Hyper, Print Media and Tips for Survival

April 13th, 2009

(Not that I’m in any position to suggest survival tips to people far more credible than myself)

Coloured with a deep red and strong outlines, and far too slender for its premium price, I almost regret purchasing this month’s (April) issue of long-running Australian video game magazine Hyper, just as much as I regretted the dark chocolate Cherry Ripe that I purchased alongside it. It’s a tough value proposition in this modern age to buy a 100 page spread and a chocolate bar for less than ten Australian dollars. Never mind the chocolate bar, the single magazine (particularly if imported) is usually enough to break that price point.

cherry-ripe-2

I remember in 2000 when Nintendo Magazine System, Nintendo’s print media authority for Australia, printed an apology regarding a recent $1 price hike – a consequence of confusion regarding the government’s recently introduced goods and services tax. The drama was a little too confusing to pinpoint where exactly the blame lied, but despite that NMS was very transparent on the issue. It was clear that this page, following the news section, was intended to be direct, it’s significance marked with a solid fill black background and white typeface, foot noted with the editor’s signature – this would certainly catch the reader’s attention. Every time an inevitable price hike made the rounds – which wasn’t very often, mind you – NMS‘ team matched the hike with an increased page count and formal notification to the reader. NMS had successfully kept its readers paying less than a fiver for its first four years of publication (1993-1997). The price was one of the magazine’s core assets, so seeing it rise was as much a burden to them as it was to us, it’s as though the writers almost felt guilty for it, expressing genuine empathy and disappointment in such situations. I wonder though, at what ends would such a team justify a steeper price point, a premium, like that of Hyper‘s $8.95 to their readers in today’s climate. I guess perhaps it’s a good thing that they died off early.

This puts Hyper in an interesting position, it’s outlived NMS (been doing so for 8 years now) and is battling through a dreadful climate for all things print media. No doubt the magazine is slowly dying, that much can be assumed of almost all print media, even before you read the magazine*. Whether or not the premium price tag is a hindrance, I’m not sure. It’s more iconic of the desperate situation, me thinks.

I guess it’d be unfair to scrutinize Hyper over its inevitable death, particularly when I just evangelized a magazine wrought in advertorial bias, and (it must be said) a breeding ground for some pretty atrocious fan culture – scan through the reader artwork of Les and Skull’s Mailbag to catch my drift. This article will scrutinize Hyper though and probably quite heavily, because Hyper is frankly good enough that its worth holding onto.

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I rarely read the magazine anymore, and rarely read it much to begin with, after all (personally speaking) the UK is the premier place for quality games writing, they’ve just been doing it longer and stronger. It’s the reason why I’d pay a few dollars extra for the inflated cost of an import and to put up with jokes made about cacking one’s pants. Even though I don’t read it (much), Hyper is reputable. It’s important for Australian games writers to have a voice, and for the longest time Hyper has been that voice. Yet the future is undoubtedly dire, the pending death of the print medium and a slow crawl towards change are at halves the causes. Hyper needs to cocoon its future security and repackage its identity, so that it can survive as both EDGE and Retro Gamer have.

