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Oct. 31, 2012, 10:30 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Game on: How Polygon wants to rethink video game journalism

The new gaming site from Vox Media wants to emphasize engaging community and telling untold stories from the world of gaming.

At this point, Vox Media has established something of a formula: Use one property to serve as a launching pad for a new sibling. Before the launch of The Verge, Josh Topolsky’s team was operating on the stripped-down This Is My Next. Before Polygon debuted last week, the team was already publishing on The Verge.

Maybe Vox is just keeping it in the family, the way you let a brother or cousin sleep on your couch until they’re on their feet. But in the media business, there are risks and rewards that come with pulling back the curtain. Trying to gain an audience prior to launch can be very beneficial, but it requires a certain amount of exposure.

“On day one, we have not only a backlog of content, but we have a lot of the formulations already determined,” Chris Grant, editor-in-chief of Polygon, told me. “The downside — part of it is you’re tipping your hand. You’re saying, ‘Hey guys, this is the kind of content we’re going to make.'”

Polygon is a video game website very much in the same focused spirit of The Verge and SB Nation. It’s got news and reviews. There are video offerings, and a healthy dose of long-form features. To some degree their approach to video games — the industry, the culture, the people on either side of the controller — will likely follow that of their siblings.

But Polygon is entering a different kind of field than its siblings. Vox’s other properties jumped into very crowded pools — sports or technology might be, along with politics, the beats most overrepresented among news companies on the Internet. Now, gaming isn’t by any means uncovered as a topic — enthusiast sites have a long history online, many of today’s young-ish adults grew up reading gaming magazines, and some larger media companies have invested — but it is a different competitive space. It’s potentially a very profitable market with an audience as passionate and ferocious (and vocal) as Patriots fans or Android devotees.

Polygon’s path to success, as they see it, is fairly straight-orward: combine technology, community, and storytelling for the win. “We want to look at video games and video game creators through the lens of enthusiasm,” Grant said. That, maybe more than any technology or design elements, may be the thread that connects the Vox sites — a “Can you believe how much fun we’re having?” approach to journalism.

Going beyond new game reviews and product releases

“One of the things we said was, the games industry is getting older and the industry is getting more mature,” Grant told me. “Shouldn’t the journalism also match that?” When they started planning Polygon several months ago, they didn’t really have an idea of how that would take shape.

“It’s a constant challenge and struggle to make a video game website that doesn’t only speak to people who play video games every day.”

Justin McElroy, Polygon’s managing editor, said they wanted to take an approach to video game coverage that wasn’t as product-centric — which is difficult since games are items which are bought and sold. McElroy said their challenge is to think bigger, to find unexpected stories about people who make games and people who love games. “With our features especially, we have an opportunity to change the story and make it about people,” he said. “People are infinitely more interesting than products and brands.”

One reason to do that is to open up the audience beyond the kind of core gamers who would head to a gaming site religiously. The increasingly social spread of stories favors the creation of compelling narratives that can have universal interest, regardless of whether you’ve ever played a game, he said. “It’s a constant challenge and struggle to make a video game website that doesn’t only speak to people who play video games every day,” he said.

Polygon wants to take what you could call a holistic approach to games. Sure, you pay money for them and they’re good entertainment. But who makes them? Where did the idea come from? Why are they worth buying? McElroy said the same thinking applies to their reviews. They want to tell a story, not just give a thumbs up or down. “We want to move away from reviews that treat games like a vacuum cleaner,” McElroy said. What does that mean? McElroy continues: “I think we can do reviews that are more about the experience of playing the game, how highly we can recommend the experience, and move beyond is it worth my dollars.”

They decided on a core of news, reviews, and features, three areas that could draw independent audiences but also have a crossover appeal. If you’re interested in news on fighting games like Tekken, there’s a possibility you’ll want to check out a feature about the world of competitive fighting games.

Grant says there are separate, fragmented audiences which they want to serve, as well as a more general audience. For some readers, Polygon will offer utility though news and game reviews. But more broadly, Grant and the other editors want the site to be part of the bigger conversation about gaming culture today. That’s one of the reasons they produced “Press Reset,” a series of behind-the-scenes videos looking at people behind the launch of Polygon. It’s also why Polygon has an open forum on its site where readers can take discussions beyond a story or review.

“In general, in journalism I think there’s a growing desire to have that sort of connection to the people whose content you read,” Grant said.

A bet on two industries in flux

Gaming itself is undergoing some pretty seismic changes, Bankoff said. It’s no longer talking about consoles and shrink-wrapped games.

When I asked Vox CEO Jim Bankoff why gaming would be his company’s next vertical, he said it, like technology and sports, features a passionate and engaged online community. And, like tech and sports, video games appeal to a sought-after group of readers — largely male, young, with money to spend. “From a business and advertising perspective, this fits well in our portfolio in between sports and technology,” Bankoff told me.

It helps that Vox can take advantage of that scale through its advertising and technology assets. Polygon will share a common ad sales staff the rest of Vox uses and will use Chorus, the in-house content management system that The Verge and SB Nation run on. Having that framework allows you to focus on building a team and devising a mission, Bankoff said.

Bankoff told me he thinks Polygon is coming along at the right time, when both video games and journalism are experiencing disruption to their business. “What’s most remarkable about gaming, perhaps, is it’s undergoing some pretty seismic changes,” Bankoff said. “It’s no longer talking about consoles and shrink-wrapped games.” While gaming remains a profitable industry, sales of games and devices fell in 2011 and appears on a similar track in 2012. At the same time, the audience for video games has expanded beyond consoles like the Xbox 360 or Nintendo Wii. People are just as likely to play games on the phones or social games like Farmville.

“It’s different from 10 years ago. It was a pre-teen-, teenage-dominated audience,” said Jesse Divnich, vice president of insights and analysis for video game research firm EEDAR. “Now with the rise of accessibility, mobile games, and social games, it has broadened and opened up the demographic even more.”

Gaming used to be primarily the domain of larger companies whose titles became events, on par with a summer blockbuster movie opening. But that’s shifted now; Divnich said the same factors that have transformed the business model in other parts of media and entertainment have also affected video games. “You don’t have to have millions of dollars to make and release a game to consumers. You can produce a video game in your garage,” Divnich said.

This means more developers are creating games and more people are playing them. For Polygon, that’s two audiences they could attract readers and advertisers. But it’s also an audience that sites like IGN, Gamespot, Joystiq, and Kotaku are going after as well. Those sites not only have been on the block longer, but some have backing from big parent companies like AOL, News Corp., and CBS Interactive.

Grant sees Polygon’s newcomer status as an advantage over competitors. “Part of being a startup, it gives us an alacrity that others don’t have,” he said. “We can identify places to invest and move on it quickly.”

McElroy said their short-term focus is appealing to readers through storytelling and building conversations around gaming. They’ll also continue to adapt the site based on feedback from users. Having worked together to get the site ready for launch over the last several months has given the small staff a sense of ownership, he said. Depending on how Polygon fares, that could be a mixed blessing. “The terrifying part is, if it doesn’t work we literally have no one to blame but ourselves. It will be a grand sweeping proclamation we don’t know what we are doing,” he joked.

POSTED     Oct. 31, 2012, 10:30 a.m.
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