I am Peer Schneider. I am the general manager of IGN Entertainment working out of our San Francisco headquarters. Been with the company for 19 years, and -- how old am I? Forty-six. Forty-six? No, I'm 45, sorry!
Thought I heard a question mark there. [Laughs.]
No, I'm 46 -- damn! Jesus! How'd that happen?
So, I grew up in Germany, and videogames were always around me. My first console was a Fairchild Channel F, when I was a wee young lad, and really loved games and Atari and Commodore 64 like all the German kids. Kind of fell out of love with gaming when I went to high school and then college -- I went to college in Japan, and just kind of had completely diversed myself from videogames. And a friend of mine bought me -- and my now-wife bought me a Super Famicom, the Super NES Japanese version for my birthday while I was in Japan. And I started playing and I'm like, oh my God! Just playing Mario and Link to the Past -- games had gotten so far. I had ignored the NES era of games, really, kind of stopped after the Atari and home computer days. And it sucked me right back in, and I played through everything Japan at the time had to offer, all the Final Fantasies, when back to a lot of the NES classics and really got hooked.
When I moved to the U.S. and I studied journalism as a side project, I created a fansite called Nintendo Joe, where I took Nintendo because I felt like it was manageable from a game release volume -- the N64 wasn't like the PlayStation where it had these hundreds and hundreds of games. So I picked that, created a fansite where I started writing bigger feature articles, which really didn't exist at the time. If you're thinking about the 1994, 1995 time, you would find them in magazines but not online. That caught the attention of a lot of people and it eventually led to me applying for a job with Imagine Media, a San Francisco Bay Area-based mostly magazine publishing house that was expanding into online. They had launched a website called N64.com, and I had seen the press release that the editor-in-chief of that website was moving on to do something bigger at the company, so I e-mailed them and said, “How 'bout it? Here's my fansite.” They already knew my name from that site, I walked in and nabbed the job.
In my career since then I've been loyal to the IGN brand. IGN already existed as kind of a loose network of single-platform sites when I joined. I was there to help launch it as a standalone website brand, branch out and have been there for obviously the last 19 years, turning a small network that was kind of the red-headed stepchild in the publishing business, into the prime business within a publishing company.
So IGN is first and foremost an entertainment site. Back in 1999, we decided that it wasn't just about cheats and game help and reviews of videogames, but that there was a segment and audience that cared greatly about this content, and also wanted to know everything is made, wanted the behind-the-scenes stuff, and we expanded into that. But then also really liked adjacent genres in other media forms, like sci-fi movies or comic books. So, in 1999 we added that content to IGN.
For a while we actually went fully on into male lifestyle -- I mean very, still centered around games, but a little bit more of a Maxim feel to it in the early days, which we left behind as gaming became more inclusive, and the audience of gamers changed from a very hardcore 99 percent male set-up to something that is broader. We made sure to also change the focus of our company and leave behind some of that stuff.
We are a company of thirds in that probably a third of what we do is giving people advice on how to beat a game, how to get the most out of it with Wikis and strategy guides; a third is to tell people what's going on, like news and when is the next Star Wars movie coming out, and how was Grand Theft Auto V made and all that; and then the third is the purchase advice and commerce angle -- you know, is this game any good, you can read or watch a review and kind of get the expert opinion from somebody who played it.
Throughout all that it's about facts, but it's also about entertainment. We want to make sure that people who are watching the news also get news analysis that is appropriate for the genre and the space we cover. It's not CNN. We're not super-serious about everything, we're having fun with the content.
You mentioned attempts to make the videogame audience more inclusive. Do you think there should be more criticism about the videogame industry and the way that it works?
Yeah, I think so. That's not been our calling traditionally to be very critical of the videogame industry. I think there are ombudsmen, if you think of games business publications or Gamasutra, sites that are really focused on the industry, they're very good at it, and they have the audience that really likes and wants that content. So it might be a little bit too inside-baseball for us. But, when it applies to the consumer, that is certainly something that we take seriously. Just take the very thought of monetizing games with additional subscription services, micro-transactions, anything that affects the consumer, or somebody looking forward to a game and buying a console to buy a game to only see that cancelled. Those are issues in the industry with planning and marketing that we do address, and that we feel very passionate about.
What is IGN’s role in the media landscape covering videogames today? What is it doing that nobody else is?
IGN is a global media brand that brings content about games to a huge audience across many different platforms. We came to a branch in the path years ago -- one said “specialize,” the other said “go big.” We chose to go big. So we invest in creating strategy guides that help you beat games, we both talk about what’s in games and how they’re made, and we also deliver a daily edition of personal updates for Snapchat fans. We live and breathe videogames every day and every night -- so we want to be a radio program on your 8 a.m. commute as well as a map on your iPad while you’re playing at night. It’s tough to say what we do that nobody else is doing because everything is in flux. We added movies, TV, and comics coverage for gamers to IGN in 1999 -- and now you’ll see many former games-only publications doing the same. When we launched IGN Daily Fix, there was no daily news video program in gaming. There were no gaming news videos, period. Now they’re everywhere. As of this month, IGN is available in Chinese – one of 25 languages we now support. So the answer to your question “what we’re doing that nobody else is doing” may be: nothing today, and plenty tomorrow.
I think it depends on your position. If you're a small site, I think you're a little bit more susceptible to the concept of getting someone to click on your piece of content and sharing it. We're fortunate enough in that we have a vibrant homebase that's been around for 19 years, where people come just to kind of browse content, find some entertainment. But we're also a big site that ranks very highly in search, and we have a big YouTube channel and big social channels. The pressure is certainly on us to generate the necessary impressions to serve our ads, or to distribute sponsored content with integrations, all that. Every business has that pressure, but it's becoming less about writing a headline that at all costs gets somebody to click through.
You still see that, if you look at -- any website has the circulation units at the bottom, your Outbrain and Taboola, we use ZergNet, and if you look at a lot of the headlines, they're very focused on getting the click. And then when you land on the page, you are on a template that requires you to read on article, it requires you probably to click through 10 different pages sideways. Right? Sideways is never an awesome direction for the internet. It's good for mobile, you know, swiping. Where they could get that information to you in a simple, one-page document that is beautiful, and that could be highly monetized. But it's kind of like the old web bleeding through -- trying to churn as many pageviews, because that might be the metric they're chasing, or as many ad views as possible, without thinking of the audience.
