Gamasutra is now providing full transcripts of selected Gamasutra podcasts
featuring interviews and lectures with key game industry figures, starting with the recent interview
with Games For Windows EIC Jeff Green.
At the time, we explained the podcast in the following way:
"Today's edition of the Gamasutra Podcast, presented by Tom Kim, features an in-depth interview with Jeff Green, the Editor-in-chief of Computing Gaming World magazine. In it, Jeff discusses the reasons why he and his staff at Ziff Davis decided to rebrand Computer Gaming World as Games For Windows magazine, how to break PC gaming's image as the 'red-headed stepchild' of video gaming, and a plethora of other fascinating issues."
A full, unexpurgated transcript of the podcast follows:
"Tom Kim: This is the Gamasutra podcast show number nine, August 29th 2006.
You're listening to the Gamasutra podcast on GDC radio. I'm your host Tom Kim. Today we feature an interview with Jeff Green, the editor-in-chief of Computer Gaming World magazine. In our talk, Jeff gets into the reasons why he and his staff decided to re-brand Computer Gaming World as Games for Windows magazine.
Tom: Welcome to the Gamasutra podcast on GDC radio. I'm your host Tom Kim. Today, I'm here with Jeff Green. Jeff is the editor-in-chief of Computer Gaming World magazine, part of the 1UP network. Jeff is a 15-year Ziff Davis veteran, and he started out as a book editor at ZD Press, moving to Mac Week magazine in 1993, and then he fulfilled a lifelong dream by joining Computer Gaming World in 1996.
Jeff was initially the sports and adventure game editor, but found his true calling a year later when he began writing Greenspeak, the humor column that has graced CGW's back page ever since. Under Jeff's leadership and vision, Computer Gaming World has become one of the most respected and longest running publications for core PC gamers.
That's kind of why I have you on the show today, Jeff, because you're going to be re-branding Computer Gaming World as Games for Windows magazine.
Jeff Green: Yeah.
Tom: So why don't you tell me a little bit about what you've been up to?
Jeff: I'll tell you first that if I never have to utter the phrase, "Games for Windows" again, I will be so happy. I guess maybe I'm not supposed to say that. [laughs]
Tom: Actually, it's in your legal clause. You're allowed to say that.
Jeff: Oh, that's right! I have total editorial independence.
What I've been doing is basically been doing is spreading the word on this re-branding. I've been doing it both on podcasts like yours and hanging out on all the message boards on the one side, and on the other side (my day to day business life)has actually been co-opted by our sales and marketing people and have been on a two week road show to convince all the publishers and advertisers that they don't have to be scared just like the readers don't have to scared.
Tom: I feel a little bit of your pain, actually, because as soon as I read the Ziff Davis press release and listened to your podcast I immediately emailed you and one of your PR directors at Ziff...
Tom: ...before I could even get you on the show I had the story scooped out from underneath me by the guys at Evil Avatar. Which is fine, but from that perspective you're very decidedly in your editorial trying to find the place of print publication alongside of online media.
Tom: It's made me think about how I was going to structure my discussion with you so as not to retread the ground that you've already been treading at every other media source you've been appearing.
Jeff: Yes. Of course, I don't mind the retreading because I realize this is going to take quite a bit of hammering home of what we're up to and what we're not doing and what this is about and what it's not about. I understand that this is a big deal for a lot of people.
And it's a big deal to me, you know? I have worked here for nine years. Johnny Wilson hired me, and I completely understand the legacy of this magazine. And so, I understand that it's going to take a lot of people a long time to kind of get it. But I am hoping that after they see an issue or two, they'll realize it's not that big a deal.
Tom: Just in case people haven't heard what's going on with the publication, just briefly explain it. They can get this information on the Ziff Davis website; they can get it by listening to your podcast. Just summarize quickly what's happening.
Jeff: OK. I'll give as quick a version as I can.
Tom: You're well practiced now; you've been doing this...
Jeff: I am well practiced; I've been doing this spiel. I think the most important thing for a lot of listeners to understand is that this came from Ziff's side, not Microsoft. And I myself was involved from the beginning, which goes back about nine months ago.
And the reason was that we had felt that CGW was hitting a wall in terms of our exposure. We were very proud of the content, but we were getting very frustrated with our ability to get on to newsstands. It's a hard business. Our subscriber base has always been really great and solid, but on the newsstand it hasn't been that great.
So, we had different ideas about to do. But one of them was somebody -- not me -- one day saying, "You know, there's an official PlayStation magazine. And there's an official Xbox magazine. What would it mean if there was an official PC gaming magazine?" We took the idea to Microsoft, and it just so happened that was the point at which Peter Moore (who was running the Xbox division) took over the PC Gaming division that use to be under the Windows Group.
So the people who were running Microsoft Gaming were running PowerPoint and Word, which may explain why everything was so incredibly uninspired back then. And he was interested in re-branding PC gaming as a platform. Like this is a cool thing you could be doing with your time, just like the Xbox is. I think they felt really lousy that over the last few years they had watched PC gaming sort of get this red-headed stepchild reputation.
But on the other hand, there would be games coming along like World of Warcraft
that were just completely kicking ass and making a ton of money. So I think they just realized they had blown the potential here.
