Welcome back to Thumbsticks. Things have changed a bit round here, but hopefully you’ll all appreciate what we’ve done.
The reasons behind the changes are detailed at length in this post, but if you don’t have time to read that, here are the salient details:
- When Thumbsticks started – with the strapline Interesting Articles About Video Games – it was all features and criticism and essays, from a bunch of brilliant writers and new voices, and it was awesome.
- Then we got a little bit of success with Google traffic by publishing more regularly, so we started to drift towards shorter-form content, mostly news and guides.
- As traffic increased, so too did revenue. We weren’t getting rich by any stretch, but it served to reinforce the move to shorter content, so that’s what we did.
- Over time, we started losing writers and getting fewer pitches for cool features. The site was pretty much all news and guides at this point, and while the content was useful to readers, we weren’t really enjoying it any more.
- It dawned on us that Thumbsticks had shifted from Interesting Articles About Video Games to, at best, Useful Articles About Video Games, right under our noses.
- We were also chasing traffic and ad revenues in a pretty unhealthy way, and realised something needed to change.
- So we did change things. And that brings us to here.
If you’re reading this, it means we’ve just hit the button on the new and improved Thumbsticks dot com. (Or one of us has cocked up. Hopefully that’s not it.)
In many ways, the “new” site is a lot like Thumbsticks used to be. The focus is back on long-form content, on features, interviews, and criticism, and to support that, we’ve also done a massive redesign of the site, and changed our operating model.
We want to deserve the site’s Interesting Articles About Video Games strapline again, and here’s how we plan to do it.
The biggest change to Thumbsticks – and we think the biggest benefit, for us writing it and you lot reading it – is the shift back to long-form, magazine-style content. That’s not to say there isn’t value in stuff like news and guides, and god knows, it traffics well, but we were trying to compete with sites much larger and better-resourced, and we were never going to win.
We’re not wiping out thousands upon thousands of articles, though, as we believe digital preservation is really important. We’ve actually shifted them to an Archive section of the site so they’re all still available – through the Archive and the site’s search function, but also, from search engines and incoming links – but it will allow us to put the focus back onto long-form articles.
And what’s that content going to look like? There will be a marked increase in the number of features, interviews, essays, and long reads, for starters. That’s where we want to direct our energy and where we think Thumbsticks will shine once more.
But we’re aware that not every single piece can be a New Yorker essay, so there’ll also be a return of regular features, columns, and opinion pieces. We’ll be doing reviews and criticism when the mood strikes us, but don’t expect us to be chasing traffic on embargo day. And, finally, we’ll be sprucing up and republishing some old features, because there’s already so much brilliant writing on Thumbsticks, and it deserves to get a new lease of life.
Taking away the time pressure of writing news and guides will free up the permanent Thumbsticks editorial team to write more of what we want to write, but we’d also like to get back to where we once were in terms of freelance contributors. We used to be inundated with freelance pitches and Thumbsticks was often a foot in the door for new writers. Sadly, we lost a lot of brilliant writers over the years with that shift to news and guides, but now we’re back to exclusively commissioning features and criticism, we’d like to build up the team of contributors once more.
(And here’s how you contribute to Thumbsticks, if you’re interested.)
We did, for a very brief moment, consider switching to our feature-focused roots without changing the website. It would have been easy enough to setup the archive for old articles, recategorise some existing content, make a few little design tweaks, and press on.
It certainly would have made life a lot easier! We’d have been up and running weeks ago if that were the case. But to do that, it didn’t feel like we would be doing Thumbsticks justice, so we set about redeveloping and redesigning the website to match our new magazine-style focus.
And this is what we came up with. You’re on it right now. Welcome!
The design change is pretty obvious, and (we like to think) rather striking. While the site still technically functions as you would expect – a header, a menu, a featured image, some written content – the shift away from a traditional blog/news layout to a magazine-like layout feels, to us at least, like a big deal. We can’t think of anything else like it and we hope you enjoy it as much as we do.
On a slightly more macroscopic level, there are changes to the site’s categorisation, with shorter stuff under Articles, longer stuff under Features, and Reviews are, well, what you’d expect. Everything else that doesn’t fit this new model – i.e. News and Guides – have been moved into that Archive.
Navigation’s also a little different, as we don’t have a sidebar or a footer as such, but the main menu and search are available on any page, and the cross-linking between articles and the auto-load-next-post feature should make finding more interesting things to read a breeze.
We’ve also set the site to dark mode by default, as that’s our favourite, but you can easily toggle between dark and light mode with a button at the top of each article. An estimate of how long each article takes to read, also at the top of the article, is also a handy extra.
And, finally, the site is a lot cleaner and faster than it once was, even with the new image formats and content changes leading to larger payloads. To do that, we’ve dramatically reduced the amount of code on the site, including – and this is the other big shift – our display advertising.
Yes, that’s right, we’ve gotten rid of advertising on Thumbsticks. This particular change was the scariest, but we think it’s just as important as the focus shift and the site redesign.
We’ve never made a lot of money on Thumbsticks. What we have earned, mostly from display advertising, was enough to cover the site’s running costs and give us a small freelance budget, to allow us to buy in some articles from freelance contributors each month. That was great, obviously, but it was to the detriment of the site and the experience of our readers.
As time has gone on, the effectiveness of display advertising – and, therefore, the amount you can earn per pageview – has diminished. Where once you could guarantee an income from an advert in the header and the sidebar, now adverts punctuate the content, with units every three or four paragraphs. Sites were having to feature more and more ad placements, and conversely, people were becoming more and more immune to it. (Or just using ad blockers.)
As the effectiveness of the technology has gone down, the adverts themselves have become more and more intrusive. We placed our site in the hands of a third-party advertising provider to access the best units and revenues we could, but that also meant we were losing control over the user experience.
And, frankly, we didn’t want to spoil all the hard work we’ve put into making Thumbsticks special, both in terms of content and design, by plastering it with ads. So we haven’t.
But that means our primary source of income has effectively dried up, overnight. What this means for Thumbsticks in the long term isn’t clear, but you can understand why it makes us a little nervous. We do have some money in reserve, so we’ll be able to cover running costs and freelance budgets for a little while yet, but that pot will only last so long.
Just what form that business model might take could change in the coming years. Maybe we’ll be able to get by selling premium content, or someone will come up with a frictionless paywall solution that isn’t awful. But in the short term, we’re going to be relying on you, the readers, to support Thumbsticks.
For now, you can either become our Patron or tip us on Ko-Fi, but we’ll look into additional ways to support the site as time goes on. We hope that you will, because the more money we have in our freelance budget, the more opportunities we can give to brilliant writers and new voices to tell interesting stories. (And obviously we’d like to keep the site ad free and looking beautiful, so if people can support us, it would help us vindicate this scary choice!)
So there you are. Thumbsticks has changed, we like to think for the better.
We have a renewed focus on long-form, magazine-style writing that we hope will bring new voices and stories back to the site. We have a gorgeous new website that we’re really proud of, and we think it’s as close as you can get to reading a magazine online. And we have a completely ad-free, reader-supported business model that we hope will sustain the new-and-improved site going forward.
It’s a bit scary, but mostly, it’s a bit brilliant, and we’re really excited. Thumbsticks is back, and so are Interesting Articles About Video Games.
Thanks again for your support, over the years and going forward.
Dan & Tom