So about two years ago, we sat down. IGN has a lot of templates, a lot of pages, lots of design set up. It's been around for a long time. We sat down, we said, “Okay, let's say we're user-first. How do you fix some of the challenges around how we monetize and how we present content?”
This last month in January, we launched a new template for our Top 100s. Top 100s -- our audience loves them, they love them because they want to debate whether our No. 1 pick is the right one. But they also just love scrolling through and remembering the greatest moments in games and movies. It used to be a page that was literally one hundred and one pages, and the intro page was one page with ads on it -- it was not user-friendly, and the audience kept on complaining about it as well. And for the longest time we said well, unfortunately you gotta make money, and there's no easy way to do it. Last month we launched a new template. It's endless scroll, you can access an entire list in one go, but we changed the metric that we measure. Instead of measuring page views, we measure engagement. We can measure virtual page views for example, if we wanted to, but it's more about how long the audience engages with the content if you couldn't refresh ads or show ads again as they scroll down the page. Just as an example.
We're fortunate in that we have a large audience, we don't have to compete so hard just to get somebody to a piece of content. We have the ability to change something that quite frankly, we would have never changed if the only KPI's were "how much money does a page make?"
Is that something you feel IGN ever did, trying to chase clicks?
Yeah, I think so. Anyone in the business looked at their goal as being expanding to a bigger audience, getting more users to come, and then getting more out of the users who frequent the site. So when somebody comes once and watches a video, immediately as a leader of the business you say, "How can I make it so that they watch two videos? I want to be able to make more money." Obviously. Right? Running media is expensive, as you know. So we did chase that. I think there was definitely an early period -- we're talking about the ‘90s, where we wrote some deliberately funny or snarky headlines that I would term to be clickbait, nowadays.
Kids on the internet use “clickbait” for everything. A smart headline that gets you to click, and rewards you with awesome content is not clickbait.
It's good writing, is what that is.
There was this plan where we kind of did The Onion-like headlines as a joke to get people in, and part of the audience enjoyed it, part of the audience probably didn't. [Laughs.]
You mention the ‘90s, and a lot of IGN's contemporaries from then, as I'm sure you know, are not around anymore.
It's too heavy a word to say “burden,” but is there some sort of burden that comes with being around for so long? Especially being established kind of before the rise of the internet for publishing?
I think the burden is that there is an audience that thinks they know who you are. Even though, if you look at our trajectory in the last 19, 20 years, you can see how many times we changed our business. We were literally seventy percent cheats traffic at one point. All kind of like the Game Sages era, people looking up codes for games, and that was a big turn.
Did you predate GameFAQs with that? Is that possible?
I don't think we --
Maybe it's parallel?
GameFAQs was early out. GameFAQs and Game Sages were both IGN affiliate partners of the site. So they were independently operated, but they joined the IGN affiliate network, so we sold the ads. Then in the end, we bought Game Sages, the chief site, and GameSpot bought GameFAQs, the text FAQ site. We already had a separate cheat site on IGN, and basically merged it with Game Sages, and that brand disappeared into IGN at that point.
Back then, we were really focused on that game-help angle, and reviews, and then if you look now, we're a very video-driven business. We create show content, we've got vibrant podcasts which, quite frankly that's all marketing. It's how we connect with an audience, it doesn't really make you a lot of money. But it's important to connect with an audience.
That burden, the burden is to explain to people that we change. Every console generation that comes out we organize differently, we chase different types of content, where we're a different business now. There are teams out there who only know IGN as a Snapchat discovery channel, for example.
Branching out into so many different channels across so many different verticals means there are tons of different communities who exist because you give them a place to gather.
Who you protect and how you intervene says a lot about the character of an individual and an outlet. How does IGN work to maintain its community? How does it decide when and how to intervene? How much is policy and how much is up to moderators?
I’ll give you the ideal case, since I don’t think we’re at the top of our game right now. We’ve got a mix of old-school and very young editors and producers right now and haven’t yet refined and re-enacted some of the community-focused principles that IGN was founded on. We have guidelines on what is and what is not permitted. You can tell someone their opinion is wrong -- you can even tell us an article or a video sucked -- but when things get personal, we will delete the comment. We also want discussions to stay on topic, for the most part. Some articles and videos will get discovered over months and sometimes years. We don’t want every comments thread to become the same, so we cull some OT posts, especially when they’re cross-posted. Now, every moderator has their own interpretation where joking ends and trolling and spamming starts, but they’re also part of the community and aren’t just making detached judgment calls, assembly-line-style. Nobody’s perfect and there are no doubt times where moderators disagree, but the basic “don’t be an asshole” rule goes a long way.
As a former editor, I can tell you that it sucks when people disagree with a piece of content you created -- especially when the feedback can’t be challenged because it just offhandedly accuses of conspiracy or other impropriety. But the key to a healthy community isn’t to just hide every dissenting voice. The key is to be present and connected enough that you are not the only one with your knowledge of your “self,” your processes, and your viewpoints. The way to earn trust is to interact. Whenever I spot a comment that alleges a “review was paid,” I make a point of responding of how we actually ensure that reviews are fair and voices are independent. No mind was ever changed with silence. It can be quite exhausting. A community of many voices can repeat a falsehood so quickly and so often that what may have started as a troll post just becomes accepted and an established fact. John Oliver recently brought up the “Richard Gere gerbil” phenomenon. It’s important to counter false or misguided opinion-making early on because otherwise it can take on a life of its own.
A big thing that also defines a publication are the stories nobody ever sees. This is, then, kinda counter-intuitive but can you tell me about stories you're glad in the rearview your editorial team killed or have refused to greenlight even at the pitch phase?
We certainly moved away from the notion that we wanted to as broad as possible from a topic perspective. We used to review every console game released. We're more selective now and certainly aren't lamenting the old approach. But I don’t recall any specific stories that we were glad to have killed or moved away from. There’s certainly plenty we’d do if we didn’t have to worry about how we’d pay for it.
