Julian Rignall: The Definitive Interview
By Damien McFerran - 08 Oct, 2012
Mention the name Julian Rignall to any gamer over the age of 30 and you’re likely to get a pretty animated and enthusiastic reaction. The man is a living legend to anyone with an appreciation of games journalism during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and is one of the main reasons the site you're reading now even exists.
Rignall's career has spanned decades as well as continents and he’s worked for some of the biggest names in the business. Along the way, he has edited and launched a string of massively-successful publications, including Zzap!64, Mean Machines, C&VG, Nintendo Magazine System, GamePro and IGN. He also has a unique perspective on the video game industry, having worked in the development sector during his time with the now-defunct Virgin Interactive.
We were lucky enough to catch up with the great man recently, and quizzed him on his past, present and future - and not once did we mention ‘that’ iconic hairstyle.
An edited version of this interview originally appeared in Imagine Publishing's Retro Gamer magazine. Here, with Retro Gamer's kind permission, we present to you the full interview along with exclusive images supplied by Rignall himself.
How did you get into video games?
Julian Rignall: For me it was the arcades. I used to go into arcades when they still had shitty analog games, and that was fun, but when I saw Space Invaders for the first time, I thought ‘This is interesting’. Actually, my first thought was ‘How can you control all those tiny spaceships with just three buttons?’ Then I realised you were only controlling the ship at the bottom of the screen, and it was like a Zen moment - it blew my mind. I imagine the machines had only just arrived in the UK as the first time I saw it was on a family vacation in the summer of 1978. Prior to that I’d been playing Pong clones in Woolworths - I’d eventually get thrown out or someone bigger than me would come along and kick me off the machine. Even before then, I’d go into Dixons and there would be rows and rows of calculators on display, and I’d go in and play with those, just because I thought they were so cool.
So it wasn’t just games I was into - it was technology in general. Even since I can remember, I’ve always been strangely obsessed with technology and when games came along, I completely went overboard on those. I changed schools deliberately so I would be closer to my local arcade. I would turn up to register in the morning and then bunk off down the arcade and play all day before coming back to take the school bus home. I was never that bright, but I had a knack for being able to read school books and then regurgitate it, so I managed to pass my exams without really doing much work! I’m very, very lucky that I got away with that. I wouldn’t recommend it to any kid these days, that’s for sure!
Well it obviously didn’t do you any harm in terms of career prospects!
JR: It almost didn’t work out. I was living in mid Wales at the time and there were no jobs or anything. I knew I wanted to get into games, but at that point I was far more interested in just playing them, and I was lucky that I was really good at them. I was playing games and getting these world records, but nobody was really logging that kind of stuff here in the UK. I remember writing to Walter Day of Twin Galaxies in the US but he wasn’t really interested in accepting submissions from the UK - that’s actually one of the main reasons that I would later establish the high score tables in Zzap!64 and C&VG.
That leads me neatly onto the next question: one of your first brushes with fame was winning the 1983 C&VG championship. Can you take us through the big day?
JR: They announced the contest and asked people to submit three high scores on different games, so I submitted scores on Defender, Crossbow and Asteroids; I ended up qualifying on Defender. They narrowed it down to about thirty people from about a couple of thousand submissions, and you had 10 minutes to get the highest score you could on the game that you qualified on. The winners of those preliminary rounds went on to the final and had a 10 minute go on the mystery game Gyruss, which hadn’t been released at that time so it was the first we’d ever seen of it.
That sort of competition format suited the way that I play, because I figure out things quite quickly. I was the last one to have a go, and one guy racked up this huge, huge score. He was actually being interviewed as the winner while I was still playing, and I ended up beating his score - he was really disappointed, as you can imagine! But then I did something really stupid afterwards. I was being interviewed by Radio One and they asked how I practiced, so I said that I just bunked off school and went to the arcade.
Of course, when I actually got back to school the next week, the headmaster was livid as not only had I admitted that I bunked off school, I’d also mentioned which school it was that I attended. I’d disgraced the establishment on national radio! For a while they kept tabs on me, I had to go and see a teacher three times a day so they knew that I wasn’t bunking off. It was like house arrest! It drove me absolutely nuts, but as soon as they stopped looking I start bunking off again, like the little twat that I was.
When was it that you started writing for Zzap!64?
JR: That would have been February 1985. No one was really doing hints and tips at the time, so I started writing hints and tips for C&VG, and then for Personal Computer Games magazine. I was getting work printed in those mags thanks to my status as an ‘arcade champion’, which carried a bit of credibility. Chris Anderson - the guy who would go on to found Future and now runs the TED talks in America - he ran Personal Computer Games, and they had this little yearly ‘best gamer’ contest.
