It isn’t hyperbole to suggest that Arcade Attack wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for this man. Well, a bit, maybe! Lots of you know the story of how AA was conceived after my dear mother chucked away all my gaming mags. Those magazines got me through some tough times growing up and I wanted to create the feel of them via this blog. Have I/we succeeded? Who knows. But one thing I do know is that Andy Smith’s stellar work on two of my favourite mags (Amiga Format and Sega Power) played a large part in me remembering those magazines fondly.
Via the magic of social media I was able to track him down and he kindly agreed to answer a lot of my questions. Editing his words was as enjoyable as it was surreal and I couldn’t cut out any of it. His time at both mags, game development with Binary Asylum (Zeewolf) and meeting the most famous people in the world (and Right Said Fred) all covered in this 4000+ word “chat”. Enjoy.
Andy, great to have you here at AA! We’ll start with the most important question, what was the best thing about working on games magazines in the 80s and 90s?
The obvious answer is getting to play video games all day! It wasn’t quite as straightforward as that, of course, as there was a lot of other stuff that needed doing as well – like writing about them and so on. The industry was young though and there was an incredible buzz about it – this was new, exciting and a little bit glamorous. There were many great things about games mags in those days, not least that great games could still be created by a single chap in his bedroom and land on a reviewer’s lap without a £5m marketing budget behind it and it would be great! More usually it would be average to poor, but there were one or two unexpected greats that appeared unexpectedly. It was exciting watching the industry mature and become professional too as corporations realised that maybe this computer game malarkey wasn’t just a flash in the pan and was actually going to stick around and was, therefore, worth investing in. Perhaps the most worthy answer here is that we, the reviewers, were made to feel that what we were doing was important – there was no internet, of course, so giving a considered opinion on a game that could cost several weeks’ pocket money was an essential way of letting people know what games they should – or shouldn’t – spend that hard-earned cash on. On reflection, I’d say the best thing about working on games mags in the 80s and 90s was helping people avoid wasting their money on games that simply weren’t worth their asking price and at the same time pointing out ones that definitely were.
How did the opportunity to work on ACE come about?
Future Publishing, at the time, were a young company – they had 3 magazines in their stable: 8000 Plus (a business magazine for the Amstrad 8000 business computer), PC Plus for serious PC users (business mostly) and Amstrad Action – a games mag for the Amstrad 8-bit CPC home computer. The then owner – Chris Anderson – had recognised that home computing was going to burst into the mainstream – especially with the advent of Amiga and Atari ST 16-bit computing – and so he wanted to launch a multi-format mag that catered to older (like late-teen early 20s) gamers: those that could afford the new wave of expensive 16-bit machines, so Advanced Computer Entertainment was born. Now, in order to launch his new mag, Chris needed some new staff. I got involved because I saw a job in a local jobcentre in Trowbridge (near Bath and where I was living at the time). The ad read ‘Games Reviewer Wanted’ and I thought ‘I can do that’ so went in, got Chris’s phone number and rang him up. I was 21 at the time and after a brief chat with Chris was invited to send in a written game review. Now, I’d left school at 15 and worked in factories since. I couldn’t write for toffee, so did the only thing possible: cheated. I went to WH Smith’s, bought a non-Future games magazine and copied out a games review long-hand, with a few changes, and sent that to Chris. A few days later, he got back in touch and invited me to Bath for an interview. Having youthful self-belief, I went to the interview and managed to secure a job as Staff Writer on the about-to-be-launched ACE magazine. This was May 87 and the mag was due to hit the shelves on 1st Sept 87.
When working on ACE did you think games magazines would prove to be as popular as they eventually were?
Bear in mind I had no idea or background in publishing when I started on ACE. I did, however, share Chris’s belief that 16-bit computers were going to cause a home entertainment revolution. I therefore was absolutely convinced that people with these new computers were going to need good magazines to inform their games buying decisions. I don’t think the popularity of games magazines surprised me. I was a consumer just a few short months ago – I knew the pain of wasting almost a half a week’s wages on a game that turned out to be rubbish and was determined to help others avoid the purchasing mistakes I’d made – especially once the consoles hit (the Sega Master System and Nintendo NES) where games were approx. £25 per game. On the whole, I wasn’t surprised. I believed that everyone who played computer and video games in those days needed us to guide them. You could misinterpret that as arrogance or self-importance, it really wasn’t. I was on a crusade to help people play the best games and avoid wasting their money!
