The Year in Print

2009 will forever be known to me as “The Year that My Childhood Died.”

This is not because of some unsuccessful remake of a cherished childhood series or because of the staggering loss of celebrity life during the preceding 365 days. Not even the gradual, slinking spread of white strands among the brunette tones of my facial hair was cause enough to abandon the graces of my youth. No, the culprit was “the times,” and its crime was proving that the media of today and yesteryear must unavoidably walk down a trail of tears towards irrelevance.

I’m no stranger to the upward climb of life. I’ve discarded many a portable radio, cassette-based Walkman and portable CD player in my time. Along with them have gone numerous plastic-shelled consoles and dozens of cold PC components. But while these items may have been lost to me, I still felt that they retained a kind of silent relevance to life. They were breadcrumbs on a cultural landscape that was rich with relics and stories. Though tossed aside, these little gems held meaning.

2009 changed that. (On my birthday, no less). In January, at the start of what should have been a promising year, I heard about the death of Electronic Gaming Monthly.

The news was oddly shocking and completely unexpected. While conventional wisdom told everyone who would listen that the print model of gaming news was unsustainable, altogether archaic, and destined for a quiet, suffocated death, it seemed to me that certain brands were just too big to forget. EGM was surely one of those brands.

For most of my life, the magazine and its editors were my gatekeepers to the New. They were at the forefront of a vast network of publishers, writers, editors – all gamers – who sought to spread information about their hobby across the reaches of print media. Magazines like EGM formed a necessary ritual for my pre-internet self. I would scour my magazines, rereading articles, reviews and ads, leaving them drained of information just at the time when the next fix would drop into newsstands. On long trips, I could always be seen with dog-eared copies of my gamer magazines. The personalities that voiced approval, criticism or scorn would later help me take a critical eye to my entertainment experiences.

But just like that, it felt as if an integral part of my history was deemed inconsequential. There would be no future for EGM, no importance placed on the journalistic identity it had built for itself, no need for the brand at all.

In a sad kind of way, the judgment was correct. When I asked my peers if they had heard about the shuttering, most of them were surprised to hear that the magazine was still being published. When I asked my students, many of whom could be seen carrying around battered PSPs, if they had read the magazine, I was hard pressed to find one who even knew what I was talking about. If teenagers weren’t interested in the magazine, then who was?

Even I, who praised the medium and collected their works, hadn’t actually paid for a magazine subscription in many, many years. Thanks to the wonders of internet promotions, I was able to read Computer Gaming World, Games for Windows and EGM on a semi-dependable basis without having to shell out the cash for a subscription. It wasn’t that I devalued the magazine experience, it was that my relationship to the delivery system had changed.

Shoved unceremoniously in the corner of a closet, broken up among 4 cardboard pyxes, a glossy catalog of gamerdom lay dusty and dormant. This chaotic collection of Nintendo Power, Game Pro, Game Players, Sega VISIONS and other minor paperback players served as my window to the past. This was hardly fitting for the tomes that had illuminated my adolescent years. But their modern contemporaries weren’t faring any better. A small pile of EGMs and GFWs were stacked on my living room end-table. Skimmed once or twice, they remained as reading material for when the internet went out, or for guests to peruse. With the wonders of internet forums, fan sites and continuous RSS-liveblog feeds of industry news, there just wasn’t a good way for a printed magazine to provide tantalizing game coverage.

I spent most of the year in a pissy fugue, lamenting the loss of a format that could, at the very least, provide informative looks into the culture and habits of gamers. (If magazines couldn’t compete with the constant flood of e-news, they could certainly excel in the realm of features and opinion pieces). Moreso, I saw the closing as a further restriction on the ability of young gamers to dream about the industry. The amount of encouragement or inspiration someone can gain from watching a person passionately discuss their hobby is incalculable to the young mind. At the very least “writing about games” provided an aspiration, a hope to enter an industry whose barriers to entry were myriad and labyrinthine. The wonderful little stories these magazine entities represented were just a bit tarnished after the perceived fall of print.

