Article Title: Computer game mags: the state of the industry
Article Byline: Three computer game magazines are fighting for your interest. What's the difference?
Article Body: Written by: Bruce Rolston

Published: February 19, 2001

The gaming news these days seems largely to be about online media outlets that are in trouble. Major new players ( and old standards (Gamecenter) have fallen by the wayside recently, and everyone on the discussion boards has an opinion of how long the lean years of online advertising and solid online gaming information sources will last.

But while the wakes for online sites continue, few are paying much attention to the "old media" competition. The print PC gaming magazine industry, split for the last year between three titles, is cruising along serenely while their new media counterparts falter. Or is it? Adrenaline Vault studied five months in the life of the print gaming mags, looking at advertising, reviews, and talking to staff. In this article, we present our findings: both whose advertising offices are thriving, and whose are not. We also tell you who you should look to for game reviews, and if those reviews are being influenced by the advertisements that pay for them.

Who Are The Magazines?
In North America, since the demise of Imagine Media's PC Accelerator last year, three monthly periodicals have vied for top spot. Twenty year-old industry standard Computer Gaming World is competing both with the relatively new Computer Games magazine, and the even newer and currently best-selling PC Gamer.

Computer Gaming World (Circulation 340,000; average size 180 pages). Owned by Ziff-Davis, the magazine and online media chain, CGW first appeared in 1981; the self-titled "#1 PC Game magazine" celebrated its 20-year anniversary last month. Affiliated properties include Gamespot/ZD Net, and PC Magazine. Based in San Francisco, the former industry leader has recently been outsold by the upstart PC Gamer. The magazine strives to be the "analytical" alternative in today's market, according to editor George Jones. "We try to -- and this is one of CGW's mottos -- dig deeper with regards to all of our coverage. So when we're reviewing a game, we try to define why certain aspects of that title do or do not work, as well as what might work better. And the same goes for the rest of our coverage, be it news, features, previews, and especially inside gaming. We want to be analytical and contextual in every story we publish."

Computer Games (250,000-plus; 174 pages). Computer Games also recently celebrated its anniversary: in its case the 10th anniversary of its 1990 launch. The magazine is part of the Strategy Plus/ chain, which is smaller compared to its competitors. Its other well-known properties are three smaller online gaming sites: Computer Games Online (, Games Domain, and Happy Puppy. Based in Richmond, Vermont, Computer Games has recently been the smallest of the three mags, both in page length and circulation. The periodical is distinguished by having the highest amount of actual editorial pages, compared to advertising: where the other titles are over 60 per cent ads, Computer Games is pretty much 50-50. This often means it has more space for actual articles than either of the other two, larger magazines. Editor Steve Bauman says his target market is the "serious gamer." "Our motto of sorts is 'serious fun,' and I think that sums it up pretty well. We're a hardcore game magazine that's approachable to gamers of all ages and levels. We cover games from the perspective of hardcore gamers, but I believe our articles are more literate and sophisticated than some of our competitors."

PC Gamer (375,000; 212 pages). Still the newest at seven years old, PC Gamer passed CGW in total circulation only recently. At over 200 pages per issue on average, it's also easily the thickest of the three. Allies in the Imagine Media chain that owns it include the Daily Radar website, and several computer magazines, including Next Generation, Maximum PC and MacAddict. Promotional material for the periodical describes the staff as "fanatical gamers" with a "track record of unbiased recommendations and excellent market coverage." PC Gamer's circulation numbers dramatically increased in 2000, at the same time as Imagine's other magazine in this niche, PC Accelerator, was closed down. The magazine ran into some controversy last October for its "Next Game Gods" cover story, which some criticized as pandering to select members of the gaming industry. Based in Brisbane, California, the current editor is Rob Smith.

Who Pays for the Ads?
The three magazines are competing for the same advertisers, which means predominantly the game publishing companies: fully 70 per cent of all their ads are for games, with another 15 per cent being for hardware and peripherals. In PC Gamer and CGW, the space devoted just to game ads alone is greater than the amount given to articles.

The two largest ad clients on the game side in the four-month period around last Christmas (November-February) were Sierra (172 pages worth in a 4 month period) and Interplay (164). Trailing them were Eidos (98), and EA (83). Microsoft placed only 80.5 pages of game ads, but add an additional 45 pages for its peripheral products and it's probably best seen as the third-largest print advertiser right now.

Sierra and Interplay also were the largest ad buyers in terms of pages per game title. While most major game publishers bought around 10 pages per game in the three magazines in our reporting period, the two leading publishers averaged 15 pages per game for their products.