Basically, it was a joint scheme that would benefit everybody. They would re-brand PC gaming as Games for Windows. It would be something that would apply to everything. They are designing new kiosks that will appear in stores like Best Buy and all the gaming stores that will carry PC games that will now be in uniform boxes just like Xbox games and PS2 games. They are going to have stations in these kiosks where you can actually play the games.
And in turn, we're going to have a magazine that is branded as the official Games for Windows magazine. So, it will be easy for consumers to go to a store, see what PC gaming is; not be scared be scared by it, not feel like they're wandering into the adult section of the DVD store. It's going to look nice and neat. And also have a magazine that will hopefully help them.
But it's probably more important for me to say, for your listeners, it's still CGW. It's still me running it; it's still the exact same staff, running all the exact same sections we are. Really, nothing is changing. Why we're doing it is because that kind of mainstream exposure -- to have your magazine available on a kiosk like that. That is gold to people like us who are writers and editors. And we just want our stuff to be seen and read.
Tom: You really got into a little bit of detail about that in another one of your interviews. I believe it was Ars Technica, where you're kind of explaining that Ziff had been cutting your newsstand distribution over the past few years.
Jeff: They have been.
Tom: In the meanwhile, you've been really working hard. I've noticed this because I've been reading Computer Gaming World since when there was that rat pack crew of Johnny Wilson, Mark Sipe, Charles Ardai, M. Evan Brooks, and Scorpia. I've been reading the magazine since back then, and seeing it go through these bell weather shifts in your editorial.
And I've liked the direction you've been taking it the past few years. You're really opening up the editorial more. But meanwhile, your distribution is falling.
Jeff: Right. I know that there's ups and downs and get on a roll, and then you get in a slump. But I feel like CGW has been on a roll. I know I'm biased, but I've also been here long enough to recognize when we sucked as well. And I feel like we don't right now. But it's hard when you feel like you're producing quality work and then half the email you get everyday when you come in the office every morning is, "I can't find your magazine on the newsstand." It's very demoralizing.
One other thing that happened was we did some focus groups on the new magazine idea. Which, if people don't know what that means, is we brought in people to sit in a room and we don't tell them too much because we don't want them to be biased one way or the other, but we say, "Here's what the idea is for this new magazine is. Would you be interested or not?"
This group we brought in -- they were specifically not Computer Gaming World readers. We had questions before they came in to filter them out. So I was sitting at a table with six people in their 20s who played PC games and none of them had even heard of our magazine. To me, that was so dismaying; it was like, "OK, well this is another reason we need to do this."
Tom: That brings up a good point, because this is not the first major editorial shift your magazine's gone through.
Tom: Back in '94, I think it was, you started introducing numerical scores and you got bitched at for that.
Tom: And then you took them out recently and got bitched at for that again.
Jeff: [laughs] Yeah.
Tom: So these readers in their 20s who weren't readers of your magazine. Were they reading other PC magazines? Were they reading more mainstream media publication? Or were they mostly online in the blogosphere?
Jeff: There were some online, but there wasn't as much as you would think. They did read mainstream magazines and in almost all cases they read PC Gamer, our main competitor. Because they hadn't heard of us, I was able to say: OK, that's not because they thought PC Gamer was better, even though maybe some of them might if they did read both. But in this case it's just because they knew PC Gamer existed.
And the reason for that is that their newsstand presence is much stronger than ours. Now, this a just a decision that Ziff Davis made a long time ago, which is to be more subscriber driven and less newsstand driven.
Tom: That gets into the granularity of the magazine publishing business.
Jeff: It really does.
Tom: And actually I don't mind talking about that because it effects your editorial.
Jeff: Yes, it does.
Tom: For instance, the reason I asked that question was because you're focus testing these people who don't read your magazine. But, at the same time, most of your revenue comes from your subscriber base, not from newsstand sales.
Jeff: That's correct.
Tom: So, there's this risk you undertake where you're trying to revamp your publication but you don't want to leave behind your readership. You don't want to leave behind your core audience.
Jeff: I've been painfully aware of that from the very start, before we even went to Microsoft on day one. That's absolutely crucial to me. I don't want to alienate the long time readers. I don't want to lose even one of them. I know we are, and that's going to feel lousy because obviously we value those readers. That's who we write for. But that's why I'm trying to spend a lot of time doing these kinds of things, because I'm trying to assure people as best as I can without having the proof in front of me yet to give to anybody, that they really don't need to worry.
I understand all the possibly alienating points that can be brought up, which would be: how could you let the CGW name go away after 25 years? How could you do this to the legacy of Johnny Wilson? Or how could you align yourself with the evil Microsoft empire? How could you sacrifice your independence for that kind of corporate sponsorship? All of that, I get it. And I hear it, because I had them all before I even talked to anybody about it. And they're totally valid concerns.
But those are all things that we take very seriously, and we worked out into the legal contract. It includes complete editorial independence from Microsoft, which means (among other things), they don't see what we're writing ahead of time. They don't know what our covers going to be on a month-to-month basis. They have no say on what our cover will be. We have every right to bash any PC game whether it's made by Microsoft or not, just like we would in CGW.
It's essentially the same magazine, as we said at the beginning at the podcast. It's the same magazine with a different coat of paint. But that coat of paint allows the magazine that was CGW to get into many, many, many more stores than it did.
So my goal is to not lose any of those original readers -- the CGW that are very much our meat and potatoes. I don't want to lose them. But what I want to do is get a lot more people in who have never read us before and who may find out that there's actually a good magazine here.
