Four ex-Kotaku staffers are launching a new subscriber-based video games and culture publication: Aftermath. The website, which is now live, will be co-owned by Nathan Grayson, Gita Jackson, Riley MacLeod, and Luke Plunkett — all Kotaku mainstays who helped shape its incisive voice before leaving the site for one reason or another.
“[Aftermath is] about the internet and everything that comes after,” Jackson says in a recent interview I had with all four founders. Jackson elaborates: “I’m so interested in taking Aftermath and using the site to discuss the way that we live now and the way that capitalism and the internet have really intertwined and changed a lot of the ways that we find self-expression, the way that media is made, and the way that we consume it.”
Grayson adds, “I think video games are at the forefront of that.”
Plunkett says the group wants to bring a combination of skepticism — “so much of video games is filtered through PR marketing bullshit” — but also speak plainly about issues, games, and communities. The hope is that Aftermath is interesting enough that readers bookmark it and visit directly a few times a day to see what’s new, whether that’s things like reported articles, reviews, or even just 500-word posts about stuff the staff sees that they think is stupid. Some of the first stories include posts about video game unions, Alan Wake II, a bike ride MacLeod went on, and Starfield’s coffee situation.
“We really reverse-engineered the idea of blogging,” Grayson jokes. (This may sound like a familiar pitch to Verge readers!)
It’s been a devastating year for video games journalism. The Washington Post shut down Launcher (Grayson was laid off, MacLeod left the Post in October), Vice shut down Waypoint, and there were layoffs and departures at publications like Inverse, Tencent-owned Fanbyte, Fandom-owned GameSpot and Giant Bomb, and Dot Esports, Destructoid, and The Escapist parent company Gamurs Group. Jackson was laid off from Vice in October 2022. Plunkett, in his July goodbye post, wondered if he should have left Kotaku, which is owned by G/O Media, sooner.
All of those publications have had to deal with the types of challenges facing much of modern-day online media: chasing SEO (for gaming outlets, this is often a focus on guides), adapting to fickle social media platforms, shifting advertising revenue, grappling with ownership upheavals, putting up with abuse and harassment from readers, and coming to terms with changes and devastation wrought by layoffs.
And despite this being one of the best-ever years for video games, there’s been a broader retrenchment in the industry. Some of the most successful studios have announced layoffs in recent months, including BioWare, Bungie, CD Projekt Red, Epic Games, and Niantic. Esports organizations have cut jobs as well, including Activision Blizzard’s esports department and 100 Thieves.
Aftermath is a response to all of that. “We are games journalism and its consequences,” Jackson says.
The four co-founders won’t be the only ones working for Aftermath. The group says Chris Person (who has written for The Verge) and Alex Jaffe will be featured contributors and that the site will also work with freelance writers. (Jackson has also written for The Verge.)
Aftermath is intended to operate on a different and, hopefully, more sustainable business model than the advertising revenue-based model other online publications rely on. Instead, inspired by worker-owned outlets like Defector (which is focused on sports) and Hell Gate (focused on New York City), Aftermath wants to build its business on subscriptions and take a simpler approach to things to try and best serve readers who are paying them directly.
Aftermath won’t just feature writing. There will be two podcasts, one of which will be a show about DC Comics hosted by Jackson and Jaffe, and Grayson has been working on an Aftermath presence for Twitch.
The team’s current plan is to let people read two free articles per month before hitting a registration wall for the Aftermath newsletter. If you sign up for that, you’ll be able to read two more free articles before you run into a paywall. (Plunkett tells me that the team might be a little more elastic with that plan for the launch.) People who want to subscribe can pick from three tiers, which cost $7, $10, or $99 per month, with each offering unlimited access to articles and, depending on which tier you pay for, an increasing number of perks.