You moved on to Amiga Format, how did that opportunity come about?
After a year on ACE (during which time I’d learnt – the hard way, including taking books on punctuation on holiday – how to write games reviews), Chris got an offer for ACE from games-mag rivals, London-based EMAP publications. It was a good offer for the magazine and although they already had personnel, they offered all of us working on the mag the chance to continue from their offices in London. I declined the offer as Chris had assured me that he had plans for new magazines here in Bath that I could be a part of. So I decided to stay and was offered the promotion of Reviews Editor on a new launch: Amiga Format.
I loved AF but didn’t start buying it until after I got my A1200 (94-ish), what was your opinion on the Amiga in its early days and do you think its demise was premature?
I was happy to move to AF after ACE because I thought I’d seen the future. The Juggler Amiga Demo had blown my mind. I didn’t know enough about the technical side of computing or Moore’s Law or anything, but was blown away by the A500. Sure it was expensive – but not like house expensive! I was completely sold on the machine. I really didn’t think you could improve on it, but, of course, they did with the A600 and then the A1200. What a machine that was. It was magnificent. Its demise was terribly premature. I don’t know what business mistakes Commodore made or if there was anything more improper going on but I was staggered when they went to the wall. Thankfully PCs were becoming more user-friendly and more games were coming out on PC, so it was more a shame than a disaster.
The coverdisks were a lifeline for me – what was it like putting those together?
Chris Anderson pioneered the cover mounted game (cassette first on ACE, for tape loading Speccys and CPCs and C64s, before disks for disk-loading machines like ST and Amiga) and you could argue that that one idea built a company. Readers loved them. Games companies loved them once they realised how to use them as advertising vehicles for their games. Iinteresting story, when ACE gave away a demo of Puzzle Bobble on the Spectrum on the front of the mag it was only because someone in the office was playing the demo for fun a few days before it went to press that we realised they’d given us the whole game. The demo was supposed to be the first five levels or something, but as they played they carried on. And on. And on. Boy, there were some frantic phone calls and re-mastering schedules hastily arranged over the next day or two! In the early days it was easy to fill the coverdisk – we could sell the space at a premium – but as the market declined it obviously became harder, though in general – because people had got to learn the machine better, the quality generally improved. Almost from the start we had to employ a tech-savvy specialist to solely look after the disk each month – such was its importance to the whole mag.
During your stint at AF, which was your favourite and least favourite game that was featured/reviewed?
Easy – Dungeon Master was my most favourite game I think I reviewed. I’d never had an RPG involve me so much – heck you could lure the worms back to a portcullis and hit the button as they were following you through the door and slam the portcullis into them! Wow! Of course there were hundreds of other great games at the time, but DM will always have a place in my heart.
As for the worst – there were some truly poor games, but most were one-man affairs. We used to love playing a shoot-em-up called Screaming Wings by RedRat Software on the Amiga in the office, because it was so bad. Because it was so bad it was played so much which I guess creates a paradox because it was played so much it can’t be so bad…
Sega Power was the first games mag I ever bought, what made you decide to join that project rather than staying put at AF?
Power and greed. No, but seriously, it was for career progression and more money. I was offered the chance to move up to be Editor from Reviews Editor as Steve Jarratt (then Editor of S The Sega Mag as it was – a freebie given away in every Master System box) was off to do something secret – which turned out to be the Nintendo mag Total! I got lucky really because it was decided within a couple of months to make S The Sega Mag a newsstand mag in its own right – with a new name ‘Sega Power’. When I started the Mega Drive was just about to be launched and S TSM had a circulation of approx. 10,000. When I left after 3 years it was SP with a circulation of 102,000. I like to kid myself that I had something to do with the increase in numbers – in reality it was probably all down to the Mega Drive selling so well. Ho hum (ah, ya never know! – Ed).
