Retro Gamer Feature - 'The Leftovers'

By Damien McFerran - 13 Oct, 2006

Retro Gamer #31

Retro Gamer #31

Readers of the quite frankly excellent Retro Gamer magazine will no doubt be aware that issue 31 is carrying a rather spiffing Mean Machines feature written by my good self. The feature contains new and exclusive comments from such fine upstanding gentlemen as Rignall, Leadbetter, Swan and Glancey and I recommend you purchase a copy (it's out in the middle of November so you've got plenty of time to save your pennies).

Look out for the cover shown on the right, which features gorgeous new artwork from Wil 'Super Play' Overton.

The Mean Machines staff provided me with loads of awesome comments and the feature could have run for many more pages, but obviously some stuff had to be left out. The comments below are the 'leftovers'.

What did you look for when selecting staff members for the magazine?

JAZ: First and foremost, they had to be a hardcore gamer with a natural writing talent that enabled the individual to get across his or her ideas and comments in a friendly and cohesive way. Encyclopedic knowledge of games was also a plus. Everything else was gravy.

RICH: There isn't really any criteria as such. You either got what we were about and could write entertaining copy, or you couldn't. Rad didn't really have an interview as such - from his letters and comic strips we knew at the time that he was 100% Mean Machines. Even on our next wave of recruiting for the mag's eventual split into Mean Machines Sega and Nintendo Magazine System, we got some incredible talent. Tom Guise is simply one of the best writers I’ve ever worked with and Paul Davies' eventual work on C+VG speaks for itself.

What was it like working on the magazine for those two short and successful years?

RICH: Working hours could be pretty grim - we'd all be there at 9:30am with no excuses and even if we left at 6pm, we'd invariably be taking work home with us. The funny thing is though that I can clearly recall spending days at a time playing Mario Kart and our Street Fighter 2 coin-op, but I'm fairly sure that all kicked in once we had more staff. To begin with it was Jaz, Matt, Oz and Gary - I effectively replaced Matt, and it wasn't until Rad and Andy McVittie turned up that things became even slightly more comfortable.

What sources did you use to obtain information and news?

JAZ: Insiders, programmers, friends-of-friends, marketing people, PR - anyone who we could get information from. Once we got some interesting news, we'd then try to get it confirmed. If we couldn't get it confirmed, we'd print it anyway and say that it was a rumor.

How did you obtain review copies?

JAZ: Call up the manufacturers and get them to send us stuff. We all spent hours and hours on the phone talking to our various contacts and insiders, persuading them to reveal news tidbits, give us preview copies and ensure that when a game was finished, we'd get the exclusive. We also spent a lot of time on the road visiting companies and development teams so that when it came to review time, we'd be the first people they'd think of calling. That was absolutely key to making the magazine a success. Something that also helped was our honesty. We'd see preproduction games and give our honest feedback about what we thought of it - essentially giving “free” consultation/feedback to help the company tweak and change the final version of the game to make it more appealing to the gamer. I enjoyed doing that - and indeed, it was that sort of thing that helped me get a game design job at Virgin when I decided it was time for me to leave journalism.

RICH: The software companies would send them to us. Or rather, Sega would. Jaz would have to call up the editor of the Club Nintendo newsletter to get the NES games sent on when he'd finished with them. The other companies would have the annoying habit of turning up at the office and trying to make their games look good before letting us have copies.

Mean Machines kick-started a ‘cover mount’ revolution, which now dominates the magazine market and some would argue has pushed editorial content into the background. What are your feelings on this?

JAZ: PCG (Personal Computer Games) was the first magazine to do a cover mount (cassette) in 1984 - that was huuuuge at the time. ZZAP! 64 did one a couple of years later which was also fairly revolutionary for its time. CVG also did a few cover mount items a year or two after that, so Mean Machines doing it was a natural progression of what had come before it. I think our “contribution” was the fact that we used to do it regularly. Ultimately, we did it in response to the fact that we had fierce competition. Once MM started being successful, lots of other companies launched into our space, so we had to do something to up the stakes. Some of the stuff we put on the magazines was cool, other stuff was crap. But hey. It was free. At the end of the day, the mag was good, and I always felt if someone was buying the mag just cos it had some crap placcy figure on the front, they were a bit of a clueless baboon anyway. These days it seems that you can't sell a magazine without a cover CD. I think pretty much the sole reason for that has got to do with the fact that almost 100% of what's in a magazine can be found on the net for free, and some kind of added value is needed to persuade people to buy it.

