Press Pass: Will Recently Revealed World of Warcraft Rag Wow Readers?
The consensus seems to be that right now is not a good time to be in the print magazine business. Across the industry, newsstand sales fell 6.3 percent in the first half of 2009 and overall circulation has been flat. The narrower gaming niche is still reeling from the January shuttering of Electronic Gaming Monthly after a successful 20-year run. All over the media landscape, you don't have to look very hard to find people proclaiming matter-of-factly that magazines are dead.
So it seems an odd time to announce a new 148-page quarterly magazine, focused on a single game, with no advertising pages, no newsstand sales and expensive, high-quality paper stock. Yet that's exactly what Future Publishing is doing with World of Warcraft: The Magazine (WoW:TM), announced last week at Anaheim's BlizzCon fan festival. What's more, Future is doing it with a unique editorial and business plan that might just be crazy enough to work.
The functional, yet ... functional logo for World of Warcraft: The Magazine.
A product of the FuturePlus custom publishing division, WoW:TM is the result of roughly four years of negotiations between Future and World of Warcraft (WoW) publisher Blizzard Entertainment, according to Editor-in-Chief Dan Amrich. "This has been kicked around for a long time," he said. "Blizzard is, rightly so, very protective of their brand. They want to make sure that they trust whoever they're getting into business with. They wanted to make sure anything that has the Blizzard name on it, and especially the World of Warcraft name on it, is a top-shelf product, so that took some time [to work out]."
All that extra negotiating time may have been a benefit in this media market, according to Editorial Director Julian Rignall. "I think if we had done this magazine four years ago, it would have been a very very different beast than what it is now," he said. "Print has gone through that kind of recession and the shakeout of magazines that failed to evolve with the changing landscape. We've been thinking about different print models, and really, this is a very, very different print model -- and one I'm hoping can herald in a new era for us..."
That new business model -- which focuses on selling $39.95 annual subscriptions directly to WoW players, without any revenue from advertising or single-issue newsstand sales -- is key to making a new gaming magazine work in this environment, Rignall said. "Basically, what it allows us to do is print on demand for the first time ever," he explained. "We're not doing this crazy American newsstand thing where you print a million magazines and sell 300,000 and throw 700,000 away -- where, essentially, the readers are paying, in part, for the parts you're throwing away. This is why it has no ads in it; you don't need ads to support that massive loss you usually make from the newsstand. If we have 100,000 subscriptions, we print 100,000 copies and there's no waste, something that is very unusual for the print business. It's environmentally friendly in some sense, because we're not cutting down an extra few forests."
Editor-in-chief Dan Amrich hopes the new model for WoW:TM could lead to "a new groundswell of print."
Amrich suggested that this direct-to-subscriber model is "a workaround for a problem people have not quite been able to solve in magazines. ... People keep saying print is dead, but I don't think print is dead so much as that [newsstand-based] business model is in serious trouble. ... A lot of people that say they don't like print; they're really saying they don't like the print business model. It's not that they don't like the print experience, it's just that they'd prefer to get their news someplace else. ... This is a chance to show what print can do very, very well. It is about deluxe presentation, it's about sitting down and diving in. It's for dedicated players and for people that want to spend more time in that world, as good magazines always do. It's a celebration of our hobby."
The print-on-demand structure, along with a looser quarterly publication schedule, also lets Future create a higher-quality physical product, something Rignall said was key to getting Blizzard to sign on to the magazine. "If you're familiar with Edge magazine in the UK ... we're recreating that size, feel and paper-stock and print quality to deliver something that is a really amazing platform for the core art and visuals the World of Warcraft game has to offer. ... [Blizzard] did not find acceptable the more regular kind of model and print quality and stock, because they're so conscious of the quality of their artwork. The model that we came up with -- much higher print quality, no ads, that kind of thing -- really comes across as more of a softback book or an art book, and this is very appealing to them."
While Rignall and Amrich wouldn't discuss initial subscription numbers (beyond saying that they already number in the "thousands"), they both said they were astounded by the reaction the magazine's announcement got at BlizzCon. The line to sign up for subscriptions at the show stretched into a more than 40-minute wait at some points, Rignall said. Of course, that reaction could have been partly driven by the exclusive Murloc plush figure that came with subscriptions made at the conference.
Still, the editors said they were amazed by how passionate players were about the kind of content they want to see in the magazine. "Already we're moving the editorial to a slightly different direction, based on literally several thousand conversations that we've all had with people that were very vocal about what the magazine should be and shouldn't be," Rignall said. "It was good to get kind of that giant focus-group test at the show before we even put out the first issue."
And what the players want, according to the editors, is a magazine that's less focused on the nuts-and-bolts strategy of the game -- which is already covered ad nauseum online -- and more focused on the culture that surrounds the game and its players. During our conversation, Amrich mentioned the story of a woman who makes real-life recipes based on World of Warcraft recipes. "That's kind of fascinating," he said. "I want to shine a spotlight on her and say, 'Here's somebody who found a different way to show their love for this game,' and my audience here will find that cool."
