" Game Magazines Have Sucked for Forever ": GFW's Jeff Green on the Future of Print Media
Some suggest, in this digital age of instant information, print media for videogames has been obsolete for years and is only just now finding out. Others suggest print media can still be relevant, as long as it adapts to a changing reality of game journalism. And still others see traditional outlets as the only true professional game reporters on the block.
But, as the game magazine business and its consumers continue to figure out just where magazines belong in the digital age, the bloodletting has been brutal. Where some outlets have been forced to close, others have adapted to survive. The Escapist recently spoke with Jeff Green, Editor-In-Chief of Games For Windows Magazine (previously Computer Gaming World) about his thoughts on staying relevant and the current state of videogame magazines and videogame reporting.
The Escapist: So, let's start big picture. How would you characterize the state of print gaming magazines?
Jeff Green: Well, that's a pretty broad question, don't you think? But, OK. I'll run with it. I'd say the "state" of the print mags is that we are in a period of transition.
We have, over the past few years, ceased to be the primary/first source of information for hardcore gamers, and are now all trying to figure out what that means, then - how to stay relevant, vital or even necessary at all. Not to sound overly pessimistic. But I feel sorry for any magazine folks who haven't figured this out yet.
On the other hand, don't get me wrong; I am not at all of the "print is dead" school. I still think print has its place, at the very least for the stereotypical "bathroom, couch, airplane" reasons. And plenty of mags in other entertainment media are finding ways to remain relevant. It can be done - you just have to be smart, creative and open-minded. The old ways won't work anymore.
TE: It seems like the online component of magazine brands is gaining importance. You participate in a podcast, write a blog and who knows what else on top of trying to produce a monthly magazine. Does this weaken the print end of things by spreading out resources and time or strengthen the entire brand by broadening your base, so to speak?
JG: I think it's the latter, for sure. I mean, it's been a "learning experience" with lots of hiccups and growing pains for us, but I think it's starting to bear fruit now. Wow. That was like three cheesy metaphors all mixed together in one! Maybe I am being spread too thin!
Seriously, we have been consciously pushing the online component for a long time now, and without being a corporate toady about it, I do feel like you can start to see the difference. ZD is very much now as much about the 1UP.com brand as it is with the magazines - we've come a long way on that front. And for some of us old-school print guys, there was, of course, a lot of resentment at first. "What, we have to podcast weekly now? WTF is a podcast? And you're paying us how much extra to do that now? Oh, I see- - nothing! Great! Fuck off!" But we've come around to the point where we actually enjoy doing the podcast, at least at our particular magazine. And I think in our case now you are definitely seeing it broaden the base. The popularity of GFW Radio has directly translated into people who had never heard of or cared about or magazine - or even PC games at all - turning into magazine subscribers. That's about as great a result as we could hope for.
TE: There's the perception that there's a lot of instability in the print magazine industry. We've seen some high profile outlets like CGM close, we've seen your own publication go through an entire brand change, and both PC Gamer and EGM have been the center of public conflicts with developers and fans; this seems like a different environment than just five years ago. Can it all be contributed to the rise of the internet and gaming blogs, or is there more to this change?
JG: I think there is a massive amount of instability - it's not just a "perception" -and I definitely think it is from the rise of the internet, yes. It's changed everything, obviously, forever.
But I still stubbornly believe it's not all over yet, for all of us. At least a couple mags will live long and prosper. And, you know, I think frankly that it's a good thing that this has happened. Game magazines have sucked for forever now. So fat and lazy. So content just to go for the low-hanging fruit. The online competition has forced magazine editors to start thinking more creatively about what to put in their magazines. I like the challenge a lot.
TE: So, if they've been below standard before, how have the challenges of adapting to online competition improved game magazines, and do you think the print sector would be in better shape if the quality of the material had been better all along? I guess that's a long way of saying, was this turmoil inevitable or was there complacency in the print segments?
JG: Well, first, to continue to be hard on the print magazines (and I am not excluding my own, by the way), I don't think we've all improved nearly enough yet as a response to online competition, but I do think that we have at least been forced to try to improve. Or at least, those of us who have accepted the changing nature of the beast now have tried. Any print guys arrogant enough to think they can still do things the old way are going to deserve their coming irrelevance.
That said, I know that for us, at least, the online competition has forced us to re-examine every single thing we do, from the kind of articles we write, to the games we cover, to the tone and angle we take, and to the timing of when we print things. Everything we do now is measured against the metric of: "How can we do this better/different/deeper than what everyone has already done online, weeks before us?" If we can't answer that question, then the article doesn't deserve to be printed. Of course, we still can't get past the "meat and potatoes" articles of previews/reviews (and message boards whiners to the contrary, these are still, by far, the most popular articles in the magazine), but even with these articles, we can try to filter it through this same truth: A great many gamers will have already read similar articles online.