They invited me down to London and that’s where I met Gary Penn for the first time. Being complete twats, we got hammered at lunchtime before the contest and so we were both completely drunk when we entered, and unsurprisingly didn’t do that well. But for some reason Chris liked us so much that a few months later he just called us out of the blue and said that he’d been asked to launch a new magazine, and asked if we would be interested in coming down for an interview. That was largely on the strength that we’d already done quite a lot of stuff for Personal Computer Games in terms of hints and tips, so he knew that we could write, and I think he just felt that we were funny. He took a leap of faith with us. I was unemployed at the time - I had been for six months and my parents were getting really worried, they thought they had a future heroin addict on their hands!
I lied to get the job because Zzap!64 was obviously a C64 magazine and I didn’t have a C64 at the time - I actually had a Atari. So when I was being asked questions about what C64 games I was playing, I just talked about the Atari games that I’d played that were also on the C64. You could say that I bullshitted my way in - at the time I don’t even think I’d touched a C64! But at the end of the day, it was all about having the critical eye and being able to write in an interesting way. It was a pretty incredible experience to be getting that chance. I’m sure in a nearby parallel universe I’m still wandering around mid Wales twiddling my thumbs wondering what the fuck happened to my life.
You really blazed a trail at the time - there was nothing else like ZZap!64 on the market.
JR: Credit to Chris Anderson, he’s probably the smartest guy in British publishing. He saw that magazines at the time were being written by ‘proper’ journalists, and as a result the mags were very staid and boring. What Chris did was bring in individuals that were actually really really good at playing games, and rather than just random local kids - which is really what the Crash team were - and he picked from what turned out to be a wide group of people. He’d looked for very specific individuals with strong personalities; when you put us all in a room it was really good because we didn’t really think of the consequences of what we were writing about.
Everything was taken at face value - we would say stuff that would literally put people out of business. I think Gary has spoken before about the story of someone calling up the office and moaning that we’d bankrupted them with a bad review, but at the same time that made us unique. I hate that cliche of ‘working hard and playing hard’, but we did do that. We’d work crazy hours in Ludlow - where there was basically bugger all else to do other than drink and do the occasional drugs that we could get hold of. I remember Jeff Minter coming into the office one time and we all got absolutely baked in the middle of the day. I recall just lying under a table staring up at the underside because I was too fucked up to actually do anything. I think that was the same trip that Jeff jumped onto Roger Keen’s computer and messed up a load of reviews while we were all hammered. He ruined loads of work, which Roger wasn’t happy about.
We were allowed to get away with things because when we did finally sober up, we would produce a very good magazine. But yeah, we did have crazy parties and we did have people come to office, because we had our photos in the magazine so people were interested in meeting us, including members of the opposite sex. Ahem.
You moved to EMAP after Newsfield. Was it a difficult transition?
JR: It was a real challenge for me. One of the things that helped us make Zzap!64 and Crash so successful was that although our methods were crude, we were actually using very early PCs and word processors. We would actually hand-code what we wrote and then run it through type-setters, so we had a high degree of control over what we were producing.
I moved to EMAP and suddenly I had to join the National Union of Journalists and I was given a desk with a typewriter - I was told that The National Union of Journalists was worried about computers undermining The Union of Typesetters. It was so backwards! That was where I cut my teeth on political and corporate manoeuvring, because my options were either to keep doing things the way they’d always been done at EMAP or try and find a way of slowly but surely getting my own way.
What helped me in that regard is that C&VG was beginning to fail at the time; it was a shitty magazine when I joined it to be honest, very ‘by the numbers’ and completely lacking personality. It had begun to lose momentum, so I was able to use that as leverage to bring in change, hire new people and get what I wanted.
When you were brought on board was it on the understanding that you’d eventually become editor of the magazine?
JR: Basically I was brought in to give it life. At the time they had some audits that showed it was failing, and because of the way it was structured it was missing deadlines and there were real production problems behind the scenes. EMAP got sick of what was going on because it was a very valuable magazine; it had a big circulation and was bringing in a lot of money, and there was this big concern that it was just going to go tits up.
I came in and had these endless ideas of what to do, and I pointed out that there were these new machines coming out called consoles, and that we couldn’t just keep banging on about C64s and Spectrums - things were really changing, and we had to be the ones to lead that charge. But there was this reticence to do that from some of the other staffers, and in the end I persuaded the MD of EMAP to take a little bit of a fly with me.