Tom: All the attention you're receiving definitely says you're a relevant publication.
Tom: GameDaily was just acquired by AOL...
Tom: ...but you don't see Mark Friedler having to go out and answer to all the same people that you have, or go one some huge press junket. And that's not to disparage GameDaily. It's a fine publication, I read it everyday. But they just don't have that same history. So part of that, I think is, that people care about your pub.
Tom: When I use to work in game development, there's almost this feeling that you're kind of ashamed of admitting that to your family and friends.
Jeff: Of course, right.
Tom: And even now, as I do this podcast out of my office at work, my day job is not in games journalism. I hate to say this, but in a way I'm glad it's kind of quite around here. I think it partially gets down to the public perception of gaming and the game industry as well. I think part of the reason that people care about your pub is gaming itself is an emerging form.
The ones who play it get it. You don't have to explain it to us. We play it, and it's so completely subsumes us that we just react to the games in and of themselves. We don't care if the games are stuck genre hell; they're fun experiences for us. And part of the reason we respond to this, is we want to see it do better.
Tom: And by extension, we want to see the press that surrounds it do better as well. I've been watching what's been happening to the game press in general over its lifetime because I care about the media and I care about the coverage.
Jeff: Right, and that's what I'm trying to tell everybody here at the magazine and readers and other people -- is that, let's not be afraid of success. We can go to a bigger level of exposure and mainstream attention and not compromise our willingness and desire to serve a hardcore gaming audience.
I'm absolutely committed to not "dumbing down" the magazine because it's being more widely available to a mainstream crown. I'm just trying to say, gaming is getting bigger and bigger. There are more gamers, but let's talk to them. But in the course of that, if we have this official status and we're suddenly available everywhere rather than being the niche magazine, that doesn't have to be a bad thing.
It's kind of the same thing as Microsoft's re-branding of this platform here. You can scoff at it and say it's ridiculous or "who cares?" or whatever, but the symbolic notion of what Microsoft is doing here is actually pretty cool. And I'm not just saying that because we're the official mag now. They're saying they ignored this platform, and they're trying to legitimize it now.
I think it's a cool thing for PC gamers that they'll be able to go into a store in the near future and not feel crappy for buying a PC game. Right?
Tom: I sense this defensiveness in your voice when you back up the Games for Windows initiative. Part of that is because when any publication takes on an "official" in pari materia, you'll forever be burdened with the proof of skepticism regarding your objectivity.
Tom: And of course, every unofficial magazine can and most probably will jump in and claim their 100% independence status...
Jeff: Of course.
Tom: ...and by implication their unbiased judgment.
Jeff: Right. The great thing about that for me is that our main competitor is PC Gamer who's owned by Future. And, of course, the magazine that sits about 20 feet away from them on the same floor in the same building and owned by the same people is the official Xbox magazine.
So if they want to sling any mud about partnering with Microsoft, it's going to sound a little fake, I think.
Tom: But, as you said, it's a very difficult business. It's a very competitive business. In all fairness, I think I have to say I like Dan Moore quite a bit. I think he's a bright, articulate guy...
Jeff: Yeah, I'm not trying to do a snarky potshot thing at them -- well, maybe a little bit.
Jeff: Of course, we're fully expecting them to come out and say, at some point, "We're the only independent PC Gaming magazine." Sure, that's what I would do if they got the license. And that perception is probably never going to end, just they way it doesn't with OXM and just the way it doesn't with OPM over here (the Official Playstation Magazine.).
It's the nature of it. I could probably put, "Microsoft Sucks!" on the cover every month and it still won't change that perception to so extent. All I can do is just be as honest as I can here and then have us be as objective as I trust my staff will be when it comes out.
I mean, gamers aren't stupid. If we put out a magazine and all the sudden it's reading like a Microsoft propaganda rag, how long do you think it's going to take to figure it out and then stop reading us? Plus who wants to write a magazine like that? Why would I? I don't get any money from Microsoft out of this deal. We're getting to use their brand as a way of making our magazine look more appealing to more readers.
Tom: I think that's an important point to bring up, is that no money exchanged hands in the process of this deal.
Tom: But, at the same time, you're going to get a lot of co-branding and co-promotion from Microsoft from this deal. In other words, every instance of "Games for Windows" in retail will have a drop-in subscription card for the publication. And I'm sure it'll be emblazoned prominently in all their in-store displays, and all that kind of stuff.
I guess the main question is: how does that affect your editorial? Contractually, it's stated that they can't affect your editorial.
Jeff: No, they can't.
Tom: I guess like every other publisher they can give their opinion after you publish something. But, it remains to be seen if some marketing weasel will try to apply some pressure on you -- and I use the term marketing weasel with some affection because I happen to be one.
Jeff: I'll be honest, and I'll say that I'll be surprised if they don't do that. I'm sure at some point they're going to go, "Hey, it would be great if you guys could do this." Or maybe retroactively they'll see an article where we're saying, "Don't bother upgrading to Vista the first time around." Or something. And they'll say, "Boy that really would have been great if you didn't write that." You know?
I'm sure we're going to get some of that. How I react to it -- I really hope I keep doing the right thing. I've told friends of mine who don't work at Ziff and who have just been my friends for a long time and know the kind of person I am and what I've built my career around, if they ever see me capitulating on my magazine please but a bullet to my head and/or just pull me away from this job. That's not what I've spent my whole career doing, to suddenly be a shill for Microsoft.
