Richard Leadbetter - Deputy Editor
What are you up to at the moment?
I do the occasional spot of writing, but most of my time and effort goes into my own media company, Digital Foundry, which specialises in DVD and high-end multimedia projects.
How did you get involved in Mean Machines?
It’s a long story. When I was at Sixth Form College, I had a sudden "what am I going to do for the rest of my life?" crisis, so I sat down one evening and wrote two or three reviews and sent them on spec to Julian Rignall at Computer and Video Games. At that time, C+VG was the only mag I bothered reading and I guess I quite fancied writing game reviews for a living. Previously I’d written a number of letters to C+VG under a variety of hilarious aliases, which always seemed to get printed, so I figured that I was good enough to give this writing thing a go. I sent my reviews off in February 1990, thought nothing more of it, and had the shock of my life in June when Jaz Rignall invited me up to London for an interview. It seemed to go OK-ish, although it was the day before my last A-Level exam, which was a bit inconvenient.
I didn’t hear anything more for another couple of months, and whenever I phoned, he was always in a meeting (I discovered later what that actually meant – Mario Kart and arcade Street Fighter 2 were the basis of countless ‘meetings’ of my own). When I did get through, he told me that I wouldn’t be working on C+VG but would instead be helping out on a new launch – Mean Machines – and that I should come in to help out on the Complete Guide to Consoles.
So I did a bit of freelance for three days and at the end of it, I discovered that I had a full-time job. As it happened I ended up on C+VG any way (as I had far more knowledge of the Amiga, C64 and Spectrum compared to the Master System and NES) and I worked there for a year or so, but the pay was so poor I did countless pages of Mean Machines freelance, usually Matt Regan’s reviews. A few issues in and my involvement became ‘official’ and Gary Harrod designed my bequiffed Mean Machines manga persona. A legend was born.
What was it like working on the magazine as a youngster?
It was extremely hard work. In the morning Rob and George would bring up two or three sacks of mail which I had to sort through (those were the days when readers really wanted to be a part of the mag) and I’d read through the letters and put aside the best ones for Mean YOB.
Then it would be pretty much constant playing and writing. And taking screenshots, which was achieved in a "darkroom" (ie a cupboard-like space with the lights turned off) by pointing a very expensive Minolta camera at the TV screen… and hoping there was a good pause mode. We didn’t think that digital screengrabs gave a realistic idea of what people saw on their screens, and Lord EMAP didn’t want to spend the money on the kit any way. Things improved once we got some more staff. This allowed us time to spend days on end playing the likes of Super Mario Kart, Super Tennis and Street Fighter 2.
Overall though it was great to have such a cool job and be so young, because that’s when you have the most creative fire in your belly, and the energy to give it your all. Plus your sheer youthful enthusiasm will carry you through a lot of grief. By the time I was 19 I was proof-reading pages and was Deputy Editor of the mag that same year. Less than 12 months later I was editing Mean Machines Sega when the split into two mags took place.
In the early 90s CVG and MM were very close, often sharing staff members (as was the case with yourself). Was there much pressure at the time?
Well, Jaz was pretty much working full-time on Mean Machines – I seem to recall that his contributions to C+VG were limited to strategy meetings and the odd review or feature. I was on C+VG at the time and my Mean Machines stuff was mostly written at the weekends or evenings. But there was a degree of crossover in that the staff of both mags were crammed into a tiny area at the end of EMAP’s first floor in Farringdon. So we’d be chatting all day any way and in many ways, the editorial staff was virtually interchangeable. Things changed when Tim Boone (remember him?) arrived on C+VG – he wanted his own team and his own identity for the magazine, and Jaz took far more of a backseat at that time, dedicating pretty much all of his energies to Mean Machines. At that point, the two magazines drifted apart, and I was giving 100% to Mean Machines any way. Then of course MegaTech came along which further divided the core staff. The biggest problem during that whole period was that the 16-bit consoles were emerging and Mean Machines was stealing a lot of C+VG’s fire. There was concern that two mags essentially covering the same things would be the big problem, not knowing that the market was growing exponentially, with more than enough room for both titles.
I was a massive fan of Maximum, can you tell us a bit about that magazine, and why it folded after such a short time?
