trends to emerge in the at­tempts to stem the bleed­ing of ad rev­enue has been the rise of the “ad­ver­to­r­i­al.” I won’t lie, I de­spise the prac­tice. But from a busi­ness point of view, it makes a cer­tain amount of sense. If the con­tent is the ad­ver­tis­ing, then you can’t re­al­ly ad­block it. This is also true for oth­er forms of na­tive ad­ver­tis­ing, but I think “ad­ver­to­r­i­al” con­tent is a med­i­cine worse than the dis­ease. It erodes the al­ready shaky trust in con­tent providers and when done in­com­pe­tent­ly you end up with what The Atlantic did in 2012. They ran a com­plete ad­ver­to­r­i­al pack­age from the in­fa­mous “Church or Scientology” and had it sit­ting side by side with the oth­er con­tent on their site. Someone at The Atlantic thought it was more im­por­tant to make mon­ey by any means nec­es­sary, to the point of tak­ing mon­ey from an or­ga­ni­za­tion de­scribed as a “dan­ger­ous cult” that stands ac­cused of crimes rang­ing from black­mail to forced abor­tions. Yet The Atlantic still thinks it has the cred­i­bil­i­ty to cov­er cur­rent events, in­clud­ing videogames. with some pret­ty shod­dy cov­er­age of com­plex con­tro­ver­sies like GamerGate. All of this, de­spite show­ing a com­plete lack of judge­ment and ethics that most read­ers would find un­palat­able. This is an ex­treme ex­am­ple, but the pres­sures Macris is de­scrib­ing makes out­lets feel they have to adopt these kinds of po­lices just to stay afloat.

side 55Let’s talk about USPs (or unique sell­ing points). What makes a site dif­fer­ent from the thou­sand gam­ing oth­er sites out there? What makes your con­tent stand out?  For many gam­ing pub­li­ca­tions the an­swer they have come up with is to trade on out­rage and oth­er emo­tion­al re­spons­es. This is a very short‐sighted view, though. Any hack can woo the fick­le flocks on so­cial me­dia with an out­landish head­line and a mis­lead­ing pic­ture. This is the essence of click­bait and peo­ple gen­er­al­ly don’t care where click­bait comes from. The au­di­ence has no loy­al­ty to its cre­ator and no rea­son to come back when the site goes even deep­er to the bot­tom of the bar­rel. My views dif­fer from Macris some­what, in that I think in the last eight months gamers have made it clear what they want to see and have act­ed on those words pret­ty de­ci­sive­ly. If you can carve out a ded­i­cat­ed niche in a mar­ket and re­al­ly nail down what your read­ers want then I think it’s much eas­i­er to weath­er the storms rag­ing through al­most all forms of com­mer­cial jour­nal­ism now.

Hilariously, the site Polygon was sup­posed to have been found­ed on prin­ci­ples of strong ethics, dis­clos­ing fi­nan­cial ties and not ac­cept­ing cer­tain types of pro­mo­tion. That was sup­posed to be part of their ap­peal, every­thing on the site was to be above‐board. If that was the sell­ing point they were go­ing for and the mar­ket they want­ed to reach, then I  say they have fall­en flat on their face.

The ef­fect Macris de­scribes is a pret­ty com­mon ef­fect, though. You see in fo­cus test­ing that a busi­ness will make a prod­uct for a hy­po­thet­i­cal “con­sumer” based on data of what a cer­tain num­ber of peo­ple think they want, but then end up mak­ing a prod­uct no real per­son would ac­tu­al­ly pay mon­ey for. The only real way to mit­i­gate this is to lis­ten to feed­back and try to make con­tent you would want to see, with a busi­ness mod­el you would feel is fair as a con­sumer your­self. But this is just from the per­spec­tive of a con­sumer. The rea­son I used this Twitter ex­change and the rea­son I fol­lowed up with Alexander is be­cause I don’t have ed­i­to­r­i­al ex­pe­ri­ence, or even ex­pe­ri­ence be­ing a paid games writer. I think it is im­por­tant to at least at­tempt to get the view­point of some­one with real ex­pe­ri­ence, some­thing I think the op‐eds in games me­dia of­ten fail to do.

So I hope this gives you a win­dow into just how mon­ey gets made cur­rent­ly in games me­dia. We’ve al­ready seen pub­li­ca­tions start­ing to down­size or fold. The Escapist re­cent­ly had a round of lay­offs and AOL re­cent­ly shut­tered Joystiq, fold­ing a tiny por­tion of its con­tent into Engadget’s games sec­tion. Destructoid has shed staff for some time and in October they lost their EiC (Editor in Chief) un­der un­clear cir­cum­stances in the midst of ac­cu­sa­tions of wrong­do­ing. Layoffs seem to be a fact of life now in games jour­nal­ism, adding to the sat­u­ra­tion of la­bor in the mar­ket.

Side Business textLeigh Alexander’s ill fat­ed OffWorld site serves as a cau­tion­ary tale to all those who would try to force the gam­ing pub­lic to like their par­tic­u­lar brand of con­tent. All of the me­dia cov­er­age, all the in­dus­try con­nec­tions and all the loud­ly trum­pet­ed tick­ing of the right ide­o­log­i­cal box­es can’t force the pub­lic to care about your con­tent. If you can’t ex­ist in the mar­ket then the mar­ket will re­ject you. Especially if your con­tent is com­ing from a base of de­ri­sion, with Offworld even go­ing so far as to try avoid­ing use of the term “gamer” in its con­tent. Maybe this is why we see so much hos­tile rhetoric to cap­i­tal­ism from sources like Feminist Frequency’s Jonathon McIntosh. Aside from be­ing a one man quote mine, he is ob­vi­ous­ly the cre­ator of much of the con­tent put out by the duo, even go­ing so far as to re­gur­gi­tate a piece he wrote for Polygon in 2012 as a “new” video.

