What a difference five years makes. When PCGamesN first launched in June 2012, traffic figures were “just dreadful,” creative director Tim Edwards (pictured right, with editorial director Joel Gregory) tells MCV.
“It was really hard, like, just, incredibly hard,” he says. “We had a pretty good E3, but then the Sunday when you land back home, we were looking at our analytics and we had that sort of clunking realisation that the internet just doesn’t give a shit. It doesn’t care.
“Then someone at an agency said to our CEO James Binns very clearly that they don’t really buy websites any more for ads, so we should go and join a network. James being James, he said, ‘I’m not doing that. I’m going to start my own network.’ So we wrangled two or three sites together and went out and sold it as the PC Games Network. It was pretty much the only way PCGamesN could survive, because it meant we’d had a big enough scale where we could make money to invest.”
Fast forward to 2017, however, and PCGamesN couldn’t be healthier. As of last month, its parent company Network N has a portfolio of 60 sites to its name, and PCGamesN itself has just hit over 4m monthly visitors, and a headcount totalling 19 members of staff.
“The position we’re in now, we only have to double and a bit to be the same size as PC Gamer,” Edwards continues. “I know it’s been herculean for us to get to this point, but you can see the momentum. Generally, media businesses are cutting back on their investment, but I think we’re in a slightly different position because of the network – because of the scale of the orders we get, we will always be able to fill PCGamesN with ads. If we want to keep more of the money, we need to grow PCGamesN. It’s the thing we started the business with, and the thing that people come to us because they believe in it."
Indeed, PCGamesN and the scope of its network partners is now so large that ad agencies are even coming to the company with campaigns for console titles.
“We’ve consistently flirted with launching a console site, but I think PC gaming is big enough,” says Edwards. “Instead, we’ve just signed a site called True Achievements so we can start representing them. We’re gathering up more console sites, too. Because of our scale now, we can choose very precise audiences for particular campaigns. Agencies love that, and it means you might have a niche XCOM site, but that’s pretty handy for advertisers if they’re trying to reach that.
“Another reason why people like buying campaigns from us has been because, at PCGamesN, we use Steam log-in. We have a lot of sites that allow users to do Steam log-ins and that gives us a better way of targeting ads. So if we know someone’s played The Witcher, we can say: ‘We’ve got a load of Witcher people, how would you like to reach those?’ So True Achievements is perfect for that. I think it will work really well.”
The relationship with its network partners works both ways, too, as site owners can ask PCGamesN for extra advice on how to improve their own performance.
“The speed at which the advertising industry changes and the technology and just ad tech in general for site owners, I’d be bewildered by it,” says Edwards.
“We went through the same process, but we’re constantly experimenting to figure out ways to improve what our ads are doing, particularly when it comes to ad blockers, so we’re not like a traditional ads network. We’ve been able to keep a very close relationship where James can be the business dad to some big sites, and quite little sites as well. We have very, very few sites leave us once they’re in. We’re brutally honest and really open about how everything is, and I think the transparency that we give to our sites is unusual in ad networks.”
It’s not just the number of sites in the network that’s expanding, either, as PCGamesN’s recent hires, including Kotaku UK’s Julian Benson and Edge Magazine’s Ben Maxwell, will also allow the team to broaden the scope of its editorial remit.
“We’ve got a really talented, really hard working team, but I want us to start doing more pieces that are more ambitious in scope, like investigative news reporting and more deep-dive features,” says editorial director Joel Gregory (pictured left). “We’ve also got a video team that we’re going to expand, as I want to have more video integrated into stories.
“The growth’s been amazing. It’s been a lot of hard work, but I think we’re in a position where the momentum is strong, and if we keep pushing, then there’s no reason why we can’t keep growing at a similar rate over the next couple of years or more.”
Edwards agrees, adding that a higher staff count will also give PCGamesN enough resource to tackle additional platforms outside the main site: “The other challenge we face is that we have to be everywhere where games are,” he says. “Right now, the legacy stuff is the website and you have Twitch, Facebook and YouTube and all the proliferation of platforms and realistically, as a business, we’ll have to be on everything.”
Hardware is another area where PCGamesN hopes to make its mark: “There’s a lot of competition out there, especially if you’re looking at search,” says Gregory. “We don’t have a massive hardware team, but with our hardware editor Dave James we’ve got as much expertise as any one else. Around GDC we had an amazing month for hardware coverage. Those things are fleeting though, because they’re seasonal, but just pitching up and doing a good job over and over again is the thing that will grow the user base.”
With so many resources at its disposal, Network N has also begun doing its own agency work on the side: “We could have done it from day one, but we never replied to the emails,” Edwards laughs. “I’m happy for us to offer out our services now, because we have the resource and scale and headspace to actually think about the problems that are being presented to us.”
Gregory agrees: “There was a realisation towards the end of last year that we can say yes to more stuff now, and actually that should be the default position when someone comes to us with something – to figure out how can we do this, rather than say it’s too distracting. As long as it’s not running an eSports event…" he jokes.
Events management aside, it’s clear PCGamesN has big ambitions for the future, with Edwards saying we can expect to see even more growth from the company going forward.
“I want us to have the biggest collection of PC games sites out there, both in terms of audience and number of sites,” he says. “I would like us to be No.1 or a strong No.2 in PC games generally, and I think that’s pretty achievable.
“I just want us to be a really strong business, and if we have a really strong team here, and business continues to grow and maintain itself, we have a load of new agency work, we’re building new products… That’s what I would like. It would be lovely to pin a rosette on ourselves and say we’re number one, but it’s never going to work like that. In five years, I want to still be here.”