futurepublishing

With Future CEO Zilla Byng-Maddick having recently announced the company’s intentions of making sweeping changes across the board to both its publishing portfolio and staff count, it’s easy to argue that Future’s present health is indicative of the overall state of the media industry. Certainly, its “business model isn’t working hard enough. This isn’t sustainable in the medium term and needs to change”. And as the company comes to terms with the reality of earning significantly less than £9 million profits, many are arguing that its proposals to counteract the threat of a digital landscape in a post-print world are warranted, yet ultimately long overdue.

As the company seeks to become more streamlined in an extremely competitive environment, it’s an inevitable certainty that mass redundancies will arise from the company’s 45 day consultation period. Not only will this be understandable, but warranted if Future Publishing is to survive as a publishing powerhouse. Indeed, difficult decisions have already started being implemented so as to ensure the future viability of Future’s publishing empire.

But what isn’t understandable however is the proposed changes that are meant to occur to Future’s gaming portfolio, with five of its gaming-centric websites looking to be shut down or have their scale of operations scaled – including CVG, OXM, OPM, ONM and Edge. Kotaku, Games Radar and PC Gamer will remain unaffected however. 

To be honest, I’d have thought that it would have been Kotaku, Games Radar and PC Gamer instead that would have been earmarked for closure. Kotaku UK is merely a pointless attempt at licensing a popular brand name that Future doesn’t own, whilst Games Radar and PC Gamer are both under-resourced media entities that really should be performing better when compared to popular alternatives such as Eurogamer and RPS (both of which aren’t owed by Future). 

Even though Eurogamer and RPS both feature the work of eminent writers on a regular basis, Games Radar and (to a lesser extent) PC Gamer both suffer from a dearth of quality content as a consequence of under-investment. It’s no surprise to discover therefore that the privately owned Eurogamer Network sites regularly give the public trading Future PLC sites a good run for their money, with it even being argued that Eurogamer’s influence exceeds that of Games Radar, whilst the 2007 launched RPS is already hot on the heels of PC Gamer – a gaming entity that was established in 1993.

Considering PC Gamer’s 20+ years on the marketplace, and the news that its operations are to remain unaffected, the revelatory announcement that CVG was once earmarked for closure (although it could still close by year’s end) came as something of an unexpected bombshell, with many gamers questioning Future’s strategy and business decision. And if the licensed Kotaku has more pulling power then Future’s very own (established) intellectual properties, then one know that something is amiss – especially in the online playing field where all real-estate is equal, and the only tangible differential between sites is the level of talent and the amount of investment involved.

For those who aren’t aware, CVG is a media entity whose lineage dates back to the very dawn of home videogames, and has been a regular media fixture in one guise or another since 1981. As a brand with considerable heritage, it’s without peers and enjoys a lofty reputation amongst gaming traditionalists as a venerable institution in its own right.  And with well respected journalistic luminaries such as Jaz Rignall and Richard Leadbetter having passed through its doors, CVG has rightfully gone on to earn its place among the great pantheon of highly esteemed British gaming magazines that are institutionally revered as national treasures.

So when news broke of the prospect that CVG might close after Future’s 45 day consultation period, many gamers attributed the decision to the company’s incompetent failure and abject mishandling of the brand name as well as its cultural legacy. After all, and since acquiring the CVG IP from Dennis Publishing in 2004 (the same year when Kotaku was set up), Future Publishing have shown scant regard to the title’s heritage over the last 10 years, and have always been unclear as to how the media entity should be positioned, with the consequence being that the brand name is now largely perceived as being irrelevant today.

I still think that investing in Kotaku UK is a colossal mistake and a precious waste of resources, as CVG is arguably one of Future’s more recognisable brand names. Nintendo have astutely shown that careful nurturing of your own intellectual properties reaps far more (long term) rewards, then merely chasing short-term thrills of whatever is cool today.  And Future Publishing should be looking to invest further resources in strengthening their own brand, rather than buying into someone else’s hard work.

“If this business were split up, I would give you the land and bricks and mortar, and I would take the brands and trade marks, and I would fare better than you.” 
— John Stuart, Chairman of Quaker (ca. 1900)

If CVG does indeed close (by year’s end), what should Future Publishing do going forward?  One possible avenue to explore is to sell the brand for much needed profit, as even today (and despite CVG’s reduced headcount from 5 to 3 full-time members of staff), the title still commands a healthy dose of cache amongst gamers, and is probably Future Publishing’s most prominent brand (apart from Edge).  CVG has also proven that it’s extremely durable as a brand name – having gone through 3 owners (Emap, Dennis, Future) when most businesses don’t even survive that long.  But if Future Publishing do proceed to sell CVG, I personally think that would be reminiscent of cutting off your own arm in order to stave off a gangrene infected finger. 

Another option to consider would be to allocate more resources towards the site, as opposed to reducing the headcount, and attempt to turn CVG into a “super-site” – much like what Imagine Publishing attempted with NowGamer.

