I can admit, now, that I thought the whole project doomed. An online-only magazine for cutting-edge game writing, published by a Harvard lawyer with a passion for tabletop games, edited by a novice, funded by a company that ran support forums – I gave it six months.

Now, for its fifth anniversary issue, The Escapist has invited me to perform karmic penance.

The New York Times of gaming”

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The Escapist was originally described in March 2005 in an 11-page proposal produced for internal use by the Themis Group. Named for the mythic Greek Titan who embodied custom, community and divine law, Themis ran the WarCry Network and various MMOG support services. The proposal omitted a business case for a media website, though Themis chairman Tom Kurz says, “Launching a webzine was actually a logical extension of our capabilities.”

In contrast to consumer game magazines, with their reviews and buying guides, The Escapist would feature “New Games Journalism,” inspired by Kieron Gillen’s 2004 call for articles that emphasize the gamer over the game – “travel journalism to Imaginary Places.” The Escapist, read the pitch, “always aims to make an emotional connection with a game through excellent storytelling. The Escapist will be sharp, edgy, entertaining and informative. Above all, it will aim to be trusted – it will be the New York Times of gaming in that respect. Its word should be holy writ.” Name-checking The New Republic, Wired and Salon, the project targeted “an intelligent audience of digitally-savvy developers, insiders and influencers interested in the new-new thing.”

This thing became officially new-new when The Escapist issue 1, with the theme “Gaming Uber Alles,” debuted on July 12, 2005. Contributors included Gillen and Penny Arcade‘s Jerry (Tycho) Holkins. Early issues, with similarly illustrious writers, included “Grand Theft Adaptation,” “Girl Power,Asia, niche gaming and “Fast Forward 2020.

The early Escapist fascinated me. It was so different, and not just in its novel topics. In lieu of forums, it had weekly Letters to the Editor. Almost unprecedented in my experience, The Escapist had a fact checker, Nova Barlow, who also writes industry analysis white papers for Themis. (I’m guessing the fact-check for this article will be easier than most.) Early ads pushed, not games or video cards, but Carlsberg beer and Ford – what Kurz calls “non-endemic” advertisers. Kurz pursued them to validate the value of the site’s demographics. “Non-endemics that spend with us are effectively telling the world they value the intelligence and influence of our audience.”

The Escapist‘s most striking and provocative innovation was its magazine format, designed by Creative Director Jon Hayter and Associate Publisher Greg Lincoln and programmed by Lead Developer Jason Smith.

“On the first day of The Escapist, at 10:00 am, we flipped the switch and made our first issue live,” says Smith. “I sent our first weekly newsletter to 64 people. I don’t think that we got much more work done that day, the entire company was nervously excited and passing links around, looking at the comments that other people were posting about us.”

Every reader – everyone – had strong opinions abut this layout, a sequence of fixed pages that looked more Wired than web. I was going to say that “you’ve never seen anything like it,” except now every iPad magazine app is doing exactly what The Escapist pioneered five years ago.

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“In an email exchange,” says Smith, “Richard Bartle expressed surprise that we were doing this weekly, and that he was impressed. I think that may have been one of the most meaningful comments for our team; it was for me.”

Publisher (and Harvard lawyer) Alexander Macris explains the reasoning behind the innovative layout, “Our concern was that if we launched with a traditional web format, people would say, ‘Ho hum, another blog.’ When you’re up against massive competitors in an entrenched position, mere quality doesn’t carry the day; you need a unique design. We felt an amazing, graphically beautiful magazine-style layout would capture more attention. And we were totally right!”

“We were very interested in capturing the romance of the printed word,” says Lincoln. Though he wishes standards back then had today’s support for web fonts, so they could have escaped “the Times/Tahoma/Verdana dungeon,” Lincoln says, “the backend tech was dynamite, supporting what worked out to be a fantastic display of our creative talents.”

The Escapist‘s design was pretty anti-establishment at the time,” says Hayter, but “our objective with the design – as it should be with all design – was to complement the content. If the writing was our high-caliber bullet, our design was striving to be the best possible rifle to deliver it on target. I worry what would have happened if we hadn’t stepped onto the scene with the big designs and covers. I worry we would have – like many other startup gaming sites – gotten lost in the mix.”

That never happened. Regarding the July 2005 launch, Smith recalls that the first day brought 16,000 unique visitors. “These days a single article or video will frequently top those numbers, but we were thrilled with them.”

The format proved labor-intensive. Hayter commented in a 2005 forum post, “It’s a difficult process each week. All rewarding accomplishments are challenging by nature, so I’m happy to say The Escapist falls into this category.” And some of the hardest labor fell to Editor-in-Chief Julianne Greer.

“I was working as the copywriter in Themis’s marketing division,” she says. “We knew it would be tough to hire an experienced editor to head up the venture since it was so quietly done, so we decided to choose from within. I had never been an editor before, let alone the founding editor, laying the groundwork for the whole editorial tone and process. ‘Daunted’ is an understatement to describe my feeling, but I was honored that the planning team put so much faith in me.