The Aftermath crew wouldn’t share specifics when I asked about its subscription targets. “Internally we have that, yeah,” Plunkett says. “There’s obviously business plans where X amount of subscribers means X amount of good times or bad times.” He also acknowledges that they don’t totally know what to expect. “Because we’re sort of flying blind into this, we honestly have no idea. We’re just going to have to wait and see how it goes when it launches.”
As a worker-owned publication, the team gets to decide things like financial decisions, business decisions, how they grow, and what they prioritize. “I’m hoping that just by centering people in that, we’ll find success that way,” MacLeod says.
And they believe in the model. “I think that this is maybe the only sustainable way to do journalism,” Jackson says. “Even if it’s tough in the beginning, we will absolutely find our audience. There are definitely other 30-somethings in the world who don’t want to go to a website that is 90 percent guides. They just want to read a normal person write about why they like or dislike Cities: Skylines II.”
I asked if they worried about subscription fatigue. All four of them simultaneously made some noise of agreement. “Every second of every day,” Grayson says. “It is the concern,” Plunkett adds. Jackson brings up how people are happy to subscribe for $5 per month to Substack newsletters, and by paying for Aftermath, it’s “actually more like you’re sustaining a real media company.”
Plunkett equates the cost many of us used to pay for monthly magazine subscriptions or to buy a magazine outright, though he acknowledged that “there’s a certain cyclical irony to this, that video game websites killed nearly every video game magazine and now are turning into magazines again.”
Even if they’re worried about subscription fatigue, their overall optimism might be well-founded; other worker-owned sites have seen success of late. Defector was created by furious Deadspin staffers, who felt their former site was suffering under private equity firm Great Hill Partners, which owns G/O Media. The Deadspin staffers quit in solidarity after G/O Media CEO Jim Spanfeller fired acting editor-in-chief Barry Petchesky.
“Three years in, we are quite a stable company,” Jasper Wang, VP of revenue and operations at Defector, tells The Verge. “We have made secure jobs for everybody on staff with reasonably good salaries. Just on a base level, the company is doing great.”
According to the public report about its second year, Defector said it increased its revenue and was able to put more money into things like employee compensation, employee benefits, and freelance spending.
Hell Gate, in its first annual report published in July, celebrated achieving 2,500 subscribers — up from zero at the start — and an average subscriber growth of 10 percent month over month for the year. Max Rivlin-Nadler, a Hell Gate co-founder / worker-owner, tells The Verge that the publication is still seeing steady subscription growth and noted that investigations and “good continuing coverage,” not viral stories, move subscriptions. “The reporting was always going to be the easy part for us, so that gave us an advantage over other media start-ups,” Rivlin-Nadler says.
There’s been success in games media, too, like with Remap, a gaming publication that was established from the ashes of Vice’s Waypoint. “I’ve said our audience ‘always shows up,’” Remap editor Patrick Klepek tells The Verge. “That usually means backing a charity for a good cause. But in this case, it was saying, loudly and clearly, they wanted the mission of Waypoint, reborn as Remap, to continue.”
Klepek says the company, which launched in June and has three full-time staffers, has been able to match salaries from Vice, compensate people to appear on their podcasts, and pay freelance writers. He acknowledges that being able to transfer the Waypoint Plus business at Vice helped give them a boost. But he also noted that while Remap has written work, podcasting and streaming is “what pays my bills,” he says. “It’s what’s made Remap a success. I’m clear-eyed on that. We added writing to Remap because it’s what we wanted.”
Aftermath is going to be mostly focused on writing, and that might mean it has a harder road competing with other established outlets and individual creators on platforms like Twitch and TikTok. The recent blows to the video game industry probably won’t help, either. Still, throughout our interview, I felt a sense of confidence from Aftermath’s co-owners — in their abilities, business model, and the support from the gaming community.
“I’ve never felt more love back from the industry than when I started telling people that I’m working on this project,” Jackson says. “It made me feel like there is a real hope for the industry, both of journalism and of video games, that people really want to make something new and different and something more sustainable.”