The Sean Masterson Interview

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When Steve and Andy left for TOTAL!, Sean was offered the job of Commodore Format editor – but he said no. “I know, this sounds like heresy “, he says.

Sean Masterson was Commodore Format’s deputy launch editor, hunted down for the job by Future founder Chris Anderson himself! He was the quiet backbone of the magazine, responsible for a lot of the little touches that made CF what it was. In one of our best long-reads to date, Sean talks about his initial disbelief that Future were launching a C64 mag in 1990 – but how he fell in love with it. “I loved it and I’ve missed it ever since”, he says. “God, it was good”. 

 

Sean! It is so good to finally meet you. Can you take us back to 1990 first – how did you end up as Commodore Format‘s launch deputy editor? As you might suppose, it had something to do with my having previously worked on Zzap! 64. Graeme Kidd had been an editor at Newsfield (publishers of Crash and Zzap! 64) while I was there in the mid-eighties but had later joined Future. When they were looking for people to work on CF, Graeme put my name forward. You have no idea how generous this was of Graeme; I’d been difficult to work with at Newsfield but Graeme must have seen something in me, because several years down the road, he was telling Future they should consider me for the position of deputy editor. But that was Graeme, one of the most generous, unassuming and funny people I’ve ever known. I was terribly sad to learn that he had passed away some years ago. He wasn’t simply a very talented editor and publisher who had a huge and under-rated influence on the UK computer games scene, he was a friend I was extraordinarily lucky to have. He suffered me and mentored me. I’m very grateful to him, even though, if he could read these sentiments now, he’d quietly laugh and say, “Shut up, plonker.”

Anyway, I got a call from Chris Anderson. Now, Chris and Newsfield had parted ways only shortly before I’d arrived in Ludlow. I’d only met Chris once, when I was introduced to him at one of the old Personal Computer World shows at Olympia (or Earl’s Court, I don’t remember exactly). He was legging it around with a briefcase loaded with copies of Amstrad Action issue one, I think. His jeans were as ripped as mine, which is saying something. Fast forward nearly five years and he’s on the phone talking about a possible job at Future.

I went to the interview not knowing what exactly they had in mind. I think I might have been hoping that they were going to launch a competitor to White Dwarf, which I’d also edited by this time. But of course, it was all about CF.

The interview wasn’t with Chris. It was with CF’s first publisher Greg Ingham and Steve Carey (of ST Format, at the time). They played good cop, bad cop, respectively. Then, after giving me a grilling on Newsfield, being difficult, White Dwarf and still being difficult, they let me in on the secret.

I remember being shocked. I thought, “They can’t be serious. Everybody’s trading up to an Amiga or ST.” In fact, I must have said something along those lines, because the next thing they were telling me was that they were certain there was still a huge market for the C64. They knew about Commodore’s plans to keep supporting the C64 and that developers were working on exciting new titles. They foresaw a new golden age for the C64. At the same time, they could see that Zzap! 64 was wobbling.

Their enthusiasm was infectious. By the end of the interview, I was convinced. I knew I wanted to be a part of it. I didn’t think I would be, though. I thought they’d find someone who was less of a risk but, well, I got lucky.

 

The CF launch team on Monmouth Street, Bath. Summer 1990.

The original CF team outside the Bath HQ in 1990. Clockwise from top left: Andy Dyer, Steve Jarratt, Lam Tang, Sean and Trevor Gilham.

What was it like in the weeks running up to the first issue coming out – nerves, excitement, trepidation? Did you think CF would have such an enormous, immediate impact? Why do you think it did? I remember we were nervous. Steve and I both had a decent amount of magazine experience but we were trying to find a direction and voice that we thought would work. That took some doing, mostly Steve’s doing, I should add. But as soon as we started working on real content and had a deadline to hit, the excitement kicked in. It was a wonderful buzz. I loved it and I’ve missed it ever since. That said, I wouldn’t relish the prospect of launching a magazine today. I loved print but, of course, the Web has changed everything.

It would be more honest to say that I thought CF could be a success and hoped it would be. But I completely underestimated the impact it would have. I remember clearly the moment when we were told that CF had been the most successful title launch Future had had, up to that point. I was blown away.

