About a month ago, New York Times Magazine digital editor Samantha Henig went down to the Times multimedia department’s second-floor headquarters with a schedule of upcoming articles. One immediately caught the department’s eye. It was tagged “stupid games.”
“We’re gamers down here,” Times multimedia producer Jon Huang told Off the Record on Wednesday. “Right from the beginning we wanted to put a game on The New York Times.”
The article became Sam Anderson’s decidedly not-stupid cover story on the addictive attraction of iPhone games, which lit up the Internet yesterday for its flashy, case-in-point embedded game.
On the top of the page, where the illustration ought to have been, was a primitive rocket ship flying through a star field. By using the arrow keys, readers could angle the ship to the left and right. By hitting the space bar, they could blast a tiny cannonball at the most-read list, vaporizing Maureen Dowd.
Distinct from the graphics department (video-profiled by Gestalten TV yesterday) and the interactive news department, the multimedia department run by Andrew DeVigal is a catchall for “neat things on the Internet,” according to Mr. Huang.
Multimedia producers work on several projects at once: building panoramic galleries of crime scenes, grading reader responses or coding a reader poll about Kate Middleton’s wedding dress. But they drop everything in the event that, say, Osama bin Laden is killed, in which case they code into night to meet the journalists’ deadlines with a timeliness that is “remarkable,” by coding standards.
In the case of this latest doo-dad, they finished days early.
“It was a lot of fun, this one in particular we have a lot of moments where we said ‘Are we really doing this?’ and we said, ‘Yes, we are.’”
After kicking around a number of ideas—Tetris, Space Invaders—the team settled on Kick Ass, an Asteroids take-off that went viral in 2010 and, crucially, had an open-source license. To that end, Mr. Huang said, a lot of the credit goes to Erik Andersson, the 18-year-old Swede who developed Kick Ass, and his twin brother and business partner.
“They’ve known about this for about a week and they’ve been working extremely hard to launch the sequel,” he added.
Mr. Huang said he built a prototype in about a day. Then the department shopped it around to Times brass, waiting for someone to say no.
“The whole time we were expecting someone to say ‘This is The New York Times. This is too funny for us.’”
Not even the advertising department opposed having their hard-earned digital display ads torched by readers, offering to run house ads if clients objected. (Look closely, players: that’s a Times Store “rare and newsworthy” collectible you’re aiming at.)
“We get a long leash,” Mr. Huang said. “I hope we justify it here.”
All trained journalists, the multimedia department is not in the business of special effects, he said. Reporters or editors who come requesting whizzes, bangs or swishes without editorial merit get sent away.
“We turn down projects that aren’t innovative enough, or trying too hard to be innovative,” he said. “In this case it supports the experience of the article.”
Cynically, it also probably helped the site’s traffic and engagement metrics for the day. But, just as the marketable addictiveness of games drives tech-sector progress, multimedia elements are the avant-garde of the Times digital development, revealing the weaknesses of the site’s design template.
In a some cases—the Derek Boogaard series “Punched Out” or the recent horse racing investigation—the Times site had to be rearranged to accommodate multimedia. Now, the department is included in conversations about the Times site’s next incarnation.
“We’re kind of the Skunk Works of The New York Times,” Mr. Huang said.
As for Mr. Huang, he favors games like NetHack, Plants vs. Zombies, and Dwarf Fortress.
“I do have an excellent Angry Birds score even though I don’t like the game,” he said. “I just feel obsessive about getting three stars on each level.”
And as for Mr. Anderson’s article, and the subject of time given over to stupid games?
“I lost a year of my life to World of Warcraft,” Mr. Huang admitted.