Press Pass: Dan "Shoe" Hsu Takes on the Bitmob
What do you do when you've spent nearly a third of your life writing about games for a single company, only to see that company decline and be sold off as a faint echo of what it once was? If you're Dan "Shoe" Hsu, the answer is simple -- take a short break, then finally go into business for yourself.
An 11-year veteran of Ziff Davis Media, Hsu rose to be editor-in-chief of the magazine Electronic Gaming Monthly and editorial director for 1UP.com before leaving in April of 2008, just months before the magazine was shuttered and 1UP was sold to UGO. Since then he's dabbled in freelancing for G4, launched a gaming video series with his girlfriend, and started a personal blog called Sore Thumbs with former EGMer Crispin Boyer. Then, just before E3, Hsu revealed his long-planned mystery project, Bitmob, a game site that relies on a mix of professional content from Hsu and some fellow Ziff Davis alums and community content written by Bitmob readers.
I talked to Hsu about his thoughts on the post-departure Ziff Davis, his vision for Bitmob and the future of the game journalism in general. Here are the most interesting excerpts from our lengthy interview:
On the financial situation at Ziff Davis before his departure
This picture of Hsu is required to run with every one of his interviews. It's in the Internet bylaws.
"I'm not the CFO or CEO so I don't know every intricate or intimate detail, but there were debt problems that they had to manage. All those properties made money -- 1UP made money, EGM made money -- but the thing is, all of our income, all of our revenue was going towards paying interest on these massive debts. A couple of times they had to restructure those debts to make the interest payments more reasonable but it never got to a situation where it was like, "Hey, check it out now, we're profitable and we can start building the business."
"I think that's why things looked so bleak for a while there. At the same time as that happened, the magazine business as a whole started suffering. Even the big magazines, the Maxims and such, started suffering, losing subscribers and all that. Combine that with that massive amount of debt, it's just stirring trouble all the way around. 1UP did do really well, it was really well received, really well liked, but I think the economy wasn't helping, either. So many things working against us...
On the mood at Ziff Davis before his departure
"Here we are, Ziff Davis Media, as a company that was not in a position to grow the business or barely even maintain the business because of debt problems all the time. I'm not a financial guy, I'm not one of the CEOs so I don't know all that happened there, but when you don't have a budget to do anything to help promote the magazine, to help circulate the magazine, you don't have very much money to build everything you want to build with the Web site, so you're competing with these companies when you don't have the resources to do so, you're letting people go instead of hiring people, it's just sort of a bad situation.
"It kind of felt like, OK, well, worse times were coming, it's maybe time for me to get out and maybe try something else. It was not a very positive, upbeat environment there at the time. When you have money problems, you have problems, period. It's like I guess why a lot of people get divorced -- we were just getting a divorce from the company; you just couldn't do a lot of the things you want to do as a business. A lot of people saw that coming and a lot of people left before things got worse."
On the changes at 1UP since his departure and the UGO buyout
"I think they've kind of settled in and found their place. It took a little while for the transition I think because when you lose that many people -- with the layoffs when the UGO thing happened and the exodus before that -- it's gonna be tough for the people who are used to depending on the veterans that aren't there anymore. You're losing such raw manpower, you're losing that experience, a lot of the personalities, so I think it was going to be rough for them no matter what during that transition, but now they've gotten some time away from that, they've kind of gotten into their groove, got some new hires in there.
13-year-old former EGM subscribers: Enjoy!
It's weird, when I got into those offices to visit, it's not like visiting an old family necessarily, there are so many new face there I don't know. ... It's definitely not the same [as it was before the buyout], and I don't think that anyone can reasonably argue that because a lot of what makes any of these Web sites work are the personalities involved -- Crispy Gamer has a personality, IGN has a personality, Gamespot has a personality -- so when most of those personalities leave it's not going to be the same. But that doesn't mean they're not doing a good job. it means it's just going to take them some time to [realize] 'Hey, we're a different group, we have some new young blood in here, and a lot of those people are working really hard and doing a great job.'" There are some new podcasts that have shown up, they've re-evaluated their video strategy with most of the video people gone."
On the remainder of EGM subscriptions being filled by Maxim
It's kind of a mixed blessing. One, it's a business thing. You have this subscriber base, you have nothing to give them anymore. It used to be, when Ziff Davis would cancel a magazine, it would go to one of our sister publications, which at least kept the readers and increased the circulation. I think EGM absorbed the subscription base for Xbox Nation back in the day. So that subscriber list is money to somebody, and hey, Maxim's a big publication and a widely known one -- better that than, say, Better Homes and Gardens or something like that.