At the same time there was this guy called Graham Taylor who was the publisher of Sinclair User. We became friends and he believed in me; he could see there was going to be money to be made. That’s when Mean Machines happened - but that wasn’t without a lot of hard graft and experimentation to show that it could potentially work.
I guess part of that hard work was The Complete Guide to Consoles series of magazines? Was that essentially testing the water?
JR: Very much so. I knew I wanted to make a console magazine and I knew what I wanted it to be, and Graham said fine, produce some specials and we’ll see if they sell, but you’ve got to make them cheap. So we cranked those mags out in-between issues of C&VG. I had to work from home for four or five days and just write and edit these things. It was insane. I can remember writing the mags but I can barely recall what I wrote, and when I look back now, it was such a blur.
Most magazines at the time had structure and you could tell they’d been thought out, but our magazines had this stream of consciousness style because we only had chance to write it once and then maybe edit it once. So they’d go out with typos and spelling mistakes and would be written in this really weird conversational tone.
But that wasn’t a bad thing - it’s like these days when YouTube stars do really well with incredibly shit videos, because it’s the content that counts, not the production values. The same thing was true back then. People didn’t really care if things were spelt wrong or that the grammar wasn’t the best, it was that it spoke to them. People loved The Complete Guide to Consoles series and that helped us get Means Machines out of the door.
How quickly did you realise that the Mean Machines was going to be bigger than anything you’d done before?
JR: It sounds really egotistical, but I knew that the magazine was going to be good, because basically it was using what I’d learned at Zzap!64 - give us the space to write what we want, let us pull together a team of people that absolutely love what they’re doing and know what they’re talking about, and just leave us alone to get on with it. And so Graham said here’s the money - which wasn’t much - go and find a team and create this office space, get the equipment you need and do your thing.
So it was just like being back at Zzap!64 again; in that sense I had this confidence because I’d done this before and really believed I could do it again; we were writing about something that was just so exciting and we just couldn’t wait to tell people about it.
We did an interesting thing when it came to distribution. We printed 28,000 copies of the first issue, which was fairly low for that time, and we promptly sold out. Knowing that we sold out so quickly, we printed a little bit more for issue 2, which sold out again. We did this to create demand, to create the impression that you’ve got to go out there and get this magazine pronto because if you don’t, you’re going to miss out. It drove this additional demand of people frantically running into the newsagents asking for Mean Machines, and then the newsagent would consequently order more to satisfy demand. It helped us get to a high circulation very quickly - which was amazing for a magazine which was essentially going into uncharted territory at the time.
I think it was maybe issue five where we decided to go balls out and print 80,000 or 90,000 copies, and EMAP was convinced to open its coffers and pour money into this because they thought it would sell - which of course it did. The worry initially - and another reason why we kept things small - was that the advertising market was still was not very strong at that point. There were plenty of small indie shops wanting to get into the mag but very few premium advertisers. So to start with we almost had to keep to the circulation low because we couldn’t afford to trash unsold issues.
From issue five onwards, advertising from bigger companies started to come in because we could go to them and say we’ve got this many readers and we’ve cornered the market. That’s when it really took off, and we had 18 months of crazy growth and very strong sales. We always sold almost as many as we could print, which was very unusual for the time. EMAP were delighted because when they looked at all of their magazines, Mean Machines was the strongest one they had.
It around this time that the magazine was split off into two publications to cover Nintendo and Sega. Was it hard working closely with Nintendo?
JR: We’d been going back and forth with Nintendo for a while. They were a nightmare to work with because in typical Nintendo fashion, they employed people that did absolutely everything they were told to do. We had a lot of negotiation about producing a Nintendo Mean Machines and they weren’t interested in that because we were just too ‘out there’ for them. So then the conversation moved to just doing a plain old Nintendo magazine, but then there was the whole question of what happens if Nintendo release a game that we don’t like, and so on. Eventually they took a leap of faith and it was challenging, because we did go through those periods of they’d send us games and we didn’t like them. But we always argued that we had to say what we thought because the merest whiff of being a shill for Nintendo would make us lose credibility immediately and the magazine would die on its arse.
Once we got over review scores it became about what we said, and I remember having arguments about ‘Why do you have to put it this way?’ or ‘Can’t you say something more positive?’ and it was annoying to have waste a lot of time on that stuff, but that was the price you paid for having an official publication.
Towards the middle of the 90s, you moved away from EMAP. What triggered this decision?
