America has failed me

I stopped at a Border’s last night and made the tragic mistake of looking at the magazine racks. Specifically, the gaming section of the magazine racks. It was utterly and completely depressing.

I’d grown accustomed over the past few years to seeing fewer and fewer of Ziff Davis’s publications on the newsstands, since the company did its Game Group bloodletting slowly — a quarterly publication here, a monthly mag there — but my former employer’s issues were symptomatic of a larger ailment plaguing the U.S. publishing market. Last night I was distressed to discover that more than half of the gaming rags on the stands were British in origin; aside from a few last out-of-date copies of the final EGM, a couple of Plays and some officially-sanctioned Future publication, everything on sale was foreign. Somehow UK magazine imports have gone from being a boutique novelty to just about the only recourse for American gamers to find info in print. And with Future’s U.S. operations looking grimmer by the month, I don’t imagine that’s going to change.

The only two gaming publications I even bother to keep track of these days are Retro Gamer from the UK and Continue, a Japanese quarterly concern that unfortunately has less and less to do with gaming with each passing issue due to Japan’s otaku demographic slowly mutating into lolicon-anime-obsessed psychopaths who only like Monster Hunter. (Or so I hear.) Not to denigrate Future’s U.S. magazines, all of which are just fine, but they don’t really offer anything I can’t find elsewhere. Which, I suppose, was everyone else’s feeling about Ziff’s magazines.

Retro Gamer and Continue are interesting because they both offer content I can’t necessarily find online, and they present it in an interesting way. Admittedly my eyes do glaze when I read yet another article about how some dudes who made a couple of rubbery-looking Spectrum graphical adventures in a garage in some tiny village outside of Leeds back in the ’80s are unsung geniuses of game design, and I do have to adjust my brain for the British press’s endemic habit of reminding everyone that Yanks only love bloody explosions in their shallow stupid games wot wot; but so it goes. Scrape out the condescending nationalism and you have some damn fine articles splashed across pages laden with classic pixel art. What’s not to love? And Continue makes me wish I read more Japanese, because it covers a wide array of offbeat topics and presents them in a structured but always unique format — my favorite being a comparison of the respective histories of Square and Enix penned at the time of their merger, which ended up informing the layout of my own book to a degree. Its shift to anime coverage is especially disappointing, because the magazine used to champion titles way outside the Japanese mainstream — I’m pretty sure it’s the only Japanese magazine to have featured Grand Theft Auto on its cover twice. (And that’s for a quarterly rather than weekly publication, which means far fewer cover opportunities.)

So why don’t we have stuff like this in the U.S.? Hell, why don’t we have game magazines in the U.S.? Even books that cover all the bases are having trouble scraping by, so just forget about niche publications that focus on classic gaming or gaming ephemera.

I’m sure a lot of it is geography. The UK is about, what, 100 miles from end to end? And while Japan is a bit longer, the bulk of the population is situated in a few major cities on a single island. That dramatically cuts down on warehousing and distribution costs, while America’s population is spread across several thousand miles, up and down two coasts, with significant populations in plenty of cities in between. Distributing any physical commodity just costs more here.

But I suspect there are cultural difference at work as well. I know Japanese gamers tend to pour a lot more money and attention into the things they enjoy; rather than exploring a wide breadth of things, they tend to focus on single subjects into which they plunge deeply. That’s why you see a few titles hit the top of the charts and a resulting explosion of corresponding merchandise over there; Americans, on the other hand, seem to want to meander, to dabble, and few franchises can support the sort of obsessive merchandising here that you see in Japan. Heck, even Halo 3 couldn’t sell through its initial shipment of cat helmet editions. Continue has been forced to adapt to its audience’s changing tastes, but it still exists, while it couldn’t possibly be a sustainable business here. I mean, I sold about 150 of my own books and lost money on them, and its content was culled from a site that’s pretty close in spirit and tone to the likes of Continue.

