While we conducted our search for every issue of Die-Hard Gamer magazine, a series of improbable circumstances and chance online meetings eventually led us to its former editor-in-chief, John “Hunter” Norman. We had the chance to sit down and chat with the former magazine head about the rise and eventual end of the magazine.
Librarian: In your own words, why do you think that Die-Hard Gamer never reached the same heights of other popular magazines like Game Informer?
Hunter: Well, for one, color nearly killed us from our first issue on. Before doing Die-Hard Gamer a lot of us were in and around the magazine business, but none of us had that much experience planning out an entire issue. We made mistakes with the layout that forced the first issue to be completely black and white. After all that hard work getting the first issue together in what felt like only a few weeks turned into something I think we were all a little disappointed with when we saw the first copies come in off the press. All that work and time sunk into color was gone. Screenshots – which we spent so much time on – were now black and white and difficult to really get excited about.
The first issue didn’t sell all that well but we all felt it should have done much better if it had been color. So, we did a sort of stopgap issue between issues one and two with all the previous content and some new content, but this time it was all color. It had to be. That was incredibly expensive. The magazine had to be sold for more. It turns out the “winter special edition” sold a little better and we were a lot happier with its quality, but it also just about bankrupted our whole operation before we really got started.
Librarian: What forced you to use color for the winter special edition?
Hunter: When we were assembling the magazine, we didn’t think about how print signatures worked. That is, magazines are printed in eight- or sometimes even as small as four-page signature blocks. That means you could print say your first eight pages in color, then the next eight pages could be black and white, and so on. We didn’t really consider this until we were just about ready to go to print and by then it was too late. It was a rookie mistake.
Then we were in for another surprise when it came to the differences between saddle stitched [staples in the center] and perfect bound [glue in the center with a flat edge on the back]. Saddle stitch was less expensive for us than perfect bound which is why we went that route, but that introduced even more trouble with print signatures that we needed to take into consideration. We didn’t do that with our first issue so we ran into a lot of problems with color.
It is all pretty boring stuff, but it came back to bite us because we didn’t plan for that.
Librarian: Die-Hard Gamer began covering imports already with its very first issue; something that was highly uncommon back in the mid-1980s. Why cover import games?
Hunter: We ran out of stuff to review! Seriously, there weren’t many console releases and we didn’t want to cover only computer games because there were already popular magazines out there that did that. Same goes for arcades. Combining them all sounded fun because that’s what we all played anyway.
Imports reviews were born a little out of necessity. A number of our editors met during our trips back and forth to Japan on business. Co-workers, fellow Westerners, that kind of thing. Once anyone went back to Japan on business, if we still had time to work on the magazine, we sent in reviews for what we were playing there. That’s pretty much how it began. That, and the question we always asked ourselves, which was at what point should we preview something or simply review it. Pac-Man doesn’t change much whether you’re playing it in Japan or North America.
Librarian: Paging through some of the old issues of Die-Hard Gamer, there are a number of things that stick out as awfully pioneering for its time. What do you see when you look back on the early days of the magazine?
Hunter: That’s something pretty fun about DHG. Looking back, we really did a lot of things that could be considered trailblazing now but just seemed normal for us at the time. Import reviews and new consoles aside, there were a number of words, phrases, and concepts that we were some of the first to use.
We had an editor that wanted to be called an Otaku before most Westerners were familiar with the phrase, though it was something that was already becoming popular in Japan by the mid-80s.
We used the phrase “Spoiler Alert” not because we coined it, but a lot of us were familiar with it from Usenet groups.
One of our editors liked coining his own game genre names, so a shooter became a shoot ‘em up. Fighting games became beat ‘em ups, and so on.
We also used the magazine as a testing ground – or a proof of concept – for a number of software packages that some of us were working on with our day jobs. Remember, Die-Hard Gamer was born in a time where computer desktop publishing was in its very infancy. We still did most everything by hand in the early days.
Heh, even “game play” was something I think we helped coin.
Librarian: Really, nobody else said game play?
