['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.]


A lot of people are pessimistic about the future of game mags these days, so why not talk about a real, current success story for a change? Of course, pessimists will likely have all their convictions confirmed once they learn that I've had to go all the way to Finland to find the story.

Pelaaja, or Player, is in the midst of celebrating its 100th issue. It launched in October 2002, an independent operation founded by a group of gamers who thought -- I'm quoting from the email I got from them -- "why not work for ourselves and make a great videogames magazine since there really were no good ones here in Finland."

The 100th issue has the expected "best 100 games of all time" feature, but it's also got a series of "Icons" interviews with folks like Shigeru Miyamoto, Will Wright, Warren Spector, and the heads of BioWare -- a pretty mean lineup, and even more impressive considering the mag's written in a language understood by a grand total of 6 million people worldwide.

To find out more about Pelaaja's story, I spoke with Thomas Puha, the title's editor-in-chief and a guy who's contributed to a fair number of English-language mags and websites over the years.

Q: What sort of magazines did you follow in Finland growing up?

A: Scandinavia has traditionally been a very computer-oriented scene, so it was difficult to be a fan of console gaming when it was all about the C64, Amiga and then PC. I was always more inclined to read English-language games magazines, which had much more passion and information -- plus they didnt dis consoles, which was the vibe in Finland.

You couldn't get all the foreign magazines in Finland. Strangely enough, we received most of the US magazines like GamePro, GameFan and EGM, but not all the British ones. So whenever our family would take a cruise holiday to Stockholm (that's the thing you do in Finland), I always bought the english mags from their much better selection. I think the United Kingdom produces the best magazines; most of them have great writing style and really good art direction, though there's some rather horrible ones out there as well. I still remember how badly Tim Boone fucked up Computer & Video Games.

Mean Machines, with folks like Julian Rignall running it, really became my idol and inspired me to start my own magazine later on. The humour, insight and the passion evident was just something else. It was a brilliant magazine and I was devastated when they split it into Nintendo Magazine System and Mean Machines Sega. Neither was anywhere near as good as Mean Machines. I remember meeting Gary Harrod, the art director of Mean Machines way back in the day. That was amazing to me. Dude's a hero.

Q: Your first paying job was writing things like the "Europa" news column for GameFan.

A: I cant remember how, but I found the #vidgames IRC channel and met some folks there. I struck up a conversation with a dude nicknamed Flynn, who was working on this VHS-based game magazine in the US, and a few weeks later he asked if I wanted to help out on their website. So I started writing for them covering the European games scene. He ended up working at GameFan, a magazine that I had bought religiously and was a huge fan of. So then I started writing news for their website and trying to build contacts in Europe.

When I went to E3 I visited the GameFan dungeon in Woodland Hills. The place really was a dungeon. Everybody was so passionate about videogames there, which I really loved -- I didn't have that in Finland. I was really jealous of the atmosphere, even though it was a pretty dysfunctional family. Everyone just loved games there, and I really wanted to be a part of that. I was based in Finland while freelancing for them, but I heard a lot of what was going on and most of what you heard was true...it was an, uhh, intense place!

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Q: Wikipedia says that Pelaaja "is more akin to European and American videogames magazines than Finnish ones with its focus on exclusive coverage and extensive interviews." Would you say that's about right?

A: There's two commercial games magazines on the market: us, and Pelit, which has been around for 20 years, I think. Pelaaja is all about console gaming and the other magazine is PC-centric, which is one reason why we started Pelaaja -- there just wasn't a games magazine in Finland that gave me what I wanted to read about. Finns are quite reclusive and negative by nature, and reading about games in that tone just didn't feel right to me compared to what the British were writing. After that, there are another two magazines that are distributed for free, one of which is also ours.

We are very different -- dare I say, we are modern and roll with the times in a way. We are very passionate about what we do and I like that to be evident in the magazine. For me, I love the game developers out there; those are my people! Their work and the industry itself fascinates me more than just the games, and for me it's really important that developers see we know our stuff, though we try hard not to be too technical in our writing. You don't have to know how to code to review games, but I think the technical nature of our business does require a certain level of knowledge about the process of making games, which not everyone has.

Having great quality writing is important to me, but I also take pride in being able to show the readers the games they and I really want to read about and provide them with the best coverage there is.

Q: Finland isn't the biggest game marketplace in the world, or even within Europe. Do you find it hard to get the attention of publishers or developers as you try to land coverage?

A: Yeah, and in a way I'm glad about that, because we have to work really hard to create the kind of relationships that yield the content we have. When a hit game sells something like 15,000 to 30,000 units here, you understand that on a global scale, our market doesn't matter much. (Of course, in my opinion, we're just as important as the US or UK.)

Having seen how things work in the US games media, I have to say that they're spoiled, because publishers organize Gamers' Day [press events] like every month and there're umpteen preview ROMs and very easy access to key people. That's real PR at work, and we really don't have much of that in Finland. The whole nature of PR is so different here compared to the US, where it's more aggressive. Here it's much more passive -- here's an email about our upcoming release...and uh, that's about it.

