Julian Rignall - Editor
What are you up to at the moment?
I’m working at an advertising agency in San Francisco writing print ads and high-end catalogues. About four years ago, after about seven years working in a series of increasingly high-end management positions that I just didn’t particularly enjoy, I took a sabbatical and during that time decided to try something new. I was just burned out on the games industry and needed a break. After much pondering, I decided that since I’ve always wanted to do ad writing, I should give it a go. I’m glad I did. Getting back into the trenches as a writing grunt again has been brilliant. It’s challenging, it’s fun in a weird kind of way and definitely a much different discipline to consumer press writing. And the best thing is that it’s low-stress and largely 9-to-5, which makes a change from years of up-all-hours deadline craziness, and having to deal with horrible office politics and endless management issues. Lets me work to live, rather than live to work. More time for the girlfriend, gaming, Djing, motorcycling and all the other fun things in life that beat the crap out of being a 24/7 corporate slave.
You started out on legendary C64 magazine Zzap! 64 in sleepy Ludlow. Could you tell us a bit about your time there?
ZZAP! was a really fun place to work. Everyone there was young and it had a very anarchic environment. The people who ran the company encouraged us to push the envelope and let us publish things that you simply could not write today. If a game was crap, we could say it was crap - literally. That definitely helped set us part from all the other mags out there at the time.
It was at ZZAP! where I really learned to write – I joined the magazine fresh out of school and had to learn everything from scratch. Fortunately we had really good mentors in the guise of Chris Anderson (who ended up founding and owning Future Publishing) and Roger Keen, and they really helped me hone my skills. Even if it did mean me rewriting reviews repeatedly until I got them right.
You then moved onto ‘greener pastures’ – Computer and Videogames. Was the working environment much different from Zzap!64?
Moving to EMAP (CVG’s publishers) was a shock. When I got there, EMAP’s games mags were basically being run by a bunch of journos-turned-gamers, rather than gamers-turned-journos. Consequently, it was a lot more staid and conservative than Newsfield (ZZAP!’s publishers) and they didn’t quite have their finger on the pulse of the gamer. Some of the guys there didn’t even play games! Plus we had to use typewriters. Yes. TYPEWRITERS! In a magazine division that produced computer and videogames magazines. I nearly fell off my seat when I first got there and realized there wasn’t one word processor in the entire building. WTF! However, over the ensuing years, I helped persuade EMAP to buy and install DTP systems and hired a team of real gamers like Paul G, Richard L, Gary H and all the rest of the crew who knew how to make mags for the audience because if they weren’t writing magazines, they would have been the audience.
Although you didn’t create it, the Mean Machines section of CVG became very much your baby. Did you find it difficult to get people enthusiastic about Japanese consoles in a magazine that was predominantly focused on Western home computers?
Not at all. At the time, 8-bit computers were dead, high quality Atari and Amiga games were thin on the ground and it was apparent that they weren’t going to set the gaming world alight. Japan was where the really cool stuff was at, and if you had an interest in gaming, that’s what you wanted to read about. Basically the Mean Machines section quickly garnered a huge following and most of the letters we got were asking about Japanese games and referencing the MM section.
How difficult was it to convince EMAP that the market was ready for a console-only magazine?
Surprisingly hard. Money, money, money. It was all about the money, so we had to figure out how many ads we could get, how many copies we could sell and ultimately make the “money made” figure bigger than the “money invested” number. It required a bit of, shall we say, “creative mathematics”, but we knew Mean Machines would be successful even if we had to fiddle the numbers to make it work. When we presented the spreadsheet to Lord EMAP and his mighty army of bean counters, they got the whiff of potential profits and they immediately gave us the green light. The rest, as they say, is history.
You tested the water with the ‘Complete Guide to Consoles’ series. Can you tell us a bit about how this magazine was created?
Uuuuuh. Fucking nightmare. Basically that was me, the rest of the teeny team of writers and a designer going mental for like a week at a time creating each one. And that was on top of creating the regular mags we produced. One we ended up writing in three days flat. Absolutely insane. But we sooooooo wanted to make a MM magazine, we were more than happy to put in the effort. Looking back at it, the EMAP management totally exploited our incredible enthusiasm and sheer desire to make mags, but at least we got to do what we wanted, even if it did push us to our limits, and sometimes beyond. The year we produced the Mean Machines issue to end all Mean Machines issues (196-page Xmas special with Mario hologram on the front) we were all seriously fucked for weeks. Just five of us put the entire thing together. I don’t think any of us slept in a month. I remember getting to the point where I was so exhausted, I was trying to read stuff on screen and I couldn’t actually understand any of the words, and I completely lost my short-term memory for a day or two. Very weird feeling indeed. Good times… good times. Hehehe. That’s what I was talking about EMAP exploiting us. Stuff like that was waaaaay beyond reasonable, but EMAP – or rather, our tight-fisted publisher – wouldn’t add a new staff person so he could squeeze out a few more quid in profits.
Could you tell us a bit about the early years of Mean Machines?
Best team I’ve ever worked with bar none. The office atmosphere was absolutely electric, and anyone who came to visit us always commented on what a total laugh we were always having. Some of the shit that used to go on was unbelievable. It was pretty much open season on everything and anything – very much like a Fraternity type atmosphere I guess. A bunch of psychotic juvenile gamers pretty much let loose to make the best gaming magazine they could. It was super-competitive in the right kind of way so we were always pushing one another to write (and say) increasingly outrageous things, and I think that showed in the magazine.