I’m sure, though, that one of the reasons for the magazine’s success was the chemistry it had with its readers. You could see it in every issue.

 

Zzap! was losing its way by this point as well, ‘course…do you think Chris Anderson saw it as a bit of an open goal? I’m not sure Chris Anderson would have seen it as an open goal but he was a very astute publisher and if he hadn’t seen the potential, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Of that I’m certain.

 

zzap64_wizball

Newsfield’s ZZAP! and CRASH were trailblazers – truly wonderful, unique magazines. But by 1990. the titles were flagging.

Let’s talk about Zzap! for just a second – how did your experience on CF compare to working in darkest Ludlow? Zzap! must have been a pretty special time nonetheless – trailblazers for the industry, really. Ludlow is a lovely place, unless you’re twenty-one and you’ve grown up in a big city. I used to get out of Ludlow as often as possible, trying to arrange interviews with developers that would keep me away from its dullness.

Let me give you an idea of how stupefyingly frustrating I found life in Ludlow. I once intrigued my colleagues on Crash and Zzap! 64 by telling them about Illuminati, by Steve Jackson Games. One night, I brought the game down the pub to play with a few of the guys. It was a quiet night even by the standards of Ludlow. We were almost the only people in the pub. After playing for about half an hour, the landlord, who knew us well, came over and asked us to pack up the game. When I asked why, he was very apologetic but explained that the only other customer in the pub also happened to be an off-duty police officer who suspected that we were gambling. That was Ludlow.

But that also meant we spent more time on the magazines. And you’re right; Zzap! 64 and Crash were trailblazers. I think their iconoclastic style did influence Future, though you have to consider Chris Anderson’s role in that. Newsfield shone brilliantly for a few years but it did lose its way after the phenomenal success of those first seminal titles.

There were huge practical differences in the way we worked, too. During my time at Newsfield, the desktop publishing revolution was yet to happen. We would write on Superwriter, a green screen word processor running on CP/M. We’d do our typesetting with STML, the forerunner to modern HTML. You had to know how many ems your column widths would be for a single-column strapline and three-column body copy, and visualise page layouts in your head. The copy would go down the road to the local typesetters and come back on silver nitrate galley proofs, which the art department would stick down on page templates. They in turn would be sent to a reprographics house. A few years later, Games Workshop still worked the same way. But when I arrived at Future I got a Mac and a crash course in Quark Xpress. Then I got a colour Mac and could see the pages exactly as they would be in print. It really was a technological revolution.

In other ways, the experience was very similar. In both cases I was working with gifted and irrepressibly enthusiastic people who had a great knack for conveying the unbelievable amount of fun it was to play these exciting games and to celebrate them in a beautifully subversive way.

 

Back to CF – was there ever such a thing as a “typical” day working on Format? What would you spend most of your time doing, and were the days (and nights, and weekends) as long as you’d imagine? I’m not sure how accurate my memory is but I think it’s right to say there was a rhythm to the monthly schedule and it went something like this. For the first two weeks, we would be doing what we could while waiting as long as possible for the biggest titles due that month. There would be lots of issue planning. (We’d have been working months in advance in broad brush strokes but the details would be left as long as possible, so we could go to print with an exclusive, or at least having caught that month’s biggest releases.) In practice, this would mean not necessarily having a lot to write or edit for a couple of weeks. We’d also be knackered for the first week or so after putting the previous issue to bed, so there were some late starts, easy lunch breaks and early finishes at the beginning of the month. When we left for the evening, we’d go to the pub and then we’d play games until WTF o’clock.

Steve and Andy would haggle over who would review that month’s big releases, with Gordon and Kati getting the rest of the choice cuts. I’d get whatever scraps fell under the table. Only joking. I was happy enough subbing everyone else’s work. And when something came in that I was really keen on reviewing, I’d usually get to do it. Highlights of the month for me were the letters, which were just a joy to read, so thank you to everyone who did write, and seeing Paul’s cover art come in. His work never failed to energise us. Incidentally, The Mighty Brain was Steve’s baby for the most part but I did climb into the vat once or twice and thoroughly enjoyed it.

