What She Said

May 18, 2002
9:07 PM
And now an ode to my favorite magazine, PC Gamer.

For eight years now PC Gamer has been putting out their magazine. The publisher, Imagine Media, found itself in the early 1990's putting out a number of PC Gaming related magazines - one for hints, one for strategies, one for reviews - and decided to combine them all into one publication. One BIG publication. Basing itself on the notion that "simplest name = best magazine" (i.e., the best PC magazine is PC Magazine, etc.) they named it PC Gamer. It came monthly and it had a demo diskette (a floppy diskette). I still have some issues from that first year and it's both funny and sad how it worked - at the time DOOM was just taking off and the PC game industry wasn't nearly as big as it is now, so they were hurting for advertisers. Consequently, a lot of the ads were for "adult" CD-ROM titles. Ironically, with less going on in the industry the magazine had more pages per issue then than it does now, but more on that later.

The demo diskette came with every issue for subscribers, but on the newsstand there were two editions, one with the disk and a "solo" edition without, which was a few bucks cheaper. After the first year they added a third edition, a CD-ROM edition. The CD-ROM had more goodies and demos and was cheaper for the publisher to make, plus it took advantage of CD-ROM technology, which was relatively new at the time (spurred on by Myst). After a few CD-ROM issues, however, PC Gamer decided to discontinue the floppy disk version of the magazine - they didn't want to publish three different versions, game demos that could fit in 1.44MB were harder to come by, and bookstores started to not want to carry any magazines that had floppies in them, so the floppy disk version was decomissioned.

The CD-ROM was full of demos every month, and it was powered by a graphical DOS frontend called NeoBook, which was a frontend tool (by the makers of NeoPaint, a damn spiffy DOS bitmap editor). The discs were labeled "Disc 1", "Disc 2", etc. until around thirteen discs in, when they started being labeled "Disc 2.1", "Disc 2.2", etc. This was the point in time when they ditched NeoBook and went for a Macromedia authored Windows frontend. For a while the navigation of the disc was even a game itself - one whose conclusion resulted in a contest. The "receptionist" in the game was replaced by Coconut Monkey, a little monkey (carved from a coconut) that would "gladly help you but...I have no hands". Now every time the frontend changes (meaning the navigation of the disc has been changed again) the version number jumps again (I believe they're into 7.something now). Originally the disc came with the same "PC Gamer Globe" front every time and came in a paper sleeve. Then at some point they started putting graphics and text on the disc. For a brief period they ditched the paper sleeve in favor of a clear cheap vinyl one, but then they went back to paper sleeves. They also place patches and "exclusive levels" on the discs, which is nice, except for the fact that the patches are quickly out of date and the levels usually show up on their website anyway.

Something interesting I've noticed about the paradigm of demo discs. Back in the pre-web days, when Compuserve charged $9 an hour and 14kbps was considered speedy, the demo disc was a godsend - even the floppy disk version. As the CD-ROM era came along and the size of the computer game outpaced bandwidth, it was even more important. Nowadays, however, broadband is common and hard drive space is plentiful (thank God FMV died out) and so it makes more sense to download a demo once it comes out instead of waiting for it to show up on the PC Gamer CD-ROM. Additionally, the game scene is much more connected now - when a demo comes out Blue's News has it posted right away - back then we didn't know what all was out there. Ironic then that the choice for demos was download, then CD-ROM, now download again. Perhaps when/if the PC Gamer demo disc goes to DVD it will be relevant again. Not to say it's irrelvant now - demos aren't always on the web forever. Once I got a CD burner I became obsessed with backing up everything, including the dmeos I downloaded. It then occured to me how wasteful this was - especially since they're on the PC Gamer CD's I have anyway. Therefore, I keep the CD's and once a demo I've downloaded shows up on the disc, I delete it from my hard drive.

Half of PC Gamer is the review section. Back in May 1994 when it started, 88-100% was considered "Editor's Choice". Why 88% and not 90% I don't know, but the other "brackets" (above average, average, etc.) were in 10% brackets, with the bottom 0-39% being "don't bother". In 2000 or so they re-did the system and made 90-100% "Editor's Choice". Of course, after being in print for so long and having editors/reviewers come and go they've had some reviews come back to haunt them, such as the horrible Outpost getting a whopping 96% and the now-uncool slideshow Myst getting 94%. The highest rated game ever in PC Gamer history is Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri with 98%. Half-Life and Sid Meier's Civilization II are tied for second place with 97% each. Two games, whose names elude me, tied for lowest rating at 4% each. These days it seems to be harder than usual to get an Editor's Choice award, though oddly enough there are less sub-40% games nowadays.

No game has ever been rated higher than 98%, though a running gag did get it's due, so to speak. In a parody of "vapourware" titles like Daikatana, Duke Nukem Forever and Battlecruiser 3000AD (games that take so long to make their status is constantly in doubt) PC Gamer made their character Coconut Monkey a game developer writing a game called Gravy Trader, which has been in development for "a decade or two now". When I renewed my subscription, I got a paperback book from PC Gamer called the Reviews Guide - every review from May 1994 to April 2001 (all 1,600+ of them). Imagine my surprise when I saw Gravy Trader not only reviewed but given a 101% rating. Of course, the release date was May, 2010.

The other half of PC Gamer is the news sections - the articles, the interviews, and the scoops. This to me is the most interesting part of PC Gamer - today we live in an online world. Seemingly, as soon as a game developer does anything it's reported on the web sites. And yet, PC Gamer continues to get exclusives. They keep getting exclusive scoops - most recently they were the first to report the existence of Elite Force II, EverQuest II and Rainbow Six III. This is all the more impressive given that it is a monthly magazine with a 4-6 week lead time - to keep developers quiet to everyone else, and to not have internal leaks - is a testament to the magazine. Of course, it does have its drawbacks - giving PC Gamer an exclusive is no guarantee. They were given exclusive rights to report the existence of the Half-Life spinoff Gunman Chronicles, a mod-turned-game, and then totally trashed it in a review. In its early years, the magazine was even notorious for trashing games which had been on its cover - referred to as the "cover curse".

Imagine Publishing merged with some other publishers, so the magazine PC Games was assimilated. At some point Imagine also discontinued their PC Accelerator magazine as well, turning those subscribers into PC Gamer subscribers as well. At this point PC Gamer announced it had 375,000 subscribers and was the best selling game magazine of all time - now it has the by-line on its cover "Thw World's Best Selling PC Games Magazine". Imagine also published Next Generation, a platform agonistic magazine, The Official Dreamcast Magazine and The Official Xbox Magazine. It cancelled ODCM when that console went away and cancelled Next Generation when that magazine ceased to be profitable. Now Imagine only publishes platform-specific magazines and oddly enough, this has turned me off to most platforms other than the PC.

PC Gamer has been around for a long time and, unlike other magazines, does not cover a platform that will go away. The fact that it is a consistently good publication is impressive - the fact that it stays relevant is amazing. If you like PC Gaming, do yourself a favor and check it out.

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