John Davison could see the writing on the wall when he left EGM. He had made his case numerous times for the magazine to attempt to change of focus. Some way for it to stop competing with the burgeoning online realm, as well as open itself more to the casual, family friendly market that he saw growing in video games.
Let's just say, he was ahead of his time. Other people didn't see as much need for any changes. So John moved on, and formed his own site, What They Play, centered around families and the parents who may be unsure about the games their kids are playing. While he is growing more successful everyday, EGM sadly went the way of the dinosaur.
He very kindly agreed to an interview, and I got a chance to ask him about the future of families and casual games, his thoughts on EGM returning to store shelves soon, and the glut of Wii peripherals, among other things. Just in case you missed my previous interview with Robert Ashley, a former freelance writer for 1up and EGM, about his band I Come to Shanghai, be sure to check that out as well.
A big part of your site is educating parents of just what kind of content is in some games. Do you encounter a lot of people who feel there is no place for violence in games? How do we convince people like this that there is a place for mature games just as there is kid friendly ones?
It's been rare to find people that are completely opposed outright to the notion of there being games for adults. There have been a few, obviously but the vast majority of the audience has been very curious about all aspects of games. We've seen a lot of questions about game content, and the results have usually surprised parents that weren't previously familiar with the topic.
When we launched in 2007 it was around the same time as the first Assassin's Creed. Because a lot of kids thought the game was "cool," that information was floating its way up to parents who in turn had questions about it. Invariably the response was along the lines of "I get what it's about, it has the word 'assassin' in the title - but are there any consequences to killing?"
A LOT of parents have been very surprised to learn that the notion of consequence pops up a lot in games, and that the killing isn't purely indiscriminate. I can remember discussing GTA IV with a parent on a radio show who asked me "will there EVER be a game where there are real consequences for your actions?" The response was easy "yes, this one."
Clearly you see the "casual" gaming landscape, and the new batch of gamers that have come with it, as a big part of video games now, you've built a whole business off of it after all, but do you see it sticking around? "Core" gamers seem to feel the new "casual" game trend is a threat to the games they enjoy. How do you think we can play nice and convince them that their future isn't at risk?
No kind of game is a "threat" to any other kind of game. That's just absurd. Games are entertainment, and game makers will watch what people respond favorably to and adapt accordingly. Fun is fun, regardless of what flavor it is. There are more excellent quality "core" games this year than ever, and a lot of the stuff that's dismissed as "casual" replicates a lot of the gameplay mechanics that we were all falling over ourselves with glee about ten years ago. Some of the games that live on Facebook these days are incredibly advanced. The fact that they come in a farm or restaurant themed wrapper doesn't take away the clever social systems and economic simulations that they provide.
Gamers are weird when it comes to this self-classification stuff. It's like any maturing entertainment form ultimately though, I guess. There will always be a group that feel they have some kind of "ownership" because they were into it first, and consequently resent any subsequent success. Just look at the situation with Nintendo for proof of that.
What with my job, kid, and other various projects, I don't get a lot of time to actually play games that aren't handheld and casual. But I still listen to 5 or 6 game podcasts a week and check the news online, so I think I'd still be considered a "core" gamer. I'm sure there are a lot of gamers in this same situation, so can't we get rid of the terms hardcore and casual? Do we even need them? At least change hardcore to enthusiastic or something? I'm tired of putting quotes around those terms so that it's clear to everyone reading that I don't like them.
I wish. It's more of a self-classification system from gamers now than anything. There are an increasing number of "gamers" that don't even think of themselves that way. There's a big difference between declaring yourself "hardcore" because you watch stitched together Final Fantasy cut-scenes in Japanese when you don't even speak a word, and exhibiting "hardcore" gameplay behavior. There are a lot of people that will sink hours and hours into Bejeweled Blitz or Luxor or Farmville, or Peggle. They are the true indication that things are becoming more mainstream. The games industry needs to be feeding entertainment to more and more people who don't define themselves purely by what they consume.
Obviously you're a fan of the iphone as a gaming platform. Recently Sony announced iphone-like games for PSP called Minis. Do you see this structure as the way all handhelds should go, or is there still a place for the PS2 length games that have previously dominated the PSP line-up? What about the console download services, PSN, XBLA, and WiiWare? Would you like to see these go toward full length games, or just small arcade games?
It's another part of the, I dunno - what should we call it? The "mainstreaming" of video games. More people are going to be far more likely to try something for a low price, than invest in something very expensive. Downloadable games, subscription games, free games with microtransactions, modular and episodic games - they all appear to be the direction that the market is evolving because they don't intimidate consumers with high prices. At least not all in one go, anyway. The more people that publishers and developers can get to try something, and then hook them, the better. I think it's a far healthier trend than the $120+ games we're seeing with the crazy peripherals.
