According to a Facebook entry and subsequent forum topic, plus the editor-in-chief showing up at the new Electronic Gaming Monthly it would seem Dave Halverson’s Fusion Publishing has filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. This likely means that PLAY magazine is dead. Let’s raise a glass to this fine publication, and the poor jobless souls who helmed it.
No sooner than we hit the "Publish Post" button on this, there's some Official News - yes, Play is gone, but Halverson is relaunching Die Hard GameFan, albeit with a split focus on games and movies. So everything nice we say about Play still stands, and at least there's some hope yet.
I love PLAY magazine. My first subscription issue was December 2006 until present, and I’m only sorry that I hadn’t started reading it earlier (it was never officially sold in the UK, unfortunately). While I’ve subscribed to EGM, EDGE, GamesTM and Retro Gamer, none of them gave me as much reading pleasure or valuable information as PLAY did. The only magazine coming close would be its predecessor, Diehard GameFAN.
A lot of people gave it a lot of criticism over the years, and while some of it is justified, I still stand by my statement that they were the best magazine available, for a long time. I suppose I like them for the same reason I liked Working Designs - whatever faults you can raise against them, the fact remains they did things which needed to be done which no other company would have. Working Designs brought us classics we’d otherwise never experience, and PLAY fought the good fight in a difficult publishing world.
Since I started subscribing I showed it to two friends and ex-colleagues in the magazine industry. One is now a prominent, rising figure of power, the other a veteran editor. The first, seeing my initial issue, was struck by the fact that in the editorial page it showed the previous issue as having Lunar Knights on the cover - “No magazine would ever have given such a niche game cover time.” And that for me epitomises PLAY, they were an independent little guy, the scrappy junkyard dog of the magazine world, putting up the good fight for the little guy and championing what would otherwise be overlooked. They gave Odin Sphere cover time, with Halverson stating he did it to change things. They gave Castlevania on PSP cover time, where for the first time we received Chi no Rondo in English.
They gave Muramasa cover time, with a racy nod to one of Hokusai’s prints, and then gave it 18 pages of editorial. I’ve never seen 18 pages for anything, in any other magazine. The two authors, who went to Japan, spent the time talking about obscure Kabuki plays and even included a photo of the outside of the company’s building. It could be the best article I’ve ever read. No one else gave so much attention to Muramasa. In that same issue they gave detailed coverage to shmups, an otherwise dying genre. How many other mags would take the time to examine the genre across all formats, especially when you’d need a Japanese 360 to do them justice?
PLAY tried to change the world, but no-one listened.
And what multi-format alternatives are there? EGM died a long time ago (though will be returning), while Gamepro and GamesMaster appear to be aimed at children.
Also, PLAY had a deep appreciation for Japanese games in a world where the pendulum is slowly shifting and it’s becoming cool to hate Japanese games, or criticise the design and aesthetics. Just look at PLAY’s reaction to games like The World Ends With You, a game which I felt should have revolutionised the RPG genre. I guess part of why I liked PLAY, is that the words it printed resonated so strongly with the words in my mind.
While most UK magazines will hire Tim Rogers or Jonti Davies to do their Japanese coverage, PLAY had its own dedicated correspondents: Nick Des Barres and Dai Kohama. There’s nothing wrong with Tim and Jonti, they’re great writers, but it’s worrying to think that around a dozen magazines rely on only these two people, writing under pseudonyms, for Japanese coverage. PLAY’s coverage of Japanese conventions was epic, multi-page affairs and were always fascinating to read. If I wanted to nitpick, I’d complain they never covered the doujin comiket conventions, but that’s just being pedantic. Anyway...
EDGE is a sterile, desiccated boil on the arse of the Queen’s horses - arrogant, brash, pompous and full of itself, not to mention in the pocket of Sony as highlighted by the Paul Rose debacle where they refused to print his column criticising a forced PS3 auction at a charity music event. Furthermore, how can anyone trust their judgment when they give something like Gunstar Heroes a 6 out of 10, and Valkyria Chronicles an equally low score and only a half-page review which reads like a recycling of the box’s blurb? They represent a lie which people continue to accept as truth, and that’s sad.