Perhaps the worst thing I could lay against Hyper (not that this is an intentional bashing by a narcy blogger kid, I wouldn’t dare to stoop) is Pixel Hunt. Headed up by contributors within the Hyper fold, Pixel Hunt is a free Australian e-magazine which in the past year has managed to reach monthly circulation and a 70 page spread – only 30 odd pages shy of Hyper. It should be noted that the typeface is much larger, but it kinda balances out with large dumps of text filling most pages in contrast to the surprisingly image rich Hyper. The ratios don’t really matter, even if Pixel Hunt is say 1/2-2-3 of the content of Hyper, the price point is difficult to wager against. Pixel Hunt is 100% free, you can go and download it now, go ahead, I recommend you give it a squizz, you can access all the back issues too. The content in Pixel Hunt is significantly more editorial focused, even the typical reviews and previews have been given a more progressive slant, thanks to the some smart thinking on behalf of editor Dylan Burns. It’s not a perfect beast, the large amounts of text can be rather ghastly as with the size of the typeface, also a significant proportion of the editorial and discussion lacks proper critical depth. Still you can’t argue with free, can you? This leads to the inevitable point that when a rogue source, written by writers who also contribute to your news stand magazine are putting out similar dosses of more or less equivalent content for free, your business is no doubt being jeopardized. I’m not saying that Pixel Hunt is trying to steal the reigns of Hyper, any digital games source is doing similar things, rather it serves as a dire warning. As Daniel Wilks suggests in his editorial, print media is too slow for the web, the web, the same medium which serves the enthusiasts that read his magazine (his words not mine). In which case, why bother to compete by mimicking the web Daniel if you’re fighting a battle that you know you’re going to lose? The web has nudged you out of your previously assumed position, you either have to change or face inevitable death – that’s the unfortunate truth. Of course, you don’t need some renegade writer like me pointing that out for you, you’re already much aware.

I wouldn’t have dismissively toned the last point if it wasn’t for the following few paragraphs, and this is where EDGE and Retro Gamer fit in, I referenced these guys for good reason. While readership has waned a little for these magazines (most notably for EDGE for giving so much away free online, yays!), they’re sustainable, sustainable because they’re rich in editorial and feature based content that can only be found in their ink. It’s called incentive. These two outlets provide high quality exclusive content which is not available online, filled with pages of well articulated opinions, critiques, analysis and commentary on games – they’ve always been this way and it’s why they’ve managed to burrow so deeply into their selected niches, and be respected publications for it.

In contrast, Hyper is still front-loaded with the same news, reviews and previews nonsense, and according to Wilk’s editorial, they’re given the higher priority than features. The reviews are well written, always have been, they also exert an underlying sense of Australian ocker while abiding by the norms of the commedic culture created by predecessors like Cam Shea. But are these differences really worth the entry fee?

Hyper‘s content format has changed very little over the years, it’s still news, previews, features, reviews and some editorial asides followed by reader mail and the always interesting GFK sales data. The shift towards individualizing the identity of the magazine hasn’t really happened yet. This isn’t a blame game, as I obviously cannot point at the reasons why Hyper‘s operations are still largely the same as ever, whether it be a conscious decision of the editors or publishers etc. They are serving content that people clearly want to eat, yet many of those people have also already migrated. I imagine then that this is an awkward reality to face. Whatever is going on behind the scenes though, as mention in the reviews editorial, reviews and previews are still prioritized, and to me, that is a grave mistake.

pixel-hunt-issue-6

Conversely, Pixel Hunt, you’ll remember is straying away from this tired formula. In the editorial of issue 5, editor Dylan Burns confirms that the e-mag format simply can’t compete with the by the minute updates of the web, so in order to combat this, he asked his writers to change the nature in which they assess games for the magazine. Subsequently in the next issue not only did these changes take place, but the magazine also was filled with a sizable 30 pages of original feature pieces, including interviews, retrospective and opinion pieces. Reviews are still incremental, perhaps the main component of the magazine, but the way in which they’re conducted is different to convention. All of these examples culminate in a very unique and worthwhile selection of monthly writings. Essentially the magazine is out-Hypering what Hyper ought to be doing in order to survive, it’s almost insulting for the print magazine, and it makes me consider that maybe they deserve their inevitable demise as they lack the forward thinking to write outside of the box. This is why I’m less sympathetic towards the magazine.

Another suggestion for them would be to grow a proper online presence and leverage it for magazine sales in the same vein as the Imagine publishing circle of multiplatform magazines achieved with TotalGames.net. The idea serves both the readers and writers, but it’s perhaps too late. They shouldn’t outsourced their previous attempt at creating a Hyper web portal in the late 90s. Imagine the thought for a second; a fully fleshed out Hyper website with good editorial, slick design and a strong fan base. Would have probably drilled trite Australian fan sites like Aussie-Nintendo, PALGN and Vooks into the ground had Hyper got their act together. Oh well.