I remember vividly the pictures of the SP staff members (including yourself) in the early pages of each issue – what was it like working with that team and have you any funny stories you can share with us?
The SP team were all great. Seriously, I loved working with all of them. Kevin Hibbert was the Art Editor in the very early and he is such a funny guy. Neil West was great too, and seemed to me to be the luckiest person on the planet what with all the opportunities and girlfriends that seemed to come his way. Work was so enjoyable for the most part, there was always a buzz about the office and always PR people popping in to take me (and others) out to lunch. Coming from seven years in factories – including a year spent mashing swede on a machine (for frozen meals for the elderly), I was always aware of how privileged I was on SP and at Future in general. There are many funny stories – I do recall Kevin and his mate Simon re-enacting a scene from Die Hard, I think it was, in the office one day. Now this involved a can of lighter fluid being sprayed around the office and lit. They got into a bit of trouble for that, but no one was seriously hurt.
SP also had a few celeb callers. I had a massive crush on Cathy Dennis when I was a kid (still do, probably, ha ha), what was she like to work with? How did that situation come about?
There was a chap on the magazine at the time called John Cantlie. Now John was a great guy and boy, he could charm the legs off a donkey (he convinced EA to spray-paint his bike with the Road Rash logo if I’d agree to make it the cover image for the next issue – after John twisting my arm down the pub with a few pints, I agreed so John on his newly-painted bike became the cover image for the Road Rash issue of SP). As for Cathy, I seem to remember the record company thinking SP readers were new-girl Cathy’s target age group and audience and so wanted to put a single of hers on the cover – on a tape (ask your mum or dad, kids) and John got tasked with heading down to the record company to meet Cathy and the record people and report back on whether he agreed with the record execs. As it turned out, I think John and Cathy actually hit it off rather well. I got to meet her (and Right Said Fred) a few weeks later at some Sega PR bash one night in London. She seemed very nice. Sadly John Cantlie left SP and moved onto being a journo more concerned with motorbikes and the real world. This led him to be captured a few years ago by ISIS. I’m afraid I haven’t heard anything of John for the last few years, I hope he’s OK (same here – Ed).
Kris Kross also appeared in SP, what was that experience like?
They were great, as I recall, because they were the right age to be into games. They kinda knew what we were all about and were impressed that we got all our games for free and had way more than them!
In all your years as an editor who’s the most famous person you’ve met (that was a keen gamer)?
Phew, tough one. I remember meeting and really liking Gary Lineker (for Gary Lineker’s Superstar Soccer on the Spectrum). Although it was only a Speccy game, he seemed to take a real interest in trying to get the ‘feel’ of football on a home computer. Biggest name drop has to be meeting Muhammad Ali in Miami. Neil West and I both got taken out there by Sega for some game launch and he was the guest of honour at a gala dinner we attended. Neil was brave enough to meet him afterwards and shake his hand, I was too star-struck and hung back. A decision I have regretted ever since. My fave celeb has to be Danny Wallace though – TV and radio presenter, author and all round great guy. He wrote ‘Yes Man’ which got turned into a film starring Jim Carrey. I gave Danny his first job as work experience on SP. He still knows who I am too. I heard him mention me fondly on a podcast recently. He’s probably the only famous person I’ve met that I can honestly say is a proper, keen gamer.
Of all the editing jobs you’ve had which has been your favourite?
Of editing, I would say Sega Power. The magazine took off, there was a real buzz about this new industry and I was young enough to be awed by it all. Future Gamer was also exciting – it was an email-delivered games mag that you read in your web browser – this was back in 1998 and was trailblazing for its day. Nothing beats those first few months on ACE though. I guess coming from a clock-in, clock-out 8 hour shift work background, being suddenly free to manage my own time and work was a different world for me.
What advice do you have for any budding magazine writers/editors?
