Happy Anniversary

Happy Anniversary
The Escapist's Bold Experiment

Allen Varney | 6 Jul 2010 09:26
Happy Anniversary - RSS 2.0

"In the early days, there were some seriously long hours. There were two other editors whose primary jobs within the company took most of their time, so I was the only full-time editor. I solicited and edited most of the 40,000-ish words a month we published. I didn't sleep much. I built a barricade along the bottom of my desk so people couldn't see under it, and every now and again I'd crawl under there and have a power nap."

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But Greer did an exemplary job of establishing the characteristic Escapist tone. "We wanted to treat games and the industry with respect. That's not to say we never say bad things about games, but we come from a place of love. Sometimes, it's hard to tell if people writing about games even really like them. Someone who's dedicated their life's work to covering a subject really should respect and like that subject. Otherwise it's some weird masochistic venture which really is best played out on a therapist's couch, not the internet. We always encouraged our team to remember that they love games."

Eating the Baby

In May 2006, almost a year after launch, The Escapist attracted barely 100,000 visitors. The following month, Russ Pitts joined The Escapist staff - "Team Humidor" - as Greer's Acquisitions Editor. Pitts had done a lot of theater, worked as a video producer for TechTV and wrote on the side for Gamers With Jobs, a "safe haven" for players with families to feed and bills to pay.

Pitts thought The Escapist "had very effectively captured a hardcore audience of about 200,000 game developers or game developer wannabes. They're fine people, but make no mistake about it: That's a niche audience, a small audience. [The Escapist] was founded by some very hardcore old-school gamers. I got a sense very quickly that these were very intensely pro-game people, but that the bridge between living the dream and having the dream might be fading.

"The first year that I was here, we were undergoing a long, delicate shift from a heavily academic focus to something a little more consumer-oriented. The wider the gaming audience becomes, the more we have to shift that focus. The trick is in maintaining an authoritative tone and generating insightful commentary in the process, which is not always easy."

No, it wasn't. Over the next year, a procession of fine issues on intriguing topics - drudgery, marketing, government, spirituality, industry stumbles - barely moved the needle: May 2007 brought only 177,000 uniques. I was impressed the magazine had lasted so long, but I thought it had little time left.

But in July 2007, starting its third year, The Escapist changed to a more conventional web style. Macris says, "At a certain point, the drawbacks of the magazine layout began to outweigh its benefits. It was expensive to produce and incredibly time-consuming. It wasn't easy to read on all browsers; it wasn't easily searchable, navigable or archivable; it didn't allow room for blogging, news feeds and so on. So, we slowly sunsetted it."

"I still love the original design," Smith says. "It was unique, something that nobody else has really done. Of course, that might be because we were crazy to do it in the first place, let alone keep it up for two years. The biggest challenge with the original layout was always the time it took to translate each article into its online form. We needed to flow all the text into each content area by hand, and a small article revision could change all of the spacing. We would regularly run into cases where the article wouldn't fit into the space we had available at all, and we'd have to go back and rework the layout itself. Switching away from that layout let us redirect a lot of our energy towards other things that we wanted to do."

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