['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.]


It being the new year and all, I think it might be a good idea to step back and take in the situation print mags find themselves in right now.

I'm inspired to do this thanks to two things I happened across today. One is a thread in the games section of the Something Awful Forums about people's favorite game mags. As usually happens in threads like these, someone wondered why they still exist at all:

"[W]hy would you guys pay for a magazine for one set of opinions when the internet has dozens of gaming websites, both coming from paid journalists and blogs alike and they are all free? Magazines were nice back then, I had a PC Gamer subscription for years but only because the internet had no real alternatives to gaming magazines at the time and demo's were much easier to obtain on a CD.

In this day and age it just seems like a waste of money, unless magazines have gotten really cheap in order to compete."

This was followed by the answer that always comes when that question's asked online: It's toilet reading. This I never understood -- how much time do people spend sitting on the john, for Chrissakes? There was at least one other intelligent response, though:

"A magazine has the potential to be better than the internet by having longer and more in-depth stories, focusing on topics you might not have actively searched out or clicked, and employing writers that are more likely to create unique content.

Of course, not all mags do this, and not all websites are completely shallow. In general though, the writing in a print feature is pretty different from that in a Gamespot/IGN/Shacknews/Kotaku/etc. piece."

While I was mulling over my own take on this question, I happened to pick up the new (Feb. '11) GamePro, whcih features new hire and industry veteran Julian Rignall tackling the same topic in his opening letter:

"WTF are we doing still making magazines? And what are you doing reading it? Because I am -- and I hope you are, too -- one of the many people out there who still believes in print. To me, magazines represent a snapshot in time, a collection of opinions, thoughts, and ideas created by writers and artists in a traditional, old-school way, and brought together in a cohesive place to deliver a visceral reading experience.

Sure, in the day and age of the Web, the magazine is no longer the news source it once was. But I still think that as a crucible of ideas, articulator of opinion, revealer of the future, and purveyor of potentially unparalleled aesthetics, it is still as relevant and thought-provoking as it has ever been.

And that's going to be my mission as the new head of GamePro: to create a magazine that will present things that will make you think, stimulate your senses, and deliver an experience that you simply cannot get anywhere else."

This is a pretty good (if overly verbose) answer. Any magazine that wants to stay in business right now knows that they have to be different from online -- a lesson that took the industry most of the previous decade to learn, at the cost of many otherwise fine publications.

A decade ago, every mag devoted tons of pages to strategy guides. Axing those was an obvious move forward, especially when ad pages began to decline in gaming starting 2003 or so. But that move, in and of itself, made the mags more mature and did a lot to change the general direction of publishers toward more mature-oriented content.

And that leads us to where we are today. Nearly every magazine in the US isn't about video games anymore so much as the video-game industry, spending much of their space covering trends, new projects, and the machinery behind everything you play.

Edge in the UK has been like that for years, but GamePro, the new EGM, and (to a lesser extent) the platform-specific Future mags have definitely gone all-in with the concept over the past two years. The result: Demonstrably better content; longform interviews that regularly go beyond tired old PR-speak; articles that are visual feasts for the eyes thanks to edgier art design.

Print mags offer a truly different experience from online, and it's an experience that still generates reader demand. But is there enough? That's the real question. Print mags can't run on reader goodwill alone -- they need advertising, and I don't think the ad market has ever been worse for this business. Mags plainly have a problem getting advertisers to be enthusiastic about the media, and really, that battle may already be over at this point.

Back when I started this column in 2006, I seriously thought that there would be no game mags distributed in US bookstores at all by 2011. Plainly I was too pessimistic, but I do think print mags will become more and more "boutique" collectibles as the 2010s wear on -- getting thicker, more expensive and elaborate, avoiding traditional distribution methods, and aiming at the most hardcore of hardcores.

World of Warcraft: The Magazine, which is subscription-only, could prove to be a harbinger of things to come. I'd like it to be, anyway, because 90-page issues make me sad.

[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.]