But like all things, at the end of this trip around the celestial firmament, I turn once again to optimism. If the year started out with a shot to the chin, why, I’ve found a reason to poke my head out for another round or two.

It seems that print isn’t quite dead. Not yet, at least.

EGM’s founder, Steve Harris, reacquired the rights to the magazine at about mid-year. Just recently, former EGM writer/editor Dan “Shoe” Hsu revealed that he would return to the magazine . In other words, EGM is being handled by long-time contributors and supporters of the brand. That alone would be enough to improve the perception of games print media in 2010, but there’s more.

John Davison, formerly of What They Play has been tapped to enact an aggressive relaunch of the GamePro brand. Though long in the tooth, the GamePro brand never really carried the same weight as EGM did for me. The legacy of the writer avatars – whimsical nom de plumes like “Scary Larry”, “Lawrence of Arcadia”, and “Abby Normal” – made it so that GamePro seemed to be primarily a whacky review venue aimed at the younger sect. Davison’s shown a keen eye for tapping underutilized gaming niches, so his involvement with the magazine is bringing new relevance to the name.

Even healthy magazines are getting into the experimental mood. GameInformer, considered to be the most stable of today’s print offerings, recently implemented design changes which have modestly altered the magazine’s presentation and content. Writer bios and identities have been pushed to the wayside. Sections have been modified to rotate content to keep things fresh. Cover art wraps-around to the book’s back, and is placed at the forefront thanks to a minimal aesthetic. Epic images, not blurbs about exclusives or massive reviews, seem to be what GI is promoting. Their cover philosophy presents the magazine as an artpiece, something to be admired and talked about. It's a welcome change from the idea that the front page is there only to entice and tantalize though a deluge of blurbs and snippets.

I don’t know how it worked out this way, but 2010 is bringing us the rebirth of two of games media’s oldest names. There’s a lot of bright-eyed goodwill being doused upon both camps, but I’m not sure that either will find that magic formula that will keep it resonating with big audiences. Can GamePro survive when the buzzword of the day is “casual gamer”? Can EGM recapture some of the editorial magic that made CGW and GFW such solid reads? Or is this really the last hurrah for the names that I’ve grown up with?

Whatever the case, it looks like 2010 will contribute a number of great stories to my cultural cobblestone. If one of them happens to be a variation on “the death of print (for real this time!)”, then I think I’ve made my peace with it. Or, at least, I’ve made my peace with the idea that my preferred cultural signposts may fall to the wayside. The old guard had a great run, introduced me to wonderfully talented people, and even garnered minor controversy along the way. If the magazines of yesterday can inspire new growth, then I think they’ve accomplished something noble.

If there’s one good thing that I’ve taken away from 2009, it’s that change isn’t always welcome or easy, but it sure can be exciting.

Comments

Why no love for Edge? Edge is just about everything I could want in a gaming mag: preview/reviews, opinions, features, all the things that make a gaming mag and a respectable mag. That magazine and I think PC Gamer UK are still very well, health and content-wise, though—and I'm no expert on print media—I think that's partly due to the lower cost of distribution in a small area like Britain, and that they need print media to wrap their battered fish.

The closing of EGM hit me more than I thought it would, and I dutifully rushed out to buy the last issue, even though, like the OP, I hadn't paid for a copy or even read it since pre-Internet high school days—when EGM still had an arcade section, and there was EGM2!

EGM was my rock in high school, after I graduated from Nintendo Power and before the more adult Edge (née Next Gen) appeared. Like I said, I haven't read them since then and even though I happily gorge myself on the RSS firehose now, I'm looking forward to EGM's return (and now been buying the occasional Edge, which are still as fine looking as ever).

Oddly, I missed the gaming magazine thing.

