Press Pass: An Interview With Dan "Shoe" Hsu
After starting at major game journalism publisher Ziff Davis in 1996, Dan "Shoe" Hsu rose through the ranks to serve for six years as editor-in-chief of Electronic Gaming Monthly before being promoted to editorial director of Ziff Davis' Game Group in 2007. So it was a bit of a shock when, in April this year, Hsu announced that he would be ending his career at Ziff Davis, with no immediate plans other than "taking some much needed time off."
Or maybe it wasn't so shocking. Even as a member of the game journalism elite, "Shoe" was one of the game press' fiercest critics, frequently using his editorial space in EGM to deride what he sees as an overly cozy relationship between game journalists and game publishers. It's a tradition of criticism he's continued on his Sore Thumbs blog, where he's written a series of posts revealing insider tales of some of the more sordid wheeling and dealing that goes on behind the scenes in the game press.
Despite this openness, Hsu has been reluctant to discuss the specifics of his abrupt departure from a top position in the game journalism scene -- until now. In his first in-depth interview since leaving Ziff Davis, Hsu talked with Crispy Gamer about the reasons he left, the myriad problems with the current state of game journalism and more.
Crispy Gamer: Are you ready to elaborate any further on the reasons you left Ziff Davis?
Dan Hsu: I'd say I probably have about a dozen reasons why I left. The easiest, most immediate -- and safest -- answer: I've been with that company for 11 out of my 12 years in the business, and it was just time for a change of pace. I needed a break, and I needed new challenges.
I guess you can also say the business itself burned me out. Working on a print magazine is hard, hard work. And a typical work scenario could look like this: I bust my ass trying to score a triple-A exclusive, I go and see the game, do interviews, spend hours writing up and polishing a story, work with the art team to design the cover and layout. Finally, I'm all beaming and proud of what we've done, and bam, people scan the contents and deliver that scoop to everywhere for free.
It's not about freedom of information. EGM's a business, and it depends on people buying the issue -- not only for those cover-price dollars at newsstand, but for circulation for ad revenue. We try to do stuff the Internet does not have, but the Internet goes ahead and ruins it. It's a no-win situation, and our business has suffered for it. And then I had frustrations competing with Game Informer's business model. Those guys are smart. With their GameStop connection, we just had a lot of trouble staying competitive in the circulation department.
Crispy Gamer: Can print survive in this kind of environment? Even neglecting the piracy/copyright issues, can a game magazine compete with the speed of the Internet?
Hsu: I don't think most magazines can compete, no. The Internet offers too much too quickly, and for free. I used to think I could stay competitive at EGM with exclusives and unique features, but realistically, anything a magazine can do, the web can do as well. I think you'd have to have a business model like Game Informer's to survive, where someone is getting those magazines out to consumers at a high rate for zero perceived cost. Or perhaps you have to make the magazine a higher perceived value and make people pay more for it. We played with that idea somewhat: better paper stock, better cover stock, a lot more pages -- all stuff that would make the magazine a lot pricier to produce, but we'd charge readers more for buying it. But that's a very high-risk maneuver that we couldn't afford to try at Ziff. Maybe we should've just gone the Maxim route and put lots of half-naked babes all over EGM.
Crispy Gamer: Any more of those dozen reasons for leaving that you can talk about?
Hsu: Another reason why I left is because my new role as editorial director was a little redundant with some of the other people that were there already. Simon Cox became my boss as vice president of content, but he's a very hands-on guy, and he has a lot of ideas on how he wants to do things around there. I started to feel a bit like a middleman or an assistant in some ways, because Simon really didn't need me -- he was the head of the editorial department and he has enough experience from there. I'm sure he'd say otherwise, but really, the company didn't need both of us there running editorial. They could've used my salary for other things, like free bagels or something.
Crispy Gamer: Did you feel any pressure from Ziff to resign?
Hsu: Oh, not at all. Ziff's been nothing but great to me personally. I never had issue with my personal working conditions or pay or anything like that, and they tried really hard to keep me happy and sticking around. Simon wanted to see if there was anything they could do to keep me around, but he could tell it wasn't an issue of pay or anything like that. Just with all the reasons I stated above and some of the reasons I won't be stating, my head just wasn't in the game anymore....
It's no secret that Ziff has had money problems, and when you have money problems, that leads to a lot of other problems, but I'll just leave it at that. Again, it had nothing to do with my salary or anything like that. They took care of me at Ziff.
Crispy Gamer: What would you say is the single biggest problem in game journalism today?
Hsu: Hmm. It could be the relationship the press has with the people and companies it's covering. Everyone likes to play so nice that they forget what they're supposed to be doing in the first place. So some writers are afraid to ask the tough questions, or to criticize what should be criticized, because they're afraid of backlash from the companies from a support standpoint, from an advertising standpoint or worse, from their own editors who don't want to piss anyone off. This may not be a blatant problem, but it's there, unspoken, hanging over everything in the industry.
Even big outlets like EGM feel that pressure. It's been hinted to me several times that some developers and publishers don't want to work with us because we're too tough or critical, that they'd rather work with others where they feel more in "control" over the message that would be getting out. I guess that's yet another reason I needed to get out and look for a change. This shit is just too frustrating, and I'm getting a little angry just thinking about all that BS in the business we had to put up with.
Crispy Gamer: Is this the kind of problem that's inherent to all entertainment journalism, or do you feel game journalism is especially susceptible to this kind of influence?
Hsu: I haven't worked outside of games journalism, so I don't know, but I have gotten some feedback that this type of pressure happens in other niche industries, as well. But I also feel part of the problem is we're all so young as a business and industry. Movie guys, for example, have been doing this for way longer than we have, and I'd guess the average-age writer or critic there is older than on the games side. So I would guess it's very different in other genres. I feel a lot of games journalism is still very young, both as a business and in terms of actual ages of the people working in it. Inexperience and youth are probably factors here.
Crispy Gamer: So you see these problems getting better as game journalism (and journalists) get older?
Hsu: I think so. I think the journalism side will mature as it gets bigger and more influential. And the way the companies interact with the press will evolve with that.
Crispy Gamer: What's the biggest change you've seen in game journalism during your long career?
Hsu: Maybe just how big it's become. I remember that when I started out, I'd be at some events where there were fewer than 10 of us in attendance, all from major enthusiast magazines. Now, even small events are picking up huge crowds, ranging from smaller fan sites to the mainstream press. It's cool to see how widespread the interest is, and that the game companies are willing to support even the small guys.
Crispy Gamer: You did some work for G4 at this year's E3. How does working for TV compare to working for print?
Hsu: Oh, that was a refreshing change of pace for me, but it was way more frantic. A lot goes into preparing each show, even each individual segment. It was amazing to see how many people work there, though. I don't even think they all know each other! Print's the easiest. You can take your time and research a story; you can have down days or even down weeks. You don't have that same pressure to get that story up, trying to beat the next guy by five minutes.
Crispy Gamer: Is there anything more permanent in your future career plans?
Hsu: I've been talking to a few people about some things -- brainstorming some ideas -- but nothing permanent, no. Just enjoying the break right now.
Crispy Gamer: That's all I got. Anything else you want to tell your adoring (or less than adoring) fans?
Hsu: Just thanks to everyone for their support, both in the goodbyes when I left Ziff to the stuff I'm writing about now on my blog. But please tell the Ohio State fans to stop harassing me!