Much of that advertising power, however, was directed at their marquee products, which this year were largely confined to three real-time strategy games, and one coming attraction. Interplay's two RTS offerings, Sacrifice and Giants: Citizen Kabuto, saw 46 and 35 pages of ads bought for them respectively. (Sacrifice alone had nearly as many pages bought to promote it as the entire Gathering of Developers New Year's lineup.) The other largest ad buys in this period were for Tribes 2 (Sierra, 41 pages), still upcoming, and Command and Conquer: Red Alert 2 (Electronic Arts, 30). If you don't know much about any of those games, odds are you just don't read print mags.

While the print ad market is better than it is online currently, it's still tight, says CGW publisher Lee Uniacke. "There has been about a 50 per cent decline in print advertising for PC games over the last two years. To my knowledge, the drop in PC game advertising has been about the same for web sites over the same period. The major reason for the decline is that game companies are putting more resources into console games over PC games. Fewer games means less advertising both online and in print."

The ads themselves aren't cheap. Buying a single page in CGW or PC Gamer can cost your company around $14,000. (Computer Games magazine's ad rates are somewhat less than the other two, and prices can vary widely depending on placement, and bulk buying.) Just doing the rough math, you could say then that promoting Sacrifice around Christmas time, assuming they paid the going rate, could potentially have cost Interplay half a million dollars just for these three magazines. An average game title trying to hit all three magazines could still be looking at an total ad buy in the $100,000 range.

With those kinds of costs attached, it would be tempting for many advertisers to not buy ads in all three magazines, if they thought they could safely avoid it. Those kinds of judgment calls can obviously have a significant impact on a magazine's bottom line. Given a choice, which magazines do advertisers pass over the most?

In terms of gross advertising revenue, PC Gamer, with an average of 135 ad pages an issue, has been running slightly ahead of CGW recently. Converted to a theoretical book value, PC Gamer is ahead as well, selling ads worth $1.6 million an issue on average, compared to $1.5 million for its nearest competitor (actual true revenues may vary). Computer Games is the poor sister in this regard, with a theoretical value somewhere under $1 million for its much smaller number of ads per issue.

Computer Games is running behind the other two in part because more advertisers are comfortable leaving the third-running magazine out of their ad buys. Of the 83 largest collective ad buys in the same four-month period, (those with over four pages of total ads bought), every single one involved putting something in PC Gamer. Over a quarter (23) of them, on the other hand, didn't see any money going to Computer Games magazine. Major advertisers who left CG out of their Christmas plans include Logitech, Alienware, ATI, and EA Sports. Second-place Computer Gaming World, by comparison, matched all but seven of PC Gamer's ad sales (Activision's Call to Power 2 being the most noticeable omission.)

Keeping a broad diversity of advertisers is key to a gaming magazine's success, according to CGW's Uniacke. "With a diverse group of advertisers, and no one making up a large percentage of revenue, you can candidly review products without fear of reprisal. If one advertiser pulls their ads, they lose access to a valuable market. With this system in place, advertisers rarely pull ads."

But Computer Games editor Steve Bauman believes the lower ad density at his own magazine has its benefits as well, as far as keeping and attracting paying readers. "We increased our editorial content because, well, readers want more articles. It's not a particularly radical concept; people read a magazine for articles. If you include more articles, you will likely produce something more people will enjoy. And that's how you have to pitch it to the business side, because it does increase costs, and "like" is an abstract term that is a little messy for the beancounters to wrap their brains around. But it has proved successful."

Still, it can actually be hazardous to editorial quality for a magazine to rely too heavily on just a few advertisers. An ad office that relies for 10 per cent or more of its ad revenue on one customer could be understandably wary about their magazine doing or saying anything that might cause a decline in business. The "Bigfoots" in this industry are, predictably, Sierra and Interplay: each accounted for around 12 per cent of the game magazines' total ad income. (Because of its smaller advertising base, Computer Games magazine's advertising office likely worries just as much about keeping Microsoft happy and content, too.)

Magazine publishers are supposed to keep the advertising and editorial sides of their operation strictly separate for just this reason. And gaming magazines are no different. Bauman says; at Computer Games, at least, the wall between the two sides is as strong as it can be. "Game companies are smart enough not to try to leverage advertising into editorial coverage with us. It would be incredibly short-sighted of any publication to make editorial decisions based on advertisers and not the interest level of readers."