I never subscribed or read a single issue of any of them. But I've been harvesting video game feeds for the last year or so like a WoW fiend collects bear hides. And now, I'm kind of tired of it. Too much uncurated news! Too many info-bits about processor politics and celebrity gamers ("Do you know who else plays Wow?!), etc, etc. Oddly, my over-harvesting of Internet gaming news (which is often littered with talk about EGM) had gotten me craving...gaming magazines. Glossy, intelligent, curated things with a mature, thoughtful focus (kind of like this site, to which I'm a recent subscriber), an eye toward useful and gorgeous visual design, and a finite number of pages each month. I'm glad that there is some stirring on this front. I've heard Jon Davison talking about some of his ideas for the new GamePro, and they sound like the kind of ideas I want in a gaming magazine.

And there is the coming first issue of Kill Screen, which I can't wait to see.

Wha? I had no idea EGM was coming back - and yet, there it is.

I learned most of what I know about EGM's demise from Robert Ashley's astounding good podcast on the subject. I have a sense that EGM and its ilk failed not because the fundamental notion of "a print magazine about games" had become impossible, but because these magazines were always built on shaky economic foundations that the internet had no trouble demolishing. A market still exists, to be sure, but there was just no molding the remnants of the old ways into something that could continue to function.

I suppose rebirth is the logical conclusion. Welcome back, EGM, and best of luck. You'll need it.

jbz wrote:

I never subscribed or read a single issue of any of them. But I've been harvesting video game feeds for the last year or so like a WoW fiend collects bear hides. And now, I'm kind of tired of it. Too much uncurated news!

I'm in a similar position with not only gaming news but all news. I'm getting tired of the constant stream of amateur and semi-professional news. Unfortunately, with every property hitting hard with its blogs, its feeds, and its quick looks, I think it's going to be awhile before news media calms down and goes back to being more polished and professional.

Gravey wrote:

Why no love for Edge? Edge is just about everything I could want in a gaming mag: preview/reviews, opinions, features, all the things that make a gaming mag and a respectable mag. That magazine and I think PC Gamer UK are still very well, health and content-wise, though—and I'm no expert on print media—I think that's partly due to the lower cost of distribution in a small area like Britain, and that they need print media to wrap their battered fish.

Yep, PC Gamer UK seems to be going fine, as is PC Zone, PC Format (although that's getting thinner and thinner and more focused on the tech side of things), there's also a relatively new one (Total PC Gaming) that seems to be doing ok. And EDGE and GAMES(tm) are two good multiformat mags. There's a good few system-specific mags as well (2 or 3 per system, including the 'official' ones).

I believe Rabbit mentioned in a thread a while back that the big difference was the way in which the Mags get their money (in the UK it's really all about subscriptions rather than relying on Ad revenue). And like you say, there's a lot less physical area to cover.

As I hear it, Its all rabbit's fault.

If he wrote for it, it was destined for a shuttering of the doors.

I also recently heard Jeff Green (I think it was Jeff Green--on a sidenote, how strange is it that so many gamer journalists have a kind of celebrity among gamers) talking about how he would do a magazine in this climate, and it was similar to the model that Edge has: high quality paper, good visual design, high quality content, but sold at a premium cost (think $80-100 per year) that covers most of the basic cost of producing the magazine. At that point, advertising revenue is just profit, but not a requirement for survival.

Seems like a good idea. If you give me high quality content, well-curated, I'll delete the "video games" folder of my Google Reader and pony up. Not sure if enough people agree with me, though, to keep such a venture alive.

adam.greenbrier wrote:
jbz wrote:

I never subscribed or read a single issue of any of them. But I've been harvesting video game feeds for the last year or so like a WoW fiend collects bear hides. And now, I'm kind of tired of it. Too much uncurated news!

I'm in a similar position with not only gaming news but all news. I'm getting tired of the constant stream of amateur and semi-professional news. Unfortunately, with every property hitting hard with its blogs, its feeds, and its quick looks, I think it's going to be awhile before news media calms down and goes back to being more polished and professional.

