The video-game business is a massive industry, and while getting into the biz can seem impossible, you don’t have to be a game designer to work in video games. Take, for example, Chris Slate–the former Editor-in-Chief of “Nintendo Power” magazine.
Former “Nintendo Power” Editor-in-Chief Chris Slate in his home office. (Note the signed Super Mario NES cartridge on the wall, autographed by none other than Mario’s creator Shigeru Miyamoto.) Chris currently is the EIC for “Mac Life.”
Chris works at Future Publishing, based in South San Francisco–a publishing company that has long been associated with the video game business. In fact, they’ve been publishing game magazines since 1985. Future currently publishes the “Official Xbox Magazine” and “PC Gamer,” along with other popular titles, and also runs the video-game website GamesRadar.
This month Future is publishing the very last issue of “Nintendo Power.” The magazine, started in 1988, was published by Nintendo until Future acquired the rights to publish the magazine in 2007. For fans of of the magazine, the end of “Nintendo Power” is bittersweet.
At DMA Central, we still love magazines and were huge “Nintendo Power” fans, but like most people, we find ourselves spending more and more time on the Web. We recently caught up with Chris to find out what it’s like to work alongside Mario and how you can get into the game industry just by being crazy about games.
How did you get into the games industry?
When I was 16 years old, I bought Issue Two of “Game Player’s” magazine, which was the only video-game magazine for sale at newsstands back then. I was ecstatic to find a magazine that was just about games, since I spent all of my time playing my NES.
In that issue there was a profile of a “Game Player’s” “game tester” named Jonathan Gagnon, who helped the magazine’s writers by playing the games and taking screenshots. His profile mentioned that he went to college in the town I lived in. Since “Game Player’s” was close by, I wrote them a letter hoping that I could join up as a game tester, too. Today that kind of job would likely go to an intern, but since interns weren’t used back then, they brought me in for a summer job and I got to stick around after that.
So you’re a gamer first?
Yeah, I’ve always spent most of my time playing games, which has made all the years I’ve spent working on game magazines dream jobs. Being paid to play and write about games? And getting to go to video-game trade shows, and get games for free? What’s better than that?
In addition to your time at “Game Players,” you were also the EIC for a very popular PlayStation magazine called “PSM.” Those were pretty awesome magazines. What memories could you share from those experiences?
Geez, there’s so many. Going to E3…meeting my heroes in game development…getting to play big games before anyone else. For a gamer, it was a really charmed life. But the work of simply making the magazines was very memorable, too. I love working in print. I love the process, the edit teams, the camaraderie, even the late nights.
When Super Mario 64 first came into the office, a few of my coworkers and I stayed at work overnight playing it, because we just couldn’t put it down until we’d beaten it. I remember meeting celebrities like director John Singleton at E3 parties on Sony’s movie backlots. Getting to work with the best comic book artists (comics were always my other passion) on covers for “PSM.” I’ve been really fortunate to have had so many amazing opportunities.
One specific memory that comes to mind: “Game Player’s”—or as it was later known, “Ultra Game Players”—was a pretty by-the-book game magazine when I got the opportunity to become editor-in-chief. While working on one of my first couple of issues as EIC, I was looking for letters to go into the letters section and Bill Donohue, the managing editor, showed me a drawer where he kept all of the reader mail that had been too nutty to consider running. Those letters were hilarious, and Bill and I decided to put them all in. The magazine really changed after that and the new, crazy approach really clicked with readers.
How did you get the job as “Nintendo Power” EIC?
When Nintendo chose Future to take over publication of the magazine, I was already on hand as an experienced editor-in-chief and lifelong Nintendo fanatic. It literally was my dream job—I’d read “Nintendo Power” like crazy when I was an NES-loving kid—and my publisher knew it, so I didn’t even have to lobby for the position.
How long were you EIC for “NP”?
For around five years. After that I took on another project at Future and wasn’t very involved with “NP,” while the executive editor, Steve Thomason, did the heavy lifting and eventually took over as EIC. I really miss working on the magazine. I was thrilled to come back and contribute a little to the final issue.
The staff of “NP” paid homage to the very first issue (on the left) with the the final cover.
How did you determine what goes on the cover of a magazine?
When choosing a cover topic (usually a single big game), we first look at the games coming out within the next several months, because not many people will buy a magazine with a cover based on a game that’s already available—if they were interested in the game, they’d just buy or rent it. Out of those upcoming games, we look for a title that the widest possible audience will care about, for which we can also support with a compelling article (usually this means getting exclusive info, screens, etc.).
We always keep the unique tastes of our readership in mind. On “Nintendo Power,” for instance, putting a Mario or Zelda game on the cover was a no-brainer because those franchises were so widely beloved in the Nintendo community. But when we risked going with a cover game that felt far removed from how most fans think of Nintendo—like our covers for the Wii console versions of “Silent Hill,” “Avatar,” and “Indiana Jones”—we didn’t do so well. We would sometimes put a not-so-well-known game on a cover because we really believed in it and wanted to make sure players didn’t overlook it, but that challenged us to present it in a creative way to make sure people took notice.
What is your favorite Nintendo system? Why?
