We’ve been told for ages that magazines aren’t relevant anymore, that the internet is killing print. And yet, despite all the odds, games magazines are still here, fighting against the online invaders. Whether it’s Edge, Retro Gamer, GamesMaster, GamesTM, or even MCV, every one of them has been challenging the idea that print has been dead for years.
While it’s true the magazine market isn’t quite what it used to be, there are still people fierce enough to revitalise this supposedly ‘dead’ format and bring new publications to life. Industry veteran Steve Boxer is one of them. Together with Magdoos Media’s director Tamer Asfahani, the pair launched Checkpoint in March, a digital mag that aims to deliver the best of both worlds: the in-depth features of print combined with the interactivity of online.
“We realised that there simply weren’t any proper digital games magazines out there that take full advantage of the possibilities of digital publishing such as embedding video and audio, and creating animated covers. So after a lot of general research and saying: ‘We’ve got to do this’, we just went for it,” Checkpoint’s editor-at-large Boxer explains.
While Boxer and editor-in-chief Asfahani were busy launching Checkpoint, Jimmy Dance was working on his own project. The owner of the popular Loading gaming bars, which host events for publishers and consumers alike, released the first issue of its free print magazine in mid-May, with Kotaku UK’s Keza MacDonald acting as editor.
From left to right: Checkpoint's Steve Boxer and Tamer Asfahani and Loading Bar's Jimmy Dance
“Despite doing what we have for seven years now, there are still publishers that will see what we do and respond with ‘but you aren’t traditional press/media,’” Dance says.
“So that game copy we request to demo in the bar to over 1,000 Londoners a week they can’t provide. Out of that frustration I decided if having bars and a magazine works for Vice, why not do something similar. It seemed like a natural extension of what we already do, being able to partner with other brands to promote products. The benefit now is not only can we offer physical space, social media and retail support, but also a presence in print.”
This shows print still has a significant impact on brands. With fewer gaming magazines around now than ever before, the ones that do exist are clearly very appealing to companies wishing to promote their products. That said, it’s also a space for articles that wouldn’t necessarily find their place online, Dance adds:
“With the wealth of sites online, I just didn’t see what we could add to that space, whereas with the print side I knew I could bring in great writers and run pieces people wouldn’t get elsewhere.”
The difficulty of finding a niche among the plethora of gaming websites is also why Checkpoint decided to launch as a digital magazine, rather than online or as a print publication.
“The three main reasons were freedom, cost and distribution,” Asfahani explains. “We knew we could create an interesting digital magazine drawing from the best of websites and the best of traditional printed magazines and combine them to make a hybrid which had videos, audio and animations embedded, as well as interactive elements. From a costing perspective, it made perfect sense to create something without having to worry about printing and distribution costs – making us green and eco-friendly. And finally, we could do some pretty unique things, like our animated covers, which have been very well received and work beautifully.”
If Checkpoint and Loading fall on opposing sides of what magazines represent in today’s industry, they both agree on one point: news doesn’t belong in magazines anymore, so both picked a different approach.
“Both Tamer and I prefer to read and write proper, in-depth features: the games industry is such a great source of feature material,” Boxer enthuses. “We always look to highlight the stories behind games and trends, and put them into a pop-culture context, and Checkpoint gives us the ideal opportunity to do so.”
Asfahani echoes Boxer’s stance: “Our focus isn’t on breaking news, so it allows us the room to explore the best way to engage with our audience.”
In the opposite corner, Loading chose the opinion-led approach: “It was a massive honour for the first issue to have someone as great as Keza MacDonald offer to edit the whole thing and fix my rambling,” Dance says.
“I think having [The Guardian’s games editor] Keith Stuart, [former VideoGamer features editor] Steve Burns, [freelance games writer] Carl Anka and [freelance games writer] Kate Gray alongside Keza in this first issue was as strong a line-up of writers as you’re likely to see for a debut. Going forward the plan is to get a nice mix of world-weary veterans and give space to new voices alongside them.”