“In the early days, there were some seriously long hours. There were two other editors whose primary jobs within the company took most of their time, so I was the only full-time editor. I solicited and edited most of the 40,000-ish words a month we published. I didn’t sleep much. I built a barricade along the bottom of my desk so people couldn’t see under it, and every now and again I’d crawl under there and have a power nap.”

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But Greer did an exemplary job of establishing the characteristic Escapist tone. “We wanted to treat games and the industry with respect. That’s not to say we never say bad things about games, but we come from a place of love. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell if people writing about games even really like them. Someone who’s dedicated their life’s work to covering a subject really should respect and like that subject. Otherwise it’s some weird masochistic venture which really is best played out on a therapist’s couch, not the internet. We always encouraged our team to remember that they love games.”

Eating the Baby

In May 2006, almost a year after launch, The Escapist attracted barely 100,000 visitors. The following month, Russ Pitts joined The Escapist staff – “Team Humidor” – as Greer’s Acquisitions Editor. Pitts had done a lot of theater, worked as a video producer for TechTV and wrote on the side for Gamers With Jobs, a “safe haven” for players with families to feed and bills to pay.

Pitts thought The Escapist “had very effectively captured a hardcore audience of about 200,000 game developers or game developer wannabes. They’re fine people, but make no mistake about it: That’s a niche audience, a small audience. [The Escapist] was founded by some very hardcore old-school gamers. I got a sense very quickly that these were very intensely pro-game people, but that the bridge between living the dream and having the dream might be fading.

“The first year that I was here, we were undergoing a long, delicate shift from a heavily academic focus to something a little more consumer-oriented. The wider the gaming audience becomes, the more we have to shift that focus. The trick is in maintaining an authoritative tone and generating insightful commentary in the process, which is not always easy.”

No, it wasn’t. Over the next year, a procession of fine issues on intriguing topics – drudgery, marketing, government, spirituality, industry stumbles – barely moved the needle: May 2007 brought only 177,000 uniques. I was impressed the magazine had lasted so long, but I thought it had little time left.

But in July 2007, starting its third year, The Escapist changed to a more conventional web style. Macris says, “At a certain point, the drawbacks of the magazine layout began to outweigh its benefits. It was expensive to produce and incredibly time-consuming. It wasn’t easy to read on all browsers; it wasn’t easily searchable, navigable or archivable; it didn’t allow room for blogging, news feeds and so on. So, we slowly sunsetted it.”

“I still love the original design,” Smith says. “It was unique, something that nobody else has really done. Of course, that might be because we were crazy to do it in the first place, let alone keep it up for two years. The biggest challenge with the original layout was always the time it took to translate each article into its online form. We needed to flow all the text into each content area by hand, and a small article revision could change all of the spacing. We would regularly run into cases where the article wouldn’t fit into the space we had available at all, and we’d have to go back and rework the layout itself. Switching away from that layout let us redirect a lot of our energy towards other things that we wanted to do.”

Pitts says, “It was one of the smartest moves we ever made. We had to eat that baby – it just had to be done. Do I miss the PDF? Absolutely. I loved it, but it was a stop along the way, not a destination.”

The redesign opened The Escapist site to new, different types of content – for instance, to video.

Hurricane Yahtzee

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“Even from 2005, it was clear that video was the place to be,” Pitts says. “The trick was finding that one special type of video content. It took us awhile to find it, but when we did, we all knew it was the right fit.”

“It” was a couple of reviews – Fable: The Lost Chapters and The Darkness – that Macris spotted on YouTube in July 2007 by Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw. “We decided to start an email conversation with Yahtzee,” Pitts says, “and, about two hours after we emailed him, had his signature on a contract to develop his ‘Fully Ramblomatic’ videos into a web series. I recommended ‘Punctuation Zero,’ which he hated, so I reversed it and he loved it. Three years later, it’s still the most dominant videogame web series on the planet in large part because of Yahtzee’s amazing talent and insight. He’s the best videogame critic working today. Probably the best we’ve ever seen.”

Within four months of its August 2007 launch, Zero Punctuation quadrupled The Escapist‘s traffic. Pitts says, “From there, the trick was ‘How do we follow this unexpected runaway success?’ The Escapist Film Festival worked very well for us. Not only did we get talent coming to us with their videos, but it attracted attention. The first year of the Film Festival we had five entries, one of which became a new series. The second year we had 50 entries and two winners, one of which [Unskippable] is still in our top three content lines. Last year we had almost a hundred entries, and the winner is a group from Hollywood.

“Today we have 14 web series; we’re involved in the International Academy of Web Television, of which I’m a member; and our internal production team has spun up a successful line of video reviews and an animated series, and has covered events as far reaching as GDC and Tokyo Game Show. We’re working with multiple content producers all over the world. LoadingReadyRun, based out of British Columbia, produces four separate video shows for us. Developing a web series with a guy 14 time zones away, or an animated series with a writer in New Zealand, an animator in the UK and actors in the southeastern United States, is something few people have tried. For us that’s just business as usual.