As for Retro Gamer…well, I don’t know. UK publications can subsist on smaller sales than American magazines (50,000 issues a month is tolerable there; EGM was shuttered at 650,000 a month), likely due to a difference in the British business mindset. American corporations seem to want constant, immediate profits, whereas in the UK it seems to be more about long-term sustainability. That could probably be ascribed to a difference in the overall maturity of each culture, but I’ll leave that for anthropologists to sort out. I think, too, that Retro Gamer scratches a very specific itch for the British gamer by focusing largely on a period of time when the nation’s gaming culture was somewhat insular and homegrown — a sort of nostalgic “glory days” kind of thing. Certainly plenty of UK devs are still around and have a distinctive personality, but the UK development community was quite possibly the hardest-hit by the consolidation, globalization and technical advances of the industry at large. For all that I joke about Spectrum and Amstrad games, the ’80s UK scene really was unique, a sort of gaming Galapagos where evolution happened differently, and I get the impression there’s a certain wistfulness about what’s been lost over the past 15 years or so. Maybe I’m wrong, though! But personally, I’m feeling pretty damn wistful about the U.S. gaming publication scene of, say, six years ago. So I can totally relate there, er, blokes?

When I started working at 1UP, my real ambition was to move into print — hopefully even to convince the company to launch a quarterly retro gaming publication. (From what I’ve heard, the higher-ups were actually looking into the possibility for a while, before everything came crashing down.) And I still harbor a hope of somehow finding a way to make it work in some capacity, even if I have to keep printing my own damn books and losing my shirt every time. But maybe, just maybe, as gaming and its audience matures, we’ll see a call for the video game equivalent of McSweeny’s Quarterly. Here’s hoping.

44 thoughts on “America has failed me

  1. I love the little joyful “Old!” in the corner of the Retrogamer issue.

    Man, I so would have subscribed to Retronauts the magazine!

  2. The magazine selection is depressing, but that’s nothing compared to the shameful “Games” section at any old bookstore. It maddened me that you could find stacks of books on the most inane of subjects and the Games section only seemed interested in telling you where to find all the dalamatians in Kingdom Hearts. At the time I was working at Borders five years ago, as far as “real” video game books, we only ever stocked Stephen Kent’s history book and one other coffee table book whose name escapes me. I don’t even think they stocked Kohler’s book for long. These were all excellent. Do these books really not sell? I figured maybe the audience was always too tech savvy that they could find what they wanted on the internet for free anyway, or otherwise just aren’t that interested.

  3. Also, I doubt retro gamer relies much on gaming news in an attempt to gather sales. No internet site is going to go public with a scoop on a new game announcement from a retro gaming magazine before that hits publication. It fills a niche for which there are very few to no professional gamesites.

  4. You guys had nobody to blame but yourselves. And by “you,” I don’t really mean the 1UP crew but the whole industry.

    Pack-in discs to justify a $12 price tag.
    Shrinkwrap bags to justify the pack-in discs and discourage looking inside before you buy.
    A reputation among the whole industry that you’re less there for critical thinking and more there to cheerlead. EGM’s most recent people weren’t, as the blacklists will attest to, but in the 90s they rode the line pretty close and so did everybody else.
    An RIAA-sized misunderstanding of technology when it comes to in-print exclusives and people owning scanners now.

    I think in the age of iPhones and Kindles the dead-tree thing is slowly over, but comic books seem to be one foot in the grave already with the “only sold in niche boutique stores” angle, yet despite the higher prices ($3.99 is becoming the new $2.99) and the number of guys at the store who practically stand in the store reading the book cover to cover, enough people are still buying them that they’re still being printed and game magazines aren’t.

  5. I’m glad I can always count on you to be a smug jerk, Psyael. Magazines may die, but some things are reliable as the sunrise.

  6. The gaming magazine scene of six or seven years ago seemed to be very much geared towards the person that liked games and wanted to keep track of them, but didn’t really love them. Their needs were very easy to meet on the internet, with 1200 word articles, plenty of news bulletins, and reviews of just about everything. You also couldn’t charge people like that very much money, because they valued gaming magazines cheaply.

    I always felt that American gaming magazines were chasing a demographic that was going to leave them no matter what, when they probably should have re-tooled and shifted their focus to people who want to read stuff like Jeff Green’s massive interview with Bill Roper, or the people who want to hear about the “guys in a garage” days of game design.

