ABC: RIP
The lonely death of the videogames magazine.

The videogames magazine industry released its new ABC circulation figures yesterday. Despite being for the traditionally better half of the year (June to December), they showed a continuation of the downward trend of the last generation, with some spectacularly bad results (Xbox Gamer plummeting from 35,000 readers a month to barely 20,000) and some merely disappointing* ones (Official Playstation 2 Magazine failing again to increase its readership despite the PS2 userbase still rocketing up at record speed, leaving the mag with barely 40% of the sales that its PS1 predecessor had at a similar point in that console's lifecycle).

PC games magazines, which should be immune to the volatile cyclical behaviour of the console market and ought to benefit from the ever-growing sales of PC games, also continue to slide, with the likes of PC Gamer and PC Zone having now shed a third of their readerships since their peak in the late 1990s despite the continued growth of PC gaming.

(The number of magazines in the market has shrivelled too, with many traditional games-mag publishers having abandoned the sector in recent years, leaving one company - the Bath-based Future Network - with an effective monopoly.)

Observers have reacted largely without any surprise to this trend, attributing it (depending on their viewpoint) either to the vast availability of online coverage of videogames**, or to the largely atrocious quality of the magazines themselves, which are produced on ever-decreasing editorial budgets by teams stretched to breaking point at the hands of a bloated layer of penny-pinching middle management which also exerts ever-heavier pressure on editorial teams not to do anything which might upset advertisers. (A combination of these factors led almost the entire editorial team of Edge magazine - the last even vaguely intelligent, content-led publication covering the console sector - to resign their posts en masse towards the end of 2003.)

Many of those same observers, however, openly wonder why the many skilled and dedicated games magazine staff (in whose number they often generously include your reporter) discarded by the mag publishers over the years in favour of cheap and enthusiastic school-leavers, haven't got together to do something about this apparent gap in the market. After all, the industry constantly tells us that the average age of gamers is increasing, and now stands somewhere around 29 years old, a demographic which is clearly unlikely to be satisfied with the sub-teenage tone and content of almost all games mags. Surely there's a market out there just dying for an intelligent, conscientious, well-written and funny magazine about videogames? If none of the existing publishers want to produce it, why don't we do it, if we're so smart?

The answer is, because the magazine market reflects the games industry as a whole in at least one regard - the people with money have stitched it up so tightly, for their own benefit***, that there's essentially no possibility of anyone who doesn't already have a fortune being able to get into the market and compete. This correspondent, and most of the other disgruntled and competent writers who are out there, came to realise this fact a few years ago, hence nobody's bothering to try to launch a good games mag. Realise what, exactly? Chiefly, these things:


- Existing publishers (not just in games, but games mags and especially Future actually led the way in this) have ensured that consumers now expect magazines to come loaded with stuff attached to the front cover every month.
You may as well forget launching a mag without a cover DVD, or some glossy tips guide or whatever sellotaped to the front, all of which hikes your start-up costs out of the reach of any reasonable group of individuals.

- The widespread and increasing practice of games retailers offering no-quibble refunds if consumers don't like the game they've just bought, has struck a huge blow to games mags' original raison d'etre - to advise consumers whether particular titles were worth spending their money on or not. Why listen to the opinion of some incompetent, semi-literate chump who might not like the same kind of games you like - and who isn't allowed to criticise big games publishers anyway - when you can try the whole game out yourself for 10 days, form your own opinion and still get your money back if it's no good? (Or if you've finished it...)

- Games magazines have inexplicably failed to notice either the above fact, or the seemingly-obvious one that the internet is far better at providing news and previews than a paper-based publication with month-long lead times could ever possibly be. Yet they persist in sticking to an outdated, outmoded content model of "news-previews-reviews", when those are exactly the three aspects of print games magazines that have been fatally undermined in the last five years or so. In the 21st Century, people buy magazines chiefly not for information but for entertainment, yet games mags persist in trying to sell (obsolete) information, because it's a lot easier to get some naive games-loving kid to copy down press releases than it is to employ an experienced and talented writer to produce original and entertaining copy.

- As a result of the above, features - the core content of any grown-up magazine - have been almost totally discarded by games mags. You'll struggle to find anything which could be legitimately described as a "feature" in any games magazine. Those which pay even lip-service to the concept more often than not bastardise the term to mean "extended PR preview, obtained from a managed and supervised visit to a developer". (Often, mags will even print a "feature" which is in fact a couple of pages of pre-prepared questions-and-answers from the developer, sent out by a PR firm to every games mag, who all then pretend to have interviewed the developer themselves.)