I don’t dislike Hyper, and this post isn’t an attempt to ridicule the magazine in any way. As pricey as it may have been, I’ve enjoyed most of what I read (although the trade-in games feature was intentionally very one sided). As I think I’ve well justified, this magazine needs to evolve or continue on a downhill slope of circulation. I guess a good part of my commentary is biased by my lust for a single publication to air critical game discussion, anecdotes and commentaries, and it’d be great if Hyper was that magazine.

The editorial shift would be in their best interests, so long as its gradual, allowing readers to warm into the idea (as EGM were doing on they way out). It cures the need to play catch up with the web and provides greater incentive to readers. Reviews can read more like personal responses, or discussion of the game, rather than evaluation. Maybe drop the price too, I preferred the ol’ $4.95, although, that’s easy for me to say. The Cherry Ripe on the other hand requires a much simpler solution. Half the price and stick it in a refrigerator.

*I haven’t fact checked this at all, like I said, it’s assumed by the price, staff, editorial and so forth. It’s a pretty safe bet to make, but if I’m wrong then please tell me about it.

  • Hi Daniel, thanks for this article, I enjoyed it.

    I must admit that my reasons for starting up Pixel Hunt had more to do with the fact that I live in WA – where I am largely dislocated from the industry (limited to the odd phone call and email), rather than with any aspirations to be in ‘competition’ with magazines such as Hyper. I felt that there was room for a project that allows freelance writers like myself to make themselves heard. That and… well, I probably have far too much free time.

    I’ve been a longtime reader and fan of Hyper, even before I started writing for them, so I really do hope they survive the seeming demise of print media.

    Anyway, well done and I might link to this on the PH site if that’s okay.

  • I wished that the article didn’t imply the competition factor as strongly as it did, since I know there’s probably nothing going on there. I hope Hyper survive too. Be sure to keep working hard at what makes the magazine unique, you’re doing a ripper job at it.

  • Hey Daniel,

    First up, thanks for the appreciation of Pixel Hunt. We’ve certainly worked hard on it and the response has been very validating.

    On the Hyper side of things, though, I have to admit I was a little confused by this remark:
    “I’ve enjoyed most of what I read (although the trade-in games feature was intentionally very one sided).”

    As the guy who wrote that feature, I’m not entirely sure what argument it was you’re saying I’ve taken a side on. My best guess would be that I say that trade-ins are ultimately not the act of evil some people make them out to be, without offering a counterpoint. If that’s the case, I suppose the opening of my article was more of a response to the widely held and vocalised opinion that trade-ins are damaging the industry, more than an open discussion on the issue. It’s something I couldn’t really ignore if my article was going to focus on how to get the most out of trading in your old games, and one that I feel is generally blown out of proportion. I could go into more detail but again I’m not sure if that’s the bit that you’ve actually taken issue with, so I’ll let you respond.

    Also the last I heard Hyper’s sale numbers were actually up… but yes, the thought of the collapse of print media is both disturbing and sad to me. While it is an eventual inevitability, I don’t think Hyper is near that point at the moment, especially since it’s the only real Australian multi-format gaming mag around these days. I’ve generally always gotten more out of print media, though. Unless I’m incredibly interested in a game and want to read up about it as much as possible, I have a habit of reading reviews and previews in mags almost exclusively, and skipping to the scores/last paragraphs on a lot of online pages. Perhaps not having to pay for them makes me less interested in actually taking in all the information provided, because there’s no sense of getting my money’s worth? It’s hard to say for sure. I know a lot of our readers like to print off Pixel Hunt and take it to the bog with them, and a lot of people tell us they’d love to see it printed as a proper magazine. Perhaps the main struggle print gaming media now faces comes from the kids who have had the internet their whole lives, and never experienced the joy of a magazine exclusive review, who are simply used to getting all the content for free and cannot fanthom actually paying to read about games. In any case, as much as I love Pixel Hunt, I’d hate to think of people reading it in lieu of Hyper- I think they’re both great.