I’d pick the NES for pure nostalgia, and maybe the Wii U for modern gaming goodness. The latter has only just come out and hasn’t yet had time to build a legendary game library, but I really love the functionality and I think we’re going to see some amazing stuff on it.
I’d pick the Nintendo 3DS system as my top handheld, since pretty much every one of Nintendo’s portable systems is better than the one before it. And although that system is still relatively new, there are at least a handful of true triple-A first-party classics on it already.
What was your favorite game?
That’s so difficult to answer. I usually say “Super Mario World.” My favorite series is definitely “Super Mario,” followed closely by “The Legend of Zelda.” Outside of Nintendo games, I’ve always dug the “Metal Gear” series. “Uncharted” and “God of War” are also favorites.
Why are Nintendo fans so…committed?
First and foremost, Nintendo has consistently made great, history-making games for over two decades, and those games have always been exclusive to Nintendo platforms. It’s been a much more consistent and inclusive evolution. Nintendo games also tend to have a lot in common, since they share the same development teams and are built from the same philosophies. You can easily identify what would and wouldn’t fit with the Nintendo brand.
On the other hand, Xbox—and to a somewhat lesser extent, PlayStation—have been more of the gaming equivalent of the VCRs that play the movies. Each has quality exclusives, but these systems/communities were primarily built on cross-platform games, which waters down their brands a little. I’m not saying that it’s inherently better to focus more on first-party or on third-party software, but I think that Nintendo gaming is clearly defined by the unique importance of its first-party titles and brands.
Any crazy deadline crunches you remember?
The worst deadline crunches I ever faced came within the first couple years of doing “Nintendo Power.” After pretty much not sleeping during the production of our first two issues, I had honestly gotten to the point where, for the first time ever, I thought that maybe the job wasn’t the best thing in the world.
During that stretch I missed my daughter’s first Halloween night of trick-or-treating. But by our third and fourth issues we got into a better groove, and even as our last-minute crunches continued, we were mostly having a blast.
“My favorite series is definitely ‘Super Mario,’ followed closely by ‘The Legend of Zelda’.”
How about a brush with greatness? Ever meet Miyamoto? What was he like?
I’ve gotten to meet a lot of great game developers. I had dinner with Tomonobu Itagaki in Japan when he was first conceptualizing what the new “Ninja Gaiden” series would be like, and I got to hear him toss around ideas before full development had begun, which was a real treat. I ate steaks with Hideo Kojima (creator of the “Metal Gear Solid” series) and got to pelt him with questions about the “Metal Gear” series the whole time. Afterward we went and sang karaoke.
But I was never as starstruck as the times I met Shigeru Miyamoto. Like so many other people, it was his games that made me a gamer in the first place, going all the way back to “Donkey Kong.” I first got to say a quick hello to him during my first trip to Japan, at a reception following the unveiling of the Nintendo 64.
Through the years I would bump into him from time to time, I got to do a couple of interviews, and once I got up the courage to ask him to sign the copy of “Super Mario Bros.” that had turned me into a gamer back when I was a kid, and he happily obliged. That cartridge hangs on a wall in my office at home, right over my computer.
What advice would you give people who want to get into the gaming press?
For me, it was a total fluke. The Internet wasn’t going yet, and the country’s only video-game magazine happened to be published out of my hometown. But today it’s so much easier. If you want to write about games…just write about games! Start a website, start a blog, jump on Twitter, or join up with someone who’s already doing it. It’s important to really commit, to not only produce good work, but to produce work consistently.
You can’t build an audience or earn relationships with game companies with a halfhearted approach. And since there’s a lot of competition out there, you have to be creative; find an editorial angle or approach that has unique value. You don’t necessarily need an all-encompassing website with a reviews section, news section, etc. Take, for example, the Zero Punctuation video reviews or the Angry Video Game Nerd comedy short films.
When I started, a magazine or newsletter was the only way to build a community, but now the options seem endless. Explore them all and find your niche.
You’ve been a Nintendo and “Nintendo Power” fan from way back. From a fan’s perspective how sad are you to see the magazine retired?
Super sad. But ya know, all good things must come to an end. I’d have loved to work on “Nintendo Power” forever, and as a fan, I’d have loved to subscribe to it forever. But the fact is that times have changed quite a bit since the magazine launched over two decades ago. Back then, “Nintendo Power” was basically the Internet for Nintendo fans—it was our only way to feel connected and learn about new games. But today there are so many other ways to achieve what “NP” set out to do.
Chris and Nintendo President Reggie Fils-Aime broke the bad news through a personal letter to Nintendo subscribers.
Nintendo does a great job building websites around its games, and they’ve been kicking butt on social media lately. The Nintendo word is getting out in a big way. And Miiverse—the social network built into the Wii U console’s operating system—offers a fantastic way to connect with folks and talk Nintendo right there on your system. I think there was still good value in “Nintendo Power,” but there are a lot of great initiatives ready to fill the void and take what “Nintendo Power” started to whole new levels.
Thanks for the interview, Chris!
If you’re interested in getting into the games business, why not get started now? Attend a tech camp next summer and learn how to design video games, or become an artist and learn how to make a magazine. As Chris points out, there are more options than ever before for people who want to get into gaming and media.
The last issue of “Nintendo Power” is on newsstands now.
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