GamesTM has a fairly good design and content, with a decent range of features and niche coverage. I know the people who make it, and I know they’re good people. But I also know for a fact that any quality GamesTM displays is the result of the blood of its prole labourers, who are paid very little and worked very hard. Every word in that magazine has been beaten out of them, both the internal staff and the external freelancers, under pain of long hours and the worst writing contract I’ve ever seen. And to make this pissing of razors even more painful, all of them are uncredited with the article bylines stating not the author, but the magazine itself. Paying the publisher money for the magazine is the equivalent of buying any piece of designer clothing where you’re aware that Indian children went blind working in a sweatshop to create it. A good mag, but I can taste the blood on the pages.
I sometimes wonder, maybe PLAY was like this behind the scenes? If it was, I’d rather not know, and continue to live out my fantasies of it being a nirvana across the Atlantic. On one occasion a member of staff on PLAY was in correspondence with one of my magazine colleagues in the UK, and they complimented our magazines, saying something like along the lines of how our mags are difficult to get in the USA, but they’d love the opportunity to work on something like them. Would they if they knew the truth? Or were the inner workings on both mags much the same? I suppose there are things hidden from view at all publishers.
What I liked most about PLAY was their unashamedly, unapologetic attitude. I’ve heard people who read PLAY describe Dave Halverson as insane, but that only made me like the magazine more. Who else would write two features on Gaming Critters (even if he did omit Superfrog) and get away with? Which other editor would write an online column publicly criticising every other journalist in the job, over their treatment of Golden Axe? I’ve never played the game, but I like the fact that they were unpredictable, scrappy fighters. Whether they were correct or mistaken is irrelevant, they did things which made you pause, while all other magazines danced to the tunes of big publishers like Activision, suckling on the teats of bribery. Who else would run that Muramasa cover and include a lengthy feature on shmups, a genre few care about? Like I said, PLAY were the foaming junkyard dogs of magazines (and I say that with only the sincerest of compliments), and I like to think publishers were frightened of them. Or at least didn’t like them. The only other editor who I respect more would be Dan Hsu who spoke out against bought coverage in magazines - and look what happened, ads fell away and EGM died. Having worked in magazine I can say the corruption he hinted at is darker than you could ever imagine.
There was so much that PLAY did which was cool. I loved how the reviewers were named for everything they wrote. A far cry from EDGE and GamesTM which choose to hide behind a veil of anonymity. I grew to appreciate the style and views of each of their reviewers. I know who I could agree with, and who I could disagree with. Considering how little I trust reviews these days, the reviews in PLAY became like the discussion topics on a good forum, like Selectbutton or HG101 - it felt more like a chat with acquaintances who you know could trust. They spoke personally about what they liked, which really is the only way reviews should be written, with so many diverse genres and styles of thought today. Modern critiquing cannot be objective - you cannot simply divide the sum of a game over graphics, sound and gameplay, and then arbitrarily attribute a score. (more on scores further down) The best reviews are those that are a little personal.
Even PLAY’s adverts were cool, covering obscure, niche stuff like J-List, Hero’s Saga Laevetain Tactics on the DS, and the first official Sakura Taisen game to reach the west. There was also always niche stuff from XSeed, like Half-Minute Hero being prominently displayed. When I showed my friend my latest copy, he’d comment on the adverts, feeling that because PLAY catered to a hardcore audience, these smaller publishers might have been keener to advertise with them because they realised they’d be reaching their target audience. Certainly we’d never seen adverts like that in more mainstream mags, which would always place focus on fatcat publishers who paid more for their product placement (of course our frame of reference was UK mags - perhaps other mags carried the same ads). Game publishers are fickle and often punish magazine publishers by withholding adverts, and it’s also possible that the cruel reality for Play was that only the smaller groups showed interest. Even so, I like the fact that there was such an outlet for the little guy, and whereas I would glaze over the mainstream shlock being touted in places like EGM, EDGE and GamesTM, I’d always pause and reflect on the ads in PLAY.