You two need to find better sources. Sure, games writing can be mostly useless if you're following news/previews/reviews (and maybe the odd retrospective) feeds, but you're not going to get great coverage of much by watching the evening news, either. Find experts you value the opinions of.

If any of the reborn US games magazines can manage to consistently bring me intelligent and informed perspectives with a minimum of "reporting" fluff, I'll consider subscribing.

I wholeheartedly agree with Jeff Green - the only viable print model left is the premium one. I pay through the nose for my Edge subscription, but that's because it's shiny and makes me feel superior.

The fact is that most of what's in Edge is old news to me, being that I'm reading blogs and GWJ on a daily basis.

You two need to find better sources.

Sure, sure, blame the addict...

I realize I have a RSS problem. Maybe a good gaming magazine can save me, just like smoking light cigarettes gets me one step closer to quitting...

jbz wrote:
You two need to find better sources.

Sure, sure, blame the addict...

I realize I have a RSS problem. Maybe a good gaming magazine can save me, just like smoking light cigarettes gets me one step closer to quitting...

I have over 700 feeds in my Reader, in part because I'm always adding more. I don't know how many are inactive. Almost 300 are in the folder I make sure to read, but there are over 200 more in a "probation" folder, either waiting for me to decide on them or stuck in limbo because every once and a while the Australian Kotaku feed has something good.

If you're looking for suggestions, we can certainly talk. I should note that there are a number of sites that do good link-dump posts as well.

Yeah, Green's magazine would have to place a premium on investigative/original journalism, maybe with guest editors of note, and include lots of strong articles that bring in the culture & arts intersection of gaming.

Well, Green's magazine is a figment of his imagination, but Jon Davison said that the next issue of the rebranded GamePro will include an article by Robert Ashley related to his cos-play episode of A Life Well Wasted. Ashley's work on that podcast seems to be right up the alley of the kind of more thoughtful human-focused journalism I'm looking for. If you haven't heard it, you should seek it out. I think there are only 5 episodes, but every one has high production values and a really thoughtful, interesting perspective.

I have over 700 feeds in my Reader, in part because I'm always adding more. I don't know how many are inactive. Almost 300 are in the folder I make sure to read,

E-gads, man, how do you manage? I'm complaining about RSS overload, and I've got only 15-20 feeds loaded in my reader. Fortunately, the really good ones tend to post just a few times a week. I want better, rather than more.

Has anyone subscribed to Kill Screen?

jbz wrote:

E-gads, man, how do you manage? I'm complaining about RSS overload, and I've got only 15-20 feeds loaded in my reader. Fortunately, the really good ones tend to post just a few times a week. I want better, rather than more.

The ones I really like average about one post per week. I have as many feeds as I do because I write a weekly link-dump myself.

Yeah, Green's magazine would have to place a premium on investigative/original journalism, maybe with guest editors of note, and include lots of strong articles that bring in the culture & arts intersection of gaming.

Just another "SNEAK PEEK AT GOW3 DEMO SCREENS" wouldn't earn my cash.

//Sorry, I meant "A magazine in the vein of Green's vision"
I wouldn't pay $100 for Nintendo Power. Nor would I spring for something that's just an industry trade mag.

Maybe for Ultra Game Players. That'd be $100 well spent towards reliving my childhood.

Has anyone subscribed to Kill Screen?

I mentioned it in my first post. I contributed to their Kickstarter campaign for seed money, and I'm just drooling to get my hands on the first issue. Hasn't shipped yet (as far as I know). But they've got a lot of smart people with good ideas and a good approach. My expectations and hopes are high.

But I'm only on the hook for the first issue.

jbz wrote:
Has anyone subscribed to Kill Screen?

I mentioned it in my first post. I contributed to their Kickstarter campaign for seed money, and I'm just drooling to get my hands on the first issue. Hasn't shipped yet (as far as I know). But they've got a lot of smart people with good ideas and a good approach. My expectations and hopes are high.

But I'm only on the hook for the first issue.

