Press Pass: Kill Screen Seeks to Redefine the Videogame Magazine
The idea behind the next great experiment in reviving the American videogame magazine didn't come from the board room of a powerhouse publishing giant. It wasn't spun off from an existing lifestyle magazine or adapted from a successful Web property. It wasn't the product of a focus group or a marketing survey or a know-nothing middle manager trying in vain to capture younger readers by focusing on a medium he knows nothing about.
Instead, Kill Screen magazine started out as the subject of idle chatter over Indian food.
None of the game journalists and developers that came together at San Francisco's New Delhi restaurant during the Game Developers Conference 2009 knew that they'd be helping to create a new game magazine that night.
"We started up this conversation at the end of the table, talking about how a lot of long-format [writing] about gaming didn't really exist the way that we had hoped," recalled Jamin Brophy-Warren, then a reporter on videogames for the Wall Street Journal, now a freelancer and Kill Screen's publisher. "You would see it here and there ... but by and large big publications, particularly ones that fund long-format journalism, didn't really have an eye for games. They either didn't really care about them or maybe they didn't think their readers were interested in them. We felt like there was a real gap."
Freelancer and Kill Screen Managing Editor Chris Dahlen remembers being similarly frustrated with the way the mainstream magazines treat longer, more thoughtful pieces about videogames. "I've written for the mainstream press a lot, and I enjoy that, but you always have to cross that hurdle of explaining what gaming is and why someone cares," he said. "We were thinking it would be nice to have a journal that, from the start, just took that seriously to provide the same kind of venue for a nice print experience for longer pieces and magazine-style writing."
After months of work by Dahlen, Brophy-Warren and writers with credits ranging from the New Yorker to "The Daily Show," Kill Screen is finally set to be that venue. The first issue, which Dahlen says is "within days" of being sent to the printers, certainly seems far removed from the next-big-thing obsessions that drive most consumer-focused game magazines. Articles in the premiere issue of Kill Screen include an in-depth look at the artificial intelligence behind an Air Traffic Control simulator, a remembrance of a decade-old first-playthrough of the original Resident Evil, and a rumination on brotherly gaming in a frat house -- pieces that seem more at home in GQ or Esquire than Game Informer or GamePro.
Dahlen says he thinks there is an untapped market for a magazine devoted to game writing that's intelligent but not pretentious. "We're not trying to fill the thing with a lot of pictures of videogame-character boobs or anything, [but] I don't think we're going to be mistaken for an academic journal," he said. "I think there's a market for people who see gaming as a form of culture, and something a little more than just what the major publishers push and the same sort of screenshots for Modern Warfare 2. ... I definitely think there's not only an audience, but a big need for intelligent writing and for a sense of culture around gaming."
Dahlen also says he sees Kill Screen as an opportunity to give game makers the attention they deserve. "[Kill Screen has] some good developer interviews and some good developer profiles beyond, y'know, the Q&A about what graphics cards you support," he said. "It seems like, in other fields, you can get access to musicians, you can get access to directors; and with game designers, the really key people are still behind the scenes and you don't get to hear from them. You don't really see interviews with people where you get what really makes them tick."
While Dahlen acknowledges that these kinds of thoughtful, considered pieces of game writing have started to find a home on certain corners of the Internet, he and Brophy-Warren were out to create something slower and more permanent with Kill Screen. "There's a way to publish [serious gaming content] online, but at the same time it's great to have a print magazine that doesn't have to be quite as timely, that can run a 3,000-word piece more comfortably, that can have the art and other support to make a really nice product that you can own and hold and put on your coffee table," he said.
It sounds like a fine idea for GDC dinner chatter, but one that seemed unlikely to find real-world funding in a market where even long-running magazines are losing readers and struggling to stay afloat. So Dahlen and Brophy-Warren looked to an unorthodox funding source for their magazine, a Web site called Kickstarter that lets users pool small donations into the larger sums needed to get big projects off the ground. Users could donate anywhere from $3 for a PDF copy of Kill Screen's first issue to a $1,000 donation package that included homemade pancakes, cookies and cake from Dahlen and Brophy-Warren (no one took them up on this offer, unfortunately).
The pair set up the Kickstarter page in August, looking for $3,500 to fund their first issue. By the end of November, they had raised nearly $6,000 from 160 initial backers.
Brophy-Warren said he was surprised and encouraged by the level of support offered up through Kickstarter. "It's not like half.com or Amazon, where you set your price and then you just get a single product," he said. "There were people who were investing in this because they believed it was a good idea. It wasn't surprising to me that people would pay $20 to get a magazine -- that was not outside the realm of believability -- but that someone would donate [$100 or $500] to help us get this thing printed, and there wasn't even necessarily going to be a direct return on it. That sort of gift was inspiring."
But despite this kind of generosity, and a relatively high $20 price for a single issue, Kill Screen isn't exactly starting off as a gold mine. The writers and founders are all working pro bono to help get the first issue off the ground, a situation Brophy-Warren says won't last. "Yes, we want to pay writers," he said. "I don't think you can get people to produce high-quality work forever. ... I think that, long term, provided that people are subscribing and we end up with a really healthy subscriber base, our margins should be pretty good, presuming we produce a high-quality product."
And it's that high-quality, ad-free product that Brophy-Warren says will set Kill Screen apart from other magazines and the free content on the Internet. "We're placing value in the physical product," he said. "The reason the price point is high is because we'd like to see this as something of high value. ... If you establish a connection with readers early on and say, 'Look, there's this contract we have with you. If you give us a certain amount of money, we always promise we'll deliver a high-quality product. When advertisers get in the mix, it doesn't always work that way, because I know my bill is paid. Most publications don't make money from subscriptions; it comes from advertisers, so your responsibility is to advertisers and not necessarily to subscribers."
While Brophy-Warren says he'll be happy to move the 1,500 printed copies of the first issue, he sees the market for Kill Screen as potentially being much bigger. "Our goal is to take a cut of the six million people that play Modern Warfare," he said." If five percent of the six million people that bought that game in the first month are interested at all in having a deeper, more nuanced conversation about videogames, that would make me tremendously, tremendously happy, and I think that's a pretty reasonable goal."
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