[‘What The Game Papers Say’ is a regular 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 an analysis of U.S. magazine Game Informer’s rise to power.]
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.)
It doesn’t take a marketing genius to deduce the secret behind GI’s fourteen-fold circ increase. Being tied to GameStop’s discount card starting in 2001 is the sort of audience-building gift other editors only wish they had. GI’s paid circ tripled over the course of a single year in 2002, and it’s been nothing but upward ever since.
The guaranteed reader base allowed McNamara and crew to switch cover focus from well-known properties like Pokemon to exclusive game reveals, a major departure for the print realm that’s been a major influence on magazines’ approach to coverage ever since. I still remember that first really big reveal, Ratchet & Clank in ’02, and it was one of the few moments where I looked at the cover of a game magazine and actually said “Whoa” out loud.
You could argue that none of GI’s success is McNamara’s doing — that any editorial team from any publisher could’ve duplicated those stats if they had GameStop employees nationwide selling their mag to gamers. But you know what? People have copied the formula, and it’s never lasted. GMR went for only two years, the Level-2 edition of GamePro distributed via Best Buy even less. The retailers involved didn’t see their investment into print as worth it for them long-term, whereas GameStop obviously has and continues to. (The sheer expense of printing and shipping four million magazines every month is nothing to sniff at, after all.)
Game Informer’s been accused in the past of all sorts of things — of being too closely aligned with GameStop, of being a glorified catalog, of having a readership that doesn’t really read the magazine. Indeed, single-issue sales of GI, a traditional sign of reader loyalty, have actually gone down slightly between ’01 and ’09; over 99% of the mag’s circulation remains subscription-based.
However, nobody can argue with the sheer force of the numbers. GI, and GameStop, came up with a winning strategy to gain an audience in 2001, and they’ve ridden that strategy to mind-boggling success. Considering that the US print-mag industry is shrinking at breathtaking rates right now, shouldn’t GI’s continued growth be something all of us can take our hats off to?
Besides, the mag’s well-written and overall fun to read these days. Can’t really forget about that, either.
The latest issue of GI hasn’t arrived at my door yet, but here’s a look at the mags I did receive over the past two weeks:
GamePro September 2010
Cover: Alice: Madness Returns
This issue marks the debut of the print GamePro’s new review system, one I mentioned with more than a little fanboyish anticipation a few weeks back. “Our goal is to provide something more analytical and appropriate for the print medium, and something that acknowledges the time restrictions that a print publication imposes on a release-driven area,” as EIC John Davison puts it.
How’s this work in practice? As I guessed, very much the same as when Computer Gaming World tried the idea for a period in 2005. Instead of taking the reviews they write for online and publishing them as-is (or condensed) in the print edition, GamePro is treating each review as a sort of roundtable, combining the writer’s opinions with those from reviews and user comments all over game media.
It’s the sort of experimentation that’s necessary for a mag’s review section to remain relevant in these times, I think, and it’s one I welcome. However, I worry that the reviews in this particular issue are, perhaps, a little too roundtable-y, summarizing popular opinion too much and not offering very much of the writer’s own take. With CGW’s version of this review format, the effect seemed in my eyes to be freeing for the writer — he didn’t have to pretend to be the Final Arbiter of Game Opinion and instead could just shoot the breeze about whatever he felt like related to the game in question. With GP, it seems like the staff is trying too hard to cover all the bases and is leaving their own takes at the door — which is a shame, because some of GP’s reviews have been remarkably good pieces of critical writing up to now.
Still, reviews editor Tae Kim says that the formula will be tuned over time as they “get it down to a science,” and I look forward to seeing how it unfolds over the next few months. There’s the seed of a great idea lurking here.
Meanwhile, the rest of the issue is the typical GamePro style you’ve come to expect — text-heavy and still quite experimental with the art elements. Highlights include two features — one on life as a QA guy, another on the effects of anonymity in online gaming — that are great reading but sadly go untouted on the front cover.
PlayStation: The Official Magazine September 2010
Cover: Rage (4 different covers)
Ahead of QuakeCon next week, PTOM has the first real update on Rage since last year’s QuakeCon event. There isn’t an enormous amount of stuff divulged in this hands-on that you didn’t know about from last year’s round of first looks — I’d imagine you could blame id for that more than PTOM — but the visual assets make the update more than worthwhile regardless.
The highlight of the issue, though. is Greg Orlando’s chronicle of the 24 straight hours he spent playing 100 PS3/PSP games. It’s a really silly feature, but one I found pretty hilarious, a lot more so than the adjacent preview roundup of upcoming PS3-exclusive titles.
Nintendo Power September 2010
Cover: Zelda: Skyward Sword
My copy of this month’s NP has some kind of odd printing error where the color is out of alignment on half of the pages, making screenshots pretty hard to decipher at times. Nonetheless, it’s a bumper crop of an issue, serving as the staff’s sort of post-post-E3 wrap-up edition. Interviews abound in classic NP fashion, covering everyone from Zelda and Kid Icarus devs to Square veteran Akitoshi Kawazu to a massive wealth of industry folks giving their paragraph-long first takes on the 3DS.
The brunt of the mag is previews of fall games, which would normally be pretty boring to me. Tucked inside, however, are a couple of dev interviews for GoldenEye 007 and Monster Tale, a DS title I didn’t know about before now but I’m suddenly very interested in.
Retro Gamer Issue 79
Cover: Rainbow Islands
The cover touts the first in a series that RG is calling “The Ultimate Guide To…”, which in practice isn’t much unlike the features they normally write about old games. Not a complaint, of course, as the article inside is colorful, well-researched fun.
A lot of making-of bits dominate the pages this time as well, my favorite one being for Star Raiders, a classic Atari 8-bit game that’s still one of the most influential ever released. Doug Neubauer is an underappreciated game-design genius, I tell you.
Game Developer August 2010
Cover: Deadly Premonition
Yow! What a treat! Finally, my pick for GOTY gets the mainstream attention it deserves!
The game I like to think of as bizarro Twin Peaks (if one can even comprehend such a thing) gets a full postmortem treatment this issue; it’s a must-read for fans, just so you can get a load of all the little details behind the story and bask in SWERY’s aw-shucks conversation style when talking about the $20 game he spent half a decade on. I particularly love how the project’s budget is listed as “not very much” — I could kind of tell!
On a more serious note, the interview with Eric Chahi is also pretty in-depth and interesting. I’m somewhat surprised to see it in GD and not a mag like Edge or GP — an observation which I mean as a compliment.
[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.]
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