The trend of creating products that go beyond newspaper, magazine and TV formats into entirely different, non-publishing areas is well established. But how does a modern publisher set about doing it?
On 23 August, consumer media company Dennis Publishing will launch Split Decision, a casual trivia game for iOS and Android devices that’s derived from but not directly related to its publishing brands. The game is based on a card game from the US-based bi-monthly trivia magazine Mental Floss, which Dennis bought in 2011.
The game offers a series of quick-fire questions and two possible answers. It’s fast, addictive and deceptively difficult. It will be paid-for on the Apple store and free on Android, with both offering extra content for in-app content such as extra question packs.
Magazine publishers getting into games isn’t new – IPC Media’s purchase of Mousebreaker springs to mind – but this is mobile product development in its own right: not a version of a magazine or a web portal or an acquisition, but a specific standalone project carried out by a development team of eight in London in a few months.
I asked Dennis’s head of app development Alex Watson what the process looks like and how this fits into a bigger strategy plan:
“Games have always been a part of Mental Floss and they are really popular,” he says. “Mental Floss have written and designed the games themselves. If you like the magazine and you like the games, you don’t see them as separate from each other.”
Watson says Dennis Publishing’s eponymous founder Felix Dennis liked about Mental Floss was that “from the ground up it was an experience in itself. 50 percent of its revenues were coming through its store and that’s a large amount of money. Lots of magazines have done ecommerce, including some of ours, but it’s on a re-seller arrangement and you might get one or two percent (of a sale).”
Moving away from ‘finishability’
One thing magazine publishers like to emphasise is the importance of that feeling a reader gets on reading, enjoying and finishing a magazine. Probably saying “ahh” and sipping a cup of tea at the same time.
But as Watson puts it, Dennis’s philosophy is that “not all magazine apps are about reading something from cover to cover”. He says The Week, the digest of global news, does have that regular cover-to-cover readership in print and on tablets, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation.
“Often what you get is people taking the magazine and just putting on another platform,” he says. “If you look at the app stores, the top two or three quarters of the best-selling apps are games. People assume that all people do with tablets is read stuff but that’s only one of many things they do.
“The number of publishers who do really interesting things will apps isn’t large. People assume that the thing people want to read on the app is the same as in print or on the web – what we are saying is that they are very different; this is a brand new thing.”
Watson stresses that while a vital part of the mix, there’s little point recreating the past – “the tablet isn’t about the bringing back the heyday of print” – and says that heavily designed iPad magazine pages, like those from Conde Nast’s digital versions, may be putting design over function.
As an example of the way publishing technology is going, consider this: apart from Watson himself and one designer, no one on the Dennis app development team had publishing experience before starting there. One came from ticket seller Thetrainline.com. Watson says the companies who are “really successful and inspiring in apps” are Flipboard, Angry Birds and Instagram”.
It may be heartening for print traditionalists to hear that at least one tradition hasn’t changed despite the digital transition: reader anger when the crossword moves. “With The Week app, we took the crossword away and thought “no one will be bothered”, but there was outrage.”
Alex Watson is one of several top speakers appearing at Mobile Media Strategies on 25 September, the only UK event on mobile publishing you need. Tickets are selling fast and you can get yours here.
Split Decision comes out on the Apple App Store and Android Market 23 August.
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