Richie Shoemaker flicks through the first issue of Debug, a new games magazine edited by veteran mag-ician Dean Mortlock that aims to be a champion for indie titles, studios and publishers.
Gaming magazines are in strange and uncharted territory. Despite established titles continuing to post copy sales that 15 years ago would have seen them closed in the turn of a page, there’s been a steady increase in the number of boutique titles filling the shelves. There are now in the UK, for example, just as many magazines for the Commodore Amiga – a machine that stopped being produced 30 years ago – as there are for PC gamers.
On the console front, there are more titles that support Sega hardware (the last of which rolled off the production lines more than 20 years ago) than for the still-very-much-in-the-game Xbox. Perhaps the most striking newcomer to the newsstands has been the resurrected Crash magazine, which along with its old 8-bit stablemates Zzap! and Amtix, can be found in select branches of WH Smith almost 40 years after it launched and more than 30 since it folded. Quite remarkable, to borrow a catchphrase of the time.
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Debug is the latest games magazine to have offered a satisfying thud as it hit the MCV doormat this month and what’s interesting about it compared to the other newcomers and returners to the newsstand is that there is no obvious reverence for the games or technology of old. Instead of being retro, the focus is very much on the latest and greatest games, specifically those of an indie persuasion.
“There are so many indie games now,” says Dean Mortlock, Debug’s editor (and that of the aforementioned Sega magazine), admitting that while there may be too many titles for one magazine to reliably cover, an attempt to offer a flavour of the most enduring, interesting and current indie titles was something that he and his fellow co-conspirator (Wave Game Studios’ founder Daniel Crocker) were keen to deliver, not just for indie fans, but for the indie-curious.
“There are the indie people that will know the genre well and regularly buy the games, but equally we want to try and appeal to the people that are a bit more casual or that don’t buy more because they’re not quite sure which are the best games.”
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Debug isn’t the first games mag to devote itself to indie gaming (that accolade likely belongs to the defunct Indie Game Magazine), nor is it the only one around at the moment (Patch Magazine – also UK-based – is nearing its 20th issue), but Debug is perhaps the most substantial, coming in at 80 pages; the vast majority of which are devoted to previews and reviews. Debug even has scores, with the average (in the first issue, at least) a comforting and reliable 7/10.
While Mortlock admits that previews and reviews have been “done to death” in terms of being the stock-in-trade of traditional games mags, it’s the format that best serves what Debug is trying to achieve, which is to help gamers find titles they might enjoy rather that going into the making of a game that they’re already familiar with.
It also means that in the process of seeking out new games and experiences, Debug might eventually be a kind of beacon that developers as well as gamers gravitate towards. By way of example Mortlock mentions Idu, a “strategic plant-growing sim”, which might have remained in glorious obscurity had its creator not made themselves known to Mortlock on the mag’s Discord. That’s not to suggest appearing in Debug is a surefire route to success and riches, but that the printed page offers a distinct avenue for exposure that’s traditionally been denied gaming’s more esoteric projects.
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As well as via the magazine, the Debug team intends to be a vehicle to promote indie games through events, which is why the magazine was recently launched at Norfolk videogame conference OLL, where a Debug sponsored stand showcased more than 40 games. “The idea primarily being to support indie titles that ordinarily wouldn’t necessarily have an outlet,” says Mortlock. Debug will be headlining a few other events during the year and plans are being cooked to take things to the next level, or in new directions, or both. Mortlock isn’t prepared to say what, where or how, only that raising the profile of indie gaming and getting more people invested in them is the ultimate aim.
Of course, the aim for Debug as the sole breadwinner is to turn a profit. Realistically though, in this day and age, that means sales targets have to remain modest. “Whereas Future [Publishing] would close a magazine that was selling five to ten thousand copies because it wasn’t making a profit, if we produced a magazine that sold that amount – we’d literally be rolling in it.”
According to Mortlock, Sega Powered magazine, which he launched in 2021, sells between 500-800 copies a month, which is “enough to justify doing it.” With Debug the aim is to go above and beyond that. “Obviously, the days when we were selling large numbers of magazines are long gone, but I think if you’re a small company, independent, have reasonable expectations, and sensible budgets, there’s no reason why you cannot have something that can cover its costs and make a small profit.”