Soapbox features enable our individual writers to voice their own opinions on hot topics, opinions that may not necessarily be the voice of the site. In this piece, editor Damien sadly reflects on the death of gaming magazines and the fact that he's actively contributing to the sorry situation...
Last week, we reported on the rather sad news that Future Publishing is closing its GamesMaster and gamesTM magazines, a pair of UK-based monthlies that, between them, have amassed an incredible 40 years of multi-format coverage. The former launched way back in 1993 (Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was reviewed in its first issue, in case you need to give that year a frame of reference) while the latter arrived just under a decade later in 2002. It carried a comparison of the PlayStation 2, Xbox and GameCube – the key machines of the era.
Taken on face value, the closure of these two magazines means relatively little in the grand scheme of things; the circulation of print-based games media has arguably never been lower, and websites – such as the one you're reading right now – are the preferred place for gamers to receive news, reviews and features for most players. Indeed, some of our younger readers may never have purchased or even picked up a video game magazine, ever – but the simple fact is, without publications such as these, the site you're reading right now may never have existed, at least not in its current form.
It's at this point that the image becomes blurry as we step backwards in time; the year is 1990, and the rather pathetic imitation tree in the corner of the living room suggests that it's Christmas. A young Damien has just greedily ripped off the wrapping from his very first games console: a Japanese Sega Mega Drive. In order to learn more about the wild and wacky world of video games, Damien invests his hard-earned pocket money in magazines such as Computer & Video Games (one of the first gaming mags ever produced, in case you were wondering) and its console-based offshoot, Mean Machines. In the days prior to the arrival of the internet, magazines such as these – as well as the likes of GamePro, EGM, Super Play, GameFan, EDGE, GamesMaster and many, many others – would provide a vital conduit to the latest news, reviews and opinion within the gaming industry.
Fast-forward a few years, and Damien finds himself fresh out of university with a near-useless degree and a young family to provide for. Saddled with an IT job in a tiny building society he feels no real affinity for, in his spare time he decides to create a website devoted to his favourite games magazine: Mean Machines. While building this crude creation, he is contacted by a fellow Mean Machines fan in the form of one Darren Calvert; they join forces to work on the project. With the arrival of the Nintendo Wii they decide to launch another retro-focused site – the modestly popular Virtual Console Reviews – and eventually fuse with Nintendo Life, the brainchild of web-design expert Ant Dickens. Simply put, the origins of the site you're reading now would have been very, very different were it not for the fact that I was bored at work and decided to share my love of a magazine I assumed everyone had forgotten about (yes, I've stopped referring to myself in the third person now, thank goodness).
It's hard to accurately explain the sheer sense of excitement that a new magazine delivered back then to someone who has grown up with the internet being a constant presence; imagine all of the news you get online each and every day, and then imagine getting all of that in a single magazine – the impact was often staggering. You'd see amazing new games in each issue that you'd never, ever heard of, and they weren't years away, either – they'd literally be coming out the following month. Single screenshots of anticipated games – often cunningly snipped from the pages of Japanese magazine Famitsu – would provide as much excitement as a thousand YouTube trailers today, while the opinions of writers such as Julian Rignall, David Hodgson, Richard Leadbetter, Paul Davies, Jason Brookes, Gary Cutlack, John Davison, Steve Jarratt, Dean Takahashi and Dave Halverson (as well as countless others whom I won't mention here as it would double the length of a feature that is arguably too rose-tinted already) felt like gospel.
Over the years, the rise of the internet – fuelled by the emergence of smart devices such as tablets and phones – has slowly but surely killed off print media. We've seen mighty brands such as GamePro and C&VG fall by the wayside one by one, and now only a handful remain in active publication. EDGE is now Future Publishing's only monthly multi-format title, supported by the likes of Retro Gamer, PC Gamer Official PlayStation Magazine and Official Xbox Magazine (the company's official Nintendo mag was closed some time ago). This was once a publisher with a seemingly endless array of magazines catering for all kinds of players, but now only a small number remain. At least Future remains in action; the company's rivals in the UK have evaporated, and now you're more likely to find a cross-stitch magazine in your local newsagents as you are a mag about video games.
