June 4, 2006 1:31 AM |
['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.]
Judging by the nationality of most comments on my columns so far, I've come to the conclusion that most people who care about old magazines are either honourable Britishers (or brash little Cockneys) or people who stopped reading game mags long ago.
Therefore, I thought it'd be nice to give a quick tour of all the game magazines you can find in US bookshelves right now. The output isn't quite what it was ten or even five years ago, but there's still a remarkable amount of print getting churned out each month -- and what's more, nearly all of it these days is written for "core" gamers like you and I. (This transformation rolled out gradually through the PlayStation 2 era and chiefly came about because market researchers realized that children and "casual" gamers just don't bother with print media any longer. Apparently they're happier texting each other and engaging in illegal street racing or whatever, and we hardcore folks are simply behind the times.)
Ziff Davis Media
Ziff Davis has been around since 1927 as a publisher of "regular" books and magazines; they put out tons of pulp magazines in the 40s and at one point even owned a group of TV stations. They began publishing game mags in 1993 after buying Computer Gaming World and expanded in 1996 with the acquisition of Sendai Publishing, creators of Electronic Gaming Monthly and a ton of other early-90s mags. Sendai was purchased mainly for EGM, and Ziff shut down all of Sendai's other mags (including Computer Game Review and P.S.X.) within a year.
EGM is their flagship publication, and they were the first magazine to really see the transformation in readership with the PS2 era. Their current design dates from 2003, and back then it was nothing short of revolutionary by US standards -- long, rambling preview features that actually made previews interesting to read; lots of short articles on game-lifestyle topics; and a freeform approach to multiple-editor reviews that actually looks like a modernized version of the system CRASH settled on in the mid-1980s.
Every US game mag has shrunk in pages lately as ad dollars slowly drift toward online, but EGM's weathered this a fair bit better than all the other mags. In my incredibly biased opinion (I wrote for them for two years), it's still the most smartly-written mag in the country.
The Official PlayStation Magazine is handled in the US by Ziff, who got the rights in 1997 and renewed them in 2000 -- rumor has it that Future was turned down because Sony didn't want the same company producing both the official PS and Dreamcast magazines in the US.
The OPM editorialships are all different for each country, but really I think the mags are all the same -- you got a lot of design flash and even more lifestyle-type articles than EGM. You'll also notice here that Ziff editors occasionally like to produce multiple covers for a single issue without telling anyone -- both of these covers are for the June '06 issue.
Computer Gaming World is the oldest game mag currently in existence. It started as a glorified fanzine mainly devoted to wargaming, packed with eye-rollingly pedantic text and letters from angry readers indignant that the editors misspelled "pseudo-Napoleonic." This was still good enough to be the nation's #1 PC magazine in the early 90s, until Doom debuted and the PC game marketplace was overturned overnight.
Ziff bought the mag in 1993 and, to be honest, had a lot of trouble figuring out what to do with it. PC Gamer snagged a lot of their audience as a result, but CGW's a much better organized and well-written mag these days.
Ziff Davis used to put out zillions of "specials," or one-off newsstand-exclusive magazines. Nowadays it's down to an annual Xmas buyer's guide, a launch guide whenever a new system's released, and the seasonal mag Pocket Games. These specials used to be written by nameless freelancers and tended to be an afterthought in the editor's eyes, but Pocket Games got redesigned and has Jeremy Parish writing a ton for it, so it's actually worth reading these days.
Ziff also used to publish such lofty mags as GMR, Xbox Nation, GameNOW, Expert Gamer, EGM2 and Cyber Sports, but they're all gone now. The loss of GMR in 2005 drove a great deal of gamers away from magazines period, but most of GMR's design sentiments wound up creeping into EGM anyway, so it's all good.
In terms of quantity, Future's the biggest game-mag publisher in the US. They got their start in the US by purchasing the bankrupt GP Publications (producers of Game Players magazine) in 1993 and gradually adding on original mags. Nowadays they've branched out into guitar magazines and even a title called Scrapbook Answers that sounds incredibly silly but is apparently a really big hit. (Top trivia: One of the art people on Scrapbook Answers used to design GamePro.)
PC Gamer (which debuted in the UK in early '93) was Future's first mag of their own in the US, and it was a major shot in the arm, considering how fuddy-duddy and wargame-heavy CGW still was in 1994. It's still the top PC mag in the States circulation-wise, and it tends to get pretty much all the hot PC-game exclusives. CGW arguably has more integrity to its reviews and editorial staff, though, and that's partly due to its long life.
PSM is Future's independent PlayStation magazine, and one that (as Future will take every opportunity to tell you) actually outsells the official PS magazine in America. They're arguably best known for the "swimsuit issue" they publish every year, with comic-book artists drawing Lara Croft and KOS-MOS in assorted compromising positions. Their writing is generally less well-known, although there's a lot of humor and goofy captions, which is always enough to keep me entertained.
The Official Xbox Magazine is Future's in the US, and the disc is by far the biggest draw. The writing was laughably fanboy-like at the start (Xbox Game X was almost always touted as a "PS2 Game Y-killer"), but the writing's improved lately, perhaps out of necessity since 2005 was a pretty slow year for the Xbox before the 360 launch.
In addition to these three mags, Future puts out about five squillion newsstand specials. You will almost always find 2 or 3 on the stands at any given moment, with more coming around Christmas. I couldn't even begin to come up with the money to collect all of these. Curse them.
