FUTURE GAMER FEATURE - April 2000
|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 mags 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 Futures
successful American operation, Daily Radar. I spoke to FGs 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 wasnt necessarily dead at all.
"Were going to be doing the same thing they do in the US, which is Daily Radar "blips", little text emails about whats 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 itll 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 theres a huge demand for it"
Really? Surely the weekly mag was stopped because there wasnt 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 were like, oh, great, thats another 40 people who could have shown up on our figures but wont. But thats what a lot of people were doing, and it didnt do us any favours. Its strange, because its not like it saved anyone any time, and youd have thought people would rather get their own copy sent to them directly, but there you go."
Its 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 theres 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 youd think gamers would be more likely to be into the idea of an Internet mag than football fans.
"I really dont know. Yes, youd have thought everyone would be into it, its perfectly targetted, narrow and deep, and the audience is technology-literate. When we started it up, I really couldnt see why it wouldnt get literally millions of subscribers."
Could it be, in fact, that todays gaming audience simply arent interested in the idea of a magazine as such at all? Its looked for a while like were 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 dont 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 thats true. I think the older gamers appreciate it a bit more. Future Gamers average reader was early 20s, and I think theyre 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 thats it. Most of them probably wouldnt 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 isnt that lucrative?
"The American side has actually been extremely profitable. Thing is, there are different revenue streams youve obviously got the advertisers, but youre also providing content for other companies like AOL, and youve 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 Youve 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."
Isnt there a pretty obvious conflict-of-interest situation there, though?
"There is a potential conflict of interest, yes, but one thing I think Futures done, most of the time, is retain its editorial integrity. As you know, weve always been separate from advertising, although of course there is the temptation to say Ooh, lets talk this one up a bit so it sells loads of copies. But then, Ive 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 thats doing the same kind of thing. Its much less direct, and much less obvious, but Im not sure its a million miles different. As long as people who write the magazine are made aware of what editorial integrity is and as long as theyve got it then I think it doesnt 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) Futures print magazines over the last couple of years, thats not going to happen. A more cynical man than your correspondent could believe it had been planned that way all along.