Tom: I actually like to refer listeners back to an interview you did with Armchair Empire, back in 2000.
Tom: The questioner had asked you, "Will Microsoft eventually own everything?" And your reply was, "Yes, and I'm not sure it's a bad thing. As much as hate to say thing, because I use to hate them and because when you compliment them it's kind of like complimenting Darth Vader, they're turning into quite the amazing game publisher and they're very focused and committed to quality right now. The disturbing truth about them is that they're very good at what they do."
Tom: I think that was a bit prescient of you. I've been watching what Microsoft's been doing too, and I'm excited by their Games for Windows initiative. And I'm excited about the PC as an emerging, better-supported platform because there's some exciting things happening in that space.
Every year, it seems, as consoles have become more prevalent in the gaming landscape, this pundit or that pundit starts bemoaning the death of PC gaming. But it hasn't happened yet.
Tom: I actually can't take credit for this idea entirely because it was posited by your chief competitor Dan Morris. That really, it's an exciting platform to see the launch of new IP. They can kind of test the waters there, and if it does well they can extend it to other platforms from there.
Tom: And you're seeing that. And the PC, of course, is a natural platform to test out new technologies like online distribution.
Tom: So, I don't think PC gaming is dead by a long shot, and really I've been watching Microsoft pretty closely and eyeing them with a healthy amount of suspicion as well but I have to say they really seem to be on ball with this.
Jeff: I think it's good for us all to still maintain a healthy dose of skepticism. Are they going to get bored with this and then bail? Every once and a while over the nine years that I've been in this business, they'll say, "Now we're taking PC gaming seriously." And then they kind of don't.
It does seem at this point that they really do mean it. And I think at least part of the credit for that has to go to Peter Moore again who is being very successful at running the Xbox side of the business. And when they handed this over to him, I think he's the kind of guy who doesn't want to run something that looks like mess. I think that he was very motivated to make this platform look cool.
For me, the most exciting moment of all E3 last year was the announcement of Live Anywhere.
Tom: I think a lot of people don't really get the potential of such a service.
Jeff: Which is really huge. It's kind of ironic in a way too, because Xbox Live is just Microsoft's proprietary version of the kind of online gaming that PC gamers have been doing for 20 years anyway. So it's not like they invented online gaming. But it's just that the system is so sleek and there's so many smart things about it -- the whole achievements angle, all that kind of stuff that has really built just a very, very strong community.
And now, with Live Anywhere, which is suppose to be introduced in Vista, the notion that PC gamers can enjoy that same kind of structure and play against console folks to me I think is huge, and is kind of genius in a way.
Tom: Well, in a way. But even that's view with some skepticism by your core PC gamer because they might see this as a console-fication of their beloved platform.
Jeff: They might, yes. And I might, too. It remains to be seen. But I do like the achievements structure. I think it's just a clever motivating force. It will be a much tougher sell for PC because we can just play live without having to go though Microsoft. We don't need that kind of structure. Why would someone like Blizzard be motivated to even participate in Live Anywhere? They're raking in millions without Microsoft's help at this point.
Tom: Also on the PC side, frequently you don't have to pay for it either.
Tom: So it remains to be seen what kind of a pricing structure Microsoft might announce, but then it's a value proposition. What you have to ask is: what is the user experience? Is the user experience worth the cost of entry for the service.
And they're not stupid either. They have free Xbox Live service.
Tom: But, if you want the extra bells and whistles, then you have to buy into it.
Jeff: Yeah. Yeah.
Tom: So, let's get back to an earlier point. We were talking about credibility.
Tom: That begs the question of: credibility to what? What is your opinion on what the role of the enthusiast press should be? Is it a consumer rating service? Is it a game industry booster? Is it a game industry barometer?
Jeff: I think you'll probably get different answers from different people you talk to in the gaming press. I'll have to say that I don't feel our role is to be a cheerleader for the gaming industry, anymore than Premiere magazine has to be a cheerleader for the movie industry.
The way I look at it, and the way I believe this magazine was originally formed to do by Russell Sipe and Johnny is to be the voice of the enthusiast. And just to represent the voice of the gamer. We are all gamers who work here, and so we try to write the magazine that we would want to read.
It's tough because we rely 100% totally on the cooperation of the game companies to make our magazine. Other than writing reviews (which we can go buy the game on our own and play it if we want) in other aspects -- cover stories, previews, and interviews -- we have to work in cooperation with them. So, we can't have openly hostile relationships obviously. That's not how anybody does business.
And yet I don't feel our job is to spout their party line. It's one reason why most of us here hate writing previews and why when we do write previews we try our best -- we don't always succeed, but we try our best to editorialize as much as we can because no one wants to feel like their just rewriting a press release.
That's not our job. My job isn't to convince you that Crysis
is going to be cool. That's EA's job. But what is our job to do is to go see all the games coming out and if there are cool ones and we honestly feel they're cool, I feel then we can say that.
Tom: There's this other difficulties there as well, and that is that it's really unfair to judge a product before it's done.
Jeff: Yeah, it's tough. To write a negative preview is to basically not give them the chance -- the game isn't' done. It'd be like reviewing the Lord of the Rings movie before Peter Jackson had stuck all the CGI in there or something. Of course it's going to look like crap, because it's not done.
