How do you make money in an industry where the media coverage has grown from bedrooms and garages and dining tables to recognised names and logos and brands. From passionate individuals starting with a hope and a cheery tone and a ‘Hey Everyone’, to trying to make their way in the cardboard world financially viable? Where access to creating content has never really been easier, where everyone is making something, whether it be a public thought on Social Media or a video of their dog doing a cat impression. We are at the peak of free content, the height of unsolicited opinion, and yet these people who have a decent following, are asking for us to continue to help them. How dare they, and yet why not?
It helps to look at our video game cousins, where early coverage in the mid 80’s consisted of absolutely no internet, but monthly magazines, filled with adverts for games and services, which helped to supplement the income of the sales of the publication itself.
It was run by business people, with suits and cigars and projections and plans and turnover and portfolios who were left to look after the dosh and get drunk in the pub at 3pm on a Thursday and smoke cigars. The content was managed by editors and staff writers who normally also turned up at the pub, but on Friday instead, and worked flipping hard to make sure there was a shiny magazine in your hands. There were editorial standards that were upheld and there was pride of doing a good job and in many ways there were a lot of young people having the best creative time under a shit load of pressure.
There were names like Crash, Zzapp and Your Sinclair, with Phil South, Marcus Berkmann and T’zer and laughs, so many laughs.
As the main source of information, getting a good write up in these paper places could make a game, and could literally make a developer into an overnight success and kickstart a career as a games designer. Good write ups inadvertently lead to sales and money and marketing budget and therefore advertising revenue. It was a fabulous feast for all involved for a while.
During this time we saw the rise of Code Masters, The Darling Twins with Dizzy, and Ocean Software, who produced titles in their time that I look on with some nostalgia and smiley tears. We expected advertising in our publications as standard, and it wasn’t unusual for there to be several pages of classified ads for play by mail, or the latest must have tech to appear, or back pages taken out by Ocean or Imagine or Mastertronic.
We crashed into the days of Nintendo and Sega with Mean Machines and Julian Rignall before magazines took a more serious and introspective tone in the early nineties with EDGE Magazine, and we started to see critique and thought pieces alongside the two page spreads that sold us catch phrases and digital escapes and occasionally hilarious brand wars.
Fast forward 25 years, these stalwarts laid the foundations for the internet gaming websites that we see today. In many ways the money men are still at the back but have often switched sides, because video games themselves earn billions in terms of revenue, while those informing us of what and who we are buying from are forced to live on whatever small scraps companies throw them in terms of advertising.
The video game industry coverage is a shitty mess, with alleged rumours of blacklisting and delayed review code because of ‘wrong review scores’ for previously critiqued games from the same publisher. In some cases, advertising and press events being denied as punishment and in others, complete ghosting of the media outlet. Lack of coverage means lack of audience, and can have a disastrous effect on potential advertising revenue. Publishers have a huge influence on a industry that helped them gain traction in the first place, and its a warning to be remembered for the future of tabletop.
Video Game publishers are slowly moving away from traditional media coverage and paying streamers literally thousands of dollars for an hour of their time, as without an editorial guidance, the biggest name streamers can say how much they can love something without worry of breaking any unspoken media code. And why the hell not? Someone gives you a check for $50k dollars and asks you to play something and be excited about it, it’s automatically probably going to add that extra bit of vim and vigour that you usually put into your broadcasts. I’m not going to deny someone who has spent the time and trouble and effort building up their channel to throw away their payday. Though there are questions over transparency and how much you can believe someone who has been paid for their opinion (and their smile). This is on the games publishers, not the scapegoated media, that tries its best.
Tabletop doesn’t have such a long established media base in the traditional sense. Apart from some specialist long running magazines, the only major magazines I could name off the top of my head are the long running White Dwarf and relatively new Tabletop Gaming Magazine. White Dwarf is a well written and gloriously produced monthly advert for all the latest that you need to know about the Games Workshop brand. It does what it says on the tin and has never pretended to be anything else.
Tabletop Gaming Magazine has proven that even in the “need to know everything of the now immediately” type world that we live in, there is nothing nicer sometimes than sitting on the porcelain throne and thumbing through articles, reviews and interviews. It has the mixture of information and adverts and against a lot of online competition has gone on to not only exist but thrive and continue for a number of years.
As Tabletop Advisors and critics, how do we put bread on the table? And cardboard on the table, And a camera, and a microphone? And do we actually need a bigger table? Can you buy me a bigger table please? Who is buying the table? Do you tell people who bought you the table? Am I afraid to tell you I’m being paid to put the idea of a table in your head?
I’m not going to talk about the ethics of reviews and especially paid for reviews, if you want to listen to that discussion, I suggest you check out this episode of Every Night Is Game Night. In which Liz Davidson from Beyond Solitaire and Lance Myxter from Undead Viking have a rather passionate debate about the subject.
For the record, I don’t agree with Lance on this.
I do agree that if we are informing, be through a preview, review, podcast or photography, there comes a point where the time, effort, experience and skill needs to be compensated. However, at the same time, I think we need to be more realistic about the level of compensation that we can achieve considering the relatively small audience that we are catering for.
As an example, Wingspan, one of the hot games of this year was reviewed by Tom Vasel for the Dice Tower, and got 90k views.