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Little things…those messages running along the bottom of each page of CF – which lasted almost the entire run – were Sean’s idea.

One thing: those little Easter egg messages that appeared in the footer were my doing. I created a few, just for fun, in the first issue. When it came back from the printer, our publisher at the time, Greg Ingham, said something along the lines of, “These are good but you missed some.” So from that moment on, they were a required element of every editorial page. And they could be extremely challenging to write, given the time pressure we’d usually be under. I had made a rod for my own back, and for the backs of everyone who worked on the magazine afterwards. Probably. (Sorry, peeps but I liked ‘em!)

Eventually, crunch mode would kick in. As deadline approached, days got longer and stress levels percolated. Every issue would go right to the wire. Bear in mind that if you wanted to hold the presses, even back in 1990, you were talking a five figure sum per hour. In my time, I don’t think we ever missed a deadline. But we came as close as you can imagine every single month. When you were leaving the office at three in the morning, having made the deadline by minutes, after creating a page from nothing because an advertiser had dropped out at the last second, and you’d written some of the best copy you’d ever produced in the process, you just wanted to punch the air. And in my case, find somewhere you could still get a drink. God, it was good.

 

Your own reviews seemed to have a bit more of a confident swagger to them than some of the other ones in Future mags – like you really knew the C64. Were you a gamer or a writer first and foremost? What machines had you owned and enjoyed? A confident swagger? Oh dear. I’m sure that’s the after-burn of my insufferable arrogance you’re detecting. Of course, this was back before I really did know everything. Was I a writer or gamer first? That takes some explaining. When I was growing up, people were always telling me that I could tell a good story, and I absolutely loved writing. Meanwhile, I discovered Dungeons & Dragons and Traveller. Unfettered by anything resembling a reality check, I began entertaining the preposterous notion that I may be able to make games the basis of a career. My mid teens were spent cranking out (literally) SF fanzines and getting work published in magazines like White Dwarf and Imagine.

At the same time, I also worked at a Games Workshop store on Saturdays and during holidays. Back then a GW store wouldn’t just carry every roleplaying and war game you could imagine. It also sold a vast range of home computers, consoles, dedicated chess computers and the best range of games software you could find anywhere. Atari, Commodore, Sinclair, Coleco, Intellivision, Vectrex, a Phillips system I can’t even remember the name of, we had them all. And we really knew all the games. It wasn’t a part-time job for me. It was more like an extension of my education.

TL;DR? Sorry. I guess what I’m trying to tell you is that I’ve been a writer and a gamer for as long as I remember. I’m a monstrous hybrid of the two.

My first computer was an old Atari 800 (not an XL) that I picked up dirt cheap as an ex-demo machine from GW. Later, I bought an ST. Since then, it’s been PCs and Macs. (Eek! I’m not a traitor really. I simply didn’t need to buy a C64. There was always one within arm’s reach.)

 

Dick Tracy, CF's lowest rated game ever, came in at just 11%.

Dick Tracy, CF‘s lowest rated game ever, came in at just 11%.

Over the years there’s been a fair bit of chat about the pressure magazines were under even back in the eighties and nineties to give good reviews to games. Did you get leaned on by the softies at Commodore Format? Any particular times that stand out? As games companies became bigger and more professional, their PR got pushier, that’s for sure. But I don’t remember it ever getting too much, really. There was the Dick Tracy moment, of course [the magazine gave it just 11% – Ed). And I remember getting a few barbed comments from someone at US Gold after I’d said something less than entirely complementary about one of their games. On the whole, though, we had a great relationship with developers and publishers and we wrote what we considered were honest and thoughtful opinion, regardless of what they might think. We were in it for our readers, not the games companies.

 

A couple from our readers now, Sean. Frank Gasking asks if there’s anything you’d have done differently given your time at CF over again. The thing I might have enjoyed more than I thought at the time was being the editor. When Steve and Andy left to work on TOTAL!, I was offered the editor’s chair but I turned it down. I know, this sounds like heresy and it isn’t a reflection on what I think of the greatest home computer of all time. Nor does it reflect on the amount of fun I had working on CF or the privilege of writing for such a fabulous readership. Please understand, I simply wanted to try something completely different. And I can be really bull headed.