Nintendo of America
Nintendo Power was the top selling magazine in the US until the GameCube era; its circulation was in the millions for most of the 90s. It became a laughingstock in recent years, but last year's redesign was a complete revolution for the magazine, transforming it from a kiddie mag to a bible for hardcore net-forum Nintendroids. It's now much, much more fun to read, and I'd even go so far to say that it's just as much essential reading now as it was in the NES era.
Since Nintendo Power is published by Nintendo themselves, no one else has ever dared to put out a Nintendo mag in the US -- a far cry from the UK, which had no less than three monthly GameCube mags at once.
GI, with a circulation of over two million, is the biggest game mag (and one of the biggest mags period) in America. This good fortune was by-and-large placed in their lap -- it was the house mag of a humble mail-order game joint in Minnesota that grew, and grew, and got bought, and grew some more, and bought some other places, and now it's almost got a monopoly on game retailers in America.
To be frank, its writing didn't cope with this massive growth at first -- silly misspellings were rampant, and the stories written for their flashy cover exclusives were so rambly and information-free to be almost useless apart from the pics. Things have improved a ton in recent years, though, and now GI actually does a lot more "industry magazine"-type coverage than even EGM does, making it superb reading for any hardcore-ite. It hurts me to say this, having been a Ziff man for so long, but they're totally decent as a magazine nowadays. But EGM is still better.
Larry Flynt Publications
Once upon a time, LFP published VideoGames & Computer Entertainment, arguably the best-written magazine of the 8- and 16-bit age. That magazine was split into 2 or 3 separate mags in 1993, but the only survivor is Tips & Tricks, the strategy title.
T&T's design has been essentially unchanged for nearly a decade and most hardcore gamers ignore it, but its columns on Japan, Final Fantasy, and (especially) classic gaming are regular good reading.
There was an era when GamePro was the perennial second-runner behind Nintendo Power in circulation. There was a time when other mags couldn't even touch it. In fact, there was even a time (in 2002-3) that I worked for it. Then most of the staff left, and management was afraid to mess with the "winning" formula even when its younger-skewing approach was out of date for the maturer-than-thou PS2 market.
Now it's practically fallen off the radar of US gamers. Its last really cool exclusive was two years ago, and usually it gets mentioned on forums only when someone wants to make fun of it. IDG's attention is mostly on their online sites nowadays, too, leading to rumors that the mag is largely being ignored and could be in danger.
Code Vault was IDG's answer to Tips & Tricks. At one point it was monthly (and I wrote a ton of neat crap for it that nobody ever read), but no one noticed and it went to a seasonal newsstand-only schedule in 2004. Even worse, all (and I mean all) of the content is just recycled from Brady Games strategy guides now. Sad.
Magazines That We Forget Exist (Not Game Developer, Of Course)
Play (nothing to do with the UK mag) is headed by Dave Halverson, previously leader of Gamer's Republic and the world-famous Diehard GameFan. Dave is such a hopeless fan of platform games that it's quite literally become Play's calling card now -- he simply hasn't played a hop 'n bop he doesn't like, and, well, what other mag in their right mind would put Death Jr. on the cover twice? (Note that I'm not complaining, because I chronically rated platformers higher than anyone else at EGM and got made fun of for my Blinx 2 obsession.)
However, Dave does know how to design up a mag (the Okami issue a while back was beautiful), and he's got his little niche audience and fills it perfectly.
Remember How I said that CGW used to be text-heavy and filled with letters bitching about how bad it was? Well, Computer Games, published by a mail-order place in New Hampshire, is still like that.
This mag is so obscure that I can't even find a copy of it anywhere in Houston. Seriously. I tried, like, five different places before giving up. I need to get a subscription. In its place, then, here's a copy of Now Playing, a movie/DVD magazine originally launched as a section within Computer Games -- much to the consternation of readers. It later spun off into its own seasonal mag and has since been sold off to an independent publisher.
Hardcore Gamer is the most obscure mag of all, mainly 'cos they give it away for free in PDF form on their website. Many people don't even realize that there's a print edition -- one that I've never ever ever seen on the stands, so I assume it's de-facto subscriber only.
Coverage is very much like the GameFan of old, which I suppose would preclude it from becoming any less obscure in the future, but it's fun to thumb through.
I'm including PC Pilot here just to fill space, basically. Sorry. A British mag devoted to flight sims, it publishes an official US edition that claims to be bimonthly but really comes out whenever.
Retro Gamer used to have a US edition, but that disappeared when the mag switched publishers, and now it's imported and costs even more money, as you can see. You very often see imported issues of Edge in bookstores here, although the number of Britmags on US shelves used to be much larger -- I remember reading Computer & Video Games back in 1992 this way. Of course, with Retro Gamer, I sometimes wonder why they bother -- it's not like anyone in America would know about Gremlin Graphics, Oliver Frey, or Another World. (We call it Out of this World here, bub. If you don't like it, why don't you move to Canada, you longhair?)
And that completely covers it. My slant: If I was on a one-way flight to Moscow and I could bring any game magazines I wanted, I would buy EGM, GI, Nintendo Power, CGW, and PC Gamer. Oh, and Computer Games assuming I could find it, which I probably couldn't.
[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.]
Categories: Column: Game Mag Weaseling