    Hell, I guess I’ve always felt like it was a lack of vision and nerve that guided the American magazine market into decline. Raise subscription prices, increase the text-to-pictures ratio, and focus on something the Internet does badly: depth and quality. I’m still waiting for that magazine, by the way, so if you ever get it going, count me in.

  7. Well, I wrote a whole bunch of stuff that was apparently spam, so I’ll be brief.

    I am really going to miss EGM. No matter what the internet comes up with next, I will always love glossy paper magazines I can carry around the house and to the auto shop waiting room. In my attempts to find an EGM replacement, I have had to settle on OXM because it is not terrible and looks like it might stay in business for a year. Maybe.

    The fact that a niche publication like Hardcore Gamer is/was for sale on ebay just adds to the proof that this business is hard. I hope some sort of solution is realized for us and for the people that were putting out good work before all of this really went downhill.

    The long-form article/quarterly publication idea sounds like a good one to me, but I what do I know?

  8. The saddest part of the Death of Print for me is the loss of any kind of in-depth coverage.

    The intertron-blogosphere is great for breaking news and such, but it’s a mile wide and an inch-deep in terms of features. If the economy does keep heading the way it’s heading and print enterprises keep folding up then hopefully someone online will step up to the plate with a little more meat than what’s currently being offered. This isn’t a game-specific concern, really, but more of a general hope.

    Still, the mediums and experiences of the internet versus magazines are so different that seeing smaller and smaller page-counts and more and more closures really is disheartening.

  9. well if you ever want to get back at England, all you’d have to do is liberate the crows they keep hostage in their tower and then the whole nation would be screwed.

    anyway, I’m not sure if America on the whole is to blame when its apparent an aspect of that cancerous corporate economic culture permiating the game industry overall. How stable can gaming media be when you always have big name game companies breathing down your back with NDAs and one of their execs throwing a childish conniption fit when you give their crummy game a deservedly negative review? Then there’s the backward approach to profiteering where pulling a profit is a matter of surrendering journalistic integrity in agreement that millions in ad $$$ will result in rosy reviews instead of the other way around where subscriptions should be priority and ad $ is more about accessing a large subscriber base that, ideally, came for the honest, knowledgable, and well written content…

    Or you could be like Diehard Gamefan and have some sort of mind control device that creates a small vocal minority of obnoxious zombie slaves that will throw down $$$ and praise for anything you say

    OR you could have a monopolistic racket like Gamestopcorp where they may still force a subscription of that brain dead Game Informer rag on you if you want better trade in values for your old games.

    tl;dr version: subscription $ used to be more important than ad $ many many moon ago, because one used to be informative and useful and the other is full of weak They Live style ‘CONSUME’ editorials.

  10. Parish: Sorry, man. As someone who had been reading gaming mags since 1989 all the way up to Official Xbox Magazine (which I was getting without discs), I still feel a bit burned by the baggies and demo discs and prices that came with them. I had to stop buying at that point because I couldn’t afford a $10+ magazine.

  11. Anyone who thinks the “dead tree thing” is permanently going away is a goddamned moron. Print will *always* be with us – it’s simply changing as technology continues to impact society in transformative ways.

    People liken the relationship between print and the web as being similiar to radio vs. TV, but radio had a brief golden age that lasted less than 50 years, whereas print has been around for thousands of years and it’ll be around after we’re long dead, especiialy if it breeds with technology in weird an interesting ways that we can’t even predict (I’m hoping we’ll start seeing digital/movable print built into analog reading devices before I croak in 50 years. It’ll be nice to read a magazine in the old folks’ home that streams text/images from the web as I read it. And then I will poop my pants a little bit and call a nurse to clean me up.)

  12. I don’t see why a lot of comments here are equating “no more print” with “a loss of in-depth coverage” because that’s, well, not exactly true. True, I’m far more likely to read a longer article if I can hold it in my hands, but there’s no reason you can’t have that on the internet, too. And hey, it’s easier to find in-depth articles I want to read on the internet! That isn’t why I’ll miss print at all.

  13. I’m interested in how one can profiteer ‘backwards’. In fact, I’d say that giving good reviews in exchange for advertising revenue is, in fact, a rather forward approach to profiteering.