Since our operations have traditionally been correlated to the amount of ad inventory we can create and sell, we tend to go after topics first that appeal to a large audience. We of course balance that approach with things and topics we want to cover because we’re passionate about them -- but financial realities dictate a measured approach that ensures we’re creating content for our existing, large audience. That unfortunately can mean that some things we absolutely adore and would love to cover more don’t make it past the concept phase.
Take tabletop gaming. We’ve got many board-game enthusiasts here and would like to create weekly programming – but our early tests returned low viewership numbers, so we didn’t greenlight the show. Likewise, there are many gamers at IGN who are parents and play games with their kids. But we haven’t found an avenue to share our experiences as gamer parents that would get that content in front of the right audience. Instead, we’ve done some offline workshops at schools in our spare time.
We used to also run a lot of history features that presented an in-depth look at a game developer or publisher. We’ve noticed a decrease in user interest over the years -- perhaps a sign that the new generation of gamers isn’t so much into how the sausage is made and more about having dinner. We look back fondly on mega-features like "The History of Naughty Dog" -- but you can tell that even Colin, who lost many nights of sleep over the feature, had to step away, leaving that piece unfinished.
There are plenty of other content types that are gambles. For example, we launched IGN Unfiltered as a monthly one-hour interview format. If it was possible and there was a larger audience for it, we’d do this every week five times.
We’re big fans of indie games, too, but you can imagine that on a homepage with a broad audience like IGN’s, it’s tough to spotlight smaller games. We’ve been able to make some nice inroads by forging partnerships with consumer sponsors, companies that want great, small stories told. It allowed us to pay for and execute on production of a podcast called The History of Awesome or a limited video series about the less-obvious agents of change in the gaming industry, like Game Changers.
[Laughs.] What's weird to you about the videogame industry? What do you think is idiosyncratic or strange about the way that it works and functions today?
I mean, about the industry in general, or about media?
With games and entertainment media I think that a lot of publications have lost sight of who their audience is.
There is very little connection between the writers on a lot of media property audience that frequents them. You'll see the same in hard news. The moment you bring politics into the game, half the audience is going to hate you for the piece you write, and the other half is gonna love you for the piece you write.
In games media, when you write about PlayStation being great, the Xbox fans are pissed off at you. I think that's created a negative tone between the creators of media and the consumers of media, and I think a lot had given up early on, basically said, "Oh, commenters are terrible. We don't engage with them." The community is kind of like something that's supposed to exist on its own. It goes all the way to YouTube channels, too. So one thing that I think we were very good at in the very beginning was that kind of interplay with the community, where we highlighted community content, we brought it in, certainly our Wikis have a huge community factor, we're highly commented onsite.
But I think in recent years there has been so much animosity if you think of the Gamergate movement and all that, where the audience is just highly suspicious of every piece you wrote, and I think a lot of journalists then in turn didn't even bother to engage back, because it was such a negative tone. So that's something in games and entertainment media that I think is weird and terrible and needs to be fixed. That relationship needs to be reestablished. It doesn't mean that everybody's going to love you or that you're going to love everybody or that you're going to love everybody back, but journalists have fled to Twitter instead of staying in their own houses.
There's the pervasive belief that all media is corrupt. And you see this in today's political coverage, too, where depending on what group you look at, there's this deep mistrust that everything is rigged to be negative, everything is about an agenda that is not motivated by sharing information or telling the truth, but an agenda for some nefarious outcome. There's certainly voices and publications that lean one direction or another in games media -- and especially when you're dealing with a younger audience. Gamers now are no longer just the 20-year-old kids; you 10-ten-year-olds playing games and being active on YouTube and following their favorite personalities and you get 50-year-olds who have been through it and are still playing games, and are really interested in the games industry and behind-the-scenes stuff.
So those audiences intersect in a lot of places, and I think you'll find this very often that when someone says something, it'll become a meme. I have a good example for you, that's "too much water." Have you ever heard "too much water?"
I have not.
This is a meme that was spawned by a Pokémon review on IGN, where the reviewer kind of put a little summary point in the end -- we used to have these summaries that say like, "great graphics!" or "awesome storyline!"
One of the demerits was "too much water." It's obviously not literally saying that the game contains water, it's a kind of tongue-in-cheek summary of something that's supposed to get you to read the article. If you read the article and watch the video, it will say the game is set on a island, and so the developers decided to overwhelm the game with water-type Pokémon, and that choice makes the game really imbalanced. I've got an overpowered electric type to show for it. Compared to traditional Pokémon games where it was all about giving you the choice, what team to build and what Pokémon to pursue, this was a criticism of the game when it first shipped, and then it was a criticism renewed again when the updated version shipped. The reviewer said, "I wish they had fixed that."
The other thing is that there were so many bodies of water in the game that you constantly have to use the surf ability, which means you give up a slot in blah, blah, blah. Maybe you're a little bit too in the weeds on how Pokémon works, but the point was the reviewer -- she described what "too much water" meant. Now, there was a big portion of the audience that never went to the description, and only took "too much water." Took that as kind of this mock hymn and amplified it to the point where now if you Google "too much water," or you see comments on IGN content, you'll always find one guy saying "too much X, IGN" as a quote.
And that's okay, right? It becomes this funny little thing that lives on its own. But the original meaning is lost, and so there is a portion of the audience that actually believes IGN screwed up, and has this kind of weird, crazy line of criticism in a review that doesn't make sense. When in fact, if you dive deeper you'll see it's true.
That's the kind of culture where if somebody says "this is a paid review," and nobody from the games media publication shows up to say, "Guys, it's not. I just didn't like this game." That statement can become a meme, and can become a hymn that is repeated. It gets passed down as purple monkey dishwasher. It gets passed down, and suddenly the fifth person to get that message goes, "I heard from so many people that reviews are paid for, therefore you can't trust them."
That's kind of the funny challenge that becomes even bigger when journalists don't engage with the audience and say, "Your conspiracy doesn't work, because if a publisher could pay me for a review, how come we have negative reviews on the site? How come I have a negative review from that same publisher? How come publishers who advertise don't also get negative reviews?” There are all these kind of -- when you go down the rabbit hole, you can explain it all and you can prove that it's not the case. But nobody takes the time to actually do that.
