[Why is IGN acquiring smaller competitors, and what does this move tell us about the state of the games media today, and in the future? Gamasutra business editor Colin Campbell offers a view.
On the face of it, News Corp's plans
to buy UGO and 1UP, bundle them up with IGN Entertainment, and roll the whole package out as a separate company, looks like a matter of convenience and an old-fashioned traffic play.
But it reveals deeper truths about the formidable challenges faced by the games media's leading players. The media is once again lurching in a new direction. And the readers of these sites are changing in how they view games and how they view themselves.
When News Corp bought IGN in 2005, it was all a-flutter with the notion of an online play that would give it access to the 18-35 male demographic.
This was also the time when the company bought MySpace, then running at social network warp speed 9, and about to slam into Planet Gargantua, aka Facebook.
News Corp wants rid of IGN because it never really sat well in the company's culture and no longer fits in with its hard-news strategy. (It wants rid of MySpace because it's an embarrassment.)
The chatterers have been saying for a few years that IGN is open for a sale. There was a rumor
doing the rounds that GameStop, sitting on a mound of cash and seeking a credible online strategy, might become the new owner, especially as IGN and that venerable retailer have a content-and-traffic deal. GameStop is no stranger to the media, being a publisher of its own magazine for over 10 years. But an IGN purchase hasn't emerged.
So, here's News Corp fattening up IGN with some easy-buys, courtesy of Hearst, yet another mainstream media giant allured to the games industry's comely charms but ultimately confused and dazed by our wily ways.
The addition of UGO and 1UP will give IGN much needed traffic and inventory, allowing it to look as big and impressive as possible for the spin-off and subsequent (hoped-for) sale or IPO.
IGN needs inventory in order to show fiscal growth. The days of rapid organic growth in this sector have long-since fled, and this is where we get to the problems facing such outlets.
In the 1990s IGN and GameSpot grew because they were better than anything else on the market and, mostly, run by smarter people. They rode the rise of the internet and built up loyal fanbases. In the last decade, as the nature of he market has changed, both have seen most of their growth come from their preeminence on Google. So growth in the past has come from benevolent circumstances. But in the future, growth must come from a darker place.
Like everything else in the world of media, IGN and GameSpot look towards social media for new readers. But social media is also a problem, because readers are spending an awful lot of time over there, instead of over here. Facebook is the competition.
Also, unlike with Google rankings, bigness is not a guarantee of anything. Indeed, in order to woo this audience, editorial directors are likely to seek novelty and innovation from their editors, which ought to be a thing to see.
The Facebook generation is different from the previous generations that IGN and GameSpot have courted and won. Consumers today love games, but only as part of a wider entertainment buffet. They are less likely to be entranced by niche, to be interested in detail, to be self-identified "gamers."
I'm certainly not suggesting that there is no such thing as a traditional hardcore; only that it will not grow as it has in the past, and many people who spend a lot of time playing games do not spend as much time reading about them as their uncles did in the previous two decades.
The success of games as a mainstream pursuit has lessened the existential point of the specialist press.
Now, don't get me wrong. If you are marketing a game and you are NOT partnering with these media giants, you ought to be fired. They deliver committed, knowledgeable, active consumers in huge numbers.
But in the boardrooms of these companies the discussion is not about their relevance and dominance today, but of their position tomorrow. It's worth remembering how these guys utterly dismantled the hapless dudes who ran the old print business back in the day. And they aren't about to let the same thing happen to them.
So much for the big picture. Back in the here and now, what will happen to UGO and 1UP? If IGN is making an inventory grab, it doesn't make much sense to shut them down, at least not in the short term. But it also does not make sense for a company to be running three networks that all do much the same thing. It is not easy to imagine an advertising pitch to say, EA, along the lines of 'hey, now we get to review your game THRICE!" IGN already published GameSpy. Where does the madness end?
There may be mileage in pitching one network towards the younger end of the market; UGO is already strong here. Perhaps another could throw itself wholly into the world of social media. 1UP, in the glory days before it was gutted of any and all extraneous costs, was extremely strong as a community and social hub.
Word is that IGN may pick up another one of the also-rans that make up the middle-end of the games media business. The play being to simply to look as large as possible, and to state the case that IGN and its affiliates have a market-share that dwarfs GameSpot. But from a long-term, strategic point of view, this doesn't make a lot of sense.
It's a short-term gambit. IGN's smart management surely understands that they cannot acquire their way into the uncertain future. The plan to spin the company away from News Corp leads to change and thereby, to growth, and this acquisition is merely a means to an end.
[As well as being business editor for Gamasutra, Colin Campbell works for a marketing agency. You can follow him on Twitter at @brandnarrative.