It's a notion that's unique to this entertainment form. We do not read book reviews when the author is still writing it. Then, on the other hand, for us to write gush, oh-my-god-this-is-going-to-be-the-best-game-ever previews is equally ludicrous, because it could suck when it comes out, and God knows that has happened many, many times over in all the magazines, including ours.
Tom: So, you brought up an example earlier, saying you don't think that Premiere magazine has to be a booster for the movie industry.
Tom: And actually, in your podcast you had said that sports magazines like Sports Illustrated do not need a function of reviewing a sport in order for them to have relevance among their readership; but I think there is a difference here, and the main difference is that games are still such a new form of entertainment, they are still such a new medium. Imagine if Sports Illustrated had to explain the rules of baseball before they even wrote an article about baseball.
Tom: The other side of this is, your publication is really a meat-and-potatoes kind of enthusiast publication, much like Car & Driver is for the automobile industry. And just because of the nature of the publication, you don't really see a lot of trenchant criticism of automobiles, because essentially they are talking about product.
Jeff: Yeah, that is very true. In fact, the automobile magazine industry goes through a lot of the same things that we do here. They get accused of all the same things: that the previews of the new automobiles are gushy, or that they favor one car manufacturer over another. It is probably the same in any enthusiast's market.
And of course it is right. We don't want to write a hostile, skeptical magazine towards the game industry, because we love games. The people reading it, they are paying money because they like games, and they want to read about cool games to buy. They don't want to read 100 pages of negativity. We are not trying to boost the game industry; we are just trying to boost gaming. You know, the way you'll sit around with your friends and just talk about how awesome this game was, or the cool thing you did in this level, or the goofy things you saw people do in World of Warcraft
That is the kind of thing we are trying to embrace. We are trying to embrace the community of gaming and gamers, and not just be the corporate mouthpiece of the people making the games.
Tom: Yet, at the same time, academics like Henry Jenkins who are really supporters and boosters of the gaming industry say things like, "This press is lacking in its critical assessment of the medium, and that hurts the form as well." That does not mean you have to be a cheerleader or a promoter, but I think what he suggests is if you take the writing and treatment of the medium more seriously, perhaps the people who make the games will put a little more stake into what they are doing.
Jeff: I agree; and it is not just us. I have seen other magazines -- certainly Steve Bauman's mag, Computer Games Magazine, has. We have tried to go out of our way to take a more serious and more critical approach at times. In the new magazine we wrote a few-page article on some games being made in the Middle East that are taking an Islamic, anti-American point of view in war games settings. We did another article that is about a group of folks over here who are staging in-game peace protests in games like Counterstrike; they are gathering and sitting down, and spray-painting peace signs.
We are trying to take either a more news-y angle, or a more serious angle in the articles we do; but sadly, what is often the case is, with those articles, we will either get no feedback whatsoever -- I mean, like ZERO -- or sort of, "Why did you bore us with that crap?" feedback.
Tom: I am the reader who reads your letter from the editor. I am the reader who reads all the blurbs, all the descriptions, of what all of your contributors are playing that month. I am the one who reads your Greenspeak page at the end of every issue. And I very much enjoy the articles with a little more meaty editorial to them, that cover issues of the industry; and you have really been trying to do more of that in your publication. Even things like the Tom Chick and Bruce Geryk. Tom vs. Bruce, I think, is brilliant.
Tom: Well you were saying earlier, the reason why Computer Gaming World was founded was because these fans, these fanatics, they felt this need to get what they loved, to publish what they loved and talk about it. You had people like Scorpia doing these dissections of game play. You are getting a little bit back to that with Tom and Bruce, kind of conveying the game-playing experience. Well, how do you talk about games?
Jeff: Yeah, because they are different to cover than, say, film or novels. Maybe it is not a language of critique, it is a language of potential, or experience. That is, at least, what Chuck Klosterman thought in his essay that he wrote for Esquire magazine, "Why Is There No Lester Bangs in Videogames?" Did you read the response from Clive Thompson in Wired?
Tom: I did read that, yeah. That was great. What do you have to say about the role of criticism in game publications?
Jeff: The role of criticism?
Tom: By criticism, I don't mean being critical. I mean "commentator on art" or perhaps "evaluator of art".
Jeff: I think that is absolutely a crucial part of the magazine, is to offer criticism and commentary, on the industry and on the games, for sure.
Tom: Also, there is this whole nebulous issue floating around with the review structure.
Tom: For one, I happen to like what you have done with your reviews. It is drifting a little bit more into critique and a little bit further away from reviews, which is something I think the medium needs; but that has really been met with mixed results from your readership.
Jeff: Yeah it has, very mixed results -- "mixed" being sort of a euphemism for "terrible." [both laugh] It was shocking to me, how much of a big deal it was to our readers when we took that number out.
Also, the notion of what we are trying to do in that section, besides just taking the numbers out, is, "Let's not just write a regular old review like we used to before the Internet existed, before people would have read 20 reviews before ours makes it out into print. Let's not pretend that those reviews did not exist. Let's embrace them. Let's take our review and have it be kind of a meta-review. We will still review the game, we will still offer a commentary, but let's also talk about what other people are saying, and whether those opinions are valid or not."
It is a formula we have been trying to get in the magazine, but the overwhelming feedback we are getting is, "Man, I buy your magazine because I want to hear what you think about Prey
. I don't want to hear about what IGN said about it, or about whoever else said it. I buy your magazine because I value your opinion."
