It has been a challenging time for the UK games media.
ABC figures and advertising revenues are falling, forcing the specialists to seek new ways to stay relevant in a market that has become increasingly mainstream.
But there's no denying the sector is still active, with new websites cropping up on an almost weekly basis – while the media giants continue to experiment with technology, from the established podcast and video review, to on-console media and the upcoming iPad.
In this special roundtable, an array of names in games media discuss the role of technology, the state of print media and the changing demands of gamers.
ON THE ABC FIGURES
James Binns, Publishing Director, Future Publishing: 2009 was a tough year for games – many of us thought games were recession resilient, and I'm not the only MCV reader that thought that.
Game mags are physical purchases. OXM is 6.49, and a lot of people buy it. When we benchmark our performance, if you compare us to men's lifestyle we've outperformed the FHMs of the world.
We have been resilient – no one can defy gravity, but the numbers we have seen we are really proud of.
But Future is more than magazines – we are a cross-media company and our offer gets better and better. We have cover discs and on-console media such as First Play, and the Golden Joysticks had its best ever year. A lot of what media firms talk about wanting to do, we already do it.
Tarik Alozdi, Sales Director, Uncooked Media: 360 Gamer's ABC result is 18,527, which is a new high for the three-weeker. Play*Gamer wants to perform better and luckily we've had good support early on. This has meant investment in distribution recently. Hopefully we'll see the results of that in the coming months.
We've been pushing forward with developing our distribution this past six to 12 months.
You should find the Gamer magazines everywhere you expect to see them, but they'll also crop up in some places you wouldn't. But we think the circulation has worked hard because we're being careful with the product. Yes it's true, the Gamer magazines have been overlooked by the occasional advertiser. But then again we haven't had to guarantee the wrong cover-features or too many covers to one publisher, so we've got the freedom to go with what's strongest for business.
Overall it's nice to see the product strengths are being noticed because this helps us develop sales via all channels. One of these channels of course is digital editions.
ON NEW FORMS OF MEDIA
James Binns: Our No.1 objective on digital is to grow our web audience. It's our number one mission – it's more important than other things around that.
We have a great array of good podcasts, and we should launch something for iPhone in the coming months, but the focus is growing that web audience and making a big deal of our on-console media.
Anyone can make a podcast but getting content onto an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, as FirstPlay does, is something Future does a better job of than any competitor.
Rupert Loman, MD, Eurogamer: We build all of our technology in-house, which means we can adapt relatively swiftly to changes in users demands and tastes. Only a few years ago websites were little more than just news and features on a page – now we have to be experts at working with communities, multimedia, marketing, traffic analysis, events and so on. I think we've managed to keep up with the trends without getting distracted from the core offering – publishing great editorial for our readers.
Alex Simmons, Editor-In-Chief, IGN UK: Used correctly, new technologies can often prove more effective than traditional methods.
If an iPhone app offers a unique service that represents value for time and money, it will succeed. That's the thinking behind what we do at IGN – we're not in the business of jumping on a bandwagon simply because it's the next big thing, but if there's a benefit to our users then we'll do it. We've seen an increase in popularity of our video reviews in the last year, with users wanting a quick two-minute overview of a game.
Adam McCann, Operations Director, VideoGamer: I think well-produced podcasts made in conjunction with content websites are fantastic for providing readers with more value. Also, with the right chemistry, podcasts can be a great vehicle for conveying the personalities of the editors, which is essential for bringing passionate and loyal users to a site.
Whilst many of these new technologies require a level of investment to implement and maintain, if used in the right way, I believe they are great tools to help grow the audience of content websites.
VideoGamer.com was the first commercial gaming site to offer streaming 720p HD video back in October 2008, and we've since increased the quality of videos and offered a download alternative for users on slower connections. In 2010, as well as our community improvements, we're focused on increasing our viewership by offering more in-house produced videos and an improved user experience across the whole site.
Patrick Garratt, Editor, VG247: I think web video is mature and a proven financial success, and people have expected websites to carry it for a long time. Podcasts, iPhone apps and the like can provide great value to the right user, but from a business perspective I wouldn't put focus on them over providing good, useful written content. I'm not convinced the right models are in place for them yet.
Guy Cocker, Editor, Gamespot UK: Video and audio are incredibly popular on GameSpot UK, and we've long been pioneering in this area. The GameSpot UK Podcast has been running since 2006, making it far and away the longest-running major UK games podcast, which is reflected in high-charting positions on the iTunes Games and Hobbies charts, as well as our inaugural Games Media Award win.
Likewise, our video show Start/Select combines features, previews, interviews and competitions and has been running now for over two years, and has over 70 episodes.
ON WHAT TODAY'S GAMERS DEMAND FROM THEIR MEDIA
Patrick Garratt: The internet is now present in every aspect of gaming, including information – today's gamer wants services, not publications: we see the site as a service. VG247 answers the question ‘What's going on?' That's a big draw for the serious gamer and enthusiastic industry employee. In reality, very few sites do what we do.
Adam Doree, Director, Kikizo: I don't think the games media is going to change drastically over the coming years, there's so much variety out there right now. My business is concerned with catering to those who want to talk to gamers. Addressing their marketing needs is the key to making sure we stay around to tell gamers why Virtua Fighter's better than Tekken.
Alex Simmons: The way we all consume information has changed over the last five years and the rise of Twitter, blogs and other methods of communication has led to a desire for more immediacy. Providing daily updates simply isn't enough any more and the hunger for more information delivered in a timely fashion has led to the way IGN thinks about – and delivers – round-the clock news and opinion.
