Whose idea was The Mighty Brain? How long did Future really think CF could last? And where did they find Andy Dyer? All this and more in our exclusive chat with Commodore Format’s launch editor.
Hey Steve! So before we get going – where’ve you been since leaving CF after 14 issues back in 1991? I did a lot of different mags, including Edge and T3, Official PlayStation, Official Nintendo, plus a load of redesigns and tweaks. Then 18 months ago Future Publishing decided it no longer needed me around and I was made redundant. I now work for a small digital publisher in Bristol doing an iPhone mag that no-one reads.
Going back to the summer of 1990, then. The C64 was knocking on a bit. What was the thinking behind launching a new magazine for the computer, and how did you end up getting the editor’s gig? It wasn’t my call, but I think the publishers at the time saw that the C64 was still a viable machine that was selling plenty of software and had plenty of potential advertisers. Also, Commodore was about to launch the cartridge-based C64GS, which we thought would invigorate the market (that didn’t work out so well).
Now I think about it, I do wonder if Chris Anderson, Future’s owner, also fancied taking on ZZAP!, the mag he helped to launch at Newsfield. Personally, I relished the idea as I was a still a huge C64 fan.
Launching so late into the computer’s life, how long did you really think Commodore Format could last? Surely nobody imagined it’d still be on the go in 1995! I figured it would be good for two, maybe three years – if the C64GS had worked, maybe longer. Back then if you could get three years of profit out of a mag you were still looking at substantial amounts of money. To last as long as it did was quite impressive and shows the loyalty of the readers. After all, I doubt they were actually buying or playing any new games by then!
What was life like in the CF office? Generally it was fun, but we did have some personality clashes which soured things a bit. Mostly, we got on and enjoyed ourselves, but it’s still a full-time job and could be very hard, stressful work.
You overtook ZZAP! so quickly. Comparing CF1 from October 1990 with the same month’s ZZAP! is like looking at magazines from different ages. The response from Ludlow seemed to be to try and emulate what you were doing. [CF writer] Andy Roberts has told us how annoyed designer Lam Tang was that ZZAP! were nicking his signature wavy style. And the ZZAP! review of Supremacy could almost be shot for shot from CF… Oh Supremacy, yeah that made us chuckle. We were amazed they would copy us so blatantly. I think it’s incredibly unprofessional to do so, and simply shows a total lack of imagination and lack of respect for your own readers. When they did it I knew we had them beaten. If I remember correctly, I think we contacted them and told them which fonts we were using so they could get it right!
Was there a conscious attempt to do something really fresh and different? CF‘s influence is obvious even today. Y’know, the Uppers and Downers in the review section, and the Early Warning! Incoming Scanner – they’re all ideas that have been used since in other Future magazines… Yeah, when I took the job on I knew I wanted to bring the games magazine up to date and try to make it fresh and different. I worked hard to try and invent new ideas – but looking back at those early issues now it’s hard to see much innovation!
How big an attraction do you think the Power Pack was, and were they a real pain in the butt to put together? If it’s a consolation, every month somebody posts on our page to say that loading up the new CF tape was the only time they got to play new games. Future Publishing has made its fortune and reputation on covermounting magazines, so I’m sure the covertape was an essential part of the mag’s success. I don’t remember them being that bad to do – a lot of publishers liked the idea of getting a demo out to publicise their games, and back then I think it was a much easier proposition.
Was The Mighty Brain your idea? And what about Roger Frames? I think TMB was me, and Roger was me and Andy Dyer. I was looking things up and I’d forgotten his dog was called Debit – that just made me laugh. I think Andy was responsible for making Roger funny; he took the idea of this stingy little budget gamer and really ran with it.
Are there any specific moments on the magazine that still make you smile? You’ve said before that you’re proud of CF beyond anything else you’ve ever done… I think we wrote some good copy and funny lines. Andy Dyer is a remarkably good and humorous writer and really forced me to raise my game. I can’t remember any specific incidents, to be honest, but then it was a very long time ago! I do remember having a lot of laughs with Andy. We shared a similar surreal sense of humour, and thought along similar lines and which made things very easy.
Actually, one of the things loads of people say they liked most about CF was the Steve/Andy double act that you eventually took to [Nintendo magazine] TOTAL!. Andy was a really strong voice on Commodore Format – is it true it was his first ever writing job, and if it is – where’d you find him? Yeah, Andy was working in a bank in Bristol when he applied for the role (Editor’s note: Andy has since said to us this was in fact an insurance company!). I just remember liking the stuff he’d written and clicking with him in the interview; we just really got on. I did play an awful trick on the guy though, by telling him that he’d got the job and then phoning up later – actually to discuses starting dates and stuff – but telling him we’d changed our minds. I only left him hanging for a few seconds but by then he’d handed his notice in, and it shook him up. I only did it because we had gotten on so well. In retrospect, it was a pretty immature and shitty thing to do! I think he saw the funny side…
A few guys at Future have said there was a bit of ill feeling about the way CF whimpered out with 22 pages a month. We’ve even be told that it was considered a bit of an embarrassment by 1995. Were you even aware of what was going on as CF closed, or were you just too involved with other stuff at Future? By the time CF closed I was long gone and had been working on loads of other stuff in the mean time. But I do think it’s awful to keep selling such a poor value product in an effort to eke out every last penny of profit. They should have killed it months before.
I will say that I was unhappy with the quality of the mag after I left. My immediate successor pretty much fucked up everything I’d worked hard to make tight and slick and professional. Some people just don’t ‘get’ magazines, and just see it as a 9-to-5 job. I’d suggest they go and do something else.
A few questions from our readers before we let you go, Steve. Frank Gasking wants to know if there’s anything you’d have done differently given your time at CF over again. That’s a tough one. I probably wouldn’t have hired certain people, who, despite their previous experience and CVs, weren’t cut out for that particular mag and made my life more difficult than I needed at times. But the truth is you can’t go back, so you have to live with the decisions you make.
Marcus asks – what was the deal with [ex ZZAP! writer] Gary Penn as a “consultant editor” for three issues? Were you still fiddling trying to get things right? You know, I’d completely forgotten about Gary’s involvement. If I’m honest, I’m not sure he did much for us; I think his name was there to lend some gravitas to the project. Thing is, magazines are a continual work-in-progress. I think if you looked at my first issue and then an issue a year later, it would be much improved (at least I hope so!).
And one more. This is a page about Commodore Format, but so many people want to know what your favourite ’64 game was and if you ever go back to them now. Easy: Mercenary. It was a game made by the demi-god genius Paul Woakes, and was years ahead of its time. It was the first ‘sandbox’ game in wireframe 3D and had me totally captivated for weeks. Elite was fun but procedurally-generated and a bit soulless;Mercenary was a true adventure and a genuinely spooky experience. It was easily my favourite, although I played a lot of C64 games and enjoyed an awful lot of them!
For the record, I don’t really play old games. I’m not a retro fan as some gamers are; I much prefer playing new things, and have been overawed by things like Skyrim, Mass Effect and Far Cry 3. I love new technologies and am massively looking forward to the next gen Xbox and PS4. I may be old and crap, but you can have my joypad when you prise it from my cold, dead hands. CF
- Steve was the magazine’s launch editor, working on issues 1-14. This interview is from 2013 and is copyright The Commodore Format Archive and Steve Jarratt. It may not be reproduced without permission. To make contact, go to our legal page.