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Column: Game Mag Weaseling

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': From Saturn to the BBC

September 12, 2010 12:00 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.]

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After a bit of a dry period, Mort -- the guy who has been releasing complete, fully-scanned collections of old British game and computer magazines for several years now -- has returned with a vengeance, recently putting up DVD sets for two well-known mags that demonstrate the two-sidedness of the scene very clearly.

The Micro User, produced by Database Publications (aka Europress), was the most popular magazine devoted to the BBC Micro line of 8-bit computers. To a generation of kids that grew up in the 1980s-era United Kingdom, the BBC was the equivalent of the Apple II in the US -- a common fixture in school libraries and labs; tons of business and educational software; a fairly decent game scene; a large number finding their way into homes despite the hefty price tag. Something like one and a half million were sold across the UK, and the platform's popularity was durable enough that The Micro User lasted 115 issues, from March 1983 all the way to September 1992.

The innards of each issue are about what you'd expect from the era -- i.e., it's positively chaotic. Like how I remarked when I looked at Your Computer, there's a certain rabid enthusiasm lurking behind the articles and advertisements that still shines through remarkably well today.

Nearly all of The Micro User's articles and printed programs were submitted by readers, from nerdy electronics experts submitting some new circuit to interface with the computer to normal housewives and special-ed teachers showing how they use the BBC in their careers and their lives.

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 9/4/10

September 6, 2010 12:00 PM |

['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 time -- an analytical look at the latest video game magazines released in the last couple of weeks.]

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I'll need to keep this intro quick as it's a busy weekend for me, but I just wanted to note that GamesTM, the monthly British mag that's the main print competition to Edge over there, is celebrating its 100th issue, available on UK stands right this minute. Sort of like what Edge did with their 200th last year, they're commemorating the feat by doing a 100-cover split run of the latest issue. You can see a large image of all of them at the above link, covering game history from Space Invaders to Mass Effect 2 and everything in between.

I must admit to not reading GamesTM regularly, even though it's on sale at my local Barnes & Noble. Nothing meant against the mag personally; I just need to draw the line on my mag budget somewhere and Retro Gamer (produced by the same publisher) is a lot more unique to me. However, seeing a mag survive in this rocky industry for nearly eight years and continue to unwaveringly target mature, enthusiastic gamers for so long is worth all manner of adulation in my book. So cheers to 'em. I'll buy one of the #100 issues once it gets shipped to the US.

Back to the present for now, though; read on to scope out all the game mags that have come out in the past couple weeks:

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Me and My Porno-Modem

August 29, 2010 12:00 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.]

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It's the worst of the summer doldrums right now in lovely East Texas, and so I'm curling up with some of the computer magazines I had in my youth in hopes that the nostalgia will keep me in reverie until wintertime.

Chief among them at the moment is Compute!, a magazine that ran from 1979 to 1994 and, alongside Creative Computing, was one of the first really big multiplatform personal computer titles. As I've written before, much of Compute!'s charm has been necessarily lost to time -- it's from an era where programming the hardware, not simply using software written by someone else, was something all PC owners were expected to do; it was part of the whole fun of the computer hobby.

To hobbyists like that, Compute!'s in-depth programming discussions were gold in their mailbox every month. A modern-day college student, meanwhile, will likely look at the page after page of machine code printed in most mid-1980s editions and wonder why anyone paid money simply for the right to spend hours typing in programs. And I can't blame them. It was simpler times back then, we worked 13 hours in the coal mines and begged for the chance to play text-mode clones of Pac-Man, etc.

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 8/21/10

August 24, 2010 12:00 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. This time -- an analytical look at the latest video game magazines released in the last couple of weeks.]

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Interesting things are afoot in the magazine world -- John Davison leaving GamePro after less than a year, for example -- but for now, I want to talk about International Media Services, the company that's made much of this afternoon an annoyance to me.

IMS is an online outfit that offers US subscriptions for all kinds of British magazines. This includes Edge, and I've subscribed to Edge through them for the past two years or so. Usually the service has been great, but I failed to receive the August issue, and trying to extract some sort of remittance for it -- a replacement issue, or a one-month extension of the subscription, or something -- has been like trying to clean an unsedated bear's teeth. Frustrating, I mean.

I got the September issue all right, but that's the last one in my subscription, and IMS has invited me via email (above) to resubscribe for $99...which is rather odd, considering that Edge themselves advertise a subscription rate of $80 in the magazine, accessible via an alternate URL. Was IMS hoping that I would, like, not notice and just hit the "renew" button without checking? After all, the difference between $80 and $99 is pretty big -- one price makes paying for a subscription worth it; the other isn't that much less than simply buying the mag at the stands.

