January 7, 2007 3:02 PM |
['Game Mag Weaseling' is a weekly column by Kevin Gifford which covers video game magazines from the late '70s all the way up to right now.]
As the new year dawns and I try my best to rediscover the work ethic that I think I may have side-armed off the 4th floor balcony while enjoying my third Baileys the night of the 31st, I can't resist the desire to put on my mortarboard and goggles and try to predict how '07 will go for game mags. However, there's no way to get an interesting column out of that, because by now the challenges facing the print side of games media are blantantly obvious to any game enthusiast. With up-to-the-minute news, demos, and discussion available on dozens of websites, most mags scrambled back around '01 or so to find another reason for their continued existence. And, for the most part, they've found one -- whether it's a demo disc, or exclusive coverage of faraway titles, or an editorial staff that attracts a sizable fanbase of some sort.
However, not all mags have been so lucky. For example, GamePro. According to the statement of ownership in their February 2007 issue, GamePro had an average paid circulation in 2006 of 430,386 -- however, paid distribution of the November 2006 issue (the issue presumably out when GamePro filed the statement on October 1) was only 322,238, a pretty large dropoff to experience just before the holiday season. Both of these figures are down from the over half a million copies GamePro regularly sold from its inception all the way to 2003 or so. And the number of ad pages per issue has also fallen over the years -- while the February 2004 issue has 120 pages total, February '07 has only 100. (Electronic Gaming Monthly managed 126 in January versus GamePro's 112.)
Anyway, GamePro has hired on George Jones (ex-EIC of Computer Gaming World) as its new editorial director, and a redesign is in store for the March 2006 issue. But let's pretend that that redesign wasn't in the cards. Instead, what if, in a shocking move, I were suddenly hired on as editor-in-chief and asked to turn the magazine's fortunes around and make it a recognizable brand once again, all while keeping the original GamePro name?
Some may argue that I'd be a huge sucker to take up that task, but I like a challenge -- besides, I worked for GamePro (mostly the online side) from 2002 to '03, so I feel a sense of duty for the mag that got me into the business in the first place. Once I got settled down in San Francisco again (and smuggled my ferrets across the California-Nevada border), here's the five-point plan I'd try to push through the board of directors:
1. Trash the final vestiges of old-school GamePro. The "persona" portraits and smiley-face-based rating system were dropped years ago, but I've always been surprised that they didn't just go all the way and cut out things like editor pseudonyms and Protips completely. I believe the main reason isn't that the editorial staff wants them, but that the higher-ups at IDG see them as too intertwined with the GamePro brand to let go.
I say bullhockey. Nobody cares about Protips anymore (the age when a mag sold based on how many strategy tips were inside ended with the PlayStation) and there's little point to editors writing under nicknames when so little of their individual personality is reflected in their text. Dropping Protips has an additional side benefit -- it means that review screenshots for games on systems without integrated frame-grabbers (i.e. the Wii) will be far, far sharper. Why? Because we wouldn't have to take screenshots that match our Protips, which means we can have the publisher send us crystal-clear screens instead of the blurry manual grabs on Wii titles. This makes reviews more interesting to readers.
(I would also drop the useless Brady Games strategies entirely, but it seems that GamePro has already done that, at least in the February issue. Bravo!)
2. Knock off all that text. GamePro's features and reviews are incredibly text-laden. There's far more text per page than on any other console mag, which makes GamePro look a lot like Computer Games at times. This is fine if you are a hardcore PC games rag, but not if you're a mag that ostensibly caters to the younger reaches of the marketplace. Edit down the text on features; let the visual aspects tell more of the story.
3. Get a good designer. GamePro's design since 2000 or so has always been very by-the-book, featuring plain columns of text, uninteresting visual design, and extensive use of boring clip-art game characters and the Glow function in Photoshop. There needs to be more money and manpower put into the mag's design, something that the Ziff and Future titles have recognized for years now.
This point goes hand-in-hand with the previous one. It doesn't matter if you have Mr. Miyamoto himself writing in your video-game magazine; if the page doesn't look interesting to the reader, where's his impetus to spend the time and brain cells to read it?
4. Let the editors speak for themselves. GamePro's editorial philosophy has always been team-based. When you read the mag, the idea is that you are getting the unfiltered, utterly infallible wisdom of The GamePros beamed into your mind, not the individual opinions of Vicious Sid or Major Mike or whomever.
Again, this made more sense back during GamePro's infancy, when gamers cared more about strategy than reviews or industry features. Nobody expects a magazine to be the end-all be-all source of game information any more, however -- that's what the Internet is for. Instead, they go to mags for the same reason anyone goes to any mag -- because they enjoy the editorial focus, or slant, they find inside. So give the editors more space to craft their individual styles... and if they don't have an interesting individual style, find some who do.
5. Don't be afraid to skew younger. Remember back in 2002 when GamePro fended off the threat from Ziff's kid-oriented GameNOW with barely a sweat, even though GameNOW was better designed and arguably more interesting to read? That's because the editors of GameNOW lost their sense of focus after just a few issues and drifted back to standard, run-of-the-mill college-student-focused coverage. I don't think it was necessarily anything GamePro did to respond.
Although the younger marketplace definitely isn't what it used to be, it is still there, and it still drives an impressive amount of sales. I think it's possible to implement all four previous points while keeping number five in mind. It's something that truly separates GamePro from the rest of the pack, and if actively capitalized on (instead of taken for granted, which seems to have been the case for a while), it's probably the best chance the mag has at regaining readership.
Tune back into this space next month, when the March issue comes along and I get to see exactly how new this "reboot" of GamePro is.
Categories: Column: Game Mag Weaseling