Over in the US, Game Informer is the last bastion of print media in the games industry. Electronic Gaming Monthly now operates as a website, while GameFan's much-hyped 2010 relaunch went down in flames. GamePro also tried to take the web route after the magazine folded in 2011 but lasted a matter of months before it was scrubbed from existence entirely. The near-legendary Nintendo Power was another casualty of the public's indifference to print media, and was closed down in 2012, five years after being acquired by – you guessed it – Future Publishing.
The thing is, if you walk into your average bookstore or newsagent, there are still plenty of magazines on the shelves – perhaps even more so than I recall there being when I was a youngster, flicking through the copies of Sega Power and Nintendo Magazine System I couldn't afford because my meagre pocket money wouldn't stretch to more than two mags a month. It would seem that video gaming's almost unseverable connection with the web has made it all but impossible for magazines about gaming to survive; players are naturally web-savvy and spend a lot of their time online reading and talking about games. Because of this, it's only logical that they'd turn their noses up at the idea of spending a large sum of cash each month to buy a magazine which, by the time it hits the printers, is already out of date as far as news and reviews are concerned. The content they crave is available online, is more timely and – perhaps most importantly – free.
I can't point fingers here though, because I rarely buy gaming magazines today. I might pick up the odd copy of EDGE or Retro Gamer when I'm in a motorway service station, if only to have something to read while I drink a coffee. But I'm no longer the ferocious consumer of the printed word that I once was; a delicious irony when you consider that my loft is packed with boxes full of old gaming magazines stretching back through the decades. I still flick through old magazines today, perhaps more to get a hit of nostalgia than anything else – but oddly I don't feel compelled to add to that collection with modern magazines, despite the amazing production values and superhuman effort that goes into making them. Combine this with the fact that I edit a video game website which has no doubt contributed in some way to the dwindling circulation of magazines, and I'm part of the problem in more ways than one.
Still, there are some who actively fight the death of the printed word, but they're grassroots projects rather than the work of massive publishers. The excellent Switch Player is a fanzine with impeccable production values created by a small but dedicated team; there's no publisher involved and the magazine survives by selling directly to the reader, rather than via a store. Nintendo Force is a similar proposition. In an age of crowdfunding platforms and print-on-demand, this new breed of magazine is reclaiming the same territory that was once the domain of the crude homemade black-and-white fanzines of the late '80s and early '90s; the irony here is that while the internet killed these fanzines a few decades ago, they're now enjoying a small resurgence at the same time that large-scale 'professional' publications are dying off.
It might seem odd that the co-owner and editor of a gaming website – the very thing that has run these magazines out of business – would even think to lament the slow and agonising death of print media. However, as I stated earlier, video game magazines are a massive part of why I'm doing this as a job. Were it not for the infectious enthusiasm of Mean Machines, the intense focus of EDGE or the sheer joy of GameFan, I doubt I'd be the person I am today. But can a website like Nintendo Life really provide the same feeling I got when I opened each fresh-smelling copy of Mean Machines, Super Play or C&VG all those years ago, and gorged myself on the contents in the space of a single, wonderful hour? There's something truly wondrous about holding a physical magazine and leafing through its pages for detail, staring at each and every screenshot as if hidden messages are contained within. We're slowly but surely losing that, and I'm not sure we'll really appreciate the loss until it's far too late.
Do you still buy video game magazines? (400 votes)
Yes, every month
Yes, every now and then
I've never bought a video game magazine in my life
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How do you feel about the slow death of video game print media? (370 votes)
I think it's tragic
I'm not really that bothered either way
I'm glad magazines are dying out, they're pointless in the age of the net
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