Hunter: I can’t say I remember seeing that term used much in the 80s. But it was something I think pretty much everyone at Die-Hard Gamer used. I think it came out of the sports world for us, like how a game is played or something, and we’re always explaining some of that when we’re reviewing video games. Now the term is so prevalent. I know there are some magazines out there today that won’t allow their editors to use the term because they consider it a ready-made word or cliché. Back when we used it, game play was very useful when you were dealing with a very limited word count for a review!
Librarian: Speaking about reviews, the Die-Hard Gamer review type was pretty novel for its time. What brought on this review type?
Hunter: The four-reviewer type was born out of a very early desire to have multiple viewpoints. I personally never liked the idea of just one person reviewing a game. We thought about having competing reviews, kind of like Siskel & Ebert before that was a thing, but that really required a lot of interaction between the editors which we didn’t really have a whole lot of time for with print.
We thought of it as a four-star review system with the twist that each editor was only responsible for one of the four stars. We used the fairly common thumbs up and down system to in part hide that fact, but it didn’t take us long to point out that we’d given a game a 3 out of 4, 4 out of 4, or whatever in our own review indexes in later issues.
Later on, I noticed other magazines used their own multi-reviewer system. I don’t think they knew much about our review system for a number of reasons, though. We were often landscape, across the page (which is still extremely uncommon today) because to us that just seemed to work the best, though it was murder on us when we planned out an issue’s layout sometimes! Also, other review systems are almost always point-based systems where we were a simple thumb up or down.
Believe me, I get it; there were a number of times I wanted to give a game an in-between rating, but in the end, we felt it was more important to our readers that we get across if we’re simply recommending something or not. As I explained numerous times to our editors, don’t worry too much about giving a game a thumb up if you’re on the fence because there’s a good chance someone else is on the fence and will give it a thumb down. Very rarely did all of our editors universally praise or pan something if it didn’t deserve it.
Librarian: Can you speak about some of the issues you had with publishers?
Hunter: Well, a number of magazines ran into trouble with publishers that didn’t agree with their game reviews. There are plenty of stories out there of publishers that pulled advertising if they were unhappy with a review or a comment made by an editor. That’s the business. What really upset them, though, was when we did import reviews. That got us into a lot of trouble with publishers. They [publishers] hated that we reviewed their Japanese games early, and even worse, told gamers how to import them.
To understand that, you’ve gotta realize that North American publishers were different entities from their Japanese parents. So, if one of our import reviews meant that someone would buy an import game instead of its North American counterpart, the money from that sale went to the Japanese parent. The North American subsidiary never saw a dime from that sale.
Moreover, you could have a situation where a publisher in North America is completely different. I hate naming specific companies, but consider the now defunct Acclaim Entertainment. Much of their business model was made up of buying other companies' games for release in North America. Companies like that didn’t take kindly to our various import reviews that may cost them sales. We argued against that, that import reviews didn’t hurt their sales but could actually improve them because it meant we reviewed a game twice, but right or wrong, that cost us a lot of advertising and probably contributed to our lack of growth compared with other video game magazines over the years.
Die-Hard Gamer was always close to collapse due to a lack of advertising and even reviewables; we had to buy much of what we reviewed which was costly.
Librarian: How did you get along with Nintendo?
Hunter: Without Nintendo, there was no Die-Hard Gamer, and that goes for much of the industry as we know it now.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Nintendo since I first played the Famicom back in the day, but I think I said something along these lines in the very first issue; I had no crystal ball that they would be the company that brought consoles back into the mainstream of North America. I certainly didn’t anticipate they would be able to dominate the North American market like they did in Japan. I always expected there was a line in the sand that Atari wouldn’t let them cross, but that never happened.
They [Nintendo] were fair to us. Same goes for Sega and later NEC. We just never got to the readership that afforded us as much attention as some of the other video game magazines. I don’t think that affected us much, however. Though, it seems that Die-Hard Gamer was the magazine that everybody heard about, but for one reason or another, never had the chance to read.
Maybe that will change now with what you’re all doing?
Librarian: We hope so!