Tom: But is that really what they are saying? I mean, maybe what they are saying is, "Just give me back my pithy, 100-word review and a number on the end."
Jeff: I think to some extent they are saying that, yeah. They just want their number back, because that is what everybody is used to now; and you said this at the beginning of the podcast, and that's funny. We got SO much hell when we added scores in '94, and now 12 years later we are getting an equal amount of hate back for taking them out. I do think, very much, it is our role to evaluate and offer that kind of criticism, because a lot of what people want from magazines like this is the validation of their own opinion. They want to go, "Yeah, that's what I thought."
Besides that, who better is there to judge and evaluate a game than people who spend their whole lives doing it, right? I read my console reviews from the console magazines, not from Entertainment Weekly or Playboy or whoever, because I feel like, "Well they don't really get it anyway. They are not like me."
Tom: Well I guess I am a freak, because I go one level deeper than that. I notice who is writing the review.
Jeff: Well yeah, there is that too.
Tom: Because it is not just a blanket editorial voice that comes out of CGW or now Games For Windows magazine.
Jeff: No, you're right.
Tom: It is not like a liberal or a conservative bias in a newspaper. I think why I read reviews, where I find value in them, is if I can get some assurance that the reviewer somehow shares my opinion; somehow that I have something in common with the way that they evaluate the games they play.
Tom: You are not alone in facing this. Every traditional media outlet, from newspapers to television, everyone else has increasing competition from disruptive technologies like the Internet, and blogging, and podcasting. Back in the day, Edwin Lahey, who ran the old Chicago Daily News, once said, "All I require of my publisher is that he remains solvent." That is no longer the case.
And on the other side of that, the traditional wisdom was that the game industry needed the enthusiast's press, and I'm not sure that is the case either, anymore.
Jeff: I am not sure it is true either, yeah. I think one reason that you see the gaming magazines--I'm not guessing, that is THE main reason--is because, as gaming gets bigger and more mainstream, they need the enthusiast press less, because what they needed it most for was to advertise their own games.
Now that their take on that is, "Well we already have those guys. We know that all the guys who would spend money on EGM or PC Gamer or whoever are going to buy Halo 3
, so why even bother? Instead, let's put our ad dollars in Entertainment Weekly, or more mainstream publications where they can reach more people in a mainstream capacity."
That is the reason why the magazines have physically gotten so much smaller, is because they are advertising less in the enthusiast press, because it is not as necessary to them.
Tom: Well on the business side, I think this is also an issue of the consolidation of existing media. You are struggling with this problem of relevance and disruptive technology; this is a trend that is at least a generation old.
Tom: There is a sociologist named Richard Maisel who has documented this process of media de-massification, and how media companies are fighting to resolve that is they are consolidating on their end.
Tom: So you were talking on the Evil Avatar Podcast about the fact that, say, the reason that videogame advertising runs in comic books, even though some of them have a far lower circulation than your publication, is simply because the parent company is Warner Brothers, not Ziff Davis.
Tom: And actually, Ziff Davis is not a parent company, because Ziff in turn is owned by a holding company; and a holding company, I might add, that has nothing to do with the business of publishing or the business of games.
Jeff: Exactly. This story has been in the news a little bit, with the holding company saying that Ziff Davis is up for sale, and people asking me and other folks if we are worried. It is really the opposite. I mean, the fact is, when you are bought by a holding company, that is all holding companies do, is they just buy companies to sell them; but they only want to sell them when they feel like they are going to make a profit. That is their whole business: buy companies that are not doing so well, fix them up, and then sell them and make a profit.
But when you are owned by a holding company, you are not owned by somebody whose business it is to make media, so Ziff Davis being sold, in a way, is good news for us. It means, depending on who buys us, instead of a bank owning us it will be a media company; and if it is a big one, that is probably a great thing for us.
Tom: Maybe not even a big one, but at least one that is more attuned to your business.
Jeff: Right. One that is actually interested in publishing would be nice.
Tom: This is akin to the sales of the Knight-Ridder network. They could have been sold to somebody who is more motivated by profit than editorial, but luckily for them they were picked up by the McClatchy Group, who actually seems to care about what they write.
Jeff: I mean, obviously anybody who buys Ziff Davis is going to want to do it for the profit. I mean, duh, that is why everybody is in it. But yeah, profit plus interest in publishing would be great.
That thing that I mentioned on the Evil Avatar Podcast about the comic books, that was something I had just learned. That was new to me. Did you see Seth Schiesel's article in the New York Times a while ago, about the game industry's self-perception?
Tom: Well I was getting to that earlier with my conversation. "The Gamer Shame."
Jeff: Gamer shame and kind of game publisher shame, too.
Jeff: He made the point of saying if you are hanging out with people and they ask you what you did the last weekend, and you say, "I rented Season One of Lost and I watched 20 episodes in a row, " people would go, "Oh wow, cool, " even though it is kind of a pathetic thing to do with your Saturday -- pathetic but fun, and certainly I would like to do that, too. But if you say, "I spent 20 hours in World of Warcraft
, " you would be taken as the basement-dwelling loser.
Tom: Perhaps among a certain age group or a certain demographic that is changing and it will continue to change, but that is part of the growth process of games.
But you know, this gets to another interesting phenomenon. Increasingly you are seeing coverage of the game industry in the mainstream press as well. Like this week's Harper's has an article called "Grand Theft Education."