    Pedantry aside, I used to be one of those types who would read most (or all) of a gaming magazine in the store. Now I get all my news from the Internet, which, unlike a bookstore, is supposed to be “free”.

  14. Calorie, while it is true that it’s possible to find in-depth coverage, the nature of blogging or publishing on a website strongly discourages lengthy pieces. Maybe you can read a 10,000 word piece on your computer monitor, but it’s very difficult for me to get through one even if I want to. The entire nature of the web conditions us, I think, to skip from place to place.

    The articles and blogs that I’ve written that have had the best response and gotten the most traffic have been less than 2,000 words. Beyond 2000 words, I think it gets really hard to get people to even start reading, much less finish reading.

    All of which means that most people who want to succeed at writing for an Internet audience are going to hold themselves to shorter items, which means you are forced to rely on relatively simple structures for your pieces: straightforward main idea, limited or no preliminary discussion, limited citations, limited number of quotes. Oh, and you probably don’t have a team of editors going over your stuff, which is never good news for quality.

  15. I’m not saying Psyael’s WRONG, but it occured to me that I’m kinda on the opposite end of the spectrum – while he’s thinking they should’ve charged less, I’m thinking maybe they shouldn’t have given me two years of subscriptions for free.

    Not that I’m complaining.

  16. Actually, Psyael’s comments are simply spurious. Expensive polybagged magazines happened in the UK before they hit the U.S., but guess whose publications are still alive and kicking?

  17. Chaos > JSW & Dizzy. Put together.

    I think the thing about the ‘broadsheet’ games magazines in the UK (I’d lump Edge, GamesTM and Retrogamer into that bracket) is that they try first and foremost to be a product in their own right; it’s not unreasonable to want to maintain a library of those, whereas what I consider the ‘tabloid’ magazines are by their very nature disposable; their one selling point is to give you things first, be it news or demos.

    At least, that’s how I feel about it.

  18. Yeah, I too was rather taken by surprise when Continue put GTA on the cover, and if I am not mistaken, their 2005 (possibly 2006) game of the year was GTA: Liberty City Stories. And at that point in time the game still to be released domestically in Japan.

  19. Rob Zacny – All very true, but that’s something we should work on changing. I mean, we complain about not having in-depth stuff, and then turn around and say we won’t read it unless its in print? I agree it’s much more comfortable that way, but it still smacks of “playing to the lowest common denominator” to me.

  20. Matt Clemson: I can see that about Retro Gamer and Edge (and perhaps tellingly, both are boutique publications with tiny circulations — I’ve read Edge sells 40,000 in a good month), but GamesTM seems pretty mundane to me. The only reason I used to read it was the retro section in the back, but once Retro Gamer shaped up there was no reason to keep buying GamesTM.

  21. As long as we can all agree that there’d be no Metroid or Castlevania without games like Imogen and Castle Quest for the BBC Micro.

  22. Oh, come on, let’s not fall into the delusional trap of assuming that the concepts behind all groundbreaking Japanese games were stole from software that never made it outside of the UK. I know UK gaming pubs like to think that the country’s homegrown companies were the Xerox PARC to Shigeru Miyamoto’s Steve Jobs, but…I’m pretty sure that’s not really true.

  23. Parish: love the site, love the podcast (Retronauts helps keep me sane during my grueling 3 hour a day commute.)…please keep up the good work.

    In my line of work, I am dealing with people from video game companies everyday. And during the obligatory Japanese after hours drinking sessions with my clients, I always ask them, ‘where do you get your information regarding video games?’ 80% of the time the response is ‘Famitsu.‘ The other 20%? ‘2-channel.’ Ah 2-channel, a most wretched hive of scum and villainy. ‘Nothankyou.jpg’ indeed…

    When asked why they aren’t getting more of their info from online sources, they always say ‘Famitsu is enough,’ or ‘Blogs are untrustworthy.’

    Oh, and whatever happened to the episode of Bonus Stage that you filmed over here back at TGS time?

