Why publishers should bundle games in their subscription products
4 min read

Why publishers should bundle games in their subscription products

Forget The Athletic –– The Times should acquire Candy Crush.
Why publishers should bundle games in their subscription products

A song to read by: "True Love," by Hovvdy

What I’m reading: "Forget the Alamo," by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson and Jason Stanford


Game on

Last week, when The New York Times reported its quarterly earnings, the hubbub surrounding the publisher’s latest revenue milestones overshadowed one of its more quietly impressive achievements: Its two standalone subscription offerings, Cooking and Games, have surpassed 1 million digital subscribers each.

And while I love offering my various asinine opinions on food media, the real story here lies in the success of The Times’ expanding game section. No longer a crossword-only affair, The Gray Lady now offers subscribers an entire stable of diversions, including Spelling Bee, Tiles, Letter Boxed and Vertex.

Innovative publishers like The Times and The New Yorker have increasingly begun looking at games as a key part of their overall subscription offering. Games build habit in readers, cost a fraction of the cost to produce and have a far longer shelf life than most editorial, making them a line-item godsend.

They also, to borrow a particularly delicious bon mot I trotted out in a recent Adweek article, have a far more reliable appeal: Even on a slow news day, fans can think of a nine-letter reason to visit the site.

Given these factors, and the fact that more people now subscribe to The Times’ Games section than do The Atlantic, it is no wonder that cutting-edge publishers have eyed these diversions as a potentially integral part of their subscription strategy.

In The Times’ case, the strategy paid dividends just this last quarter: Despite adding its fewest new digital subscriptions since 2018, almost half of these new paying customers signed up for Cooking and Games. Remove these two offerings from the equation and The Times only netted around 77,000 new subscriptions.

The early success of game products coincides with another trend growing popular in the publishing ecosystem: gamification. When gamifying content, a designer builds in reward mechanisms that incentivize readers to consume content. For example, the cryptomedia publisher Decrypt rewards its registered readers for reading articles by giving them tokens for consumption, which they can then spend within the Decrypt universe.

In many ways, gamification defines much of our modern digital experience: Receiving likes, comments and follows encourage users to participate in social media platforms, and the same serotonin levers have kept video game enthusiasts glued to their swivel chairs for decades. On a basic level, much of what we do on the internet we do because gamification makes it feel good.

Given these realities, the next logical step appears obvious: Publishers should bring more games into the fold.

Let’s play a little game ... of Angry Birds

Just as deep-pocketed publishers have gone on a shopping spree in recent months, with the big publishers gobbling up the little ones to expand their advertising audience and rake in new first-party data, they should consider acquiring some games and bundling them into their subscription offering.

Consider what would happen if a freshly flush publisher, such as Dow Jones’ Wall Street Journal, acquired a popular phone game and offered it only behind its paywall. The Journal would immediately gain a pre-baked batch of subscribers, but it would also gain a highly addictive, habit-building product. If its subscription price remained unchanged, the value of a Journal subscription for the consumer would rise, theoretically reducing its rate of churn.

As a result, acquiring a game and locking it behind a paywall would function in an almost identical manner as if it had acquired a complementary publication. It would bring in new subscribers, increase retention and build daily habit on its app.

Plus, through the acquisition The Journal would gain access to a wealth of data about gamification, including a tech team with a background in building addictive games. The publisher could use these insights and personnel to weave gamification into its news product, blending world-class reporting with just the right amount of leisure.

And for naysayers who decry the roping in of games into the hallowed halls of a newspaper app, I would say to you: That ship has long sailed. Plus, publishers have included comics, word jumbles and other non-news products in their offerings for decades, so the point is a bit moot.

In the attention economy, everyone and everything is a competitor. That is why Netflix is adding video games, Facebook is adding newsletters, LinkedIn is adding Stories and The New Yorker is adding Name Drop. I predict that in the very near future, publishers will increasingly begin to resemble the platforms and streaming services they so greatly detest.

In the great battle for eyeballs, no strategy is off-limits. If publishers want to get users to pay for their apps and visit them daily, their best bet might be buying Candy Crush, not another narrative podcast.

Some good readin'

— I wrote some good pieces last week for Adweek, but this was my favorite! (Adweek)

— A good interview with Chris Best, the founder of Substack, about how he envisions the internet and the place of his product in it. (Garbage Day)

— I am so excited about Puck! It has a roster of all-stars who all share a great voice. This piece is a good primer for what to expect. (Tomorrow Will Be Worse)

— Read this one! A great E. Alex Jung profile of the late Anthony Veasna So, an up-and-coming novelist who passed away several months ago. (New York Magazine)


Cover image: "A Friend in Need," by C.M. Coolidge