This is why I’ve pulled the plug on my games blog Bashers.nl
I’m still convinced that there’s a large potential audience for intelligent, adult games journalism, even in a small country like The Netherlands. I just don’t think it’s feasible to get the quality you’d like, and to truly reach out to the public, as a freelance journalist running a volunteer organisation, trying to slowly transform it into a business. After 6 years and 8 months, I got tired of this approach. This is why I’ve decided to pull the plug on Bashers.nl.
This doesn’t mean that Bashers has failed, per se. At least from the second year, it was intended to be an experiment to find out what else was possible with a website about games. We tried many things, big and small, many never saw the light of day, some were successful, some not so. I learned a lot, but was never able to jump to the next phase, so now I’m moving on and applying these lessons to other things.
History of a games blog
Even during the first year, with Small Media Group, it was kind of an experiment. After GameSen.nl folded, the Dutch games website I’d founded in the late nineties, I had the vague notion that it should be possible to make a great games website without much of the hassle.
With that I mean: without having to ‘bet the company’, by doing it full-time, burning through your cash quickly if you’re not careful, and without having to do all the boring stuff. Why review the games everyone is already reviewing and post the news everyone is already copy-pasting, if you can just do short blog posts covering what’s exciting, though-provoking, funny and otherwise noteworthy?
So when I bumped into Michiel Frackers’ startup Small Media Group (SMG), that wanted to be a blog publisher like Gawker and Weblogs, Inc. but in Dutch, it felt like a perfect match. SMG would do the hosting, development, design and marketing, and even pay the editorial team a small amount of money. We’d just have to write the content.
Three friends from the GameSen era (Bart Breij, Debby Rijnbeek and Vincent Leeuw) felt the same urge, so we bundled forces. Another friend, Sigfrid van Driel, who’d designed my Nintendo magazine n3, created the logo and layout. (The current logo was done by Fredo Houben a few years later.)
We soon found that it was pretty tough to get enough critical mass to become an interesting target for advertisers. We’d have to focus on more ‘sexy’ content to boost our page views. Yet personally I was getting more interested in writing in-depth background stories or sharp op-eds about obscure subjects than quick updates: I’d just left Power Unlimited and was seeking to write for nrc.next to do this. So SMG and Bashers parted ways.
The Bashers Experiment
This is when the experiment truly began. I started looking for new ideas, new voices, and new ways to make a games blog viable. We reinvented the site regularly, trying to keep it exciting and fresh for ourselves and for our visitors, though we generally stuck to three principles: saving our readers time by summarizing what was going on, gaining a deeper understanding with longer pieces, and exploring new, unfamiliar topics.
I feel that Bashers was able to do some refreshing things before others were doing it. The podcast with Samuel Hubner Casado and Menno Schellekens. The indie round-up by Sander van der Vegte. The iPhone round-up by Ellen de Lange-Ros. The linked lists by Luke van Velthoven and others. The review round-up by Niels Peuchen. The games creation software tutorials by Martijn van Best. The daily columns. The academic papers, worked into accessible articles. The game jam reports. The interviews. Rogier Kahlmann’s provocations and satire. We even did a song!
I’m doubtlessly forgetting wonderful things we did and wonderful people who helped out, which just goes to show how much there was.
The single most important thing was the games journalism debate, which started after David Nieborg joined our cause. Bashers examined the ties between the games industry and journalism, as well as the often boring form that games writing takes: the experimental work we’d done at Bashers gave one answer to the question what journalists could do to escape the trap of publishing ‘all the news, previews and reviews that the game companies’ PR departments are looking to push’.
Even though we sometimes got a hostile response from colleagues, I can’t escape the feeling that Bashers changed something. Magazines and websites that didn’t use to do this, now publish a more varied array of articles, and are more careful about conflicts of interest. They generally seem to think harder about games journalism and do more interesting stuff. Of course, there’s still quite a way to go (euphemism!), but Bashers definitely made its mark.
Business model problems
Here’s another way in which Bashers was not a failure: many of our authors were able to develop themselves as writers and thinkers, and used it as a springboard to get (paid) work elsewhere. This is definitely true for myself: many clients found me through Bashers, allowing me to do more interesting work at higher rates.
It got to the point where almost all the article ideas I’d want to develop, and I would previously only have been able to publish on Bashers, I could now easily pitch to clients.
At the same time, Bashers was still not producing any revenue. Despite some attempts at a more professional setup with new business models and side projects. And despite Robert Gaal helping us out for a year, trying to find smart ways to elevate the site from volunteer territory.
The longer this went on, the clearer it became how hard it was to reach the quality we were looking for without an income. The core problem wasn’t even that advertising didn’t fit our approach, or that we couldn’t find the right mix for some kind of paid product, the problem was that more satisfying opportunities arose for each of us.
This left the site zigzagging uncomfortably between amateurism and professionalism, which was especially awkward after our games journalism bravado. After all the analysis and criticism, why didn’t we do a better job?
In the end, we’d made the ‘game journalism problem’ more visible, but much of the solution was happening outside of Bashers, sometimes by our own hands, but too often elsewhere. A few brave attempts to find a new approach that could happily co-exist with this reality didn’t come together. Meanwhile, the past haunted us: it felt like we had to do everything we’d done before, but better, and more. It just wasn’t feasible. That’s why it feels liberating to pull the plug on Bashers.
The internet is becoming less ‘website centric’. Homepages are visited less, and the articles that truly catch fire do so through social media. This means that it matters less where something is published. Personally, I look forward to using this personal site, as well as Twitter and Facebook, to launch articles and other cool one-off projects.
It’s a cliché, but true: endings make room for new beginnings. I already feel the itch to start new stuff, that will probably be more focused, less open-ended and, hopefully, more profitable. And by properly closing down Bashers, instead of letting it wane any further, I’ll always be able to look back at it with pride.