Richard ‘Rich’ Leadbetter talks about video game magazines in the 90s.
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Richard ‘Rich’ Leadbetter was a staff writer for C+VG and Mean Machines magazine. He then went on to run a bunch of other publications in the 90s. Today, he’s best known as the co-founder of Digital Foundry.
Anyway, I recently interviewed Rich for an article about C+VG (Computer and Video Games) magazine.
If you don’t want to read my ramblings about liminal states, boundary years, and C+VG in the early 90s, here’s the raw, uncut, original interview.
Let’s start with an easy one. How did C+VG decide who was reviewing what? Who got stuck with the C64 and Spectrum budget titles and who got the latest Mega Drive or PC Engines titles?
“With the magazine, we had a ‘flat plan’ which was essentially a layout of the magazine and what was on every page — it sat on the editor’s desk. Fluorescent markers would be used to fill in completed pages. We covered a lot of games back then and principally, it was a race to get those pages on the plan coloured in. The editors would choose the games that strongly appealed to them, but typically, the staff writers would do what the editors told them to do! We weren’t precious about that kind of stuff back then — we didn’t have time. We’d just get on with it.”
Given the huge number of games that C+VG was covering back in the early 90s how much time did you dedicate to a given game before you reviewed it? How did you deal with the volume of games?
“In truth, we didn’t spend a huge amount of time playing the games — but typically that’s because the vast majority of the games out there were simple arcade conversions or very basic compared to the epics of today. But there would be games like, say, Mike Singleton’s Midwinter which would require more time. In these scenarios, we’d spend more time on it, take it home and play it in our spare time, etc.”
What I find really interesting about C+VG around 1990–91 was that the industry was going through a massive shift, going from an almost British cottage industry to this proper global business. I think the diversity of the games and systems covered reflects that. But how did you balance that shift between the old and new, and the need to cover old 8-bit titles alongside the latest Japanese import.
“So the beauty of C+VG was that it didn’t need to be comprehensive, it wasn’t trying to be a ‘gaming bible’ that covered every single release. There was a certain amount of curation — and I’d say that the 8-bit coverage gradually started to die off when there were more exciting games to talk about. When I joined, Mean Machines was just starting and it quickly became evident where the momentum was. I actually started out on C+VG because I owned an Amiga and didn’t really have a console background, but when you have the whole plurality of gaming in front of you, it was very difficult to maintain much enthusiasm for the 16-bit machines, let alone the 8-bit ones.”
Was there ever any official decision to phase out the older 8-bit home micro-computers from C+VG or was it one of those scenarios where you ignore it and hope it goes away?
“With the curation angle I’ve talked about, 8-bit coverage just kinda fizzed away quietly in the background. And to be fair, the genius of Jaz Rignall and Paul Glancey was in hiring dedicated gamers to write the magazine. People like Gary Harrod joined, who was super-plugged into the Japanese gaming and arcade scene and that excitement spread quickly. We knew what was hot and what excited us, we loved the new games coming out and wanted to write about them, setting the agenda, if you like.”
With some many new consoles on the horizon, Mega Drive, PC Engine, etc., as well as the Amiga and PC Compatibles, did anyone (both at the magazine and more broadly) genuinely know where the industry was heading? Or was it all seat-of-the-pants?
“There was no market research or any grand vision or strategy as such — beyond the fact that EMAP trusted Jaz Rignall’s instincts and gave him the OK to launch Mean Machines. But even then, EMAP were very conservative about print runs, etc. Mean Machines was a technical sell-out month after month and that obviously helped to propel C+VG in a new direction with a much stronger focus on consoles. But I only spent around 18 months on C+VG, and even during that period I was writing for Mean Machines. The two teams sat next to each other, shared games, spoke to each other all the time etc. The writing was on the wall for 8-bit coverage within a few months of me starting in July 1990, I’d say.”
What were the actual working conditions like back in those days? I assume it was poorly ventilated offices, long hours and more informal structures. Basically, a simpler time. How did things change as the industry became bigger and more professional, and did you feel the job lost some of the fun?
“The working conditions were pretty disgusting, the office was a mess, there was no air conditioning, probably about a quarter of the people smoked in the office — and the games room was stiflingly hot in the summer. I was pretty surprised at how bad it was when I went to interview for the job. The funny thing is, of course, that the stuff piled up in there (most of which ended up in a skip) would likely be worth a lot of money now. Hours were long, but personally I commuted into London and out of it at the end of the day, so would put in extra hours at home to get reviews done. The question of how the industry became bigger and more professional doesn’t really apply for the entire EMAP period, really, right up until I left in 1999. Perhaps by 1995 when the Official PlayStation Magazine came out and EMAP was comprehensively bettered by Future Publishing in pitching for the official license, the penny began to drop — but even then, the magazines were still produced in much the same way.”
The world is lot of more homogenised and connected these days. Looking through an old issue of C+VG, the thing that strikes me is the excitement around all the Japanese imports; whether it’s anime, consoles, developers, etc. Do you think the magazine (perhaps unwittingly) helped connect kids to a broader world beyond their own suburbs via that reporting and coverage. Basically, it set a generation of kids down a rabbit hole that expanded their view of the world?
“Absolutely that was the case. And it kickstarted the whole grey import scenario, where small firms sprung up to bring over the latest consoles and games from the Far East. You can see it in the kind of advertising that sprung up in C+VG in that period. We were showing the world a big bunch of amazing games that they couldn’t play — and absolutely they wanted to. Things wouldn’t change for years — right up until PlayStation 3, Japan would get the new kit first, followed by the USA and then finally Europe.”
Do you think today’s industry is missing the magic of the early 90s, when it was still a free for all, and new systems were being launched almost every few months? Have we lost some of the magic or are we just old men getting nostalgic?
“The business is orders of magnitude larger and more mainstream than it was in the 90s — and also a lot better from a quality perspective. It’s rare that you’ll find an actual bad product these days — whether it’s a console, a PC component or a game. The industry was still finding its feet in the 1990s and the kind of fanzine-like mentality that we brought to journalism reflected that really. With that said, that approach may have been somewhat unprofessional, but its appeal was its authenticity — and I expect that’s exactly why YouTubers and Twitch streamers are so popular today — and they have the advantage of cheap tools and global platforms that gives you everything you need to publish yourself. If there’s a regret looking back, it’s that the success of those magazines was entirely down to the staff and EMAP exploited us.”
Did you guys ever push things too far and get in trouble with the C+VG content?
“Not that I can recall. There were some PRs who’d phone to complain at Jaz once in a while, but he was Jaz Rignall, he stood by what he said and always backed his staff. When there was a contentious review, he’d be smart enough to recognise it and would put the time into the game to ensure his review (or second comments) were bullet-proof. I do recall one PR turning up at the office demanding a 95% score or he’d pull advertising and Jaz literally told him to get out there and then.”
And finally, what’s something most people don’t know about C&VG?
“There would be at least one — sometimes two or three — sacks of mail arriving every single day. Sorting out the competition entries from mailbag, Q+A and other stuff was literally an hour’s work. That’s the main reason why you saw Rob and George (the mail men — though more general office help) in the magazine. There was no internet back then, no way for readers to interact other than to send us mail — and we got a lot of it. Occasionally, readers would just turn up at the office trying to meet us. It was kind of crazy.”
Forgotten Worlds: A magazine about old video game magazines coming soon.