Friday, July 08, 2005

Gaming Journalism: In Print

I’ve been wondering for a while now if gaming print journalism still makes a significant contribution. Back in the dark ages of 1990 or so, I couldn’t wait each month for the new issue of Computer Gaming World. It was full of information I couldn’t get anywhere else.

Today, there are hundreds (if not thousands) of sites that offer previews and reviews of games. As more sources review games, the importance of any one source has decreased. No website or magazine is an “authority” anymore.

So what unique value do gaming magazines still offer? Well, I tried to find out. I took a selection of gaming and console magazines and went through them page-by-page.

Here’s what I did. I removed all pages that were:
--reviews (both games and hardware)
--letters to the editor
--table of contents

Why remove previews and reviews? Well, there are hundreds of places to get preview information now, and it’s far more current if you get it online. Plus previews, to a large degree, are just another form of advertisement, particularly in the print magazines.

It’s the same with hardware previews/reviews. Sorry, but that ten-page Xbox 360 preview smells like a six-week old fish—which is, in fact, exactly what it should smell like, since a hundred online sites had previews that were just as thorough or better within days of the system launch. There are tons of places to find well-written hardware reviews online, plus Maximum PC’s print reviews are far better than other print sources.

But what about the quality of writing? Surely gaming magazines have a higher quality of writing than online sites. Um, no. There are some excellent writers who write for gaming magazines. There are also some awful writers. Reviews inside the same magazine tend to be written more consistently, but they’re not uniquely insightful or useful compared to online reviews. Plus they’re not available until at least six weeks after a game is released. Unless somebody has an “exclusive review” of beta code, of course. So they’re out.

Surely there’s some unique content, though. Right?

Well, funny story there.

To start off, let’s look at PC Gamer (June 2005 issue). It’s a hundred and four pages long. You know what’s left?

Eight pages.

Seriously. Here’s what’s left:
--The “Eyewitness” monthly feature, which talks about intellectual property violations by mod-makers. Two pages.
--The “Extended Play” monthly feature. It’s a mod section, which is good, and it’s interesting, but it’s only three pages long.
--Genre columns. Columns on wargames, FPS, sims, and RPG’s. Total: two pages.
--“Backspace,” a nostalgia column on the back page. One page.

Eight freaking pages? Out of a hundred and four? No wonder I let my subscription lapse. Oh, and the August issue? Ninety-six pages. Eleven left.

Computer Gaming World
One hundred and six pages (July/August 2005). Eleven left.
--The sweatshop MMO article I’ve discussed (four pages, and now available online)
--An interview with The Flaming Lips about making music for Stubbs the Zombie (one page).
--An editorial (of sorts) about Microsoft and the “Good, Bad, Ugly” monthly feature. One page.
--A story about acting like a doofus in WOW that’s kind of funny. One page.
--The monthly “Tom vs. Bruce” feature, where Tom and Bruce play a game against each other and make witty comments. It’s generally pretty entertaining (anything Tom Chick’s involved in is usually entertaining). Three pages.
--The monthly “Scorched Earth” column by Robert Coffey. Frequently very funny and sometimes hilarious. One page.

Eleven pages. Computer Gaming World has some very strong writers. Too bad they use them for eleven pages an issue.

Computer Games
Ninety-six pages. And TWENTY-SIX left. Only sixteen pages of advertising.

The good news: Computer Games magazine provides unique content, and a huge amount of it compared to almost everyone else.

The bad news: they’re not going to survive selling sixteen pages of advertising an issue.

Actually, I’d be thrilled by the July 2005 issue if it weren’t for one thing: A huge Grand Theft Auto picture on the front cover with the headline “The Controversy Behind Grand Theft Auto.”

Computer Games magazine was able to do what everyone else has wanted to do for years, which is ask Rockstar questions about the violent nature of their game and some of the design decision they made. Instead, they proceed to conduct the worst “worst” interview in the history. It’s so incredibly bad that I’m not even going to mention the author’s name, because it’s too embarrassing. Here are some excerpts from that interview:

--The media also don’t understand the underlying game mechanics behind the whole, “pick up a prostitute to recover health” Easter egg…It’s been distorted to, “kill her and get your money back,” which isn’t how it works. It’s just a random drop, just like what occurs with every character in the game.
--The content in any Grand Theft Auto game isn’t any stronger than, say, a Quentin Tarantino film or Martin Scorcese film, yet Rockstar gets more grief.
--Critics seem to miss how smart and funny it is.

Defensive comments by Rockstar, huh? Oh, wait—those aren’t comments by Rockstar. They’re comments by the alleged journalist who was allegedly asking questions. It reads like one of those memoirs from rock groupies who slept with the band.

See, here’s the thing about “questions”—they require answers. If a question already contains the answer, it’s not really a question. It’s cheerleading. So report to the wardrobe department, put on a tight sweater with “ROCKSTAR” across the front, and don’t forget your pom-poms.

Other than that, the magazine is much, much better than the competition. Here’s a rundown:
--Editorial by Steve Bauman (who is consistently thoughtful, although he needs a brain scan after approving that Rockstar “interview” for publication). One page.
--Editorial about WOW. Very thoughtful. One page.
--“30 Days of Maya.” Technically a review, but a damned funny one by Tom Chick about using the workout “game” for a month. Four pages.
--A story about Toronto as a gaming industry hub. One page.
--That humiliating one-page “interview” with Rockstar. Gaming journalism may never recover.
--An article on the origins of the First Person Shooter. Four pages.
--Columns: Road to Nowhere (Cindy Yan), Out of the Box (Brett Todd), Indie City (Gregory Micek), Revisionist History (Doug Erickson), Our Man in Japan (Shou Suzuki), Applied Game Theory (Henry Jenkins and Kurt Squire), View from the Middle (Ken Levine), Incoherent Ramblings (Kelly Wand), and Three Finger Salute (Tom Chick). All extremely solid and well-written. Fourteen pages.

That’s an impressive amount of unique content compared to the other computer gaming magazines.

Here’s a funny stat: Tom Chick is responsible for over 15% of the unique content of THREE gaming magazines COMBINED.

Now what about the console magazines? I know you see this coming, but let’s look anyway.

One hundred and four pages. Eight pages left. Actually, it’s really only five, because there’s a three-page “strategy” guide to Destroy All Humans. PC Gamer had one for The Matrix Online (three pages) that I didn’t count because the twelve people playing the game are probably familiar with the basic strategies by now.

Electronic Gaming Monthly
One hundred and thirty pages (August 2005). Eleven pages remaining. However, I will say that those eleven pages are pretty interesting, including a two-page article about a gaming group art show in Hollywood.

Official Xbox Magazine
Ninety-six and five (August 2005). I was briefly thrilled by the possibility of a magazine having zero pages left. Actually, don’t count those two pages of cheats, since those are all available online. So ninety-six and three, and one of those three was an interview with a Level 50 Halo 2 player. Scintillating stuff.

Play Magazine
Play, like Computer Games magazine, is fresh air. Play, though, also has a visually arresting layout style that is tremendously striking.

One hundred and ten pages (July 2005). Twenty-nine remaining. Of that twenty-nine, roughly half are interviews with developers, and mostly important ones as well. I’m including two interviews that aren’t purely gaming—one about anime, one about comics—because they’re well-done and they’re in “associated” mediums.

The level of writing in Play is also extremely high, about three levels above any other console magazine.

So there you have it. Of the sample, two are worth subscribing to, and of those two, one might not even survive. All of them spend most of their pages duplicating content that is found more timely online, and all of them are significantly smaller than they were five years ago (not including Play, which wasn't around five years ago).

Not a bright future.

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