At the same time, it is kind of weird. Even though the average reader of EGM was 21 at the time when I left, you do have some younger readers. I just can't imagine what it's like for a 13-year-old getting a Maxim in the mail, what mom and dad had to say about that.
On EGM founder Steve Harris' recently announced plans to purchase the EGM brand and relaunch it as a new magazine
"A lot of people were excited [about the announcement]. The biggest surprise to me was seeing comments from people saying 'I'm already planning to be a subscriber.' Maybe $20 doesn't mean a lot to these people, so it's low risk for them, but to me, I need to know what the magazine's about and who's working on it before I can get excited about something like that, you know what I mean? What makes EGM "EGM" are the personalities involved, the quality of writing, the features that you do. All of that really has to do with the staff that we had and the people that we had working behind the scenes.
Yes, EGM is coming back, and it's taking this retro-tastic logo with it!
"I think once I start hearing who's involved, who's providing the editorial direction, who's working on it day to day, I can start developing more of an opinion on it. I know so little about it that it's just hard to say, because EGM just as a name itself is pretty meaningless on a qualitative level. If you're talking about a business, yeah, if Steve Harris wants to do a new gaming magazine and he wants to get back into gaming editorial, then absolutely, having the EGM name is a huge thing to have in your pocket, that's a huge advantage. But forgetting about the business, just [asking me as] a reader whether I'm excited about the brand or not from a non-business perspective, yeah, I have no opinion yet."
On the health of the print gaming journalism in general
I've been approached about a print project that I can't really talk much about, to consult on it, help create it and run it, but the print business is very scary to me now. You're dependent mostly on advertising revenue and circulation revenue, and both are hurting really bad. People are buying fewer and fewer magazines at the newsstand. You're asking people to pay money for something that they believe, true or not, [contains] that same information that's online for free. So that's a hard sell, especially because it's late with the printing process and the distribution process and all... So I'd be really worried about getting into the print business now -- online seems to be the way to go.
On why the world needs yet another videogame site (in the form of Bitmob)
From a business point of view, we said, "We can't be doing the same thing our competitors are doing -- we can't be another IGN or 1UP or Kotaku." ... Also, content-wise, we want to do something that is exciting to us on a creative level. We've been through the EGM and 1UP years where you had this huge readership that you were kind of obligated to fulfill certain things that they required. I didn't create EGM from scratch, I took it over from a long line of other editors-in-chief, so there are certain expectations for the magazine from the audience that I had to fulfill. I can tweak it and I can improve upon it, change things here and there, but when I was running EGM, it wasn't like a complete reinvention of the original EGM. ...
Our content's not the kind of standard previews/news/reviews newspaper-style content that we've done before, because we just can't compete with the IGNs and Kotakus of the world on that level. So we're doing alternative content like features and interviews and cultural-based stories that you don't find anywhere else.
On managing a community-driven site
Part of the bigger difference in what Bitmob offers that other sites don't is that we're very community-focused and what we do is we work with the community to produce that content. What that means is any user could go into the site, sign up and start posting articles. That goes into what we call the MobFeed and we're discovering that a lot of people just love reading the MobFeed, what everyone is posting, including industry people to see what the community is talking about. ...
Not shown: The bit-pitchforks and bit-torches that the bit-villagers carry during their assault on the bit-outsiders.
Now if we find an article in there that we particularly like -- either this is well-written or it's funny or it's insightful, it's something that's very complementary to our site -- we'll go in and editorially vet the story -- we'll proofread it, we'll fact check it, we'll make sure it's accurate, we'll correct any grammar or vocabulary problems -- and then we'll promote it to the front page alongside our content. So we're basically promoting our community members to freelance or industry writer status. We're giving them an opportunity to get their work published outside their individual Wordpress blogs or anything like that. ...
We have a plan for some type of reward [for community writers] for sometime in the future ... that's part of what we need funding for. We don't have the ability to reward users right now other than recognition, but the business seems to work really well because people are excited about getting published on this site. We have a lot of really positive feedback from the community involved with what we're doing at Bitmob. We had one user tell us "Well, one of my stories on Bitmob, even if it doesn't get promoted to the front page, will get more views than a lifetime of posts on my personal blog," so he just likes having that outlet and a bigger audience to talk to.
I actually had someone at E3 come up to me, one of our fans, and say, "You know, when I first heard of Bitmob, I thought you were taking advantage of us by getting free work out of us," and he was kind of mad about it, but after he got a chance to read it and get involved with the site, he decided he really liked what we were doing, so I was really happy to hear that.