Now this is a LONG story. So here goes. The bottom line is, it was a cool mag, but it was ultimately a waste of time, more appreciated now than it was while it was being published. The initial pages we produced were amazing and we should have used those to pitch for the official PlayStation licence. Instead, Gary Harrod and I were obsessed with producing the ultimate multiformat magazine, borne out of the fact that at that time, C+VG was absolutely hopeless, its sales in the toilet. Our aim was to produce something different – we reasoned that most people only bought two or three games per month, so we would concentrate on the best titles that month on each format, but produce mammoth, collectable features in a super-deluxe package. In short, editorial coverage as essential as the game itself. At that time, Edge seemed to get the plaudits as the true gamer’s mag – an attitude that dismayed us as you could tell from the screenshots just how much they played the games without having to read a word.
We were extremely anal about every aspect of Maximum. Gary would spend far too much time on the design, screenshots had to be perfect. We’d even take high resolution screenshots of low resolution games to ensure that every pixel was captured. Colour correction in the transition from RGB to CMYK was handled lovingly (go back to your mags in that era and see how many purple Sonics or Kages you see.) We’d try to complete every game to show the best possible bits (and to show the readers that we wouldn’t just take shots from level one of each game, as most mags at the time were wont to do.) When artwork was cut out, the cut-outs were pixel-perfect. We went to incredible lengths to source proper artwork for the games. The targets we set for ourselves were simply too high, absolutely unattainable for a monthly magazine. And to be honest, those standards were on the whole quite spectacularly pointless as 99% of the readers wouldn’t/couldn’t tell the difference any way. But we were kind of blind to that such was our dedication.
We could have rushed it and put out crap, but to us there was no point in doing that. The obsession with quality was mind-blowing – almost literally. For the first three issues there was only three staff on a 164pp magazine. Absolute madness. EMAP got very worried about the project, especially when issue #3 (probably the best one we did, and the poorest performer sales-wise) was weeks late.
Our publisher was particularly unhelpful, and we got little to no support, just more hassle and more impossible deadlines. What didn’t help our cause was that although the first issue sold pretty well, issues #2 and #3 bombed – most likely because we put Sega games on the cover. Then the Soul Edge cover failed too, we really were ahead of our time there. In short, it was swiftly becoming clear that all the 80 and 100 hour weeks we were putting in were for a commercially flawed magazine. All that effort was not yielding results and not enough people bought into what we were doing. In that respect, EMAP’s management were 100% right. It was clear that changes had to be made.
So for issue #5 we got hold of the arcade Tekken 2 board and went crazy on it for the following issue. Amazingly, sales only improved marginally. At this point, all of us were sick of the insane hours we were working and the total inability to have any kind of life outside of EMAP’s rundown offices. Soon after, Dave Hodgson (one of the best things to come out of the debacle, one of the best I ever recruited) reluctantly moved onto the official Nintendo Mag and we all knew the game was over. Disillusioned with EMAP, Dave, Gary and Dan Jevons (another great talent) decided to try their luck in the USA and I didn’t care less what happened to Maximum. We knew it was over. It’s surprising how good the last issue is, considering that we just didn’t care any more, hence the ker-azy 6/5 score for Mario 64, which I regret to this day, it’s a 4/5 game and not as good as Super Mario World.
The publisher wanted to relaunch it as our PlayStation and N64 friendly issues saw an increase in sales but EMAP didn’t want any of the original team on it. I seem to recall they had a shit designer working on a relaunch for a few days (I can recall the Maximum logo in a lozenge shape and laughing at it) but it swiftly died out. Nobody had a positive experience of being involved with Maximum – certainly not the management – and there was no enthusiasm for it.
The irony was that our initial aim in doing this project – ie, producing a decent multiformat mag – was achieved more successfully by someone else as Paul Davies, Tom Guise and Ed Lomas took over C+VG and revolutionised the magazine. I remember Gary and I sat in the coffee shop looking at their first redesigned issue and realising there and then that our initial motivation for doing Maximum was now irrelevant, because C+VG was suddenly decent again.
It wasn’t a happy time – when we weren’t fighting the deadlines, we were fighting EMAP’s management. When the mag was threatened with closure after the disappointing issue #5 sale, it had reached the point where we really didn’t care any more. Sales perked up on the last two issues, and advertising was doing better too, but the staff were utterly pissed off and the management were pissed off with the staff. So no-one was particularly upset or surprised when the axe came. We just wanted to move on and do other things that would not totally dominate our lives. So I went home and played Mario 64 for a month before returning to edit Sega Saturn Magazine once I’d relaxed a little and regained some energy.
Ah, Sega Saturn Magazine, a publication that had the misfortune of covering one of Sega's poorest performing consoles (in the West, at least.) What were your thoughts on the failure of both the Saturn and the Dreamcast, which you gave brilliant coverage to in the later issues of SSM?