- Experienced and talented writers are so disillusioned at the direction of the games mag industry, and their treatment at its hands, that they're unwilling to subject themselves to any more of the same. And since launching a games magazine is now far too expensive a proposition for individuals, they have no interest in putting time, effort and emotional investment into designing and producing one for the benefit of some new publisher (even if that notional publisher were to exist in the first place) who would inevitably end up doing all the same things as the others - for such is the immutable nature of business in capitalist society.

- Meanwhile, there's a limitless supply of new blood for mag publishers to exploit, in the form of naive kids who can think of nothing more exciting than "playing games all day for money". The honeymoon period for a new games-mag staff writer - playing games; going on lavish PR trips to the USA or Japan; meeting, interviewing and getting drunk with long-admired game authors - usually lasts a good couple of years, before the unfortunate novice gets completely burned out (a typical junior games writer will be expected to typically put in at least a 60-hour week, rising to 80-90 hours in deadline week, for an average salary of 9,000 - 11,000 with no overtime) and/or notices how poorly they're being paid/treated. By which time, of course, there are plenty of potential new recruits knocking on the door, so the publishers can continue the circle of exploitation. Any halfway-competent writer with a modicum of sense will either get out to become a freelance (and ideally one not writing about videogames at all), get a job in PR, or simply run away screaming and live in a cave for the rest of their life.
 

A lot to overcome, there. But beyond all of the above, finally - fatally - you've got videogame consumers themselves, who show no desire (at least, none that they're prepared to back with their wallets) for a better quality of games magazine. Like the music and movie industries, the games business has pursued a policy of infantilisation, driving their product ever more towards the less-discerning and more hype-malleable juvenile market, which is also by nature highly conservative (and hence more predictable and more attractive to business). Games magazines with even a sliver of adult-focused content simply don't sell any more.

The mature and intelligent, yet accessible and mainstream-aimed Arcade did pitifully (though in fairness it was dumbed down grotesquely by its publishers before it had any real chance to build an audience), and even with the benefit of high production values and 11 years of publication in which to create a loyal readerbase, Edge remains consistently anchored at the bottom of the circulation charts. Any magazine, in fact, which dares to stick its head above the parapet and deviate in even the slightest way from the crushing blandness pioneered by the original Official Playstation Magazine (which by sheer economic force became the model for all games mags which followed it) is punished savagely for it. The consumers who would support magazines like Amiga Power, which was prepared to bite the bullet and sacrifice "exclusives" for editorial integrity, seem to have given up in dismay and left at the end of the 16-bit era.

The depressing conclusion, then, is that if you're waiting for a funny, intelligent, honest videogames magazine to carry on the legacy of Crash, The Games Machine, Zero, Arcade or even Official Dreamcast Magazine, you probably ought to stop holding your breath, before you do yourself an injury. Much like the games industry itself, the magazine industry is locked in the iron grip of a tiny number of people for whom the status quo works out very nicely, thanks.

Mags now have a symbiotic relationship with the games industry - magazine hype helps sell games, exclusive previews and demos of games help sell mags. The interests of the consumers have long since been abandoned, and the consumers have understandably reacted by buying fewer and fewer games magazines - but, crucially, still enough to turn a profit, if those magazines are produced cheaply and cynically enough, and sold expensively enough. Those in charge of publishing them know this full well, and will have feathered their own nests comfortably by squeezing out every last penny of profit by the time print games magazines finally die, of abuse and neglect, altogether. If you want a picture of the future of games mags, think of a jackboot stamping on Duke Nukem Forever.
 


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* Using "disappointing" from the publisher's perspective, there, of course.

** This is nonsense, though, as most strikingly demonstrated by the spectacular failure of the print mags' attempts to corner the market in online games coverage. Despite investing dizzying sums of money in online ventures like Future Gamer and Daily Radar, and having the enormous advantage of the vast resource infrastructure of their print-publishing arms to draw on, the ventures were all disasters and all the games-mag publishers now maintain only token web presences, usually consisting of nothing more than "trailers" for their print mags. The only logical conclusion that can be drawn from this is that consumers want fundamentally different things from online and print games coverage, yet the publishers stubbornly persist in producing magazines which are essentially mediocre out-of-date websites on paper.

*** For example: a couple of years ago, when bad management got the Future Network into dire financial straits, they got themselves out of it by sacking over 50% of the company's staff of around 2,000 to cut costs. The following year, chief executive Greg Ingham - who had, of course, as CEO been ultimately responsible for much of the bad management in the first place - rewarded himself for this shrewd bit of business genius by tactfully taking a 100% pay rise, bringing his salary that year up to 500,000 (a sum which was equal to almost half of the newly-viable company's profits).

 


 

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