Jeff: Oh, wow. Okay, I haven't seen that yet.
Tom: There is a forum discussion between two educators and the guy who wrote "Everything Bad is Good For You", and Raph Koster. I think the title is a little misleading. It's "Grand Theft Education: Videogames and Your Child's Mind, " but it is really not half as sensational as that. The question that they posit to the panel is, "What if you were to design a game that would teach reading and writing skills?" So not only are you getting it from the blogs and podcasts, you are getting it from the mainstream media.
Jeff: Well, and I think that that is good news. Certainly as a gamer, I want my hobby justified, and I spend a lot of time talking to parents and other adults about that, and I get so frustrated when I have those kind of conversations. I am the father of a 12-year-old, and my wife actually happens to be a high school teacher. A lot of her friends are academics and educators, and a lot of the parents at my daughter's school are sort of Berkeley-academic types; and I have to hear that kind of stereotyping about videogames all the time.
It is frustrating to no end to have it not taken seriously, when you can compare any other art form, any other leisure-time activity that people do and that people take seriously, and you can't say one is better than another, value-wise. It is just how people choose to use their downtime. The same people who argue with me that computer games are a waste of time, or they are rotting people's brains out, are the people watching "Project Runway" on Bravo. So who is to say whose poison is better or worse than another's? We are all looking for ways to have our downtime when we are not working.
So the mainstreaming of gaming, I think, is a great thing.
Another thing I and other people have been saying is that this is just a generational thing that time will solve. Eventually, the people who did not grow up with games are going to all be dead. There is no simpler way of putting it. At some point, half a generation from now, the only people who are alive on this planet are going to be people who grew up with games in their living room. So it is not going to be this weird alien thing that only losers do. Just think of all the 20-year-olds now playing Halo; they are going to be dads and moms. They are now, already. I am.
So eventually we won't have to make this big convincing argument to Congress, to Hillary Clinton, to Jack Thompson, that games are not as bad as they think they are, because we will all know that, just like we all now do with television and radio. Time will solve this problem.
Tom: I firmly believe that as well, but in the meanwhile, it is looking like some of this legislation, if it gains traction, can lead to a curtailment of the medium, much as the Comic Book Code did to the comic industry. So I think that it does bear some attention.
Jeff: It does bear attention. I don't mean to completely dismiss it and to say, "Well, let's wait for them all to die, " because there are serious civil rights and freedom of speech issues to consider there. Again, that is another reason why, if magazines like Harper's and the New York Times are taking this entertainment form seriously, I think it is a good thing. How it affects my magazine and whether people want to read my magazine--that's my job. I just have to make sure, then, that what I offer is something that will appeal to an enthusiast crowd, just the same way as the sports magazines have figured out ways to do that.
Tom: Well what do you think about publications like the The Themis Group's The Escapist, then? Because your magazine is very venerable, but with that comes some baggage as well. Your magazine was not set up from its inception to be this thoughtful, erudite, pure editorial on the game industry.
Jeff: Right. Or on the art form of gaming.
Tom: Right, so you have got that to deal with. in other words, your base is as that enthusiast magazine, the kind of Car & Driver.
Tom: In the meanwhile, you are trying to inject some relevance into it.
It's funny that you mention that, people getting older, and all media go through this. It's just part of our growing pains. I don't know if you caught that whole special editorial thing in Wired magazine with Will Wright?
Jeff: I did see that, yes.
Tom: Well Wright gets on the cover of Wired, I think in part because he is able to reach out and explicate our pastime to a wider audience. When he talks about games, he does not just talk about what graphic card you need, or what the interface is. He connects it to a wider social context.
Tom: You can do that in Wired, maybe you can do that in The Escapist, but can you do that in the Computer Gaming World or Games For Windows magazine?
Jeff: Seems to me like it would be kind of a preaching to the choir thing. I don't know who is going to spend the money on a magazine with "Games" in the title if they are not already convinced of what you have to say. That said, I do hope that the Games for Windows magazine maybe will attract people who are on the fence more, who do not consider themselves hard-core gamers.
And I do think that those kind of think pieces and that kind of analysis definitely does have a place in our magazine, and I think we do have to be mindful of our mission, which is basically to have an entertaining magazine about the hobby that these people like. We can't be the New York Review of Books, because that is not really our job. I certainly welcome, and hope that we have, thoughtful think-pieces in the magazine. We try to do it every month to some extent. It is probably not our role, but I like sites like The Escapist that offer that kind of viewpoint. I think that they are very necessary, and they do a good job of it.
Tom: I do not understand the hostility you get from the community from that, because what is it going to hurt if you have a bit of editorial in there, as long as you have your pithy review as well?
Tom: I just wanted to explain briefly that we got cut off, so if there is a difference in the microphone sound quality, it is because we are continuing the conversation a few days later. Anyway, we were on the issue of your authorial choices. Because you are the editor-in-chief of this magazine, you have different tiers of responsibility that maybe your readership is not aware of. You have a responsibility to your business, to the readers themselves, to the game industry to some degree, not to mention to your staff and yourself.
So let's go to the first one: your responsibility to the business of publishing the magazine. How do the editorial decisions that you make have a direct effect on the bottom line, on your business?