But it's not black-and-white either. One thing we've also learned, which runs contrary to pretty much everything else I've said here, is that a lot of our subscribers don't read any online gaming sites - and therefore get resentful and angry if we assume too much and don't print something as a result. They want to read about it in our magazine. So we still need to cover all the basics, all the time, even if we don't have much more than what was already said online. So it's a balancing act. And not remotely an exact science yet.
We're still all scrambling, trying to figure it out. But I am glad to be where I am, where the people above me are totally committed to print/online integration. Because it can work. We're seeing it work already in some of the bigger mainstream non-gaming sites, Sports Illustrated/SI.com and Entertainment Weekly/ew.com being two great examples. The weekly magazines still totally maintain their relevance/readership, while the online components enhance/broaden the scope while also providing the daily bits that the mags can't cover.
And to answer the other part of the question, I do think the print mags have long been too complacent, yes, for sure. But I think the print sector would be in trouble regardless. The Internet just changed everything and everyone, and even the best print outlets in the business - The New York Times, to name just one - has taken hits and had to readjust/rethink in response. It was inevitable, and it affects everyone. I guess my point was, in regards to the gaming press, it's less of a tragedy because the quality has been so lacking that the shakeup is forcing changes that were long overdue anyway.
TE: Some of the print outlets don't have the management in place to meet the serious challenges in front of them. They kind of keep blowing it. Do you see the split between magazines that are adjusting to the new environment and those stuck in the old mindset as widening or narrowing?
JG: And, hey, I'm not here just to bag on my competitors. Frankly, the less they adapt to current realities, the easier my job gets. They (and I don't just mean one mag in particular here) also serve as instructional "what not to do" benchmarks for us.
When we see a print mag throw an article out there that's way late, or has no online component, or covers nothing that hasn't already been done to death on the websites, we just think: "Okay - let's make sure we don't do that when it's our turn." And lord knows we still have a long way to go on that, but we're trying.
So, to answer you directly, I think that the gap may be narrowing in terms of everyone finally starting to figure out they need to do something, but the actual reality now between what has been done by some of us and not been done by others is very wide. Or to put it in a way that sounds less mealy-mouthed: I think those of us who figured it out early enough now have a huge head start over those who are just getting the dim candle over their heads now (if at all).
TE: So switching gears, what are your impressions of the state of online gaming blogs, and do you consider them competition?
JG: Sure, they are competition. If people are reading them, if they are providing decent information/commentary, then they are competition. Again, it's foolish to dismiss or look down upon anything at this point. Is there a lot of amateur, unprofessional writing? Yeah, sure. But the gaming mags are not exactly The Atlantic, either, so you won't see me throwing stones in that direction. And some of sites are great. I spend a good deal of my day, every day, reading them all. Even The Escapist!
TE: Is there equilibrium that will be reached between online and print videogame reporting? What do each need to do to improve?
JG: Things will make more sense over time, sure. What do each need to do to improve? If I answer that and everyone listens, then all my competition will get better and shut me out of business! But to try to answer anyway ...
Online: I'd say take a little more time to edit and proofread your articles. I just read some truly embarrassing stuff today, from one of the more supposedly "professional" sites. I mean, we're talking basic grammar here. Don't swallow every goddamn little crumb of hype that the game companies toss to us, like fish to seals, and post it as if it was some revelatory big scoop. Exercise more critical judgment.
On the print side: Get over yourselves. It's over. Your reign has ended. Adapt to the 21st century now, or go away forever. You can have a great monthly product that people will be happy to read on buses, planes, couches and restrooms everywhere. But you will be a dinosaur in the tar pits if you don't adjust your editorial to reflect the fact that, 90 percent or more of the time now, you can't possibly print something "new" that hasn't appeared online already. So get creative. Use real writers. Show some depth and give people something beyond the old-school previews/reviews mediocrity mill. This can be a liberating time if you just take the chance.
TE: Since re-branding, how has Games For Windows Magazine been doing? How's the mood around the office?
JG: Well, people can find us in stores now, so that's cool. And the mood is quite good here, actually. We're enjoying both the chance to experiment with more creatively interesting articles, and to goof off so freely on the podcast.
The actual name of the magazine has still not exactly gotten much easier to say without cringing somewhat, and that has not been helped by the less-than-stellar rollout of the entire GFW platform so far, but, hey, far be it from me to bite the hands that feed! I love you, Microsoft!
Seriously, they've put up with a lot of grief with us so far, and I am grateful so far that they have kept their word with us about "editorial independence." I haven't even gotten a call yet about my last column, in which I flat out said that GFW Live "sucks ass." But we'll see. If I disappear suddenly after this interview, you'll know why.