I don’t know if those criticisms necessarily always imply or paint a picture of someone twirling their mustache and sliding a hundred-dollar bill across a table and winking at you. I think it has more to do with the fact you do see ads for the games sites like IGN review, and critics have been known to be blacklisted for giving negative reviews. I don’t think this is exactly a secret anymore, though it’s still commonplace.
But it's funny you mention Nintendo. It's interesting because that's something that Nintendo has in common with IGN, in that they date back at least to the ‘90s, whereas a lot of the rest of the industry is somewhat more new. I've done interviews with other people who felt like Nintendo, their corporate character has rippled down into today in all sorts of odd, different ways. Like for example, I think it's more Japanese business culture style, perhaps, to lack transparency on both the wide variety of creative decisions made and how the companies work internally. Some of that is just how corporations are. I mean, are there ways you think today in 2017 we're still feeling the decisions Nintendo made in 1987?
[Laughs.] Well, for sure. You can't ignore what happened with the PlayStation add-on for the Super NES, where Nintendo vehemently decided -- defended the decision to produce consoles with cartridge-only media --
Which they're still sticking to, because they're going back to cartridges. [Laughs.]
Well, they're going back -- ironically, now it really makes sense. Now it makes sense, because having a spinning drive with an optical disc on the go is battery-consuming and can be damaged. It's not a good idea. This is kind of like the halfway step between having an all-digital device, but still giving the traditional console or a handheld game that removable media format that they crave so much. So there are definitely decisions like that that affect them today. Xbox is a great example, where Xbox's worst E3 was when they announced how DRM was going to be handled, right? And the audience freaked out, and I think it's a little bit like the "too much water" syndrome where the message was repeated so many times that I think the good in Microsoft's decision was completely ignored in favor of the bad, the fear of a game console becoming like a computer.
And nobody's complaining nowadays about downloading a Steam game and it's tied to your account, right? You're not saying, "Well, I want to take the disc out of my PC and give it to my friend!" You don't worry about that because this is how it's been for so many years. But people really lost their minds over Microsoft wanting to do something where you owned the game assigned to your account. People overlooked the fact that they were craving a lending program, where you could actually share a digital game with their friends as well. A lot of that was kind of drowned out by the negativity.
Not to say that some or most of it wasn't deserved -- the way they rolled out the message was just really terrible, right and Sony really played into that. But that's an example where I think we really don't sometimes hear the core, because there's so many voices amplifying the bad.
Right. There's also a sort of industry tendency to not weigh in on every single kerfuffle or misinterpretation, don't you think?
Yeah, no, for sure. I always liken gaming to sports, where you are passionate about certain players, you're passionate about certain teams, and you're passionate about the outcome of the battles. All that kind of fandom is built into gaming, and there are diehard PlayStation fans, or die hard Xbox fans, or Nintendo fans, who would not even entertain buying another machine, even if they could afford it and if they can afford it. They just love what this company stands for, and they will disregard everything else. Every little misstep, every little announcement can blow up into this Deflategate kind of scandal and you argue to the death.
However, not weighing in on those kerfuffles can sometimes be flipped to score points. So, they’ll only talk about them in talking about the marketing.
That was exactly what I was talking about. PlayStation, Sony really played into Microsoft's misstep and basically said, "Hey, all those things that Microsoft doesn't want to let you do? The PlayStation will let you do it." Honestly I think it swung the favor into the PlayStation corner. The Xbox 360 was a formidable competitor, right, and the Xbox One is not even close to the PlayStation 4 when it comes to install base now. So, I think these kinds of movements can be very, very powerful.
In the publishing media space, let's not forget what happened to Digg, for example, right? That was a platform that enabled lots of users to discover content around the web, and they changed their focus and their algorithms, and the audience just basically said, "Thank you, goodbye." That's a very powerful thing, and as someone running a media company, I'm always conscious of that. You gotta challenge your audience, you gotta give them the bad news, and you sometimes have to tell them, "No, you're wrong. You're not understanding what the issue is." You're always risking also taking off a portion of the audience. I hate to lose any reader or viewer, but that's just not possible.
We mentioned a bit about criticism of videogames. You also mentioned in our email a bit about the social currency that exists within videogames and titles, and reviews. Can you explain a little bit about that for readers who don't pay attention to these types of nuances, or maybe have never read a videogame review? Can you explain about that and maybe a little bit about what you wish would change about that?
Well, I mean, a game review serves a couple of purposes. One is to really inform a user whether a game turns out or not well. Or whether they should quickly run and cancel their pre-order because it's not as good. Game reviews never meant to be the end-all, be-all verdict, because we have so many different tastes, and as much as we'd like to find someone who represents a game genre or the taste of the general audience, you'll always have an outlier, somebody who doesn't like a game you might like.
So the content of a game review is designed to give people the information to make a decision on their own. "Hey, if you don't mind cheesy deaths, this game is super-hard, this game is for you. But I didn't enjoy that, therefore it's not my favorite game." That's the content found in the review.
But then there's the score, and the score is made to make it very simple for a less-engaged audience to get a quick verdict on something. You're at your GameStop, and you want to buy a game. You got IGN, and you quickly look at the most recent reviews, you go, "Nine! Okay, I gotta pay attention to it." If you're not as discerning as people who consume the entire review and the content around it, that might be enough for you.
And then there's the social currency part, which you brought up, which is, "I love this game, I haven't played it yet, but I love it, because the --”
No, I don't mean this in a snarky way! It's like, "The artstyle --”
No, it's a laugh of recognition!
"I love the fact that it has biomechanical dinosaurs!" Or, "It's based on a steampunk universe, which I read all these books about!" You have this affinity towards a franchise, and then when established voice and a critic comes in, someone you trust or somebody who has power and high viewership, that number becomes social currency, to say, "All of you disagreeing with me being excited for this game are wrong, because IGN gave it a 9.5." That social currency is really important.