An emailer to the What They Play Podcast once made an argument for the amount of family friendly games on the PS3. Given the new price point, do you think Sony would be wise to market the PS3 to families, or are the Wii and the 360 Arcade too big of a barrier for them?
What was interesting about that was that when we really dug into it, the PS3 is stealthily quite a family friendly console. It's not as obviously so as the Wii, but there are plenty of games that families can play together - whether it's the Lego games (that are, admittedly, available for everything) or some of the cool downloadable games on PSN. I think where it still falls flat though is in serving up experiences for younger kids. That'll change now the price has dropped though, I'm sure.
Sony's new marketing push that "it only does everything" is a smart first step toward an audience beyond the core. It can be a scary box for rookie or first time gamers, so anything they can do to soften the brand right now is really going to help them.
When I was a kid, I tried for hours to get past levels in games like Mega Man. These days a game meant for kids seems to mean "extremely simple". Is this just because of the prior design limitations, or do you feel like kids games hold your hand too much?
Stuff that's aimed at children these days is far more in tune with what kids respond to, and their attention spans than anything we had when we were young. Young kids really respond to repetition, simple gameplay themes, and they love seeing tangible progress - so the stuff we're seeing these days taps into those needs far more effectively than the stuff that Sega and Nintendo subjected us to.
Right at launch the Wii had an accessory for consumers to purchase, the nunchuk, then came the Balance Board and Motion Plus. Now we're hearing about heart monitors and horseback riding seats. Is Nintendo shooting themselves in the foot and possibly driving the new audience they've managed to get away with peripheral fatigue?
You'd think, but so far Nintendo has managed to ensure that any new peripheral comes bundled with an essential Nintendo experience. I have to admit to having some serious doubts about the MotionPlus at first, but after playing Wii Sports Resort it's easy to see how they'll get the device into people's homes. So far the sales numbers seem to indicate that it's working, too.
Why isn't the Wii considered next-gen? Advertisements for PS3/360 games seem to always say, available on all next-gen systems. As we get closer to leaving the uncanny valley behind, shouldn't we look to things besides graphics to determine if something is worthy of being called next-gen?
That term is a little outdated now, isn't it? Can we call anything that's three years old "next gen" any more?
So, we have a date on the re-release of EGM now, December 1st. I myself am a fan of the idea of making a higher quality, collectible magazine that they can charge more for. What do you think is their best chance for success?
I still love magazines. There's an art to making good magazines. Simon Cox (the creative director at Ziff Davis when I was editorial director) used to spend a great deal of time discussing and working with the teams on the art of "magazinecraft" - it's all about understanding your audience, and providing a well paced, good looking, well-written, thoughtfully-produced product that exceeds the readers' expectations.
Given how magazines fit into the overall media landscape these days, they need to provide something quite different; they have to be something that your audience is prepared to both WAIT for and PAY for. You can't just bang out some previews and reviews and a few other stories, because you can find that in a million places online.
Steve has the luxury of rebooting EGM in a pretty unique media environment. The days of second-guessing what should be in print, versus what should be online are pretty much over now. Print has strengths, and always will have - so the secret to success is embracing them and not diluting them.
I have to say, having spent a few years away from print, I have a whole new perspective on the way you approach content across different media types. In the unlikely event that I'd ever work in print again, I think I'd feel much more confident about making some bold moves. I hope to see EGM do that later this year.
I'll wrap things up with the obligatory "getting into the industry" question. What's your advice for someone looking to get into the journalism/press side of the games industry? I've started a blog that I try to write on everyday, and I post my stuff to sites like Bitmob and 1up to try to get more recognition, is there anything else you'd recommend doing?
Fundamental writing skill is always going to be core. There are still a lot of people out there that seem to think that being "into games" is enough, and it really isn't. Beyond that though, it's showing that you can think through an idea and craft stories that are more than just one-dimensional and boring. Being able to pitch a story and explain why it's interesting and different, and an interesting perspective on a subject is always going to impress an editor.
Because the media landscape has changed so much, especially in games, the whole previews/reviews thing just isn't going to cut it - especially from an aspirational standpoint. To get your foot in the door these days it's going to be all about finding a good angle. As part of that, I'd definitely embrace social media, and be very careful about what you project on Twitter, Facebook and in any gaming communities you join. That stuff is a big part of how subjects will research you, and they can have a very immediate effect on your ability to get the access you want - whether it's to products, or (especially) people.