Here in our territory, the only publisher represented locally in Finland is Microsoft. Sony has a big organization here, but even they're represented by a distributor. After that, a single distributor represents like five game publishers and usually has one overworked marketing/PR person doing everything from PR to planning the marketing, so things like asking for a few screenshots or getting info in a timely fashion, you can totally forget about that.

Q: It's funny, because back when I was still working in game media, I used to wish that PR people would stop filling up my inbox so fast. Guess I didn't know how good I had it.

A: Most of us Euro journos in smaller markets just sigh at that. We can't just "call" our PR person out here, because they often don't exist! We can't just talk to Nintendo PR, for example. We talk to some rep, who talks to someone in Sweden most of the time, who talks to the UK or Germany -- but, of course, they take care of their own territories first. That's just the nature of the business. It's frustrating, because you have to talk to so many people before you actually get anywhere. But if you've been in the game long enough, it gets better and the people working in the games industry out here have become so much better, as I hope we have, over the years.

It did my head in when I saw one US website have, like, a dozen dudes accredited for the Nintendo E3 press conference -- well, back in the day at least, when they were still giving out bags. At that same conference, we got one dude in. One. Not from Finland, but the whole of Scandinavia! And those dozen US folks had no idea what a fight it was for us to get a single person into that event. We can't take anything like that for granted -- and if you do get in, you could be sure that when you were going for your interview, the Finland/Nordic slot would get bumped into oblivion pretty quickly when dude X from another US website showed up unexpectedly.

Q: Putting it that way, good heavens, I apparently took a lot for granted.

A: Many of the more veteran editors across Europe talk to each other to know what publishers are really up to. I guess we all deal with the fact that Game Informer gets first dibs and then a month later we get passed the same assets. That makes us go "Yeah, you understand all this stuff has been scanned and put online weeks ago?" So no, we're not jumping for joy when you get us this old stuff as an exclusive. That's a fight for the European PR folks, too, and some of them do a really great job of getting us a lot of good stuff.

I'm glad I've had the experience I did, because I take nothing for granted. When I started to realize how things work in the industry and just how many great interviews and meetings the US and UK media took for granted, I was pretty stunned at how naive I was. Contacts are everything, though, and I do enjoy the "game" that that's all about.

Q: You've contributed to the US and UK press in the past. Do you find it more personally gratifying to work in game media in your home country and language, even with all the challenges?

A: I'm extremely proud of what we've achieved in Finland. We've put out 100 issues and I make my living here, but of course, the market is small and the language makes it impossible to be international. That can be frustrating, because I think we could do well out there and I'd like to test myself like that.

I do enjoy being able to reach more people when I write for foreign sites and magazines. I do think it's pretty cool to have my writing published in in the UK and US; I'm from Finland, after all. But it's also a huge source of pride to be able to compete in terms of content with magazines in the bigger markets. I really think we're right up there with the best of them, and people in the industry know of us and know we do good work. My mind is blown everytime when someone at GDC, DICE, etc. knows we are from Finland and who we are...that's amazing and humbling to me every time.

Q: There's no denying the impressive interview lineup you got for your 100th issue.

A: That wasn't a given for a small Finnish games magazine to get. I'm super proud of the people we got and even more proud that the interviews were a really, really good read. That counts far more than the names.

You do want to be challenged and compete with the best and have a large audience, and obviously, Finland isn't exactly where the industry is at and the market is small, but I love the small industry we have here. There are benefits to that. Everyone knows each other, whether you work in games retail, development or media. It helps to give you more perspective on all aspects of the games industry and how things work. I've always laughed when this bullshit about "playola" is brought around... If people knew what went on in the retail side of the biz, that would make for even more craziness than what you see in Jersey Shore!

Q: The face of US mags has changed a lot in recent years as editors search for a way to coexist alongside the Web and forums. What about Pelaaja?

A: We've been thinking a lot about that in the past few years. We run our own business, so we have to be more aware how things are changing around us. We are lucky in that Finns read and subscribe to a lot of magazines. I never understood the print business in the US where it's all about making money with ads and selling subscriptions at a loss -- that wasn't healthy and still isn't. We are very strongly subscriber-oriented; that's a far more solid way to maintain your business than relying on ad sales, which go up and down.

I would like to see magazines sort of becoming what vinyl is in the music industry -- people who appreciate them still buy them, and they appreciate the effort that goes into making them. I would like to think people still like the printed word when it's good, interesting writing from personalities you want to follow. That's a huge factor. The web is about speed; we are about depth for those who want it -- and there're people who want it, thank God.

Obviously it's tough. We do less pages than we used to, though I'd argue the content is much better than when we started in 2002. In some ways the print business is dying, but it's also re-inventing itself, and you only get that when times are tough -- that's when innovation comes out, when it's necessary.

[Kevin Gifford used to breed ferrets, but now he's busy running Magweasel, a really cool weblog about games and Japan and "the industry" and things. In his spare time he does writing and translation for lots of publishers and game companies.]