Other articles that readers may find cool, the editors said, might take a closer look at things like the lore behind the game, the myriad play styles used by different players, or what Rignall called the "unique social challenges and issues" that come with playing World of Warcraft. "This is something people really want to talk about," Rignall said. "Playing together isn't just the strategy and tactics; there's also a weird sort of social construct that goes behind it. Sure, you might be successful in beating a boss of a big raid, but then what happens when it's time to carve up the loot? How do you do that without causing problems? What do you do if you're doing a 25-man raid and you have 27 players online, two of whom are going to end up really unhappy to be left out of the group?"
Amrich said the magazine's close relationship with Blizzard will also let it give readers behind-the-scenes details on the people who make the game, such as the artist who designed the intricate columns in the game's Stormwind area. "I pass these arches every day and I have no idea who made them," he said, "but they did it with love and did it with care and did it with narrative intent. I really want to meet those people and give them the credit. [I want to ask] 'Who did that? Why did you do that? What were your influences? And who are you, anyway?'"
Bearing the official World of Warcraft seal, though, does burden the magazine with some level of content approval from Blizzard. Amrich said that "doesn't mean they get to change the words, necessarily," but it does mean that Blizzard will make sure the art, facts and lore of the game are presented correctly in the magazine. Amrich said the relationship between Blizzard and the WoW:TM editorial team is a bit more entwined than the similar relationship he found with Microsoft while working on Future's Official Xbox Magazine. He attributed the difference to the fact that, after more than 100 issues, Microsoft has gotten used to the idea of its official magazine having a somewhat independent editorial voice. "It will take time to build up that kind of trust with Blizzard," Amrich said.
Editorial Director Julian Rignall says WoW:TM is targeted at "normal, well-adjusted Warcraft players that balance their lives and their families and their friends together."
Of course, the editorial team is wary of being seen as too close to Blizzard, as well. "We know there's always a danger that [we'll come off as if] 'The Man' is basically talking to me," Amrich said. "It's kind of my sacred duty on this one -- that [the magazine] still represents the player experience, that we don't get tainted by the access, that we don't get rose-colored glasses about the experience. At the same time, I don't want this to be 'World of Warcraft: The Magazine for People That Like to Find Fault.' I know there are a lot of people that like to hate their hobby -- I never see people that hate their hobby as much as gamers hate their hobby. They have more fun picking on games than they do playing the games."
For Amrich, there's a balance between enjoying the game and being blind to its faults. "I'm not looking to do a deep, dark expos? with what's wrong with Ninja Looters, but at the same time I am aware that Ninja Looters exist. I'd like to come up with an article more along the lines of, 'How do you correct that behavior?' ... Part of this is because I'm a positive person, but yeah, in the Official WoW magazine, there'd be a certain amount of suicide in saying 'Here are five things that Blizzard needs to fix overnight!' ... I would really hope that, when we get some issues out, [readers will see] our approach is a 'rational fan' approach -- not a 'fanboy' approach and not a 'hater' approach. We like the game and we want to share why we like it."
Rignall thinks the audience they're targeting with the magazine will be receptive to this kind of balanced approach. "We're going for that very, very, very vast, not very vocal majority that enjoy the game and don't necessarily go to the forums to scream and vent about whatever it is that happens to be in their bonnets that evening," he said. "This magazine is for normal, well-adjusted Warcraft players that balance their lives and their families and their friends together and enjoy the game in a way like it's the new kind of television -- instead of sitting in front of the TV every night, you play for a couple of hours and do something slightly more interactive and entertaining."
In fact, given WoW:TM's focus, Amrich said it could barely be considered a traditional gaming magazine at all. "I see it more as a hobby book that happens to be about a game," he said, "in the way you might find a car magazine or a technology magazine or a guitar magazine or music magazine -- something that people consider an extension of their entertainment life, rather than thinking of it as a gaming magazine."
Which is all well and good for a game that has 11 million subscribers around the world and in-game content that's constantly evolving. But could this new kind of business and editorial model work for a magazine focused on other games and genres, or even for gaming as a whole? "I think our magazine is going to be looked at as a template -- what else has that sort of laser-focused passion/hobby that can do it?" Amrich said. "People know I'm a big fan of those rhythm games, and ask me 'Oh, how's Rock Band magazine coming along?' And I was like, 'Gee, that's not a bad idea.' Could you do that? Maybe. ... I think it can work. I think what we need to do is find another passion well as deep as WoW is, and I'm sure Future would love to explore that. [They might say] 'Hey we did it with WoW; can we do it with the Rock Band/Guitar Hero official magazine?'"
Where some may see an odd subculture, the WoW:TM editors see a potential story.
With a new focus and a new business model, Amrich seems hopeful that print gaming magazines could be far from dead. "The idea is that we could see a new groundswell of print with a direct-subscriber model, and with a depth of focus that treats it like the hobby it is rather than 'Oh I think I'll turn on my Xbox or PS3 because I've got nothing better to do,'" he said. "You know, people are playing games on purpose; people are playing WoW on purpose! If a magazine can evolve to cater to the idea that this is purposeful entertainment, and we know you're doing this for a reason, and we love it and we want to cater to you in that way, I would love to see that come out."
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