Richard Leadbetter as you probably know (through my many ramblings) is a legend to many people. Having worked for such ‘Golden Age’ publications as CVG, Mean Machines, Official Sega Saturn Magazine and MAXIMUM, Rich epitomises the characteristics of video game journos at the time – that they were extremely close to their readership.
Having found time away from his busy work schedule as co-founder of Digital Foundry, Rich was able to answer some hastily put together questions that revolved around various issues. Many thanks once again for your time Rich.
[Toops] Q1 – What was the biggest motivation for you while working on the various EMAP video game publications?
[Rich] Basically to live up to the best games mags of that era – Newsfield publications like ZZAP!64 and the Rignall era of Computer and Video Games. If I could speak to the new generation of gamers the way those mags spoke to me, I knew I’d be on to a good thing. As my career at EMAP progressed, I think the mistake was to make the magazines I wanted to read rather than living up to that original ethos. So while MAXIMUM had a dedicated fanbase, that audience simply wasn’t big enough. I refocused somewhat when I moved on to SEGA SATURN MAGAZINE and got the balance right there, but it was down to Paul Davies and his CVG team to produce the definitive games mag of the mid to late 90s.
Q2 – How often do you reflect back on your days at EMAP and which publication can you honestly say you had the most fun?
This one’s easy – back when I first started on C+VG and MEAN MACHINES. I’d spent years reading the mags by the likes of Jaz Rignall and Paul Glancey and here I was working side-by-side with them. Looking back, I was almost completely clueless and got by through sheer enthusiasm and some modicum of talent, but I took the opportunity to learn from those guys and developed the necessary skills at a rapid pace. The work was often back-breakingly hard and intense, and you tended to get all the shitty jobs, but I was seeing all the games first, on every system, and talking about them and playing with my boyhood heroes. How cool is that? Crappy jobs like sorting out the sacks of mail we’d get every day (and we did) were no problem at all bearing in mind all the perks. Thinking about it, another thing that added to the fun factor was the fact that Jaz and Paul really made an effort to reach out and include you in out-of-work stuff as well to the point where 20 years on, we’re still good mates. I might not see Jaz for a couple of years at a time since he lives in the USA, but when we meet up, within five minutes we’re back in the MEAN MACHINES era.
Q3 – What does Digital Foundry do exactly and how has yours and Gary Harrod’s experience working in video game journalism helped to create the company’s overall direction?
Digital Foundry has evolved over the years – dramatically so. It started out as a means to bring our editorial and production skills to the games industry, and we were very successful in producing some superb DVDs for the likes of Ubisoft, EGM and the official Nintendo mag. But in 2005 and with the upcoming arrival of the Xbox 360, we knew that DVD wasn’t the way forward: HD video was.
The only problem was, there was no direct “plug and play” means to record HD video at that point, so we basically went out and created our own solution. We did a fair bit of work on early Xbox Live trailers and event presentations, but it soon became apparent that the games media, developers and publishers were more interested in our tech than our services, so the core of our business shifted to selling the kit we’d invested so much time and money into. These days, many of the top studios, and even big corporate entities like AMD use Digital Foundry kit.
I started blogging about games based on the videos we’d acquired with our kit and the DF tech blog kicked off. Tom Bramwell at Eurogamer saw the potential and in May last year, the blog was incorporated into his site and it’s been enormously successful.
The gradual shift in our focus means that unfortunately I don’t work with Gary Harrod so much these days, though he’s doing extremely well producing artwork for Square-Enix in Europe amongst other things.
Q4 – Did you actually keep copies of the magazines you contributed to or was it a case of having to create them and quickly forget?
I didn’t and I kind of regret it. I only have a few MAXIMUMs, and a few SSMs. Though I did get a complete set of the original MEAN MACHINES from eBay. The problem is one of storage really. I’ve nowhere to pu them. There’s a guy called Meppi who is scanning all my old mags and his PDFs are great. However, I do wish I had a complete set in physical form. (I’m sure there’s a kind soul out there that could help – Toops)
Q5 – What is your interpretation of the industry at the minute compared to when you first started? How have things changed and have they changed for the better?
More professional, more focused, hugely more wealthy but probably not quite as much fun is how I’d characterise it. I find it interesting that the whole idea of concept-driven games where fun is the focus seems to have shifted to the iPhone while there’s much of a muchness about most of the stuff produced for Xbox 360 and PS3.
Q6 – Were you consciously aware at the time of having contributed to would be remembered as some of the greatest video gaming tomes of all time?
There was always a sense that we were deeply connected to the fanbase, and that they were as passionate about gaming as we were and that they dug what we were doing.
Q7 – Would you agree with the interpretation that MAXIMUM magazine, like EDGE, had attempted to take on a change in general trends but had done so with different ideas in mind?
The focus was really straightforward. Edge was about the industry and to a lesser extent about the games. At the time, there was never any kind of enjoyment of what gaming was in Edge and the reviews were just kind of impenetrable. You could tell from the screenshots that little effort went into them. We saw shots as individual windows into the game experience and of crucial importance.
But they recognised the importance of Japan, and their developer access was such that everyone wanted a piece of that action. Kudos to Edge – they’re still in existence and doing their thing and they still have their 30,000 readers, even in the internet age. But I think the urge for journos to copy Edge basically shifted the focus away from where it should’ve been: the fun of playing games.
MAXIMUM was all about the games with the industry stuff only encroaching when it helped to supplement the games stuff. It was kind of a logical off-shoot. There was room for both, and towards the latter end of MAXIMUM’s existence are newsstand numbers were better than theirs. After a floundering start, we’d started to find our feet, but EMAP had had enough and to be honest, I had too. In a bad month, my previous mag would shift 50,000 copies. MAXIMUM on a good month would do less than half of that.
I think the irony about the whole exercise is that while MAXIMUM set out with the loftiest ambitions, what Paul Davies and his crew were doing on CVG on the floor above us at the same time was the template for the definitive games mag of the era. Like MEAN MACHINES it appealed to both the hardcore players and the more casual crowd too.
Q8 – Do you regret having helped to create MAXIMUM magazine?
I probably worked harder on that than on any other print mag, and the fact the plug was pulled is obviously regrettable. But directly afterwards, SEGA SATURN MAGAZINE went on to double its audience based mostly on the lessons learned from MAXIMUM so the cloud had a silver lining. I also worked with key people like David Hodgson and Dan Jevons who got their big break working on MAXIMUM and who’ve gone on to great things. This year I’ll have worked in the games biz for 20 years. MAXIMUM wasn’t my most successful project, but the experience will always be useful.
Q9 – A rather personal one this but having followed you for so many years as a kid I have always wondered what your parents thought about you having joined EMAP at such an early age. What was your parents reaction to your line of work for any budding journalists out there reading? What advice can you give them?
It’s a whole lot harder to break into games journalism these days as a paid profession. Back in days of yore to key recruiters like Jaz Rignall you had to be capable of writing but more than that, hugely enthusiastic about games. As the industry has become more corporate, so has the journalism to accompany it. My parents didn’t quite understand what I was doing at the time, and I remember my Dad asking if it was just going to be a part-time job working for C+VG! However these days the landscape is completely different. The internet gives everyone a level platform. If you’ve got the talent, and you’re offering something new or valuable, you’ll get noticed.
So there you have it folks. I am sure there are many people out there who enjoyed reading the contributions of Rich and his crew as much as I did as a kid, and this serves as a reminder that journos back then were gamers first and foremost.
I once again take the opportunity to thank Rich for his time.
You can read more on Rich at:
Our Lobotomy Software History video here.