The Troubling Decline of PC Gamer Magazine (U.S.)
I have been a consistent reader of the U.S. edition of PC Gamer magazine for nearly ten years. Within that span, I have seen an interesting and valuable magazine degenerate into a mere fragment of its former self. (I mean that last statement to be literal as well as figurative, for the magazine now averages about one third its former page length.) From Dan Bennett to Gary Whitta to Rob Smith to Dan Morris, the editors-in-chief have successively presided over a lesser and lesser magazine with each passing year. The character of PC Gamer has in recent years shifted from a position of sage maturity and critical authority to one of shallow, mass-market pandering.
I realize that those are some pretty bold claims, and I do not intend to leave them unsupported by evidence. There is one central thread that ties all of my criticisms together, and it is this: PC Gamer is steadily abandoning its commitment to quality writing, in an effort to make the magazine appeal to a wider and, shall we say, less patient audience. Unfortunately, quality writing is the one and only thing that can truly set a print gaming magazine -- with its full-time, paid, and experienced editorial team -- apart from its online and offline competition.
The first time I got my hands on a PC Gamer was in April of 1996 (as indicated by the May cover date). I was in an Electronics Boutique store, and -- hold on. It's worth noting that at this time, EB was an idyllic land of milk and honey, in which pixies frolicked gaily in the warm breeze and delivered lollipops to all the folks who had grown tired of foraging upon succulent grasses of purest mint sugar. That ain't hyperbole or rose-colored goggles talking; that's the truth.
So anyway, I was in EB and one of the fairies, err, I mean Frank, the salesperson, was talking to me about the amazing demo for Looking Glass Studios' Terra Nova: Strike Force Centauri. I, too, had played the demo, which I had laboriously downloaded over my 28.8k modem, but I was unsure as to whether the demo was a faithful representation of the full game. Frank noticed that the latest PC Gamer cover touted the Terra Nova review lurking within. He immediately walked to the magazine rack and tore open the cellophane wrapper. He placed the magazine on the counter and flipped to the review: 90%. Editor's Choice. Screenshots of snowcapped mountains in an enormous and fully traversable 3D world. Oh my God. *swoon*
I bought Terra Nova then and there, and as he printed my receipt Frank surreptitiously slipped the PC Gamer in my bag. Shocked by the gift I had received, I looked to Frank with reverence, and he offered a sly wink. At a cover price of $7.99, PC Gamer represented nearly two weeks' worth of allowance money. To a boy just shy of 14 years, EB really was the proverbial land of milk and honey. Some of the best gaming of my life transpired over the days that followed. I was an instant and loyal adherent to all things sold by EB, all things made by Looking Glass Studios... and all things written by the staff of PC Gamer.
Excepting the bit about EB, I have not yet found any reason to doubt those convictions. Lots of people are fond of noting that publications that accept money for advertisements are inherently subject to a conflict of interests whenever they set eyes upon a game. I agree with this. However, I also think that any such general concerns may be overridden if a specific publication's standards of writing are high, and particularly if the publication's claims are corroborated time and again by my own and others' experience. In short, the capacity for conflict of interests does not necessarily equate to a stacked deck. It is fully possible for an honest and talented editorial team to survive off of advertising revenue without letting their sponsors' wishes govern their every written word. And in the case of PC Gamer, I think this is exactly what has transpired throughout its history.
For the sake of clarity, I shall repeat: I do not think PC Gamer magazine in particular is guilty of systematically lying to their readers in order to please their advertisers. I would prefer that anyone who advances such a theory in the comments below present specific evidence for consideration; for that, too, is a bold claim, and it should not be left dangling freely, where any unsuspecting person may become entangled in its dastardly web. Indeed, let us all, at all times, strive to tie down our proclamations with the firm bonds of evidence.
In 1996, the bedrock of PC Gamer was its lengthy, well written, and frequently inspired editorial columns. This, as I've said, is where a print magazine may most distinguish itself from its peers; those rearward (or in some cases, frontward) pages are where much of a magazine's unique character is sequestered.
That very same May 1996 issue of PC Gamer includes an Extended Play column, dealing with expansions, patches, and the like; The Learning Game, focusing on educational software for children and adults alike; Peripheral Visions, on PC peripherals and upgrades; Lupine Online (written by a man named Scott Wolf, naturally), addressing shareware, demos, and the online gaming community; Alternate Lives, on fantasy and role-playing games; The Desktop General, on historic and war games; Tim's Tech Shop, on PC hardware analysis and trends; and the Sim Column, which is appropriately devoted to driving and flying sims. That's eight editorial columns, spanning a total of ten pages (not including ads). Those pages are not laden with pictures or large headlines. Nor are any of the articles less than a full page in length; in fact, two of them are two pages long.
