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One Trick Pony

Sandy Antunes February 15, 2000

When we ran a humorous rant (masquerading as a review) about a John Wick article, an important question came up. Just why did we run that? To boost readership? Because it was entertaining? To be mean to John Wick, even though he's already given us an interview and a column, and even though we respect his body of work?

In fact, why do we do anything? What's our business model? Would we sell our readers down the river (printing only Oprah book reviews and giving all your name to spammers) if someone offered us $10K and a ham sandwich? Or would we gladly suffer the Inquisition itself, let hot irons burn our flesh, rather than do something which could possibly be perceived as mass market?

This raises the question of journalistic ethics. And editorial integrity. And business ethics. It's a sticky field. Is making money the end-all be-all of a company? Or is having a dream more important?

So, without further ago, we hereby set out the single driving principle of publishing and ethics, a handy guidemap that all businesses must follow.

There is only one smart way to publish. As a business, it's a publisher's duty to print what the masses want. So readership is the prime motivator. If it sells papers, as they say, it's news.

This extends to editorial decisions on the micro scale. When presented with a piece, the three prime considerations are:

  1. does it fall within our scope of coverage?
  2. will our audience react to it?
  3. will it therefore maintain or boost our readership?

So in a way, it's like starting a go-cart. The cart is your basic business plan and initial idea. You build the best cart you can and launch it down that hill. You now have control of the steering and can take your idea in any direction you wish. But then its path is largely taken by the road, and you really have only limited steering. Turn down a less-favored path and you'll likely wipe out. Stick to the main groove and you'll get a winning time.

Let's extend this to the business level for game publishers. Clearly, a game publisher's job is to produce games that people want. Figure out what the masses want, and produce it. If they want family games and not RPGs, it's the company's duty to make family games.

There's some sliding room. You can market new ideas and try to convince people they'll like, say, roleplaying. And if the marketing catches on, congratulations! You've built a new, untapped market! But if it doesn't, you should switch strategies.

In short, you want to produce the games that the majority of the market plays. So your main goal is to find out what they want, then produce it. (Or, if you can afford the marketing, convince them that what they want is what you produce.)

When it comes down to it, a good business will produce games that 70%, 80%, 90% of the market wants. By capturing that mass market, by definition you are successful and your games are good. You'll never capture all 100%, but getting the majority of the market is the only worthwhile goal for a company.

So, if it sells papers (or sells more supplements or gets more web visitors), that's the basis of your editorial decisions! Go for it!

There is only one true way to publish. As a publisher, it is your duty to print the best material there is. So quality within your chosen niche is the main goal. If you can serve your readership niche with good material, it's worth printing.

This means your editorial decisions on the small scale reflect your main reason for existence. When presented with a work, the two primary considerations are:

  1. does it fall within our scope of coverage?
  2. is the material worth publishing?
  3. will a portion of our readers like it?

It's a bit like sailing. You outfit your boat and choose your course and destination. Other boats may swiftly zoom by you or take different straits. But if you can keep to the course you set and avoid the storms, you will reach your destination. Choose your destinations wisely and it was all worth doing.

Let's extend this to the business level for game publishers. Clearly, a game publisher's job is to produce quality games. You have to understand your target market and their wants, but you also have a duty to expand their horizons and push the envelope a bit. In this way you keep the market niche fresh and evolving, while still holding to its key values.

There's some sliding room. You should put out stuff that they clamor for, and not be dogmatic about 'what quality is'. And flexibility is key-- making hybrid products or new directions because the market demands it is always good. And a crossover item is gold, a nice bonus. But it's important to remain true to your original purpose in being a publisher.

In short, you want to produce the games that, as they say, "people who like that sort of thing will like". So your main goal is to find your audience.

When it comes down to it, if your market niche is 20% of the total market and you can keep it, that's good business. So your goal is to choose a market niche you like, and mine it to the best of your ability. You'll rarely capture the mass market, but maintaining a steady market segment is a worthwhile goal for a company.

So, if it's worth doing and it keeps readership, that's the basic of your editorial decisions! Go for it!

There, I'm glad to have cleared up any controversy over the one true path of running a publishing or games business. I now feel free to inject some personal opinion. Having a dream is the most important part of running your own venture (a hobby, a business, a company).

That dream can be 'to make gobs of money'. That's as valid as many. But it's not the only path, and it's not the only reason people go into business. Reducing all business to just money is simplistic and absurd. "The Market" is far more complex than any one philosophy and supports a variety of approaches and strategies.

Figure out what you want. Figure out how to get there. Do it. Enjoy the trip. And be happy with what you achieve.

Good luck,

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