Keep on keeping on. Writing is a skill, you get better with practice. Write game reviews – even if only for yourself. Write game reviews of games you don’t enjoy playing – they are the hardest to do. Send stuff in to websites/magazines and pester them a few times until you’re sure they’ve at least read them. Some of the best writers I found were people who just sent stuff in unsolicited. If they’ve read your stuff and don’t like it, don’t take it personally but also don’t bash your head against a brick wall – move on to the next website/magazine and try them.
When it comes to editing, the trick is to allow the experts around you to do their stuff – if someone knows a lot more about a subject than you – they should be writing the feature. You can steer them for your particular audience – make sure they approach the way your audience wants to read it – whether that’s positive, negative, angry, demeaning, whatever. You should have a clear idea of the typical reader and everything should be written as if you’re speaking to that one person – whether you’re speaking to that person seriously, or down the pub or whatever depends on the tone of the magazine you’re writing for. You should always ask who you’re writing for when asked by someone to write a piece for them.
What projects are you working on now?
You’ve also made a few games (as some of our Amiga-avid readers will know), Zeewolf was an amazing achievement. How did you get involved with Binary Asylum?
I’d worked on ACE with Bob Wade and Andy Wilton. Bob helped found Future along with Chris Anerson and I believe after a few years he sold his shares in the company – this gave him the starting capital to put a small software house together and I was asked to join. It seemed like a great chance to make games to me so I agreed. Andy Wilton was the coding brains – he’d studied both Maths and Law at Cambridge (if memory serves) and after many discussions with Bob and I and others we’d agreed that it’d be great to make a helicopter-based shoot-em-up, Binary Asylum was born (after some discussion around Tom Waits’s then record label Asylum Records) and I was asked to initially run the PR dept. Of me.
How difficult was it to get a 3D game of that quality working on the Amiga hardware? (didn’t it work on an unexpanded A500+/A600?)
We made the decision to write the game for the base Amiga, simply because there were more of them sold and therefore a larger potential audience. This made commercial and game-playing sense – we wanted everyone with an Amiga to be buying and playing our new baby. As I understand it, Andy got very clever with the code, following David Braben’s Zarch lead on the Archimedes. I believe Andy and David knew each other and there were no problems over copyright and stuff – and even if there were, you can’t copyright an idea, only a specific implementation of it.
As gamers, we all knew gameplay was king – we could afford to spend less CPU cycles on polygons if we needed to for smoother gameplay. We’d all been raised on 8-bit graphics and knew if the gameplay was good enough, a black and white game could be just as much fun to play as anything in 4 billion colours. But no, it wasn’t easy and I think Andy certainly got creative with the coding.
It’s a fun game but pretty brutal in places – how did you approach level design?
We made a conscious effort to keep the player involved – a shoot-em-up can be great fun, but you don’t often have to think. We wanted the players engaged and thinking the whole time – simply because we enjoyed games that did that to us. Fortunately we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel when it came to basic games design – we knew we had to ease players in and then hook them. We used to dissect arcade games for hours on end because coin-ops have a very specific goal – to keep you pumping in the money. We used to discuss the ‘unreasonably difficult third level’ that most games seemed to have – by level three you knew what you had to do, but to beat it you had to practise it. We didn’t create an unreasonably difficult level three but we used the same thinking to keep the players on their toes and knowing that perhaps the linear path wasn’t the correct path – a bit of lateral thinking might be required. I remember fondly the level where the helicopter has no ammo. Ammo is hidden under a dome, but how to destroy the dome? Get the enemy to shoot at you, miss you, and hit the dome! Bingo! You’ve got access to ammo! You could argue this has its gameplay roots in Dungeon Master’s ‘lure the worms to the portcullis and drop that on them’ kind of gameplay. Of course, there was a lot of fine-tuning of the levels once we’d got a basic framework, but you get the idea.
Which do you prefer: game development or games journalism?
Games development I would say. It’s a lot scarier. A lot more can go wrong that can’t be fixed with a quick bit of space-filling writing (‘Hey kids! What’s your Top Ten fave driving games? Here’s ours and why:’), or an extra advertisement. Time scales and lead times are generally a lot larger and there’s a lot more compromising that needs doing. There’s a lot more disappointment too as you realise that something you wanted to include either a) can’t be done effectively or b) will take too long to implement if it’s going to be effective but the rewards are giving someone pleasure for a few minutes, hours, days.