The third avenue to consider would be to take advantage of CVG’s 33 year lineage, and exploit its rose-tinted association with older gamers, by re-launching the brand as a physical retro magazine. This would make sense as there are very few dedicated competitors on the market (apart from Retro Gamer – which does tremendously well for rival Imagine Publishing), and CVG would also be in a prime position to exploit its own history – given that its arrival was synonymous with the establishment of home video gaming in general. 

The only magazine dedicated to retro videogames.  It's still going strong today...

The only magazine dedicated to retro videogames. It’s still going strong today…

With print being increasingly likened to the music equivalent of vinyl, where more mature gamers fondly appreciate its tangible qualities, CVG is suitably poised to exploit a relatively untapped niche geared towards the nostalgia of an increasingly time-poor readership that is predominantly in their 30’s. And as gamers mature, the retro niche is only set to grow exponentially bigger with readers wanting quality in-depth articles about gaming history and their favourite pastimes from yesteryear. It also helps that for a lot of older gamers, modern titles are perceived as being boring and unoriginal, resulting in an alienated audience who crave the passionate familiarity of yesteryear. 

In short, and if one were to look at Nintendo and how the company manages its own gaming properties, then one would soon realise that nostalgia alone can single-handedly drive an effective marketing strategy, and ensure a brand’s relevance for years to come. And if this is the case, then CVG can arguably still be turned into a profitable brand publication again, with potential for immense growth in an expanding niche.

Given that gaming audiences have shrewdly wisened up to commercial influences blighting the publishing landscape, and after freelance writer Richard Stanton’s Twitter meltdown in 2012 when he argued that “Future will do anything to accommodate advertisers”, it makes sense to wind down officially licensed publications (even in website form) as market savvy readers consider the publications to be marketing shills, with a heavy degree of biasness towards their respective formats. 

Certainly the notion that officially licensed magazines hold zero credibility is a damning indictment of Future Publishing’s business practices, and with the company retiring its OXM/OPM/ONM websites, speaks volumes of how the company attempts to stave off controversy and retain any semblance of integrity in gamers eyes. Add to this the notion that Future continues to rehash online content that originally appeared in its print magazines, and one soon realises that the company’s portfolio of official websites also suffers from a dearth of funding and resources.  In short, maybe the model of running officially licensed publications doesn’t generate the necessary level of revenue (that Future expects) in order to justify the associated costs.

If CVG is worth much more to vintage gamers then contemporary licenses (such as OXM/OPM/ONM), then imagine what gamers think of Edge – a publishing titan that has resolutely stood up against the vestiges of time in order to boldly proclaim itself as the premier “Videogames Bible”. And despite its creatively stifled redesign, Edge still draws in an impressive 20,485 readers per month.

But let’s not beat about the bush here. Demand for print has gradually declined as social media and other digital disruptive influences have sought to gain a foothold in the marketplace. And with digital ad sales unable to make up for print’s decline, no wonder magazine publishers (like Future Publishing) are increasingly relying on print as their cash cow, whilst simultaneously curtailing innovation in the digital sphere.

Every public trading company has the unenviable task of having to answer to shareholders, with the main objective being to make money for investors.  In light of this, and with Future being no different, many of its decisions are made to cater for committee and appeal to the notion of increasing share value.  However, the problem arises when the objective to increase share value (in the short term) infringes on a company’s ability to work towards long term growth.  And this is exactly the kind of predicament that Future Publishing has found itself in.

Having resolutely maintained the personal belief that Edge “sold out” after its “redesign” – which in reality was but a simple ploy to appeal to as many gamers as possible (by marketing itself as a lifestyle accessory) – the magazine has since struggled to be regarded as a pioneering force, as well as maintain relevancy in a post-print era. Certainly the commercial realities of the marketplace would have had some influence in swaying Edge’s redesign remit, but a larger problem that the redesign brought up with it was the question of how the magazine could authoritatively keep its lead in a sector that had since evolved to allow a whole swathe of viable competitors (both in print and online form) to profitably eat into Edge’s pie.

To evolve, one must always be receptive to the winds of change. And as Edge has found its sizeable niche increasingly cannibalised by savvier competitors, Future Publishing should have taken appropriate steps to ensure that Edge was always on the cutting edge and how its content was consumed. Indeed, after his acrimonious split from Future, Richard Stanton (formerly as Edge staff writer) lambasted the company by highlighting Future’s growing complacency and mismanagement of its flagship publication, as well as describe how behind the times the company has been in adapting to a post-print landscape. 