Jeff: They are tough decisions. I can give you an example of something I just dealt with today. We were in talks to do a cover story on the next game from Remedy, the guys who made Max Payne
. Remedy happens to be located in Helsinki. Ziff Davis is a publishing group, all of the magazines, we have a policy where we don't let game companies or any company pay for our travel when we are going for a story. We have to pay for it ourselves. That is to keep it clean and not make it seem like we got paid to do the story. So Ziff Davis has to pay out of pocket.
Now my editors, of course, want to go to Helsinki to do the story, because you always get a better story when you visit the people you are talking to, rather than have them come to you; but that is a bottom-line decision as well. I have a certain amount of money that I can play with every month to make the next issue of the magazine. If I spend $2000-plus to send the editors there, that kills that month's entire budget. There is no more money after that.
So I have to weigh those sort of decisions every single day, which is certainly not the kind of thing I thought I would have to do when I got into writing and the magazine business. But they are realities. I can't anger the people who give us the money to spend, but on the other hand, I am trying to make as good a magazine as I can every month. That is just one small example, but it is the sort of tension that I have to juggle every day.
Tom: How about the questions of, say, your editorial decisions and how that affects your business. For instance, you had mentioned earlier that when you try to do something a little more newsworthy, of a little more substance, you either get no response or you get complaints?
Tom: Doing pages like that costs money. You have to pay someone to write those articles, you have to pay for the production of those pages in your magazine. So there seems to be kind of this pressure against doing things that your readership does not ask for.
Jeff: It is a tough issue. I mean, for one, we just ask directly on our message boards what people want to see and do not want to see. So that influences a lot of what we decide to cover or not cover.
As far as the business aspect goes, if we make editorial decisions that annoy the people who advertise in our magazine, I end up hearing about it. I don't hear about it directly, but the people on the other side of the building at Ziff Davis, who run the ads, will come over and say, "Gee, Game Company X is really concerned that you don't seem to care about X, and we would really appreciate it if you could cover it more." My answer to that has to be, "I can't listen to what advertisers want in the magazine. I am writing the magazine for the people who read the magazine. You are going to have to figure out a way to make them happy on your end." I know it is making their job tougher, but if I just listen to that kind of talk all day, I would not be making a magazine for the people we are supposedly aiming it at.
And none of them were happy about the scores going away. They want their number because they want to be able to put it on their box to sell it.
Tom: It's not guaranteed that you are going to give everyone a nine or a ten.
Jeff: Right, no, it's not at all. Of course, they don't want the number if it's a one or a two; but reviews, to them, are just marketing material.
Tom: You were talking about that in your CGW Podcast, about the E3 promotional awards shows, where all they are really looking for is a promotional thing to put on the box.
Tom: But what does that really matter when it comes to an assessment of the quality of that product, or the value that one gets out of that product?
Jeff: Right. I call that "Best of E3" garbage, that I will be so glad that I never have to do that again.
Tom: That leads me to another question about the death of E3 as we know it. You answered quite amply in your own podcast, and I would reference the listeners to listen to Jeff and his staff talk about that, because it is illuminating, actually.
To close out the interview, because I have already taken up quite enough of your time, I would just like to ask what kind of changes we might be expecting to see in Games for Windows magazine, from your current format, that are not just, say, a cosmetic makeover?
Jeff: That's a good question, and it is something that is right at the top of my mind right now, as we are gearing up to work on the first issue. I am going to have a bit of a responsibility to at least consider thinking a bit larger in terms of a bigger umbrella of gamers. I am only going to consider it; I am going to wait and see what kind of response we get before I make any change at all. Right now my plan is to make the same magazine, with the same staff. The December issue of Games for Windows is going to look like what would have been the December issue of CGW, with cosmetics.
But the reality is, a lot more people are going to be seeing this magazine than ever saw CGW, and they are going to be seeing it at places that have not always had game magazines readily available, like Best Buy. So that makes me think, I need to be able to make sure that there may be something in there for somebody who is kind of a newb, to draw them in.
The only thing that I know that we are probably doing is, we are going to do something at the end of the Review section that is going to be a two-page spread, like something called "What to Buy" or whatever, which is essentially going to be five to ten games that we have reviewed in the past. They will be sort of mini-reviews, like a reviews index in a way, that are just going to be positive recommendations of things to get right now, because you take any given issue of a game magazine, and chances are 80 percent of the reviews are negative.
So I want to make sure that if somebody is picking up this magazine for the very first time, or maybe any game magazine for the first time, that they are at least getting something positive out of the experience in terms of what to buy, because at the end of the day that is quite often just what gamers want out of the mag. I would call that my big concession to a bigger mainstream audience, and I feel like it is kind of a small, no-big-deal change to make that older, hard-core CGW readers should not mind seeing.
But beyond that, anything I change now, in my own mind is something we probably just would have changed in CGW itself.
Tom: I think that is a good way to round out the interview. I wish you best of luck with your new venture.
Jeff: Thank you, Tom.
Tom: I am looking forward to reading your new magazine, because I understand it is a work in progress.
Jeff: I hope we hit at least a double on the first one. Of course, we are going to try to hit the home run, but as somebody who has worked in magazines for close to a decade now, I know that these things evolve and get better over time. I definitely want everybody to know that that is certainly our goal from the very first issue, is to make a magazine that does the CGW legacy proud, and that hard-core PC gamers are going to be proud of as well.
Tom: Great, Jeff. Thank you very much for your time.
Jeff: Thanks a lot, Tom."
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