We can wax lyrical for as long as we want about how brilliant the Saturn is, but the fact is that the PlayStation games looked better, and for the most part, took technical polish to a new level. People compared Ridge Racer with Daytona and the audio-visual superiority of the PlayStation was clearly evident. Sony approached the videogames market with an aggressive business plan that out-quaffed Sega in every way. The console being £100 cheaper was a massive hammer blow to Sega, giving PlayStation more sales and thus far superior third party support. From that moment on, right up until the demise of the Dreamcast, it was like watching a slow and agonising death of a loved one. Saturn games were fantastic, born from a gaming ‘purity’ untouched by commercial concerns, but Sega had lost the battle for the hearts and minds of the next generation of gamers.
And as for marketing… Sega were an absolute disaster, ironic considering how superb the Megadrive campaigns had been. Sega had its last real shot at the time of Maximum issue #3 – Sega Rally, Virtua Fighter 2 and Virtua Cop – but from then on it was a case of fighting a losing battle, limiting the damage. Talking to Sega at the time, it was always a case of "Sony can’t do this, they can’t do that" – but then they did it any way and Sega were always left behind.
The extremely swift Dreamcast vs PlayStation2 battle was a foregone conclusion. Dreamcast had some outstanding games (the last of Sega’s golden age) but the problem was that Sega had the same old chimps overseeing the marketing, with the rest of the company still believing their own hype. They had a better line-up than PS2, but they just couldn’t do anything with it, and couldn’t quite accept that the quality games on their own were not good enough. They just couldn’t realise the power of the PlayStation brand at that point, couldn’t accept that people didn’t care about Sega as a brand any more and of course they vastly over-estimated the importance of online gaming in that timeframe. £10m of the marketing budget being spent on Arsenal Football Club was a dire miscalculation. The TV ads did nothing to champion the games and were frankly ludicrous. Robbie Williams had yet to release ‘Angels’ so the association with him was a waste of time. It was Sega Europe’s last chance and they muffed it badly. As soon as I saw the first Dreamcast TV ads (like the one with the kids throwing stones at a buoy), I knew that Dreamcast was doomed. The games were there but the people making the key decisions had disappeared deeply into their own rectii, only emerging when they were given the boot.
And despite Sega’s general organisational impotence, I had some great times working on Sega Saturn Magazine. It was good to champion Sega because someone had to tell everyone about all these cool games. And it’s worth pointing out that despite the criticism of Sega there were a core of talented people working at Sega Europe who helped produce some absolute quality, whom we all had a good laugh with, and who helped make Sega Saturn Magazine a superior magazine. We had a lot of support from the likes of Mark Maslowicz and Richard Jacques who were as dedicated to that special gaming quality as we were.
And as I said, there was that special purity to what the AM and CS teams at Sega were doing in the arcades and on the Saturn – it was truly a golden age of gaming that we’ll never see again. It was a special ‘magic’ that all of us on the editorial team intrinsically understood, and so did the readers. I think that’s the key to the special connection there between the mag and its readers, and why SSM (and of course Mean Machines) is still talked about so many years on. There was a commonality there that was special, and the games of today simply don’t have that same magic and don’t have the ability to bring gamers together in that way any more.
Did it hurt not to get the official Dreamcast magazine licence after your sterling work with the Saturn magazine - especially when you consider that the eventual Official Dreamcast magazine (not produced by EMAP) was awful?
At that time things were changing at EMAP, and I would have been unlikely to have been involved with the Dreamcast magazine at the highest level any way. I did help to put the dummy magazine together for the pitch at Sega, but I was only really responsible for the "games part" of the mag, which should tell you all you need to know about EMAP’s grand ideas for the title. EMAP’s dummy included film and TV coverage and even a Denise Van Outen interview – I shit you not!
Dennis promised Sega an enormous amount of money, and pumped tons of cash into their dummy – I seem to recall them getting Rankin to do photography for it which must have cost an absolute fortune. To the marketing wretches in Sega who wanted to "one-up" Sony, it must have been a dream come true. In truth, Sega were deluding themselves and saw themselves entering a New Age of Greatness of which the old order should have no part. Even if we had beaten Dennis’s offer, I think they wanted a clean break from the past and that meant a clean break from EMAP.
By that point I was pretty much committed to leaving EMAP, so it was a case of bidding adieu to the company and leaving amicably. The writing was on the wall for Sega in my view and I fancied my chances at doing something different. It has to be said that EMAP didn’t really care less about not getting the Dreamcast licence – as their plans began to be revealed we could see that the machine was doomed from the moment PlayStation2 launched. It was a commercial inevitability and EMAP wanted big-selling magazines, not also-rans. So EMAP decided to put its weight behind CVG at that point, ironically beginning the decline of the title that led to its recent death.
