Why Polygon takes video-games journalism seriously
To Christopher Grant, there’s nothing “heroic” about what he does for a living: “We’re building a video-game website, and I think we all have that in context,” he said by phone.
Grant is editor-in-chief of Polygon, which launched as a standalone site overnight after eight months camping out on the URL of corporate sibling The Verge. The idea, he said, is to create a site as visually appealing as the medium it covers.
But Polygon -- the name refers to the basic visual building block of video games -- is more than just a nice-looking gaming site. It’s an attempt to professionalize a rollicking form of entertainment journalism that naturally resists taking itself too seriously, even as it covers an industry that rivals Hollywood in economic impact.
Polygon’s launch has been chronicled in a documentary called “Press Reset” that’s unspooled on The Verge. While the film displays plenty of optimism about the site, it’s also bathed in angst -- about launching yet another video game site, about selling advertising, about whether Polygon’s writers should employ the serial comma, about whether games journalists and their audience are, as Managing Editor Justin McElroy says he worries about himself in the trailer, are “living a trivial existence.”
“It’s a weird idea, but we’ve already heard people telling us that the stories they read on Polygon make them proud of being a gamer instead of being embarrassed by it,” Grant said.
The video-game industry is also facing parallel circumstances to journalism, in that its traditional delivery platforms have been profoundly wounded. “Just yesterday we had two stories in a row about developers who are basically giving up that entire business model and going after mobile,” Grant said. “We don’t know what will happen in the industry.”
Like all entertainment journalists, Polygon’s writers and editors -- many of whom came from video-game sites like Joystiq, Kotaku and The Escapist -- are faced with the problem of doing serious journalism about commercial products in which large amounts of money have been invested. Polygon will have an aggressive news desk as well as reviews, but it will also run longform features. Reached on the phone at his home in Huntington, W.V., McElroy said the video-game industry lacks “personalities people know.”
“A lot of what we have is brands,” McElroy said. “What we’re hoping to do is by turning the camera a little more on the people, people can realize who is making these things and follow them.”
Polygon will revisit the scores of its games over time, Grant said, an approach that will reflect software changes and, for example, whether a game’s multiplayer online mode has anyone playing it. Critics' evolving feelings about games won't be part of that calculus, Grant said: "We'd try to keep our criticism thorough" enough to avoid such changes.
Reviewing games is a fraught process, reviews editor Arthur Gies explains in Episode 7 of the documentary: Not only can it take a reviewer dozens of hours to play through a game, their reviews can have serious economic consequences for the studios creating them. And there’s also the problem of selling the site to an advertiser who might see an expensive, years-long process of creation land a mediocre score.
The site will cover industry news with nine people; it will have a headcount of 16 journalists to start, Grant said. The Polygon team works virtually: Grant commutes between Philadelphia and New York, McElroy is in West Virginia (where his wife is a family physician), and there are editors and reporters in San Francisco, Sydney, London and Austin, Texas.
Vox Media, which owns Polygon, is mostly based in Washington, D.C. and also owns SB Nation as well as The Verge. The former covers sports, the latter tech, both verticals that have lots of competition for online readers. I asked Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff what the business case was for another video-game site; in an email he asserted Polygon will “be a category leader” and deliver a passionate audience to advertisers.
The staff will feed that passion by taking the culture of gaming seriously and “elevate what we cover,” Grant said. As a recent high point, he cited a long feature about a Web comic based on a video game called Homestuck. “The fun thing there is finding stories people don't know about,” he said.
Both Grant and McElroy said they hope to impress readers and game companies with reviews that focus on gamers’ experiences: “So many reviews to this point have been reviews of products indistinguishable from a review of a vacuum you’d read on Amazon,” McElroy said. “If someone spends 10 or 12 hours expecting a shitty game to get better, they're never gonna get that 10 or 12 hours back,” Gies says in the doc. “That's time they could have spent with their family.
Correction: This post originally said Polygon has four reporters on its news desk. The news desk's headcount is nine.