As Comics Are to Print, Games Are to Online

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By: Steve Outing

Some newspapers publish comic strips on their Web sites, and those can prove to be popular online features. Yet that’s really nothing more than “repurposing” print content, a.k.a. “shovelware.” It doesn’t take advantage of what the Internet is best at as a medium — interactivity.

New York Now, a Web “magazine” and guide to doings in and around New York City, recently stumbled upon a better idea. Once a week, it puts up on its site a Shockwave interactive game based on some topical news event. The games are somewhat akin to editorial cartoons for the cyberspace age.

For example, there was the Mayor Rudolph Giuliani cross-dressing game, in which Web players get to dress up New York’s flamboyant mayor in various women’s outfits by clicking the computer mouse. (Giuliani was cast in drag on a Saturday Night Live TV show last year.) That game was a hit, with the local media picking up the story and the mayor’s spokesman complaining that Giuliani was shocked at the game and would never wear a dress above the knee! Then, “we decided we were on to something,” says New York Now’s editor in chief, Bennett Voyles.

Other games have been equally as irreverent, and each tackles something from the day’s headlines — often New York oriented, sometimes national. Giuliani is currently on a crusade to build a new Yankee stadium, since the old one is crumbling. Says Voyles, “He wants to pay for it with taxes, but we think our virtual dunking booth — with (Yankees owner) George Steinbrenner as the dunkee — is the way to go.”

The perfect target

Giuliani seems to be a frequent target. He also made a proposal to put up barricades on sidewalks to keep pedestrians from darting into the streets and slowing down traffic. New York Now created a Shockwave game, called “EasyWhack,” in which you drive a virtual car and try to run down as many pedestrians as you can.

Then there’s “Run For Your Life,” in which you are a New York citizen who must be fast with a mouse to dodge examples of New York’s crumbling infrastructure — exploding water mains, chunks falling off buildings, etc.

Other games — New York Now has amassed a collection of around 20 to date — tackle national issues. One is called “Is It Live or Is It Anthrax?” in which the object is to catch anthrax globules as they fall out of the sky, trying to get a high score and outdoing other Web users who have tried. You have to catch them all, because when the first one hits the ground you “die.” Voyles says that his server logs indicated that one Web site visitor spent three hours playing that game trying to get the best score. “We hope he or she sought professional help afterward,” he says.

The games are interactive not only in the sense of letting a Web users play them (dressing Mayor Giuliani, etc.), but also in soliciting comment from the players. A typical game is introduced with a Web page of text and graphics describing the issue that the game addresses. At the end of the text, Web visitors are invited to comment. For a game called “Infested! Will chain stores eat your neighborhood?”, the intro text outlines the evils of Starbucks coffee shops and their ilk, and you are invited to answer the question, “What’s the weirdest thing about these stores?” Submitting a comment appends your words to the page.

Creating the Shockwave games is no easy task, and the Web site has given itself a weekly deadline. Voyles says his site is blessed with a programmer, Chris Powers, who can crank one out — using Macromind Director software — in one to one-and-a-half days. Powers works primarily with art director Linda Zacks for the illustrations, and Voyles for the writing. “Yes, it’s a lot of work, but it’s fun,” says Voyles.

Revenue model to come

The online games are primarily a traffic booster for the New York Now site, and Voyles says they have been successful in that regard and have developed somewhat of a “cult following” among workers in New York’s Silicon Alley new media industry. He hopes to syndicate the games, as well as find sponsors for the feature on his own site.

While a conventional Web ad banner could be placed on the intro page for each game, they also would be appropriate for “intersticials” — Web commercials that could be run just before the game loaded for play.

The concept is not without its limitations, of course, the most notable being the high bandwidth required to have a pleasant experience playing the games. Like many Web innovations, this one will become more popular when the majority of Internet users have high-speed connections.

Voyles feels strongly that interactive games will become an increasingly important part of local online news sites over time. “The more games we’ve built, the more I’m convinced that games like ours are going to be to online news what comic strips and editorial cartoons have been to newspapers,” he says.

Contact: Bennett Voyles, bvoyles@nynow.com

Are newspaper classifieds better?

Following my column about the Newspaper Association of America’s strategy of hiring a public relations firm to promote the “higher quality” of newspaper classifieds over online classifieds being offered by various cyber companies, NAA vice president of classified Tony Marsella called to offer his spin on the issue. The point he wants to drive home to consumers is that newspaper ads work better at generating buyer-seller transactions than the often free online ads offered by many in the Internet community.

“I think they (online classified ads) are for free because it doesn’t work,” he says. Throughout the history of business, goods and services offered for free or at cut-rate prices are found to be inferior and don’t work as well as those with a fair price tag. He likens newspaper classifieds — in combination of print and online — to a well-made suit that lasts years, vs. a cheap one that lasts only a few weeks before the buttons start falling off. Many of the purveyors of online classifieds are not interested in completing transactions between buyers and sellers so much as generating more traffic so they can sell banner ads. He derides the classifieds on sites like Yahoo!, which offers them free to individual sellers, as “wallpaper.”

Marsella doesn’t believe that in five years newspaper classifieds will have taken much of a hit from online competitors, because they don’t have the power of print behind them in addition to online to actually connect buyer and seller.

I find that to be a dangerous view, because the Internet is not like traditional media; it’s a different animal that we haven’t yet got our hands around. While Marsella’s “cheap suit” analogy may have worked historically, it may not hold in an environment where companies like Microsoft and Netscape have produced the best products in the Internet market — their Web browser software — and given them away for free. In my view, newspapers should be very scared about the free classifieds offered by sites like Yahoo! In this new publishing paradigm, the free classifieds might just work as well as the “premium” newspaper ads. And newspaper publishers could be in for a big surprise. The newspaper industry has a major challenge in the years ahead in convincing the public that it offers sufficient high value to keep consumers from flocking to the free-ad model online.

Steve

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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company

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