Pretending the old is new isn’t progress. Its mar­ket­ing. And I think there has been a lot of “mon­ey for old rope” ideas go­ing around, es­pe­cial­ly when it comes to re‐inventing games cov­er­age to be “more in­clu­sive” to the point it ends up not adding any­thing of sub­stance. It’s go­ing to be an­oth­er trope in this se­ries, but if you want to make the most im­pact then the best place to do it is in video. It doesn’t help that a lot of what gam­ing web­sites put out is the same cy­cle of press re­leas­es and news ar­ti­cles. They even cite one an­oth­er in many cas­es or sim­ply re‐word a press re­lease so you get iden­ti­cal con­tent al­most any­where, cut­ting down on a site’s unique ap­peal to vis­i­tors. Video con­tent on the oth­er hand has the added ad­van­tage of per­son­al­i­ty. The pre­vail­ing wis­dom seems to be that if you shame a prob­lem hard enough it goes away. From the Games Journo Pros leaks we saw quite a few dis­parag­ing com­ments about YouTubers like John Bain, known as TotalBiscuit.

side cokeGames me­dia re­al­ly needs to nail down what it wants to be and where it sees its con­tent in three to five years. Crowdfunding is a stop‐gap, you can’t live on it for­ev­er if you want to build a vi­able com­mer­cial prod­uct with growth. Subscriptions are an op­tion, but as we’ve seen, many peo­ple sim­ply don’t want to pay for them when there are “free” al­ter­na­tives. Perhaps it is time for the gam­ing press to swal­low its pride and ac­cept that they are be­com­ing more niche. This does not have to be a bad thing ei­ther. I think there is room for a more cus­tom tai­lored en­thu­si­ast press rather than the mono­lith­ic mega‐sites with huge in­vest­ment deals that have yet to see long‐term prof­it. Content is king and it al­ways will be. Clickbait is, by de­sign, very thin on meat. Controversy is also start­ing to spook ad­ver­tis­ers, as many are mov­ing away from sites like Gawker part­ly due to a suc­cess­ful e‐mail cam­paign by gam­ing ac­tivists and high‐profile PR blun­ders like set­ting up a Twitter bot to tweet “Mein Kampf” in a suc­cess­ful at­tempt to sab­o­tage a Coca‐Cola so­cial me­dia mar­ket­ing cam­paign. I don’t need to tell you that this is not a smart move for any pub­li­ca­tion that wants to re­tain main­stream spon­sors.

Slate’s David Auerbach seems to think the dom­i­nance of emo­tion­al click­bait is wan­ing be­cause of these fac­tors and posits that the less scrupu­lous out­lets, like the kings of click­bait at Buzzfeed, may be mov­ing to a more “ad­ver­to­r­i­al” based mod­el like de­scribed ear­li­er. One thing is cer­tain; the land­scape will nev­er stop shift­ing. Be it the rise of video con­tent, the abun­dance of free blogs, the de­mands for more eth­i­cal jour­nals, or even just nat­ur­al mar­ket trends as es­tab­lished ideas and meth­ods be­come out­dat­ed. You ei­ther adapt or you die and many sites seem to have cho­sen the lat­er. I’m glad to have seen sites like Niche Gamer and TechRaptor carve out their own niche (if you’ll ex­cuse the pun) in this dif­fi­cult en­vi­ron­ment, as I think they point to­wards a way for less ex­ploita­tive games jour­nal­ism sites to flour­ish.

A fi­nal thought be­fore we part: in this cut‐throat and shrink­ing in­dus­try, who thought it was a good idea to de­clare their main read­er de­mo­graph­ic “dead?” As I’ve shown in nu­mer­ous ways, Games Journalism is suf­fer­ing from enough prob­lems al­ready. A self‐inflicted wound out of spite seems like the last thing you would want. So if those out­lets dis­ap­pear over the next few years due to the crush­ing weight of eco­nom­ic re­al­i­ty, I feel quite con­fi­dent there will be very few tears shed by the gam­ing com­mu­ni­ty. If gamers don’t have to be your au­di­ence then maybe no one does.

Nothing per­son­al. It’s just Business

Continued in Part 3: Woman Problems

Visit the the Parts Index

Scrumpmonkey can also be found on YouTube, on Twitter and on Medium. You can also read more about him in his writer in­tro­duc­tion for SuperNerdLand

The fol­low­ing two tabs change con­tent be­low.
John Sweeney
John Sweeney is a ter­ri­bly British man with a back­ground in en­gi­neer­ing. He writes long‐form ed­i­to­r­i­al con­tent with analy­sis of gam­ing, games me­dia and in­ter­net cul­ture. He also does the oc­ca­sion­al video game ret­ro­spec­tive with a week­ly col­umn about Magic the Gathering thrown in for good mea­sure. He also does most of our in­ter­views for some rea­son, we have no idea why. A staunch sup­port­er of free speech and con­sumer rights; skep­ti­cal of agen­da dri­ven me­dia and sus­pi­cious of un­ac­cou­table au­thor­i­ty but al­ways hope­ful for change.
Scroll to top