Bankruptcy and what it does
I’ve lived through two publisher bankruptcies in my time. Once through Live Publishing, and then through Highbury/Paragon - both of which left huge freelancer debts and psychological scars which remain with me even today. So I know how those poor guys and gals involved with the mag must be feeling. Most vocal will probably be the many subscribers who lost $50 or so on magazines they’ll never receive. Next will be the external freelancers, who could be owed as much as several thousand dollars. They won’t be quite as vocal, because if you’re a career freelancer you don’t want to sh*t your own bed by going off like the 4th July and ranting about the injustices of the world. So they’re probably drunk on a cocktail of misery and gin, or they just don’t care, because in a while the appointed team of Corporate Banking Men will send out letters saying they’re unsecured creditors and won’t be getting anything from the sale of assets. Finally there’s the staff, who may not have received their last paycheck and have either already jumped ship to greener pastures, or are wondering how the f**k they’re going to find a new job in this depression - or they’re hoping another publisher will buy up the rights and continue to publish it.
And I knew these people. Well, two of them, from my days on The Gamer’s Quarter. And they were good people. TGQ’s editor-in-chief, Matt Williamson, survived the flood in New Orleans. He also agreed to act as a reference for me which eventually helped me get a job at Time Warner (which was paradise compared to games magazines). Then I found out he became an online editor for PLAY. I can only wish him well what with PLAY’s demise (though his last piece was for August 2009, so maybe he left long ago). Then there's Heather Anne-Campbell, comedian and previous contributor to TGQ, who was always jovial on the forums, answering my most pedantic of questions.
Assets for multi-format magazines tend to be more permanent than single-format mags which are tied to the life of a system, so there’s a good chance PLAY will be sold on, reshaped, and then possibly remarketed by someone who feels they can capitalise on the brand with a little a investment. I normally don’t like these kinds of rebuyers, because in my experience they dangle their salvation over you like some kind of pious Kim Jong Il and will likely profit from work that the original authors were never paid for. Still, a job’s a job, right? The alternative is that whoever owns Fusion Publishing will sell it to themselves for a dollar, and then simply rename the company, while keeping all the old staff, assets and office space. This happened with Live Publishing. That bastard Wilkinson who owned everything simply signed away his debt and sold everything he owned back to himself. He signed away the money he owed his employees, but kept all his mags, and his offices, and pretty much everything. Just not the debt. Now he’s trading under the name Magnesium Media. Me, bitter? Nah, if I were bitter I’d be hiding in the bushes outside Wilkinson's mansion, biding my time...
Anyway, enough of my personal demons, we’re meant to be remembering a fine, fine magazine, which is no longer with us. And unless I’m mistaken, this also means that the last independent US magazine has fallen, at least until the new EGM is released.
The Dropping of Scores
I’m giving this its own title, because it needs to be said: PLAY set a precedent on so many levels, especially by dropping scores. EDGE tried it for one issue, and even then listed the scores after the review section, and then promptly abandoned the debate. Other mags at the publisher I worked at debated it too, but were too afraid to do so because it meant not being listed on Metacritic and Gamerankings. PLAY had the balls to do what no other mag could - abandon scores, which are an irrelevance today.
Admittedly they went back on this, capitulating and admitting defeat by adding scores to their online reviews so as to be again featured on Metacritic. But I like the image this creates in my mind: like some kind of ragtag platoon making one last stand against the ungodly hordes. They didn’t make it, hell, all of them died trying, but they stood at the gates and fought the fight, like a divine wind which, sensing the end, chose to eclipse itself.
It wasn’t perfect, but it kept me subscribing for four years. Let’s take a moment to remember PLAY, and think of all the people who’ve lost not only freelance money, but also their day jobs. Here’s hoping they all move on to better things.