  24. Nintendo Power has been coming out with a lot of quality interviews and features lately. Surprising considering it’s a Future mag, and that they are catering to the hardcore long after Nintendo itself has stopped doing that, but there it is. I dread the day NP closes — NP was a much bigger part of my childhood than EGM, of which I was only barely aware.

  25. It’s a shame that EGM went down; I read it frequently, if not religiously, over the years. But can I say this? I sort of fell out of reading it a while before; I just wasn’t as into mainstream games as I had been, and therefore it didn’t seem necessary. Then, fairly recently, I was going to buy an issue, only to see a scantily-clad woman from some fighting game on the cover. And I thought: huh. This is pretty gratuitous; I think I can safely infer that it’s NOT trying to appeal to someone of my demographic, and I would be mildly embarrassed to be seen in public with it. So I didn’t buy it. And that was that.

    I wonder if that’s part of the problem: things like that might put off people who are growing older and perhaps a bit more mature (obviously, most issues weren’t that egregious, but the general tone, along with those increasingly painful Seanbaby articles, seemed to be aimed at a younger audience), and the kids today, they’re not buying magazines anyway, probably.

    I would be ALL OVER a Retronauts-type magazine, however.

  26. Can I point out that the UK is just a little bit more than 100 miles from end to end? I mean, I assume Parish was joking, but you never know with these yanks and their explosion-flavoured cheeseburgers. Someone else may have pointed this out but I am too drunk to have noticed. This can also be an excuse if he was being facetious. And also an excuse for me possibly using facetious in the wrong context.

  27. I love the hell out of Retro Gamer, but it’s too expensive and too full of articles about Zed-X Spectrum games I couldn’t give a fuck about for me to spend the money on it regularly. I pine for the day there’s an American equivalent.

    I think I’ll be pining forever.

  28. Well, as long as there’s something on the newsstands to counter the Entertainment Weeklies out there. Have you seen their video game articles? Mostly useless.

  29. I love Retro Gamer. I am a bit of a history geek so I actually like the Spectrum and other UK only game/system articles. I get to learn about machines I never owned and probably never would have. (Seriously. The Spectrum seems to have been the Wii of the UK gaming scene, only without any Wiimote hook. It sold on being a homegrown machine and CHEAP from what I can tell. Its specs make Apple 2s look like gaming powerhouses!)

    I did buy a coffee table styled book about the Spectrum just because its gaming history. It sits with my other gaming books. (On the Edge (Commodore history.), High Score (Coffee Table book with some incorrect information), Pheonix (Vanity press book but very accurate), and a Commodore 64 book by the same publishers and style as the Spectrum one.)

    Sure most of this info is available on the net, but Hardcopy > Digital. ALWAYS.

    The problem is the only place that gets it is Borders. (Which for me is a 30 minute drive.) Who gets it erratically, its 12 bucks, and a subscription from the UK is actually MORE expensive than buying it newstand.

    I do keep every issue I buy, and even have quite a few from their first run.

    Its just such a pain in the butt to get, especially with Borders closing at 9pm now. Driving 30 minutes of mostly highway driving each way for a magazine is kind of a bad use of time and money.

  30. I get Retrogamer, though the occasional issue has me wondering quite why. I just like to have something in print I guess.

  31. Can’t really add much to the specific magazine discussion, but:

    “Continue … has less and less to do with gaming with each passing issue due to Japan’s otaku demographic slowly mutating into lolicon-anime-obsessed psychopaths who only like Monster Hunter. (Or so I hear.)”

    I can’t say much about Akihabara or anything, but whenever I head out to Den Den Town I noticed a definite trend. The most crowded shops cater increasingly to your “lolicon-anime-obsessed psychopaths” and sell, with the exception of a handful of brilliant doujin shooters, no games outside of a tremendous stock of visual novels. Meanwhile, dedicated gaming shops like Super Potato and what-have-you almost go out of their way not to sell anything that crowd might buy. There are stores that ostensibly cater to both, but their game stock tends to be a cursory nod to the absolute newest releases and/or a perpetually-picked-over floor of used titles.

    I have to wonder if the more game-focused contingent didn’t at some point look around, say, “Wait, what? I didn’t ask to be a part of this,” and split. That’s basically what I did, at least.

