OPINION: Future blames games – but did it fail to innovate as the world changed?

Future Publishing says the depreciated games market has hurt its growth. I’m not convinced that’s true.

In fact, think hard about the notion that games overall are ‘challenged’ – at a time when the addressable audience for all kinds of games is bigger than ever – and the whole thing feels disingenuous. It’s correlation, not causation.

It’s not the first time this year the magazine and website publisher warned games were a challenge. When similar remarks came in May I chalked it down to a pre-E3 lull.

However today in its more thorough communications it has maintained this argument, and maybe Future needs to be called out on given what it says about company strategy.

I like Future’s products. They are well written, they are of consistent quality, the content is timely, their staff are friendly and talented.

And it has come a long way in recent years.

For a good while up to a decade ago, Future was seen as a joke when it came to the internet. It had been caught off-guard by the arrival of IGN and GameSpot, and locally its arse was being kicked by Eurogamer. Print was ‘dying’.

It has dispelled all of those notions in recent times. In fact its digital magazine business is something to envy. Overall, it quickly caught up (broadly) with how consumer habits changed around what it creates.

But I wonder if it didn’t quite keep up with how consumer habits changed around what it covers.

Earlier in the month, when Future restructured its management team, it said it was abolishing the job title of ‘publisher’ as it was old hat. Certainly, the publisher (oops) needs too look at its dictionary. Maybe it should turn to ‘games’ and see what is listed underneath.

Because when Future says the games market is ‘continually weak’, it only means a specific part of the video games console business is weak.

Games, generally, are healthy. Today they are cross platform, and have stretched beyond console and beyond boxed products. PC is a great business; mobile is ridiculously fast paced; indies are noisier than ever; a MOBA called League of Legends is the most popular game on the planet; Minecraft is a cultural phenomenon amongst the very kids Future used to drain pocket money from (myself included).

Did Future keep the pace with that morphing backdrop?

This is not meant to be rude about specific existing titles or those who work on them (although if you search for terms like ‘League of Legends’ or ‘Angry Birds’ in its prize sites and compare the number of stories about those to PS4 or Xbox One coverage you’ll see part of the point).

And I’m not going to be questioning decisions about coverage (nuanced, private) or the possibility that a large business is the least effective (Future has been saying it’s launching new games products, including a games weekly, for yonks and I assume the standard internal gumpf has slowed or changed them – that’s fairly typical).

And, no, a League of Legends blog or a Minecraft magazine wouldn’t have solved all the games division’s ills. Broadly, all and any media is guilty of curating its own turf and not looking at what’s growing in other gardens.

And lastly yep, I’m a luxurious position to smugly hold my hands up and say the things Future has missed aren’t relevant to a targeted trade and retail audience, hence why they’ve hardly featured on an MCV cover. (Although that said Angry Birds’ game-to-toy strategy is the lead on MCV this week.)

But if Future is supposed to be a ‘multiformat’ publisher, it should surely be looking at the multiformat nature of games too. I’m not convinced that it currently does (but am happy to be proven wrong).

Future CEO Mark Wood said that next-gen consoles are driving excitement for its games business, and are cause for optimism. Of course they are! But what happens once those machines have come and the buzz wears off? Is it back on the treadmill of games releases, the triple-A game exclusives? It’s all well and good saying that they will be covered with more variety – video’s now a staple of editorial, not just words – but isn’t that just covering a diminishing or shrunken area from more angles?

Many of us in the games media are already asking these questions. Yet they are the questions which Future’s interim statement today doesn’t even want to acknowledge. And it’s a little troubling to think that not having asked them, let alone not having an answer, might be the truth behind today’s latest warning to investors.

The cyclical nature of games mean they regularly get blamed for a company’s ill fortunes, whether that’s a format holder, publisher or developer. It shouldn’t be a Get Out of Jail Free card for a media company, though, which should be catering to what people do. I thought that was the whole point of specialist publications?

The good news is that Future knows there are problems and has sped up its plan to address where things are struggling. Its games teams has been restructured (yet again…) with a new head of games and tweaked remits for others. And it seems like more staff will be shed.

Hopefully those left standing are the ones with the answers.

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