One wonders, though, if the influence of ad purchasing isn't being more subtly felt? And if not, why is PC Gamer the industry darling right now? The answer may lie in the reviews.

Who writes the hardest reviews?
There's a lot more to game magazines than game reviews, of course: industry news, previews, strategy guides. But game magazines take their review sections very seriously indeed. According to Bauman, his magazine's survey data show readers value a magazine's reviews far above other content. One reason may be that they're quantitative. People like and appreciate the Computer Games and CGW five-star system, or the percentage ratings PC Gamer uses. That same objectivity can also help us in this analysis, allowing us to apply quantitative comparisons to the reviews, as we did with ads.

Looking at their review sections, one is struck right off by the differences between the three magazines. Using a five-month reporting period this time (November-March, to allow for late reviews of products advertised at Christmas), we find that Computer Games, even though it's the smallest magazine with the fewest ads, runs far more reviews than the other two: rating 105 software products in five issues. PC Gamer, on the other hand, rated only 80. And Computer Gaming World reviewed only 68 games in the same period. While it is true some of Computer Games magazine's reviews are about pretty marginal products (a bingo game, a Gettysburg tour guide, both Half-Life: Counter-Strike and Half-Life: Platinum) there are many other products, often by smaller developers, that the other magazines have yet to cover.

Staff at the other two magazines question this need to give a review to every single last game that comes out. While he admits reviews are "critically important," CGW's George Jones says there are limits. "We've begun to realize that you don't need to spend two pages describing the tenth version of a golf game. Nor do you need a full page to trash a god-awful game. We probably do devote fewer pages to reviews simply because of this."

But back at Computer Games, Bauman defends the larger number of pages his magazine assigns to the task. "Reviews are absolutely crucial to our success. Readers use them to assist in buying decisions, validate their own purchases, as discussion or debate points, or they just find them entertaining"

As well as carrying the most reviews, Computer Games also has the longest: averaging 1.34 pages per review. Computer Gaming World and PC Gamer weren't far behind, however, at 1.28 and 1.26 respectively. The difference is so minor that it's difficult to give any magazine the credit for having the most analytical, in-depth reviews. Lengthwise at least, they're all pretty much the same.

Where the reviews are not the same is in the ratings. Compared to the other two magazines, PC Gamer gives significantly more positive ratings overall. The median rating for both Computer Games and CGW is 3.5 stars out of 5. The same middle-of-the-road game in PC Gamer, however, would get a "75 per cent" rating, going by the median score (see graph). One can debate if the average piece of work in the game industry really deserves that high a mark. What isn't debatable is that more of PC Gamer's reviews are gathered at the higher end of their scoring range. One wonders if this more positive view of the industry isn't having some effect on the magazine's ability to get and keep its advertisers.

While PC Gamer may be the softest reviewer by comparison, it's also the fastest. In our reporting period, the magazine beat the other two by a month or more on the reviews of 16 games. The publication was almost never beat on reviews by other magazines. (Although it still happened occasionally: in March the upstart Computer Games scooped both its bigger competitors with its early reviews of Oni and Sea Dogs.)

The harshest reviewers, on the other hand, belong to CGW. Although on average they may not be any harder, Computer Gaming World was significantly more aggressive about downrating the games it really disliked. Almost a third, 22 out of the 68 games it reviewed, received a "failing grade" (2.5 stars or less). That's more "F's" than either of the two other periodicals, even though the other two reviewed far more games… PC Gamer failed only 14, while Computer Games, which gives more average ratings than the other two, flunked 18 products. (The best reviewed game overall this winter? Interplay's Baldur's Gate 2: Shadows of Amn. Worst? Hasbro's Squad Leader.)

Is the advertising affecting the reviews?
So far we've established the industry leading PC Gamer is the advertisers' favourite, and also gives the fastest, softest reviews (comparatively speaking). But are the two more directly connected?

Advertising does seem to have a correlation with whether one gets a review at all, at least for the two larger magazines. Of PC Gamer's 80 reviews in the period we're looking at, all but 11 (86 per cent) were for products whose publisher was advertising in the magazine in the same period. CGW was the same, with 79 per cent of its reviews being about games put out by its advertisers. Again, the little guy, Computer Games, bucks the trend here, running reviews of 39 products by firms that didn't advertise with them at all over our five-month period.

As to any evidence of some bias in some of the other magazines' reviews themselves, it's pretty inconclusive. PC Gamer is certainly suspect: products by advertisers got a median score of 78, as compared to a 67 average for non-advertisers. CGW is much the same: companies that don't or can't afford to advertise, like Simon and Schuster and SSI, get lower reviews for their games. (On the other hand, Computer Games gives comparable ratings to both advertisers and non-advertisers.)

