['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.]


In the picture above, you can see all 12 issues EGM published in 1994 (left) compared to the magazine's twelve 2006 issues (right; multi-cover variations omitted). You can just ignore that pizza box in the background, if you don't mind.

In pretty much every net discussion on game mags, the first thing someone always mentions is "EGM used to be 400 pages! Now it's a pamphlet!" I think it'd be useful to explain why, since the answer's a lot more complex than "mags aren't popular anymore. (In fact, EGM's circulation today is about double what it was when it produced its largest-size issues in 1994-95, to say nothing of Game Informer.)

One of the many problems facing game mags these days -- and, by extension, tech-oriented mags in general -- is advertising. Namely, not much of it. As a very general rule, magazines need advertising to survive far more than they need readership. Companies try to bolster the readership of their magazines (via cheap subscriptions, free bonuses, distribution to dentists' waiting rooms, and so forth) mainly so they can attract advertisers.

Having lots of readers is a good thing, of course, but when you factor in all the postage and printing costs (and, if you're an "official" magazine, licensing fees) on top of editors' salaries and all that, the $14.95 you're paying for a subscription probably isn't covering the actual cost of getting those 12 issues to your mailbox.

However, advertisers have become more and more aware over the past decade that there's way more audience on the net than off it. That's where their ad money's been going, at a consistently accelerating rate -- across all industries, online advertising is an industry that grosses over $17 billion a year these days. The result? Game magazines get fewer advertisements, which means they have to cut out pages from each issues, which means fewer pages of content.

Game mags in the US used to consistently average over 160 pages. Four years ago, that average fell to 120. Now? All the game-mag issues dated August 2007 are 100 pages except for Game Informer, which manages 112 thanks to some non-endemic advertising form Honda and Old Spice. (This, despite the fact that the price of many mags has gone up by a dollar even as they lost 20 pages.)

The problem's even worse with vanilla computer mags, which lack the dedicated, hardcore, and (most important) money-spending readership most game mags enjoy. That's partly why PC Magazine lost 38.8% of its ad pages between March '06 and March '07, one of several issues that prompted long-time EIC Jim Louderback to step down a few days back. If you're some crazy software or hardware startup, there's not much point in advertising in PC -- it's much easier to build up buzz online and capitalize on that instead of paying out X thousand dollars in the hope that someone doesn't flip right past you.

The other problem? Arguably it's the post office. They keep on raising rates! It's terrible! So magazine publishers respond by using lighter paper -- and lighter paper is smaller, thinner paper. I mentioned this last week, but EGM (among other mags) doesn't use anywhere near the quality of paper stock their 1994 issues featured, and that's a major reason why magazines seem thin nowadays -- even if EGM was 400 pages today, the mag would still be thinner than a 400-page issue from ten years ago.

That, in a nutshell, is why mags seem like pamphlets nowadays. It's also part of the reason why launching a new game mag right now seems like such a ludicrous idea. Umm... straining to end this column on a positive note... hmm, hmm, hmm...

[Kevin Gifford breeds ferrets and runs Magweasel, a site for collectors and fans of old video-game and computer magazines. He's also an editor at Newtype USA magazine.]