  • Hey James, yes you’ve picked up on what I was trying to say. I don’t think that I’m someone caught up in the barrage of evil trade-in nonsense, the type that you point out in the introduction. I just find that as a one of those collector types I naturally felt pretty resistant to your article and hence wished that you’d emphasized the problems with trade-ins as well, balancing the issue a bit. But considering there’s already enough bad press on the negatives, and your article was intended to spruik the benefits, it’s no real fault of your’s. Still sheesh man, profiteering through trade-ins? Doesn’t sit right with me. >_< Actually just scanning through that article again, your point on the influences with smaller businesses resonates a little. You're from SA, right? Just the other week I noticed that Thunderbox a small trade-in store on Magill road closed down. I personally find myself almost completely reliant on the web nowadays, simply because it has the editorial/commentary/critique style of writing I'm looking for plus the writers I like. There are magazines which have this in droves, but I hate paying a premium $13.95 for the import privilege.

  • I think a lot of the problems with trade-ins (mainly the fact that the return isn’t as high as it could be selling independantly) are sort of self-evident. Turning a profit by trading at stores is very rare (unless you’re getting the games for free), and I’m not really sure where I sit on the issue. On the one hand, I’d be pissed if I went out to buy a cheap game and found out they’d all been bought for trade-bait. On the other hand, these cheap games are often fairly crappy, game sales on the whole will go up following all the trades, and you can’t deny the ingenuity of the people doing it. I would certainly frown on someone buying up a bunch of copies of Killzone 2 for a $3 profit at EB, but if there’s a way to make literally thousands out of it- well, you can’t really blame someone for exploiting that system (although I do feel bad that some people missed out on cheap copies of Shadow of the Collossus and Hitman: Blood Money from the specific deal outlined in the mag). I suppose the negatives might have been something I would have gotten into more if I’d had a longer word count, but honestly it never occured to me to really have much in the way of debate happening in the article.

    I have to say I’ve been a fan of UK print media for a while too, simply because I grew up as a bit of a Nintendo fanboy and the best Nintendo mags always came from over there. N64 Magazine (which disappeared off the shelves when it changed to NGC, and has now returned as N-Gamer) was a big favourite. Even though the reviews were often way off the mark, it had a great sense of humour and every page was just packed with words. Most importantly though, it had tonnes of personality. I felt personally connected to the writers, because they all had their own specific styles, and were constantly joking about each other. Plus quite a few articles were filled with crazy photos of their office antics. I don’t generally buy them anymore though, because of the price point, although I’m often tempted- I don’t think a $14 splurge on, say, Edge is too much as long as you make sure it’s a good issue you’re grabbing.

    In any case, I think there’s going to be a place for print media (and hopefully Hyper) as long as people are still using toilets. Reading off a screen cannot compare to reading on the can.

  • Yeah I see that, the biggest gripe I have with trade-ins are how it’s turning an industry of game stores into Cash Convertors. I adore stores that carry retro games like Gametraders etc. (again the collector in me), but when the majority of shelf space in a regular games store is full of unloved used games, it rubs me the wrong way.

    I collected a good deal (primarily NMS) magazines through the 90s and then for a few years I got new magazines free every week by means off a local newsagent donating unsold magazines to people in neighbouring businesses in which I knew someone at one of those businesses…shady eh. So I read a lot of CUBE, PSM, EDGE and so forth. NGC was one of my favourites too, although the distribution was painfully low as you say. I believe they also did a small seasonal magazines called Advance which was fantastic. I know what you mean about the humour too, good stuff.

  • Relatively late comment here but I couldn’t resist, purely because I love Hyper. Oh and warning, this will probably be long (surely you’re used to it by now Daniel…).

    While it certainly seems like it will inevitably happen, I’m not so sure I agree with the notion that print media is dying. Things like EGM’s closure definitely suggest it will happen, especially in the current economic climate the world is facing, but I’m still not sure. I don’t think anyone — particularly the people who migrated to online sources — dislike reading magazines and I’d almost argue that they in fact still love the idea, the problem is just what you alluded to in the post, it’s easier to get everything online. We’re a world of convenience and if it’s easier to find out about a new game and see a trailer online, of course people are going to go and do that. But even so I do think there’s a place for magazines, the question I suppose is where is that place?

