Well, obviously because it didn’t make enough money.
So why didn’t it make enough money? Traffic was good, up 40% year-to-year, as Brianna Royce reported. But all the page views in the world don’t matter if you’re not making money off of them, and that was probably the issue – and it’s not one unique to the Joystiq network.
When I was at PAX South, when the Joystiq shuttering was a rumor and not verified fact, I was talking with a developer while waiting for a taxi. He lamented the passing of Massively and brought up some other venues that had also shut down, including Beckett Massive Online Gamer, which I was an editor at from 2009 to 2011.
So why did MOG shut down? Simple: We couldn’t bring in enough with advertising to keep it viable. We had a fantastic advertising manager, a guy named Todd, who wheeled and dealed and cajoled the best he could for several Beckett titles for years but he still had trouble keeping MOG (and his other titles) in the black. When he left the company in October, I was informed of MOG’s cancellation and my being laid off that very day. We did the final issue in December, and that was it. Without Todd’s skills, the magazine couldn’t even approach being viable, and everyone knew it.
And this was a magazine that sold copies on newsstands. Web sites don’t have that luxury. They’re all free and rely on advertising for the bulk, if not all, of their revenue.
Why was Todd having so much trouble getting ads? Put simply, the bigger companies – the ones that have the money to advertise – don’t need media outlets nearly as much as they did in the past. 10 or 20 years ago, if you had a video game you wanted to announced to the masses, you went to a magazine or, more recently, a website, to get the word out. Now, even companies with the tiniest of budgets have their own website, Twitch channel, social media accounts, a presence on Reddit, and so on. Additional coverage from the media is nice, but I’d wager it’s mostly unnecessary. They can promote their brands quite well on their own, and they get complete control over the messaging.
This leaves two types of developers “needing” media sites and the coverage they provide: the small ones who don’t have the money to advertise, and the ones with less-than-stellar reputations – the mobile games, the blatant pay-to-wins, the “click here, m’lord”-types, etc. – that you don’t usually see much coverage for on “core” sites like Massively. This is why you see so many ads for those kind of games on websites and not ads from reputable AAA companies like Blizzard or SOE (er, Daybreak); those other companies are the only ones who have a) money; and b) a need to increase the visibility of their product that they have trouble generating on their own. Just look at the mobile games advertising during the Super Bowl, which is the most expensive ad time you can purchase, to get an idea.
From a strictly financial point, this strategy makes perfect sense. Going back to the devs I was talking with at PAX South, they had just showed me and another journo their game. I counted four of their employees, set up in a suite at a hotel (they didn’t have a booth). I’m not sure what various websites charge, but a one-issue, full-page ad in MOG cost about $2,000 to $3,000. I’d imagine they had appointments with up to a dozen or more people throughout the weekend, so as long as they kept the total cost of their trip under $30,000, they got equivalent coverage to a full-page ad from each of the venues they met with for a fraction of the price. Why buy an ad?
Here’s what’s been gnawing at me since the announcement of Massively’s closure: I’ve only seen three people connected with MMO companies who’ve expressed their sympathy and condolences at the site shutting down, but I’d wager there have been more that I’ve missed, sharing their sentiments publicly or privately. Here’s a wild thought: Maybe if you hadn’t viewed Massively (and Joystiq and WoW Insider) simply as free publicity most of the time, and instead supported them with more ad revenue, this wouldn’t have happened. Seeing developers who rarely, if ever, supported Massively monetarily lamenting its shuttering is a little like someone who never shelled out cash for a F2P game going on about how awful it is that it shut down. You could have helped change that. You didn’t.
“But what about all the other things developers do for the sites? Interviews? Exclusives? Hanging out on streams?” Those are nice, yes, and those are the sort of things that probably contributed to the 40% increase in Massively’s traffic Bree mentioned. And, like I said, from a financial standpoint, it makes a ton of sense for a company to allow one of its top employees, even someone who might be making six figures a year, to talk to a site for an hour-long interview. That’s still a ton cheaper than buying an ad. I would just prefer that nobody get too teary-eyed about Massively going away when they could have prevented it themselves.
I can also envision a scenario whereby whoever had the job of selling ads for Joystiq tried for a while, got absolutely nowhere – as Todd did with MOG – and effectively gave up, letting low-value ad farm stuff dominate the site. As I looked at Massively and WoW Insider in the days leading up to their closure, I saw ads for Rooms to Go and Mapquest, with tiny sponsored links occupying a little more space. Would have been nice to see an ad for an actual game in there somewhere.
This is where I will call out Trion Worlds as one of the better companies, IMO, for supporting media outlets. We did a couple of deals with them with MOG, as well as a deal with GameBreaker, and I do recall seeing many Rift, Defiance, and ArcheAge ads through the year on various sites. Scott Hartsman is one of those three I mentioned above who’s been pretty vocal of his support for Massively on his Twitter over the past few days (I won’t mention the others), and he’s one of the few developers speaking on the subject that I would respect.
Even so, accepting advertising money from a developer for a product you cover is a fine line to toe. If, say, my site does a bunch of coverage of the next Rift expansion when it’s obvious we have an ad deal with Trion, well, that’s ample fuel for #GamerGate, and I won’t even say that it’s entirely unwarranted. (Of course, note that ads for movies have run in magazines for years, a few pages away from reviews of said movies.) Hell, I feel obligated to speak sorta nice about someone who just gives me 15 minutes of their time for an interview, much less if they’re throwing thousands of dollars at my site. I also know that, in the second case, if that money stops coming because the advertiser’s severely unhappy with the coverage, we might not live long enough to see the next ad campaign. Thankfully, that’s not something I’ve had to worry about for a while, but it’s a lot harder to trash a game after someone’s personally given you a look at it than it is to do it from the other side of a keyboard when you’ve never met anyone involved with it.
Maybe MassivelyOP’s Kickstarter is the way to go, but I’m a little dubious that crowdfunding a media site will provide the revenue needed to keep that site going. Also, while I realize it’s only been a few days, the @massivelyop Twitter account has 4,629 followers, compared to 33,313 for the old @massively one. The thing is, being on the AOL network was worth something, and the number of extremely dedicated folks who will follow that crew over to massivelyop.com is relatively small. If the old site couldn’t generate enough traffic to be profitable, I’d have my doubts about the new one.
The MassivelyOP Kickstarter is off to a nice start, but we’ll see how it goes once the initial momentum slows down. Some sites use subscriptions, but I think that’s equally unlikely to generate a significant amount of revenue, and leaves a bad taste in some folks’ mouths. I’d like to think there’s an alternative to relying on ad revenue to keep a site going, but I don’t know what it is, or even if the gaming public as a whole wants it, what with all the other coverage people do for nothing or nearly so on blogs, YouTube, etc.
I realize I’m speaking out of some measure of self-interest, as I draw paychecks from two gaming sites, but if you’re a developer who doesn’t want to see the next site close down, do something about it. Vote with your wallet, as the saying goes. If you truly think they’re important, if you believe in their communities, they show them that you mean it. Or, as I put it a few days ago, #SaveMassively might trend on Twitter, but it’s not shift-3 – a hashtag – that matters nearly as much as shift-4.
And for heaven’s sake, people, turn off Adblock. You’ll live.