Metacritic is a great example. It's a very small website, right? It's not read by a humongous audience out there. It is certainly used by the games industry. But commenters who are sort of fighting these "my game's better than your game" wars are using the Metacritic ranking as a metric, as a social currency to say, "No, you're all wrong." [Laughs.] And they also use it against us, right? My favorite is always that we gave a movie a seven, said it was good, and then somebody comes in and says, "Well it's a 95 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, IGN, therefore you're wrong!"
We're like, "No, we are part of that 95%, because that measures how many reviews were positive, and our seven was positive." But it becomes this kind of ammo in the battle for discussion and opinion and who's right or wrong. It's fun to watch, and it is what it is. You can't say, "Well, take away ratings and scores, and it'll go away." It won't go away. You will always have to give people a summary of your opinion, there's an audience that doesn't spend as much time. If you get rid of scores, they'll just use an adjective. Or Metacritic will make up a score for you.
Do critics really have that much power in the game space?
I mean, first of all, critics can be anyone nowadays. Anyone with an audience can be an influential critic. A YouTuber, like a Markiplier for example, can play a game and say, "I'm having fun," and certainly influence people to go out and buy it. I gotta think, like, when I look at some of our popular reviews which get viewed by more than a million people each, just on the web, not even counting YouTube Snapchat, all that. I think that when you have that volume of people, you do have an impact.
Now, does that mean that you have -- that you're the sole decision-maker? Certainly not. Look at the Transformers movies. People go to see them because they love giant robots blowing up stuff, and it doesn't matter if all critics say these movies are no good. You go, "Oh, how bad could it be?" Or you are the type of person who does not live by critics, and gets all their advice from their friends.
Now, it is a chain, though. I hear this often where someone says, "Well, all my decisions are just formed by my friends' recommendations." Somebody recommended something to your friend. And if it's not a friend, who may have gotten a recommendation elsewhere. The way we discover content is definitely through media, whether that's critics or just people exposing and highlighting content across all these different platforms.
No. I only have six friends, and they never use the internet. They basically live in a cave and they're my royal tasters. [Laughs.]
Right? I see this in action with my kids, when my kids say to me, "Did you see they announced the sequel to Mass Effect?!" I'm like, “Yeah, we did that on IGN.”
[Laughs.] The corporate page for IGN -- you know what page I'm talking about? It says "Corporate Information About the Company," ad specs, stuff like that? It says that IGN has "sharp opinions." Can you talk to me a little bit about how you feel those opinions manifest, or what makes these opinions you have so sharp?
First of all, I'm amazed that you found that corp site.
It's one of those projects where we keep on saying, "Man, we gotta fix this.”
This is years, years old. We made some tweaks to it, because it kind of describes an IGN at the time, I think we made some copy changes in the last year that clarified it, but it described a very different, male-lifestyle IGN that even included --
Yeah, I noticed that was gone. I remember reading it before. This is the Maxim identity stuff you were mentioning before?
Yup! We talked about that, so it's actually IGN Entertainment was not just a corporation that had IGN in it. At one point, it even had Rotten Tomatoes in it, by the way. But it was a very male-focused collection of websites, and the other big one was AskMen. So even when IGN moved away a little bit from the Maxim model, right, like years ago we shattered our Stars site, which was "look at all these pretty celebrities" kind of coverage -- when we did that, AskMen still was the Maxim to our IGN. They were both under the IGN Entertainment umbrella.
When we were acquired by Ziff Davis a few years ago, AskMen actually moved out of IGN Entertainment, but we didn't update our corporate website. It's just -- it's one of those things, right. On a list of things to do, you go for where most of the users are hanging out, and our corp site wasn't something that a lot of users or a lot of advertisers quite frankly accessed. We'd deep-link to our ad specs and stuff, but never to kind of our brand. IGN is not a niche brand where advertisers actually go and look up who we are. We're very vocal and in touch with all our clients. So we kind of let it sit for a while.
Now it still says "the greatest site known to man," and that's because games media is still predominantly male. It's not a choice, it's a -- it boils down to what the different game playing segments actually consume. With an audience, it's 80 percent male no matter what platform we put the content on. So even though on a Snapchat discover -- and Snapchat has a much bigger female audience than, I'd say our IGN homepage, but even there, the type of content we produce, think of South Park, Grand Theft Auto, Red Dead Redemption, all of that stuff, attracts a predominantly male audience.
Over the last couple of years, our female readership and viewership certainly has grown across all the different platforms. We were -- I'm kinda digging up the stats, but we were over 95 percent male at one point. And when you look at kind of 80 percent, or on Facebook where posts can go viral on travel, you even get to like a 60 percent male. It certainly has changed, and our corporate identity I think has kept pace with that.
Because IGN does date back to the ‘90s, and you do mention it did having that sort of specific focus before that has since made many ripples and headaches -- what do you feel IGN's role was in creating or shaping the "gamer" identity?
So one thing, just for background: If you go back to 1997, when I ran the Nintendo coverage for IGN, I would call up the publishers behind games coming to the Nintendo 64, and I would have to first of all explain who I am, and then I'd have to explain why they should even be talking to me, because I was working for a website and not a magazine. They cared, if you called up and you said "I'm with EGM," or "I'm with Next Generation" or "with Game Informer," they'd perk up and say, "Awesome! We should work on this reveal!" With IGN, they were like, "Eh.." They couldn't tell that there was an audience, because they only knew what they knew. They knew that they weren't walked into a Target or a Walmart, and saw the magazine rack, and they saw these magazines there. But they would never stumble onto our website.
What we had to establish in the very beginning is that you can trust websites, that we were kind of taking the magazine approach at a time where a lot of websites were more kind of like the newsgroups, were fansites. People never called any publicist, they just kind of -- they consumed games the way you got to the store, you buy the game, you play it and you review it. And suddenly here we are, saying "hey, just like the boys at NextGen next door, we want to get the game before it's out, so we can have an earlier review." And they said "good luck goodbye."