It's been so long since they starting busking, I don't remember if I paid in or not. :\

This whole discussion has been a nearly monthly part of my life for three years, since I've written for CGM, GFW, EGM and Massive, all of which got bit in the purge.

The UK models work because the distro costs are nil (small country) and the culture is one used to paying book-like prices at the news-stand with much, much less advertising. Edge doesn't get the love because it's hugely expensive if your in the US, and we're all (myself included) addicted to our 12 dollar annual rolling stone subscriptions.

It's not that people have no taste -- there's a tremendous amount of great writing out there, and contrary to popular opinion, most editors really appreciate good writing, and DO pay for it. The problem is that the US mass market magazine model is broken. I've been inside a few mag projects that never got off the ground and the model is really hard to fix. I hope against hope that someone DOES get it right.

FWIW, I'm in the next two issues of GamePro as well, since John took over. He immediately reached out to a crew of us.

rabbit wrote:

FWIW, I'm in the next two issues of GamePro as well, since John took over. He immediately reached out to a crew of us.

Is the Jon Davison stamp on GamePro now? I'll pick up the next two issues (yeah, I'm a Rabbit fan), but if it's already been Davison'ed I'll get the current one too.

Between that, Kill Screen, and the necro'ing of EGM, since the death of EGM print mags are suddenly on my radar again. Part of that is nostalgia—flipping through that last issue of EGM took me back—but seeing them adapt and improve, and stake out their own territory since the blogs colonized their niche, has got me as excited as the OP. Which is something I had meant to say in my first comment.

rabbit wrote:

It's not that people have no taste -- there's a tremendous amount of great writing out there, and contrary to popular opinion, most editors really appreciate good writing, and DO pay for it. The problem is that the US mass market magazine model is broken. I've been inside a few mag projects that never got off the ground and the model is really hard to fix. I hope against hope that someone DOES get it right.

I keep thinking that eventually readers will realize that they have to pay for quality journalism. Unfortunately, print magazines are losing out to websites because websites are a.) instant, and b.) free; however, websites are buying into the same model of being entirely dependent on advertising, only moreso.

Facts are easy. Analysis is hard.

I don't really care about the facts. I want to read people who have thought long and hard about those facts, and are able to think critically about them and come up with something interesting to say.

I buy Edge every month on the newsstand. I love going to Borders and seeing if theres a new issue, then coming home and digging into it. I sent my $20 to Killscreen, and I'll be on the lookout for the new EGM and Game Pro. Count me in for a pricey subscription for any new venture, at least for the first year.

rabbit wrote:

Edge doesn't get the love because it's hugely expensive if your in the US, and we're all (myself included) addicted to our 12 dollar annual rolling stone subscriptions.

I would settle for some middle ground between $12 and $70-100.

I subscribe to Edge, and I would add one of the UK PC gaming mags (I've liked Total PC Gaming, haven't been able to check out PC Gamer UK), as well as some music magazines (particularly The WIRE) if I wouldn't go broke doing it.

John, as far as I can tell, pretty much WROTE the December issue that's on newstands still, and my sense is he probably did it under the gun. The January issue was a "normal" editorial experience, where people made pitches, they assigned stuff, etc. etc. So I think Jan/Feb is when things really change. I'll likely be taking the March issue off (I can't get a story done by Jan 15th for them with all the other crap going on in my life), but am hoping to do a pretty big story for them for April. Move all that ahead a month for street dates.

I'm gonna come at this from a different angle. I am a magazine reader from way back, although I was stuck in the gutter with PCGamer for a long time. The Vede fixed that problem for me. But since I was 4 I have been a huge talk radio nut, ODing on WGN 720 here in Chicago until Spike and the Girlfriends left/were booted last year (if you're local, you know what I'm talking about [or you're dead to me]). When I found podcasts I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. Now I eagerly await my Drunken Gamers Radio, my GWJ Radio, my TWiT... These are my subscriptions now.

