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Kill Screen: Going print in a digital world

In March 2009, a group of journalists gathered at an Indian restaurant during the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. There was a reporter from the Wall Street Journal, a director at Newsweek, a reporter from Variety and others talking shop about games, journalism and the frustrating combination of the two.

“We were all just lamenting the fact that the publications we wrote for didn’t really respect video games. They didn’t treat them with the same type of seriousness that we thought about them,” said Jamin Brophy-Warren, who was an arts and entertainment reporter for the Wall Street Journal at the time. “It never occurred to us that video games were something not to be taken seriously.”

Even at the Journal, where management had been making attempts to appeal to a younger audience rather than the finance-oriented crowd, space was often limited for Brophy-Warren’s game stories, assuming they ran at all. It was the same for the other journalists at the table.

“Clearly, there was a generational bias,” he said. Most of the people involved in that conversation worked for mainstream publications that would occasionally feature a video game almost as if the medium was some sort of curiosity. That’s why Brophy-Warren, a 27-year-old Harvard grad, started the quarterly magazine Kill Screen.

It’s an uncertain time for print journalism, particularly when writing about video games. Many of the readers are so young that having to pay for articles while waiting weeks for a review of the latest game seems quaint, if not laughable. With this in mind, the goal of the magazine is different than the other magazines which are, at best, in transition, and at worst, dying.

Brophy-Warren boils down game writing into two categories: the fan-driven stuff, such as Kotaku, IGN and magazines like Edge and Game Informer. Then, there would be the more academic stuff that most gamers don’t bother with. The “middle-brow” between the two is hard to find, and that’s the target he’s aiming for.

Also at the dinner was Chris Dahlen, a freelancer who contributes to Edge and The Onion AV Club. He had met Brophy-Warren a couple times, and they had both written for Pitchfork, a music website. The subjects being discussed at the dinner resonated with him.

“I’ve heard of other people talk about ideas like that, because it seems like something is missing,” Dahlen said. He soon became managing editor for the fledgling magazine.

A Tactile Experience

A year later, the first issue launched after $5,949.84 was raised in pledges from Kickstarter, which provides funding for artistic projects. Obtaining all the pieces from the writers and artists was a lengthy process, especially since Dahlen and Brophy-Warren had to worry about real-life work while wrapping up first issue.

The end result is unlike the other gaming mags that can be found on bookstore shelves. The front cover is thick and high quality paper stock is used for the inside pages. A piece written from the second-person perspective by Tom Bissel gazes back to the utter camp of Resident Evil that takes second to the pure fright the game evokes. Developer Peter Molyneuax, of Fable fame, writes about the difficulty of developing an in-game dog that doesn’t annoy. L.B Jefferies analyzes Link’s journey to maturity in The Ocarina of Time and intersperses the piece with nostalgia for a childhood long gone. There are no advertisements and the price an issue ($20 shipped in the U.S., $35 for international orders) reflects that.

“We would publish anything as long as it’s compelling, fun to read, informative and kind of timeless,” Dahlen said. “We’ll talk about new games and we’ll talk about old games but basically anything that doesn’t fit in the usual departments of a games magazine. We’re not doing reviews, we’re not doing previews and we’re not doing those kinds of news items.”

Soon after the magazine launched, Dahlen was invited to speak at PAX East on a panel. The subject was a sign of the times: “The Death of Print.” During that discussion, John Davison, the editor of GamePro, wished that he could get rid of reviews in the magazine since he found them useless due to the speed of the Internet. Jeff Green, the former editor of the now-defunct Games for Windows/Computer Gaming World talked about his new venture managing a game news site for EA.

Everyone on the panel had either transitioned entirely to the Internet or, in Davison’s case, noted the importance of also having an online presence in addition to the print product. Kill Screen is heading in the opposite direction as the number of gaming magazines shrinks.

“If you’re going to do long-form writing, particularly in print, it can’t really be about the words, because the words are what have lost value in the Internet economy. The costs of distributing these words [online] are zero, because it doesn’t cost anything,” Brophy-Warren said. “I do think that people still buy physical goods and still buy physical products.”

He added, “A lot of content delivered right now happens very passively. People get it because it’s there and not because they really want it.”

He cited the Amazon Kindle and iPad, which are still based on “tactile experiences” and that people are still interested in holding something in their hand, especially if the product is high-quality and appealing, like a coffee table book or an issue of National Geographic.

Next-generation gaming (magazines)

While print is the focus in Kill Screen, Brophy-Warren does have plans to put together a mailing list that would occasionally deliver online pieces to readers. The next issue is coming out in June, and work has begun on future issues. He declined to comment on how sales have been, but buzz has been fairly high.

“I’m very excited about the press we had but I’m more excited about featuring games in a way you wouldn’t normally expect,” he said.

Drawing upon his knowledge about music, Dahlen likened what Kill Screen is trying to do to what’s happening in the music industry.

“I compare doing this to vinyl [records]. Vinyl sales have been growing over the years. People want to come home with something,” he said. “That’s what I like about [print] as a delivery mechanism.”

The author of this fine article

is a Senior Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in February 2003. Get in touch on Twitter @akarge.

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