So what we worked hard on is kind of establish that a gaming website is trusted, can be trusted even though it has an independent, and you said sharp voice, but has an honest voice. We were not afraid to trash a big brand. Mortal Kombat Mythologies, for example. Mortal Kombat was very popular at the time, and we trashed this game and said it was awful, because you couldn't see where you were jumping, ‘til you were falling into a hole and you were dead. That's not a good game. That kind of sharpness actually hurt establishing relationships with these companies, because it was, you know, it just for some reason didn't get us upset when that happened in a magazine, which debuted two months after the game came out. Suddenly somebody had the power to torpedo their game launch with a negative opinion.
And so it was about establishing our voice as being trusted, but also respected, that they wouldn't get mad at us when we said something bad about them. And for the audience, it was about -- really, gamer pride. We actually have an old T-shirt, a take on a gay pride logo that said "game pride" on it, and you know, it was one of our most popular T-shirts back in the ‘90s. It was also a time that gaming was often vilified: you know, there were --
Yeah! Who thought videogames would teach you to kill and shoot people. There was the notion that if you're a gamer, you'd never get laid. And so all our messaging and our T-shirts really kind of played to that. We had a T-shirt that was "I'm in charge of my actions," or "I'm in control of my actions." There were all these kinds of slogans for gamers, like "I score more often" -- again, male lifestyle time. [Laughs.] But we were trying to counter that stereotype that gamers are just like these boys in their basements that will never have a girlfriend, and vice versa. So we played against that, and we really tried to establish the concept of gamer pride that you're fine sharing with your friends that you play games.
And there were some hurdles. Like when Facebook, for example -- when Facebook let brands play in their space, media companies like ours. We were tiny on Facebook, because people didn't want to tip off their friends that they were into the type of content IGN covered. Whereas on other platforms like YouTube, we were seeing this exponential growth, on Facebook, it was like well, you know. High school student doesn't want to tip off her boyfriend or his girlfriend that he's into these videogames, and kind of wouldn't share our content. And that has obviously changed rapidly in the years that followed.
How do you think the gamer identity fed Gamergate?
Well I think Gamergate is interesting, because there's a part of the audience that first of all felt threatened by games becoming something that they didn't want. For them, the story was all, "Well, certain games that I like now will cease to exist, and will no longer cater to me, because there are all these new gamers coming in," whether they are female or they like different genres like what people dismissively call walking simulators. There was fear, I think, when I think as media we were preaching the story that it's great that we get this diversity of content. There's still way more game than you could ever play that are the murder-death-kill type variety, or your kind of action, Hollywood blockbuster equivalent game. So I think there was a segment in that audience that felt that fear.
There were certainly people who thought everybody's corrupt. Every media publication is just in cahoots with each other, they get together in meeting rooms saying, "Hey, what score are you going to give this game? Because they didn't advertise with us, so we're going to give it a three." There was this weird fear where every minor thing was picked apart and everybody thought everybody was on the take.
I have been here 19 years, and the amount of times that a game company has ever tried to bribe are really zero. There's no overt attempt to influence us, other than kind of the timing stuff. Like a publisher may tell you, “Hey, we're not going to send you a game,” because whatever reason, and you know that it's because they're afraid that you're going to review it early, because the game's crap. So what we did is pass that onto our audience, and I think we were all very surprised that those actions didn't actually tell the story much more that we're very much on the side of the consumer.
It's an interesting question. I think whenever you assign a label to a group or someone, you're actually capturing a lot of different groups, and at its worst, there were people identifying as Gamergaters who were just terrible people, let's be honest. Who were preaching the type of rhetoric that you just go, oh my God, you know. Who are you? That's not nice.
Do you think enthusiast press fostered any aspects of that? Did any of your colleagues at the time feel at all responsible for what was going on?
I think there was a lot of discussion around misogyny, there was certainly the radical element that were doxxing people and going after female members of the industry, or anybody really outspoken with a message different from theirs. I think they were mad that some people have a platform, and so they countered it in the worst possible ways, right. There's no other way to put this, it's just not okay. And I think that derailed a lot of attention from ways to actually fix this and counter this.
One thing, just to open the kimono on what we did? We got together. We had a lot of different opinions in our editorial pool of people saying, “Hey, we need to oppose this movement vocally, and support the people who are being doxxed and who are being hurt, and who are being scared by this.” And then we had the other half saying, “The moment you play into it, it's basically playing into amplifying that message that ‘hey, if you say something against our ideals, we will come after you!’” That If you amplify that message, you may make it actually worse.
So we at one point made the decision: We're not going to mention this movement. We're going to say: “Here's what we require from you, as people who interact in our tools, in our Twitter feeds and Facebook pages. This is what IGN wants from you, you cannot do this crap. You cannot be misogynistic about things, you cannot doxx people, you cannot insult people, it can't become personal, you can't push a radical agenda like that.” We said, on our platforms. We never mentioned the movement. We said we're not going to empower it, and we're going to basically silence it to death, but at the same time still cover the games industry and the things that we care about.
It was an approach, it got us criticism from some, but it certainly got to a point where if you saw the term Gamergate in our comments, there would be 10 people saying, "What is that?"
And by the way, any group, any radical group or any radical segment, I don't want to say everybody in that group is radical. Any segment that is radical will thrive on opposition, too. So the more you yell at it, the bigger it will grow. That's why it didn't make sense for us to just constantly take the opposition to the movement. It was like, you know what? We're going to write about stuff we love, and we're going to highlight the stuff we don't like, but our life's mission is not going to be to constantly discredit something.
Certainly I think we should have gone out earlier, and tried to kind of get the story behind it. We did very much focus on the games, and the people making the games and the movies, and less on the gamer culture aspect of it. We want to be part of gamer culture but we're not the place where you learn that much about it. I know that sounds a little bit like a contradiction. We're not -- a Polygon or a Kotaku are much more about the gamer culture, the behind-the-scenes of that community. Whereas we have the community and interact with it, but we don't tell that story as well. It may be a mistake.
But no, there are many different opinions on how we should have tackled it, even internally. I would have loved to go out and tried to produce a piece that tries to tell both sides of the story earlier, but it was also very difficult to cut through the passion, and actually get to what the story was, because the term was also being used by so many different people, for so many different things.