I mailed Fletch about this a long time back: Where is my audio version of The Escapist? Where is my NPR of gaming? Read me a freakin' long-form article, charge me for it, or put in honkin' big audio adds. Let's get this done people.

Wanderer, have you checked out A Life Well Wasted?

It's "This American Life" for nerds, essentially. Sounds like it would fit your itch.

rabbit wrote:

FWIW, I'm in the next two issues of GamePro as well, since John took over. He immediately reached out to a crew of us.

Oh, great. Just when I had hope for the survival of a gaming mag, you have to go and write for it! Weren't the others enough for you? How many more dead gaming magazines is it going to take, Mr. Murdoch? How many?

Hans

rabbit wrote:

John, as far as I can tell, pretty much WROTE the December issue that's on newstands still, and my sense is he probably did it under the gun. The January issue was a "normal" editorial experience, where people made pitches, they assigned stuff, etc. etc. So I think Jan/Feb is when things really change. I'll likely be taking the March issue off (I can't get a story done by Jan 15th for them with all the other crap going on in my life), but am hoping to do a pretty big story for them for April. Move all that ahead a month for street dates.

Thanks for the info. Looks like my 2010 resolution will be to read more gaming mags. And to spell John Davison's name correctly.

Interesting article, Alex. I've been reading computer and gaming magazines since about 1979 or so. The only one that really got to me when it was canceled was Computer Gaming World/CGW. In it's heyday, it was an amazing magazine. PC Gamer is decent, but even it is just a shadow of what it once was. Magazines like EGM just never really worked well for me. I can read essentially what they published at a wide variety of websites.

I think the only really good general writing about games in magazines these days is Play magazine. Their opinions aren't always mainstream, but they write real articles, not just blurbs that might as well be ads. If they rave about a game, it is because they feel it should be championed - not because it will sell more copies if they put Halo or World of Warcraft on the cover. Any magazine that can devote 10 pages or more to a history of Megaman games is worth reading. I do wish they would give more coverage to PC games, though. They actually care about games (and anime). Rather than a quote or two from a single producer or PR person at a company, they actually print real interviews with designers, producers, artists, etc. There is pretty much always at least one multi-page article about something they are really looking forward to. Sure, they cover Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and Madden 2xxx, but they seem much more interested in talking about something like Okami or Odin Sphere before anyone else pays any attention to them. Their website isn't as good as the magazine, though.

On the Internet, I enjoy the articles here and at The Escapist the most. Again, I want real writing, not just a couple of paragraphs talking about the latest hot game that almost reads more like a glorified press release about the game with a few opinions thrown in. I can read that kind of thing pretty much anywhere. I enjoy keeping up to day on current news. Sites like Joystiq and Kotaku are useful for that. And metacritic.com gives a much better sense of how good a game is based on the consensus reviews than most magazines and websites do.

I subbed to Edge for a year, which ended a few months ago and it cost around $75. It was about $9 a month at news stands, which I did for a few months before that. I couldn't stand their review / previews but their features were quite good. Since the rebranding of their online site much of this content is online. I decided I could just subscribe to the RSS for features, and I get most of the articles I liked.

I'll throw another suggestion for Gamasutra and The Escapist. I'd say the quality is often at the level of Edge, although all three can vary significantly in quality.

We are pretty lucky here in SA. We have one really good gaming magazine that has a strong feature and opinion focus.

It's called Nag, started out as an unfortunate acronym for New Age Gaming, more than 10 years ago. There is a tendency towards enthusiasm in the writing, but I know quite a few of the writers and the enthusiasm is genuine.

I don't think anyone is getting rich, but the company has branched out into a few other magazines as well, and they host the only annual gaming expo in the country.

Now that you mention The Escapist, I also subscribe to that on my Kindle.

Anyone have any thoughts on how e-books and tablets might change the landscape for magazines here in the states? I'd subscribe to almost any video game related content on my Kindle. The distribution costs are fairly low, I'd imagine, even with Amazon taking their cut. As the screens get better, they can even show off the artwork better, as well.