In short, the game was over. I think I’d had enough of Sega and its incompetent boobery at that point, and I was too busy planning my next move to be overtly worried about the Dreamcast licence.
Do you think the hardware market is any poorer for losing Sega?
Not especially. Sega’s strength was always in the quality of its software and that strength can be translated to any hardware platform. I think the market overall is poorer in that once the Dreamcast died, Sega seemed to lose its way as a software developer and the restructuring of the AM, CS and Sonic teams seem to signal an end to the company’s golden age. The likes of Yu Suzuki, Tetsuya Mizuguchi and even Yuji Naka seemed to have lost the true creative brilliance that put them among the gaming gods.
Aside from a handful of notable exceptions (Phantasy Star Online, VF4 Evolution and OutRun 2 for example) we seem to be seeing a decline in Sega’s powers as a software developer. I looked at Rez and thought it was interesting but ultimately a waste of time (hardly the new Sega Rally, eh?) and now they seem desperate to produce ‘commercially viable’ games – but instead produce even more forgettable trash. Those new EyeToy titles just make me despair. Sega is no longer a force to be reckoned with, and Namco will be next. It seems that even Miyamoto is losing his touch.
I really hope OutRun 2 is the sign of a new age of greatness from Sega, but I think that not enough people care any more about the company or its franchises. The game has moved on and Sega seems ill-equipped to cope with the New Order.
PSW is one of the recent success stories you've been involved with. Can you tell us a little bit about that magazine?
There’s not so much to tell! I left EMAP, helped set up Computec, and had a lot of fun with PSW. I enjoyed putting together the magazine, worked with some good people, liked the challenge of producing the first magazine with a cover-mounted DVD, and still think it’s the best PlayStation2 title out there. Although that’s not exactly difficult.
We soon discovered that quality editorial doesn’t shift magazines in the PS2 marketplace – it’s all about the size and content of the overall package. To illustrate, Play’s issues around Christmas 2002 were huge sellers. The magazine itself was absolutely dire, but that Cheats CD with its Vice City codes sold the entire package. It’s depressing of course, but then you could argue that the games magazine market (and ultimately the gamers) are getting the magazines they deserve.
I think the simple fact is that the magazines are almost secondary to the stuff included in the bag. Consequently, I believe that the future is digital, be it playable demos, cheat codes. DVD, or (in the future) Blu-Ray/HD-DVD. That’s why I started Digital Foundry and why I was such a champion of the PSW and Xbox World DVDs. Digital brings games to the readers in a way that no screenshot or written word can, and I see it as the future of gaming media in one way or another. The key will be in adding a strong editorial voice to that kind of coverage, which is currently lacking.
What's your current console of choice?
Probably the Xbox. I like a lot of the games, and I enjoy the experience you get from a chipped machine. The homebrew scene is absolutely fantastic and Microsoft should learn from that – it’s almost like the old Spectrum/C64/Amiga days. Computec’s issues of Xbox World are probably the closest we ever got to the ‘feel’ of the classic video games magazines, with its emphasis on great editorial and quality images. But then again, that wasn’t a massive sales success either, which further reinforces the point that people don’t seem to buy games magazines based on editorial quality any more, which just brings standards across the market down.
Current fave videogame?
I think Burnout 3 is absolutely spectacular. Gary Cutlack (ex-SSM staff writer) reckons that OutRun 2 is almost as good, so I’ll be checking that out shortly. I play Gradius V on PlayStation2 when I need to convince myself that I’m too old to play games. It is astonishingly hard. To be honest, I just don’t have the time for gaming any more, and the lack of innovation in gaming right now makes it difficult to imagine that any new game I’ll play will offer something I haven’t experienced before.
Do you still have your impressive quiffy-doo?
No! An attractive lady persuaded me to part company with it back in the late 90s. She was a very wise woman.
Do you still keep in touch with any of the other ex-MM/EMAP staff members?
Quite a few of them, yes. I do a lot of work with Gary Harrod and I had lunch with Paul Glancey a while back when I caught up with old friends at Criterion. Jaz still lives in San Francisco and while we aren’t in constant contact, there will always be a bond there. Tom Guise is a good mate, but he’s in Australia with Ed Lomas right now. I see Paul Davies on the odd occasion and obviously chatted with him when Computer and Video Games unfortunately disappeared down the toilet. There are also plenty of sarky emails from the old gang that sporadically turn up in my inbox, the last of which were about your site funnily enough…