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Opinion: Print Game Media - [Still] Not Dead, [Maybe] Getting Better

Following last week's closure of EGM Magazine, one of North America's most prominent game magazines, game mag veteran Kevin Gifford explains what he thinks the future of the print m
[Following last week's closure of EGM Magazine, one of North America's most prominent game magazines, sister site GameSetWatch's print mag columnist and game magazine veteran Kevin Gifford follows up his initial report by discussing the state of print in North America.] As you've likely noted, the past few days have been dominated by news about the game media, mostly bad. Ziff Davis Media's game division is no more; now it's UGO's recently-downsized San Francisco office. Game forum honks don't like it -- though there's not much they really like about professional game media, when you get down to it -- and nostalgia for 1UP podcasts is spreading like a storm across the Internet. The final issue of EGM is being published online piece by piece, reportedly, including the massive boffo 20th-anniversary retrospective I wrote for it. Meanwhile, Hardcore Gamer magazine is trying to sell itself on eBay. No takers yet for the $42k minimum bid, despite promises of "hav[ing] your editors invited to press junkets in Japan, the UK and all across the US". Couldn't guess why. So, nothing but terrible news for print media worldwide in '09, huh? Ziff goes from six game mags to zero in the space of a few years; Game Informer barely manages 90 pages in its latest issue; GamePro's circulation drops to over half of what it was during the early 2000s; freelance budgets are down everywhere. The worst part of it all: on all the blog posts about EGM's closing, the prevailing response was either "Good riddance" or "What am I going to read on the toilet now?!", which suggests to me that constipation must be epidemic among console owners. But, hang on -- Future Publishing, now undeniably the torchbearer for print game media worldwide, had a pretty good 2008 overall, with growth particularly pointed over at Nintendo Power and PlayStation: The Official [US] Magazine. What gives? In the MCV interview linked to above, CEO Stevie Spring sees it as a simple reflection of the burgeoning console game scene, seemingly oblivious to the fact that her company is the sole exception in a year full of bad news for print game media. (The fact that Spring calls Nintendo Power "Official Nintendo Magazine" in the interview indicates that she may be a bit hands-off with the U.S. side of the business.) There has to be more to it than "the strength of the console video games sector," as MCV suggests -- otherwise, EGM would have been viable, for one. But what's Future's secret? If you asked me, it's twofold: Future knows how to keep its costs deadly-low on the print business, and they're still satisfied with making a little profit instead of a ton of profit. That, coincidentally, is likely what keeps mags like Play alive, too. Play is not a name on tips of gamers' tongues. Very few people profess to reading it at all. But they're still around -- because they have a dedicated, rock-solid, and above all predictable audience. To me, EGM's folding doesn't prove that print magazines are dead. Instead, it proves that the era of media we've enjoyed up to now -- one where magazines sold deep-discount subs and expected to rake in the dough on advertising -- is gone, and a new one is about to take its place. What is that new era? I talked a bit about my idea for Your Game Mag of the Future nearly two years ago, and I don't think that idea's changed much since. If advertisers cannot be relied upon as a primary revenue stream anymore, it follows that the readers have to take up the slack -- which suggests a highly polished, highly collectible, probably expensive publication is the way to go. With some of its more recent specials (such as Guitars and Gaming), Future US has been getting pretty close to this idea. Future UK's plunged all the way in with its CVG Presents line, about the closest thing in reality to my two-year-old concept (except for that strategy guide roundup issue -- lordy). It doesn't take a psychic to see that the print mags that survive will go more and more in this direction -- a path EGM itself was taking under EIC James Mielke, although the magazine was already in too harsh an environment to survive for long by the time he took over. Is this future for print mags very attention-grabbing? Fabulously profitable? Is it something that the vast majority of gamers will even care about? No. But, at least, it would exist and remain exciting for the dedicated group of gamers who would follow it. [Kevin Gifford runs Magweasel, a site for collectors and fans of old video-game and computer magazines. In his spare time he does writing and translation for lots and lots of publishers and game companies.]

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