['Game Mag Weaseling' is a weekly column by Kevin Gifford which documents the history of video game magazines, from their birth in the early '80s to the current day.]
This won't go up until Saturday, but I'm actually writing this column on Wednesday, because I'm flying to San Francisco over the weekend. I deftly scheduled this the week after E3 because I wanted to get massively drunk and party hardy with all my game-industry friends while they're still in that post-E3 "God, I don't want to do actual work yet" phase. In fact, the party will likely begin before I arrive -- it'll begin at George Bush International, where I'll take my hefty GameSetWatch paycheck and spend it all on longnecks at the Fox Sports Grill so I'm suitably sedated for the three-hour flight.
And speaking of senseless debauchery and complete wastes of money, I'd like to talk to you this week about the incite magazines.
incite is the name of several video-game magazines published worldwide simultaneously by Computec Media in 1999. Computec, established 1989 in the German city of Nuremburg, was (and still is) the largest game-media publisher in the country -- its current game titles, including PC Games, PC Action, Xbox-Zone, and German-language editions of Edge and Computer and Video Games, have a combined guaranteed circulation of over a million copies.
In late 1998, Computec -- gifted with millions in dot-com-era investment money -- decided to aggressively pursue the American marketplace. The full-court press it launched on the industry in the ensuing year was like none seen before or since.
Computec USA head Torsten Opperman began by investing $100,000 in a market survey of American gamers. The survey, which was one of the first to look at the PlayStation-era game marketplace, confirmed the now-common knowledge that over 80 percent of male gamers were between 16 and 34 years old. "We also found that 86 percent of people who play games had never read any hard-core gaming magazines because they didn't think they were written for them," Opperman told PR News magazine in 2000.
With this knowlege in hand, Opperman and crew began to put together two magazines that were at once hardcore and accessible to the general public. A $12 million ad campaign was prepared to launch alongside the magazines on TV, in print, and on outdoor media like billboards and kiosks. Nearly all of the editorial staff was hired on from rival game magazines, including Gamers' Republic, PC Games, Computer Game Review, Ultra Game Players, and more -- a titanic round of headhunting, the likes of which wouldn't be seen again until Gamers.com hooked a fair bit of Ziff Davis Media's top brass with its dot-com promises. (The name "incite" is a combination of the words "inside" and "excitement"; it was invented by SBG (now called Enterprise IG), a brand agency that Computec worked with before the magazines' launch. One of the early names reportedly thrown around was "Dorsal".)
To cap it all off, Computec held the Charge! event in July 1999, an industry conference meant both to discuss the study's findings and to launch the incite name to the general public. The publisher spent over $1 million on the conference, which included ice sculptures, comedian Dana Carvey, over 300 industry attendees, and coverage from CBS, Fox, and other national news outlets.
incite Video Gaming and PC Gaming hit US newsstands simultaneously on October 26, 1999. Both were priced at a loss (Video Gaming at 99 cents, and PC Gaming at $1.99 with CD-ROM) to get them in the hands of as many curious readers as possible. Computec's incite.com gaming website also launched on the same day, featuring a large staff and more video than had been seen before at the time.
The sales strategy was enormously successful at first. The first issue of PC Gaming sold 408,000 copies, while Video Gaming sales topped 548,000, making it the most successful game-magazine launch of all time. Reflecting their stated mission to attract casual gamers, both magazines heavily featured celebrities on the cover and in regular articles. Video Gaming seemed to love covering WWF stars, putting The Rock and Chris Jericho on two separate covers and featuring at least some wrestling content in every issue. PC Gaming, meanwhile, often struggled to find relevant stars, opting to put a random model on the cover instead on more than one occasion. (The joke at the time was that they would have to put Trent Reznor on every cover, since he was the only celebrity back then with a well-known interest in PC games.)
This initial success flared out quickly, as Computec failed to attract long-term advertising for either title. Despite the strong launch video-game companies were concerned that its audience was too casual to be interested in their games -- and non-game advertisers found the magazines' editorial slant to be too "hardcore" for their tastes. This was disastrous for Computec, which overestimated their projected ad-sales figures and subsequently relied heavily on advertising for incite's revenue. The ad rate for a spread (two adjacent pages) in the incite magazines was set at $16,000 per issue, the same rate that Maxim charged and one that was far above any other game magazine at the time. Management was anticipating each issue to be over 200 pages in size -- an extremely optimistic target even at the best of times, but downright impossible by mid-2000, when the game industry was about to enter the lull before the launch of the PlayStation 2.
The magazines proved to be a huge income drain as Computec struggled with the post-dot-com landscape, and Opperman was recalled to Germany on June 26, 2000, essentially shutting down the US arm. Total reported losses on the venture amounted to over $23 million.
The incite magazines didn't take off the way Computec hoped primarily because they were unable to target a specific audience. The titles were infamous for its intertwining of model- and celebrity-based interviews and features with its game coverage, something that neither the hardcore readership nor the magazine's staff was particularly enthuisastic about. Since the editorial was primarily picked from "hardcore" gaming magazines, they naturally preferred to offer hardcore gaming content -- but this butted against Computec's original aim to produce a magazine for gamers "threatened" by hardcore gaming magazines.
In retrospect, both incite magazines feature surprisingly entertaining writing, arguably the equal of Maxim and other "men's lifestyle" magazines. However, readers of all persuasions were turned off by its lack of focus, and the magazine wound up attracting no audience when it hoped to attract the entire audience.
IDG attempted a similar editorial design with GameStar in 2003...but that's another story.
[Kevin Gifford breeds ferrets and runs Magweasel, a site for collectors and fans of old video-game and computer magazines. He owns enough magazines to smother himself with should the need arise, and his secret fantasy is for someone flush with game-publisher stock options to give him a monthly stipend so he can spend a year researching their full history and finishing the site. In his "off" time he is an editor at Newtype USA magazine.]