You can give pleasure to people with magazines, or websites too, of course, but it doesn’t have the same level of engagement or involvement. Readers aren’t inhabiting the world you create (unless it’s a novel perhaps) when reading something – but with a game, they’re right there in the world you’ve created for them – hopefully anyway.
How successful was Zeewolf in terms of sales?
The idea of Zeewolf was born about three years before it saw the light of day. At that time the Amiga was riding high and its future looked rosy. Sadly, that didn’t turn out to be the case. The Amiga market shrank fairly rapidly in the early mid 90s and was still shrinking when Zeewolf hit the shelves. It reviewed well and gamers liked it but it wasn’t a huge commercial success – sales were in the tens of thousands rather than hundreds of thousands, but yes it did well enough and Bob believed in the company enough to agree to a sequel.
Were you pleased with how Zeewolf 2 came out and do you wish you could have made more games?
I had much less to do with Zeewolf 2, but yes, I think it was a good game – certainly proud of both of them and my small part in their seeing the light of day. I would have liked to continue making games, but software houses were getting bigger, development budgets were getting much bigger because player expectations were rising. Binary Asylum in the shape it was in then couldn’t compete as an independent software publisher as we didn’t have the £1-5m budget that AAA games were getting at that time. Binary got involved with Interplay at around this time and worked on a couple of projects for them, but I’d left the building by then and after a brief stint at Codemasters went back to freelance writing before re-joining Future Publishing as editor of new web-based Future Gamer in 1998. I left Future for good in 2002.
We’re big Codemasters fans, what did you do there?
I contacted Codemasters to see if they had any games manuals that needed writing. They didn’t, but asked if I’d be interested in a position with them – as Head of Acquisitions Research. I said ‘yes’. This was when Codemasters was still run by the Darling Brothers – David and Richard – who’d set the company up back in the early 80s after coding some 8-bit games themselves that were cheap but excellent – BMX Simulator and so on. They also published the Oliver Twin’s Dizzy games and made the Game Genie – a cheat device for NES that sold rather well (5m units according to Wikipedia).
My job was to find games for Codemasters to publish in Europe on the new generation of consoles – PlayStation, N64 and Saturn. Sadly, the Darling Brothers’ idea of acquiring games: they had to be unsigned to any other publisher, almost finished and AAA in quality – oh, and not cost Codemasters much money – was a little out of step with reality as I saw it. Games at this time were already in the £1m+ budget bracket for AAA titles and it was rare – well, impossible, to find any that had been self-funded to almost completion and were as-yet unsigned to any publisher. I tried to tell them we had to go through the process of funding designs, getting production plans in place for several games and then funding the developers to, at least, get the games to a milestone of tech and possibly playable demos. They didn’t like the idea of that as it sounded expensive and so after just 6 months we parted company.
I hadn’t managed to secure them any games, possibly because I wasn’t very good at Acquisitions Research, but I do feel as if I was trying to do the job with my hands tied behind my back. There was no bad feeling though – at least on my part – in fact, the first freelance job I got when I left was writing a company profile feature for Edge magazine on, guess who? Codemasters! I’m sure they were delighted to see my smiling face coming back in through the front door!
Andy, it’s been a real pleasure picking your brain and hearing all these great stories. Our signature question before you go, if you could share a few drinks (and a chat of course) with any video game character, who would you choose and why?
Difficult to answer because it’s not been often that I’ve really identified or bought into a character whole-heartedly. Most of the games I’ve really enjoyed the most I’ve sort of been the main protagonist I guess – I’m the pilot in Elite Dangerous for example. I’m the trucker in Euro Truck Sim 2. You get the idea. I’d really rather talk to games designers about their gameplay decisions and why and how certain things are done – especially now I’ve a small coding insight. Geoff Crammond was always someone I wanted to interview.
And as a further treat, I found out that all the Sega Powers can be read at Sega Retro, enjoy!