Since working on a print magazine (PC Gamer) for a couple of weeks last month, I’ve been meaning to write something about the difference between writing for print and writing for the web. It’s a notion that’s been gnawing at me at least since I wrote the book, which I found infuriating because I’d become so familiar – even before I was blogging full time – with the scaffolding possibilities of electronic text.
As I wrote 80,000 words of text, I found myself polishing up my writing to explain precisely what I was talking about, where on the web I would have tied it up with a hyperlink*. Rather than writing for the specific audience I knew was going to sit at the other end of a blog, I was hoping anyone could pick up the book. Which rather seems the wrong way to go about things: surely the website is more democratic? But no, quite the opposite is true of how I’ve ended up using the two media. Writing on my own blog, I don’t give a damn who is reading, and writing on for Rock, Paper, Shotgun I have to assume it’s a certain calibre of gamer to have even found the place. As for a book, well, I wanted my mum to be able to get through that without a decade in online gaming.
But there was a more profound structural difference to the page: I couldn’t add links anywhere. I’ve always hated the distracting fussiness of footnotes, and my editor didn’t much like the either: clean text, and nothing else. So there was no way around having to encapsulate everything in the body text.
Towards the end of this process, having read the manuscript several times through, as well as knowing it via all the little revisions we’d done as the process went on, I began to see where all the imaginary hyperlinks went. I could go back into that document, I knew, and cross reference things with links online: explanatory Wikipedia links, comedy YouTube references, and even direct portals to the games I was talking about. Perhaps, when we finally get the Creative Commons version of the book online (which is actually only some paperwork away, come to think of it), we’ll find a way, and a time, for me to include all those links, and to create a version of the book that fixes and positions itself in the web by reaching out in a thousand directions, with a thousand links.
Anyway, time on the magazine and find myself thinking the same thoughts: the inflexibility of the page! No CTRL-F to find that exact phrase in an instant, no click to punch through the page and into an entirely different magazine/website/game/video that we referenced.
But then there was the other side of the woodspace publishing process: the designers. Working on feature stuff – rather than the static grids of regular content – you suddenly find yourself in the best part of magazine design. Suddenly writing has an element of visual directing to it, creating themes for how to illustrate the stuff that can’t be explained with the screenshot and a splash of concept art: independent gaming, wi-fi, co-op, the future.
I remember wanting to do a series of articles where we attempt to tell a story through entire full-page spread images. I think we did it once with Planetside. First spread was the dropship, second spread was the drop, third spread was sniping at the base from the hill, the fourth spread was inside the base itself. Each page was part of the long zoom, the linear thread was the text, and each boxout a small zoom focus within the larger page: this element of the battlefield, that element of the interface. It ludicrously fine work by the designer, Mark Wynne. And it used the material at hand: an area paper with a fold.
This isn’t all that print does, because it can also juxtapose image and text much more concretely: the art of the captions, the boxout. These can be tricks and jokes in their own right. The latest PC Gamer redesign added in more variable graphics to its original mix: infographics, including web diagrams of the relationships between characters in Starcraft fiction, graphs showing the relative speed of the web now and then. The traditional picture-plus-text, but with more, which is something that magazines like Wired have been doing for a long time.
This month’s Wired UK does it too with an incredible illustrated explanation of the mechanics of the Somali piracy phenomenon. It managed to use the page to create a splendid fresh logic, one that used the page to convey packets of information in a flow-chart whole. Maps, equations, charts. Sure, it’s just a “boxout” sequence that you might be familiar with from any magazine over the years, but the delivery was an exquisite flow of discrete meetings of illustration, text, and numerical data.
There’s several pages of that (above), it’s totally awesome.
This can be done on the web, but it’s harder, and it can be expensive. Obviously what’s best about the web from the point of view publishers is that it’s super-cheap. You create a grid and drop images and words in, day after day, just as you do in the standing copy areas of the magazines. But there’s no paper.
It seems that even the publishers that did try to bridge that gap and try and designed magazine format on the web – I’m thinking early jpeg’d online mags or the first year or so of The Escapist – ended up binning the idea and heading back to the bloggy format columns of text, presumably for the sake of money, but perhaps also because the web browser demanded it.
It’s interesting to hear the different sides of the argument chime in on this: lots of magazine folks argue up the material nature of their product, the things you can do with a page, the tactile response of paper. Meanwhile a number of professional bloggers I know are veterans of the magazine industry and they see magazines as a dead man walking. It’s inflexible, expensive, and even wasteful, they say. There’s no way it can hope to hold up, and maybe they’re right. But if magazines die then perhaps the art won’t have to: maybe we can find a way for the same kind of melding of wordy editorial and page design to continue.
Could we end up with WYSIWYG editors so flexible and fast that we’ll be able to lay out vertical column magazines in an instant, merging infographics, text and images into the flowing whole that they’re able to become in print magazines? Will we see web designers becoming less technical and more like the page-designing guys that made my Korea feature so beautiful, or Kieron’s Zangband article so digestible? Isn’t the real issue the crudeness of web browsers and the horrible constraints of HTML as it currently exists?
Am I going to be able to print out a future blog of mine via an on-demand newspaper service and distributed it as a beautiful print object at future games conventions? Is this – columns of text, pop-up thumbnails and embedded video – really it for the visual logic of the web?
*The worst thing commercial blogs do is use self-referential links to game names, or subjects, when their tag or whatever does not explain the topic. Instead, take me to the official site, or the Wiki page! Useless basts.
Oh, also, I wrote a rollicking feature on the future of games for next month’s PC Gamer UK with contributions from Charles Stross and Eskil Steenberg. I’ll hype it again soon, but it’s worth picking up.