As you said earlier, all groups are comprised of other groups, too. You mentioned people in the IGN community not knowing what Gamergate was, and that aside, what is clear is that companies and brands must now all have political identities. But what happens when a community starts drawing and policing their own boundaries, independent from the platform they're on? In other words, can you articulate whether IGN views itself as a community company rather than a content company? I'm doubtful Gamergaters don't or didn't go to IGN, but that doesn't necessarily mean anything: Even NPR has to chart a course and deal with the backlash.
We’re a content company that happens to also draw active communities of contributors and commenters across multiple platforms. It’s not incidental. We curate and incentivize our community. But we’re also decision media. As long as we have a viewpoint -- such as in reviews and our talk shows -- a large part of the community play will remain “react” rather than “collaborate” or “create.” That means we want to give our community a way to share their views, even if they’re critical of ours or disagree. Fan groups aren’t compartmentalized as much on a site like IGN as they are on, say, Reddit. When we post a piece that praises an Xbox game, for example, it’ll simultaneously anger a portion of the audience that doesn’t own or like that platform and elate those that are “all-in” with that platform. It’s a little bit like covering a football match and having both teams’ fanbases converge on your content. If you restrict yourself to what happened, you’ll be the messenger and the audience talks to each other. If you provide your view and criticism of what happened, you’re suddenly in the middle of the field. That means, you’re not an agnostic platform people utilize -- you’re the center of attention.
But, that doesn’t mean that it’s all that clear and simple. I definitely believe that a significant part of our success comes from our ability to connect and engage with different fan groups. For example, if you head to IGN Beyond’s Facebook group, you’ll find something that is a true community that’s made up of equals: fans, spectators, and content creators. Our talk show content definitely explores community and fandom, even when our news and reviews are largely one-way media. IGN’s early mantra was we wanted to be “the guy on the couch” you can talk to about things that most people wouldn’t understand. Geek and niche topics have become so mainstream nowadays that there are plenty more people to talk with -- but at least we don’t have to keep our voices down anymore.
What do you make of the rise of these Donald Trump and Gamergate comparison pieces? Do you think -- are we learning the wrong lessons? Are we letting the wrong messages be spread?
It's very similar. It feels a little bit like fighting windmills. In the end, I think the press should have the freedom to criticize, and the press should have the freedom to call out falsehoods, without being labelled fake immediately. Again, there's a segment of the audience that will not take anything, even provable fact as fact, and always think it's a conspiracy, and I think that makes it very difficult. But at the same time, you also have to strive for balance, and you have to -- you sometimes have to tell a story that you don't like. If we absolutely hate a game, and that game is the most popular game ever, we need to tell that story, and we need to figure out why so many people like that game, and tell that story, instead of just pretending, "Nope! our opinion is the only one that counts, and therefore we're going to shun this property."
I think that happens a little bit in politics, where it's -- certainly Mr. Trump fostered an adversarial relationship with a lot of the mainstream press out there. The articles are written by humans, and humans have feelings, and as much as you want to remove yourself from that stuff, I can imagine someone at the New York Times, a starry, respected publication probably doesn't approach an article the same way being called fake news every day than they would be if there was mutual respect between the White House and the publication.
That kind of stuff happens in games media too, right. Once in awhile you have a game publisher, and the relationship can almost become adversarial, because they think you're unfair, or you're wrong, and you have to figure out how to still give the audience a fair story, without letting your personal biases influence that.
Yeah, look. Travel specifically, I don't think the audience thinks about it that much. When there's an event like Gamescom, you are packing up production equipment, and you're packing up people and sending them somewhere where literally it takes a day just to travel, and that means a day's worth of creation from each one of these people is wiped out. That can impact your business. We need video views, we need content views in order to exist, because we need to show advertisements, or we need to produce content for subscribers for example. It doesn't matter what your business model is, it gets complicated when you're spreading yourself thin.
And then there's the aspect that something like an E3 or Gamescom, there are big announcements, there are big video opportunities, there are big sponsorship opportunities from our partners, like a company can sponsor you life's dream and all that. And so the work you put in is repaid by big numbers, big traffic, big audience.
The same thing isn't true for something like a PAX. It's also not true for maybe a New York Comic-Con, where there are fewer announcements, it's more about these panels that nobody can actually film and stream.
You showed me around your offices out there. You don't have any backup warehouses and studios where you have duplicate lighting, duplicate cameras, duplicate everything.
Yeah! I mean, that stuff's expensive. It's just -- you capture in 4k footage now, right. That's a big nut to crack, where some game publishers are calling us and asking for advice, because we've been working on it for so long. We usually have one box that can do that, because this stuff is so expensive, and you're packing up cameras, we don't have oodles of equipment sitting around.
So for E3, what we do is we actually break down our San Francisco-based studio -- we have a small studio, like more of a discussion corner in L.A. as well, which would of course be much nicer, but that's just not the right equipment for a gaming event like this. So we break down our studio and our streaming equipment here, bring it to L.A., and so E3 is about much more, it has much bigger impact than just a couple of days and the cost of setting basically the entire company down there.
But PAX is a good example where the opportunity is not news coverage and big numbers, the opportunity is meeting your audience, right. Gamers and fans of your brand are in one place, so what we do is we take a handful of our personalities of our editors and video folks, and send them to the event to actually do meet-and-greets and panels. There's no direct value back to the company, you can't put an ad on it, it's not content that is widely viewed. It's about building fans, and making sure that the fans are seeing that there are humans at the other side. It's about building trust. The moment you talk to an editor who reviews a game, you talk to them in person, you're not going to walk away saying, "That guy was paid off!" Because you notice how much you have in common, and that there's a human being who is sharing their own impressions. I think that's super, super important -- but it's also very expensive and very taxing to support all that.
I mean, I would love it if we had a platform where it was easy to let people create content that showcase their skills, and grow them and let them monetize it. YouTube has done a wonderful job creating a platform. We're not that kind of company. We're a content team, we're a publication, we're a newspaper without paper. I would love it if we could do something like that, and we've tried it a few times, and we have actually succeeded a few times, and I think people don't see that very often. Just think the Wikis, right.
For more than a decade, we published strategy guides, where we did exactly what we did in the print business before: we wrote these tips, put them online, full walkthroughs of content, and you could read them, and people would bookmark them and come back. And then one day, we poured all of our strategy guides into a Wiki format, and all of that content then became editable by the masses. So people could fix a mistake, they could also add new ones, or they could do their own stuff in the "Expand."