In time, the educational software column was cast aside, much to my consternation. (Trust me, the author, Heidi E.H. Aycock, wrote about some really neat stuff!) The two PC hardware articles were consolidated into a single hardware section; no complaints here. The column on shareware and the online gaming community was absorbed by the column on expansions and patches; again, no complaints. Columns on PC sports games and first-person shooters were added and later excised. But in all, things remained much the same, with one exception: the two-page columns began to disappear.
This brings us right up to the end of 1999, when the hardware editor, Greg Vederman, began an ill-fated, month-to-month experiment entitled "Dear Greg," in which, in addition to addressing the hardware problems of readers, Greg would also provide humorous faux-advice with respect to their personal problems. I was all for the idea of adding humor to the admittedly stoic pages of PC Gamer, but it struck me that dedicating a particular part of the magazine to humor was probably not the best way to go about this task. Apparently the decision had been made to groom Greg -- or to allow him to groom himself -- into the "wacky" editor of the bunch. This noteworthy change in tenor would, in retrospect, serve as a warning of further changes yet to come. From this point on, PC Gamer's commitment to serious examination of issues and sober expression of opinion would begin to wane.
In April of 2000, Rob Smith replaced Gary Whitta as editor-in-chief of PC Gamer. A veteran of the then-recently deceased PC Accelerator (The best gaming mag ever! But that's another article...), I had little reason to expect that under his tenure PC Gamer would decline dramatically in nearly every respect. For one, the magazine began to shrink in size. Whereas it used to average between 250 and 300 pages (and sometimes exceeded 400!), it had by 2001 been reduced to under 150 pages. Reviews for unanticipated or unpopular games were crammed into half a page, or occasionally even less space. For a time, this allowed for more two-, three-, and even four-page reviews of hotly anticipated titles, but as time went on these extravaganzas were limited to only the surest of blockbusters. By 2004, PC Gamer would only rarely break 120 pages. Many of those pages had become filled with ever-larger screenshots and headline fonts, and ever fewer actual words.
Rob began running a monthly "guess the movie quote" contest, which his successor Dan Morris has seen fit to continue. On numerous occasions I have emailed Rob, Dan, and the PC Gamer letters division suggesting that it be changed into a more appropriate "guess the PC-game quote" contest. I have not ever received a response. This is a minor quibble when contrasted with the magazine's drastically reduced page size, but one which, again, is emblematic of the changes designed to make the magazine more appealing to the masses.
The February 2002 issue contained only five of my beloved editorial columns, and four of those were reduced to half a page in length. From this point onward, extremely talented writers such as Andy Mahood, William R. Trotter, and Desslock were almost always confined to a pitifully small strip of text. The era of the full-page columns had passed, and the era of the two-page columns was long forgotten.
In the July 2005 issue, PC Gamer instituted a new policy whereby the opinion columns would appear on a rotating, bi-monthly basis. The old columns section is now restricted to one page per issue. The July and August issues of this year were both 96 pages long.
I intend to maintain my subscription to PC Gamer, if for no other reason than that my collection of back issues serves as a convenient offline record of the history of PC gaming. And it's not as if it's all doom and gloom. PC Gamer still manages to offer more exclusive reviews, hands-on previews, demos, and unveilings than anyone else in the business. However, exclusives by themselves cannot carry the magazine; all must rest on a solid foundation of writing. Fortunately, what sparse writing remains in PC Gamer is well worth reading. The reviews remain on-target (if brief), and the semi-investigative articles in the front Eyewitness section are topical and interesting. The recently revamped Extended Play section keeps a better pulse on the mod scene than anything I've ever encountered, online or off. But while it may be worth reading, I can't honestly say that PC Gamer is worth paying for, except in the case of those few desolate souls like me, who remember the golden years and desperately want them to come back.
Most troubling of all is the vague and peripheral realization that PC Gamer does not exist in a vacuum, and that the sort of changes it has endured over time are mirrored by other unsettling transitions in the culture -- indeed, in the very nature -- of PC gaming. If I'm Jonah, and this is the belly of the whale, then I hope I am soon regurgitated back into the light of day.