Adam McCann: What's been very clear to me is an increasing expectation by users to easily find content that's relevant to them. Long gone are read-only style websites, in order to stay ahead of the curve now publishers need to embrace customisation and user generated content. Facebook has done a wonderful job of showing us what is possible from a user interface perspective, and I think we're going to be seeing some fantastic revolutions in the way video game sites cater for their audiences in the coming years.
Damian Butt, Managing Director, Imagine Publishing: I don't think the needs of gamers have changed fundamentally – they still want reviews and opinion they can trust, written well, and by professionals who have direct contact with the developers of the games they are looking forward to. The only difference in the last few years has been the speed of the updates and the thirst for more information in smaller chunks to complement their favourite magazine.
We have launched NowGamer.com – our main video games multiformat website – which is doing extremely well considering it's less than a year old and is up against some formidable long-standing competition.
I'm really impressed with the publishers who have supported us so far. We also have the NowGamerNetwork, a flotilla of specialist gaming websites, which includes many of our most successful print brands, and each containing lively team blogs, videos, daily news, podcasts, and reader forums. But most importantly, we have not let the quality slip of our print magazine and books, as our competitors have.
Imagine magazines, despite the recession, are still as high quality as they were when we formed in the company in 2005, and we haven't taken the easy option of dropping the paper quality just to save a few quid. Quality is everything when you have a loyal fanbase.
Guy Cocker: Using our in-house analysis tool GameSpot Trax we can see exactly how audience behaviour has changed over the last few years. What we have seen is that registered users still account for a great deal of activity, making the PC, 360 and PS3 platform channels the most popular.
At the same time, we've seen a great interest in more casual platforms such as Wii and mobile, and have had great success with ‘Getting Started' guides with these audiences. Our users are also highly engaged with interactive features.
We've adapted to these changes by implementing a light registration scheme and integrated Facebook Connect into the site, resulting in a ten per cent uptake of registered users since Q1 2009. We've also introduced a mobile channel, reviewing games on the iPhone and iPod Touch among others.
We've recently integrated with key partners such as Raptr, allowing users to see a graph of online activity for games on platforms such as Xbox Live.
ON THE IPHONE AND IPAD
Rupert Loman: The Eurogamer iPhone app is cool because it helps keep users involved with Eurogamer at all times. They can view articles when offline – for example, when they are on the underground. It's fast to load and they can watch videos on the move, too – which you can't do via the regular website on iPhone.
Damian Butt: Our newly launched iPhone and iPad digital editions are not only first for the games industry, but they expand Imagine's reach into the homes of people who have never before seen one of our magazines – a potentially huge audience of 75 million people worldwide.
Due to the practicalities of magazine distribution, in the past only a small number of gamers could experience our magazines first hand – the ones who live near the shops where our magazines are stocked. But now anyone can enjoy Play, Games TM, 360, Retro Gamer, X360 or PowerStation if they have an iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad.
It's very exciting, and our collaboration with PixelMags is already producing some truly exciting results. But, and it's an important point, I do not believe these digital initiatives will entirely replace our print magazines. The loyal readers who buy Imagine magazines at the moment do so because they appreciate the quality and feel of a magazine in their hands, and they want to collect them.
Anyone who thinks specialist mags are being replaced by digital ones anytime soon is seriously nave. Obviously for newspapers and more disposable magazines, it's a different story.
Adam McCann: A lot like podcasts, I think iPhone apps that act as mobile versions of content websites represent a great opportunity for adding value to a site, and extending the brand to new people. In terms of generating a monetary return from such apps, I think that's far more difficult at the moment. However, iPhone penetration is increasing rapidly so I see a lot of potential in the future.
Tarik Alozdi: Digital replicas of mags have been around for a while but, from our perspective, commercially limiting.
But everyone seems aware that come this spring they'll start to get a lot more accessible and exciting. The iPhone has installed itself in society and is due a new phase of growth. There's a high level of savvyness with the app system already. Along with the iPad, it will provide an excellent platform to market and sell digital Gamer magazines, and really useful ways for marketers to talk to the right consumer.
ON THE MAINSTREAM PRESS
James Binns: The broader media still doesn't give games the respect it deserves – part of me wishes it did, and we champion it when that happens – but their reluctance serves us pretty well.
There aren't many people talking about games on TV or radio so much.
General media owners put out occasional releases saying they're going after gamers. What that means is they put Flash games on a site and start ringing around a bit. But I don't think the job of explaining games, especially those big games, is done well at all by the general media. It's great that Modern Warfare 2 got picked up a lot by Nuts and Zoo but I don't think that media does a good job of explaining gameplay, launching new IP, getting behind things or sticking up for them when things get hard.
ON WEBSITES AND MAGAZINES DEDICATED TO INDIVIDUAL GAMES AND GENRES
Rupert Loman: Having dedicated editors for individual areas means we can produce more targeted, credible and informed coverage for our readers as well as attract new users. It also allows us to clearly identify which users are interested in certain topics. Having content in separate channels helps us to target advertising more effectively as well – so it's a win-win situation.
Adam Doree: Most game sites have the ability to target PS3 or Xbox users, but media buyers tend to be picky, and if they want to target just FPS fanatics, now they can. I think it's unbelievable there were no FPS focused game sites until we launched FPSgamer.com, considering there are tonnes of sites dedicated to other popular genres.
It has been a challenging time for the UK games media.