Time was when I dreamed of becoming Edge’s editor, rising through Future’s ranks to be in charge of the magazine I’d loved since I’d first clapped eyes on it as a spotty 14 year old. Instead I left Future on the verge of a nervous breakdown, having worked myself to the bone as part of an editorial skeleton staff, reaching a stage where I literally couldn’t get out of bed in the morning. The company just didn’t advertise for new people until it was far, far too late, and one can only guess at management’s motivations for this. But three people ran the editorial side of Edge and Edge Online over this period and did an incredible job, I think, even if it’s not one they ever should have had to.
— Richard Stanton, Freelance Journalist

To be honest, Future can still stave off Edge’s declining reputation and influence, by committing itself to a renewed digital onslaught, and reminding the industry as to why the publication was once synonymous with “the future of interactive entertainment”. Not only will this allow the company to trade on Edge’s inimitable pedigree and dramatically increase its market share, but also ensure that the publication’s founding ideals are radically modernised where its pioneering philosophy of presenting intellectually stimulating gaming content (in an innovative way) isn’t compromised by the restrictive realities of print. And if a new entrant like Polygon can convincingly demonstrate as to how a digital publishing strategy can effectively marry cutting edge design with premium content, then why can’t Edge (with its 20+ years of experience)?

Richard Stanton

For a company product to succeed, it must strive to fill a need (as part of a growing niche) and give consumers what they want. And as gamers increasingly get their game-related coverage from (multiple) online sources, the commercial viability of Edge in its printed form will only continue to diminish as the paper medium falls increasingly out of sync with mainstream reading habits. Therefore, not only is Future’s (possible) decision to close the magazine’s digital arm short-sighted, but so is its resolve to continue Edge in printed form. Thereby giving credence to the notion that Edge is already dead, but that it just doesn’t know it.

Print is dead

Another problem that Edge has is that like the industry it seeks to cover, the magazine has continued to fashion itself on the hierarchical principles of big budget AAA games. And whilst rival publications (like Eurogamer) mandatorily credit their writers, Edge (by adopting a singular voice) continuous to inhibit and smother individual identity. Whilst this would have been perfectly feasible during the pre-internet era, as it allowed the magazine to authoritatively proclaim itself as a “Videogames Bible”, its tonal delivery in applying broad strokes has become increasingly impractical in a market that has become skewed towards fragmentation and covering niches in detail. 

In light of this, Edge’s unwillingness to formally credit its staff in article by-lines is a problem symptomatic in principle as that of major development studios, and has lead to a scenario where its biggest and brightest are forced to curtail their brilliance in order to pursue a career rewarding mediocrity. Not only has this had the unfortunate effect of ensuring that only the magazine burns bright at the expense of its staff, but has also had the undesired outcome of Future’s star writers leaving and going supernova on their own.

As major games studios experience an increase in staff attrition, the same situation is occurring within the publishing industry, as writers either choose to leave or are involuntarily forced out. The Bitmap Brothers said it best when they argued that it’s the developer that’s the star and not the publishing label, and analogous to this assumption is the notion that as star developers leave to set up shop as indies, so too are clumps of writers banding together in order to go it alone and self-publish via the internet.

In short, no longer does the idea ring true that one has to either go big or go home. And as major publishers (like Future) struggle to find an identifiable role in today’s digital distribution landscape, so too does the post-print era create viable conditions for small nimbler groups to thrive and who aren’t hampered by the old ways of thinking.

To conclude, as one of the largest magazine publishing institutions operating today, Future has continually seen its market-share erode as its founding principles have proven to be wholly incompatible with contemporary market realities. And whilst increased competition has certainly had an impact, in reality, it is Future’s inability to adapt and refine its business model in the face of changing market conditions that has resulted in the company issuing a profit warning. With significant lay-offs having already occurred (with more to follow), many are arguing that it’s not that Future’s “business model isn’t working hard enough”, but that its business model is in fact fundamentally broken. Certainly, “this isn’t sustainable in the medium term and needs to change”.

Whilst some of these changes have manifested in Future selling off its craft division, the much more pertinent issue arises as to how the board could even allow the company to get into such a scenario where it had to resort to selling off (profitable) assets. For whilst print is certainly in decline, not all sectors are affected equally, as print has shown incredible resilience in some.

Even if non-gaming related sell-offs do suggest that Future has found a renewed commitment to its founding sectors, the decision to scale back its digital portfolio and concentrate on print (with an associated price tag attached), suggests that the company still resolutely believes that print has a future and that its existing business model has the potential to work.

In an effort to streamline and centralise operations, Future has decided that “a single content and marketing team will produce all content“. Whilst this move will most certainly bring into question the organisation’s credibility, as well as its ability to produce high quality articles, a much more important question won’t be whether people want to read high quality specialist content, but whether they are prepared to pay for it when similar (high quality) material is available for free and on demand.

Indeed, Damien Butt (of Imagine Publishing) supports this argument by stating that “the games industry no longer supports or values games magazines“. And with declining sales statistics lending credibility to his claims, Future would be incredibly foolish to mount an all print offensive. But then again, one wonders as to where Future can go from here as its traditional markets have become increasingly resistant to what the company has to offer.

Just as the lumbering dinosaurs once gave way to smaller, smarter, and more adaptive mammals, so too does Future’s monolithic size reflect its founding ideals that pertain to a bygone era.  For as the company’s awkward structural problems ensure that it can’t compete with newer (fresher faced) competitors, its situation too is altogether of a far more damning indictment where evolution can quickly render obsolescence, as entire industries crumble, and plenty more grow in their ruins.

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