But that doesn't mean the advertising itself was responsible for getting those higher reviews. It's just as likely that the same companies that can afford to buy all those $14,000 ads generally also have enough of a budget to make games that are relatively good. Ironically, the smallest companies (such as Wizardworks and Dreamcatcher) that could never afford to advertise, and are getting no reviews at all, outside of the review-everything Computer Games magazine, are almost better off. A publisher like SSI, on the other hand, is considered large enough to still have its games reviewed by the two other magazines even though it doesn't advertise widely, but has not had many products recently that were solid enough to garner them good ratings.

There's even less evidence of the reviewers themselves being influenced by advertiser dollars. Taking the average of only the games that all three magazines reviewed in this period, we found no significant distinction between games by companies that had advertised with a particular magazine and those that didn't. In other words, the "bad games" by non-advertisers in the two bigger magazines were still probably bad games: the simple act of placing advertising in a game magazine didn't change that magazine's opinion on them.

The conclusion seems to be, then, that there is some correlation between companies that can afford to advertise heavily and companies that make games the reviewers respect. But there's no strong indication that advertising on its own is affecting any particular review staff's judgments.

Looking at this scattergram chart not only reinforces that game review scores seem largely independent of a company's advertising expenditure (assuming they get a review at all, remember), but also that some games clearly spent far too much on generating advertising hype compared to actually making a pleasing product. In particular Timeline (Eidos), Gunman Chronicles (Sierra) and Tomb Raider Chronicles (Eidos, again) all spent vast sums of money with little apparent effect on reviewers' perceptions. Interplay spent a similar sum on Baldur's Gate 2, by comparison, but in this case for a product the reviewers loved.

Of course, the question of how ads affect critical acclaim is completely separate from the question of their effect on actual sales - that's a complex question that will have to wait for another time.

What does the future look like?
What are the challenges for the three major gaming magazines? Can the market even continue to support three periodicals? How should these magazines be moving to capture a larger market share for themselves?

One wonders about the future of Computer Games magazine. The smallest of the three as of last June (Bauman says the numbers have grown since then), Computer Games is also part of the smallest media chain, without a second print magazine or a single strong game news website to back it up. As our figures show, Computer Games is also being left behind by ad buyers. This is a shame, because, as we have shown, in terms of actual stories and editorial content, it actually has more than the other magazines. CG reviews far more products, and seems scrupulously fair about reviewing all games, regardless of the status of their makers in the industry. But the relative weakness of has to be a concern. Watch for moves this year to merge or better amalgamate the chain's gaming websites to make it more competitive.

Computer Gaming World, even after having been pushed out of the top rung, still looks strong going into its 21st year. The magazine sometimes almost seems like the "grumpy old man" of computer gaming, reviewing the fewest games of the three, and eviscerating many of those it does. So long as it can keep pace in the ad market, though, it has a prominent role in this industry. With another print magazine to share the losses with, and a strong affiliated web presence in Gamespot, Ziff-Davis is in an excellent position to return to the top again should the front runner falter.

The industry leader, PC Gamer, is likely to remain so for a while. The ad buyers' darling, it's just one tech magazine in Imagine Media's large stable, giving it strong resiliency. The hard part for PC Gamer now isn't keeping advertisers, it's keeping the readers' respect. With a growing reputation for being the most industry-friendly mag, getting out the reviews the fastest may not make up for how mild they often seem compared to the other magazines, or the scant regard given to publishers who don't advertise. To take on any new edge, however, might risk losing some of those ads to competitors. It's an interesting quandary.

For all three mags, the recently declining number of ad dollars has sparked renewed interest in making a better more readable product, to boost other kinds of revenue, at least according to CGW's Lee Uniacke. 'The magazines that survive will be the ones the have a large portion of their revenue coming from their readership on the newsstand and for subscriptions."

For the reader looking for a supplement for their online reading, differentiating the three gaming periodicals can be hard. They all cover the same material, with no huge distinctions in their style or approach. The key distinction these statistics highlight seems to be the unique relationship each magazine shares with the industry it covers, and what tone that lends to its review coverage: whether generally upbeat (PC Gamer), scrupulously even-handed (Computer Games), or sometimes brutally honest (CGW). Like advertisers, magazine buyers have to ask themselves at the cash register: given the way they write, do I need to purchase all three, or is there one I can do without?