James Leach was CF’s deputy editor from issue 18. Joining from Your Sinclair, he wrote some of Commodore Format’s most colourful reviews. Since the days of PowerTesting Nobby The Aardvark, his rise has been incredible: now, he writes for TV and has a BAFTA. But he remembers his days in Bath fondly. “The C64 was better than anything”, he tells us. “But it was the magazine and its followers that made us”.
James! Great to catch up with you. So. Before we get going…where on earth have you been since leaving Commodore Format in late 1992? We hear mutterings of BAFTAs and also sorts…Now you’re asking. I went to be the deputy editor on GamesMaster. Then editor of SuperPlay. And then freelance, and then I got nicked by Bullfrog Productions, a games company, to write their game dialogue. That led to Electronic Arts and then to an ad agency in London, and then to Lionhead. And since then, more freelance. Welcome to my world. Yep, blush blush. BAFTA for a Lionhead game called Black & White in 2001. I get to see and vote on all the movies before they come out. I am blessed and rather unworthy. Now I do TV scripts and all sorts, but still write game scripts because they’re fun and people pay me.
Take us back to 1991. How’d you end up getting the job on CF – didn’t you start out at Future on Amstrad Action? I joined Future as its 99th employee, on the ad side in the late 80s. I wanted to write but got a job as Ad Services Manager. In my lunch hour I wrote stuff on spec, and they saw it and moved me to Amstrad Action as Staff Writer under the lovely Rod Lawton. Oh, the CPC464 days. Lovely and horrible. Mostly horrible. Not Rod’s fault.
Were you a fan of games, or were you a writer first and foremost? I loved games but wanted to write, in that order. As time when by, I loved writing more than games. Oops. Was saying that a mistake?
Can you remember much about day to day life in the CF office – was there anything much like a “typical” week? And what was Trenton Webb like to work with? People say he was the most fantastic editor. Trent was amazing. He was and is a good friend, but he simply got the magazine done well. Ollie Alderton, Cathy Parnham, Lisa Nicholls, Lam Tang and others were there, getting it done but Trent was the Commander and did it right. When Cathy and I ganged up on him, he usually gave in. Giving in is the sign of a good editor because nobody argues with Eds unless they believe they’re right.
You got to play Roger Frames quite a bit…Roger was fun. I’m not a football fan, so I demanded he be a fan of Wycombe Wanderers, despite his Bristol Rovers top. I have no idea why this came to pass. Because he felt like a person, we could say things in his voice we’d never say as proper people.
The last few years there’s been a fair bit of chat about how publishers have leaned on magazines and bloggers to be “kind” to their latest releases. Was it the same back in the 90s? If, for example, you’d crucified a game – would they go mental and threaten to pull ads, etc? This happened, but in the old days games were churned out, so a miss was a miss. At Future I did have a few issues, when big bucks were involved. We were reviewing games and I simply sent the hassles to the publishers upstairs. But I wanted to like everything, and always felt it was my money I was spending on each game, so I, well, we, were on the side of the buyers. People needed to trust us, even if we disliked big releases.
How do you think the decline of magazines has affected the games industry? Kids now expect information to be immediate and free – it does seem like we’ve lost something, though. The anticipation of a magazine each month, like waiting for a good mate to drop over….Yep, everyone expects to know stuff instantly nowadays. And I understand why, as it’s all a click away. But I read mags in the 80s and 90s and loved to hear about things I could soon buy. The anticipation of finding out about them is gone, but the excited wait to buy them is still there. Mags were the only way of finding out, and they were like clubs. You bought them, you got the style and humour etc. and you bought the games they suggested you should. That was lovely, and I miss the simplicity of it. But frankly the world is a better place now.
You write a monthly column for EDGE – what sort of games do you play now, and what’s been your fave of the last few years? I’ve written the back page for EDGE for a while, and my remit is not to review games, but to savagely hack at the development community. I’m still a part of this, so it’s is like, er, pooing where I eat. But I scathingly mock the fact that nobody in games knows what they’re doing. I don’t, and I’ve been doing it for 20 years. Oh and what do I play? iPad games which don’t require me to be faster than 13 year old American trolls.
Do you reckon games will EVER be seen as mainstream? They arguably are now with Angry Birds on every phone and the success of Wii. But to some, they still have an “image”… Games are mainstream. Nobody laughs when you say you play them. Some don’t play, but even for them the geek title no longer applies. What’s not cool is telling people how good Manic Miner or Jet Pac was. Retro gaming is like loving vinyl the first time around. There was NOTHING ELSE. Everything is better today. I mustn’t say it was better when Asteroids and Pong was around, because it WASN’T! And breathe, James… My left arm is tingling.
Don’t die! We want to know how it feels to know that people are still talking about Commodore Format after 20 years, and even more crazily that there are still Commodore 64 games being written. They even release stuff on cartridge now, the scene thrives! I love the love. However, and this is going to sound awful, but although we loved the computers back then, we did move around from mag to mag. It wasn’t the platform we loved, it was the people who loved it.The C64 was better than anything, but the mag and the followers were what made us. Opening reader letters was fun because they got the vibe, and frankly we were people talking about a cool thing to people who knew it was cool. Fans of anything are always nice, and to do mags for them was a joy. That they still exist, and still remember us as well as the C64 is delightful. And I say this as a jaded old cynic who hates everything. But I honestly salute them.
And finally – what was your favourite Commodore 64 game? You played so many…Lemmings. It came out on everything, but in about three pixels they made the little guys look like you needed to care about them. The ’64 was so much better than that game, but I loved the way one flashing dot looked like an impatient tapping toe. I adore the way someone decided to make us care, and with scant resources (sorry, C64), they did it. 16-bit ports of Amiga or ST games were so often afterthoughts, but when they were done with passion, we would down tools in the CF office and play and play. And then we’d have to stay late to hit our deadlines. Great days. And nights.
Thanks for talking to us, James. What you up to for the rest of the day? You are so welcome. I’ve enjoyed every second. Today I’m working on a new Peter Molyneux game and finishing my EDGE column. I’m very late with the column, and I’m doing this instead of that. It’s been worth it. CF
James Leach writes a monthly column for EDGE magazine.