GamePro's Last Stand: How America's Oldest Game Magazine Will Be Its Newest
Julian Rignall is running late.
The last time I sat in this lobby (video game magazines can still afford lobbies?), I was here for a job interview. I was much better dressed then. The last time I spoke to Rignall himself was the following day, when he called to give me the most flattering rejection of my career.
This time I'm here to learn about the new GamePro. By my count this is the third major renovation the magazine has had in the last couple years, but this one's big: as we recently learned
, the magazine is transforming itself from a traditional monthly periodical into a more substantial quarterly journal.
The paper's getting thicker, the cover stock heavier, the page count and dimensions (and the price tag) larger, and the content, so they say, more timeless and valuable.
It's by far the most major change the magazine has ever seen, and something that is very probably necessary for its survival. Despite rapidly declining ad sales and circulation across the entire print media industry, GamePro has held on.
It has outlasted literally every one of its contemporaries, save one with "Nintendo" in the title, since its May 1, 1989 launch (unless you count EGM's relaunch, which I do not). Though no one wants to admit it, circulation has been tanking: just a few years ago the magazine was an industry leader with a monthly circulation of over half a million. These days, it's just below 200,000.
Rignall, GamePro Media's VP of content since late last year, shows up a few minutes later, apologies for the delay (he's short-staffed today, everyone is sick or traveling to media events), and leads me back to his office, where he shows me the new GamePro.
"Keep in mind, it's missing a few ounces of ink weight," he says, handing me a blank, magazine-shaped tome. The pages are empty, but I feel compelled to flip through them anyway.
It does indeed feel a lot more substantial than the monthly issues: you could still roll it up and stick it in your back pocket if you really wanted to, but it doesn't flop around on its own anymore. It's not quite as thick or sturdy as say, Edge, but I'd still feel a lot more reluctant to toss one in a wastebin than I do with the current issues. Which is what Rignall's counting on.
Finding Print's Audience
"I kind of think there's two business models for print, you either make it super super cheap so it's disposable, or you go deluxe and you make the experience tactile and worthwhile and kind of in-depth," he says. "I don't think there's much room in the marketplace anymore for the kind of halfway house, sort of six, seven dollar magazines that are kind of cheap and a bit crap with low production."
Rignall is no stranger to print: his career goes all the way back to the early 1980s, when he wrote for British magazines like CVG and ZZAP!64 and launched the country's premiere console-only magazine, Mean Machines, before Brits thought consoles were cool. Though he hasn't stuck at it for his entire career (he's had stints as editorial director of Walmart.com and Bank of America, believe it or not), he's been a video game journalist longer than most anyone else out there, and he believes print still has its place.
"I think [magazines are] still relevant. Some people...don't understand exactly what magazines are these days," he explains. "It's a specific kind of experience."
Gone are the days when consumers picked up magazines monthly to keep on top of their hobbies: that's what the web is for. Instead, says Rignall, today's magazine consumer is a much more specific, dedicated, and intelligent audience.
"I think the kind of people that seem to like print magazines generally are sort of upper-middle-class NPR listeners," he says. "There's a level of connoisseurism about what they like."
Magazines, he says (or at least, his) are mostly purchased at bookstores and airports these days, whereas the GamePro of old could thrive at grocery and drug stores.
"We're next to Guns & Ammo and Hustler, and it's...you know, I don't think people are necessarily looking for us there and not really thinking about it. So I think distribution needs to be a bit more selective," he says.
How To Sell A Magazine
Of course, it's not just GamePro that's suffering: selling a magazine, any magazine, is a tough proposition in the United States.
"It's not like Europe where there's a newsstand on every corner," Rignall says. "Magazine distribution has always been a huge challenge in America. You pay huge fees to get it on the newsstand, distribution's kind of screwed up. It's never been a particularly great business, and in this day and age, it's even worse."
Magazine distribution is an "old system that really needs overhauling," says Rignall: most publishers are trying to push their product to the same readers and through the same channels as the medium's golden age, and it's not working. And because it's not making anybody any real money, there's not been much interest in changing the system, according to Rignall.
"I get the fact that there are a lot of people who don't want to read magazines anymore, but there are people that do," he says.
The new GamePro is much more targeted than the old. Even though the magazine is reducing is frequency by 2/3, it's also printing fewer copies, and focusing its distribution efforts to the places it sells well (bookstores and airports, as mentioned before, but also places like Walmart). It's targeting a smaller market than ever before, but if Rignall's intuitions are correct, the magazine's margins will improve, as they manage to sell a higher percentage of the issues they print.
"It's not like the old days where it was like carpet-bombing - let's print half a million magazines and throw them out there and then sell as many as we can," he said. "We want to be more targeted. So we're definitely going to be trying to put them mostly in places that we know they'll sell."
"So we're not printing four magazines and selling one. We'd like to print three magazines and sell one, which makes it more economically viable."
A Snapshot of History
Distrubution is only part of the picture. GamePro's editorial has to adapt as well. While the magazine will stay relevant with the current news and the most anticipated new games, it has to balance that relevancy with its quarterly schedule. With a three-month lead time, something GamePro's staff writes today could, in the worst case scenario, be purchased and read six months down the road.
"Yeah, that's definitely a challenge," admits Rignall. "But I think there's a few things we do know. The games development cycle is slow. And it takes a long time for stuff to happen."
Rather than trying to maintain a traditional magazine's cycle of staying as on top of the immediate news as possible, Rignall envisions the new GamePro's editorial as more of a snapshot of video game history in progress.
"At the end of the day, gaming is a culture, and it's a culture that kind of ebbs and flows and it slowly evolves," he says, struggling to put his vision into words, admitting that it sounds more highbrow than he intends.
"We're not taking a small slice of everything that is happening this month. We're trying to stretch it out into the future, sort of maybe six months, and behind us, well, it could be six months, it could be a year," he says.
"To me that's what it's all about these days, a magazine that kind of celebrates gaming in the terms of its sort of context within history, what's kind of going on now and where it's going."
"It's like slow journalism, basically. It's more thoughtful, it takes place over a longer period of time. There's a lot more depth and discussion and meat to what we're writing. That's the general idea at least."
The Last Great Video Game Magazine
As enthusiastic as he is, even Rignall has to admit that it may not work. Print may be irreversibly dead. But he's going to go down trying.
"It sounds really boastful, but what we want to do is make the last great video game magazine," he says. "Let's go out in style, let's make something that celebrates what print does really well."
"We'll do all of these things, and do it as well as we can, and hopefully there are enough people that will still want to buy it."
And if not? "Then we'll join everyone else online and make the best of it there."
The first quarterly issue of GamePro hits newsstands November 8.