RICH: Games magazines always attract a fairly young audience, no matter what the pretensions of the magazine editors may suggest. And the fact is that the kids love the bonus goodies. However, at Mean Machines we came from an age where the magazine had to be bloody good because you wouldn't be putting freebies on the cover every month. And most of the early freebies were stickers and the like. These days the 'freebie' cost has shot up so in many cases the cost of the freebie is more than the cost of physically producing the magazine. Something's gotta give and it’s invariably editorial quality. The fact that games magazines these days are virtually interchangeable essentially means it's the quality of the freebie that is the deciding selling factor and that's a shame.

What are your thoughts on the current standard of videogame magazines, and the impact of the internet?

RICH: The internet is essentially making the printed word increasingly irrelevant. You get the information quicker and you get more of it. You get to see screenshots pretty much in pristine quality at native resolution. DVD covermounts are swiftly going the same way as the Internet these days allows for pristine high definition video. So it’s no surprise that the UK's mag publishers are doing poorly - Future posting losses, Highbury disappearing into the toilet etc.

The staple market of the games mag - the kids - is also rapidly diminishing too. If they want cheats for the latest GTA game, they don't go to the newsagent any more, they go online. They want answers there and then and the printed word cannot compete.

Of course, the actual editorial quality out there online, by and large, is pretty mediocre, but we're living in a high definition age with the screenshots and movies for a particular game do all the talking.

JAZ: There are some magazines out there that look great, and they are written well. But they don't quite have the personality that the old ones used to. They're a lot more “professional” I guess, and the writers aren't allowed to be as outrageous as we were - mostly because advertising is more important now and there is more fear that outrageous comments will result in ads being pulled. Back in the day, we had a little less fear because we could still make a profit off the sales of the magazine alone. Plus being the market leader gave us some leeway for cheek.

The internet has radically changed the way people get their gaming info. I think there's still room for mags in the market, but I think that they need to reinvent themselves to a certain extent otherwise they'll become redundant. I think they've sort of done that in terms of these days most magazines are in fact a demo CD with a “free” magazine, but that will not ensure their long-term survival because as soon as games content is delivered digitally it'll be all over. That will take a good while, but that is the sad inevitability games magazines face. They can't really compete on the news/previews front any more, but they can compete in terms of in-depth articles and features. Plus there's a certain authority that magazines carry that can't be conveyed over the net. If I went back into magazines now, I'd be looking at creating a cross-media property, combining an online and paper version where there is a certain kind of synergy between the two media types with content running across from one to the other in both directions, and some interesting crossovers and promotions. I have some pretty fun and interesting ideas…

There were recent rumours that the MM brand would be re-launched - do you think a new magazine could successfully capture the spirit of the original mag without the most important ingredient - the original staff?

JAZ: Ultimately, who would it be for? If it's aimed at the same-aged people today as the original MM was back then, it would need to be all-new. Who wants to read a mag their Dad used to read? If it's aimed at the original MM readers, then call it something like Old Fart Gamers, make it kinda retro-y in look, and make sure that it's written by a bunch of crotchety, cynical but extremely funny old gits who still love games, but basically don't stand for any nonsense and absolutely speak their mind. If I was doing such a magazine, it would combine reviews of the good new stuff with retrospectives of old games. I'd love to judge old stuff by today's standards and poke fun at some of the mindless crap that we raved about as being amazing and brilliant. Most stuff does not stand up to the test of time, and to be honest I'd want to break through the misty-eyed twatness of retro-gaming and make fun of the way we used to be (and are now). Sure, there are some classics out there, but most of it is horrible old dross, and I think the process of sorting out what is and what isn't with some brutal honesty rather than misty-eyed twat spectacles would likely be a highly entertaining read.

Do you have any amusing tales from your time spent on the magazine?

GUS: It was all amusing really, not like a real job. There was always something funny going on, whether it was Radion's scabs or some PR giving us gip over a review score. I worked alongside some genuinely funny people who were, in the nicest possible way, a bunch of freaks. Or comedians, is a more accurate description - from Rich's ascerbic wit to Tom's slapstick displays. Actually, come to think of it I was a bit of an imposter, I guess that's why I work in IT now...

One of my favourite things were the reader's challenges. There was one in particular with some kid called Troy that we always intended to reward with something from the 'shit game drawer'. The 'shit game drawer' was reserved for people who we didn't like who 'wanted to borrow something for their nephew for the weekend' and for competition winners.

Actually, calling up Sega Power and pretending to be an outraged parent was always fun.I think once we complained to WH Smith they had the word 'fuck' on their cover and they needed to put stickers on it. I also created a fictitious wind-up letter writer called 'Margaret Shelley from Andover' and used to enjoy winding up the reader's with 'her' opinions.

It was also amusing when there was a skip outside which was always attract some scavengers. I remember being highly-amused watching someone pick out a Master System which my boss Andy McVittie had booby-trapped with dehydrated soup powder. Sorry, my sense of humour is broadly sadistic.

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