Gaming the System

How a Minnesota magazine became the bible of generation Xbox

At first glance, Game Informer magazine's North Loop offices don't look much like the home of the nation's biggest videogame magazine. With glass and brushed-steel accents and tasteful, comfy furniture, it might be mistaken for a law firm or a graphic designer's studio.

Then you notice the Primal Rage arcade machine in the corner, the Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas trick bike leaning against the wall, and the full-sized Solid Snake statue creeping up on you ninja-style from the next room.

Turn a couple corners and you'll enter the Bullpen, as the guys here call it. Inside it's dark and cool, illuminated by the pale light of flat-screen TVs. The decor is geek-chic: old game boxes, anime figurines, keyboards, and game pads. In this room, Game Informer's tight-knit editorial staff of 10 spends hundreds of hours each month rescuing hostages, discovering ancient artifacts, and saving Earth from the legions of Hell.

Leading the charge are the "Two Andys": editor-in-chief Andy McNamara and executive editor Andy Reiner. McNamara looks like he could be a college professor, what with his rumpled hair and distracted manner. But his face lights up and he leans forward in his chair when asked about his Guitar Hero obsession.

"He just wants Led Zeppelin Guitar Hero," interjects Reiner, who can't resist the opportunity to razz his boss.

Hours of playing games have paid off for the Two Andys: Every month, more than three million copies of Game Informer are delivered across the country, making it the top-selling magazine devoted to videogames. Each issue comes stuffed with reviews of recently released games, previews of the most hotly anticipated titles, and interviews with big industry names.

Game developers used to be small and independent, pushing out a couple of titles each year. Now, as their rosters balloon and budgets skyrocket, fans wait a year or more for the next big game. "It's less, 'Oh, look at this interesting game' and more, 'This is going to be huge,'" says Reiner.

Today, no self-respecting home entertainment system is complete without at least one of the next-generation consoles—Microsoft's Xbox 360, Sony's Playstation 3, or Nintendo's Wii. According to the Entertainment Software Association, nearly 70 percent of all heads of households in 2006 reported playing games. The Wii, in particular, is designed to reach girlfriends and grandparents through an intuitive, motion-based control scheme. McNamara also points to the aforementioned Guitar Hero—a game that allows you to play along to hit rock songs using a plastic guitar controller—as another game that's reaching untraditional markets. Add in the hardcore gaming audience, which is rapidly aging into its prime earning years, and it's no wonder the industry is raking in revenues to the tune of $7 billion a year.

Game Informer aims to make sure those dollars are well spent, says McNamara. "We want to tell you what's cool before you know it's cool," he says.

The gaming press can make or break a game. Feargus Urquhart, co-founder and CEO of Obsidian Entertainment—maker of Neverwinter Nights 2 and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II—says he dreads reading reviews of his creations. "I absolutely live in fear of them. If a game doesn't review at least an 85 percent, we're not going to recoup." But he looks forward to Game Informer's take because the crew hasn't gotten jaded by overexposure, he says. "When they review our games, I don't worry. I know it's being reviewed by guys who still love games."

Reiner's love of games began at an early age. When he was nine, he set his heart on getting what was then the most high-tech console in the world of videogames: the Atari 5200. He begged his mother, Mary Lee Reiner, to buy him one, but she told him, "When you earn enough money, you can get the system." So he did what nine-year-olds have been doing since the beginning of time, Mary Lee says. "He went to his grandparents with his big blue eyes and instantly had the system."

Videogames became an obsession, with Reiner spending countless hours each day racking up high scores in Centipede, Asteroids, Galaga, and Pac Man. His mother warned him he'd never get anywhere sitting in his room playing games all day, but "she's had to change her mind about that," Reiner says with a grin.

Both Reiner and McNamara started their careers as lowly clerks at the upstart Minnesota game store FuncoLand. When the chain decided to venture into publishing by launching a videogame magazine, McNamera and Reiner were a natural choice to help produce it.

In the early years, Game Informer was a slapdash affair, marked by clumsy layouts and occasionally embarrassing cover art. Then, in 1999, FuncoLand was bought by Barnes & Noble and renamed Gamestop. The new owners came to McNamara and asked, "What do you need to make it grow?" With a bigger budget and more corporate support, the new Game Informer hit stands in November 2000.

Subscriptions took off, hitting a million and quickly blowing past. Aiding the meteoric rise were 4,400 national and international Gamestop stores, which stock Game Informer prominently next to the register. Customers are encouraged to subscribe with the offer of discounts on games.

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