I was scurrying around in the WoS Archives this evening looking for something else, and I stumbled across this. It's a piece from April 2000 for now-defunct games-industry trade paper CTW, in which I interviewed Andy Smith of Future Gamer, the email magazine that eventually evolved into GamesRadar.
Marvel through your tears, viewers at the eerily accurate foretelling of the state of games journalism that was about to unfold.
Keen netwatchers were a little surprised a fortnight ago, when the Future Network announced the closure of its flagship "publication", the weekly email games magazine Future Gamer. Despite the huge amount of promotion for the FG brand over the 18 months of the mag’s life (Future spent hundreds of thousands of pounds advertising FG in its print mags and elsewhere), the magazine and its associated website are now to be swallowed up into Future’s successful American operation, Daily Radar.
I spoke to FG’s erstwhile editor, and the new Associate Editor of Daily Radar UK, Andy Smith, and attempted to find out a little more about the future of games-magazine publishing. And the first thing I found out was that the weekly email mag wasn’t necessarily dead at all.
"We’re going to be doing the same thing they do in the US, which is Daily Radar "blips", little text emails about what’s on the site that day, that you can choose to have or not. The final decision to abandon the whole idea of a weekly email mag is still up in the air, but if it comes back it’ll be as Daily Radar, not Future Gamer. It remains to be seen if we have the resources to do it, but I really hope we do, because there’s a huge demand for it"
Really? Surely the weekly mag was stopped because there wasn’t the demand for it?
"When we first started we had a massive sign-up, about 150 people a day. But when we started up the website, because Future want to drive web traffic, and people then just stopped signing up for it. We kept a core of just over 20,000 – very few people ever unsubscribed – but it stopped growing more or less as soon as the website opened."
"People never really grasped the idea that we wanted them to actually sign up for the weekly email, to drive up the numbers and attract the ad revenue. For example, Jim went up to Bizarre Creations the other day and met someone who said ‘Oh yeah, I love Future Gamer, I get it and then email it to everyone in the company’. And we’re like, oh, great, that’s another 40 people who could have shown up on our figures but won’t. But that’s what a lot of people were doing, and it didn’t do us any favours. It’s strange, because it’s not like it saved anyone any time, and you’d have thought people would rather get their own copy sent to them directly, but there you go."
It’s slightly odd, though. The model for Future Gamer was Football 365, which does much the same thing – it sends out a regular email mag, but there’s a lot more stuff on the website, and the website is updated continuously. Yet the actual email magazine bit goes from strength to strength. And you’d think gamers would be more likely to be into the idea of an Internet mag than football fans.
"I really don’t know. Yes, you’d have thought everyone would be into it, it’s perfectly targetted, narrow and deep, and the audience is technology-literate. When we started it up, I really couldn’t see why it wouldn’t get literally millions of subscribers."
Could it be, in fact, that today’s gaming audience simply aren’t interested in the idea of a magazine as such at all? It’s looked for a while like we’re moving towards a situation where people just want the information, they have no interest at all in the presentation of it, or the quality of that presentation.
"Absolutely. They don’t even want an interesting read, or a well-written read. It could literally be ‘News story – Final Fantasy 9 – movie – here’. Certainly with the younger gamers that’s true. I think the older gamers appreciate it a bit more. Future Gamer’s average reader was early 20s, and I think they’re more interested in having something thought-provoking, well-written and entertaining, whereas your 12-year-old Pokemon fan just wants to know the media blip and that’s it. Most of them probably wouldn’t recognise a good bit of writing anyway."
This sounds like a dream come true for publishers. Employ a few hacks, collate some press releases, practically no production costs, no physical costs, no returns from shops… But where does the profit come from? Surely Internet advertising still isn’t that lucrative?
"The American side has actually been extremely profitable. Thing is, there are different revenue streams – you’ve obviously got the advertisers, but you’re also providing content for other companies like AOL, and you’ve got your retail partners, all that kind of stuff. I think the major income from the American one is their being tied up to Babbages, the software retailers. Babbages paid them a ridiculous sum to say ‘You’ve just read the review, now click on this link to buy the game online’. So that makes Future a lot of money too, because they also get a percentage of every sale that Babbages make that came from Daily Radar."
Isn’t there a pretty obvious conflict-of-interest situation there, though?
"There is a potential conflict of interest, yes, but one thing I think Future’s done, most of the time, is retain its editorial integrity. As you know, we’ve always been separate from advertising, although of course there is the temptation to say ‘Ooh, let’s talk this one up a bit so it sells loads of copies.’ But then, I’ve also seen many many exclusive front covers of games that get 90% in one print magazine and 50% in every other one, and you could argue that that’s doing the same kind of thing. It’s much less direct, and much less obvious, but I’m not sure it’s a million miles different. As long as people who write the magazine are made aware of what editorial integrity is – and as long as they’ve got it – then I think it doesn’t just become an advertising vehicle."
By now, though, viewers, your correspondent was already shaking in fear. The fact is, the Daily Radar business model is just too good for publishers to resist. Their content is delivered on a plate for free by the games companies, the costs involved are trivial, and – crucially – by tying reviews financially into direct retailing, the only way the gravy train can be derailed is if reviewers start slagging the games off. And as can be seen in the clearly visible softening of reviewing policy in (particularly) Future’s print magazines over the last couple of years, that’s not going to happen. A more cynical man than your correspondent could believe it had been planned that way all along.