JR: By the middle of 1993 I was getting a little bit concerned about the fact that Mean Machines Sega and Nintendo Magazine System were beginning to feel a bit tired and formulaic. I felt we needed to do something for the new technology that was emerging at the time.
First of all, I really wanted to overhaul and redesign the existing magazines but I wasn’t given the funds to do that, which I was kind of bummed out about because I think you need to do that with magazines every few years to keep them fresh. Then I pitched a magazine that we wanted to called Tekno, which was going to be a high-end thing with more in-depth articles on next-gen tech - with a bit of anarchy and personality thrown in. So I pitched that and there was a great deal of interest from within EMAP.
However, at the same time Graham Taylor was really into home theatre and believed that EMAP should launch a magazine on that topic instead. He pitched that to the same group of people that I pitched Tekno to, and because he was a publisher he was able to make the numbers look a lot more attractive than I could, and they went with it. EMAP invested very heavily in it and it ended up lasting about two or three issues; it was a complete disaster. So I had no money to relaunch these magazines that I’d by this point become a bit tired of, and also I wouldn’t be getting to launch this new magazine that I believed EMAP really needed at the time.
It was during this period that I got an invitation to go to the United States and work with Virgin Interactive. Because I felt really burnt out and I just couldn’t see myself spending another year or two on these magazines, I buggered off. It was sad because EMAP later realised that they did need all of this revitalisation, and they went from being a kind of market leader to being out of business in the space of a few years.
I also felt terrible for the team I’d left behind, because I almost felt as if I was the first rat to leave the sinking ship. It wasn’t all bad - Richard Leadbetter and Gary Harrod did amazing things with Maximum magazine, and the Paul Davies-era C&VG was really fun.
What was it like at Virgin Interactive?
JR: It was a very tough move for me. I went from being in the UK where people knew who I was, to working at this company where people didn’t have a clue who I was, and didn’t care, either. I was supposed to look at all of the games that they had in development and give them feedback. So I went in there with high hopes but very quickly I ran into something which I’d never experienced before, which was horrible corporate inertia.
I would look at a game and say this isn’t going to work and this is why, and producers would get really pissed off with me and argue back. I didn’t have any backup, I didn’t have anyone behind me saying ‘You need to listen to this guy’, so I spent the first couple of years at Virgin just banging my head against the wall. I’d see these games come out and get bad reviews and magazines would say exactly the same things that I said about them a year before.
There were good times - I helped out on The Jungle Book for the Sega Mega Drive which was fun, and I did a bit of consulting work on The Lion King game. But by then Virgin had pretty much imploded; it had spent a fortune on a studio which was so badly set up that it couldn’t really make any games. The reason I went out to Virgin in the first place was that they’d been bought out by the Blockbuster/Viacom group and had gotten lumped with The Spelling Corporation to potentially develop games based on some of their TV shows and stuff like that - that’s where they thought the ‘corporate synergy’ was going to happen - and of course it didn’t.
I remember sitting in meetings and they’d be talking about the losses and I’d be thinking ‘This is just horrible, we’re going to go out of business’. Eventually Virgin was sold to Electronic Arts, and at that point they handed the reins over to Brett Sperry who was running Westwood Studios, which was really Virgin’s only successful brand at that point. Fortunately my green card came through so I could leave the company and work somewhere else. Literally the day I got my green card I called Chris Anderson up, who was at this point running Imagine Media out in San Francisco, and basically told that I was looking for a job.
During our chat I pointed out that Imagine Media had all these different websites which could be combined and relaunched as something that was bigger than the sum of its component parts. A couple of months later I moved to San Francisco and during that first year we created IGN.
I think a lot of your fans in the UK are probably unaware that you helped found IGN...
JR: It’s funny, because a lot of people take credit for IGN. I came in and worked with the existing team to figure out how to put it all together and make it a network.
I think by that point there was about 12 of us, and that’s the real core of the IGN ‘founders’. I was always good at seeing the structure and how it could scale.
IGN was your first real taste of producing content for the web. How did that pan out?
JR: It was amazing in that we took it from around 9 people and grew to about five to six hundred people, and we went through the first generation dot-com boom. We had a guy there who was trying to get as much money out of IGN as possible, and he grew all of this additional shit around it to try and make himself millions. Then people came on board who decided that they didn’t even want to call it IGN anymore, it was going to be called ‘Snowball’ and it’s going to this whole new network. We all knew it was bollocks and was going to fall apart - and we were eventually proved right.
