It's no secret that just about every video game magazine out there is hurting right now -- save for the absurdly colossal Game Informer (its unique arrangement with GameStop provides the publication with a seemingly infinite subscriber base eager to save on used-game purchases and get extra trade-in credit). The magazine world in general has been hit hard by the evaporation of advertising dollars, and gaming publications have been subjected to some of the worst of that storm due to the movement of their traditionally tech-savvy audience away from print and to digital media.
However, Apple is rumored to be launching a device that could make magazines cool again and help the gaming print media crawl off its deathbed. The Wall Street Journal reported several days ago on information from anonymous sources that Apple has been in talks with several print media corporations, including Conde Nast, one of the largest magazine publishers in the world, to bring its publications to Apple's long-rumored tablet PC -- expected to be announced tomorrow, January 27, at a press event in San Francisco. The article speculated that Apple has plans to use this new device to redefine print media in much the same way that iTunes and the iPod revolutionized the monetization of music.
So if it could happen with Conde Nast, which publishes Wired and The New Yorker, why not with Future (PC Gamer, OXM, PTOM) or Imagine Publishing (GamesTM, 360)? I've got a hunch that once Apple's proven that money can be made on tablet e-magazines, an avalanche of others will follow suit, gaming magazines among them.
"Every print magazine works with digital source files, so if converting those files to an electronic format is deemed easy enough, then they'll be thrilled to jump on board, and yeah,
Print magazines have struggled to maintain timeliness in the age of the internet.
Beyond the potential monetary gains from an Apple tablet–formatted publication, there could also be new opportunities for creative advancement for gaming magazines. "By blending the packaging and design of print with the interaction and immediacy of the web, you can get pretty creative about thinking about how magazine articles can come to life in this format," said John Davison, VP of Content at GamePro. "Covers that are animated, large magazine style images that link to online slide shows. All the pieces are already out there, just look at The New York Times and USA Today apps."
But the question is not whether magazines will support the platform or even if they'll create amazing products, it's whether or not consumers will be willing to pay for these publications once they're available for a tablet-live device. The answer relies on Apple's ability to drastically simplify the existing format for purchasing magazines, which currently deters even some of the most hardcore gamers. Newsstand prices are high, and print magazines have struggled to maintain timeliness in the age of the internet. "The current method [for print] says allow six to eight weeks for delivery," said Amrich. "When that becomes six to eight seconds, the rules change."
Not everyone is fully convinced, though. In an email, Sid Shuman, former senior editor of GamePro, said that he's skeptical that we'll ever see a return to consumers paying for print-style media. In his words, "That genie is already out of the bottle."
Shuman said he believes that the only publications that find success will be the ones that innovate and evolve to suit the platform, rather than simply selling a PDF file. "I see a successful tablet gaming magazine merging the best elements of print, video, the web, and gaming itself," he said. "It'll have to be extremely interactive. You may see some publishers try bundling each issue with a small iPhone game, or a game soundtrack, much like the way some old-school magazines included a poster or comic book. The creative possibilities are limitless."
Dan Hsu, editor of Bitmob.com, and former Editor-in-Chief of Electronic Gaming Monthly, agreed. "The content will be the primary motivating factor for consumers," he said. "Apple can make it super easy to purchase a gossip magazine, but if you can find the same information on The Superficial, then what's going to motivate you to buy? That's the long-term challenge -- the content creators have to figure out how to put together something enticing that you just can't find on the web."
Would gaming magazines be able to operate free of charge?
This raises an interesting question, and an intriguing one for any gamers out there that dream of a device that would deliver free gaming magazines right into their hands without a penny's charge. Several free iPhone apps, like Tap Tap Revenge and textPlus, have seen significant profits by supporting advertisements rather than charging an outright fee for the product. With a potential subscriber boom at their fingertips, and the elimination of printing and shipping costs, would gaming magazines be able to operate free of charge, and subsist on advertising dollars alone?
"I can see sample issues for free, but if you give your product away, especially a journalistic or creative product, the tacit implication is that it's not worth any money," said Amrich who is five years behind on his Joystiq subscription. "So I would like to see digital subscriptions lower the price from the current $10 per issue or $30 per year to a more reasonable $5 per year, but the people who made the magazine still have to eat and deserve to be rewarded for their work."
We won't have the final word on Apple's plans for its new device until its official unveiling tomorrow, but the possibilities are certainly enthralling. The road ahead may not be entirely clear, but we can see that the tablet may be an attractive platform for magazines to migrate to. For those of us who have loathed this decade-long downward spiral for print, the implications could be fantastic.
It's not a done deal, though, even if all that we're hoping for comes to pass. "The impatient content publisher who looks at this as a road to fast, easy profits will be in for a rude awakening," said Shuman, warning of the potential pitfalls of hastily chasing easy money. "The patient publisher who takes the time to create a unique and pleasing application, who listens to his audience, who grows his community slowly but stably ... this is the publisher who will find a foothold in this new ecosystem."
Andrew Groen is a freelance video game journalist based in Chicago, IL. He currently writes for GamesRadar and iPhone Life Magazine, as well as serving as a part-time Copy Editor for Georgia Today, an English-language newspaper published in the Republic of Georgia. Andrew only has that job because the Russian army killed the last guy when they invaded Georgia in August 2008. Contact him if you dare at andrew.groen [at] gmail [dawt] com.