Game Buyer is a monthly magazine devoted to PC and video games and hardware. It is a heavily redesigned and revamped version of Ultra Game Players, but it only lasted four months before cancellation, unable to find its audience.
For a five-year-old Imagine Media, the year 1998 was the best of times and the worst of times. Its top six magazines — Business 2.0, MacAddict, Next Generation, PC Accelerator, PC Gamer and PSM — had a combined circulation of nearly 1.3 million, with total single-copy sales revenues topping $35 million, according to Imagine’s annual report. The Imagine Games Network (still two years away from transforming into IGN) was the “largest computer and video game destination in the world,” and it had several dozen affiliate sites feeding it millions of pageviews every day.
The only blemish on this killer media portfolio — from a financial standpoint, anyway — was Ultra Game Players. Relaunched and refurbished in October 1996 in a bid to swipe some of GamePro and Electronic Gaming Monthly’s readers, the multiplatform magazine had evolved from a bland tips-n-cheats rag to one of the most engagingly written magazines in the U.S., thanks to the efforts of writers like Chris Slate, Bill Donohue, Mike Salmon, and Francesca Reyes. With this stable of writers to its credit, UGP is still one of the most fondly-remembered mags of the PlayStation era — but this wasn’t enough to put a dent in GP and EGM’s commanding lead in the marketplace.
Not happy with UGP’s eternal third-tier status in the mag scene, Imagine decided to shuttle the Game Players name and take one final stab at a multiplatform publication. However, Game Buyer aimed for an “authoritative review resource” bent, trying to outclass EGM with exhaustive reviews of nearly everything under the sun. Even in 1998, the audience for this sort of reference magazine was satisfied with web sites — and the remaining non-online readership was satisfied with EGM’s multi-reviewer system over Game Buyer’s over-designed approach.
More importantly, however, Game Buyer was the successor of a magazine that built a cult following through its sense of humor and extraordinary level of reader participation. Game Buyer had neither, and as a result, its alienated audience became a perpetual machine of bad word-of-mouth for the mag — just like what had happened to VideoGames magazine, although that title lasted a great deal longer.
Strapped for sales, Imagine slashed the title’s newsstand price to $1.99 in Issue 3, making the mag cheaper than even Mexican publications but guaranteeing that the operation would never sustain itself in the long term. Issue 4 was the last, and Imagine closed the magazine without any notice in the final number. Subscribers received Next Generation starting with the November 1998 issue, and most of the staff moved on to other magazines or Imagine projects.
A typical review page
While Ultra Game Players’ focus was on the young hardcore gamer, Game Buyer tried to portray itself as more of an authoritative resource for the casual crowd, something to read over and (as the title suggested) confidently base your buying decisions off of. Over half of every issue is reviews, covering every console game and most PC releases in detail, along with looks at slightly older titles as space allowed.
Every review (always at least a full page) rates its game in more convoluted ways than any other mag of its time. The top bit is fairly standard, with a hefty space for text and a “stamp” with the overall score out of five stars. The rating standards are pretty simple: one or two stars mean Don’t Buy It!, three mean Think About It!, four Buy It!, and five Gotta Have It!. There is also a standard sidebar that includes extra information such as system requirements (for PC titles) or comparisons to other games in the same genre. Handheld game reviews are also scattered here and there, although they are never larger than small boxes. In a GamePro-style measure, no author names are given anywhere in the magazine in order to make the content seem more authoritative.
What makes Game Buyer’s reviews unique are the two graphics at the bottom of every review: an “Equalizer” and a “Predicted Interest Graph” (P.I.G. for short). The Equalizer is a highfalutin method of rating each game in several fields — graphics, sound, control, gameplay and depth are given scores on a scale which escalates from Crappy to Excellent. The P.I.G., meanwhile, is a line graph that charts out how much you’ll enjoy the game the first day, week, month and year after purchase, based on longevity and ease of play. This line goes down to nil after a year for most games and hovers around average for the top titles — and I’d bet that’s as scientific as the P.I.G. ever got. (The idea of a line graph like this was swiped from ACE, a late-1980s British multiplatform mag that Frank O’Connor was involved with for a time.)
For easy system reference, every review has a picture in the corner of a hand holding the controller from the platform the game runs on. These pictures were blurry black-and-white photos in Issues 1 and 2; the staff changed these to color sketches in Issues 3 and 4, since it was hard to tell which controller was what in the old photo set. The Saturn section did not get its own controller sketch in the later issues, as the Dreamcast was imminent and the mag gave full reviews to only two Saturn games in its entire run.
The review scores are fairly lenient, similar to GamePro’s style. 19 games received Gotta Have It! ratings over Game Buyer’s four issues, but only two — Off-Road Challenge and an obscure PC title — got one star. The average score is 3.55, and it would’ve been far higher if a wagonload of junky PlayStation titles didn’t drag it down in Issue 4.
After the reviews section, every issue (except the final one, which is a fair bit different) contains the following sections:
- Hardcore Hardware, a PC game mag-style look at video cards, joysticks, and other accessories, with a score out of five stars given to everything.
- Incoming, a random hodgepodge of game news, previews, and small Game Boy/game.com reviews. This section is so loosely themed that it’s often interrupted by other spreads or sections with their own department titles.
- Mailbox, the letters section which mysteriously disappeared after two issues. All of the letters are leftovers from the Ultra Game Players era, and none of them make any reference to Game Buyer itself.
- Padded Cell, a reader-run section with art, reviews, sound-offs on a rotating topic, and an editorial from Bill Donohue, the chief torchbearer of UGP’s trademark humor. This ran alongside letters in Issue 1, disappeared in Issue 2, reappeared without the letters section in Issue 3, and left for good in Issue 4.
- Slick Stuff, a look at non-game electronics (and occasionally unrelated topics, such as french fries) without ratings.
- Archive, a multipage listing of around 400 games with one-sentence reviews and ratings. This section is printed on non-glossy stock and usually includes retro reviews, features on classic systems, and random top ten lists to spice up things. This was replaced with a cheats section in Issue 4.