Steven McKevitt is an ace writer who initially worked for the much revered Gremlin. We love a great #retrogaming story and Steven has got more than a few of those! Adrian caught up with him for a quick chit chat in what is a fascinating insight to gaming in the early nineties. Enjoy!
How did you first get into the video game industry?
I was just about to go to college to study journalism when I got an offer to join Gremlin as a staff writer. I started working there on 7 June 1993. I was initially employed to write the manuals, but that soon expanded encompass all kinds of things from video scripts and style guides to walkthroughs and strap-lines. It was a great place to work and a good job. Even so, I only did it for about five months before I became the company’s PR manager.
You’ve dabbled in marketing, music, video games and writing. Have the skills you’ve picked up in one area have been useful in other aspects of your life?
Definitely. You can’t afford to pigeonhole yourself – the world moves so fast. I spent six years working in video games as a PR. I had a fantastic time, but that role has pretty much ceased to exist these days (or at least in that form). I can’t help thinking it must be a very tedious way to earn a living these days.
Gremlin was (subsequently) bought by Infogrames, Infogrames was a truly terrible company: awful games, and unpleasant people (for the most part). I think it’s fair to say that if you’re the director of communications and you find yourself fantasising about where you’re going to hide the chief exec’s body, it’s probably time to quit (yeah, we think so! – Ed).
After that I felt it was time to leave the games industry. I could see where it was heading, and it didn’t look like something I wanted to be part of any more. I left to run a football website.
You worked closely on the PR and marketing of Actua Soccer 2 – what did this role entail?
Gremlin was quite a fluid business, so there was the opportunity to get involved in game development. I always felt very close to the development team: it never felt like ‘them and us’ it was very much a team effort. I was writing about football by that time as a sideline, so it there was a willingness to take some of my ideas on board.
However my main job was to run the press campaign. That was a significant challenge, because we were up against FIFA: already an unstoppable behemoth even in those days. We knew we had the better game, but EA’s huge marketing budget meant that we were continually outgunned.
The pressure was really on the PR team because it was felt that this was the one area of marketing in which we could compete. We had to constantly think of ideas – lots of ideas – that might push Actua Soccer to the front.
The games mags were great and really got behind it, but initially we found engaging the non-specialist press – the footy mags, lads’ mags and newspapers – a bit of a struggle. That really was everything in those pre-internet days.
We kept ringing people up to see if they’d like to come to Sheffield to see Actua Soccer in development, but would invariably be told, “Erm thanks, but EA have offered to take us to Vancouver to see FIFA.”
All we had in the locker was a some interview time with the monosyllabic Alan Shearer, which ‘Team Marketing’ had secured for us. This ‘great deal’ gave us fifteen (15) minutes of his time. i.e. Essentially useless.
In the end I blew my entire promotional budget on a press launch in Argentina. I thought we had to do something that would give us the edge over ‘Come to Vancouver’.
It was a good trip. I arranged a match against the Argentine Press (a rematch of 1986 World Cup Quarter Final – we got hammered), a couple of interviews with some big cheeses from Argentine Football and tickets for a Boca Juniors v Independiente game.
It was a surprisingly cheap trip to organise, but I’d have lost my job if we’d have had no takers. Fortunately we got everyone we needed over there: Loaded, Maxim, Goal, 442, Total Football, The Mirror. A £5,000 trip generated over £100,000 worth of media coverage, which, in the vapid world of public relations, is what it’s all about.
What projects are you currently working on?
I’ve just finished my eighth book, which is out next month. A finished copy actually came back from the publisher today. It’s called ‘Playing with the Boys’ and was written in collaboration with my eldest daughter Niamh. For the past four years, Niamh has been the only girl in the country playing football with boys in her age-group, right up to under 18s (impressive! – Ed).
She’s only sixteen, but is already playing in the Women’s Premier League (stop it! – Ed). It’s a great story and it was a wonderful thing to be able to do together.
Now that’s done, I’m back on with the ‘day job’. I’m part way through a History PhD into the impact that persuasion (i.e. marketing, PR and branding) have had on the consumer society. It’s called “’What Happened To The Future?’ The inculcation of persuasion in British Society 1967-97”. It’ll be a book in 2017. I’m not expecting many people to buy both.
‘What Happened to the Future?’ is an extension of what I’ve been writing about for the past seven years. I felt somewhat disingenuous whenever I was billed as an ‘expert in communications’ or whatever. It’s been a privilege to dedicate so much time to the subject, although I can’t deny it’s a good feeling knowing that you know more about your (very narrow) field that anyone else in the world.
What are your views on the video game industry of today?
There’s so much rubbish around. I’ve never been disappointed with any console as much as the PS4. I got it the day it came out and the only game I’ve really enjoyed is Witcher 3. Other than that, it’s just been the latest version of FIFA, and a stack of £45 disappointments and yawns (from Watchdogs to Destiny).
There’s some great stuff in the indie sector: Sperlunky, The Last Rocket – I loved Braid as much as anything I’ve played in recent years (ditto – Ed) and thought Monument Valley was lovely.
What piece of advice would you give to anyone who was looking to work within video game marketing?
Get yourself a proper job.
If you could share a few pints with a video game character who would you choose?
Horace from Horace goes Skiing
What was it like working on Zool 2?
I remember turning up at a the Future GamesConsumer Show with a girl – called Janey – who we hired to appear in a Zool costume. My boss at the time, who it’s fair to say was borderline insane, had tasked me with nothing less that getting Zool on the front cover of the News of the World. This would be easily achieved – he said – by getting him to appear on the main stage and emphasising his Britishness. Zool would hand out flags to the kids in the audience who, buoyed by this patriotic fervour would inevitably go mad at the first sight of their hero. I’d get a picture taken and biked round to the Screws who would run a front page splash under the banner, ‘Zool Takes UK Game Show By Storm”…
As I said, borderline insane.
It was my first week in the job, but even I realised, “Yeah because the News of the World are always running stories like that aren’t they? On the front page.”
One other slight problem emerged. After five minutes in the costume, Janey was complaining that her core body temperature had risen to about 900°C. It was also impossible to see through the eye holes. As such, at the allotted hour I had to gamely lead our superhero out on stage. A combination of sensory depravation, dehydration and heatstroke had rendered Janey less than willing to throw the necessary superhero shapes. She was in a somewhat fraught state, truth be told, and cut a figure that was less Ninja of the Nth Dimension and more Blind Pu from Treasure Island.
Fortunately, this bathetic spectacle was only witnessed by around a dozen kids, at least one of whom I heard mutter the phrase: “Who the f**k is that?”
“How did it go?” my Boss asked.
“Brilliant!”, I lied, “It was definitely a good idea and the News of the World said they would have definitely run it on the front page, if that story about the footballers and the call girls hadn’t broken.”
The thing is that amongst all the hype, it was the game that got lost. It just didn’t cut it on the consoles. They were terrible to be honest. My first review was The Kipper of Commiseration in the Official Nintendo Mag (35%) and it went downhill from there.
The backlash was inevitable. Internally I think lot of people felt let down by Zool. My boss left and there was very little appetite among either the development team or publishing to go again. I was personally sick to the back teeth of managing what was regarded by most of the journalists as lame duck. I made a pact with James North-Hearn, our development director, one night over a pint at ECTS that we’d do our best to lobby against any more titles featuring the character. Ian Stewart, Gremlin’s owner and mainsail sponsor, would disagree, but I still think it was the right thing to do. Gremlin entered it’s best ever period eighteen months later, but if we’d persevered with the character, I think there was a danger we’d have ended up as a laughing stock.
Wow, thank you for your time Steven, quite the tale to be told…