So what happened is we had people just for the love of IGN, or just for the love of a game started to create content on our Wikis. It may look like you're just kind of sending content off into the ether, but what actually happens is that we see it. So we hired people as freelancers. First step most of the time is to discover someone in the community and make them a freelancer, whether that's someone who's awesome at community interaction or moderation, is somebody who wrote awesome blogs on our blogging platform, or somebody who edited Wikis. We go out and we say, awesome, do you want to write a freelance piece?
We created this behind-the-scenes program called IGN All-Stars, where somebody contributes a lot of content that's good, gets a special label, and we are aware of them. And we chase them. And so a lot of the editors we hired on our Wiki team, who are professionally hired here in the office and are paid, came actually from the Wiki editing community. It's something that we don't push that much, because obviously there's a limit on how many people we can bring on, it's a little bit of a secret, but those opportunities I'd like to think exist everywhere. If you are a motivated, driven content-contributor, and you run an awesome Tumblr, or you run an awesome YouTube channel, even if it only has a thousand subs, we can help. We can show off your content, we can help you grow, and we can certainly hire you.
One thing, just related to that, we actually have a program, and I would love to eventually do this for content -- we have a program called Code Foo, where we teach budding engineers, people who want to go into engineering, into coding. We teach them how to code features for an IGN website. It's a paid internship basically. Every summer we select the most promising people, and these are people with -- no offense, but crappy resumes. They don't have a big name company on their resume, and so they may struggle to find a job at a big company. We take them in and we teach them the stuff that matters, the skills. We expose them to a newsroom and working with content creators, and they go through this program. At the end of the program we sometimes bring on some of the, but I think most of them emerge with new skills, and then are able to find their way into new companies, just on the strength of having worked here.
I don’t know. There are so many variables, and I think an important one is taking chances and not claiming to be innovative and important if you’re regressive and not open to throwing the dice from time to time.
Like, not to make it about me. But I have a good résumé and I’ve been working on this project for two years now, as of when we speak. When we met, I mentioned, it was right when the SAG-AFTRA strike started. I told you I had an interest in trying to place articles and pitches about broader labor issues in the game industry. And everywhere I go, people aren’t receptive. You had suggested I try to pitch Justin at IGN, and he never wrote me back. It’s either that they aren’t receptive, aren’t into it, or don’t care. I don’t know.
It's tough to break through. Everybody's got a full day of things to do, things to manage. Take, for example, the job of a features editor. That guy has to plan the features all the way out through the year, and then he has to schedule them and get resources assigned, and then meet with the video team to see which ones need to be videos, and how they get promoted. And then has to get people to actually create that content: find the freelancers, or go to the freelancers he or she has, and assign content, get those people paid. You know, it's a big -- yeah!
Oh, believe me. I know. I've done that job. I’ve been an editor, where my job was in reality three different people’s jobs. I am an editor.
It's a big process, and so sometimes, unfortunately, your day is full. And so it's very difficult to step away and think of how to create a program that exposes those paths to others. So what we actually did was, we did an event for our anniversary where all the higher level leaders of IGN -- so the head of video, the head of editorial content, me, we did a panel for an hour where we told people how to get a job in the games industry. And basically told them like, “You bring your résumé, and we will do a one-on-one session with each of you, and tell you what's wrong and what's right about your résumé.” So I think I did 50 résumés. I worked the entire weekend on it, I wrote detailed feedback for each resume specifically, and shared it back. It makes me feel really good that I can help people, and it helped people.
But think about it, that was an event where we were kind of limited to four-hundred people attending, think about just jobs like reviewing games. That's gotta be every gamer's dream job, to be able to play games early and be creative that way. If you open that up widely, how do you even cope? How do you keep up with all the demands for information?
Things can’t really open up more widely, I think, if people don’t acknowledge their blind spots and take a chance.
This will be my last question for you: What do you think videogames have accomplished?
Wow. Well I mean, if you go back to the early days of videogames, I think first of all, videogames have created a new form of people playing -- a new way to get people to play together, may have disregarded the old forms. People played tabletop games and card games for decades and centuries. And I think as the tastes of new audiences developed and were more into -- in the digital age, watching TV shows and consuming content in different ways, videogames managed to help people get back together. Compete in ways where you didn't need a judge, the machine became the judge. It's sports, but the machine is connecting everybody.
I always think that's a very fascinating role, videogames have taken the storyteller role, where basically they're able to tell you a story just like a book would, but in the very beginning very simple stories, you had to use your imagination a lot. Nowadays, very complex stories from action-oriented stuff to really meaningful deep stories. You know, see walking simulators where you're immersed in a world and you're soaking in a story by experiencing it. You have this storyteller, but then you also have the kind of competition and collaboration factor, where people play together and work together and compete against each other, and just have fun together.
I think the biggest thing videogames established early was that they could be escapism, they could let you immerse yourself in other worlds and really take on a new persona and new role, and over the years have grown to become this all-encompassing, interactive medium, the next step up for books. I'm not saying videogames are as good as our best books out there, they're not. But that's the path now, is that we can tell awesome stories while also sucking you in and giving you choices.
Are you surprised that you're still as passionate about videogames as you are?
I am but I'm not, right. I have kids now, so all of these things chip away at my time. When I lived in Japan, I woke up early in the morning to play Final Fantasy VI, and I would play for like forty-eight hours non-stop and just order a pizza. I don't do that anymore. That's not because I don't want to -- I would love to be able to just sit down with FFXV and just keep playing it, I love that game. But there's the real world, right, that captivates me. So I do realize that I may be as passionate about games, and certainly about covering them and writing them, but I don't -- that passion doesn't manifest itself in videogames being the only thing I do. I've got all these other things I have to take care of.
And by the way, I went back into tabletop games, too, and play a ton of that, because tabletop games have evolved at the same time. Taken things from videogames and game systems from videogames, and made them more interesting, too. videogames have evolved so much, even if you're bored with what happened yesterday, man, are you gonna be excited about what's coming tomorrow.