Still, at least there's Edge waiting for me at the end, and therefore I suppose I can't complain too much. (And besides, unlike with Game Informer, at least I'm not all but forced to visit a physical GameStop store -- the one and only time I do each year -- to renew.)

Enough whining for now; let's check out the latest mags from the past two weeks of gamedom:

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': The Art of The Media Kit

August 16, 2010 12:00 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.]

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Media kits for old game magazines can often be depressing things to thumb through, especially when you know what happened to the magazine in question right afterward.

When the ad-sales folks from a magazine are trying to attract new advertisers, one of their weapons has always been the media kit -- a slick-looking folder or binder filled with information on the mag, its circulation, and its audience. It's a show of strength for the magazine, a physical symbol of how successful it is and how dominant a position it's got in the marketplace, and as a result they're often very pretty-looking pieces to collect if you're someone like me.

I've picked up assorted media kits over the years (the oldest one I have is from 1979 and covers Creative Computing), but while reorganizing my closet I came across a 2004-era one for Computer Games Magazine and its sister publication, nerd-culture media mag Now Playing that caught my attention. I took this home with me when ADV Films, my former employer, laid off their magazine department in June '08.

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 8/7/10

August 9, 2010 12:00 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. This time -- an analytical look at the latest video game magazines released in the last couple of weeks.]

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Gadzooks! On Twitter a few days back, Game Informer EIC Andy McNamara mentioned that his magazine has now surpassed 4.5 million in subscriber circulation. That's a pretty lofty figure, and a remarkable increase over what they reported last year, even when you discount whatever fraction of that number that's non-paid distribution.

In 2001, the first year that Game Informer sprung for an official Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) profiling, its total paid circulation was listed at 260,733 copies. 260,733! EGM was trouncing it with its 457,597 figure at the time, and even platform-specific mags like Computer Gaming World (323,025), PSM (305,085) and the old Official PlayStation Magazine (355,687) were beating GI in paying readership. (GamePro wasn't ABC-audited in 2001, but I think their paid circ was still over 500,000 copies or right around that figure back then.)

Flash forward eight years, and the story is, shall we say, different. In 2009, GI's total paid circulation was listed as 3,703,120 copies, placing it at number 11 on the Magazine Publishers of America's circulation rankings. GI, in fact, was the only US game magazine to bother with getting its circulation verified by the ABC in 2009. (Getting ABC verification is an expensive, lengthy process, but offers third-party proof that a magazine isn't simply pulling circ figures out of their arses -- important when you're trying to woo big-name, non-endemic advertisers.)

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Getting Rich Off Old Mags

August 1, 2010 12:00 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.]

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Occasionally I get mail from readers asking me if their particular collection of old video-game or computer mags is worth a lot of money. Usually, it isn't. It's rude of me, perhaps, but I always feel an odd sort of pressure in the pit of my stomach, responding to mails like these. It makes me feel sort of like I'm working at GameStop and a kid's just brought in a cardboard box full of of PS2 Madden and NBA Live discs and he's expecting me to start unrolling $100 bills from my money clip.

Unlike Maddens, of course, the problem with judging the value of mags isn't that there's a vast oversupply. It's more a case of under-demand. There are tons of different ways to get into this hobby, and unlike (for example) NES cartridges, there's no very well defined endpoint to the collection that everybody's striving for.

Some people just want to replace the library of Nintendo Powers they had as a kid; some really love an old computer model and want to get everything that's been published about it; some loons simply get everything they can until they fill up the spare room and have visitors look at them funny whenever they see the place. (Not that I know what that's like or anything. 'Ell no.)

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 7/24/10

July 27, 2010 12:00 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. This time -- an analytical look at the latest video game magazines released in the last couple of weeks, alongside a tribute to closing UK magazine PC Zone.]

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It was with a sad heart that I learned recently that PC Zone, the oldest English-language PC game mag still in operation (predating PC Gamer by seven months), is closing up shop with Issue 225 in September. The news was hardly unexpected, given that PC Zone has one of the lowest ABC-rated circulations of any game magazine in the UK at the moment, but it's sad nonetheless.

Will Porter, who wrote for PC Zone for a long time and edited it for a run in 2008, wrote a memorial for Rock, Paper, Shotgun that both explains why the mag is worth remembering and offers a few examples of its greatest moments. If I could summarize my opinion more succinctly, I'd say that PC Zone was a great example of a mag you bought not because of what's on the cover, but because you genuinely dig the folks who wrote it and wanted to get their unique take on video games. There were mags like that in the '80s and '90s, but more recently they've been a dying breed.