Over on KidCity, A kid playing ‘Avengers Guess Who’ gets 2.5 million views. They have almost 5 time the subs The Dice Tower gets, and you’ve probably never heard of them. But they don’t need to worry about supplementing that income.
The biggest videogame twitch streams get about 65k viewers at any one time, while the highest well known Tabletop Streamer manages a 1/100th of that figure. To be brutally honest, the ability for even the biggest names in our industry to make money through the normal content channel revenue streams is a pipe dream. For many of the small players, making media for others is a hobby that they become extremely good at, almost professional in some of the levels that they reach, if professional meant being paid the square root of fuck all.
Currently big names such as The Secret Cabal, SUSD, No Pun Included, and our tiny selves all turn to some form of crowdfunding in order to keep the Tabletop lamp on. Which raises its own set of questions regarding who is supporting Us, because when you go cap in hand to your audience to ask for support, it’s difficult to control who is reaching down and depositing a coin or two. And how can you turn down support and a donation from someone you know who wants to? We are such a small industry, we pretty much do know each other, because it’s a hobby based on people and interaction. There normally isn’t a PR wall of protection, we’ll bump into each other at conventions and meet ups. Friendships form, often across entire continents. We’ve all seen promo cards and scenarios offered as part of a campaign at some point, normally agreed as a favour, as someone trying to help. (We offered biscuits on our kickstarter , but we stole them from Isaac Childres, so make of that what you will.)
It shouldn’t really maybe kind of matter, and also at the same time, it’s dangerous cannibalization of an entire hobby where we are all fighting for scraps and where others are circling like buzzards looking for controversy. We’re currently in a situation for some where the snake is eating it’s tail.
For me, Patreon is only a solution for the really big guys and only really works if you manage to get above paying for the people you are supporting yourself, and for many, based on the number of patrons they have, it’s simply not the case. Even the “successful” creators at $300 a month are sometimes increasing the work they do to please their supporters. You can hear the snake chewing away in the background.
There also seems to be so much greyness around the word preview, especially if it’s been paid for and involves kickstarter, that I even wonder if its the correct word we should be using. You get paid previews with an overview, you get the same label where there’s an opinion attached. You get preview videos with final thoughts and gameplay videos without. Some of the unpaid previews we’ve written have been labelled as reviews by the creators, even though we don’t use that word on the article. We need to own this definition as an industry to avoid external assumptions about transparency.
There is nothing wrong to say you’ve created an advert. It’s understandable to be uneasy. If you’re being paid because you’re great at doing something, at making something attractive and helping someone in their decision to pledge, you ain’t much different from the lady in the suit peddling designer handbags on a shopping channel. She’s cashing those pay checks without a hint of remorse. There’s nothing wrong with that. It takes skill to make a message work. But in my opinion, our labeling is incorrect, confusing and has too many definitions. Yes, an advert sounds like you’re selling something, but it’s defined and there’s nothing to answer for or justify when questioned.
We need revenue to grow and to justify our costs and for some, to give us a sense of achievement, that all the time sacrificed was worth it. But we need to accept that we are sometimes an information channel that has the potential to pass on carefully selected messages for money.
If you ever listen to Getting Geeky with Gamer Leaf, you’ll spend the first three minutes listening to adverts about kickstarter projects. 30 second soundbites about games you can back. There’s no mixed message here, creators pay for the time, and he interviews them on the show and then his kids tell us if they like the game. Search for his channel right now and wonder who the hell he is, because he’s small but he’s hungry to make money and he’s making money. He doesn’t do reviews for money, or previews for money, but straight adverts on his podcast. You can skip them of course, but they are there and designers are paying to be on there. It’s a fine balance between information and intrusion that is interesting to see how it plays out in the longer term.
We have to accept that our audiences aren’t going to hand us the revenue we need to in to make this work long term, especially if the dream of full time is to be achieved. This is clear from the fact that I can probably count the full time board game media outlets on about two hands. Free copies of games are good, but to quote Ben Maddox, “they are only the tools that allow us to do our job” and if we start to treat them as compensation for our time, you had better get used to the taste of cardboard for nutrition. We need to stop running away from advertising like the media of old but being mindful of maintaining a strong code of conduct to make sure that our audience continues to trust us.
Maybe we need to step away from the table for a second and look at sources of sponsorship and advertising that compliment the hobby and its demographic, rather than the publishers themselves. It might mean more non tabletop based adverts in videos and podcasts and on websites, but we need to look at different options as we need to maintain editorial control and not end up like the video game industry where the publishers call more and more of the shots.
Look for sources of funding that don’t have the potential to raise eyebrows or concerns about appropriate conduct, and set standards within the industry that everyone understands and nail down definitions or different types of coverage.
We need to start calling adverts adverts and stop hiding behind the fact we are helping people to sell their product, embrace it and make it work for us without the worry of people questioning our integrity.
But before that, we need the hobby to be so much bigger, and that means more people joining in, more people being aware of this fantastic hobby we all enjoy so much. It means us all working together to spread the cardboard word. We’re still very much at the beginning with media in tabletop.
It’s not the case that we’ve missed the boat, more like we’ve just seen the ocean for the first time.