Why IGN probably shouldn’t be working with Game
So here’s a thing. IGN have slipped out a press announcement that they’ll henceforth be working with Game on unspecified future activities. You’d be forgiven for missing this one, since it seems like most gaming news sites, both major and minor, have chosen to give this one a miss — odd, considering just how much the vidya gam press loves to write about itself.
According to the press release:
“[P]lans include regular community events with game publishers that will give IGN users and Game customers first looks at gaming titles, pre-release information and post-launch activities. Another joint-branded initiative will be called Extended Play. It will enable gamers to get together online via live streams and in person at Game stores, to discuss gaming titles and hear from special guests.”
Well, you may well ask, what´s the big deal? IGN have always run advertising from retailers, and Game have never been opposed to running in-store hoopla in the run up to a big title release. Nothing appears to have changed, other than the formalisation of a relationship which was always there in the background. That however, is not entirely true. We´re missing something important.
The cost of doing business
Let´s think for a moment about what is actually happening here, behind the marketing speak and talk of exclusive opportunity. One profit-making entity has employed a room full of lawyers and contract negotiators to hash out an agreement with another profit-making entity employing its own group of suits. Those companies have both decided that they will benefit in some manner from the arrangement, and it´s worth taking some time to work out just what each party will be receiving.
Game is more than just the shopfront on the high street that sells overpriced new releases and a smattering of slightly soiled second hand boxes — it is also a company with a legal duty to its investors to maximise profits. In order to do that, they must buy low and sell high, keep running costs down to a minimum and shift as many of those plastic boxes as possible. Not only that, but it´s also a company facing some significant problems: a recent traumatic administration and buyout by an investment fund to whom it has to prove its viability in the short term, added to a market environment in the process of rapid change as more consumers every day latch on to the convenience of buying software online.
All that can be boiled down to one imperative: Game is there to make money, and that means bringing customers into the stores.
IGN is selling something different: they´re selling criticism and entertainment. It doesn´t profit directly from whether a particular title sells well or badly, but from the health of the market in general; how willing punters are to shell out for the next big thing is certainly important, but of more relevance is how strong what one might call ´gaming culture´ is. If people stop caring about the world of games, as they have done in the past with art forms such as vaudeville and circus, then the superstructure of publications and critics built upon will not survive its fall.
In order to keep their revenue stream strong, IGN have to make sure that they retain an audience who have more choice open to them at zero entry cost than ever before. That requires credibility, the sense that the person who is talking is worth listening to: not only do they know what they are talking about, but they are on your side. The sense that we are in it together is the primary way the games press builds relationships with the audience, ensuring that they keep coming back, reloading those ads and making it financially viable to keep putting content out there.
Down to brass tacks
The problem, to my mind at least, is that those two ends are not always compatible. Consumer culture is not always entirely well served by retailers, whose primary concern is always the bottom line.
Consider this example: Game makes the most money on major console releases early in their lifespan, since that´s when they command the highest price and sell most quickly through inventory. That´s part of why Game needs this deal, to generate buzz around major franchises and pull local customers into its stores instead of the competition. However, that focus on the biggest titles leads in turn to a diminishment of the market for outsider titles and smaller publishers. It´s no coincidence that the current renaissance among indie developers has almost totally bypassed the big high street stores, distributing via digital download stores, often on platforms like the PC which have been ill-served by boxed releases for so long that it was commonplace only a few years ago to talk about the “death of PC gaming”.
It seems to me that part of the function of games journalism is to counteract that tendency towards consolidation and the lure of the new. Being the champions and beneficiaries of a culture means defending and extending the history of that formation against the tendency to frame everything in terms of the latest and greatest. The fundamental orientation of good journalists must be towards their audience, to inform and impassion them with the same love for the art that led them to take up such an ill-paid profession in the first place.
Advertising has funded journalism for years, even while print revenues were a significant factor in how publications made ends meet. That fact has always made for an uneasy and sometimes contentious relationship between advertisers and editors, and sometimes between sales-oriented management and independently-minded hacks. That said, the virtue of advertising is that you can quite easily distinguish between the sales pitch and the content.
Promoting games in concert with retailers is something quite other. It´s the difference between wearing shoes with a maker´s logo and carrying a sign emblazoned with the sigil of a local golf sale. It´s the difference between buying an Apple product and camping outside the store for four days to be the first in line. To my mind, IGN have moved into the business of leveraging their brand´s profile with consumers to help salesmen shift more boxes. And that does no one any favours, except the bankers and funds holding the reins.
I´m not claiming here that the deal will have any bearing on the site´s editorial — on the contrary, I expect their writers to be as free tomorrow as they were today. What is troubling is that this is the first step on a slippery slope, to a future where marketing and criticism are indistinguishable arms of the sales machine.