  32. I just moved to Stockholm from Michigan two weeks ago, and I just picked up a copy of Retro Gamer today form the Press Stop. Despite the high price point (115 Kr ~ $15!) it’s a very visually stunning magazine, and its very well put together (both in its articles and even the glossy magazine paper itself). I guess I’ll have to do with the magazine selection here in Sweden since I don’t have my EGM subscription anymore.

  33. I know it’s been stated a billion times (even here, in this post), but it does seem unrealistic to expect publishers to push print on a target audience that is by definition wired.

    That said, I could see a gaming magazine that’s more like “Harpers” doing alright: fewer graphics and matte printing, really long, in-depth articles about figures in the industry, game development topics, explorations of a retro genre, etc. Now that so many gamers are out of college, I could see people taking this on a train or airplane. I’d subscribe.

    I recognize that EGM et al provided this to some extent, but the magazine felt as leaden with ads and miscellaneous bs that I felt I might as well be clicking through some backwoods website. Give me something streamlined — more like a miniature book — and I’ll pay an extra couple of bucks for it.

  34. It’s all about the ‘games-as-art’ mindset. EGM was a great magazine (most of the time) for taking games and such seriously, while so many other magazines are Wizard-type fanboy publications. So much of that stuff can be found online. When both the mainstream and the industry itself start taking games a little more seriously – like film, etc. (and that WILL happen; it’s just a matter of time) – then publications will lean more towards The Comics Journal-type mags, instead of Wizard-type mags (to continue the comic comparison).

    Serious analytical content – like this site, for instance – is a niche. And most people probably don’t see gaming as something deserving of this type of serious analysis (which is another entire argument there). The niche has to be accepted before the niche can be successful.

  35. Oh man, I would kill for a gaming equivalent of Harper’s (subscriber, here) or The Comics Journal. Funnily enough, Harper’s had a great piece about Billy Mitchell and the competitive retro gaming scene some months ago. If only there was more of that sort of thing in print to begin with, but having an entire magazine’s worth on a regular basis would be fantastic.

  36. Parish makes a good point about finding information online that is duplicated in print. I was going to comment that I have enjoyed everything I’ve read in Game Developer Magazine, even if I am not a dev, but much of their info can be echoed on Next Generation and Gamasutra. Still a solid mag.

    Speaking of Next Gen…. it was the only magazine I subscribed to. When they were at their A game they were exactly what I wanted. In depth interviews with good critical questions, industry wide perspective articles, and short, brief previews/reviews sections that didn’t beat around the bush. They often made some stupid predictions, but they also did a damn good job at guessing how the previous gen would turn out. I was sad to see their last few issues fall so short. They gave Grand Theft Auto 3 a 4/5, but Dead or Alive 3 and that Microsoft NFL game 5/5. Apparently their plan was to make it into Official Xbox Magazine Jr.

    I never did try out EGM, so perhaps it had a Next Gen vibe. If so, I regret my choice. In short, I think Parish has it right – Japan loves the depth of specific communities, and the UK has a very unique era to discuss. In the US it is very much about breadth. People want reviews, previews, tips and tricks, just like they get online. I think a mag aimed towards editorial and retrospective would be received by some, even at a higher price to sustain itself, but it would have to work hard to change the fundamental ideas we have of what a gaming magazine should be in order to convince people that yes, this is okay.

  37. Where can one find copies of Continue magazine for sale? It seems like the regular suspects of Ebay/Amazon are leaving me dry.

  38. Levi beat me to it; I can’t speak for other Future publications, but Nintendo Power has had an impressive track record of late for scooping even the almighty internet for information, screens, and the like.

    Also, Retro Gamer is pretty cool, I wish I could check that out more. Too damn pricey, though, for those import magazines.

  39. I’m glad your covered this Parish. I continually see more and more similarities between Japan and the UK gaming culture. Sure, they’re different cultures, but it’s not like tea and the homegrown doujin/demoscenes keep them that much separate, along with the home publications. Though while I do think geography does have something to do with it, I also think it’s because of the competitive nature of American markets that make such small publications like these prohibitive.

Comments are closed.