But going through that process was horrible; seeing all this money wasted on stuff and having to hire people and then let them go when it all started going wrong. I would spend my days in meeting after meeting where we would argue about what to do and get pushed in directions we didn’t want to go in, so when we did finally go public in 2000 we’d missed the boat, so we had to pare it back to the thing we always knew was the real business - which was of course IGN.
I’d gotten myself into a situation where I’d been the naysayer for so long - even though I’d been proven right - and a couple of the executive team didn’t want me around any more. I don’t blame them; there’s nothing worse than somebody sitting there saying this is all going to go wrong, and then it goes wrong, and they say ‘I told you so’. I ended up leaving the company, and I was very sad about that, because I did love working with the team. I’d just become weirdly detached from the editorial side of things, because I spent so much time working on the executive level.
You left the games industry for a while, right?
JR: Yes. After IGN I just didn’t want to do anything to do with games anymore - in fact I took a year off. I was just burnt out. I’d gone through the EMAP thing, where I told people it was going to go wrong and it went wrong, then I repeated that exact same situation at both Virgin and IGN. I was sick of it all; I just needed to do something different.
I really liked working online and I really wanted to start learning stuff about the web that was more than just publishing. One of things elements was e-commerce, so I went to Walmart for a year, which I really didn't enjoy but I did learn an unbelievable amount from. Following that, I worked for about three years in an ad agency which had clients like Dell, so I learned all about marketing. Next was Bank of America, where I got an insight into how really huge corporations work, which again was slightly bizarre and nothing to do with games, but proved to be invaluable experience.
What pulled you back into gaming?
JR: I just decided I wanted to get back into publishing again, so I joined Future US and starting working on custom publishing, which took advantage of the fact that I knew about e-commerce and marketing. I got to do the official World of Warcraft magazine and @Gamer, which is basically the official in-store Best Buy video games publication. That really reignited my passion for games magazines, and that’s when I decided to join GamePro as the main editor.
I knew it was always going to be a risk and it was probably going to go under, but I just couldn’t resist that one last shot. The plug was pulled eventually, and it was a shame because our version of GamePro was actually commercial successful, but the new owners had decided it didn’t fit into their company and they’d already lost millions. We’d done miraculous things with the website and we got to relaunch what I believe was a really good magazine. Reader response was amazingly positive, so it was a real shame - I think if we’d have sold it in the UK it would have done really well.
Is it true that you're working to revive the Mean Machines brand? Can you tell us a little about your plans? Are any of the original staff members involved?
JR: Well I finally managed to get hold of the www.meanmachines.net URL a month or so ago - the .com URL is locked up by Hasbro for some American toy brand it still owns, so this is the next best thing. Richard Leadbetter and I have been talking about what we should do with it, and we've got some very interesting ideas. I think the easiest thing to do for now is perhaps a Podcast (perhaps with Gary Harrod if he's interested) and some short but fun editorial pieces with a retro focus. Nothing big - just something fun for those who remember the era.
If there's sufficient interest, we could keep on developing it, but I doubt it'll be a commercial proposition as I think it'll be of limited interest to most gamers. Of course, getting the thing organized and kicked off is the biggest challenge, since we all have jobs and whatnot. But I'd definitely like to get something started - as usual it just needs someone to help us stay organized. Perhaps we might find a kindly volunteer to get involved...
Have your say about this feature
ed - 15 Oct 2012, 13:43 GMT
Well reading that brightened up a wet dank Monday for me... :D
Would love to see a MM podcast - hell I'd like to see *anything* again - bring back the passion!
Great pics too - haven't we seen that Tigger t-shirt before lol?! ;)
Pete - 16 Oct 2012, 01:48 GMT
Great interview, good to hear from the man himself. An MM podcast would be amazing, even if they just talk bollocks about the '90s. Nice photos as well.
Jaz's Sheep - 17 Oct 2012, 10:39 GMT
That'd be ace. There's still nowhere for decent reviews, something Rignall based would at least see some honest reviews.
PeriSoft - 20 Feb 2013, 15:23 GMT
To hell with the video games - I want to know about the rally picture - you can't just put that in there without explanation! :)
Also, "I was never that bright" - yeah, sure, sure...
Rudeboi - 30 Sep 2013, 00:22 GMT
Rudeboi - 30 Sep 2013, 00:26 GMT
Ow!!!! Wonder if jaz still has his super famicom? I do!!, i was only 14 at the time of import n have neva worked so hard 4 anything thing since 😅
Jay Roberts - 21 May 2015, 23:10 GMT
Very enjoyable and interesting interview. I loved Mean Machines and C+VG back in the day and a podcast or anything MM would be absolutely great. Thumbs up and fingers crossed