Dance also hopes to release Loading magazine every two months, he adds. “Hopefully it remains fun that way and we aren’t rushing to hit tight deadlines. Content wise, it’s why I went with opinion pieces rather than attempting anything like reviews or news.”
THE PRICE IS RIGHT
Another challenge when launching a new magazine in today’s climate is finding the right price. Checkpoint went for £1.99 per issue, hoping to appeal to both magazines readers and app addicts.
“That was something which required plenty of group debate, once we had decided that Checkpoint would be a monthly magazine,” Boxer explains. “We hope a price-point of £1.99 isn’t too scary for those who are habitual users of app stores, and it’s certainly a lot cheaper than modern print magazines.”
He continues: “Most modern readers get their journalism via tablets or mobile phones, so we wanted to address that readership in a way that combines the accessibility of the web with the engagement of print.
“We all know that modern consumers are vastly less inclined to buy magazines than they used to be – and it’s great to see that the print world has adapted to that with the rise of free magazines, which are still consumed with enthusiasm and offer levels of engagement which websites can’t.”
And that’s exactly why Dance decided to launch Loading as a free magazine. Expanding the magazine’s reach, however, was also a key concern, he explains:
“It was first and foremost to get it in the most hands I could. With the bars being our main thrust, it was a nice way to add value to people coming in and buying a number of cocktails and making sure we could hit respectable circulation numbers for our partners.”
Loading’s initial print run was 2,000 copies, with 500 of them already distributed at the time of our interview – just four days after the mag released. “[We have] requests to post magazines out to places like the US and Holland, which is crazy for a gaming bar’s in-house magazine,” Dance enthuses. “Audience-wise, we’ve always been proud that our main customer base doesn’t fall into the traditional ‘gamer’ bracket. We cater to a huge array of people, so to have a thing they can take away at no extra cost means, much like the games in the space, there’s no barrier to entry.”
Dance expects his audience to grow, too, as more outlets agree to distribute the mag going forward: “We have our coffee blend coming back, so places stocking that will also have the magazine, and then a few of our friends with similar venues elsewhere will be taking copies,” he explains.
Asfahani has similar ambitions for Checkpoint: “We have a humble readership now, we only launched in March and have done no PR or marketing around the magazine. But that’s all changing now as we’ve got a few issues under our belt. Having said that, we have been told that we had unprecedented numbers for a first issue with no announcements, so we’re really happy with that.”
WINDS OF CHANGE
Advertising is, of course, the biggest hurdle for anyone launching a magazine, and both Dance and Boxer tells us it’s something they’ve struggled to get right.
“It’s a difficult time for anything ad-funded, as I think convincing companies of a return on traditional spend is hard to do when, for the same £1,000 advert, they can instead create something unique, post that online and see a direct return,” Dance reckons.
For Loading, however, getting advertising on board isn’t necessarily the main goal. “It’s less about specific advertisers just for the print side, and more about expanding what we can do for publishers,” he says. “So alongside everything we did before, you now have this component that adds an extra element for you to feedback to clients, to explain how you’ve got an even better return on a minimal outlay.”
Checkpoint faces the same problem, says Boxer, despite having no plans to jump into the realms of print. The team is still “very much” looking for advertisers, and not just those based in the UK, either.
“Because Checkpoint is worldwide, we had to work out how to accommodate geotargeted ads. There’s been a lot of research recently about the relative engagement of ads on the web and in print, and we believe that Checkpoint’s format offers the sort of engagement that print ads enjoy – yet in a digital environment.”
When asked about their long-term goals for their respective magazines, both Asfahani and Dance have very straight to the point answers, each in their own style.
For Dance, the “first job is to slowly creep that page count up, continue to build up the magazine and then wait for Future Publishing to come calling as they seem to own everything,” he jokes.
Asfahani, meanwhile, wants Checkpoint “to serve the global gaming audience in a way that excites them and intrigues them. For the content to be interesting and intelligent. For it to be a truly global magazine. How we consume content now is very different to how we’ve traditionally consumed it. And I think traditional magazines are finding it difficult to find, hold on to and serve their audiences effectively. That’s not to say there aren’t some great publications out there, but the audience’s consumption and expectations have changed.”