    I do agree that magazines, Hyper included, need to change their approach. It seems to me that more and more people are becoming sick of the whole previews/reviews process and while that will always have a place in our industry, the move to more in-depth analysis and features seems to be a focus that everyone wants to see happen and I think magazines could (should?) use this opportunity to lead the way and continue to remain relevant. EDGE have a lot of interesting features as you’ve mentioned already and I am glad I can get that every month now from my local newsagent, but reading it hasn’t changed my enjoyment from reading Hyper, in fact I think they compliment each other nicely. That’s beside the point, however.

    Hyper have started to focus more on features and I’d argue that this started to happen at the same time as the transition from Cam Shea as editor to Daniel Wilks; after Shea’s decent job Wilks needed to make it a little more serious and bring it out of a small slump that came about because not everyone enjoyed the things that Cam did with the magazine. Wilks has been successful with this and ever since his inception I feel the magazine has grown and become something worth reading to the average reader. Introducing Dylan’s Gameboffin column, as well as Eleanor’s and Wilk’s own, was a step in the right direction. So is features such as the Deconstructing Mirror’s Edge one contained in the most recent issue. As it stands right now, I think Hyper has made a lot of progress in the right direction and now it’s time to start changing some other things around, such as how they approach their reviews. They already are experimenting with it, having ‘joint’ reviews take place as a conversation between two people (usually Wilks and Wells). I hope they continue to experiment and eventually reach a point where they won’t ever face a possible extinction that seems inevitable. They are nearing issue #200, I want to see them reach that and then another 100 or more issues beyond it.

    That said, I enjoy their reviews now anyway and they are (EDGE not withstanding) the only reviews I read these days. I grew bored of the previews/reviews process and stopped reading them early last year, instead favouring the more in-depth content found on the various blogs we read and things like that. Yet I still read Hyper’s reviews and I think the reason behind that is my history with the magazine; I’ve come to know the people behind the magazine and as such know how to apply my own opinion to theirs, to make an informed decision when it comes to buying a game, for example. Kids who grew up with the internet don’t have this history, unfortunately, and that’s why I think the changes are needed so their own histories can be defined, using Hyper as a common-ground in the same way that we used mags like NMS back in our younger days.

    Okay that’s enough rambling from me. I love Hyper and I really don’t want to see it ever die. Even if it does however, I’m still not sure that print media as a whole is, or needs to, die. I think it still has its place in the industry and I seriously hope that they end up finding it, because what else am I going to look forward to each month?

  • I think the key issue here is incentive. The incentive in paying $7 for a magazine that contains content which can also be accessed free of charge online is very little. I suggest the editorial approach because I think it’s a good way to give authority back to print, while delivering exclusive content, ie. incentive. It’s not the only means though, just my personal preference. I mean, editorial != the answer. Incentive is the answer and how print go about leveraging enough incentive is their business. gamesTM provide heavy amounts of content, Game Informer pay for exclusives, while retro gamer cover a target niche.

    As you touch on Steven, writers that feel important and relatable to the reader is critical. Columns, discussion and editorial feed back into giving voice the writers.

  • Agreed which is why I seriously hope the various magazines out there including Hyper take the opportunity to reboot their intentions, change the way they approach things and provide that incentive you mention once more to consumers. As I said before, I seriously doubt people have anything against buying a magazine, it’s just, why bother when it’s available online?

    Work around that issue and print media will be fine, in my opinion.

  • Great post, thanks all for sharing kool informative tips of print media. I would like to know more about other ways of successful print media solutions.

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  • Excellent tips of Hyper print media.

  • Print media really too advanced now and Hyper print media is great platform to advertised your brand or product.

    This is really great ideas and helpful post.

    Thanks for sharing and keep it up!

  • I really enjoyed this beautiful article and thank you Daniel. I am fan of Hyper…

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