“We’re providing an outlet for folks like that to get their work in front of an audience and develop a following. We’re the new studio.”

As consort of Zeus, Themis was mother to the Horae: embodiments of the right moments for planting, harvesting and introducing website video. “If you look at web traffic data from 2007 and beyond,” says Macris, “sites that adopted video grew; sites that stayed focused on text were flat or shrinking. Having experienced being both early and late to the market, it was exceptionally gratifying to fly right through that narrow window of perfect timing.

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“The introduction of video has definitely tilted the site to include as much entertainment as journalism, but we’re certainly not the only news organization to have made that shift.”

Moving on

Having edited or supervised over 200 issues of The Escapist, Julianne Greer left Themis in June 2009, just short of the magazine’s fourth anniversary.

“For the first couple of years we were open, we tried to get Epic Games to talk to us,” she says. “They’re just 15 miles down the road! We should be pals! They never seemed to have time to talk to us, so we kind of gave up. But we did still decide to do a profile on them, regardless. Just after we talked about doing this profile, we received an invite sent to local games industry people to a giant party at the home of Epic president Mike Capps. At the last minute I decided I’d go, make some contacts and finally get a damn interview. I actually ended up hitting it off that night with Mike and we started dating, as well as set up (much later) a great studio visit for the profile. I’m quite certain it wasn’t planned this way, but seven months later, the day The Escapist Epic profile went live, Mike proposed to me in Paris.” [Issue 149, May 2008.]

Late in Greer’s (now Capps’s) tenure, Esquire profiled art-game designer Jason Rohrer; and of course, The New Yorker had long since profiled Will Wright. Developments like these prompted new Editor-in-Chief Russ Pitts to ruminate on the magazine’s next direction in “Time to Move On“:

What we realized in the past two years or so was that, while we of the Old Guard were pacing around in the echo chamber of our own circular arguments, debating with ourselves over how to convince the populace at large that games are important, dammit, the populace at large was figuring it out for themselves … [A]lthough this Brave New World of mainstream gaming may not have been entirely of our own making, it is a world in which we can nevertheless find a place for ourselves as leaders, mentors, and guides.

Themis was a mentor; the Romans reinterpreted one of her aspects as Iustitia, personification of Justice. That’s my cue to apologize for doubting The Escapist‘s survival. The site enjoys deserved success as the web’s leading independent games media outlet.

Nowadays, The Escapist traffic is one of Kurz’s favorite topics, “because the numbers tell a great story”:

May 2008

    Unique visitors: 2,292,696
    Pageviews: 16,122,379

May 2009

    Uniques: 3,137,084
    Pageviews: 27,577,438

May 2010

    Uniques: 4,875,694
    Pageviews: 41,333,474
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As what Kurz calls “the bread and butter of Themis Media,” The Escapist closely matches the best case outlined in that 2005 pitch. Macris says, “We hit both our quantitative and qualitative goals. We now serve over three million monthly readers. We won the Webby Award two years in a row for Best Game-Related Website, and the Mashable Award for Best Online Magazine alongside The New York Times.”

Themis was also oracular; she built the Oracle at Delphi. Here the symbol fails, because even now, nobody knows what’s coming next. For example, over half the 2005 pitch describes a proposed Escapist Festival – “not a summit like DICE, nor is it a conference like GDC, an expo like E3 or a convention like Gen Con. Rather, it is a festival in the tradition of the Sundance Film Festival and the SXSW Music Festival.” Will that ever happen? Macris says, “For various reasons, we didn’t launch the festival and just focused on the website. But that remains a possibility for the future.”

The website is now in its third iteration. “We were a pretty and clumsy newborn,” says Hayter, “then went through an awkward kind of pubescence (Blue/Black/Yellow design), and emerged more on the adult side of design with our Blue/White design.” The current design, rolled out in early 2009, was born of necessity. “We had more readers, more content, more kinds of content and a lot more staff updating everything on the fly. We had to rebuild our content management systems, how we managed our production, and we had to wrap all that in a design that our users would enjoy and one we were happy with ourselves.”

The current design permits great modularity. “We wanted the site to work with the demands and expectations of the mutable web,” says Lincoln. For instance, for the recent Apocalypse issue the Team re-skinned the entire site at almost a moment’s notice. “The Escapist is a rich landscape of content, and we want folks to find it all, but the A-board out front will always be too small. This is our challenge, and I’m looking forward to some of the solutions we’ve assembled to deal with it.” Hayter adds, “Rest assured, it will always be the aim to provide our amazing content in the best way possible.”

“I’m particularly fond of our most recent version,” says Smith. “We’ve finally been able to give our editors the power to hand-pick all the content we feature on the front pages of our different sections, using a visual drag-an-drop interface. The whole thing can be changed in second; it’s something that would have been unthinkable when we originally launched. I like to think that we’re always trying to push new ground, though not always in obvious ways.”

The Escapist started as a bold experiment. Five years on, the experiment continues.

Allen Varney, a freelance writer and game designer unaffiliated with Themis Media, has written over 70 articles for The Escapist.

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