Porter blames the Internet in general for PCZ's demise, of course, but I think the real culprit is the rise of gaming podcasts, the best of which are addictive fun for the exact same reason I gave above. Like those podcasts, PCZ wasn't trying to be the ultimate final source for all things games, a trap that lots of mags fell into and keep falling into.

It was just trying to have some fun and maybe attract a few readers along the way, and the fact it lasted over 200 issues indicates that they were doing something right, at least. (On that note, I think an official PCZ podcast would be a great way to keep the "spirit" going. Not as lucrative, perhaps, but UK game-writer salaries aren't exactly first-class to start with, so...)

Let's move on to my coverage of the game mags that crossed my desk in the past little while, a somewhat boring post-E3 period despite the launch of a brand-new mag in the US:

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': The Downside of GameSide

July 11, 2010 12:00 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.]

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Some sad news, at least for me -- I learned the other day that Japanese mag GameSide is closing up shop with its August '10 issue, which went on sale a couple of days back. Devoted largely to Retro Gamer-style coverage of older games and interviews with game designers of the past, the mag had survived two name changes and about 14 years of constant publication before finally giving up the ghost.

GameSide began life in 1996 under the title Used Games, an A6-size (105mm x 148mm) mag that was published on a seasonal basis. It was part of a small wave of A6 game titles that debuted in Japan during the mid-'90s, spearheaded by editors from Kadokawa Shoten and other large publishers who wanted to write about games without suffering under the advertiser and reader demands of a mainstream outfit.

Chief among these new mags was Game Hihyou (Game Criticism), which launched in 1994 and devoted most of its pages to longform, in-depth reviews of console games. Like Computer Gaming World until the early '90s, Game Hihyou had a policy of only reviewing boxed retail copies of games, which made their reviews late but gave them a well-researched sense of authority that was appreciated by its fans far more than the 60-word blurbs that Famitsu published in their cross-review section. (The mag was also famous for its fairly obvious anti-Square bias, as well as for refusing all advertising from game companies, a policy that remained in effect for all but the final two issues.)

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 7/3/10

July 4, 2010 12:00 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. This time -- an analytical look at the latest video game magazines released in the last couple of weeks.]

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This week offers an interesting study in game-mag cover design, since we saw GamePro and Edge use not only the same cover subject for their respective issues this month, but also very nearly the same image. (The internal articles in both issues use the same set of screenshots and art as well, right down to the PR photograph of director Craig Sullivan and online producer Matt Webster playing with model cars.)

GamePro EIC John Davison mentioned on his Twitter account that the resemblance "had nothing to do with Edge" and that his mag's cover "was the image we worked with Criterion on." Indeed, if you look closely at the two mags, you'll notice that they aren't simple mirror images of each other -- the police cruiser is on the opposite side of the sports car between each image, and the shadows they cast are all different.

So is it just a case of someone at Criterion (or EA's PR department) being lazy with image assets? Maybe, but beyond that topic, this gives us a great chance to show how two mags can do remarkably different things with a near-identical cover image. (It also reminds us of how cheap the term "World Exclusive" can be in print game media -- especially considering Edge is dated July '10 and GamePro, with their exclusive, is dated August.)

Edge's cover is textbook magazine design. In fact, it's a lot more by-the-book than many of their covers. You have the main image, the top cover line in a large font, and a bunch of less-important articles and reviews touted in diminishing font sizes down the column. Racing games are hard to sell game mags with -- they simply aren't very compelling and eye-catching subjects compared to action-game heroes or cute characters -- and Edge's cover design does the topic no particular favors.

GamePro, meanwhile, integrates the building blocks of the cover within the image, like how they've been doing a lot lately. The cover lines, and the name of the magazine, are being run over by the cars, which damages readability a bit but is a lot more artistically interesting. That, plus the bits of white airbrushed on, give the mag a much greater sense of "speed" than Edge's approach.

Which is better? If I had to pick, I'd say GamePro in a heartbeat -- but there's no denying that Edge's more standard approach follows more of the unwritten rules of how to sell a magazine in newsstands. Perhaps it's a byproduct of the marketplace, with the US dominated by cheap subscriptions and most UK mags still relying on bookstore sales as their main source of income.

Regardless, click on to read a bit more about the insides of these mags, as well as all the others out in the past two weeks. There's a lot.