When I turned it down, Greg offered offered the chair to Colin Campbell instead. I stuck around for a while to help Col get his feet under the desk (if I’d left immediately, Colin wouldn’t have had anyone in the office with prior editorial experience on the title, a point he was quick to draw my attention to), and we had a good time, as it happens. But it didn’t change my mind about wanting to leave. Ironically, Col’s days at the helm weren’t to last too long anyway, because Future had other plans for him. Fortunately for CF, James Leach, Trenton Webb and the other really talented editors who followed were just waiting in the wings to take CF to greater heights.

The diary itself was a ring binder sort of thing, with a hard cover.

The diary itself was a ring binder sort of thing, with a hard cover. There’s a scan of it in full, and the story behind it, here.

One last thing. The CF Diary. One day, somebody came to our little cubby hole of an office and asked me what the title would be. I said I was still thinking about it. She said I was out of time; the ISBN needed to be booked that day. So I thought for a moment and what passes for a sense of humour in my head came up with Don’t Buy This If You’ve Less Than A Year To Live. Armed with this, my harasser left and I thought, “That’s bought me some time; a publisher will veto that nonsense and I’ll think up something better later on.” Clearly, neither of those things happened.

 

Christopher Heppinstall says – you went on to work with people like Peter Molyneux at Bullfrog and on some well-regarded titles. How did you go from journalism to game development, and do you enjoy it more? Actually, my journey wasn’t really from journalism to games development. It actually went from games development to journalism and then Ping-Ponged between the two several times. (Even before I worked on Zzap! 64, I’d had a text adventure game published, though it has rightfully been forgotten.) As far as Bullfrog goes, I was chatting to James Leach one day, after having left Future, when he noted that I was then living very close to where Bullfrog was based. Intrigued by the convenience, I phoned up Peter Molyneux and asked him if he’d ever considered hiring a writer. That was all it took, really. A couple of years later, I had so much work on at Bullfrog, I needed another writer to help me, so I poached James from Future, natch.

Journalism and game designs are very different fields but I get a phenomenal buzz out of both, as long as I think people are enjoying what I’m doing. It’s a privilege to be able to work in both disciplines, and it is my hope that I can keep doing so for many more years.

 

_-Mercenary-C64-_

Mercenary – one of the all time C64 greats. Steve Jaratt’s fave, too.

And plenty of people are keen to hear the answer to this one. You’ve played so many – but what’s your favourite C64 game? My favourite at the time was definitely Mercenary. What an achievement that was. Hacker was a beauty, too, with the wonderfully mysterious Tau Ceti coming in third place. But if you asked me to play a C64 game now, I’d probably choose one of the old Infocom adventures, an SSI D&D game or Supremacy. I think they stand up pretty well, even today. Sorry if those choices disappoint but I’ve never been very good at arcade games, Tempest and Asteroids notwithstanding.

 

Fine choices indeed! Cheers for your time, Sean. What are you doing for the rest of the day? I’m creating an indie game for tablet computers at the moment. It’s ridiculously overdue but hopefully innovative, fun and consequently rewarding to play. It’s something I and a few former colleagues have put most of the last two years into and we’re hoping to launch a Kickstarter project very soon to get the investment we need to finish and launch it. It’s a very exciting time and also a frankly terrifying one. Anyway, there’s still a lot to do. Fingers crossed. And so forth.

Then, if I’m not totally bushed this evening, and nothing else gets in the way, it would be pleasant to spend an hour or two playing Pillars of Eternity.

Thank you and your readers for keeping the memory of CF alive. It’s very humbling to discover that people still find the magazine so entertaining. I raise a glass to you all. Thank you for having given me such a great experience.

(And sorry about the photo. If there were any justice, I wouldn’t even show up in photos.) CF


Sean Masterson was Commodore Format’s launch deputy editor. He stayed with the magazine until mid 1992. This interview is copyright 2015 Sean Masterson and The Commodore Format Archive. It may not be reproduced in whole or part without permission. To make contact, go to our legal page. 

 

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