I occasionally find an old back issue at home and when I read it, I can’t believe how funny we sometimes were, and the sort of shit we used to get away with. Being EMAP and having a penny-pinching publisher, everything was done on a shoestring to maximize profits and we were always understaffed, so we had to work very long, very hard hours, but the fun environment more than made up for it.
After successfully launching Mean Machines Sega and Nintendo Magazine System, you moved from journalism to actually working within the industry proper at Virgin. Was it hard to make the transition?
Very hard indeed. I went from being well known and respected and working in an awesome environment to “who the fuck are you” and working in a very sterile and conservative environment. Ultimately, it was very frustrating – when I gave feedback on the games in production to try to help improve them (which was my job), people just didn’t listen. Then it’d get a shit review, and I’d see that the review highlighted all the same criticisms that my production reports had months earlier. I cannot tell you how many times that happened. To be honest, Virgin was a total joke. Awful management. Nobody listened to anyone, and there were a lot of people there just interested in making as much money as possible, sucking as many freebies out of the company as possible and doing as little as possible. Very few games were made in the time I was there, because teams couldn’t get their act together and management was too interested in playing politics rather than making games. I could go on and on, but all I’ll say is that it took less than three years for Virgin to burn through the multi-multi-$100m cash injection it got from Blockbuster-Viacom to being totally up to its ears in debt. That pretty much epitomizes the situation.
What caused you to leave Virgin?
The last year I was there was just attrition – layoffs after layoffs as Virgin tried to cut costs and save itself, but it had no chance. The company was totally screwed. At the end, there was just me and a financial left guy running the internal teams. We had to do a lot of cutbacks and layoffs to keep things running – it went from about 750 people down to about 120. It was miserable having to do that. Then Westwood studios took over and paved the way for EA to buy the remainder of the company. I only stayed there because I was unable to work anywhere else in the states until my Virgin-sponsored Green Card paperwork was approved. The day it was approved was the day I quit and started looking for a job in San Francisco.
You then moved back onto the ‘other side of the fence’ by joining IGN. How different was it editing and writing for an internet site compared to doing the same job on a print magazine?
It was an unbelievably fast-moving environment. We had a big team of writers cranking out an unbelievable amount of copy to hit a 6:00 PM daily deadline, so it was basically like working on a newspaper or daily news show. It was insane, but really good fun. I was back in my element again, and was given the chance to do something really cool – head up a very talented editorial team and build a truly great gaming site. I couldn’t ask for anything better than that. Things all went a bit pear-shaped once the dot-com greed set in and money men who didn’t understand the product were bought in to take the company public, but the first few years there were great.
Could you give us a brief summary of what’s happened since you left IGN?
I’ve always wanted to learn all about retail/marketing and advertising, so what better place to work at than the world’s biggest retailer, Walmart.com? Or not, as I discovered. I spent exactly a year there running the editorial/content team that wrote their web site. While I learned a ton there, I also learned that ultra-conservative, uber-corporate environments filled with brainwashed wankers is not the place for me.
Having spent several years at CVG, eventually rising to the lofty position as Editor, what are your feelings on the recent demise of the magazine?
Very sad indeed. That’s a magazine that should never have gone away. But stupid decisions, failure to understand the market and react to it quickly enough and some frankly waaaay-off-base writing sealed its doom.
Do you ever feel like getting back into videogame journalism?
Definitely. It’s been almost five years since I left it, and it’s been a lot, lot longer since I’ve regularly written games stuff. Sometimes I think I should go out there and see if anyone is interested in some kind of monthly column from me, but I haven’t got around to doing it yet. If I did make a career move back into the industry, I’d definitely not want to be a manager. Just running a magazine or just writing would make me happy.
What’s your opinion on the current videogame industry?
Same as it ever was. A select few smart people making great games, and lots of hopeful idiots making mediocre ones. Many games are killed by design-by-committee decisions and stupid marketing decisions, but that has been happening for well over a decade now.
On a wider scale, I’m really glad that videogames have become accepted as just another form of regular mainstream entertainment. In the early days of gaming, I did a lot of chat shows where I defended the “evil” games industry from attacks by misguided, ignorant people who could only see bad things in videogames. Things have changed enormously over the last decade, and while there is still a small loony contingent who say videogames are inherently evil (the same muppets also don’t seem to like ANYTHING other than sanitized, safe, middle-of-the-road shite) most people accept videogames for what they are – nothing but harmless fun.
What games are you playing at the moment?
I absolutely love World of Warcraft, and I play most nights with my Priest or Hunter (depending on who else is on in my Guild). Gran Turismo 4 is the ultimate driving game for a car whore like me. Plus B-Spec mode means I can play it at the same time as WoW. W00t for being able to play the two greatest games ever simultaneously! I like Devil May Cry 2 for its comedy slash-n-burn stylee, though my girlfriend seems to be playing that more than me at the mo. She loves the Onimusha and DMC series of games. I also play Warhammer 40k - the real-life miniatures war game. Although it’s a beardy twat game, there’s something about it I like, plus it’s fun doing “live” gaming rather than just sitting in front of the PC. I also play UT on a regular basis, and Magic the Gathering online occasionally.
Do you keep in touch with any of the other MM/EMAP staffers?
Yes. Though not regularly enough. I owe Mr Glancey and Mr Leadbetter some emails, but I’ve been too lazy recently to put finger to keyboard and give them a shout. I’m a git like that. I spoke to Andy McVitte a while back and he’s doing well. Was a nice surprise to hear from him.